A Cube Is a Cube Is a Cube

Homages to the Cube

When does a work begin to become a mediator between world and subject in the sense that it is an expression of possible viewpoints, a discovery of particular aspects and thus potential interpretations of the real, an expression of a subjective grappling with existence?

Ulla and Martin Kaufmann’s cubes expand the traditional boundaries of the goldsmith’s art, which are situated between jewelry and representation. Indeed, the cubes seem to be a kind of self-referential ready-mades that deny their origin in the realm of everyday life. No personal signature is recognizable at first glance; functionality is negated, as are contentual implications or any artistic added value. Though seemingly free from references or allusions, these structures are nevertheless connected by a double helix with the biographical, with a personal, almost existential encounter with the surroundings their makers inhabit. These include a home in southern France not far from the Pyrenees, with a typically cubic, southern European architecture that Ulla and Martin Kaufmann have been appropriating in an ongoing process of transformation since the 1960s, as well as the horrible news of the thirty-nine corpses that British police discovered in 2019 inside a locked container belonging to a smuggling syndicate.

A cube can thus be an identity-forming dwelling or a deadly prison. The decisive factor is accessibility, the possibility of opening the cube, the permeability of interior and exterior, outside and inside. The pivot point where the cube can be opened is centrally positioned, simultaneously a mathematical problem and a design challenge in terms of correct proportions. But the cube is also one of the Platonic bodies, which transcend the desire that underlies the creative urge to discern the inherent laws of the world and the cosmos, to order phenomena and thus to understand them. In their purism, these cubes embody a universal timelessness.

Ulla and Martin Kaufmann’s first cubes grew from the intellectual seedbed of an era in which artists developed ever-new strategies to undermine traditional notions of high art. Many of these artists strove to reduce painting and sculpture to the barest essentials. Josef Albers, for example, developed numerous variations of his theme, Homage to the Square, thus creating a quintessence of his elementary pictorial thinking that clearly reveals the contradiction between the physical reality of color and form and the psychological impressions they make on their viewers. Donald Judd too, perhaps the most radical of the Minimalists, robbed sculpture of the last vestige of illusionism. From the 1960s onwards, this American artist developed his idea of the neutral specific object: by arranging indifferent physical bodies in serial sequences, Judd thwarted prevailing conceptions of expression and construction. Here art is reduced to the status of mere object. Judd’s specific objects refer only to what is inherent in them as objects: i.e. their three-dimensionality, which is defined by size, form, color, materiality and their relationship to space.

Ulla and Martin Kaufmann’s cubes can also be understood as autonomous art objects, created in the spirit of the goldsmith’s craft. They embody the idea of an inherent arbitrariness independent of any ornamental responsibility. This is the source of the attraction felt by their viewer, who is also needed to open them: because the hidden essence of each cube is revealed only in this movement of recognition.

The cubes are a lifelong challenge that the two goldsmiths Ulla and Martin Kaufmann have been facing for the past five decades. Their constant labors call to mind the myth of Sisyphus, whom Albert Camus described as ultimately a happy person.