A Miami based contemporary art newsletter / blog

Horst Wackerbarth: The Red Couch at Wolfgang Roth & Partners Fine Art

Tadaaki Kuwayama, Artist, Düsseldorf, Germany, 1998.

The current exhibition, Horst Wackerbarth: The Red Couch, at Wolfgang Roth & Partners Fine Art (201 NE 39th St) charts the life work of German photographer, Horst Wackerbarth. Billed as a gallery of mankind, the project (which has been in development some thirty years) presents a dynamic cross section of the human race with each subject photographed on or with some component of the couch in settings whose geography and manifest impact vary as much as their inhabitants’ respective careers or life stories.

In addition to a photograph, the artist also video tapes an interview with his subjects during which he asks them these simple yet provocative questions:

What makes life worth living for you?

What do you not like about life?

What is your idea of happiness?

What is your idea of unhappiness?

What was your most interesting experience up until now?

What was the worst thing that ever happened to you?

What was a big mistake you made?

What do you fear?

What is your greatest wish?

If you could choose, who or what would you rather be?

What does work mean to you?

What does love mean to you?

What role does art play in your life?

What do animals and plants mean to you?

Who or what created the universe?

What is your expectation after death?

What is your question to the audience?

Designed to apply to everyone, no matter where they are from, these quintessential questions on the notion of existence and the human condition illuminate fascinating, often humorous deviations in the way in which people live and think. Priorities in life, fears and hopes are all explored and documented; encapsulating not only the individual’s unique take on life, but commenting also on the social, political or theological stand point of locales and times.

Dumitru Burlacu, Child of the streets, Bucharest, Romania, 2003.

A clever move on the part of Wolfgang Roth was to choose an exhibition for their inaugural opening which could quickly and effectively integrate the local context into a moving and entertaining exhibition. In this regard, Wackerbarth, with the assistance of gallery manager Samantha Kruse, spent a week prior to opening sourcing subjects from Miami to interview and photograph for a special continuation of the project entitled “The Miami Series” (a percentage from the sales of which to be donated to a chairty of the purchasers choice). As with the rest of the project, the selection for this branch of Wackerbarth’s continuous undertaking was for the most part unbiased and included a broad range of personages including property developers, mechanics, educators, Miami based artists, children and local personalities of no specific vocation.

The combination of images and videos, or rather simply the project as a whole, is touching and really draws you in. Of course there have been other gimmicky projects where artists (mainly photographers) have traveled the world documenting people in similar states (for example Philippe Halsman’s ‘Jump’ pictures) but the simultaneous depth and superficiality of Wackerbarth’s undertaking, combined with the curious nature of his subjects answers make for a uniquely compelling body of work– Not often do we get such a personal insight into the mind of Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Serra or Steve Jobs; or in the case of the Miami series, see familiar faces such as Craig Robins, Bert Rodriguez, Jim Drain and Jen Stark elevated to the status of captivating immortals.

Frank Fool’s Crow, Oglala Lakota medicine man, South Dakota Badlands, USA, 1983.

From politicians and sports personalities to street children and medicine men, one’s interest is divided and pushed equally between the content of the still and moving pictures in an effort to get at the truth about the sitters and ultimately the human animal in general. However, despite the intrigue that the images and videos inspire and the sense of freedom and adventure that one gets from viewing the work there is something almost very dull about it. At first it seemed that the couch was to blame and that maybe the images might be better off without it all together; however, after much appraisal, it is the project as a whole that seems to be losing momentum. The more recent images are as beautiful as ever, the interviews just as compelling, but there is something stale about the flavor of a project that has been going on so long, and the effect that such an undertaking must have upon an artist that now scents the work with a crippling sense of duress. It’s almost as if Wackerbarth is trapped by his couch and caged within the frame of his camera’s view finder.

Lord Menuhin Yehudi, Violinist and conductor reading a Bach score, Rainham, Essex, Great Britain, 1998.

Perhaps this is the artist’s bid for immortality. Perhaps he has simply been doing this for so long that he has forgotten how, or is afraid to try something new. Whatever the cause he is clearly resigned to his mission and as such, the closest he appears to have come to breaking the lackluster of his chains is with an image entitled “Grave of the photographer Gaspard-Felix Nadar” (2003), in which cushions from the couch are laid respectfully and solemnly on the headstone of what is presumably the artists hero in the Père Lachaise graveyard, one quiet, over cast day in Paris. There is no face or interview to accompany this piece but what it lacks is made up for ten fold– not just because of the obvious weight of the gesture, but also because in thirty years it is one of the few occasions that the mold has been broken. Sadly this piece does not feature in the exhibition however, this photograph, unlike other similar shots of the empty couch in various picturesque settings (which honestly seem a bit indulgent) and one of a new born baby (which by contrast seems in poor taste), punctuate the project, allowing us for a moment to take a much needed breath as though we had suddenly emerged from a choking fog into a pocket of crisp clean air.

Klara I. Sigurdadottir, Schoolgirl and tourist guide, Jökulsárlón, Vatnajókull, Iceland, 2003.

After speaking with the artist it became apparent that he does in fact thirst for a change. One idea he has had is to stage elaborate Neo-classical style compositions depicting war upon and around the couch. Another more ambitious but ultimately voyeuristic bent is to literally incorporate the themes of life and death – thankfully blood stains will not be so apparent. But even with the added dimension of apparent mortality, guts, sex, destruction or whatever, the works would likely still feel kind of contrived– like a magazine photo shoot gone mad. It seems that Wackerbarth is trying really hard to make something of the world, but purposefully going about it in a very white, trite way. The only time the works seem really successful is when the subjects appear to influence the images; either with their own direction or wrinkled, unfamiliar appearances OR when their answers to his questions fly in the face of our stultified preconceptions of what life is all about.

Wally Mander, Owner of a slaughterhouse, Chicago, Illinois, 1983.

But, at the end of the day this is in fairness a mini-retrospective and a quick perusal of the project catalog immediately reveals degrees of talent, consideration and resourcefulness that are not only very impressive but also very adaptable and transgressive. In total, The Red Couch Project is comprised of over six hundred individual subjects (to date) of which a mere thirty or so appear in this show. And although the relative size of this exhibition does not allow for it in abundance, it seems that Wackerbarth not only takes great care in deciding who he shoots, but also in the dynamic between individuals and individual works when it comes to exhibiting or publicizing his work. The images below of the sound engineer, Robi Güver whose father was forced to flee Russia owing to his Jewish faith and unemployed German neo-nazi youth, Silvio Böhme, exhibited side by side on the south side of the galleries northern most room are fair examples of this.

Left: Robi Güver, Sound engineer, Marstall, Weimar, Germany, 1997. Right: Silvio Böhme, Unemployed, Marstall, Weimar, Germany, 1997.

Overall the exhibition is a lot more engaging than most, which is all the more impressive as it is an inaugural show. Capturing the attention of the local community is something which many new galleries fail to do and as result they miss the opportunity to make a good first impression. Wolfgang Roth, however, skillfully negated this common pitfall and now stand in good stead for their next exhibition: David LaChapelle and Arne Quinze which opens for Art Basel Miami Beach on December 2nd[.]

–Thomas Hollingworth


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  • rick mills

    i was with you when you took pictures of a few of us i southsea portsmouth a couple of years ago.with asyluum seekers. i would like tobuy a book with the storyies in. i rember you dontsell to general that still the case? rick mills red cross vol. 07710494200.

  • Renee Reed

    I saw the Red Couch in 1990 at the Tampa Museum of Art. I always snap a photo of red sofa. I never ever forgot it.

  • Eleni Trohani

    Dear Horst ,Hi .Iam Eleni Trohani from Leonidio Arkadia Greece,Ihelped you and your assistant with translating when you were here in the beginning of January 2000 or 2002.I hope you and your family are all well.Spending those few days with you were for me and my husand Kosta a wonderful experience .i hope that your’ Red Couch ‘ project a complete success,I personally believe that it was.Keep well.Kosta and I send you Greetings for Christmas and the New year too. Thank you for the experience of the Red Couch and those incredible photos

  • Ken davis

    I am looking at 2 prints I bought I guess in ’83 in Houston at a gallery… I believe that are cibachromes… they are the New Riders of the Purple Sage in a field and the other The man behind window on death row with print of red couch he is displaying…interestingly enough I was in Houston designing one of the iconic Channel no. 5 commercials with Ridley Scott directing….

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Horst Wackerbarth: The Red Couch at Wolfgang Roth & Partners Fine Art