Karl Umlauf and Industrial Art

This essay was written by Kat Thornton while she was a student in Art Since 1960.

Karl Umlauf’s River Retrieval, 1998, in the permanent art collection is a large, expansive, and foreboding piece of art. The feel of industry, of cogs and gears, of darkness obtained through the use of black and grey and ochre pastels on a massive piece of paper reminded me of steampunk and industrial punk. It looks like the artist is expressing a fascination with the real context of metal, the feel of its rough texture, and the grease and oil that lubricates gears and drills. Although a large five-holed disk takes center stage, there is no main mechanism that the art is trying to depict; instead it is a collage of pieces that disappear into one another throughout the drawing.

umlauf river retrieval

Karl Umlauf (American, b. 1939). “River Retrieval,” 1998. Pastel on paper, 44 x 30 inches. Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 98-0054.

Karl Umlauf obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin and his Masters of Fine Arts from Cornell University. He is most known for his works in large outdoor and wall-supported sculpture based on geological formations and his depictions of industrial metal works from refineries, stell mills, and salvage yards. [Editor’s note: Read student writing about Umlauf’s sculpture, also in the OSU art collection, here and here.] He was an artist in residence at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, from 1989 until his retirement in 2015. [Editor’s note: See more of Umlauf’s studio in this post about OSU staff going to pick up a gift of his work.]

Umlauf’s connection to contemporary Neo-expressionism comes to light in his statement about his works: “[t]he multi-planographic sequences of surface imagery and color are used to create polarities, properties of tension, measured rhythms and surface energies, indicative of a visual form of physics. If the work appears to have an abstract yet unique personal identity and if it provided a distinct physical presence, then I have succeeded in establishing my visual signature.”

Speakers 1983

Gilbert and George (British, active since 1967). “Speakers,” 1983. Hand-colored photograph mosaic, collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Umlauf’s description of surface imagery and polarities, tension and measured rhythms and surface energies sounds similar to the British artists Gilbert and George’s use of repeated forms and rhythms of color to create symmetry and tension within their work. Umlauf tends to borrow images of machinery and splice them or collage them together to create a rhythm and a harmony amongst the pieces. They tend not to be symmetrical, and his colors are not overly bright or eye-catching like Gilbert and George’s work. But even though their works look very different, the artists all share the concept of using visual imagery to create rhythm and express the tension of the world.

I was initially drawn to this pastel because it reminded me of steampunk industrialism. It has a feel of Hayao Miyazaki’s work in Howl’s Moving Castle, or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy. Of course, Umlauf’s work in charcoals, mixed media, pastels, and metals is not meant to be steampunk—they are images and pictures of existing structures and components, or collages thereof, rather than do-it-yourself costuming or idealized neo-Victorianism. Umlauf’s pictures share the sense of self-expression that is characteristic of steampunk as well as of Neo-expressionism as a contemporary art movement.

Read More:

New Baylor Retirees: Karl Umlauf (art), from Baylor University

Half-Century of Artistry Makes Up Umlauf’s Baylor Show, from the Waco Tribune-Herald

Artwork Inspired By Life, from the Waco Tribune-Herald



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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