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In Memory of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt | 1932-2024

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On February 26, 2024, the artist Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt died in Berlin at the age of 92. Wolf-Rehfeldt’s work dealt with the areas of visual poetry, typewriting and mail art. The Berlin gallery ChertLüdde published this obituary for the artist and contemporary witness.

Image above: Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt in her atelier in Mendelstraße, Berlin, early 70s

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt was an extraordinary artist. From drawing to painting to concrete poetry, Ruth left a huge intellectual legacy with much yet to be discovered. She was at the center of enormous changes and she managed to encapsulate and convey to us their deepest meanings.

In her 92 years of life, she lived in four different Germanys, witnessing life become history. At a time when freedom of artistic expression was not possible, she and her fellow mail artists overturned the very concept of art and value, activating a network of resistance and awareness that continues to bring examples and inspiration to our contemporary world.

In the sadness of her departure, we are aware of the many ways her voice resonates back with great inspiration, with consistency and decisiveness, to speak to us about cohesion, peace, unity, and humanity in the many messages she left us.

– ChertLüdde Gallery, February 2024

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Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Far back must go who wants to do a big jump, mid 70s, Original typewriting, 10.5 × 15 cm

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt was born in Wurzen, Saxony in 1932. After the Second World War, she moved to Berlin, where she met her soon-to-be husband Robert Rehfeldt (1931, Stargard – 1993, Berlin), and later had a son, artist René Rehfeldt, in 1956. She worked for the exhibitions department at the Academy of Arts and, despite not having a formal artistic education, she produced paintings, pastels, drawings, and most notably, what she calls “typewritings”, works on paper made on a typewriter.

In the early 1970s, under the inspiration of artists mainly from Poland and (then) Czechoslovakia, she encountered elements of linguistic conceptualism and concrete poetry and began producing works on paper along the lines she described in her Manifesto Signs Fiction.

Showing extensively during the seventies and eighties in the former GDR and neighboring countries under the Soviet Block, Wolf-Rehfeldt was nominated for candidacy for the Association of Fine Artists (AFA) of the GDR in 1975 and admitted as a full member in 1978.

Due to her special status as a member of the AFA, Wolf-Rehfeldt was allowed to print a limited number of 50 “miniature graphic” works (Kleingrafik), a process that boosted her activities in the vast Mail Art Network.

Through works like Vergessen / Unvergessen (1970s), Hommage a Martin Luther King (1970s),  Direction Indicator (mid 1970s) and Save Nature (1980), her typewritings became intricate studies spanning concrete poetry, linguistics, graphic design, and conceptual art – innovative hybrids of language, symbols, and visual form.

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Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Direction indicator, mid 1970s Original typewriting, 16 × 21 cm

In later years of her artistic practice, Wolf-Rehfeldt’s explorations in semiotics and concrete poetry shifted to a focus more heavily on abstract compositions, moving from linguistic signage to language as form and matter.

Wolf-Rehfeldt and her husband were pioneers within the GDR of the Mail Art Movement, a type of artistic exchange that allowed for the uncensored circulation of art and ideas. Their rich Mail Art Archive is permanently stored within the gallery, and the renewed interest in recent years in this significant and still much-undiscovered movement is another unmistakable sign of the enormous legacy left by the Rehfeldts, fundamental voices in the postwar German landscape.

After the Berlin Wall’s fall and Robert’s death, Wolf-Rehfeldt stopped working altogether. Her newly found geographical freedom and technical advancements had fundamentally altered the function of making and distributing art.

But a newly invigorated interest in her work has emerged in recent years.

In 2012, the Weserburg Study Centre / Museum of Modern Art Bremen dedicated the large solo exhibition Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt – Original Graphic Works 1972-1989 to her. In 2014, ChertLüdde began a process of archiving her own works and the Mail Art archive. 

The first exhibition marking our collaboration opened in January 2015, titled Signs Fiction, the show offered a delicate showcase of her Mail Art postcard editions, together with the exhibition titled Home Archives, showing the rich correspondence between Robert Rehfeldt and Paolo Brusky, curated by Zanna Gilbert.

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Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt & Claudine Barbot, Mail Art Collaborations, 1987, Zincography, collage, stamp

The archival work was presented altogether in 2016 in a dedicated solo presentation within the historical section of Art Basel, where all original drawings were presented in a display containing more than 600 works, and a catalogue resume of her typewriting works was published on the occasion.

In conjunction with her presence in the prestigious Documenta 14, Wolf-Rehfeldt’s work began to receive the international resonance and recognition it deserved.

After a prestigious solo exhibition dedicated to her work was presented at Malmö Konsthall, curated by Mats Stjernstedt, a duo show with David Horvitz at the Albertinum Museum curated by Kathleen Reinhardt, traveled to the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, which was co-curated by Joes Segal. Wolf-Rehfeldt was awarded the Gerhard-Altenbourg Prize of the Lindenau-Museums 2021 and was honored with an exhibition curated by Benjamin Rux at the Lindenau Museum, Altenburg. She was also awarded the Hannah Höch Prize 2022 which included an exhibition curated by Jenny Graser at Kupferstichkabinett – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Along with her iconic typewriter works, many examples of the early paintings have been presented in the last years, including Wolf-Rehfedlt’s large solo exhibition NICHT NEUES curated by Paola Malvassi and Marie Gerbaulet at Das Minsk, Potsdam.

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Installation view at documenta14, Kassel, Neue Neue Galeria (Neue Hauptpost), 2017, Photo by Mathias Voelzke

The conceptual artist Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt worked on the typewriter with incredible precision and pointed wit. She broadcast her art from the GDR to the whole world. She typed almost like a pianist who could anticipate the sound by pressing her fingers on the keys, who knew every letter, every character like a keyboard inside out and never lost sight of its effect on the overall composition.

A masterful conceptual artist, poet and composer at work. Her typewriter graphics with all their repetitions and shifts remind me of minimal music. Her works are timeless, and the topicality of her questions never ceases to amaze.

– Paola Malavassi, DAS MINSK Kunsthaus in Potsdam

Over the years of working to bring her practice to the surface of the contemporary art world, many people have been instrumental in the distribution and contextualization of Ruth`s profound work, investigating many aspects of the varied research from the artistic point of view for its historical value, in its connection with Mail Art, from feminist and socio-political concepts related to the Cold War reality.

We wholeheartedly thank Lutz Wohlrab, Zanna Gilbert, Doreen Mede, Sarah E. James, Sara Blaylock, Kathleen Reinhardt, Jenny Graser, Christopher Williams-Wynn, Sven Spiker, Paola Malvassi, Marie Gerbaulet, Bettina Brach, Dieter Roelstraete and the many others who have approached, curated and written about her work.

We also sincerely thank the many private and public collections in Germany and abroad who are custodians of her work, namely the Sammlung zeitgenössischer Kunst der Bundesrepublik Deutschland; Sammlung Schering Stiftung im Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Nouveau Musée National de Monaco; DAS MINSK, Potsdam; and The Weserburg Study Centre / Museum of Modern Art Bremen.

Her work has been exhibited in venues such as DAS MINSK, Potsdam; Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Wende Museum, Los Angeles; MAMCO, Geneva; Kunstverein Reutlingen; Galerie Weisser Elefant, Berlin; National Gallery of Arts, Tirana; Albertinum, SKD, Dresden; Goethe Institut, Minneapolis; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Malmö Konsthall, Malmö; documenta 14, Kassel; Halle 14, Leipzig; Museum für konkrete Kunst, Ingolstadt; Museum Barberini, Potsdam; Kunstsaele Berlin; Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo; Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin; Schloss Plüschow Museum, Plüschow; Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; The Weserburg Study Centre / Museum of Modern Art Bremen.

DEEDS.NEWS - Chertluedde - Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt - Installation view of Nationalgalerie - Eine Sammlung tur das 21. Jahrhundert - Photo by Jacopo La Forgia
Installation view of Nationalgalerie: Eine Sammlung tur das 21. Jahrhundert, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, 2023, Photo by Jacopo La Forgia 

Currently her work is included in the exhibition Nationalgalerie: A Collection for the 21st Century at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart, Berlin.

Her work, Divided Planet, 2024, is on view at the gallery illuminating Berlin-Schöneberg’s Haupstrasse. The original piece was made in the context of the Cold War, but its new graphic configuration shows two halves of the globe falling further apart from each other. Emphasizing the growing differences that continue to polarize people today, Divided Planet responds to the recent conflicts pulling the planet apart.

With Divided Planet, Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt leaves us with the task of uniting against all forms of oppression and the hope to create a just, equitable, and sustainable world for all.

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