Thomas Rentmeister


Friedrich Meschede: The Child, the Philosopher and the Sculptor

Catalogue essay from the exhibition “Thomas Rentmeister”, Städtische Galerie Nordhorn, 30.05 – 19.07.1998; in Thomas Rentmeister, (cat.) Städtische Galerie Nordhorn, Nordhorn 1998, German p. 2–7, English p. 36–41, translated from German by Lucinda Rennison.

It is difficult to write about the works of Thomas Rentmeister. The reason for this difficulty lies in the fact that these works are impressive in their simplicity, works which do not readily betray the secret of their presence as objects in space. The forms appear in a perfection which has completely absorbed the efforts involved in their production. Thomas Rentmeister produces sculptures, or to be more precise, three-dimensional works, which are cast from a plaster model according to the traditional process, but in polyester mixed with coloured pigments. This technique means that Rentmeister transforms the opaque, heavy plaster form into a thin-skinned, coloured polyester form, the surface of which is then polished to create a shining, reflecting sculpture. Rentmeister asserts the sculpting process of the sculptor in this laborious task of sanding down and polishing, removing material from the cast form in fine layers; because of this, the term sculpture may be used justifiably in the following. The finished sculpture demon-strates no traces of the handiwork involved in its production. It simply stands or lies there as if it had always been. This natural, matter-of-fact quality of the coloured forms is the reason why the works exude a sense of both the familiar and the alien.

A Child’s Viewpoint

On the occasion of an exhibition of works by Thomas Rentmeister in the “Bahnwärterhaus” Villa Merkel, Esslingen, Renate Wiehager relates an informative anecdote about the effect of the sculptures: when a child saw the works, it called out “hey, that’s pink air”. This casual, amusing comment conceals a deeper insight, the fact that Thomas Rentmeister succeeds in making the invisible – that is, air – visible, in materialising it. Obviously, until this visual experience the child only knew air as an abstract concept, it had no pictorial notion of air, which was then made vivid, even tangible, and also amusing by the sculpture. Other colours of sculptures by Thomas Rentmeister confirm the child’s irritation. Rentmeister dyes his polyester sculptures with pigments in tones of caramel, chocolate or similarly sweet-seeming colours. But the size and the geometric forms of the works check our notion of a tempting, paradisially gigantic store of sweetmeats. In any case, the child’s reaction described presents us with a possible guide to grasping the sculptures in their immediacy.

The Philosopher’s Viewpoint

The sculptures by Thomas Rentmeister play with beauty and the consternation we feel when encountering it. Beauty is expressed in the highly-polished surfaces, in the rounded forms and in the perfection of their production. The consternation arises with helplessness; we do not know what these forms mean, from where they have been borrowed. The forms of sculptures by Thomas Rentmeister have been through the school of geometric abstraction, as expressed by Minimal Art. The simplicity of the three-dimensional body serves the precise perception of its shape, schooling more conscious regard of what is known. As a successor to such manifestations of sculpture, for example the work of Donald Judd, who has influenced Rentmeister as a result of the variety of materials he used, from wood to plexiglass, Rentmeister probes this tradition and uses his formal language to seek the quadrature of the circle, geometry in the amorphous. The decisive question concerning the conditions of perception had already been formulated by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1766, when he wrote his essay “Laocoon or On the Limits of Painting and Poetry”, in which he also included sculpture in the term painting. In the 17th chapter he wrote: “How do we arrive at a clear idea of an object in space? First, we view the parts of this object individually, then the combination of these parts and finally the whole. Our senses carry out these different operations with such astonishing rapidity that they appear one to us, and this rapidity is absolutely necessary if we are to arrive at an idea of the whole, which is no more than the sum of our ideas of the parts and their combination.”

Above all, Lessing’s essay became well-known because of the distinctions he made between poetic and fine art; the debate on this theme centres around the example of the Laocoon figuration, discovered in 1506. On the basis of this work, Lessing recognises the phenomenon of time as an essential moment of sculpture, a phenomenon expressed at the moment of depiction. Poetic art is governed by the successive, whilst sculpture permits a coexistence of moments, which is why, Lessing maintains, the essential aspect in the composition of sculptures is the “productive moment”. In the example of the Laocoon figure, this expresses itself in the moment of the narrative chosen for depiction. “For the poet, a cloak is not a cloak; it conceals nothing; our imaginative power sees through everything. Whether Virgil’s Laocoon wears it or not, his suffering is equally visible to our imagination in every part of his body.” (Chapter 5)

Lessing’s expression, the “productive moment” may perhaps be helpful in understanding Thomas Rentmeister’s sculptures in the modelled moment of a form. The forms appear to just to say hold on to the moment, to be frozen in it directly before it threatens to explode. A short time later, three-dimensionally speaking somewhat larger and heavier, and the pink air which the child saw as a balloon would have burst like one. The sculptures rest in themselves, and yet their mass seems to ponder form, so that it seems as if the coloured membrane encloses the classical balance between standing and free leg. The volumetric form is contrasted by fragile areas such as the contours of the bases and their curvature. Here the moment and its delicate qualities are made visible as a three-dimensionally produced form. Although Rentmeister presents his works to us as compact volumes, the constant impression remains of a stretched, membraneous surface conveying the impression of vulnerability. Every touch would immediately become visible on the polished body, every scratch immediately recognisable, and for that reason, the sole intention of the polished surface appears to be distance. Its shine does not allow our eye to penetrate further into the materiality of the form. At the same time, reflections capture images of the surroundings and as a result the sculpture demands to be viewed in this pictorial manifestation from a distance. The mass of the form and its shape thus correspond with the surface effect to create an interplay with the viewer; the sculpture attracts, demands to be viewed from all perspectives, and at the same time it maintains its distance, it is merely to be viewed. In the final sculpture, the haptic quality of the form, the desire to touch, clearly expressed in the process of modelling and later in that of polishing, is transformed into a purely pictorial quality. Rentmeister is very close to Lessing’s viewpoint with this understanding of sculpture; for Lessing there was not yet the reference to space in viewing sculpture which characterises the approach to sculpture in the second half of the 20th century; sculpture was the freezing of a moment. In a comparable way, sculpture for Thomas Rentmeister is fixation in a location from which – through the pictorial effect of the sculpture – a moment of motion is unleashed for the viewer, who then begins to explore the surrounding space, always starting out from the sculpture.


This pictorial form of works by Thomas Rentmeister conceals an aspect which – as a result of their conception of material – clearly differentiates his sculptures from the tendencies of previous forms of expression. The sixties, which could be referred to as a decade of sculpture, produced a wide variety in the conception of material. Materiality is itself often a theme of the work of artists such as Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra or Ulrich Rückriem. On the one hand, the fact that Thomas Rentmeister makes sculptures at all may be seen as an anachronism, for contemporary art forms and an awareness of the history of sculpture would exclude this, if one adhered to the dictates of innovation. On the other hand, Thomas Rentmeister’s work is anachronistic with respect to the finding of images and their translation into a physical, three-dimensional form. The objects which Rentmeister creates make one suppose that he may not find his models in sculpture, – one recalls the organic forms of Jean Arp – but may have taken them from the viewing habits of the new media and may have now translated the virtuality of a variety of possible forms back into Euclidean three-dimensionality. The abstraction of Rentmeister’s forms cannot be seen as continuing the tradition of abstracted, natural forms, but in the permanently flowing transformation of images like that demonstrated in 3-D computer programmes. It is this “cinema” of pretended figures and dimensions which stimulates Rentmeister to stop the moment and to fix it. Here Lessing’s Laocoon motif appears once again in contemporary guise, the idea of time brought to a standstill, the nature of the excerpt in a concept of sculpture which produces a model of thought – the concept of the “productive moment” – analogous to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” in the history of photography during the 20th century.

Thomas Rentmeister’s works are not the result of, but the answer to the dematerialised conceptions of the world and of the image in today’s computer graphics. The desire behind this is to transfer the illusion created in 3-D programmes and the aseptic perfection of their forms from the screen into his own world, making it possible to experience the dreamlike qualities of such animation in all three dimensions of orthogonal space. In this way, Rentmeister’s work also proves anachronistic, since he attempts to transfer the unreal bodies of the computer into visible reality. This always happens with a certain measure of humour in Rentmeister’s work, and the most recent works resemble a comic figure. The fiction of the form demonstrates obviously narrative features, comedy is arrived at through the form’s pose. Again consternation and beauty meet; the beautiful in colour, form and figure, consternation in the fact that reality actually is the way virtuality only attempted to pretend it was. For, as opposed to cinema or imprisoned in the computer, a sculpture is part of our present reality. It alienates us with its materiality, fascinates us with its presence.

In his 20th chapter, Lessing wrote: “Physical beauty arises from the corresponding effect of numerous parts which may be overlooked all at once”. The question remains whether we are still in a position to overlook the complexity of today’s influence on the most simple of forms. “These mixed emotions are the ridiculous and the terrible.” (23rd Chapter) The parable of Laocoon, or rather the discussion which it triggered, appears to extend the boundaries which Lessing only sought to explain between poetry and painting. Today, the boundary in art is not so much between the traditional genres, but it alternates constantly within the media which have been produced to date. Whilst Lessing attempted to verify the moment depicted after an analysis of the texts handed down to him, Laocoon is the spiritual father of sculptures by Thomas Rentmeister in a struggle with virtuality to recognise the productive moment; whilst the fascination of virtuality lies in an eternally changing flow and an independence of any dramatic narration. But perhaps this Laocoon is more terrible, the screen as “the exposed, wide opening of the mouth” which Lessing attempted to imagine. For ultimately, the comfort of these sculptures lies in the fact that, most certainly, they only reproduce the moment in which one can see them, unmistakably, as pink air.

© Friedrich Meschede

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