Next to nothing

“Next to nothing“ is the name that Ulla and Martin Kaufmann chose for their repeatedly prizewinning hoop necklace. Nomen est omen here, because this piece is just a wrought band of matt gleaming gold, nothing more and nothing less. No clasp, no superfluous ornamentation; absolute reduction to the bare essentials. This slender hoop winds simply and caressingly around its wearer’s neck like a springy, elastic curl of wood shaving – as though the hoop had merged with its wearer and become part of her identity. Anyone who has felt this necklace curl around their neck will never want to take it off again.

Which of the two artists played the leading role in the creation of this piece? Four smiling eyes are the couple’s only answer. Ulla Kaufmann’s initial idea had to do with a band of fine gold that would be milled from a gold ingot. Because of the nature of the material, such a band would be soft, floppy, and without tension. It was Martin’s idea to craft the first wrought bands, sometimes from silvery-matt white gold with shiny outer edges. But it’s not important to them to know who contributed which ideas along the path that they follow together. Their work is a process of reciprocal sharing, informed by conceptual interpenetration and cross-fertilization. Once the best solution has been found, it doesn’t matter whose idea initially catalyzed it.

The same process led to the creation of the large-format vessels. The path toward these pieces led through a wrought band. Like the hoop necklace, these vessels too draw their life from the tension of the band, which is broadened here to form the walls of the vessel. The idea is based on the realization that exterior and interior are interdependent, and on the Kaufmanns’ appreciation of the importance of the space in between. The inner shape of a vessel is ordinarily determined by its outer form and vice versa. The tensed band abolishes this principle and makes it possible to follow a third path. Here, the inside is not the outside, and the possibilities of the interstitial space can be explored. This “between space” functions as the starting point for experiments with the form.

The space between the spirals that form the walls is not merely an unavoidable interstitial space, but rather a venue of creative unrest for the Kaufmanns’ vessels. The boundaries between the spaces are fluent. A many-layered dynamism becomes perceptible as the beholder’s eye wanders from the outside to the inside and back again. The tension builds, impelling the observer to participate in the intellectual process that culminates in the vessel’s creation.

The idea isn’t merely sketched with a free and quick hand. It arises in the mind as the manifestation of much thought and discussion. The process is like tentatively feeling one’s way, step by step. Being sensitive to all the possibilities of the enclosed space can help attain clarity along this path. The flow of light between the spaces gives these vessels their formal softness. Only a few of the vessels have closed walls so that they can serve, for example, as wine coolers or containers for liquids. In most instances, the form remains open in the vertical.

Each vessel has its own unique expression. Each of the various heights creates a particular plexus of dependencies in the proportions. The overall form is influenced by slight variations in the heights of the overlapping on the edges of the vessels. Fine lines, full of tension, describe almost graphic structures. The lower edge is raised above the bottom on some of the vessels, thus creating an impression of weightlessness, as though it were defying the law of gravity. With dynamism and tremendous lightness, the architectonically built vessel spirals inexorably upward. All of the earlier vessels are tapered, i.e. they narrow as they approach their upper edge. This makes them seem somewhat closed and introverted. The newer vessels show a tendency toward open, extroverted forms.


The material is silver

This metal’s purity and beauty accentuate the play of light and shadow within the spaces. No other material conveys lightness and transparency as does silver.

Gold wouldn’t have been suitable for the vessels, simply because of its material-specific attributes. Ulla and Martin Kaufmann likewise reject gold-plated silver and silver-plated brass because the language of these materials contradicts the language of the forms. To achieve strong expressivity via minimal means, Ulla and Martin Kaufmann’s path inevitably led them to opt for silver as their material of choice.
The silver band was originally wrought, as it was for the neck hoop. But its dimensions needed to be larger for the vessels, so the Kaufmanns developed a special technique to draw the silver between wooden rollers.
They experiment with strips of paper, cardboard, and brass as they continue to evolve the form that they have in mind. Brass is a harder and much stiffer material than silver.

This stiffness makes it possible for them to use screws, bridges, and wooden pegs to manifest the ultimate shape. The approach toward the form only works if one is very familiar with the material and if one has the experience and imagination needed to transfer the ideas to softer, more sensitive silver. Bringing the silver body into the desired shape is a laborious task which demands absolute mastery of the métier, unflagging mental concentration, and the careful planning of each next step.
The Kaufmanns regard themselves as artists who venture close to the limits: “The movement and the twist are often incredibly difficult. Making the shape stay in place can be very tough. But we simply do it. We keep going until we reach the limit, which is defined by the material itself.”
The Kaufmanns accept the existence of each limit as a given fact, almost like fate or divine providence. Once a limit has been identified, one needn’t go to elaborate extremes in an effort to overcome it. If technical reasons make something seem formally insolvable, they temporarily set the piece aside and then return to it later when they have plenty of time to devote to it. In the meantime, the theoretical solution to the problem often occurs in their minds. The anxiety that accompanies the effort to craft progressively larger vessels is simultaneously also the temptation to dare to overcome limits.

Parallel to their work on the vessels, Ulla and Martin Kaufmann also continued to face the challenges of the flexible band. This project progressively evolved as the neck hoop took shape. Last summer, they added austerely built “architecture rings” as a new facet in their oeuvre. These rings are set with brightly colored gemstones, which nestle gently between the fingers and seem to lead lives of their own. It remains to be seen whether these rings will influence the work on the vessels, and if so, in what ways.

Austerity and softness are the two poles in the oeuvre of Ulla and Martin Kaufmann. The well-known saying which claims that “less is more” only insufficiently describes the Kaufmanns’ work because despite all its formal reduction, a sensual component is always implicitly present too. Their artworks are the logical consequence of their thoughts and sensibilities. Ulla and Martin Kaufmann defy pigeonholing or categorization. Asked about themselves, they say, “There are many possible ways to live. We never lived according to mere black or white. And gray isn’t the answer either ...” Admiring one of their vessels, one begins to understand what they mean. Concept and dream.