I discovered the work of Chris Reinecke by chance earlier this year during a random stroll on the last day of a visit to Düsseldorf. I’d already seen the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, which owns Max Beckmann’s The Night, surely one of the 20th-century’s greatest paintings; gawked at the grandeur of the Kunstakademie, and made the required pilgrimage to 16 Mintropstrasse, the former location of Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang recording studio. Now I was wandering aimlessly around the city center. Turning down a street that seemed to head back in the direction of my hotel, I paused in front of the Heinrich-Heine Institute to look at a poster announcing an exhibition titled “Von A(uslander) bis Z(weig): deutsche-judische literaturgeschichten.” The subject of German-Jewish literature would normally have drawn me in—the poster even featured a Celan manuscript—but for some reason I wasn’t in the mood to peruse what I imagined as vitrines filled with documents and relics of that tragic history. So I gave the Heinrich-Heine Institute a pass and continued walking down Bilker Strasse. A little further on my eye was caught by another exhibition poster on the other side of the street. It read: “Hoehme, Polke, Reinecke.” Hoehme had to be Gerhard Hoehme, who was one of Polke’s teachers at the Kunstakademie. I remembered liking a show of his work that I’d seen maybe 25 years before in New York. The name Reinecke meant nothing to me. I crossed the quiet street and went into Galerie Beck & Eggeling.
If people know of Chris Reineke (and outside of Germany few do) it’s probably because of her role in “LIDL,” a short-lived, politically inspired art group that she co-founded in Düsseldorf in 1968. In a review of a 1999-2000 exhibition devoted to Reineke’s LIDL-era work, Sabine Vogel noted that “the LIDL actions reached their high point in May 1969 after affiliated artists set up a ‘LIDL-classroom’ in a boarded hut in the corridor of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. When it was banned and the artists expelled, Joseph Beuys put his classroom at the disposal of the action. For a long time it was said that Jorg Immendorff initiated this noteworthy episode. In fact, it was a collaborative project of Immendorff and his wife, Chris Reinecke.” (Artforum, March 2000)
No doubt, Immendorf’s subsequent fame and the very real barriers that women artists faced in Germany (as everywhere else) were factors in Reinecke’s relative obscurity. (In an essay for the 2009 exhibition “Chris Reinecke: Art is Necessary 1959 to Present,” Hans Jürgen Hafner notes “the precarious status of women in the Düsseldorf scene around Joseph Beuys.”) Also contributing to her low profile are conditions specific to her artistic production. Many of Reinecke’s most significant contributions to art in the 1960s were, by design, ephemeral, leaving no more than preliminary sketches, pages of mimeographed writing and some black and white photographs. The Ungebungskleider (Environment garments) from 1967 were boxy containers made of transparent plastic. After dressing audience members in them, Reinecke wrote descriptions of the objects and landscape elements surrounding the wearers. Other works involved chewing gum: the Kaugummibilder (Chewing Gum Pictures, 1967) invited viewers to stick their chewing gum onto landscape drawings; a photograph from 1969 shows the artist pulling on a string of chewing gum while she reclines on the floor during a public discussion about theater. In other performances, which frequently involved large spools of blue thread, Reinecke created mobile platforms for people to lie on and made length carpet runners from paper or crocheted cotton. Her body-oriented performance work has interesting parallels with the activities of Lygia Clark in Brazil or Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre where art was redefined as a form of radical therapy that could contribute to personal and social liberation. As art historian and Reinecke expert Suzanne Rennert explains in the catalogue of the Beck & Eggeling show, Reinecke “aimed at a sensitization of social consciousness, an undermining of gender-specific attributions and ‘roles.’” Rennert recounts how the carpet runners were intended as “connectors” and how, during her LIDL phase Reinecke “showed women how to solder and men how to crochet.” In Reinecke’s own words, she wanted her actions to “give anybody a chance to become an artist, or someone who perceives and feels autonomously.”
Even when Reinecke opted for a more permanent approach, the works were usually small in scale and made from fragile, unassuming materials. It was works like these that immediately caught my attention at Beck & Eggeling. In 1965, she was using ballpoint and felt-tip pens to draw fragments of faces and bodies on irregularly shaped pieces of paper. Because of their casualness and use of non-fine-art materials, these drawings have obvious affinities with Polke’s satirical ballpoint-pen drawings of the same period, though Reinecke’s style is far less cartoonish than Polke’s and her content more engaged with the poetry of everyday life than with its banality. These drawings date from the period when both Reinecke and Polke were studying with Hoehme, a period captured by a fascinating photograph from one of Hoehme’s classes showing Polke and Reinecke on opposite sides of a large white canvas lying on the studio floor. (Five years older than Polke, Reinecke had already spent two years at art school in Paris before enrolling in the Kunstakademie.)
By 1968, Reinecke was drawing on various types of fabric or on multiple sheets of thin paper hand stitched together with thread. In Packung (Packet) from 1968, she sketches a woman’s naked torso tied up with a blue ribbon onto what looks liked a creased and abraded piece of sandpaper (the caption says it is a combination of tissue paper and brown wrapping paper). In 1969 and 1970 she turned to that most ubiquitous of clothing materials: jean fabric. Hemming small rectangles of pale blue fabric with thread or yarn, she used felt-tip pens to make all-caps word lists and signed these miniature text paintings by rubber stamping them “REINECKE.” The texts are like concrete poems. One translates as “protection against touch.” Another is a list of verbs: “to leaf through, to scratch, to sting, to fold, to crease, to tear, to touch, to grease.” Avoiding anything remotely connected to artistic virtuosity, stripped down to near anonymity, these diminuitive rectangles of fabric are unexpectedly compelling. They encapusulate, perhaps better than any works of the period, the ethical dilemma of an individual torn between art and activism. Yet make no mistake, they are also fully realized artworks: every detail, every stitch, every letter, every decision in Reinecke’s 1967-1970 text-on-textile works repays the viewer’s attention.
Reinecke seems to be one those people for whom the radical politics of the late 1960s was more than just a passing phase. While so many other artists, after dallying with street actions, propaganda posters and artist collectives, were able to continue pursuing their art careers as if May 68 was no more than a speed bump on the way to Castelli or Werner, Reinecke devoted herself after 1970 entirely to tenants rights and community organizing. In that year, writing under what Hafner describes as her “literary alter ego” Minna Beuff, Reinecke issued a mimeographed flyer titled “Alarm” in which she explained her motivations for withdrawing from the artworld, and leaving LIDL, in favor of social activism: “So Minna Beuff went back to the people who had sent out the alarm, letting SUNDAES be sundaes. She went over to their side to help them in their struggle against the people who served them noodle soup while drinking SUNDAES themselves.” (Quoted by Hans Jürgen Hafner in his essay “On Her Own Terms, If Need Be: On Chris Reinecke,” in Chris Reinecke: Art is Necessary 1959 to Present. JET/Argo Books, Berlin, 2009.)
It was only in the mid 1980s, after a 15-year hiatus, that Reinecke returned to the studio, creating large multi-layered drawings of overlapping grids that can be viewed from front and back. In this, she was unlike other artists of her generation (Lee Lozano, for instance) who never found their way back to art-making. The fact that Reinecke once again became a working artist complicates the rediscovery of her late 1960s work, which no longer reads as valedictory but as one section of a longer trajectory.