Über Michael Cleff
„Was man sagen kann, kann man klar sagen.“
An einer Wand in Michael Cleffs Atelier auf dem Gelände der ehemaligen Henrichshütte in Hattingen breitet sich entlang einer imaginären waagerechten Linie von etwa 4 m Länge in mehreren Reihen eine Gruppe von 24 plastischen Elementen aus gebranntem Ton aus. Deren Grundrisse sind denkbar einfach, denn es handelt sich um Kreise und Ovale, Quadrate und Rechtecke. Jedes Stück aber ist anders dimensioniert: Tiefe und Kantenlänge bzw. Durchmesser sind variabel. Alle Elemente sind auf der leicht sich wölbenden Vorderseite weiß engobiert und mit einem dunkelblauen Strich versehen; einige dieser offensichtlich freihändig gezogenen Striche weisen aufwärts und einige abwärts, wieder andere verlaufen in etwa horizontal. So ist die Gruppe als Ganze zwar von klaren und einheitlichen Formprinzipien bestimmt und wirkt durchaus geschlossen, zugleich aber vermittelt sie den Eindruck von Dynamik und Offenheit und bietet durch die Spannungen zwischen großen und kleinen Objekten und durch einander widerstreitende Richtungswerte eine vielschichtige Seherfahrung.
On Michael Cleff
“Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly.”
Arranged in several rows and following an imaginary horizontal line a good four metres long on one of the walls of Michael Cleff’s studio in the grounds of a disused iron and steel plant in Hattingen is a group of 24 sculptural pieces in fired clay. Their outlines are as simple as you could possibly imagine: oval, square and oblong. Each piece, however, is differently sized, its depth, edge length or diameter varying from one to the next. Each piece has been coated with white slip on its slightly convex front and painted with a dark-blue line; some of these lines, which have obviously been painted free-hand, point upwards, others downwards or more or less horizontally. Whilst the group as a whole seems to be governed by clear and uniform formal principles and hence conveys the impression of being completely self-contained, it also creates an effect of dynamism and openness, whereby the tension generated between the large and small pieces and by the conflicting directional movements of the dark-blue lines affords the viewer a visual experience on several different levels.
For an understanding of the art of Michael Cleff, this multi-piece sculpture produced in 1999 is, quite literally, of fundamental significance, for it reveals the basic principles of his work of the past several years. Significant, too, is the fact that he nicknames it his “Letterset”, deliberately establishing an analogy with the letters of the alphabet. Just as letters are the basic components of linguistic expression (at least of all written linguistic expression), these 24 pieces are the defining parameters of Michael Cleff’s sculptural expression. They summarize all the forms produced by Michael Cleff since 1994, each individual form resulting from the inner necessity of a certain sculptural task and at the same time complementing those forms which had already been created. Moreover, from all these elements or components, Michael Cleff also produced negative forms which served him as modules for further sculptures. Thus, in just the same way – and just as naturally – as a language develops, namely through the constant and challenging need for clarity and ever greater subtlety of expression, Michael Cleff has developed a kind of grammar for his sculptural work, an open, playfully variable system of rules.
As though he were declining a verb, Cleff varies in countless ways the basic form of, for example, a medium-sized, sturdy-looking cuboid with inward-inclining sides. Sometimes he expresses it in its pure, simple form, in its infinitive, as it were; or he underlines it with a narrow-ridged support or a tall, upward-tapering pedestal. Not infrequently he will resort to repetition, duplicating a module and then stacking several of them one on top of the other, or he will complement a relatively large piece by a smaller one of similar shape – a large cone by a small one, for example – as though adding an afterthought in a subordinate clause. These enigmatic yet intrinsically harmonious pieces are mostly coated with white glaze or slip. In one series of works, delicate blue lines separate certain parts or “storeys” from one another. Here and there, the pieces display incisions or relatively large or small openings reminiscent of doors or gates.
Michael Cleff begins every sculpture by making a drawing. It is a drawing which is as succinct as it is precise: with just a few lines and explanatory notes, he outlines on paper the shape of the piece he intends to model. This does not mean, however, that Michael Cleff treats clay as an arbitrary material which can be readily used to express just any preconceived idea. On the contrary, clay is an equal partner, so to speak, a partner having specific qualities with which Michael Cleff has familiarized himself and through which he seeks to create a complex perceptual experience. Cleff’s sensitive approach to the material results from his awareness of the need to strike a perfect balance between, on the one hand, the tactile experience afforded by the material and, on the other, his own sculptural concept which, whilst having to be coolly calculated according to fixed parameters, nevertheless demands extreme stylistic subtlety.
The resulting sculpture is first biscuit fired at a temperature of approximately 1000 °C. This firing process stabilizes the clay in order that it can then be glazed or slip coated – a time-consuming and complicated process. When applying the glaze or slip, Cleff takes pains to ensure that it does not completely seal the surface of the sculpture but allows it to breathe, keeping it “alive”, as it were. Moreover, the traces of the modelling process should be visible and tangible through the glaze, too. Along the edges and in those areas of the sculpture which he wishes to emphasize, Cleff likes to grind or scratch away the unfired glaze, a technique which gives rise to fascinating colour contrasts once the glazed piece has been fired: where there is only a thin coating of shino glaze, the white changes to an intense shade of reddish brown. The aforementioned dark-blue, subtly dividing lines are drawn with cobalt oxide. For his more recent pieces, Cleff has also been using this substance in a highly concentrated form to create relatively large areas of jet black which largely determine the character of the sculpture. The glazed pieces are reduction fired at a temperature of approximately 1300 °C, whereby the incomplete combustion of the gas through its reduced oxygen content affords the individual properties of the clay an opportunity to have their own “say” in what happens to them: certain traces of the modelling process become clearly visible and the fired clay manifests surprising subtleties of colour which, after firing, are further accentuated by a final grinding operation here and there.
Such is the intensity of Michael Cleff’s preoccupation with clay as a medium of artistic expression that the viewer experiences his sculptures in a way which is altogether paradoxical. While on the one hand they are perceived as solid, firmly constructed, extremely compact objects, especially as the large areas painted with cobalt oxide lend them a monolithic character, they seem, on the other hand, to be inspired with lightness and vitality. In working with this medium, Michael Cleff not only accepts and makes a calculated allowance for unpredictable processes, he even encourages them wherever possible. The pleasure of tactile experience and free experimentation goes hand in hand with the deepfelt need for absolute clarity. Indeed, Cleff resolves – and with astonishing ease, too – one of the oldest and most deep-reaching conflicts in the history of art: the conflict between material and form, between hýle and morphé.
Anyone confronted by Michael Cleff’s sculptures for the very first time will inevitably be reminded of buildings. Sometimes these architectural associations are quite clear, at other times they are very vague, but they are always buildings of a monumental magnitude. Some of his sculptures are faintly reminiscent of silos or water towers, others of bastions or step pyramids, or of large factory sheds. Consequently, as soon as one tries to describe these sculptures and to analyse their structure, one inevitably talks in terms of “storeys” or “doorways” or “windows”. It would of course be fallacious to maintain that Cleff’s sculptures are either representations (albeit distorted or alienated ones) of real buildings or figments of the artist’s architectural imagination. Indeed, the entire process of their production – from the initial sketch through to the final polish – clearly contradicts such an interpretation. What cannot be denied, on the other hand, is the archaic force and astonishing monumentality which these sculptures radiate. Especially his more recent works seem to displace the surrounding space emphatically and with the utmost ease. Grandeur is shown here to be but a relative notion, for hardly any of these sculptures is taller than 40 cm.
There is another quality, too, which one normally associates with architecture, namely the ability to generate tension between the interior and the exterior. Cleff’s sculptures not only react to the space around them but also define spaces – “rooms” – within themselves, modelling the light which enters them through their openings. Peering through the “windows” and “doors” which Cleff has cut into these conical or cuboid pieces, the viewer is surprised to discover that each sculpture operates in a certain direction: it captures the viewer’s glance and guides it, sometimes all the way through the sculpture to a focal point in the exhibition room, sometimes through several chambers located one behind the other, creating – and here we cannot help being reminded of the hypnotic light and space installations of the American James Turrell – an enigmatic interplay of light and shadow.
An important point of reference for Michael Cleff is Minimalism, with which he shares a pragmatic way of thinking and a strict conceptual approach, underlined by the firm conviction that only through the greatest possible concentration is it possible to achieve his actual objective – a sculpture valid in every respect. In much the same way as the Minimalists, Cleff persistently and consistently works with a clearly delineated canon of forms and, again like the Minimalists, adopts the principle of repetition, using elemental geometrical forms. Nonetheless, Cleff’s work relates to Minimalism only inasmuch as it distances itself from it and reaches beyond it. While such artists as Sol LeWitt or Carl Andre use perfect squares or cubes as modules for their works, Michael Cleff rejects such an approach as being too dogmatic, not to say lifeless. Not one single element of his “Letterset” (let alone sculptures made from these elements) was designed with a ruler or compass. On the contrary, it is Cleff’s inherent sense of proportion – the “right feeling” – which is decisive, even if it may, when viewed objectively, produce such “wrong” results as converging lines and convex surfaces. Calculated relationships – right angles, for example – have no place in Cleff’s work; he would dismiss them as pure pedantry. Vibrating textures, on the other hand, are of great importance to Cleff, and even if black and white, those key colours of rationalistic modernity, are typical of his sculptures, the cool elegance and uncompromising hardness of the “specific objects” of a Donald Judd, for example, are totally foreign to his nature.
Michael Cleff conveys, with a mixture of playfulness and seriousness, such diametrical opposites as geometry and freehand, complexity and simplicity, fortuity and necessity. Through their strong presence and their curious blend of enigma and harmony, Cleff’s sculptures in fired clay have done much to help a commonplace and in many respects aesthetically downgraded material to acquire a new dignity and relevance. They are a plea for a holistic kind of perception in which tactile and visual stimuli, feeling and looking, mutually illuminate and complement each other in a process of understanding. They operate according to a system which is self-explanatory without imposing itself on the viewer in any way, and their language is as plain as it is discreet. In a word: they have been put clearly.