Klaus Bürgel: Jewelry and Drawings
27 January 17 March 1999

Neckring 1995-96 Silver

Klaus Bürgel’s jewelry is inspired by nature and the sensual properties of the artist’s materials: silver, gold, palladium, pearls, tektites, and various precious and semiprecious stones. The pieces are often daringly simple ( a simple silver rod hanging from a broken circle, for example) and shy away from announcing the monetary value of their materials. In many cases, Bürgel's silver pieces are unpolished and present a rather impoverished appearance. At other times the silver is brilliant, almost white, yet the forms remain so utterly unpretentious (casts of fossilized leaves, sticks, and pods) that the precious metal seems to have been reunited with its origin as a beautiful yet ordinary element in the natural universe. On occasion, Bürgel splurges and creates a ring piled with pearls and set in gold or a necklaces of gems the size of walnuts. In such cases, however, the impression is not one of ostentation, but of a playful and exuberant embrace of sensuality and luxury.

Bürgel's work exemplifies an important dimension of late twentieth-century jewelry art. In the tradition of the highly influential Munich-based jeweler Herman Jünger (with whom he studied), Bürgel creates work that are simultaneously austere and emotional. Their formal economy is inspired by natural forms as well as by the powerful simplicity of prehistoric wearable ornaments. This mode of jewelry art emphasizes the importance of craft, the highly skilled yet intuitive encounter with materials and processes of making. Bürgel, like Jünger, creates work that combine the serene abstraction of archaic Classicism with a sense of spontaneity and irreverence. Indeed, in Bürgel’s work, even more than in Jünger’s, there is a tension between Classical idealism and a humbling sense of imperfection, melancholy, and decay.

The roots of this tension may lie in the sad realities of recent German history. During the years of the Third Reich, the Nazi regime appropriated and abused the symbolic power of nature, Classicism, and myth. Love of nature was distorted into worship of nature, incorporating insidious notions of “natural purity”; Classicism was revived as a doctrine of militancy, masculinity, and blind obedience; and ancient German myth were revived as emotional vehicles for nationalism and xenophobia.

Untitled 1995-96 Ink on paper

Jünger, who was a young man during the war, began studying jewelry making in the bombed-out ruins of Munich. “Until then,” he writes , “I had experienced ‘making’ only in the service of someone or something: for the Fatherland, the Führer, the Community. Harvesting, digging, clearing rubble, I had enough of that. I wanted to be a goldsmith” 1 Thus, for Jünger and other Germans of his generation, the practice of jewelry making and , indeed, other forms of art such as Joseph Beuy’s sculpture or Georg Baselitz’s painting had to start at a kind of ground zero, a new beginning both for the individual and the entire society. Perhaps this is the root of the archaic style of this tradition: to clean the slate of their horrific past, such artists had to relearn thinking, feeling, and doing.

As austere as it is, Jünger’s jewelry looks refined and elegant compared to much of Bürgel’s. It is as if Bürgel has reached deeper into the shadow of history, or perhaps simply worked more honestly from within the ambiguous morality of the present. His pieces do not seem to promise the social salvation implicit in postwar Western European ideals of fine craft, nor in any kind of Arts and Crafts or Bauhaus ideology of socioeconomic regeneration through design. Instead, they assert their autonomy with a powerful gravity, focusing our attention in a way that momentarily shuts out the din of our harrowing social reality. In this sense, these are profoundly internal artworks, registering emotionally before they do intellectually.

Neckring 1995 Silver cast, fabricated

This exhibition includes a variety of pendants, necklaces, rings, brooches, and earrings. Bürgel groups his work into three main thematic categories: Anchors, Fetishes and Amulets, and Minerals. The Anchors, as the name implies, depend upon and evoke the feeling of weight. In some cases, Bürgel reverses the expected experience of heaviness by creating an almost weightless pendant or, conversely, an unusually massive ring. Weight functions for Bürgel as a potent poetic device, producing a sensation of decline such as one might feel when seeing autumn leaves falling, the sun setting, or the jumble remains of a ruined building.

His Fetishes and Amulets tap into a rarely remarked upon aspect of European culture: the contemporary prevalence of folk belief in magic, which are especially common in Bürgel’s native Bavaria, where superstition and ritual continue to play an important role in daily life. Bürgel, who calls this phenomenon “Bavarian voodoo,” elicits a sensation of supernatural potency in his stylized images of fundamental natural forms. In some cases, Bürgel incorporates a material in its found form, as he did with a group of tektites (actually tiny meteorites) that he harnessed in gold as a pendant. The tektites posses a remarkable, dense blackness, while their origin as objects from space adds considerably to their supernatural appeal. Bürgel describes these enigmatic stones as “souls.”

Ring 1995-96 Silver

Like the work of many jewelers in the past few decades, Bürgel’s art extends beyond the realm of jewelry. As represented in this exhibition, Bürgel is an active draughtsman and has recently begun exploring the medium of large-scale sculpture. Historically, the relationship between jewelry and the other fine arts has been contentious. During the Renaissance, the renowned goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini argued that jewelry belonged to the first class of the fine arts, commensurate with painting and sculpture. Cellini himself made both sculpture and jewelry and decried the growing tendency to separate these media and rank them in hierarchical order. Other Renaissance artist-scholars, however, including Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Giorgio Vasari, believed that jewelry was a lesser art form because it depended on the quality of its workmanship rather than the originality of its intellectual content or style. This division has kept many jewelers and artists in other media from engaging in crossover work. Of course, there are some notable exceptions including the sculptural work of Claus Bury and the jewelry design of Alexander Calder. Indeed, the late twentieth century has seen an increasing permeability of this formerly rigid boundary.

Bürgel’s drawings share many of the characteristics of his jewelry. They suggest elemental, natural forms and are imbued with a vaguely sinister tone. As drawings, these works possess a subtle and refined sense of composition, with dense, dark areas balanced by delicate lines and skeins, and patterns of light and dark creating a compelling filigree effect. While there is no direct relationship between Bürgel’s drawings and his jewelry (the drawings are not “studies” for the jewelry) one can sense commonalities of form and emotional sensibility.

In this exhibition Bürgel extends his creative parameters to include a large-scale wall drawing and a sculptural relief. The wall drawing consists of a abstracted honeycomb pattern of lines that spread across an entire wall. Here, the artist’s allusion to natural form is developed on an architectural scale, thereby, in a sense, renaturalizing it as an element of the viewers physical environment. The relief, meanwhile, involves a less obviously “natural” composition, formed by a series of rings that hug the wall under the guise of a kind of camouflage: the rings are painted to match the wall color and virtually disappear into the architecture. These works are related to Bürgel’s jewelry insofar as the pendants, necklaces, rings, and the like are meant to be worn, that is to be an integral part of a person’s life, in much the same way that the wall drawing and wall relief “adorn” the gallery and become part of its effect.

Untitled 1995-96 Ink on paper

Bürgel’s jewelry represents the best of contemporary work in one of the primary European jewelry traditions. Its difference from recent American jewelry may seem striking insofar as American jewelers have been largely involved in much more pictorial, even narrative approaches. As described by the jewelry historian Susan Grant Lewin: “European jewelry is by and large more occupied with problem solving and conceptual issues. It reveals a narrower focus and is more exclusive than the generally inclusive approach to materials and subjects found in American work. In the United States one can find more personal narrative and emotional expression than in the cooler, more restrained European work. Another important distinction is the issue of wearability. In Western Europe, the major influence in new jewelry is the idea that it must work with the body... American jewelers, on the other hand, often approach their work as art or sculpture and see the wearer as no more than an armature” 2 Precisely because of its difference from more familiar forms of contemporary jewelry, we welcome the opportunity to see such a large and diverse selection of Bürgel’s work.

Lawrence Rinder, Director
CCAC Institute
California College of Arts and Crafts

1. Hermann Jünger, Über den Schmuck und das Machen: Neue Goldschmiedearbeiten (Frankfurt am Maine: Anabas Verlag, 1996),125.
2. Susan Grant Lewine, One of a Kind: American Art Jewelry Today (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,1994), 26.

1. Untitled, 19996, Chinese ink on paper, 41/2” x 8”
2. Untitled, Anchor Series, 1996, silver cast
3. Untitled, 1996, Chinese ink on paper, 4 1/2” x 8 1/2”
4. Untitled, Neckring, 1995, silver cast, fabricated
5. Untitled, Untitled, 1996, silver cast, fabricated

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