Edith Altman’s life, and with it her work, describes a circle beginning here in the German town of Altenburg, where the artist was born, and eventually finding its way back to this town. And her work culminates here in a workshop with young people to whom she conveys her wisdom, her knowledge and her message, and with whom she finds a community even though she no longer has command of the German language.
Language is essential for Edith Altman’s experience, her self-discovery, and her art. She experienced losing her own language and having no choice but to find her way around in the obscurities of a strange one. The path was marked by images, and images have remained the foundation of her thought and her means of artistic expression, while writing also occasionally plays a role. The artist describes herself as someone who thinks visually; images, she says, are her language, the medium by which she communicates with the viewer, her fellow human being. They are both the point of departure and the result of her work.
But Edith Altman would not be the multifaceted personality she is if she did not avail herself of many other media in order to arrive at her artistic statement, which is always imbued with content: her belief, her experience, her message. She can realize this aim most comprehensively in her installations and actions, in which image, drawing, photo, object, body, light, sound, language and text unite in a Gesamtkunstwerk to which one finds access not via the intellect alone but, to a much greater extent, through meditative and intuitive consciousness.
The installations of the early 1970s, the “Placements” (Ill.), are based, however, on the classical configurations of sculptural elements in which material plays an essential role. Wood, steel, rubber, paper and found objects bear witness to the influence of a stylistic spectrum ranging from Minimal Art to Fluxus. Unlike those stimulators, however, Altman’s “Placements” always possess a definitive import, determined by their arrangement in space. Objects are removed from their original contexts and put into new constellations. Photos occasionally recall the objects’ origins. Allusions to Altman’s own fate, the fate of the artist cut off from her roots, can already be detected in these early installations. The same objects are introduced into various different situations, either confronted with the surrounding natural environment or transferred to the exhibition space. Through this process they take on a ritual aspect, though the overall effect is a primarily aesthetic one. The element of time, which will become more and more important in this oeuvre, already plays a role here. The perceptual form is that of memory.
Edith Altman has not only reconciled herself with the transience of her works, but makes quite conscious use of this quality, for example in her “Snow Traps” of 1975 (Ill.). Framed grids are placed out in the open in such a way that snow falls upon and through them. When the frame is shifted, what remains are geometrical positive and negative forms made of snow, an extremely changeable and ephemeral — indeed minimalist — material. Positive / negative, opposites: Here the theme so important in the works to come turns up in an abstract and almost formalist manner. Once again, nature — now in the form of snow — plays the role of the interactive partner. The artist’s intervention is reduced to a minimum.
The work “Two Weeks,” 1975 (Ill.), is created during the same period, now focussing entirely on the subject of time and likewise playing with a natural element: the sunlight falling through a window into a room and observed by Edith Altman over a period of two weeks. The movements, shadows and reflections as they changed in the course of the day were recorded by means of wooden strips, tape and strings. The artist also made colour slides during the process, with the aim of projecting them onto what remained of the installation or the situation that would exist at a later point in time. The progression of time is thus made tangible, memory made visible, the past confronted with the present. The attempt to capture the ephemeral is ultimately doomed to failure. Nevertheless, it leads to a result that is subject to the laws of nature, an aesthetic result whose independence from the artist, however, is merely an illusion. And this result can be repeated somewhere else, far away from the original situation, e.g. in a gallery. The longing to participate in the cosmic and inalterable natural process and to take up one’s own position within it may well have been a stimulus for this work. To capture time, make visible the laws of nature, reflect upon the past: These are human concerns addressed by art and religion alike. For Edith Altman the two are inextricably bound. Here we see an early manifestation of an aspect that will stand out much more clearly in later works: the positioning, the identification of the self.
The 1976 installation “Self-Portrait — We are Identified by Our Handwriting” (Ill.) is an experiment carried out by the artist on and with herself. Over a period of eight days, certain areas of surface were to be filled with as many small lines as possible within a fixed span of time. Simultaneously, numbers were spoken aloud. The realisation of this work took the artist to the limits of her physical strength. The probing of extremes to the absolute physical limit has been a theme in many very different areas of art, as witnessed in Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s actionist self-experiments of the 1960s or in the performances of Marina Abramovic. Edith Altman undertakes it in an abstract form. The abstract drawing is accompanied, however, by a commentary and a series of portrait photos of the artist taken as she executed the work. In other words, she does not want her work to be understood as a non-representational drawing, but as the result of an action with a very specific and precisely defined meaning. Process is the main focus; the artwork is the documentation of an action, the symbol of a fundamental human experience.
The introduction of sound enables Altman to delve into a further dimension of time and its shifting. In the installation “Point in Time,” 1977 (Ill.), the artist worked with a lakeshore landscape: By applying luminous paint to strings at various intervals and stretching the strings (their ends fixed to stones and posts) above the water with differing degrees of tautness, she created an installation with visual as well as acoustic elements, the latter further enriched by tape recordings of nature. The recordings which had been made during the day were played at night, when only the paint on the strings was visible. Conversely, the silence and the subdued sounds of nighttime were broadcast during the day. During the daytime, there was little to hear and much to see, at night vice-versa. The artist later notated the sounds in drawings which would serve, in turn, as scores for instrumental music.
In this installation, the interaction between the artist and nature is the prerequisite for the perception of the sensitive viewer/listener. As a point of reference, let us consider, for example, artistic constructions which produce sound when “played” by the wind, thus involving nature directly in the artwork. By comparison, the interplay between nature, the artwork and the imagination is much stronger, much more complex in “Point in Time” — and much more ephemeral. Unlike the grandiose Land Art nature interactions undertaken in the desert or other spectacular places by artists such as Walter de Maria, Edith Altman’s work is quite modest, an interplay that could be repeated at the shore or bank of just about any pond or river. Rather than being overwhelmed, the unbiased viewer is called upon to participate himself. This and other Altman works request the awareness and attentive perception of the individual. It is with wide-open eyes and senses that he must perceive the advertisement-like signs displaying out-of-context phrases in car windows in order to comprehend that what he sees are “Art Words,” 1977 (Ill.), which he as the reader must fill with meaning derived from his own experience.
The early installations seem a mere prelude in view of the increasingly political character of Edith Altman’s work of the 1980s. Now she finds more direct access to her own key themes, which — influenced by her biography — revolve around the Holocaust and Judaism. Text and writing, in both German and English, take on ever greater significance. In 1982, Altman presents the installation “Der Künstler-Detektiv: Investigations Into the Nature of the Victim and the Criminal” (Ill.) at the Goethe Institute in Chicago, where she lives. This examination of the nature of the criminal and the victim is based on psychological, literary, criminological, journalistic and other sources, expounded upon in German and English on lesson boards in the exhibition rooms of the Goethe Institute library. Altman is especially concerned here with the criminalisation of the victim, who is frequently given a discriminative epithet and with it the blame for his own fate. The victim is above all the Jew who has been compelled to endure the Holocaust. Edith Altman is such a victim, even if she has managed to escape murder by fleeing. An emigrant is also a victim. The artist does not stop at this realisation, however: On one of the boards, “Victim/Criminal” (Ill.), she shows the silhouettes of persons lined up as though in preparation for police identification, though it is impossible to tell who the criminal is and who the victim. In a gesture quite typical of Altman — conciliatory as well as admonitory — she alludes to the fact that every one of us has a predisposition for both; the artwork thus has a didactic quality. Altman brings the most diverse sources together here to form a complex ensemble that conveys its content in a manner as serious as it is playful. The aesthetic of this installation is very different from that of works by artists like Jenny Holzer, for example. Altman’s means are much simpler, closer to everyday life, but without lapsing into realism. With this work, she attains a precious goal: She processes the experience of the Holocaust, while at the same time protecting herself and, vicariously, others from the embitterment and misanthropy that can so easily result from that experience. Edith Altman witnessed these results in her own father, and even after his death she has continued in her effort to exorcise the embitterment and heal the wounds it left behind. Like a shaman she works towards this goal with the means at her disposal — the means of art and language —, helped in the process by her Jewish faith. Within her oeuvre, the golden tent has become the symbol for this theme. An emblem of paradise and heavenly Jerusalem, for Altman it has come to mean the ideal to be sought on earth. “When We Are Born We Are Given a Golden Tent and All of Life Is the Folding and Unfolding of the Tent” (Ill.) It is our duty to seize the opportunities life presents us for emulating the divine ideal, to use the means we have at our disposal to create balance and harmony.
With the tent and drawings of the tree of life, Edith Altman took part in the 1986 exhibition “Androgyn” at the Berlin Akademie der Künste. The tree of life symbolises the Kabbalah, the doctrine of the ten divine emanations of the androgynous deity, the union of masculine and feminine, good and evil, day and night, etc. In the catalogue to this exhibition, Edith Altman wrote: “As I fold and unfold my tent, I hear my grandfather tell my father - who later told me - that the work of the kabbalist is to restore himself and in doing so to work towards the restoration of the world and re-establish its balance.” As a symbol of perfection and the equilibration of antagonistic forces, the androgyne works with gold. This precious metal, created by the alchemist from contrasting materials, i.e. by uniting opposites, signifies the “opus magnum” to which, in the context of the arts, the well-wrought artwork can be compared.
In the 1990s, Edith Altman's trip to Germany, where she visited Weimar, the Buchenwald Memorial and her native Altenburg, inspired installations more directly concerned with the Holocaust. Several of them will be reconstructed in Buchenwald and discussed in detail in another part of this catalogue.
I would like to conclude this investigation by calling attention to a new work, not an installation but a sculpture and at the same time a prop for a performance. I am referring here to a wooden flying machine which is reminiscent of Vladimir Tatlin's “Letatlin” or the flying machine of Otto Lilienthal, yet another descendant of Icarus. Edith Altman's contraption is likewise more the illustration of a dream — connected with the story of her flight from Germany — than of an actual airplane. Her bound hands and the head-encasing “helmet” of the garment she wears beneath the flying machine bear testimony to the traumatic violence of the memory of her childhood experience, as does the title: “Things That Fly/Flee, Things That Lie/Die, A History of Flight.” The dream of flight can be equated with the dream of freedom. The liberation of the self from all fear and anguish is the theme Edith Altman has made her lifework.
It is and remains her concern to pass these experiences on to others, especially in Germany, but also in the U.S. The fact that she is a devout Jew is only one facet of this aspiration, if an essential one. She would like to reach all people, above all those who suffer oppression and persecution and those of the coming generation — young people and children.
By Ursula Prinz
Curator of the Berlin Gallery Museum
An Art of Ideas: The Work of Edith Altman and the Bauhaus Tradition [Excerpts]
by Susan Snodgrass
Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the
future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one
unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million
workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.(note 1)
-- Walter Gropius
Time (past, present, future) and space (physical and spiritual) are played
out in investigations of the self as a social, metaphysical, and artistic
being, and in configurations of images, objects, and text that mediate
between the sacred and material worlds. Whether constructed, drawn, or
reconfigured from found objects, Altman¹s artworks often integrate or assume
geometric forms that resonate with formal and symbolic meaning. This search
for order or structure in both art and life is carried out through the study
of various systems -- linguistics, mathematics, psychology, music, religion
-- which, when applied either literally or subconsciously, serve as grids,
maps, markers, traces, and proofs. Through these abstract and concrete
languages, her works lure the viewer into his or her own private journey,
one that intersects with certain specificities of the artist¹s life and with
the infinite possibilities (and failures) of the larger world.
Altman¹s integrative art of diversity and unity, materiality and
spirituality, has its roots in the Bauhaus tradition, as does her quest for
personal and social transformation. The Bauhaus integration of art and
design, and later technology, in the service of society is well known.
Geometric abstraction symbolized purity of form and embodied the utopian
principles of social harmony. Under the leadership of Walter Gropius, the
Bauhaus school emphasized practical training combined with theory,
non-Western philosophies and mysticism, and employed a teaching method that
encouraged experimentation, along with the dissolution of strict disciplines
and traditional teacher/student roles.
Childhood memories of the Bauhaus-inspired architecture that transformed
Altman¹s native Germany have been important to her development as an artist.
Altman was born in 1931 in Altenburg, near Weimar, where the Bauhaus
penchant for modern materials crafted into spare geometric forms created a
new style and functionality in architecture and design. These early
encounters with modernity left a lasting impression, despite the political
atrocities carried out by the Nazi regime that forced her family to flee
Germany in 1939.
While this history predates Altman¹s arrival, the legacy of Mies and
Moholy-Nagy profoundly impacted Chicago¹s artistic life, mostly notably in
the city¹s architecture, photographic history, and industrial design. Mies
once spoke of the Bauhaus as an ³idea,² the reason for its far reaching
influence, and Altman¹s work is, indeed, an art of ideas. Altman was exposed
to the Bauhaus approach to artmaking while a student of Paul Wieghardt. A
native of Germany, Wieghardt attended the Weimar Bauhaus, and was a student
of Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, and
Paul Klee, the latter with whom he established a close friendship. Shortly
after emigrating to Chicago in 1940, Wieghardt began teaching at the School
of the Art Institute of Chicago, and was chair of the School¹s Department of
Fine Arts from 1960 to 1963. He was later invited by Mies to teach life
drawing at IIT. (note 2)
According to Altman: ³[Wieghardt¹s] kind but tough approach to teaching, his
way of making us see the smallest detail in shapes, edges, colors and their
influences on each other have been the mainstay of my seeing as an artist
and teacher in all media. His insistence that artists must explore and play
and invent, always honoring the imaginative open wonder of the child, has
allowed my constant pushing of the boundaries of art labels.² (note 3)
Wieghardt was mainly a figurative painter and his influence on Altman¹s work
can be seen in her early paintings on canvas and paper. In several
compositions, geometrically-rendered figures occupy abstract, shallow
spaces; in other works, the figure, reduced to a series of flat, polygonal
shapes, is nearly subsumed by painterly architectural grounds, yet retrains
a bodily presence. Against Wieghardt¹s teachings yet guided by the Bauhaus
idea of interdisciplinary experimentation, the artist began, in 1967, to
paint on wood supports; from these she created three-dimensional painted
constructions. Some of these constructions could be stacked and rearranged
into various configurations, and led to Altman¹s important sculpture series
Obuli (from ³oblique modular units²), which she first exhibited at Richard
Feigen Gallery, Chicago, in 1971.
The artist¹s early experiments with chance and movement emanate in these
works, which explore sculptural space versus mass. Each piece is made up of
units of polished birch, thin slabs that can be positioned and reordered in
an almost limitless number of formations. These individual elements are
finely crafted, their edges cut on a diagonal creating elegant lines and
planes regardless of configuration. Important to the construction and
meaning of these works is the role of the viewer, who is engaged in a
process of play and discovery and who dictates the form. Despite the
abstract geometry each arrangement takes on, Altman sees these sculptures as
figurative, both in the organic nature of their creation and in the
interactivity shared by viewer and artist. [ed. in the collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago]
Movement and materiality are also explored in Altman¹s various Placements
series (1973-1980), in which objects are similarly arranged and rearranged.
However in these works, Altman moved constructions made in the studio
outdoors, then combined them with various found elements in installations
that echoed the natural environment. Additionally, the gathering and
placement of objects was conducted solely by the artist. In several works,
pilings of wood, rope, recycled materials, and handmade rubber forms, whose
openings suggest bodily orifices, were placed in nature in a kind of private
ritual. In Photo/Placements, pine four-by-fours bound together with steel
straps were gathered into modular units, set on the shores of Lake Michigan,
then photographed in various arrangements. Important to note is that the
photographs, not the objects/installations, became the final objets d¹art,
initiating a lineage of works in which photography would play an essential
role. [ed. Exhibition Art in Chicago]
The emphasis on process, and the combining of organic and industrial
materials, relates to the activities of the Postminimalists, in particular
Jackie Winsor and Eva Hesse, who also imbued their sculpture with a feminist
consciousness. For Altman, working in nature is regenerative, in terms of
both the transformation of her common materials and of the artist herself.
Like Joseph Beuys¹ ritualized performances, Altman¹s sculptures are never
fixed; their fluidity integral to the metamorphic process of change. Nature,
likewise, is never a stable entity, and in her Snow Traps (1975), the artist
gives control to the forces of the season. Here, a series of grids made from
wood and nylon filament were placed on the frozen ground. The gradual
accumulation and dissolution of snow created a field of abstract designs,
which were documented, via photographs and handwritten text, over a
specified period of time.
Artists of the Bauhaus, such as Klee, saw the importance of an artistic
dialogue with nature in understanding true objecthood. Klee wrote about the
necessary synthesis of ³outward sight² and ³inner vision,² and proclaimed
this union metaphysical.(note 4). Through his Theosophical beliefs,
Kandinsky saw form as the embodiment of the inner, spiritual self, one
inspired, in part, by nature. However, Kandinsky¹s later improvisational
paintings were based on an abstract language derived from correspondences
between music and art, rather than nature observed, yet retained their
Music or sound has also played an important role in Altman¹s work, and this
interest springs, in part, from the fact that her father was a violinist. In
1977, for instance, while an artist in residence at the School of the Art
Institute of Chicago¹s summer program in Ox-Bow, Michigan, Altman created a
musical instrument at the watery edge of a nearby lake. Constructed from
sticks and stones culled from the local ecosystem and a lattice of strings
coated in luminous orange paint, the sound box could be plucked as if it
were a stringed instrument. A nighttime concert of plucked music was mixed
with sound recordings of the natural environment taped during the day.
Entitled Point in Time, Day/Night Sounds (1977), the piece blurs the
distinctions between day and night, natural and mediated sound, randomness
and control, and shares affinities with the work of John Cage. Accompanying
this ritual/performance were scores combining drawing, text, and musical
notations, and became the impetus for several portfolios of ³visual scores²
and audio recordings (created between 1977 and 1980) also inspired by chance
Sound is also used in several studio-based works that explore measured time
as it relates to Altman¹s identity as an artist. Drawing, an act of both
creation and labor, is translated into a quantifiable system in 1, 2, 3, 4,
5, 6, 7. 8 (1976). Over the course of an eight-day period, Altman rendered
marks on paper in units of eight, recorded her voice counting to eight over
and over again, and took photographs of herself during this same time frame.
Like the life-long project of Polish conceptualist Roman Opalka, Altman
retreats to the personal sanctuary of artmaking, while offering the viewer a
multi-dimensional self-portrait. Time/Space, The Hidden Dimension: Personal
Territorial Comfort Zone (1979) is closely related. Here, the artist
constructed a pyramid, the measurements of which equal the artist¹s height
and arm span. Installed in the corner of the studio, its surface (painted
masonite) is imprinted with small lines of conte, each gesture (one square
inch) representing one second of time. An audiotape of the artist counting
in seconds reveals the time it took to make the pyramidal drawing:
In Two Weeks (1976), the passage of time and its relationship to the poetics
and plasticity of light was documented over a two-week period. A
quasi-pyramidal form constructed from wood and string measured reflections
of light cast through the gallery window; documentary slides were projected
onto the wall creating geometric formations of shadows and lines. The
installation recalls the constructivist aesthetic of Kurt Schwitters¹
room-sized Merzbau, and also relates to Moholy-Nagy¹s light-and-motion
machines, what he termed ³light modulators.² Moholy-Nagy and other artists
of the Bauhaus exploited the expressive potential of light, its greatest
fruition being, of course, photography.
The repetition of marks and chanting of numbers in Altman¹s works serve as
mantras producing, perhaps, altered states of being, certainly passages
through time. A series of drawings/installations entitled The Visual
Mechanics of Quantum Rendering, Time/Space: The Hidden Dimension similarly
combine mark making, mathematical systems, and graphic representations of
time. Begun in 1983, the year Altman returned to Germany upon her father¹s
death, these drawings additionally incorporate symbols and text from
mythology and Judaic tradition, and reflect the artist¹s growing interest in
the Kabbalah. Based on the Tree of Life, in which, according to the artist,
color (black, white, red, green, gold) is ³used as a vehicle to visualize
prayer,² they radiate a meditative beauty that engages the spirit and visual
Both the Kabbalah and the Bauhaus are systems for understanding and ordering
the world. According to Gropius, the Bauhaus was based on the principle of a
³universal unity in which all opposing forces exist in a state of absolute
balance.² (note 6) The Kabbalah similarly seeks harmonic balance through the
juxtaposition of binary forces, for example, chaos/order, light/dark,
day/night, good/evil, male/female, and ascent/descent.
An important milestone in Altman¹s multifaceted oeuvre is Der Kunstler
Detektiv (The Artist Detective) (1982), her first work that deals directly
with the Holocaust and her own identity as a survivor. Exhibited at the
Goethe Institute, Chicago, in 1982, before her return to Altenburg, the work
explores the dualistic relationship between victim/criminal and
power/powerlessness. A mock classroom was the stage for investigations of
guilt and victimhood, in which the systems of art, linguistics, and criminal
detection conflate. The installation consisted of lesson boards, flash
cards, and pulp detective magazines that served as evidence of the ways that
society and language subliminally dehumanize victims. A police line-up with
silhouettes of the artist, her father, her brother, a rape victim, and a
female member of the Israeli army was accompanied by an audio recording in
which each victim testifies to their suffering and healing.
A key element in this installation was the inclusion of drawings and art
manuals with instructions on how to use, for example, proper perspective.
Thus, problem solving in art and issues of perception, as suggested by the
Bauhaus, become instruments for looking at the past, and posit the
importance of art in the process of healing. These questions have fueled a
number of more politically-based works, where Altman assumes the role of
facilitator or shaman in helping art and nonart audiences alike grapple with
the horrors of history.
In 1983, in response to her journey to Buchenwald where her father and other
family members were interned, the artist created When We Are Born We Are
Given a Golden Tent and All of Life Is the Folding and Unfolding of the
Tent. An installation of drawings, paintings, photographs, and texts was
anchored by a small golden tent, the proportions of which corresponded to
the artist¹s bodily measurements as in earlier works. Within its sheltering
walls, Altman created a private temple, where she and young Germans, Poles,
and Jews shared dialogues about the pains of the Holocaust.
The multimedia installations It Was Beyond Human Imagination (1992) and
Reclaiming the Symbol/The Art of Memory (1993) continue these same themes.
It Was Beyond Human Imagination combines photographs, objects, and texts
appropriated, as in the Goethe project, from instructional sources related
to art and education. Wooden artists¹ workbenches and large children¹s
blocks, whose elegant refinement is akin to the artist¹s early Obuli
sculptures, are painted with the phrases, for example, ³Seeing and
Believing/Seeing and Knowing² and ³Too Painful to Remember/Too Awful to
Forget.² Two goats stand atop artists¹ palettes; one symbolizes the many
artists and others who perished under Nazism, the other signifies victims of
mass genocide. Both, inadvertently, reference the many contemporary artists
who have also been scapegoats or victims of cultural censorship.
Reclaiming the Symbol/The Art of Memory is more recuperative in Altman¹s
reappropriation of Nazi symbols and propaganda. A large gold swastika
reconfigured to its pre-Holocaust representation hangs on the wall, gold
being the color of spiritual transcendence in Kabbalistic tradition. Its
mirror, a black Nazi swastika, lies on the floor surrounded by several glass
beakers. Filled with various base substances, for instance, soil and salt,
as well as colored pigments that reference the Kabbalah, these vessels
symbolize alchemical transformation. Given the problematic, and often
controversial, nature of her images and subject, an integral part of this
work was the inclusion of educational materials, as well as a lecture by a
Jungian analyst, who spoke on the nature of evil.
Complexly layered in its use of divergent objects, images, and texts,
Altman¹s work raises important questions about the moral responsibility of
the present to deal with the abuses of the past. Her work is also an urgent
reminder that history can repeat itself; witness our current struggles with
civil and human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance,
and terrorism. Several publicly sited projects, such as How Shall We Teach
Our Children? (1994), have centered on inter-generational and inter-racial
dialogues about racism, stereotyping, and hate. In light of such atrocities,
Altman asks: ³How can we learn? Do we learn? Can art transform and heal?²
Such conversations connect to the ideas of Krzysztof Wodiczko, whose own
artwork deals with memory and healing: ³To avoid future catastrophes, daily
disclosures of the often-hidden destructiveness of the present must be
linked to critical recollections of past disasters. This sort of critical
approach to history has been -- and continues to be -- an intuitive and
interruptive survival practice of every immigrant.² (note 7)
The artist/immigrant forms the essence of Altman¹s work-in-progress Things
That Fly, Things That Flee, Things That Lie, Things That Die, A History of
Flight. Images of aviation and travelogue are juxtaposed with painted wood
constructions that reference artists Leonardo da Vinci, Kasimir Malevich,
and Joseph Beuys, as well as Wernher von Braun, German-born creator of the
V-2 rocket, member of the Nazi party, and American immigrant. Photo and
video documentation of the artist wearing a hand-crafted flying machine
reiterates her position of refugee, and also places Altman within this art
historical lineage. Understanding the role of the artist in society spawned
the more recent work The Gift of Confusion (2001), in which Altman explores
dyslexia, cognitive learning, and creativity.
The Bauhaus idea of an art of social utopia has defined the core of Altman¹s
thinking and practice as an artist. She remains wedded to a personal vision,
guided by faith, that sees art as a means to social change. Yet her
definition of herself as an artist is also informed by the postmodern notion
of a decentered self, one that draws on lived experience and sees itself as
an Other among Others. Marked by historical circumstance, fractured, then
eventually free, Altman is an artist who exists across time and space.
1. Walter Gropius, from the Program of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar
originally published in 1919, reprinted in Hans M. Wingler, The Bauhaus:
Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago (Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: MIT
Press, seventh printing, 1986), p. 31.
2. See Paul Wieghardt: Paintings, Water Colors, Drawings (Chicago: The Art
Institute of Chicago,1974).
3. Edith Altman from unpublished notes by the artist, n.d.
4. Paul Klee, from ³Ways of Nature Study,² originally published in 1923,
reprinted in Wingler, The Bauhaus, p. 73.
5. Czeslaw Milosz, The Land of Ulro, trans. by Louis Iribarne (New York:
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984), p. 207.
6. Walter Gropius as quoted in H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art (New
York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986), p. 319.
7. Krzysztof Wodiczko, ³Designing for the City of Strangers,² in Critical
Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), p. 4.