Bernhard Luginbühl, Sam, 1967, 51°57'32.6"N 7°39'37.0"E
In front of the Stadtbad Ost (municipal swimming pool), since 1977 guests and passersby have come across a strange metal structure painted in red: like a modernistic sphinx on a concrete base, it seems as though a kind of animal-machine hybrid has settled there. While the elongated front part of the three-legged iron sculpture protrudes beyond the edge of the base, as if the mighty, insect-like machine creature were preparing for take-off, an oversized arrested wing bolt is recognizable at its back side. This conveys the impression that the chimerical construction could be wound up like a mechanical tin toy in large format.
The peculiar construct titled Sam represents a characteristic work by the Swiss artist Bernhard Luginbühl (1929–2011). Since the 1950s, Luginbühl had gained recognition with his ironically playful monumental sculptures, which he welded together from iron supports, scrap metal and discarded machine parts. Furthermore, a well-known aspect was his long-term collaboration with his artist friend and compatriot Jean Tinguely (1925–1991), whom the municipal art commission in the entourage of museum curator Klaus Bußmann tried in vain to gain for the realization of a sculpture in Münster.1
When the City of Münster procured the considerable amount of 80,000 Mark from funds for “art in architecture” projects in order to acquire Luginbühl’s Sam in 1976, the idiosyncratic Swiss artist already looked back on a remarkable career: aside from the presentation of his works at the Venice Biennale (1956 and 1965), his participation in the documenta in Kassel (1964, 1972 and 1977) and in the World Exhibition in Montréal (1967) and Osaka (1969) may be mentioned by way of example. The Kunsthaus Zürich and Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin dedicated a comprehensive retrospective to him in 1972 and both the Hamburger Kunsthalle and the City of Mönchengladbach had acquired one of his sculptures.
As was the case with the Three Rotary Squares by George Rickey (1907–2002), the first large-scale sculpture in Münster, the art commission also opted for an internationally successful artist at the height of his career for this second acquisition. And despite the repeated risk of provoking the protest of furious citizens, the decision was once more made in favour of an abstract artwork. Considering the somewhat problematic previous history with the “Rickey case”, the local press, however, responded more positively to the City’s new acquisition plan. For instance, the newspaper Westfälische Nachrichten of 25 September 1976 read: “One must acknowledge that the promotors of the Münster art commission have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity. Despite having received blows from almost all sides for their Rickey project, they now went public with their Luginbühl plan.”2 At the same time, the news report formulates the hope that precisely the playful character of the selected sculptures might facilitate the people’s access to the works. Indeed, Sam was a first “messenger” for the large exhibition Skulptur organized in 1977 by Klaus Bußmann and Kasper König, as the first edition of the Skulptur Projekte which since then have been staged every ten years in the Westfälische Landesmuseum and the urban realm of Münster. Up until June 1977, Sam was centrally presented in the entrance hall of the museum for several weeks, before “he” soon after was installed at his architecturally sober destination near the new municipal pool. There, this “fabulous creature of primal force” and “bizarre humour” nowadays only rarely succeeds in attracting attention, or even provoking outrage.3
But who is Sam, anyway, and how did the sculpture come by its name? An indication in this regard is perhaps provided by the year of its creation in 1967. That year Luginbühl made his first journey to the USA, where he created a similar sculpture with the same title for the steel city, Pittsburgh. It most likely was the emblematic figure of Uncle Sam that served as an inspiration for the choice of a name. The defensive animalistic machine sculpture, whose elongated shape reminds of a dysfunctional canon, could also be a critical comment on America, a country which at the time was waging a futile war in Vietnam. However, based on the ambiguous character of the sculpture, there remains ample scope for individual interpretation.
Cf. Regina Wyrwoll, ed., Klaus Bußmann / Friedrich Meschede. Energien – Synergien, vol. 12 (Cologne, 2012), p. 39.
Erhard Obermeyer, “Spielerische Kunst. Zweite Großskulptur für Münster”, Westfälische Nachrichten, 25 September 1976, quote translated here by Barbara Lang.
Klaus Bußmann, quote after: Erhard Obermeyer: “Ein ‚Witz‘ aus Eisen für das Stadtbad Ost“, Westfälische Nachrichten, 24 September 1976, quote translated here by Barbara Lang.