Karl Umlauf, “Memorial,” 1990

Students in Prof. Siddons’ “Art Since 1960” class had the chance this spring to write about a work of art from the OSUMA collection, featured in the exhibition, “Sharing a Journey.” The assignment entailed looking at a work of art for at least 45 minutes, and to write about their close-looking experience, followed by interpretation. Sara Wilson wrote about Karl Umlauf’s Memorial from 1990. The following text was excerpted from her paper by graduate teaching assistant Michelle Rinard.

Memorial is a dark, representational piece that, for me, invoked a very strong emotion, curiosity, and a sense of finality. The piece is made from plaster, bone, paint and it’s mounted on dark woods. There is bark lining the top and it is made to look as though someone had taken a chunk out of an anthropological dig, split it in half and presented half of it to the gallery. The piece represents the finality of life, the breakdown of the body back into the earth at the end of a person, (or animal’s) life cycle.

Karl Umlauf (American, b. 1939), “Memorial,” 1990. Acrylic on bovine bone, fiberglass, redwood and cedar wood, 46 x 96 x 8 inches. Gift of Karl and Shirley Umlauf, 2012.019.002.

Karl Umlauf (American, b. 1939), “Memorial,” 1990. Acrylic on bovine bone, fiberglass, redwood and cedar wood, 46 x 96 x 8 inches. Gift of Karl and Shirley Umlauf, 2012.019.002.

Each fragment of bone is painted to look as though it is still logged deep within the earth, covered in mud, grime, decaying flesh. In fact there is only one bone that is even slightly clean. It is near to the center of the piece and seems to be part of a curving arch that leads from the top of the piece to the bottom where the slice of ‘earth’ ends. The pale bone leads the eye up along that sweep to take in the bones that are mounted to the top of the piece.

Karl Umlauf, "Memorial," detail. Photograph by Sara Wilson.

Karl Umlauf, “Memorial,” detail. Photograph by Sara Wilson.

One of the more macabre parts of the piece are several places in the ‘mud’ or ‘earth’ that you can see what looks like fur, or perhaps flesh patterns—like they had been pressed into the mud but have decayed leaving the fossilized impression of the fur. Again all of these various elements continuously bring back that note of finality, of an end. You could even go onto consider perhaps these are not notes of ending but of beginning much like the cycle of life discussed in biology classes. Each creature left to decay in the earth only brings back the nutrients needed to sustain future generations.

Karl Umlauf, "Memorial," detail. Photograph by Sara Wilson.

Karl Umlauf, “Memorial,” detail. Photograph by Sara Wilson.

Another part about this piece that strikes at me is the anonymity of the bones. The general populace would not be able to discern without reading the information card what type of bones are used in the sculpture. The extremely large rib bones are really the only identifying factor, other than those the bones could be from any animal or even human. You see bones from various parts of the animal including legs, ribs, pelvic, hip, tail, spine, but no jaw, head, feet or hoof bones that would really give an identity to the animal used for the sculpture. Not only is it focused on the end of life, the decay of what makes a creature living, but also there is no sense of self or identity in the bones.

Karl Umlauf’s Memorial is a sculpture that exhibits several concepts, death, decay and possibly the fear of dying alone. The tones and shades of his color palette only reinforce these concepts with his generous use of rich browns, deep blacks, and by using very few light colors or tints. This piece is striking, and demands attention; it draws you in and forces you to focus on the bone, the rich ‘earth’ and the finality of life—reminding you that everything comes to an end.

Read more student writing about Umlauf‘s relief sculpture, and a bit more about how the gift came to the OSU Museum of Art, in earlier blog posts.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
This entry was posted in permanent collection, student research, student writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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