Signs of Signs is the second exhibition of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt (born 1932 in Wurzen) at ChertLüdde. The exhibition covers all major facets of Wolf-Rehfeldt’s production from the early 1970s until her artistic retirement in 1989, including typewritings, collages, editions, a wall installation and parts of the Mail Art Archive which contains over 20 years of correspondence that she and her husband, Robert Rehfeldt, received from artists all over the world.
The exhibition features a selection of typewritings from the early 1970s that show Wolf-Rehfeldt’s interest in semiotics and concrete poetry at the beginning of her artistic production. These works on paper were made on her Erika typewriter, and can be seen as intricate studies of sign systems, conceptual art and innovative combinations of language, symbols and visual forms.
In Introverse Arrangements (1972) and Extroverse Arrangements (1972), visual form and wordplay create the sense of various possibilities of interpretations, the title serving as a clue as to how to read the words, which are arranged like snowflakes in a single row. In Extroverse Arrangements (1972), the words can only be understood if read going outwards, and each group of eight words are delicately held together by a single letter. Here, the linguistic permutations result in strange combinations, and words often operate as signs to point the reader into unexpected directions.
The various ways in which Wolf-Rehfeldt combined words to signify meaning – and subversive alter-meanings – became statements of artistic, and even political, expression. For instance, in Entwurfskizze (Preliminary Sketch) (mid 1970s), typewritten letters fall across the page in trails, seemingly collecting at the bottom of the page in a pool of jumbled words and phrases, some of the sensible ones making out to say “denken” (think), “dada”, “brav” (well-behaved), “feeling”, “zaghaft” (timid), and “feeling uneasy”. Scrawled in handwriting amongst hand drawn shapes, the legible words “Bart” (beard) and “Ereignisse” (events) seem to be at the center of these word-streams, evoking the possibility of a statement describing the paranoia, surveillance and control shaping the political milieu at the time.
Although in the beginning of her practice Wolf-Rehfeldt experimented with the possibilities of expression within concrete poetics, she began to shift her focus in later years to abstract compositions, moving from linguistic signage to language as simply form and matter. For instance, in the Strukturblätter (Structure Sheets) series (mid 1980s), various typographic symbols are stacked in rows to create simple scenes on paper: abstract planes that communicate austerity yet are also whimsical and elegant. The absence of wordplay is replaced by the use of language and punctuation as pure components of graphic imagery, now devoid of semiotic signification. Untitled (late 1970s), a three-dimensional cube constructed out of exclamation points, the letter O and slashes, is a study not of visual and linguistic puns, but rather the materiality of language. In these later works, Wolf-Rehfeldt strips language of its function, and creates instead images of playfulness, beauty and innovation.
Collages were made with zincographic editions Wolf-Rehfeldt made of her typewritings. They consist of prints combined with magazine pastings and photographs of the artist’s earlier paintings. The editions, due to her special status as a member of the Association of Fine Artists of the GDR, were allowed to be printed 50 times as “miniature graphic works” (Kleingrafik) in print shops. The copies could easily be sent as postcards or prints ranging in formats from A4 to A6, which was especially well suited to accessible distribution when it came to her Mail Art activities.
Also interested in expanding the dimensional possibilities of her work, Wolf-Rehfeldt created a wall installation in 1989, Cagy Being (Käfigwesen) 2 (1989/ 2018), which was initially commissioned for a children’s playground in East Berlin, but was never realized due to the fall of the regime.
Throughout the course of her artistic activity Wolf-Rehfeldt produced several ink stamps, used for sending Mail Art. In a spirit of characteristic irony and humor, she has made for the exhibition a new stamp titled Nicht Neues (Nothing New) (2018), typed on her original Erika: an emphasis on her decision to stop producing new art which has remained true since 1989.
The exhibition includes the second half of the letter B of the Mail Art Archive of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt and Robert Rehfeldt, the first half of which is on view currently at the Albertinum Museum in Dresden. Organized alphabetically, the archive contains all correspondence between the couple and artists whose names start with the letter B. In conjunction to the exhibition is a book titled B – The Mail Art Archive of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt and Robert Rehfeldt, published by ChertLüdde this year.
Installation views. Photos by: Trevor Lloyd.