With the hammer stroke of the late modern period
Ulla and Martin Kaufmann’s label stands for silversmith’s and goldsmith’s works which embody the utmost craftsmanship and formal precision. It stands for a stringent artistic concept that links the various genres of objects: vessels, cutlery and jewelry. The Kaufmanns’ formal strictness alludes to their roots in the classical modern period. But caution is necessary: only at first glance do their prizewinning artifacts adhere to the canon of objectivity and practicability. Ulla and Martin Kaufmann work on their pieces until the items function properly, whereby “function” should be understood here as more than merely the pure utilitarian form. Many of their artworks are created by forging bands of gold and silver.
“Like the hoop necklaces, the vessels too owe their liveliness to the inherent tension in the band, which has been hammered and broadened to create the vessel’s walls. The idea is based on our realization of the interdependence between the outer space and the inner space, and on the importance of the space between the two. The inner shape of a vessel is ordinarily determined by its external shape, and vice versa. The tensed band voids this principle. A third way becomes possible. The interior here isn’t instantly also the exterior.
The possibilities of the interstitial space are explored. And that space provides the basis for experiments with the form.” (1)
Ulla and Martin Kaufmann have chosen the traditional techniques and methods of the silversmith and goldsmith as their fundamental theme. Hence, as though with the hammer stroke of the late modern period, they’ve succeeded in developing a formal idiom all their own.
Ulla and Martin Kaufmann have lived and worked together for 43 years. The art world, past and present, has known many artist couples. In most cases, one spouse (almost always the female partner) serves as the other’s muse, or else each artist’s work reveals the traces of reciprocal inspiration. But seldom has an artistic partnership resulted in figurative artifacts with such strongly symbolic character. Of course, in “real life” Ulla and Martin Kaufmann are independent personalities, as readily differentiable as anyone else.
But with regard to the results of their collaboration, they are conceivable only in the plural: they are, quite simply, “the Kaufmanns.”
They collaborate very closely on the sketches for their pieces, which they create in their shared workshop in Hildesheim, where they also make the prototypes themselves. Their creative process doesn’t follow a predetermined path, for example, in which one partner always provides the idea for a new form and the other specializes in its technical realization. Outsiders find it difficult to comprehend this mode of working, since artistic work is ordinarily associated with a single autonomous personality.
Transcending the couple’s personal relationship, the Kaufmanns’ special type of collaboration has another side, a constitutive aspect that’s situated in the object of their work and in the way they produce it. These artworks are objects of applied art which fulfill their destiny not first, and above all not solely, through contemplative observation, but only after they have actually been put to use: vessels and cutlery must be convenient to handle. The jewelry likewise serves a purpose, albeit one which cannot be described as utilitarian: namely, to foster the aesthetic self-assurance of the (usually female) individual who wears it. These undeniably very different applications are allied with another intention that’s crucially important to the principle of artistic handicrafts: namely, an enquiring interest in the material and its expressive potentials.
Exact knowledge of the workmanship required for the processing and handling, i.e. a profound understanding of the material’s characteristics and its behavior during the forming process, is an essential component of the design process. It provides the basis which results in the inseparable connection between the design and its tangible manifestation.
The appreciation of the craftsmanship in artworks is based on their practical and aesthetic persistence. An artistic program determined in this way can only develop in the course of a long career. According to Bazon Brock, artists can teach us how to grow older, i.e. “to bring one’s career and the race against time into relationship so that the experience of perfection is possible.” He describes this process as a “strategy of mastership.”
“For artists, ageing has always been a strategy of creating artworks – a strategy of mastership.”
Artists have always known that their early work is inevitably also their older work, and that the creations of their later years are necessarily their most recent oeuvre. This poses a dilemma: if they continue to work in their familiar way, they face the criticism that nothing imaginative comes into their minds anymore; but if they strive for innovation, they’re criticized for no longer being the artists they once were. Are they no longer capable of creating great artworks in their later years?
Artists have always known and still know today that they must give their oeuvre the chance to age so that it can acquire historical significance…. An artwork thus embodies the union of the completion and the perfection of a labor. This is a decisive demand in an epoch of theoretically endless work processes, an era in which the media inundate us with a tsunami of images.” (2)
When Ulla and Martin Kaufmann aren’t at a trade fair or exhibition, when they’re not relaxing by renovating and enlarging their vacation home in France, they can usually be found in the little city of Hildesheim. Their home and atelier are surrounded by a large garden and situated on the edge of town, where the narrowness of the city opens into an expansive landscape of fertile fields. A visitor here can witness a lived example of what Bazon Brock means when we urges us “to learn from artists how a person’s actions can meaningfully unite life and work.” (3)
Ulla and Martin Kaufmann live this ideal of holistic and non-alienated activities that create meaning and are filled with meaning, an in which the labor of the hands and the labor of the head seem inseparable. Intellectual erudition and manual labor are not contradictory here. Thanks to an impressively large vegetable garden, elements of subsistence farming are as much a part of their lives as are the meals they share with their workshop’s coworkers.
The artworks that Ulla and Martin Kaufmann produce don’t simply stand decoratively unused in the corners of their home. It couldn’t be otherwise: the cutlery and the vessels – their own designs as well as those of other artisans (here again I suspect a kind of self-sufficient subsistence economy!) – are used on ordinary workdays. Working and living involve all one’s senses – and eating and drinking, as a little daily ritual, are definitely a part of this. Even before the food is served on the plate and the wine is poured into the glass, the tableware already influences one’s attitude: and attitude, not solely in connection with artistic work, is a life-determining value for Ulla and Martin Kaufmann. This setting of values occurs serenely and with matter-of-fact composure. No pitched battle is fought against pizza plates and throwaway cups in a self-conscious crusade to affirm some sort of “cultural counter-principle.” Nonetheless, the ongoing encounter with these beautiful artifacts sensitizes us to the special qualities of the craftsman’s working process, which presents us with genuine materials that can be sensually experienced.
Unlike every other art form, the artifacts of the applied arts are created to integrate themselves into our daily lives. That’s why, if we want to grasp the qualities of these artworks, it isn’t sufficient merely to view them at exhibitions. They must be taken in hand, used and “applied.”
(1) Eva Maria Hoyer: Fast Nichts
In: Ulla and Martin Kaufmann, Sequenzen 1999-2004, Hildesheim 2004, not paginated.
(2) Bazon Brock: Warum diese Ausstellung?
In: Die Macht des Alters: Strategien der Meisterschaft, ed. by Bazon Brock on behalf of the Stiftung für Kunst und Kultur e.V., Cologne 1998, p. 12.