Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Published: May 1, 2012
This is very hard to do,” Mr. Lang said recently. “The first half of the year was kind of easy. The second half, I had to force myself.”
He then set about reinventing himself as a visual artist, a process that his friend Mark Fletcher, a private art dealer and adviser, likens to slow food, something that can’t be hurried.
Mr. Lang’s first New York show, organized by Mr. Fletcher; Neville Wakefield, an independent curator; and Sadie Coles, a London gallerist, opens on Friday in a Greenwich Village space that is a sort of halfway house, somewhere between a real gallery and a private viewing room. The space, in one of the grand, old Edith Whartonish town houses fronting Washington Square, used to resemble an LSD den, with shag carpeting and purple walls, according to Mr. Fletcher, who refurbished it. Now it’s a pair of elegant, high-ceilinged rooms, furnished for the moment with Mr. Lang’s art: matted black sheepskins on the walls and black stalagmites sprouting from the floor.
In the strange logic of the art world, this is actually a low-profile New York debut for someone in Mr. Lang’s position.
“That’s the good thing about Mark’s space,” Mr. Wakefield said in an interview. “He’s not wheeling this work out in a Gagosian-style showcase, which probably was an option.”
“It’s as if Helmut were a young artist,” he added. “He hasn’t been making work for very long.”
When he was making clothes, Mr. Lang was known for designs that were minimalist, frequently androgynous and often made from unusual, even unwearable materials. He made silk blouses that looked like transparent plastic trash bags, shirts that changed color when they touched the skin and coats with collars that looked like inflatable airline pillows. His most famous design was probably a sleeveless rubber dress that required the wearer to douse herself with talcum powder before trying it on.
Most of the pieces in the show — aside from the sheepskin, some foam wall reliefs and a pair of what appear once to have been industrial scrub brushes — are made of rubber as well: big chunks and disks of it, some of which Mr. Lang, 56, scavenged himself and some he paid a helper to find. He declined to specify exactly what these objects were in their previous lives.
“That takes away from possibility,” he said, explaining that it was up to the viewer to interpret the shapes. The round slabs might well have been the rock-hopper discs commercial fishermen use to keep their nets from snagging on the sea bottom. Stacked one on top of another, they suggest totem poles or hoodoos, those odd, thin rock formations, or maybe giant, unearthly kebabs. A couple, with dome-shaped tops, make you work hard not to think of a penis.
In person Mr. Lang is disarmingly modest. The other day, overseeing the installation of the exhibition, he was wearing a grayish sweater over a dark T-shirt and jeans that appeared to be authentically threadbare (unlike the $270 pairs he used to sell that were pre-splattered to look like artist’s pants).
“I have always been interested in materials and in transforming them,” he said in fluent, German-accented English. “When I was making clothes, we sometimes used recycled stuff — we made clothes from older clothes.” The difference, he explained, is that as a fashion designer, he was “building around a body” and now he is building the body itself.
He added that he saw his present career less as a break with his past than as a return to the kind of artistic impulse he felt when he was 18 and living alone in Vienna, after cutting ties with his father and stepmother, who insisted that art was what lazy people did for a living.