Wolfgang Laib

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Wolfgang Laib
Born25 March 1950
Metzingen, Germany
EducationFull degree in Medicine, University Tuebingen, Germany
Known forSculpture
Spouse(s)Carolyn Reep (1985 – present)
AwardsPraemium Imperiale for Sculpture, Tokyo, 2015

Wolfgang Laib (born 25 March 1950 in Metzingen, (Germany) is a German artist, predominantly known as a sculptor. He lives and works in a small village in southern Germany, maintaining studios in New York and South India.

His work has been exhibited worldwide in many of the most important galleries and museums. He represented Germany in the 1982 Venice Biennale and was included with his works in the Documenta 7 in 1982 and then in the Documenta 8 in 1987. In 2015 he received the Praemium Imperiale for sculpture in Tokyo, Japan.

He became world-renowned for his "Milkstones", a pure geometry of white marble made complete with milk, as well as his vibrant installations of pollen. In 2013 The Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented his largest pollen piece – 7 m × 8 m – in the central atrium of the museum.

Life and work[edit]

Wolfgang Laib was born 25 March 1950 in Metzingen, Germany, the son of a medical doctor Gustav Laib and his wife Lydia. In 1962 the family moved to a small village near to Biberach an der Riss, There his father had built a contemporary glass house of extreme and unique architecture set in a surroundings of meadows and forests. The life which developed there had a strong and remarkable impact on all the members of the family.

Jakob Braeckle, a landscape painter of the region, became a close friend of the Laibs and conveyed his deep respect and love for art. Through him the Laibs became personally acquainted with the paintings by Kazimir Malevich which were stored in Biberach by the architect Hugo Haering, having been later acquired by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Through this friendship Laib became acquainted already in his early childhood with eastern culture and philosophies, together developing a very strong interest, especially in Lao-tse, Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

The family began to travel throughout Europe visiting those places where art, traces and treasures of the medieval culture are preserved. Assisi and the life and teachings of Saint Francis served as a very important influence upon Laib, his life and work. As the tendency toward travel developed, Laib journeyed outward to many different Asian countries, especially India.

In spite of his ever-growing passion for art, Laib begins to study medicine at the University of Tuebingen in 1968. As his studies progressed he began to question more and more what the medicine of this century actually is and means. Disillusioned with western medicine, he came to view the natural sciences, as well as most other modern thinking, as limited for their dependency on logic and the material world. His search led him to Eastern spiritualism, philosophy and pre-Renaissance thought. At this point Laib engaged himself in parallel studies of Sanskrit and eastern philosophies. In 1972, still in the middle of his medical studies, he began to work on a stone sculpture called "Brahmanda" – or "cosmic egg" in Sanskrit. At this moment Laib decided to finish his medical studies, but with the full intent of embarking on the career of an artist.

He returned to his village near Biberach, and in the intensity of his medical experience combined with all else, he intuited the creation of his first milkstones as an expression of all what he felt of at that time. Consisting of a rectangular polished pure white marble, the top center of the surface is sanded down to create a most subtle depression, into which Laib fills the milk, thus allowing the unity of the ephemeral milk with the solid density of the white marble.

In 1977 Laib began to collect pollen in the meadows and forests around the vicinity of his village. For many days and months, from early spring into summer he continued like this for decades up to the present. This engagement became a most important substance to his daily life. The pollen is presented in exhibitions in a variety of ways, best known as a radiant field sifted on the floor in a softened rectangular form providing a rich intensity of experience and emotion. In other special situations, the pollen could be presented in simple glass jars or piled openly in small mountains.

In 1976 he had his first exhibition at gallery Mueller–Roth in Stuttgart showing the early Milkstones. This was the beginning of many exhibitions around the world over many decades. In 1979 and 1981 he had his first exhibitions in New York. He lived and worked in Tribeca, a time during which he met Carolyn Reep, a conservator specialized in Asian art and antiquities, who would then after become his wife. In 1982 he took part in the Documenta 7 and represented Germany in the Venice Biennale together with Hanne Darboven and Gotthard Graubner.

In 1985 Carolyn moved to Germany and as his wife accompanied Laib over many decades until the present. This became a very intense and beautiful relationship, sharing the life, work and values they were seeking to achieve. In 1986 their daughter Chandra Maria was born.

Since 1983 onwards his involvement with materials progressed into rice, beeswax, sealing wax, Burmese lacquer and some metals. At first he made smaller beeswax pieces which then developed into major large-scale pieces like beeswax chambers and stepped pyramids called "Zikkurats". His selection of those materials are deeply meaningful, but they do not at all represent the limit of his intent in their essence; rather they serve as vehicles to by far greater complex ideas. He has always been less concerned with innovation or formal development than with the notion of continuity. His oeuvre is not to be approached in a chronological order, but in a cyclical manner, as he uses the same forms and materials regularly. Laib considers himself as a vehicle for ideas of universality and timelessness that are already present in nature. In his work, the micro often connects to the macro in a way that reconfigures our place in the universe. He can be quoted by saying: “I did with my art works what I wanted to do as a doctor. I never changed my profession.” In 2000 he creates the first permanent wax chamber in Roc del Maure in the Pyrenees mountains near Perpignan. Other wax chambers follow near his studio in southern Germany, in the lower Engadin in Switzerland, in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and a 50-meter-long corridor for Anselm Kiefer in Barjac, southern France, realized in 2014.

In 2006 he finally decided to have a studio in a small village in the hills near Madurai in South India. Spending there at least two months yearly, he creates a whole body of new works with black granite, white ashes among some other materials. He made a proposal of a huge Brahmanda – 20 m long – on Pulimalai, a bare granite hill – nearby Madurai.

In 2010 Carolyn and Wolfgang purchased a small space in Manhattan to function as a sharing place of their life and works in this world crossroads, forging new relations within the art world in the US.

Exhibitions and installations[edit]

  • 1976 : first exhibition at gallery Mueller-Roth, Stuttgart
  • 1982 : Wolfgang Laib represents (Germany) in the Venice Biennale together with Hanne Darboven and Gotthard Graubner
  • 1982 and 1987 : Laib participates in Documenta 7 and 8
  • 1985 : Harald Szeemann invites Laib to participate in an exhibition "Spuren, Skulpturen und Monumente ihrer praezisen Reise" in Kunsthaus Zurich where he shows the pollen mountains "“The Five Mountains not to Climb on". Both feel that this work unites their visions and dreams about art and their life. This becomes the beginning of a long and intense relationship with many exhibitions worldwide.
  • 2000 : Laib realizes his first permanent wax chamber in the mountains of the southern Pyrenees, Roc del Maure, near Perpignan, France
  • 2000 – 2002 : a major retrospective, curated by Klaus Ottmann, is shown in five important American museums, first at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. and will be shown last at the Haus der Kunst in Munich
  • 2002 – 2003 : major exhibitions in museums in Japan and Korea, among them The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota City and The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul
  • 2004 : He realizes a major wax chamber near his studio in southern Germany
  • 2005 : the Fondation Beyeler in Basel dedicates a major exhibition to him
  • 2010 : Laib makes a proposal for a huge Brahmanda – 20 m long – on Pulimalai, a bare granite hill near Madurai, South India
  • 2013 : The Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibits a huge pollen piece – 7 m x 8 m – in the main atrium of the museum. At the same time he realizes a permanent wax chamber in the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.
  • 2014 : Anselm Kiefer invites him to create a huge wax corridor – 50 m long – in Barjac, Southern France. Laib exhibits his big beeswax steppyramid "Zikkurat" in the Basilica Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy

Over many years the following galleries showed his work up to the present:

Monographs and catalogues[edit]