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Hanne Darboven (1941-2009) grows up as the second of three daughters in the family of a successful and well-to-do businessman in Rönneburg, the southern-most, rural district of Hamburg. In 1966, while still studying with Willem Grimm and Almir Mavignier at Hamburg’s art academy, she moves to New York for two years; there she develops a system of visualizing simple sequences of numbers (e.g. 3 5 7 5 3) with complex variations. After an initial period of almost complete isolation she finds herself in a group of friends and supporters such as Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard, Carl Andre and Kasper König. Ever since HD considered the metropolis New York – where her work was shown regularly from 1973 at the legendary Leo Castelli gallery – her “second home” next to pastoral Rönneburg.

In August 1968 HD adapts the date as the foundation of her work. Starting point is the checksum of the digits of a date, called “K-Wert” (K-value), referring to the respective Konstruktion and the Kästchen (little boxes), the number of which visualize the K-value. The key data are formed by the K-values of the first and last days of the years ‘00 and ‘99: 2 (1+1+0+0) and 43 (31+12+0+0) plus 20 (1+1+9+9) and 61 (31+12+9+9). These calculations, noted on single sheets of paper, can extend over a complete century with every single day noted, thus covering many thousand pages. With this system at the latest HD is being considered one of the central figures of conceptual art.

Single dates, however, are less central to HD’s thinking and writing than the process, the progression of the K-values with their manifold and ever more artistic variations. Richard Wagner’s line from Parsifal, “here time becomes space,” thus finds its manifest expression.

Rather than pursuing the conventional madia of art HD takes up the tradition of writing and books. She writes by hand or types on single sheets, and a great number of her works are written in exercise and copy books or bound to large albums. Her wordless writing line is the expression of an existence that day after day and with strictest consequence shoulders the burden of her self-imposed task.

Politically always wide-awake, in 1974 HD begins Schreibzeit, a monumental comment on the present-day situation. Citing hundreds of found texts, ranging vom the poems by Hölderlin, Baudelaire and Lao-Tse, to the Brockhaus encyclopedia to the most recent copies of the SPIEGEL magazine, she explores the relations between art and politics; again and again she quotes the topics, sources and consequnces of Hitler’s fascism.

In addition she creates extensive thematic works as hommages to outstanding poets, philosophers, scientists, politicians and artists – the models and examples of her life and work. Namely there are: Leibniz, Frederic the Great, Lichtenberg, Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, Alexander v. Humboldt, Heine, Lincoln, Bismarck, Rilke, Gertrude Stein, Walter Mehring, Alfred Döblin, Kurt Schwitters and Picasso. The background for this is not basic cultural knowledge but, unquoted, Kant’s categorial imperative.

Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983, im Dia Center for the Arts, 1996. Photo: Cathy Carver
Hanne Darboven, Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983, im Dia Center for the Arts, 1996. Photo: Cathy Carver

Objects from HD’s extensive collection of books, calendars, photographs, postcards, works of art and curiosities, filling her house to the furthermost corners, are included in her exhibitions and, as reproductions, in her works.

Already as a child HD shows great musical abilities, which she postpones in favor of the visual arts. But she always knew that “my work will end in music”. In 1980 she begins to transform her system of numbers into music according to a simple principle (number zero is note d etc.). This score is then arranged by a professional musician for musical instruments, from solo to full orchestra. The result is a fascinating sound experience, a mixture of what HD calls “mathematical music” and the great tradition of classical music.


Since her first exhibition in 1967 with Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf and Harald Szeemann’s legendary show When Attitudes Become Form (Berne 1969) a large number of solo and group exhibitions presented her work continuously. Three times she took part in the documenta shows at Kassel (1972, 1982, 2002); in documenta 11 her works occupied the central site, the three-floor hallway at the Fridericianum. Her work was presented at the Biennial shows of Sao Paulo (1973), Sydney (1979) and Venice (1982).
Extensive one-woman exhibitions were shown among many others at: Kunstmuseum Basel (1974), Museum Ludwig Cologne (1976), Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris (1986), Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (1990), Staatsgalerie Moderne Kunst Munich (1991), Deichtorhallen Hamburg (1991, 1999), Dia Center for the Arts New York (1996), Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (1997), Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin (2006), Museo Nacional Reina Sofia Madrid (2014), Haus der Kunst Munich and Bundeskunsthalle Bonn (2015-16).

All works: Courtesy Hanne Darboven Stiftung Hamburg.
Please note that not all the works here are for sale.