G.d.B., 2010. Space – Relief – Surface by Sibylle Hoiman and Matthias Noell


Dieter Detzner’s works concern themselves with the appropriation and perception of spatial relationships that he had previously implemented in sculptural objects, installations and above all, in his reliefs. He now carries this theme a decisive step further with his installation designed for the Art Basel G.d.B., consisting of several works closely interlocked with one another in terms of content and space.


Detzner actively involves the viewer in the complexly arranged work of art directly by allowing him to enter the space of art he has created on two different levels. In doing so he intentionally blurs the boundaries between inside and outside, since the cube is both a part of the overall artistic arrangement in the exhibition booth – and thus an object presented inside it – as well as an exhibition space that contains pictures hanging on its walls at the same time. Detzner produces tension by placing corporeal space in a complex relationship with the incorporeal (the pictures), whose conceptual center contains plastic forms (the reliefs) that are attached to the surface.


The Basel installation thus consists of three basically different components, contrasting with one another in their reduction to the two color values of black and white. These are a series of black surfaces, a small group of black reliefs as well as a spatial construction painted white that connects the first two elements with the viewer. Thus, the installation may also be interpreted as a reflection upon the possibilities of three-dimensional pictorial creation.



In a booth of the Basel exhibition hall Dieter Detzner has placed a cube that opens to the top and to the front with an edge length of 3.50 meters, its walls and floor surface painted white clearly being set apart from the black flooring surrounding it. The cube has been positioned at a diagonal to the actual exhibition space. The interior contains fragments of three additional white cubes, progressively turned on their axes, each at an angle of seven degrees in relationship to the original cube. As a result of this threefold movement and the respective fragmented portrayal there are tipped wall, floor and ceiling surfaces on the inside of the cubes. In this, the cube space situated inside the exhibition booth determines the dimensions and the expansion of these cube segments. All parts extending above and beyond the first cube, the shell, have been cut off.  We glimpse evidence of this, among other things, from the visible, chamfered edge where the cube fragment was cut on the front side of the installation. It is for this reason that half of the ceiling above is open – in the shape of a triangle – as is half of the front side – again triangular in shape, which allows the viewer to enter this space in the first place. Thus, we are dealing with four interlocking cubes, their spatial arrangement having been defined with geometric precision.


The two spaces, both the gallery space as well as the cube space, serve as places where further works of art by Detzner hang. Against the white background of all the cube surfaces on the inside the carbon black pictures are being shown. Outside the cube, the anthracite-black reliefs hang on the walls of the exhibition booth.



Two works are presented in the area to the back of the exhibition booth. These are the two reliefs D.N. and F.A., both made of anthracite-black acrylic glass and part of a group of works based on and developed from an identical picture idea. Since 2007 the artist has been making upright format, monochrome acrylic glass works with their mutually intersecting prisms placed diagonally. The D.N. work with its emphasis on the center consists of three prisms rising from left to right as well as a form running the opposite direction and intersecting them. By contrast, F.A. consists of three peripheral prisms running along the right, upper and left edges, and a diagonal shape crossing the lower right corner. The respective colors of the material are the result of a selection process made from the catalogue of the producer of the acrylic glass plates. Detzner uses their maximum available sizes almost exhausting their potentials in his reliefs. Thus, the basic material has not been made by the artist himself, but is rather industrially produced, found by the artist and put to a different use, its color chosen for each respective work. The rest of the process of making the relief, on the other hand, is handcrafted. After making preparatory sketches, the variable parameters – the number, size, form as well as the position and direction of the prisms – are placed in a final relationship to one another with the aid of a computer, and the cut shape of the prisms is calculated. Detzner produces these with a cutting machine he made especially for this purpose. Possible traces and imprecisions of the manufacturing done by hand are part of it all, since the viewer is able to understand the construction process through such hints as well as by the fact that the prisms are open to the sides. The flawless perfection of the industrial production of such material and the traces of the handcrafted origins of the art enter into a contradictory and provocative connection in the reliefs. Added to this is the unsettling reflecting effect of the acrylic relief: If the viewer is reflected in the surface with all of his surrounding space of reference, both the color of the acrylic glass as well as the form of the prisms break up the reflected reality into numerous, surreal facets.



On the inner walls of the cube we find a number of carbon black pictures, the latest series of works by Dieter Detzner. These are sheets of plate glass, corresponding approximately to an A3 format, which have been fastened at a small distance directly to the walls. The surface of each mirror has been blackened over a gasoline flame, thus creating a nearly homogenous black surface. This act of blackening by using the waste product of a combustion process obliterates the technically flawless surface and prevents its actual function of reflecting the environment. By means of a plumb swinging on a rope, Detzner now incises fine-lined drawings into this black surface, with the reflective glass now emerging again. Depending upon the initial speed, length, and direction that Detzner determines, the pendulum leaves smaller or larger, straight or curving traces on the sheets of glass. Thus, he reacts to the destruction of the mirror effect by disturbing the surface further, by incising it, this, to some extent, now causing the drawing to flash through from out of the black surface.



Though the motifs of the carbon black pictures may appear at first glance as simple, freehand drawings on a black ground, nevertheless, a closer look reveals both the technique as well as the material and the process of making the carbon black pictures to be unusual and in need of further explanation. Unlike in previous works of art that use carbon black as a material – foremost the surrealistic Fumages-works by Wolfgang Paalen from the 1930s might come to mind – it is not a picture that arises from the smoking, sooty flame, but rather only a nearly homogenous, slightly cloudy black surface. Where Paalen blackened leaves of paper or canvases by using candles or kerosene flames, producing idiosyncratic, seemingly organic figurations, Dieter Detzner merely uses the blackened sheet of glass as a picture carrier. The carbon black material does not indicate anything external to the picture for him, does not purport to mean anything, nor is it a symbol – unlike the ways, for example, lampblack, ash, or fire were used by Arte povera in order to create complex references of meaning.  Similar to a metal plate for engraving that has been grounded before drawing and blackened with carbon so that you can see it better while working with it, or even similar to a coated glass photo plate, a drawing is produced in this black surface by treating it, in this case by partially incising the coated material. Here as a comparison we might cite an analogous procedure used by the Parisian photographer Brassaï, who cut hatchings and lines into some of his glass plates that had already been exposed in order to produce alienated, half-exposed, half-drawn nudes in such a way. And yet this comparison to the technique of printing and photography leads us down the wrong path because Detzner’s drawing process does not result in a plate that can be used for reproduction. It is rather something unique, the drawing itself. And even Brassaï developed the negatives he had treated in such a way in turn on paper. Thus, also these so-called Transmutations remain negatives for the production of positive prints, similar to the Clichés-verres that had been done long before by painters such as Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot or Charles-François Daubigny.


Nevertheless, this process of drawing with a pendulum swinging on a plumb line, which Detzner himself describes as an act of écriture automatique, i.e. uncensored drawing without the planning, calculating, and thus, the critically-conscious influence of the author, certainly indicates the artistic practices of the Parisian surrealists in the period between the world wars, with their predilections for waste products such as soot, their fascination with playing with the sphere of space reflected in the surface and not lastly, the planned inclusion of the accidental in the genesis of the work of art.


The fact that Detzner does not fall into a surrealistic trance in doing this, shifting chance to the area of mechanics, makes clear that the position he takes offers many connecting links and indeed deals with them. Unlike with the small, inexhaustible, two-dimensional Machine à dessiner by Jean Tinguely, which may certainly be considered as a related technique in the field of automatic drawing processes – it is not lastly by means of the kinetic drawing process that the space the pendulum traverses records itself on the small two-dimensional surface. Comparable to the trace of a Foucault pendulum in the sand, the carbon black pictures attest to the temporal movement of a body through space. But in this case the marks on the blackened mirror do not give evidence of the earth’s rotation, but the divergence between planned and random artistic production. Each movement, regardless of how mechanically it is executed, or how calculable in principle it may be, remains in this process a unique event, and on principle, may not be repeated. Though granted, the mechanical drawing process in space must be considered as an essential component of the carbon black pictures, nevertheless they are not only non-objective painting, as we might think at first glance, but rather they are at the same time direct reproductions of reality. Along the lines of Piet Mondrian, Detzner’s carbon-black pictures are “abstractly-real”.



Outside the cube situated inside the booth, we encounter the two reliefs of reflecting anthracite-colored acrylic glass, D.N. and F.A. Installed on the inside walls of the exhibition booth, they challenge the visitor to take a closer look at the spatial conditions. Are we still outside, or are we already inside the installation?

The truncated, plastically protruding prisms, overlapping and intersecting on several levels appear first as the predominant elements in both reliefs. Their points of intersection are not found in the respective same places in each picture. Quite the contrary: If we take a look at Detzner’s relief works in recent years, the thought arises as to whether the prisms might not possibly be in a process of free movement. Thus, the situation of the respective relief and points of intersection are not inevitable and logically determined, but rather virtually a random coincidence, a moment frozen in time made up of an undefined number of bodies moving through space. This point of view is supported by the fact that the prisms have been cut off at the edges of the picture carrier, intentionally allowing for a glimpse into the raw interior and the process of production. Obviously it is about excerpts from an overall situation that must be continued beyond the picture surface, and which, however, remain hidden from the viewer.


To understand this interpretation it is helpful to cast a glance at Detzner’s room installation Pietro. This is a block-shaped room in a gallery, painted white and brightly lit with neon lighting as well as windows along the wall facing the street, which may be entered by means of a door placed higher, with three steps leading downwards from it. Prisms jut from the ceiling, floor and walls into the geometric center of the room, but do not intersect, since they seem as if they have been cut off by an imaginary floating block of space. It is possible to enter this space of air defined by the prisms in the gallery room, whose center with the imaginary points of intersection is located at a height of a person’s head, so that it may now actually be optically completed and perceived by means of the cut surfaces of the prisms. Hence, the center of the work of art is empty. Besides a sharply delineated nothingness, there is at most a visitor. Just as Pietro not only makes the existing constructed material into a work of art, but the empty, non-materialized and yet visible space as well, it is possible to imagine these reliefs in principle even without their prisms. Their points of intersection might also be located somewhere outside the surface. What would remain in such a case would be a large piece of mirroring acrylic glass and the notion of non-visible prisms in space surrounding the picture surface. Following formulations stated by Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, two artists and major theorists of De Stijl, we could say it is an open or peripheral composition, in which the excerpt-like picture surface plays a decisive role in the design. Thus, if the resulting work of art portrays a condition of innumerable further possibilities, it can best be described as a random moment captured in a split second. Detzner enhances this discrepancy between a potential movement and the actual standstill by means of a retraceable handcrafted nature of the production.

The analogy cited concerning art and art theory of the 1920s has not been simply selected and singled out by chance. There are numerous connecting links between Dieter Detzner’s oeuvre and the Avantgarde of the period between the world wars. In the reliefs, several strains come together to form a new, independent position. In addition to the parallels to De Stijl, one of the major directions taken by geometric abstraction in the early 20th century, there are primarily the artistic positions from constructivist art, above all from the circles of the Russian and Hungarian Avantgarde. Vladimir Tatlin’s Contra-Reliefs, those spatially plastic panels of wood and metal objects, should be mentioned here, as well as the paintings by László Moholy-Nagy or El Lissitzky’s famous Proun Spaces. In their works, all three artists fathomed the depths of artistic possibilities that arise from the mutual penetration of surface, relief and space. In this antagonism between surface and space that Dieter Detzner’s reliefs conjure up, the viewer’s imagination assumes an essential role. It is up to him to continue the thought of the truncated prisms both beyond the edges of the picture surface as well as into them and beyond them. And thus, the mirroring surface, in which the viewer recognizes himself, poses an unexpressed “balance between concave and convex”, as Theo van Doesburg described the picture carrier in the 1920s. For, even if the prisms initially appear to be constructed before the backdrop of the smooth underlying surface, nevertheless they are for the most part sunken into it or else grow out from it. The free and untreated mirror surface – the epitome of the two-dimensional – rejects and repels any notion of space. Therefore, besides the prisms, the mirror surface constitutes the second, no less important emphasis of the relief. Only the presence of these empty spaces in the picture surface allows for the visitor to contemplate upon the selected picture excerpt and the space surrounding it, and to place both in relation to each other.



In his Basel installation, Dieter Detzner carries the discourse on spatial and temporal relationships a decisive further step by including space itself in the process of the artistic appropriation. The space – here the cube – is at once the carrier of the pieces exhibited and the piece exhibited itself. In 1923 El Lissitzky already pursued this path at the “Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung”, combining in the so-called Proun Space colorful geometric surfaces with three-dimensional bodies attached to the walls. Following this in 1926 and 1928 were Lissitzky’s so-called “abstract cabinets” in Dresden and Hanover, which are reckoned among the first Environments or Spatial Installations in the history of art. Above all the Kabinett der Abstrakten in Hanover became famous as an exhibition room for abstract art and as an individual work of art at the same time. In the 1920s other artists such as László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Piet Zwart and Friedrich Kiesler interwove art and reality, interior and exterior space, exhibition and art space, thus creating a new art form in their “Demonstration Spaces” (El Lissitzky), which in addition frequently experimented with plays of light and spatial alienations. Since that time, it has been impossible to separate space where art is exhibited and space as art.


In the context of spatial installations the Parisian studio apartment Mondrian moved into in 1921 must be mentioned as well. Numerous colored rectangles attached to the walls formed a three-dimensional color space together with several of his finished paintings as well as orthogonally arranged pieces of furniture and easels painted black and white, which could be changed according to the painting that was being worked on at the time. In insider circles, this ambiance became one of the most famous spatial works of art in the Early Modern Movement, its dazzling geometry fascinating its viewers and challenging them to move through the space. When Alexander Calder, the inventor of the Mobiles, once asked Mondrian if it wouldn’t be interesting to put all of these rectangles hanging in the room in motion as well, he answered, “No, that isn’t necessary. My painting is already very fast.”

All of these spatial installations were conceived to be moved through, and not only be gazed at “through the keyhole” or through “the open door”. In Max Bill’s designs for walk-in monuments, pavilion-sculptures and exhibition designs, such concepts were continued and led, according to the artist himself, to one of his designs for a monument, to a “synthesis of sculpture – architecture – and painting in a spatial form”. The room was “designed as a sculpture, by having interior space transferred to exterior space”.

This is the same thing the installation G.d.B. does. The viewer becomes an essential component of the work of art because he moves about in the art spaces created by Detzner. He is virtually forced to position himself vis-à-vis the work and to change his point of view and viewing direction. The movement of the viewer is one of the fundamental prerequisites for the perception of the works presented in Basel, and in turn the works appear to depict movement themselves.

The optical and spatial experiences do not lead the viewer to an explanation of art, however, but rather primarily lead to the decoding of its process of origins and its primal structure. The works and their artistic means themselves do not symbolize anything but themselves, and thus ultimately remain enigmatic signs and spaces. The renunciation of individual, meaningful means of expression that becomes apparent in this is paired, however, with a highly individual invention of forms and design intent. Precise calculations for the pivoting and progression of the cube were fundamental to the design of the work of art before it could be executed. They lead to a complex, open space of triangles positioned in reference to one another, which create a prismatic, network of surfaces in motion. This is continued in the imagination of the viewer, and thus finds its actual structure only then. The omnipresent will to form thwarts the conscious withdrawal of the artist even in the apparently random carbon black pictures. Detzner’s works come about due to their own artistic means and laws. They are materializations of abstract ideas that have been transported into optically perceptible, concrete forms.


Sibylle Hoiman and Matthias Noell