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>> Portrait of Hanne Darboven
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We write, therefore we are
Hanne Darboven and Conceptual Art


In the mid-sixties, Hanne Darboven’s first construction drawings attracted attention for the first time. Over the course of years, day by day, a uniquely consistent work arose out of Darboven’s obsessive involvement with numbers and dates – thousands of pages on which the artist seeks to transcribe time in a system of order that wards off the world’s chaos. Angela Rosenberg on Hanne Darboven and her current installation "Hommage à Picasso."



Hanne Darboven, Hommage à Picasso, Installation view
Photo: © Mathias Schormann
Copyright © Deutsche Guggenheim

The master himself greets us. The bronze Picasso head has a rather peevish look about it, however. It’s part of the current expanded version of Hanne Darboven’s Hommage à Picasso from the years 1995 to 2006 – an installation and comissioned work for the Deutsche Guggenheim which immerses the viewer in a sea of numbers and signs. The walls are packed from floor to ceiling: 270 custom-made frames contain nearly 10,000 individual pages on which the artist Hanne Darboven has transcribed the last decade of the 20th century. Augmented by a framed copy of the 1955 Picasso painting Woman with Turkish Headdress as well as a series of purchased and commissioned sculptures, this record of the turn of the millennium is musically accompanied by Darboven’s newly produced work Opus 60, a symphony for a 120-piece orchestra.


Hanne Darboven's studiohouse, 2005
Photo: © Michael Danner

The exhibition has turned out to be surprisingly emotional. Visitors lucky enough to experience the premiere performance of her composition at the Deutsche Guggenheim, where 120 instrumentalists of the Young Symphony Berlin played before an international audience on February 3 2006, got to see an extremely happy, visibly moved, and rather fragile-looking woman profusely thanking the musicians and conductor, a far cry from the cool, standoffish female dandy she otherwise prefers to play.

A daughter of a well-known coffee bean dynasty, Darboven was born in Munich in 1941 and grew up in Hamburg-Harburg, where she lives in her parents’ house to this day. Originally, she wanted to become a pianist, yet her passion for art, which already manifested itself in early childhood, led her to a brief, but intensive period of study at the art academy in Hamburg, where her search for a universal and fundamental truth began.


Hanne Darboven, Hommage à Picasso (detail), 1995-2006,
Photo: © Mathias Schormann Copyright: © Hanne Darboven


"It is what it is" is what Lawrence Weiner once said about his colleague’s work. Anyone who takes the time to look at the exhibition Hommage à Picasso can discover a new side to this important artist. And whoever expected a caustic showdown or a reckoning between an icon of conceptual art and the most important painter of the twentieth century will be disappointed, because the cool, reserved elegance that otherwise always characterizes her installations is broken in a refreshing manner here. A group of life-sized wicker donkeys, an opulent bronze goat, hand-painted ornamental frames: the crafted objects Darboven has installed alongside her number columns and textual images are reminiscent of Picasso’s formal language, his love of folklore and the "primitive." At the same time, they fill the room with what seems like a mix between an almost touching naivety and a cultish mysticism. This does not disturb the overwhelming clarity of the wall piece, but lends it a spiritual and even upbeat form, giving the overall exhibition the feel of a modern chapel or an Egyptian burial chamber.

This impression is further underscored by the quiet, repetitive musical formulas of Opus 60 playing in the background. Darboven’s installation almost seems like a place of purification: dignified, mild, concentrated, yet nonetheless laced with a wonderful touch of dry wit, such as when the artist signs some of the pages on behalf of her own dearly loved goat: H.D. + Mickey 1995.


Hanne Darboven, 21 x 21 (detail), 1968, Deutsche Bank Collection


Following the catastrophe of German fascism, whose effects could still be clearly felt in the sixties, when it polarized an entire generation, the young artist did not seek a connection to the active political scene, but rather quietude and concentration. In order to escape the confines of West Germany, she initially went for a short time to Paris, but then found her second home in, of all places, the chaos of New York. For three years, she withdrew here to a table in her tiny, 300 square-foot apartment on East 90th Street, where she made her first constructions with pencil and pen: diagrammatic drawings, charts, diagonal lines running at various angles. The artist transcribed numerical regularities onto American graph paper because these were "so enduring, limited, and artificial."

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