Reiner Ruthenbeck was born in 1937, in Velbert, North Rhine-Westphalia. A trained photographer, Ruthenbeck initially used the medium to document artistic actions and performances. He took photographs of the Fluxus concerts at the Art Academy Düsseldorf, before becoming a student of Joseph Beuys. From 1962 to 1968, he was a member of Beuys’ sculpting class. At first, Ruthenbeck kept working in the field of photography, yet his artistic interests increasingly shifted towards minimalist, reduced object studies of everyday items (Geblähte Gardine (Billowing Curtains), 1963; Wäschereifenster (Laundry Window), 1963). After finishing his studies, Ruthenbeck worked as a sculptor. His sculptures and objects were first exhibited in 1968, at the Gallery Konrad Fischer, Düsseldorf. In 1975 — 76 he started to teach as a guest lecturer at the University of Fine Arts, Hamburg and, in 1980, he was awarded a professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts, Münster, a position he held until 2000.
Ruthenbeck’s early sculptures took up the defamiliarized, sexualized formal vocabulary of Alberto Giacometti. His rounded sculptures, reminding of objects for everyday use, were mostly made of varnished wood or metal, in monumental or anthropomorphic dimensions (Löffel I (Spoon I), 1966/67; Leiter III (Ladder III), 1967/68, Lattenpyramide (Slat Pyramid), 1968). In his spatial instalment and positioning of »things,« Ruthenbeck engaged their material qualities as well as the gaze of the viewer. These concerns connect his works to the conceptualization of objects in Minimal Art and Arte Povera. Especially in Aschehaufen (Heaps of Ashes, 1968ff???), his interest in the specific qualities of the materials used became obvious. Heaped into a pile by the artist as part of Actions, the heaps seem to emerge by themselves as a loosely textured mass, penetrated by metal objects such as iron bars and wire mesh. Through his participation in the renowned exhibition »When Attitudes Become Form« – the exhibition was curated in 1969 by Harald Szeemann in Bern, Switzerland – Ruthenbeck now explicitly positioned himself in the context of the above-mentioned avant-garde movements.
In works such as Aufhängung IV (Rotes Stoffdreieck) (Suspension IV (Red Cloth Triangle)) from 1969/70, Ruthenbeck eventually also experimented with the principles of shape modification and of gravitation that are immanent to the material itself. Aufhängung IV is a minimalist installation of lengths of cloth mounted on square pipes and freely suspended. The different qualities developed by the material, qualities that depend on the way the material is worked with, are thematized inAufhängung IV as well as in works to follow. These later works were designed in series of »Verspannungen« (»Mountings«) and »Aufhängungen« (»Suspensions«) (Nasses schwarzes Tuch (Wet Black Cloth), 1988).
In the following years, Ruthenbeck focused even more intensely on the spatial conditions of exhibiting and of perception. In the work group »Über- und Durchkreuzungen« (»Intersectings and Crossings«), he focused on specific architectonic and iconological spatial motifs. Ruthenbeck placed artistic signs and comments by covering façades, passages, doors, wall openings, and corners with geometrical pieces of cloth, marked cross-wise with adhesive tape and iron bars (Doorway Venice Biennale, 1976; Weißes Tuch mit Blau / Roter Stangenüberkreuzung (White Cloth with Blue / Red Barcrossing), 1986; Blau / Rote-Überkreuzung auf zwei Fenstern (Blue / Red Crossing on Two Windows), 1986).
Another artistic theme Ruthenbeck takes up in his serial works is the experiment with the gravity or the structure of simple furniture objects and items of use. His grotesquely balancing tables and chairs provoke by subverting everyday familiarity and perception. They suggest moments of suspended temporality and thereby disclose the parameters and the limits and of seeing (Umgekippte Möbel (Overturned Furniture), 1971; Tisch auf gelber Kugel (Table on Yellow Ball), 1985).
Ruthenbeck especially stressed the processual and transitory elements of his work that come together in the interplay of opposites: »I try to create something hovering, a balance. I want to keep up tranquility. Everything can be traced back to polarity and unity – opposites that creation always builds on. Polarity has been a presence in my work almost from the beginning. Two different materials, hard and soft, or polarity based on color, black and white. This just about pervades my whole work. I have to work with polarity because it is connected to materiality. But I’m interested in unity, not in polarity. It is impossible to show absolute unity. We are moving towards immaterial art, yet we only approach it in small steps« (Ruthenbeck, in: Kunstforum International, 180 /2006).
Since the 1970s and extending to his present work, Ruthenbeck has also focused on so-called Geräuscharbeiten (Noise Works) where photographs or films are accompanied by sounds (Geräuscharbeit Nr. 4: Pause (Sound Work No. 4: Pause), 1980; Geräuscharbeit Nr. 5: Sörgeln (Sound Work No. 5: Sörgeln), 1999). In his later works, Ruthenbeck has used the monumental dimensions of museum spaces or spaces that are used for commercial purposes (14 Rote Kissen (14 Red Pillows), 1983; Lodenfahne (Loden Banner), 1987; Furkapass, 1988), positioning his material objects with a striking effect. Ruthenbeck also created wall and floor objects that continued conceptual approaches form the 1970s (Verschmutzter Kontrast, (Polluted Contrast), 2004; Bodenraute (Floor Rhombus), 2004).
Ruthenbeck’s works have been shown at many international exhibitions. He participated in the Documenta four times (5, 6, 7, 9). Together with Joseph Beuys and Jochen Gerz, he presented his works at the 37th Venice Biennale in 1976. In 1987 and 1997, he also participated in the exhibition Skulptur Projekte Münster. Ruthenbeck had large solo exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in 1993 and at the Museum Folkwang in Essen in 2004.
Ruthenbeck lives and works in Düsseldorf.
Reiner Ruthenbeck, Aufhellungsversuch, Bodenraute, diffuser Kontrast, diskrete Überkreuzung, Doppeltuch, erzwungene Vereinigung, verdunkelter Kontrast, verschmutzter Kontrast: Ausst.-Kat. Museum Folkwang Essen, hg. v. N. Sönmez, Düsseldorf 2004
Bee, A.: Reiner Ruthenbeck, Nürnberg 1996
Reiner Ruthenbeck: Ausst.-Kat. Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, hg. von J. Potter, Baden-Baden 1993
Reiner Ruthenbeck: Ausst.-Kat. Nationalgalerie, Berlin 1990