Franz Staehler – Artist for the New Millennium
James Wines

“Art, in its execution and direction, is dependent on the time in which it lives and artists are creatures of their epoch. The highest art is that which, in its conscious content, presents the problems of the day.”

- Richard Huelsenbeck - (Dadaist Manifesto)

When I first encountered Franz Staehler’s sculpture in 1998, on the grounds of the Fondazione Rossini collection in Briosco, Italy, I immediately sensed the presence of a unique and important force in environmental art. The introductory works included a group of giant clay pots - like those typically used by the Greeks and Romans to store olive oil or wine - suspended high in the air on thin steel tri-pods. The two towers, entitled “Amphore,” were initially experienced in the context of a blood-orange sky at dusk, lending these enigmatic structures an even greater drama when silhouetted against a Lombardian sunset. In spirit and evocative power, they seemed like heraldic icons from some ancient civilization. At the same time, given their skeletal framework, they appeared to have been re-conceived for the contemporary world as new totemic symbols for some emerging culture in today’s age of information and technology.

In addition to ancient historic references, Staehler’s work can also be associated with the land art movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. The earthworks of Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Robert Morris, Richard Long, Dennis Oppenheim, Alan Sonfist and others contributed an influential legacy for site-specific interventions. While some of these artists went on to create architectural structures – for example, Heizer, Oppenheim, Alice Aycock and Mary Miss – the familiar characteristic of land art involved shaping, excavating, engraving, or in some way engaging the earth’s surface in the process of creation. The resulting imagery – reminiscent of the land drawings of Nazca Plain in Peru and the concentric earth mounds of Avebury, England – was also motivated by 1960’s artists’ desire to escape from the traditional sanctuary of the art gallery. They rejected the compromises of “object making,” with its antiquated showcase conventions, scale limitations and art world commercialism. As a result of this pioneering era, the many of the more progressive artists today tend to be environmental by persuasion and disdainful of pedestals and frames as the presentation hardware of choice. In point, increasingly fewer works produced during the past decade have been conceived to hang on a wall or sit on a base.

Franz Staehler’s work owes a debt the breakthrough strategies of the land artists; but his sculptures are also very different in their intentions and physical resolution. For example, even though he frequently responds to contextual influences – walls, paving, turf, vegetation, water, topography, etc. - the actual finished works tend to absorb a large proportion of their iconic significance from his choice of materials, totemic qualities and psychological juxtaposition of imagery. His modes of expression range from modest distributions of rocks on a grassy knoll, to celebrations of architectural materiality (brick, stone, iron), to monumental structures that mark special locations and can be seen from a great distance.

His smaller works – mainly interventions that fuse with existing situations – demonstrate Staehler’s attraction to building systems and their conventions, colors and textures. Even though his material choices are traditional, the interpretations invariably serve as commentaries on process, functionality and scale. For example, he creates miniature brickworks that melt, feather outward into thin veneers, or become distorted inversions of the spectators’ entire notion of how masonry should perform. In one masterfully subtle piece for the Rossini garden, Staehler inserted a row of miniature bricks, snaking through the grass – barely noticeable at first, but hypnotically compelling as the eye follows this thin arterial pavement across the lawn to nowhere. With great economy of means, he created a Lilliputian Appia Antica for grasshoppers. In this regard, his art has much in common with the Dadaists and Surrealists in their manipulation of people’s routine expectations and subliminal associations with certain objects and their conventional sizes and functions.

Franz Staehler’s monumental works are among his most impressive and original statements. I am especially intrigued by his skillful juxtapositions of the familiar with the unfamiliar in architectural and landscape situations. For instance, I have seen his Amphore installed in two locations – Fondazione Rossini and La Loggia in Tuscany – where both sites are agricultural terrains, but topographically different. Somehow the communicative content of his works changed to reflect these respective environments. The differences are difficult to describe; so I can only submit my impressions here. In Lombardy, given the proximity of the Rossini property to mountain ranges, the towers appeared more organic – like horticultural extrusions, where the support structures resembled the stems of growing plants, amidst a profusion of vegetation and grazing farm animals. In Tuscany, the site was flat, engulfed by rolling farmlands. Here the Amphore towers seemed like archaeology in collision with the space age. The color of the clay urns reflected Tuscan hues and excavated ruins, while the interlacing steel tri-pods became industrialized spider webs against a void of open sky.

Staehler’s environmental art possesses a special quality of what might be classified as “absorption of context.” This means that certain works – even though not intentionally site-specific – have a way of becoming intrinsic sources of identity for any location where they are placed.

Some recent large-scale sculptures by Staehler have taken a phenomenological direction, based on the inclusion of such ephemeral elements as wind, rain and waves. In 2005, for the Savona waterfront, he installed a massive bathroom shower that soared over the harbor and periodically released torrents of falling water into the harbor below. In this case, his Dadaist and Surrealist inclinations were fused with his penchant for industrial monumentality. The oversized showerhead confirmed his sense of wit and irony, while a crane support indicated his continuing involvement with engineered structures and the manipulation of scale references. This project is one of my personal favorites because, aside from its inherent humor and merits as provocative public art, I can imagine the reaction of incredulous local residents, who might ask the question; “If Neptune decided to emerge from the pure``` waters of Savona, why would he need a shower?”

For a second waterfront site, in 2007 Staehler created a rambling and multi-faceted sculpture, entitled “Sea Necklace” in Saint Raphael on the South coast of France. The imagery appeared to have evolved from a combination of mythological sources, industrial artifacts and natural forces in the immediate environment. In this case, globular steel cages were assembled like a giant string of space-age pearls, linked together with cables and casually distributed along the beachfront. Seawater flowed around and through the open grid work, welcoming sand, seaweed and water as integrated elements; while tidal movements, rolling waves and even wandering sea creatures became kinetic components of his integrative vision.

In Staehler’s third water-oriented project for a boat-building island near Venice, he incorporated air currents as the primary connection to nature. Taking his cues from Greek mythology (Eurus, god of the wind) and the tools of navigation (wind-filled sails) he created a tower of billowing fabric, activated by shifting currents of air.

The most admirable aspect of Staehler’s large-scale works is their economy of means and the value of his prudent choices of materials and resources in a world dominated by excess and waste. In this regard, there is a symbolic resonance in his sculpture that reinforces the fact that environmental stewardship will surely be humanity’s route to salvation over the next few decades. This communicative value also invests his work with a special currency for today and a potential longevity for the future.

I normally hesitate to use the word “timeless” when referring to any contemporary artist’s work, because this label can risk sounding like pretentious prophecy or unsubstantiated attribution. Still, a sense of universality and timelessness was my initial response when I first stood at the foot of Staehler’s majestic Amphore towers on the Rossini estate in Briosco, Italy. I haven’t changed my view since then. It is this persuasive incorporation of physical and phenomenological elements – including ritual-like authority, reductive means of expression, site-specific orientation and integrative engagement with contemporary and historic sources - that have established Franz Staehler as one of the most complex and enigmatic artists of the new millennium.