Gisela Hossmann, Anna Oppermann: For me art is a means of dealing with life,

in: Photography, Center Quarterly, # 59, Vol. 15, Nr. 3, Woodstock New York, S. 20-27

On March 8, 1993, Anna Oppermann succumbed to cancer shortly after her fifty-third birthday in Celle, a small town in northern Germany. Without a doubt, she ranked among the best-known artists of the German art scene in recent years and had received many national as well as international awards. Starting with conceptual art in the sixties, she created a body of work that cannot be categorized in any of the traditional art styles, because it comprises all artistic disciplines: painting, drawing, photography, but also self-composed and found texts, collected mementoes, and objects of everyday life. She combined all of this into unique and unprecedented installations that changed and grew over the years. Oppermann's imagination and her extraordinary analytic intellect enabled her to concentrate on her art, even during her serious illness. Did this effort give her the quiet hope of conquering her disease? This question remains unanswered. Her life's work came to an end with her all-too-premature death. However, the complexity of her legacy will motivate many art-lovers to reflect on this extraordinary artist.

Anna Oppermann was born on February 18, 1940, in Eutin. From 1962 on she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and at the University of Hamburg. In 1968 she completed her studies. From then on she worked as an independent artist, primarily in Hamburg where her first studio was located. From 1982 to 1990 she taught as a Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Wuppertal in the department of communications design. Starting in 1990 until her death she conducted a class for painting and multi-media design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin in the fine arts department. Oppermann's second studio, which was her home for the last four years of her life, was situated in Celle. Her first marriage produced a son. She lived with her second partner for twenty years.

From the beginning of her independent activity, the status of women was one of Anna Oppermann's principal interests, especially that of the female artist in contemporary society. Her life and her art could not be separated. They were not distinct spheres of interest, rather, they were in a constant state of interaction - not always in harmony, but always resulting in a fertile dialogue. Just as the flow of life never ceases, in her opinion a work of art could never really be completed or reach a singular final state. In keeping with this view, she did not create a conventional body of work consisting of individual, autonomous pictures, drawings, or sculptures. With a few exceptions, mostly at the beginning of her career, she created "open" works of art that consisted of numerous individual works arranged into a single entity in terms of content and spatial orientation but that never represented a "finished" solution. Just as humans grow and change during the course of their lives, in the concrete sense as well as by analogy, so too did Anna Oppermann's works continually change. They proliferated from the wall into the room, from the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional. During the course of their creation they became a diagram of a life in the world: "From the relatively simple to the relatively complex, from the private to the general."(1)

Anna Oppermann always maintained this method of allowing a body of work to develop slowly. Quick artistic results were not important to her; rather she focused on the slow process of expansion and transformation. Even during the last years of her illness, she consistently followed the path she had taken. Her motto was: "For me art is not primarily a marketable wall decoration; rather it is the means to manage life; in more simple words, it is a way to get a handle on (to come to terms with) problems, to resolve conflicts."(2) In her conceptual and practical work she repeatedly asked the essential questions about human existence, ranging from birth to death: "why, how come, how am I, how are the others ...?"(3) These questions addressed very real situations, but they also had a purely metaphysical meaning.

From 1968 on, the first space-filling ensemble (the title was given by Anna Oppermann), the Spiegelensemble (Mirror Ensemble), began to grow. In 1972 it was presented to the public at the Hamburger Kunsthalle for the first time. Prior to that she had been exhibiting pictures, not daring to show her ensembles. Until her death, about sixty of these large and voluminous works were created.

The artist provided the following commentary on the work: Ensembles are "spatial arrangements consisting of drawings, objects, found objects, photos, photo canvas, slide projections and other bits of information, usually quotations from various disciplines."(4) Elsewhere she writes: "By ensembles I mean the documentation of certain procedures in exercises in perception and/or recognition. The construction of an ensemble is the presentation of many efforts to recognize a piece of reality, to evaluate, and to get a grip on a problem. Documentation means visualizing, determining traces that have been left, and aiding our recollection of psychic processes on varying levels of consciousness and in different frames of reference. In doing so, I create bases for investigation (by determining shortcomings and making them known), with a view to possible corrections and modifications, which requires a relative openness of the arrangement.... And so, proceeding from a single point (from the relatively simple to the relatively complicated), the circle of interest grows wider and wider."(5)

Photography plays an important role in her spatial environments: the artist uses the medium as adjuncts to memory and associative triggers. For the unprepared viewer of the unusual work, the photographic documentation of the ensemble over the course of several years enables an understanding of the on-going process of creation in stages. Large and small black-and-white photographs provide overviews and details of the ensemble's previous stages. "Photos of arranged objects, sketches, texts, pictures and photos of photos of objects, sketches, texts, pictures and photos of... etc."(6) are used in the overall work as elements equivalent to real objects, original drawings and original pictures, thus expanding the spatial, formal and thematic dimensions of the work of art. The artist uses large photographs to emphasize important texts, thoughts, and images and summarizes entire complexes of pictures with small photos. When a fully set-up ensemble - there are some that reached a girth of ten meters width, seven meters depth, and six meters height - is reduced to a surface of a few square centimeters by a wide-angle lens, details are obscured. The result is an abstract picture, whose origin can no longer be read without knowledge of the original.

Black-and-white photography is the raw material for the photograph/canvases incorporated into the ensembles. The chosen motif is projected onto the canvas and then developed. Anna Oppermann used this canvas to paint with oils or acrylics; draw with pencils or colored markers; write thoughts, quotes, or simple sentence or word fragments. The photograph/canvas becomes the carrier of information that is particularly important to the artist. The motif of choice is usually a detail of the ensemble, frequently an emphasis of the "primal cell" that was the conceptual source and real starting point of the overall work. "There is always a real object at the center of the ensemble, in the beginning a found natural object, e.g. a leaf (later, humans, situations, conflicts, problems)."(7) Each ensemble has associated with it a leaf (beech, chestnut, lime) or a fruit (cherry, plum, etc.).

In the ensemble titled Öl auf Leinwand (Oil on Canvas), created between 1981 and 1992, which is permanently installed in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, the theme of the work presented is clearly understood.

The detail photograph reveals the principles of artistic action:
The theme is an arrangement of objects, consisting of a table with a canvas, small oil bottles, rags, and a design painted in oil;
on the wall next to it is a photograph canvas with the original motif, the written concept, and individual thought fragments in an expanded context.

The real object, the photograph of it, and the photograph/canvas, summarize the three elements of the arrangement and serve as a starting point for further reflections on the selected topic. From here on, the ensemble grows profusely into the room.

The photographs do not serve just as the backdrop for the photograph/canvases, rather they are frequently projected directly into the ensemble as positive images, as in the ensemble Öl auf Leinwand. Overall and individual views, pictures documenting various stages and details, are projected onto the wall in small ornamental gold frames and equated with precious paintings. The simple slide intentionally becomes an ironic jewel.

Polaroid photographs are another photographic element used by Anna Oppermann. Polaroids were initially intended for quick, uncomplicated documentation or unforeseen situations during set-up or take-down of exhibits. But they frequently also serve as templates for drawings. Because the Polaroids have a small format and are usually of less significance in terms of their content than the motif selected for drawings, large-scale photographs or large-scale canvases, the artist places them primarily at the margins of the ensembles. Thus their artistic rank in the overall complex of the work is clearly defined.

Anna Oppermann explained the importance of photography for her artistic work as follows: "The photo delimits, records and fixes those things that can change location within the actual structure; it summarizes, clarifies emphasis, lets other things become unrecognizable or abstract for outsiders through its reduction of scale. It transforms space into a surface and facilitates or forces distance to the ensemble (topic), which (as long as it is arranged in space) can be entered in the true sense of the word."(8) The camera becomes a tool for the artist comparable to the painter's brush or the draftsman's pencil. Photography becomes a substitute for painting.

Oppermann consistently followed the actions described above in the design of her ensembles. In addition to real objects taken from nature or everyday objects, she used humans in her ensembles from time to time (Ensemble mit Dekor (Über den Umgang mit Menschen, wenn Zuneigung im Spiel ist) / Ensemble with Decoration (On Interactions with Humans, when Affection is a Factor), 1969-1990; Porträt Herr S. / Portrait of Mr. S., 1969-1989, Ferien mit Alex / Vacation with Alex, 1979). Occasionally self-portraits of the artist can be found in the environments (Anders sein ("Irgendwie ist sie so anders...") / Being Different ('Somehow she is so different...'), 1979-1986, Pathosgeste / Gesture of pathos, 1984-1990). An entire collection of photographic self-portraits, which were discovered after her death, gives rise to the assumption that the artist was probably planning a larger work in the 1970s, with and about her own changing physiognomy, because her own and other people's faces always interested her. But she shied away from revealing the intimacy that frequently emanates from these faces.

Her last two large-scale ensembles and a number of other smaller works show how the complex of problems was continually evolving from the personal to the general in the 1980s. Titles such as Mythos und Aufklärung / Myth and Enlightenment, 1985-1992, and Masse und Macht / Mass and Power, 1989-1993, point to extremely complicated themes.

Many of her ensembles have been exhibited at important international shows, among them the Biennial in Paris (1975), the Biennial in Venice (1980), and Sydney (1984), as well as documenta 6 (1977) and documenta 8 in Kassel (1987). Entire rooms are devoted to Anna Oppermann at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg and the Sprengel Museum in Hannover. Room installations are being set up this year still at the Von der Heydt-Museum in Wuppertal and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia. The voluminous estate is to be scientifically catalogued and documented in the coming years in order to protect Oppermann's materials (which are often difficult to preserve) and render them accessible to an interested audience. A group of art historians and scientists in Hamburg is dedicating itself to this challenge.

(1) Anna Oppermann, in: "Das, was ich mache, nenne ich Ensemble (I call what I do ensembles)"; in the catalogue Anna Oppermann, Ensembles, 1968-1984, Hamburg and Brussels, 1984, p. 28.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Anna Oppermann, in: Momentbild-Künstlerphotographie (Instant Pictures, Artist's Photographs); exhibition catalogue, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover, March / April 1982, p. 136.
(5) Anna Oppermann, "Was ist ein Ensemble - Zur Methode (What is an Ensemble - About the Method); in Kunstforum International, vol. 28, 4/78, p. 148. (English translation by Margret Berki)
(6) Anna Oppermann, 1982, p. 135.
(7) Ibid., p. 28.
(8) Anna Oppermann, "Text im Ensemble und Funktion des Fotos in der Methode (Text in the Ensemble and Function of the Photograph Within the Method)"; in Kunstforum International, vol. 33, 3/79, p. 128.