Grace and Denial. On the Workshop Practice of Christian Rudolph
Any article about an artist's work must necessarily be as viewed from an outside perspective and thus as perceived by the observer. It is never the perspective of the artist. Christian Rudolph's works, created in the course of years marked by dogged perseverance, great seriousness and remarkable technical skill, refuse to bow to the author's critical scrutiny, yet kindle feelings of beauty and desire. Rudolph's creations are the experience of pure grace. What remains imprinted in the mind's eye are the sharp edges, flawless surfaces, closeness, expansive openness – embracing space, in perfect balance, never disquieting, above all ultimate perfection. At the same time, the description of Rudolph's works in the title of his most recent catalogues – masterpieces of photographic impressions in a play with light, surfaces and materiality - as "Metal works" and "Metal works II" are symptomatic for this denial mode. Scant information on material – stainless steel, bronze, shell limestone, oak, lacquered steel, dimensions, an unhelpful series name – but never a title.
Denial and grace aside, what else strikes the eye are that Rudolph's three-dimensional sculptures, his embossed prints on handmade paper, as well as his most recent felt creations are all based on circular ring segments, juxtaposed and in ever-changing variations. As the circle never closes, their radius remains only suggested. Whether embossed in wet handmade paper, cut out of stainless steel sheets or felt, all shapes appear simple, floating, and effortless. Cut or pressed, against a background of sky, paper pulp or felted fibres. This aesthetic experience can be accessed by observation, touch, knowledge, light, time of day, presentation and point of view, by the eye and brain, and – something seldom provided by sculptors – by an insight into the artist's workshop practice. Also by the obvious question, "How does Christian Rudolph create his artworks?"
Each of Christian Rudolph's three-dimensional works begins with a white paper model. These bozzetti, never exhibited, stand as silent onlookers in his studio. Even as a student, Rudolph had doubts as to the purpose of drawing, preferring to express his vision in the form of a practical paper model. The delicate paper structures exude a sense of ephemerality. Useful tools, but not meant to last. Unimportant essentials, the crystallisation of imagination, a permanent point of reference and means of correction. Christian Rudolph's form-finding process is thus based on a traditional model, the rest is solid craftsmanship. The bozetto is the interface.
To be a craftsman in the best sense of the word, to be able to draw upon decades of practical experience, to have learned from his own mistakes, to have explored the limits of his materials – for Rudolph all these have always been essential elements of quality. That is, ever since he took on a job in a foundry while studying to become a goldsmith at the Academy in Nuremberg. The foundry was a family business, in which unwritten knowledge was passed from one person to the next. Here the young artist discovered that practice makes perfect and explored the idiosyncrasies of different materials, of metal alloys, that is. But first comes paper.
In Christian Rudolph's mind, the next step, in which the basic two-dimensional shapes of the paper strips which are stuck together to form the bozzetto are transferred by means of Computer Aided Design (CAD) and prepared for the metalworking companies, is of less significance for his artistic concept. He deliberately refrains from generating three-dimensional computer models: Against all expectations, the CAD image does without a three-dimensional rendition with light and shade, relying only on the contours essential for the further production process. Once the CAD drawings are completed, the next step can begin. The fact that alterations and corrections are seldom necessary not only reflects the clarity of the artistic concept and the precision of the groundwork, but also the awareness of how difficult any subsequent corrections to the metal would be. A crucial factor is then the choice of alloy: in addition to bronze, Christian Rudolph often chooses weatherproof stainless steel, steel and fine-grained weathering steel (Corten steel), the patina of which protects the underlying material.
The process of cutting the basic shapes out of the type of sheet metal designated by the artist is performed by external companies according to his CAD specifications. Cutting is done by laser or water jet. A high-power laser beam melts the metal along the target area, the molten material being forced out of the cut by a jet of nitrogen or oxygen. To minimise heat input into the material, which would cause discolouration of the cutting edges, a constant stream of a purge gas such as nitrogen is employed. Thicker materials are cut by the water jet method. Extreme pressure and the addition of abrasive corundum make it possible to cut sheet metal of a thickness in excess of 20 mm with ease. The fabricator uses nesting algorithms to ensure that the maximum number of forms is made from a single metal sheet, thus minimising wastage. In the course of Rudolph's production process, approximately one third of the raw material is scrap, which is subsequently recycled.
At this stage, the rectangular sheets and variously-sized circular ring segments are still flat. The size of some of Rudolph's works demand that they be welded together. In this process the welding joint is not carried out perpendicular to the outside edge, but at an angle. In this way the extremely long metal sheet is not distorted as it would be if welded along a perpendicular line. The pieces are now ready to take on their three-dimensional shape; they are bent by means of a hydraulic sheet rolling machine. When a metal sheet is inserted straight between the three rollers, a curved circular ring segment is produced – the basis of all things to come. By inserting the sheet at an angle, the curve receives an additional conical dimension. One curved circular ring segment and two of these conical components are needed to create a basic element with a triangular cross-section. Square or rectangular cross-sections are less common in Rudolph's works.
The bent metal sheets are now welded to form a basic element with a triangular cross-section. Welding – the scene is now the artist's spacious workshop in Irsee – heats the metal beyond its melting point (approx. 1,500 °C for stainless steel, 1,100 °C for bronze). When welding, a filler metal is used, which must match the properties of the parent material as exactly as possible. Here the devil is in the details: as stainless steel is a comparatively poor heat conductor, weld distortion is a considerable problem. Bronze is far more stable. Rusting of a stainless steel weld can only be prevented by means of manual sanding or filing. Only once the oxide film created during the heating process has been removed, can corrosion be ruled out – with the exception of surface rust or hostile external conditions. If welding is carried out on an iron surface, iron particles can contaminate the steel, causing subsequent rusting. Thus cleanliness is of the utmost importance. Cleaning up the entire surface and sculpting the contours demands utmost patience and great precision and can take several days. For the artist, the sharp edges are essential, and must not be rounded off. The welds have to be filled flush to the surface and any holes filled in by applying additional weld metal.
After the welding process is complete, the basic three-dimensional element has to be cut to the right length. This is done by scaling the paper model by means of a flexible steel ruler. However, workshop practice shows that in shortening the basic element, measurements often need to be adjusted – adding or subtracting a certain length – so that the individual parts marry up perfectly. This is where experience comes in. The final stage involves the addition of three or four-sided cover plates to each element. One of the plates is embossed with the artist's monogram – a stylised scorpion, discreetly positioned.
The finished sculpture consists of a number of these basic elements, and the ensuing assembly process is complex indeed. The final assembly of the shortened elements follows the elaborate plan of the artist, to ensure that all further welding sites remain accessible. For this purpose, the parts are first provisionally fixed in place with a few welding spots to guarantee that they fit. When assembling small sculptures, the parts can be held in position by hand, however, the individual parts of large sculptures require the aid of hoists and supporting structures. At this stage of the work process, it is still possible to make adjustments to the sculpture, and indeed Christian Rudolph regards this flexibility as "creative freedom" and embraces this stage of the process. This is the point where the relationship of artist and sculpture is reversed: now the work develops a momentum of its own and sets its own terms, the artist reacts. Elements are shortened or lengthened. At the end of this "trial run", the order of assembly is fixed.
The provisionally assembled sculpture is dismantled and one by one the elements are welded together. Now each of the numerous weld seams has to be smoothed, whereby accessibility becomes more and more difficult. In the case of complex sculptures, this finishing process can take up to five or six weeks. As goes for all sculptors who work with metal, the use of energy is not an issue, despite the fact that the mining of the ore, the production, transportation, cutting and welding of the metal consume a huge amount of energy. As expressed in his choice of materials, the durability of his art is of great importance to Christian Rudolph. Nevertheless, with characteristic modesty he voices the thought which strikes terror to the heart of any collector, namely that his entire work could theoretically be melted down and recycled.
As a rule, Christian Rudolph's three-dimensional sculptures are mounted on a base, upon which the artist bestows great attention. We recall the mention of shell lime and oak. The presentation and thus the perception of the artistic concept and the quality of the work are largely dependent on the interaction of the materials of the sculpture and its base. Once in the possession of an art dealer or collector, it would seem that the base is an object to be disposed of at will: here, however, it constitutes an integral part of the sculpture. The constructivist Christian Rudolph, influenced by the works of Carlo Bohrer, Max Bill, Eduardo Chillida, Richard Serra and the early Alf Lechner, attaches great importance to the base as well as to the optical flawlessness of all surfaces of his works. Thus, in the end, the denial of Christian Rudolph's works is transcended by their grace.