ESSAYS Mousse 48

Ideal Idol [1]: The Holy Art and Writing of Adelhyd Van Bender [2]

by Tina Kukielski


The universe of Adelhyd van Bender is based on a complex and cryptical structure, a sacred atomic system whose decoding kept this unusual high priest of art engaged until his death. His apartment overflowing with binders packed with papers, walls densely covered with compositions and symbols, has been the temple of an impenetrable cult for many years, of which the artist was the overseer. Tina Kukielski, with scientific rigor, has explored this dense cosmos to offer us the image of a particular man, against the backdrop of the Cold War, whose art formulated the only response in the face of a world on the brink of self-destruction.


In 2014, the artist Adelhyd van Bender died of cancer at the age of 64; he had been living alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Berlin-Schöneberg since the late 1970s. A psychologist who had seen him on and off in his final years contacted some specialists she thought might be interested in what his apartment contained: hundreds of three-ring binders brimming with A3 and A4 papers neatly sorted and sequenced in individual plastic sleeves. On those thousands of pages—on a ground of copious black text typewritten and Xeroxed onto the white pages (and occasionally their inverses)—the artist had collaged, drawn, and hand-colored geometric diagrams in mesmerizing pink, red, yellow, blue, and black marker. All around the apartment were magnificent unfinished compositions made up of overlapping shapes and symbols—mostly circles—executed directly on the walls using red and white oil paint and black tar. They resembled crop formations or esoteric hieroglyphs, or the rhythmic discs found in paintings by Sonia Delaunay, or a mysterious mind map without an encryption key. Van Bender had no known heirs, and upon his death, his landlord disallowed the preservation of the wall paintings. But the multitude of drawings to which they correspond have begun to travel the world posthumously—open conduits for the curious to step into the magnetic fields of van Bender’s holy atomic system.

Born Harald Bender in Bruchsal (Baden-Württemberg), Germany, he adopted the name Adelhyd van Bender, a variation on the female name Adelheid, taken from the old German Adalheidis. “Adel” in German suggests “from noble roots,” and “heid” means a kind or a sort. While an uncommon suffix, “hyd” when pronounced sounds like “huet,” which translates as “to look after” or “to keep guard,” often of something special. A stylized self-portrait found repeated in the heavily worked opus van Bender left behind demonstrates that the artist self-identified as a caregiver or guardian. But of what, precisely? Delve into the van Bender cosmology, and all shall be revealed.

Finding an original source in van Bender’s archive is a near-impossible task, for copies recur endlessly in slightly varied forms, realized through laborious cut-and-paste collage and photocopy after photocopy, requiring many trips outside of the house to access a machine. The only special equipment found in his apartment was a typewriter. However, sometime around 1999, the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg acquired a collection of objects described as “bomb-like” whose weight threatened the stability of his apartment floor. After that, van Bender focused exclusively on drawing and writing. Some of his papers are so degraded from frequent (to the point of obsessive) copying that the text is barely legible. Via repetition and iterative replacement—sometimes one copy will differ from the next in its sequence through the swap of a single word—van Bender established a means for systematic communication, like a scientist plodding away on a universal, absolute proof. With each page, perhaps he imagined himself closer to cracking the code.

Time spent in van Bender’s universe shows a proclivity for the particles of the atom: protons, electrons, neutrons. The combination of small circles found in clusters, in a grid, or frequently interrupting concentric circles, suggests several things at once. In their gridded form they resemble the clustering of atoms in an electrical conductor, and, knowing that van Bender once studied and briefly practiced as an electrician, this is a likely point of comparison. In their circular arrangements, the patterns suggest chemical bonds or compounds in inorganic chemistry (a frequent subheading at the top of his ledgers). They evoke the Bohr model of the atom, or the geocentric or heliocentric order of the universe and its revolving planets, and they emulate various mystical diagrams, for instance the Sephiroth from the Kabbalah tradition or mandalas from Hinduism or Buddhism. Most convincing as a possible source of van Bender’s concentric diagrams are nuclear radiation maps and atomic diagrams. The artist’s research and interest in nuclear power is evidenced in printouts, source materials, and references found in his binders: maps of purported nuclear plants in Germany, plans for the city of Moscow, radiation warning symbols. Most overt are the rocket or missile shapes that frequently consume a page of collaged diagrams and form a massive, upwardly pointed, projectile-like form. In several composite drawings in enlarged text this is labeled “Atomgemeinschaft” (atomic energy).

In these missiles and their accompanying building blocks of geometric forms, van Bender was playing with the schematics of polyhedra, domed forms, and cylinders. Frequently recurring is the pattern for a simple cube, which, when unfolded, bears a striking resemblance to a Christian cross. Another religious icon of note is the cuboid Ka’aba building, the centerpiece of Islam’s sacred site at Mecca; this reference is supported in van Bender’s annotations. His reliance on the visual formula of Euclidian geometry aligns his mathematical thinking with the visualized geometries once published by Oliver Byrne in The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid (1847), but it is doubtful that he knew these relatively obscure volumes, which have only recently been republished. Sometimes van Bender’s geometric mappings become so complex, it seems like he is building endlessly and iteratively off of designs for the Yoshimoto cube.

The artist’s self-portrait is our most substantial clue. Identified from its frequent captioning with the singular “Ich” (I), it is adapted from a graphical icon found on the official stationery of Germany’s Department of Justice depicting the lady of justice with scales and sword, a personification popular in ancient Greece. As would be typical of lady justice’s adaptations after the 15th century, she stands blindfolded, symbolizing her impartiality and objectivity. Van Bender appropriated her form as he would also borrow fragments of language and the occasional pictogram from the official papers sent to his home from government or bureaucratic entities. Appearing frequently among his pages are words suggestive of procedural matters, work certificates, power of attorney, examinations, decisions, rulings, analyses, and especially judgments, all cut out of the artist’s personal correspondence, for instance letters offering psychiatric care, a summons to court following marijuana possession charges, and a document sent years prior releasing van Bender from his arts education at the UdK (Berlin University of the Arts) due to poor performance.

The recurrence of the word “Geschlecht” (gender) signals one further clue and suggests a possible dilemma for van Bender, who seems to have identified as both male and female. A crude graphic of the rosehip plant appears throughout the binders as a stand-in signature, a personal stamp, and possibly as well another self-portrait. The rosehip is a common symbol of midwifery and an icon of the doula; it suggests purity, innocence, and love. In van Bender’s self-portrait as a lady, he modifies her judicious scales with a simple positive symbol (+) that he annotates with “Dr” (possibly for “doctor”) and then a negative symbol (-) that he demarcates with “om” (possibly referring to the word’s nebulous meaning as the ultimate or infinite, prevalent in Eastern philosophies). As demonstrative of the microscopic and macroscopic poles of the artist’s world, the abbreviations parlay into universalizing substitutions. One reading pits personal health against eternal peace. Throughout the 20th century, artists such as Piet Mondrian of the group De Stijl or the Constructivist Kazimir Malevic? pursued objective systems borrowed from mathematics, science, and occult philosophy in the interest of establishing systemic logic in their work. Less a part of any movement were the early abstractions of Hilma af Klint, whose work, once discovered, demonstrated harmonious connections among geometric forces, both spiritual and physical. Her work bears similarities to van Bender’s diagrams.

And yet van Bender, like af Klint, was undoubtedly a singular mind. Most unusual in his self-portrait adaptation is where he amends lady justice’s gown at her midsection with a suspended geometric cube housing the typewritten word “atom” inside a simple circle. Here we recognize van Bender’s private possession—his atomic secret—that must be kept hidden and protected from and against the world. As the simple equation defining van Bender’s life purpose but also its dilemma, the task set before him as arbiter and judge was arduous: to give in to his fears or to protect the world from atomic dissolution. Art offered the only reasonable answer.


[1] The title of this essay references a number of pages in van Bender’s binders showing wordplay in which the artist rehearses and invents various word combinations, then reverses them. One string begins: “idealidol, idolideal, idealidee, ideeideal, idealindifil, indifilideal, idealnullgrad, nullgradideal…”
[2] The subtitle references “Die Heilige Schrift” (the holy writing), a collaged word set found throughout the binders.


Adelhyd van Bender (1950–2014) lived and worked in Berlin. Born Harald Friedrich Bender in the city of Bruchsal (Baden-Württemberg), he moved at age 15 to Ludwigshafen, where he lived in a juvenile home and completed an apprenticeship as an electrician. In 1968, Bender moved to Berlin and worked as an electrician for two years, later becoming unemployed. In 1974, he completed his general certificate of secondary education via evening courses. In October of the same year, he was admitted to the HdK Berlin (Berlin Arts Academy), where he studied for two years, then was forced to exmatriculate in 1976. After his apartment lease was terminated, he traveled to England, convinced that he could trace his aristocratic roots. After that, he called himself Adelhyd van Bender. In 1977 he returned to Berlin and intensified his artistic activity: he painted with tars, oil paint, various chemicals, and solvents on wood and cardboard. In 1987, a fire in his apartment destroyed all the (highly combustible) materials and part of his work. In 1999, when the artist’s apartment threatened to collapse under the weight of his output, he donated a large part of his oeuvre to the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg. After that, he dedicated himself completely to drawing, reworking existing work, and photocopying. His work resembles scientific research, and he pursued it obsessively every day from morning to night. He filled thousands and thousands of sheets of paper with geometric forms and color fields, as well as mathematical and chemical calculations and formulas.


Originally published on Mousse 48 (April–May 2015)


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