Astrid Klein (b. 1951) is one of Germany’s most distinguished conceptual artists. Collage constitutes the main formal and artistic principal of her work. Her large-scale wall pieces often combine found images with her own text or quotes from philosophy, theory or science to illuminate suppressed aspects of the collective unconscious and to question conventional power structures and modes of representation. Her oeuvre—comprising photographic work but also neon and mirror sculptures, installations, painting and drawing—oscillates between poetry and criticism, skepticism and longing. The Cologne-based artist has been associated with the gallery since 1996.
Key features of Klein’s artistic and intellectual grammar can be traced to her earliest body of work. Her so-called Schwarze Bilder or Black Paintings (1974–77) on black silk depict faceless female bodies in miniature scenes steeped in mythology and symbolism; their imagery is juxtaposed with handwritten texts and hieroglyph-like signs. The series represents an almost somnambulistic attempt to situate oneself outside of patriarchal and political power structures, or at least take them on.
Klein radicalizes this grammar even further in early collages, including her iconic Les tâches dominicales (Sunday Works) (1980). The groundbreaking series incorporates visual material from photo-novels and stills from French New Wave and Italian neo-realist films. The artist combines these images—mostly photographs of women—with suggestive lines of text in French, English or German: “Tout est dans le regard,” “ich spüre nichts von dem, was er spürt” or “and realizes that any moment, any second her turn is coming.” Klein treats images and text as equally important visual elements. In doing so, she not only strips the photographic source material of its narrative logic; she also injects it with moments of ambivalence and subtle disturbance, engages sensually with media culture and sheds light on political and socio-critical issues.
While a number of Klein’s early collages find her using typewriter-labelled adhesive tape to connect individual image elements, the artist’s large-scale photographic works are created in a complex darkroom process that involves enlarging the found material in several steps, layering and adding drawing elements. The resulting “collage” is condensed in a single, large-scale photographic print. Series including CUT I–X (1986–96) or Frauenbilder (Images of Women, 2002–05) show, almost by virtue of their medium, how all power and representation structures—and the historical and social ideologies they entail—are nothing more than cultural constructs, there to be taken apart and reassembled. Informed by psychoanalysis, feminism and linguistics, Klein has applied her deconstructive approach to other media as well. The Weiße Bilder or White Paintings (1988–1993), rendered in white-on-white, make the invisible visible. Her Fliegenfänger sculptures (Flycatchers, 1981–91) incorporate mechanical and electrical fly traps while Spiegelarbeiten (Mirror Works, ongoing since 1991) find the artist taking up a 9mm revolver and spraying mirrors with bullet holes, shattering the viewer’s perception. Klein’s Neonskulpturen (Neon Sculptures, ongoing since 1991) are complex structures of neon tubes imprinted with enigmatic texts. While their lines are reminiscent of drawings, they also transpose the principle of collage into space.
Whatever medium Astrid Klein uses, the ultimate focus of her work is always the viewer. Her oeuvre never stops at simply undermining power structures and representation mechanisms or rendering them visible; it aims to dismantle them and to destabilize conventional pictorial. Poignant and impactful, her works often trigger a surprising moment of reflection in the viewer—and a possible interrogation of their own social constructs and ways of being in the world.