Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, In Vain (1972), carbon copy of typewriting, 29.5 × 21 cm, courtesy Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt and ChertLüdde, Berlin

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Untitled (Mail Art Collaborations), 1987, various media including zincography, collage, drawing, and stamps
, installation view (detail), Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

These works traveled the globe, sent as postcards from Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt in the GDR capital of Berlin to Western Europe, the Eastern Bloc, North America, Latin America, Asia, New Caledonia. No rules and no restrictions, besides formats and postage fees to ensure circulation: by distributing free artworks to a community of participants along rhizomatic routes, mail art eluded the diktats of censorship and market alike. Kunstpostbriefe (art letters) operated as free spaces of exhibition, exchange, and personal correspondence.

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt worked with letters, literally. Starting in the early 1970s, the artist (who was born in Wurzen in 1932) created series of “typewritings”—her definition—by combining Teutonic rigor with a subversive sense of humor. Under her fingers, the black and red characters of an Erika Schreibmaschine became patterns, butterflies, waves, abstract compositions, diagrams of fluxes, woven lines of poetry, with titles like be but be aware not to be a ware (ca. 1970–75), Introverse Extroverse (1975), Try and Error (1975), Defeat/Victory (ca. 1970s), Cages on the Run (ca. 1980s). Employed as an office manager, and working as a self-taught artist under a regime of strict surveillance, it was only by turning herself into a typist—a stereotypical female job—that she could dictate the content of her pages. She practiced camouflage: aptly “sterilized” and imbued with mechanic anonymity, her signs resisted alienation to broadcast free messages and to communicate openly. Concrete Shoe (ca. 1970s)—in which disciplined troops of C’s, O’s, and N’s outline a clumsy mid-heeled female shoe—stands both as ironic icon of concrete poetry and symbol of obstructed movement and the artist’s need to overcome it.

With endless patience: mailing involves long intervals of suspense shared by sender and addressee, who alternately exercise desire and longing. “WAIT AWAIT EXPECT WAIT,” say the last lines of Wait (ca. 1973). In the meantime, Wolf-Rehfeldt kept working and mailing, as did her husband, the artist Robert Rehfeldt, while their studio on Mendelstrasse, in East Berlin’s Pankow, became a hub for the local and international art community. The State Association of Artists of the GDR allowed its members to print fifty signed copies of each graphic work, so Wolf-Rehfeldt’s originals piled up in her archive while their deceptively self-effacing replicas circulated around the world. They continued to do so until 1989: after the German reunification, the artist decided to halt her output. There was simply no need for it anymore, she explained.

—Barbara Casavecchia

Posted in Public Exhibition
Excerpted from the documenta 14: Daybook