Collection of Articles on Painting Today

In contemporary art, Abstraction rules the order of the day like at no time before, except when New York’s Abstract expressionist artists exploded onto the international scene and elevated the NYC artworld above that of Paris. One key difference today is that there are artists making money similar to that of professional athletes and entertainers because of the entry of art into the financial art market  as a major new financial instrument. In January 2016 a historical survey exhibition of abstract paintings by 35 artists opens at what will be the world’s largest contemporary art gallery space totaling 100,000 square feet. Former MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, now a partner in the Hauser Wirth and Schimmel art exhibition compound being built in downtown Los Angeles and designed by leading museum architect Anabelle Seldorf (who is also designing the expansion of MCA San Diego). Because HW&S plans for a third of its exhibitions to be historical, non-commercial exhibitions, it will defacto become the third museum of modern and contemporary art in downtown Los Angeles, the other being the new Broad Museum, which opens on September 20, 2015, and of course LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which has two spaces, the MoCA on Grand ave., and the 55,000 sq. ft exhibition space, the MoCA Geffen, in Little Toyko. The latter is to be renovated by Frank Gehry.

Paul Schimmel’s debut exhibition curatorial exhibition at HS&W Los Angeles (which he describes as the first “museum-like gallery) will be “A Revolution Within,”will feature “35 artists from the late 1940s to the present working in abstraction–kind of biomorphic and figurative abstraction.” The gallery promises to have a beautiful restaurant, major art bookstore, artist and curatorial talks, and more.

Vincent Johnson

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ART NEWS Features Reviews

Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA

What the flawed survey tells us about painting today

Installation view of “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (December 14, 2014-April 5, 2015). JOHN WRONN/©2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” is MoMA’s first survey of recent painting in over 30 years. In the museum’s crowded sixth-floor galleries, curator Laura Hoptman has corralled 17 artists who have come to notice in the last decade or so, and collectively they give off a synaptic charge. There are a fair number of clunkers, but the majority of the painters here display an honestly arrived-at complexity, expressed through a rigorous series of choices made at what feels like a granularly visual level. Their work rewards hard looking.

The good artists in the show are very good indeed. Charline von Heyl, Josh Smith, Richard Aldrich, Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, Nicole Eisenman, Rashid Johnson, Joe Bradley, and Mary Weatherford have all developed tenacious and highly individual styles. Each makes work that engages the viewer on the paintings’ own terms and that shakes free whatever journalistic shorthand might, in passing, get stuck on them. What drives these artists is resolved in works that are self-reliant and unassailable while remaining open and undogmatic—it’s the ebullience of secular art freed of any ideological task.Two words one should probably avoid using in exhibition titles are “forever” and “now,” and Hoptman uses both. “Atemporal” comes from a William Gibson story, and Hoptman worked it into a youthful-sounding phrase, but it’s just distracting, like someone talking too loudly while you’re trying to think. She wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring—the Web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one.What does “atemporal” mean, in the context of painting? Judging from Hoptman’s catalogue essay, it’s the confidence, or panache, to take what one likes from the vast storehouse of style, without being overly concerned with the idea of progress or with what something means as a sign. Today, “all eras co-exist at once,” Hoptman writes. She goes on to say that this atemporality is a “wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture.” Big news. The free-agent status accorded the artists in her show is something I take as a good thing—maybe “minding one’s own business” would be a better way of putting it—but her claim for its uniqueness is harder to swallow; it’s more or less what I’ve been advocating for the last 35 years. Not that I take any credit for the idea; within a certain milieu it’s just common knowledge.Josh Smith, Untitled, 2013. JONATHAN MUZIKAR/©2013 JOSH SMITH/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK/GIFT OF DONALD B. MARRON

In her desire to connect everything to a narrative of the digital future, Hoptman misses the salient difference between the best work here and its immediate antecedents: a sense of structure. By structure I don’t mean only relational composition—though that plays a part—but more generally the sense of a painting’s internal rationale, its “inside energy,” as Alex Katz would say, that alignment of intention, talent, and form. Hoptman wants to make a clean break for her crew from the mores of “appropriation,” but again, the emphasis seems misplaced. Appropriation—as a style—had a tendency to stop short, visually speaking. The primary concern was with “presentation” itself, and the work that resulted was often an analog for the screen, or field, something upon which images composed themselves into some public/private drama. Appropriation pointed to something—some psychological or cultural condition outside of the work itself—that was the basis of its claim to criticality and, at its best, excavated something deep in the psyche. But there are other things in life. At present, painting is focused on structure, discovering and molding pictorial form for its own sake.

Atemporality, then, is nothing new. Most if not all art reaches backward to earlier models in some way; every rupture is also a continuity. The “reaching back” might be to unexpected sources, but imprints of earlier achievements are what give art its gristle and grit. What’s different is the mode of seeing. As an example, Weatherford places tubes of colored neon in front of fields of paint-stained canvas. In the old, appropriationist mind-set, one might get hung up on a list of signifiers along the lines of, say, Mario Merz or Gilberto Zorio meets Helen Frankenthaler; this reductiveness was, from the beginning, an unsatisfying way to see. Pleasantly, reassuringly, more like an old friend showing up after a long absence, arte povera echoes through Weatherford’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious reference. Her works clear a space where they can be taken on their own terms. They do, as Ben Jonson said in a somewhat different context, “win themselves a kind of grace-like newness.”In a related, refreshing development, Warhol’s gloomy, vampiric fatalism is no longer dragging down the party. Duchamp, too, is absent. What a relief. Nothing against the two masters as far as their own work is concerned, but they have exerted such an outsize gravitational pull on generations of artists that finally being out from under them feels like waking from a lurid dream. There is camp in “The Forever Now,” to be sure, and imagery, and irony, and “presentation,” but they are not the main event.Painting also seems to have shed its preoccupation with photography; here you will find only the faintest nod to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Even for Laura Owens, who blithely tries on the visual conundrums of the digital world, photography isn’t really part of her DNA. It turns out that much of the art-historical hand-wringing of the last 40 years over Walter Benjamin’s famous prophecy was either misplaced or just plain wrong. Painting is not competing with the Internet, even when making use of its proliferative effects.Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. JASON MANDELLA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK/OVITZ FAMILY COLLECTION, LOS ANGELES

Imagery is present to varying degrees in many of these artists’ works. It’s front and center in Eisenman’s paintings, exuberantly evident in Smith’s, lambent in Bradley’s. Drawn forms, some with a goofy, cartoony quality, are often the basis of Sillman’s muscular lyricism. Sillman is a great picture builder; her evocative and gemütlich paintings give the show some real gravitas. Representation even shows up in the trenchant cerebral complexities of von Heyl, but none of these artists is involved with the tradition of realism. They are not translating what can be seen into what can be painted. While everything, even abstraction, is an image in the ontological sense, and there are snatches of imagery in most of these paintings, these artists are simply not imagists; their images are more like the folk melodies in Bartók—present as understructure, there but not there.

The overall tone of “The Forever Now” has a West Coast casual feel about it. Five of the artists in the exhibition—Grotjahn, Weatherford, Owens, Dianna Molzan, and Matt Connors—are based in Southern California, and their work has some of Los Angeles’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward materiality. It’s a feeling I remember from living in L.A. in the ’70s: a slightly secondhand relationship to the New York School pieties. The alternative to sober, grown-up painting was an emphasis on materials, often industrial or non-art materials, and on the idea of process itself. The work embodies a youthful vigor without visible strain—in a word, cool. When combined with an internal structural core, the result has a kind of multiplier effect; it wins you over.(The situation in literature today is not so different; while still avoiding straight realism, the parodists, inventors, miniaturists, and tinkerers are now coming into prominence, taking over from the arid metafictionists. Writers like George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Chris Kraus have clear parallels with painters von Heyl, Weatherford, Bradley, Aldrich, Chris Martin, et al. Painting and advanced writing are now closer in spirit than at any time in living memory.)But I want to return to that quality that sets apart certain painters in this show—that sense of structure. Like diamonds, Grotjahn’s paintings are the result of great pressure brought to bear on a malleable material over a protracted period of time. His work is a good example of the way in which many artists today are using imagery and history—which is to say, the way that artists mainly always have. Grotjahn manages to simultaneously invoke Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism—everyone from Malevich to Victor Brauner—and translate those impulses into an intensely focused, schematic composition that leaves just enough room for his hand to do its stuff.Much has been made of Grotjahn’s Picassoid heads, but the overall looping structure of his paintings produces an effect closer to Joseph Stella’s 1920s paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grotjahn reimagines Stella’s swooping catenaries into arched ribbons of impasto paint. Because the chunks of color are small and contiguous, they tend to blend together in the viewer’s eye, giving the paintings an alternating current of macro and micro focus. His colors are dark red and burgundy, forest green, warm white, cobalt blue—the colors of silk neckties. They are preppy in a nice way, with a whiff of the 1940s. More importantly, Grotjahn’s color intervals are exacting. They put the painting in a major key. Their simple, clear visual forms—arcs, circles, lozenge and ovoid shapes, like segments of an orange—sometimes overlap and cut into one another, creating a space of increasing, sobering complexity. Grotjahn’s paintings do a funny thing: they achieve great scale through the linear arrangement of small areas of paint, and their structural and imagistic concatenations are in good alignment with the color and paint application. The what and the how are in productive sync. These paintings are tight, shipshape, and very satisfying to look at. At 46, Grotjahn is close on to a modernist master.Aldrich has been making interesting and surprising paintings for a while, and one of his works here shows great panache. Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” from 2010, is Aldrich at his least gimmicky and most in tune with the spirit of abstract painting as deconstruction. The painting’s success lies in its loose-limbed sense of structure: a grid- or ladder-like armature along which an array of painted shapes and brush-drawn lines alternate with the interstitial white spaces to form a syncopated rhythm. Its painterly touch calls to mind Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston, and also Robert Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool from 1959—two canvases joined in the middle by a ladder—as well as Rauschenberg’s later Combines. Aldrich’s palette here is sophisticated, just shy of decorator-ish; he takes eight or nine hues and nudges them into perfectly tuned intervals of cream, white, Pompeii red, burnt umber, and a grayed cobalt green—colors that feel at once Mediterranean and Nordic. This particular painting touches on a number of visual cues without leaning too heavily on any of them; the four irregular black rectangles framed by cream-colored bands suggest darkened windows in a cracked plaster wall.Richard Aldrich, Two Dancers with Haze in Their Heart Waves Atop a Remake of “One Page, Two Pages, Two Paintings,” 2010. FARZAD OWRANG/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BORTOLAMI GALLERY, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK

That Aldrich’s painting is reminiscent of earlier paintings while maintaining a clear sense of contemporaneity is perhaps what Hoptman means by “atemporal.” But this is what painting is always about, in one way or another. Rauschenberg’s work of the late ’50s and early ’60s was itself a deconstruction and reconstruction of Abstract Expressionism, freed from its self-importance. Aldrich has taken a lot from that period in Rauschenberg’s work, but his tone is lighter; it has Rauschenberg’s insouciance, without the urgent nervousness. The stakes are different. This is now. Though informal, at times almost flippant, Aldrich’s work is sturdier and more tough-minded than it first appears. His painting says, “Lean on me.”

Susan Sontag observed nearly 50 years ago, in her essay “On Style,” that no self-respecting critic would want to be seen separating form from content, and yet most seem drawn to do just that, after first offering a disclaimer to the contrary. Make that double for curators. The real problem with “The Forever Now” is that it’s two shows: there are the painters who make stand-alone paintings—we don’t need no backstory—and those who use a rectangular-ish surface to do something else. The artists in the former group are the raison d’être for the show; their work has formal inventiveness and pictorial intelligence; it lives in the moment. As for the latter, they are artists who make tip-of-the-iceberg art. What’s on the canvas is the evidence, or residue, of what happens offstage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can result in an arid busyness that masks a core indecisiveness or, worse, emptiness.Here is another way to see this: there are pictures that repay our attention with interest and others that simply use it up. The qualities we admire in people—resourcefulness, intelligence, decisiveness, wit, the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self—are often the same ones that we feel in art that holds our attention. Less-than-admirable qualities—waffling, self-aggrandizement, stridency, self-absorption—color our experience of work that, for one reason or another, remains unconvincing. By “unconvincing” I mean the feeling you get when the gap between what a work purports to be and what it actually looks like is too big to be papered over.Such is the case with several of the most celebrated artists included in “The Forever Now.” The problem of grade inflation has been with us since at least the 1920s, when H. L. Mencken, in his American Mercury magazine, coined the term “American boob” to mean our national variant of philistinism. The flip side of “boob-ism,” in Mencken’s formulation, was the wholesale enthusiasm for everything cultural, lest one be thought a philistine. It’s created a hell of confusion ever since.George Balanchine once complained that the praise had been laid on a little thick. “Everyone’s overrated,” said the greatest choreographer in history. “Picasso’s overrated. I’m overrated. Even Jack Benny’s overrated.” He meant that once it’s decided that someone is great, a misty halo of reverence surrounds everything he or she does. The reality is more prosaic: some things, or some parts of things, will be great and others not. It’s annoying to be overpraised; it’s like showing your work to your parents. The lack of criticality is one of the things that give our current art milieu the feeling of the political sphere (I don’t mean political art). Politics, as a job, is the place where the truth can never be told; it would bring the merry-go-round to a halt.I decided a long time ago not to write about things I don’t care for. So much work is deeply and movingly realized, and so many artists of real talent are working today that it’s just not worth the time to take an individual clunker to task. There’s an audience for everything—who cares? Besides, one can always be wrong. However, I’m compelled to make an exception in the case of 27-year-old Oscar Murillo. While it’s not his fault for being shot out of the canon too early, I feel one has to say something lest perception be allowed to irretrievably swamp reality. There have always been artists who were taken up by collectors, curators, or journalists; artists who fit a certain narrative but are of little interest to other artists. So why get worked up over it now? Of course it’s not just him. The problem is really one of what constitutes interpretation; it’s the fault line of a deepening divide between how artists and curators see the world. Though it may seem unfair to single out Murillo, the best way to explain why the distinction matters is to describe his work.Murillo seems to want to say something with his work about palimpsest and memory and being an outsider, but he lacks, to my eye, most of what is needed to make a convincing picture of that type. His grasp of the elements that engage people who paint—like scale, color, surface, image, and line—is journeyman-like at best. His sense of composition is strictly rectilinear; he doesn’t seem to have discovered the diagonal or the arabesque. Worse, he can’t seem to generate any sense of internal pictorial rhythm.Murillo’s paintings lack personality. He uses plenty of dark colors, scraping, rubbing, dripping, graffiti marks, and dirty tarpaulins—run-of-the-mill stuff, signifiers all. The work looks like something made by an art director; it’s meant to look gritty and “real” but comes across as fainthearted. This is painting for people who don’t have much interest in looking, who prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes. Murillo is in so far over his head that even a cabal of powerful dealers won’t be able to save him. He must on some level know this, and so he tries to make up for what’s missing by adding on other effects. One piece in “The Forever Now” is a pile of canvases crumpled up on the floor that viewers can move about as they choose. It’s interactive—get it? MoMA visitors with a long memory will recognize this as a variation on early work by Allan Kaprow, the inventor of Happenings, who wished to mimic the “expressionist” impulses in ’50s paintings and channel them into little games that invited viewer participation with the result that what had once been pictorially alive became pure tedium. To quote Fairfield Porter, writing at the time, “[Kaprow] uses art and he makes clichés….If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they already have been done, he couldn’t be more convincing.” You can kick Murillo’s canvases around from here to Tuesday—there is no way to bring them to life, because they never lived in the first place.The real news from “The Forever Now,” the good news, is that painting didn’t die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.David Salle is an artist living in Brooklyn and East Hampton.A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Structure Rising.”

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Trends

The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now

 ART NEWS

Riffing on the past as it comments on our own time, contemporary abstraction evokes landscapes, bodies, signs, buildings, and much more

It’s tempting to see the years 1912–25 and 1947–70 as the two golden ages of abstract art, and to feel that the present revival of abstraction is no more than a silver age. But the present is always deceptive: it was not evident to their contemporaries that Malevich, Mondrian, and Pollock were the towering giants they seem to us in retrospect. The fact is, there is a vast amount of good abstract art being made today, and the best of it is every bit as good as the best abstract art of the past. The golden age of abstraction is right now.

Museums and art centers have lately been taking a remarkable interest in abstract art, past and present. Last year, MoMA opened “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925”; the Guggenheim offered “Art of Another Kind,” comparing American and European abstraction of the 1950s; “Destroy the Picture,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, explored the fascination with dirty, distressed materials among artists of the same era; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal traced the impressive history of Canadian abstraction since 1939; the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery presented “Conceptual Abstraction,” a survey (which I curated with Joachim Pissarro) of 20 abstract painters who came to prominence in New York in the 1980s; and MUDAM (the Musée d’Art Moderne) in Luxembourg gathered 23 contemporary European artists in “Les Détours de l’abstraction.” Already in 2013, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has opened “Painter Painter,” a survey of emerging abstract painters from both the U.S. and Europe, and next month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opens “MCA DNA Chicago Conceptual Abstraction,1986–1995,” with works in various mediums.How do we make sense of all this activity in a type of art that was declared dead 40 years ago? I believe the most useful way to understand abstraction is not in terms of its formal evolution (which does not, in any case, fit the linear models beloved of theoreticians) but in terms of thematic content. The formal qualities of an abstract painting or sculpture are significant not in themselves but as part of the work’s expressive message. Artists work by reviving and transforming archetypes from the unconscious of modern culture. Therefore, the most useful questions to ask about contemporary abstract painting or sculpture are: What themes and forms does it retrieve from the tradition of modern art? How have they been changed? And how has the artist used them to express the social, political, and spiritual experience of our own time?We might view abstract art as falling into six basic categories. Three respond to nature: cosmologies, landscapes, and anatomies. And three respond to culture: fabrics, architecture, and signs. These categories are not mutually exclusive. It often happens, for instance, that cosmological images include anatomical imagery or that images inspired by fabric patterns include drawn or written signs.1. Cosmologies

Cosmological imagery in modern art assumes three main forms: orbs, orbits, and constellations. The orbs and orbits in the work of pioneering abstract artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov’ Popova reflected the Russian avant-garde’s obsession with space travel as an allegory of revolution: the cosmonaut left behind the corrupt old world to build a rational utopia in outer space.

Another kind of cosmological imagery emerged in the 1920s: the constellation or star chart, consisting of an array of dots connected by lines. In the late 1940s, Pollock took the fixed constellations and set them into motion, in paintings like Reflection of the Big Dipper (1947). Both static and mobile versions of the motif play important roles in contemporary abstraction.For the Parisian Surrealists, the dot-and-line motif of the star chart was significant as an example of the way that intelligible meaning (the figurative image of Orion or the Great Bear) can emerge from chance events (the random distribution of stars in the night sky). For a contemporary audience, however, the same formal motif is likely to read not as a literal constellation but as the more abstract image of a network.Chris Martin’s cagelike “constellations” evoke the Internet Age, with its promise of total connectedness and its threat of incessant surveillance. The funky, handmade facture of his painting, with papier-mâché spheres emerging at each node, reasserts the value of flawed humanity over the seamless web of technology. Julie Mehretu’s paintings similarly transform the meaning of her sources. Where Pollock’s swirling constellations appeared to their original audience as images of the Jungian unconscious, Mehretu’s grids and streaks, punctuated by shifting crowds and billowing smoke, express the dynamism and turmoil of the global economy.Among contemporary painters, David Row combines orbital imagery with crystalline forms, shifting its meaning from social and utopian to spiritual and transcendent. Other abstract artists using cosmological imagery include Olafur Eliasson, Iole de Freitas, Bill Komoski, Albert Oehlen, Matthew Ritchie, Peter Schuyff, and Christopher Wool.2. Landscapes

A half-century ago, in the February 1961 issue of ARTnews, the iconoclastic art historian Robert Rosenblum coined the term “abstract sublime” to describe the way that the paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman call to mind a sense of the immensity and power of nature comparable to that found in the landscapes of such Romantic painters as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. While the sublime may be out of fashion, references to the natural landscape persist in contemporary abstraction.

The huge popularity of Anish Kapoor’s monumental Cloud Gate may be due to the hallucinatory impression it gives of having brought the heavens down to Earth. At the same time, the sculpture’s mirrorlike skin, recalling Brancusi’s polished bronzes, places it in the avant-garde tradition of art that actively interacts with its viewers and its environment. In the setting of downtown Chicago, Kapoor’s silvered sculpture seems to absorb, concentrate, and reemit the essence of a great American metropolis.Of course, abstract art does not need to be monumental to evoke the natural environment. David Reed shades his gestural brushwork with such precision that it suggests roiling clouds over a western landscape. Gerhard Richter’s abstract pictures glow with the same damp, shimmering light as his paintings of the German countryside. His translucent colors and modulated shading look like photographs even in his nonfigurative compositions.At the opposite extreme, Mary Heilmann uses opaque colors and rough brushwork to avoid any hint of illusionism. Nonetheless, the baroque swerves and switchbacks of her stacked bands in a painting like Surfing on Acid (2005) suggest the parallel lines of waves approaching a beach, swelling and breaking as they near the shore. Using the new technology of digital animation, Jennifer Steinkamp transforms trees, vines, and branches into writhing, abstract arabesques. Landscape-related imagery also appears in the abstract work of Tara Donovan, Stephen Ellis, Anoka Faruqee, Jacqueline Humphries, Shirley Kaneda, Wolfgang Laib, Fabian Marcaccio, Joseph Marioni, Odili Donald Odita, Cornelia Parker, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Pat Steir, William Wood, Sanford Wurmfeld, and John Zinsser.3. Anatomies

In Jonathan Lasker’s canvases, thinly painted stage sets and imaginary landscapes are occupied by brooding presences laid in with thick strokes of impasto. These “presences” have typically come to take the form of P-shaped configurations suggesting massive heads that confront one another, like the haunted eyeballs and truncated feet of late Philip Guston.

However, the abstract anatomies of contemporary artists rarely correspond to the image of the human body as a whole. Instead, their work tends to hint at individual body parts, internal organs, or the “abject” substances excreted by the body. The masterwork of sculptor Tim Hawkinson is an enormous installation of floating bladders linked by long intestinal tubes, appropriately titled Uberorgan. Among painters, Sue Williams has created throbbing allover compositions of sexual organs, while Carrie Moyer uses biomorphic curves and blushing colors to intimate arousal in compositions that initially look like abstract landscapes.Leaving the recognizable body further behind, Ingrid Calame depicts a universe of drips, stains, and smears, their pathetic associations offset by bright, incongruous colors. It seems at first glance that Calame’s skeins and pools of color must have been dripped freely onto canvas, Pollock-style. However, the apparent fluidity of her work is the result of a meticulous process of tracing markings found on sidewalks, floors, and streets. These drawings on translucent paper are archived and then arranged in layers to create new compositions.We can also find more or less bodily images in the abstract paintings and sculptures of Ghada Amer, Ross Bleckner, Chakaia Booker, Cecily Brown, Lydia Dona, Christian Eckart, Margaret Evangeline, Ellen Gallagher, Charline von Heyl, Rosy Keyser, Giles Lyon, Thomas Nozkowski, Roxy Paine, Monique Prieto, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, James Siena, and Mark Dean Veca.4. Fabrics

Turning from natural to man-made models for abstraction, fabric has figured prominently as a source of inspiration. Throughout much of the 20th century, male abstract artists rejected comparisons between their paintings and decorative fabrics. In the 1970s, however, women artists, such as Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, set out to revindicate decoration and to use it as the point of departure for a new, feminist mode of abstraction. The artists (both male and female) of the Pattern and Decoration movement often incorporated representational and architectural elements into their brilliantly colored compositions.

Of the artists emerging from this movement, Valerie Jaudon has remained one of the most severely abstract. In her recent work, she almost eliminates color, using only black and white, or white paint on bare brown linen. But she combines this austere palette with a sensual profusion of pattern, numbing and teasing the mind like a carved wooden panel from the Alhambra. Her designs suggest the repeat patterns of fabric or wallpaper, without ever quite resolving into regularity.In the 1970s, some American artists, like Kim MacConnel, looked to African fabrics as models of laid-back geometry. Today, it is African artists themselves who are winning recognition as brilliant innovators. Take, for example, the abstract tapestries of El Anatsui, on view in a retrospective that runs through August 4 at the Brooklyn Museum. Anatsui’s tapestries are put together from hundreds or thousands of pieces of metallic scrap—the caps, bands, wrappers, and labels that adorn the bottles and other items you would find in a market or trash heap in western Africa. The shimmering gold and silver of Anatsui’s work offer an image of celebratory splendor. Draped and folded, rather than hung flush against the wall, these tapestries challenge our assumptions about the obligatory flatness of abstraction. Other contemporary abstractionists working with the imagery of fabric and decorative patterning include Linda Besemer, Bernard Frize, Richard Kalina, Ryan McGinness, Beatriz Milhazes, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Philip Taaffe, and Adriana Varejão.5. Architectures

Peter Halley’s paintings, which launched the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s, focus obsessively on the motif of a rectangular cell, reminiscent of a house, a prison, a computer chip, or a piece of machinery. Resting on a narrow band of earth or flooring, the structure is plugged into its environment by conduits that run through the ground or take to the sky, connecting it into an invisible urban grid. Instead of a place of refuge, the cell becomes a symbol of the postmodern self: isolated, immobilized, and under surveillance. The pure optical quality of 1960s modernism gives way in Halley’s work to a purgatory of Day-Glo colors and motel-room textures: garish, menacing, and weirdly seductive. Another painter, Sarah Morris, uses tilted grids and pulsing colors to suggest the dazed confusion found in the mirrored facades of corporate modernism.

Whereas Halley and Morris propose large allegorical statements about contemporary society, Rachel Harrison speaks to a realm of personal experience. Her sculptures often incorporate beams, lintels, and moldings embedded in cement or pieces of sheetrock fastened into a loose grid, accompanied by toys, framed photographs, and other household furnishings. The works seem like fragments of houses that have been smashed apart by natural disasters or worn down by everyday life. And yet there’s something oddly cheerful about Harrison’s eroded architectures, even when they’re not painted in the primary-school colors she often favors. They have a kind of pluck, as if they’re determined to carry on, no matter what. (In Harrison’s most recent work, architecture has mutated into anatomy, as her stacked forms begin to resemble living creatures.)Architectural structures also play an important role in the abstract work of John Armleder, Frank Badur, Helmut Federle, Liam Gillick, Guillermo Kuitca, Sherrie Levine, David Novros, Doris Salcedo, Andrew Spence, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze, Phoebe Washburn, and Rachel Whiteread.6. Signs

Signs have been an important element of modern art ever since 1911 and 1912, when Picasso and Braque put stenciled letters and scraps of newspaper into their Cubist pictures. But Jasper Johns’s flag, map, and number pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s initiated a revolutionary transformation in the character of sign painting. His stenciled letters and regular grids came to convey meaninglessness instead of meaning. They didn’t express emotion; they repressed it. In one way or another, his work lies behind much of the most important art of 1960s, from the monochromes of Frank Stella and Brice Marden to the Minimal boxes of Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Fifty years later, Johns continues to exercise a decisive influence on abstraction. Wade Guyton, shown last year at the Whitney, updates Johns’s number paintings, eliminating the artist’s hand by using digital printers instead of stencils. Guyton’s insistent X’s seem less like marks than like cancellations, refusing to signify and then fading into blankness.Mark Bradford’s paintings resemble the giant computer screens that sophisticated police departments use for real-time surveillance of traffic, crime, and accidents, with data overlaid on urban grids. But in contrast to the flickering pixels of the computer screen, Bradford’s images have actual substance. Like Calame, he works with papers and materials gathered from the streets of Los Angeles, shredding and aging them, then layering them into his compositions. Bradford’s powerful combination of imagery and materials captures the experience of living simultaneously in the parallel universes of information and sensation.Other artists using written language or formats recalling maps and diagrams include Ai Weiwei, Mel Bochner, David Diao, Caio Fonseca, Carmela Gross, Gu Wenda, Jenny Holzer, Wosene Worke Kosrof, Glenn Ligon, Tatsuo Miyajima, RETNA, Joan Snyder, Xu Bing, Stephen Westfall, Terry Winters, and Hossein Zendoroudi. Written language, in particular, seems to have an international potency.Ultimately, the evolution of abstract art—like the evolution of modern art more broadly—has been a series of responses to the experience of life in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Halley argues in a brilliant 1991 essay, abstraction before World War II was largely inspired by the utopian belief that rational technocracy (i.e., socialism) would create a better world. The technocratic ideal found its most powerful symbol not in the rosy-cheeked workers of Socialist Realism but in geometric abstraction. After the devastation of World War II and the revelation of the horrors of Stalinist Russia, geometry could no longer function as an image of utopia. Changing polarity, it became instead a symbol of alienation.Much contemporary art—not to mention fiction, film, and television—reflects a Blade Runner vision of a world, in which the individual is rendered powerless by anonymous government agencies, giant corporations, and deafening mass culture. It’s useful to remember that this nightmare vision is itself a romantic stereotype, ignoring the positive aspects of postmodern society. Since 1980, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined dramatically, both as a percentage of world population and in absolute numbers. The principal reason is the globalization of the economy, which has created millions of factory jobs in the former Third World, lifting workers from starvation in the countryside to subsistence in the cities. Some of the most exciting abstract artists today are those, like Anatsui and Mehretu, whose work responds to this transformation, either by reinventing traditional arts for a global art world or by creating visual allegories of social change that carry us beyond the old capitalism-socialism divide. In 2013, as in 1913, abstraction is how we think about the future.Pepe Karmel is associate professor of art history at New York University.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Abstraction’s Ambiguity is Its Own Reward

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1957, 461/4 × 44˝, oil on canvas. Copyright the Estate of Joan Mitchell and Courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, New York.

What is it about the expressive power of abstract art—especially abstract painting, whose ambiguity of meaning is one of its most definitive characteristics—that remains so alluring? The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition offered many vivid reminders of how compellingly mysterious, psychologically intense, emotionally moving, and spiritually transcendent many of the seminal works of American Ab Ex painting still feel, more than a half-century after they were made and first seen.

On a smaller scale, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.’s recent gallery showing of a group of Joan Mitchell paintings from the 1950s, including some small-format canvases that have only lately come to market for the first time, also served as a reminder of the powerful punch the best abstract painting still packs, as did numerous works in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition, Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon. Together, many of the works in these exhibitions seemed to beg the questions: Despite abstract painting’s inherent ambiguity, can its most capable practitioners manipulate its techniques or language consciously enough to at least control its emotional temperature or, at most, to convey certain subject-specific messages? Do they even want to?

Such questions may simmer in the background of Mitchell’s development as one of Abstract Expressionism’s most original artists. As recounted in Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a new biography by Patricia Albers (to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 5), Mitchell (1925-1992) was born and brought up in Chicago, where her father was a prominent doctor, and her mother a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. She studied at Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and came to New York in 1947, where she became familiar with the paintings of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. A fellowship then allowed her to live in France for a year; afterward, she returned to New York, got involved in the abstract art scene and took part in the historic “Ninth Street Show” (1951), which was organized by Leo Castelli and sponsored by The Club, the artists’ association to which many members of what would later be dubbed “The New York School” belonged.

Mitchell has been labeled a “second-generation” member of that community of artists. To some ears, “second-generation” might connote “second-best,” which would be wrong. Her work, with its broad, muscular brushstrokes, perfectly balanced compositions, even at their most off-kilter, and thickets of dense strokes alternating between darting, grass-like lines and luscious patches of drippy color, contributed in definitive ways to just how expansive and expressive abstract painting could be.

Louise Fishman, “Zero At The Bone,” 2010. Oil on linen. 70 × 60˝. Photo credit: Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

Albers describes Mitchell as an insecure alcoholic who drank to fight off feelings of abandonment by her lovers, parents, or even friends saying goodbye after a party. Thus, it was through a booze-fueled haze that she produced some of abstract painting’s most indelible images. Her “Ladybug” (1957), which is now in MoMA’s collection and was trotted out for its recent exhibition, is one of her signature works, with its tumble of thick or wiry, drippy strokes of orange, blue, turquoise, purple, and other colors surging in a pack emphatically toward the left side of the canvas.

What did Mitchell want to say with her art? Albers suggests an answer, noting that the artist once said that art had “lost some of its ‘spirituality,’” and that she had recognized that, although “spirituality” had come to be “considered a ‘hokey’ word…it was what painting had once been about.” Mitchell made it clear that she did not paint from nature, even though, unlike those soul-scraping Ab Exers who coughed up existential anguish in the form of explosive paint-on-canvas confrontations, in her paintings, she did refer to nature. They were, she said, “about landscape, not about me.”

Mitchell rejected the “action painter” label, with its suggestion of throw-paint-anywhere improvisation. “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best,” she harrumphed. (Or as Mitchell’s friend and peer, Grace Hartigan, put it plainly: “My God[,] how hard it is to paint.” See The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955, Syracuse University Press, 2009.) Mitchell also said the “freedom” in her art was “quite controlled.” Alluding to the deep understanding she possessed of her materials and techniques, the famously feisty painter seemed to hint that something about the visual language she had created could be finely tuned and played like the instruments that produced the jazz and classical music she loved.

Similarly, the contemporary American artist Karl Klingbiel brings a combination of experimentation and cool control to making his abstract paintings, which constitute his response to the visual barrage of an image-overloaded, media-saturated culture. At his studio in Queens, Klingbiel, 50, makes paintings on top of woodcuts depicting seemingly random lines and shapes. He mounts them on canvases and then mounts each canvas on a birch-veneer panel. He calls his woodcuts “skeletal structures” for his scraped and color-packed oil paintings, but they are not strict compositional guides. Once painted over, they become invisible.

Karl Klingbiel, “Book of Days,” 2010. 41 × 41˝. Oil on paper (woodcut print) mounted on canvas, mounted on board. Photo credit: Karl Klingbiel Studio and Elizabeth Moore Fine Art, New York.

“I distill things,” he says. “My paintings become vessels for what interests me, including literature, poetry and the history of painting, but they also have an outward trajectory, because with them I’m trying to replicate the experiences I’ve had looking at paintings that have had an effect on me.” They might do so by alluding to a classic Renaissance palette or, in scurrying ribbons of electric color that seem to surge up through multiple top layers of luminous oil, by referring to Pop Art.

Klingbiel says: “The visual aspects of the world have a huge impact on me—patterns, relationships, stunning moments.” In his art, he says, he “processes” all of that visual information to offer “something that is raw, unfiltered and unspecified, because I don’t want to give you a thing but rather everything.” His art does that, he believes, in a way that cannot be expressed in words.

The New York-based painter Louise Fishman, 72, who has been called a “third-generation Abstract Expressionist,” also brings a lifetime of looking at and assimilating other art forms to her painting, but her reference points are often almost invisibly subtle. Known for solidly structured compositions marked by bold colors and hardy brushstrokes, Fishman met Mitchell at the older artist’s home in France during the latter part of her life. Fishman counts Mitchell’s work—including its unbridled exploration and command of color—among the major influences on her own. Other artists who have interested her include Gorky, Franz Kline, and Pierre Soulages and Bram van Velde (both were associated with Europe’s post-World War II abstract-art tendency known as “art informel”).

A former high school basketball player who savors the physicality of both sports and of making paintings, Fishman explains that, if she “can get past the rectangle”—a typical painting’s format, which to her suggests the landscape genre—and deftly handle the “weight,” or the perceived visual heft or presence of a work-in-progress, she can better enjoy the creative process that then unfolds. She does not consciously try to control what her paintings might communicate, she says.

“What is it about this kind of art that speaks to so many people?” she asks. “Maybe it’s that there is no language in it.” If one of her paintings suggests a meaning, she adds, perhaps “it’s something that comes and goes, even though it may [seem to] have a formal, concrete presence.” If anything, she muses, her kind of painting “is about a journey [through] the act of making it, which you get to go on if you’re looking” at it, too, “an activity of full gesture, freedom and physicality—the things modern life tends not to have much of.”

A sense of joy about the creative freedom that making abstract art allows and about the uncertainties that come with the territory—how is any artist supposed to make a good abstract work, anyway?—is something the artists Gene Mann and Madeleine Spierer share. Both are based in Geneva, Switzerland. There, a few weeks ago, the French-born Mann, 58, took me to visit the elderly Spierer, who was born in Trieste in 1926. From 1959 through 1977, Spierer was the companion of the Dutch painter Bram van Velde (1895-1981). Mann makes mixed-media abstract paintings and collages on paper, cardboard, and canvas into whose whirlwind compositions she sometimes blends simple, abstracted human figures.

Mann and Spierer have long enjoyed a friendship and an artistic dialogue. Earlier this year, at an alternative-space gallery in Geneva, Spierer presented a sculptural installation whose plant-stem-like parts formed a chest-high line running along all four walls of the room. Made of newspaper, rolled up and glued, then painted black to give the dried, tube-shaped material some rigidity, these straight or curly pieces were also scattered around a column in the gallery, or placed upright, leaning against a window. From a distance, it appeared that they could have been made of metal.

In her modest apartment-studio, Spierer works with crushed egg cartons, newspaper, inks and paints, from which she makes collages, paintings, and objects. Van Velde, who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett, was well known for uttering terse aphorisms about art-making and human foibles. (“I paint the impossibility of painting,” he stated.) Spierer, as well, is usually reticent about describing her art. She did say, though, that in her abstract works, “it’s all there, all the rhythms of life and all of reality, too—trees, water, light, love.” Together, Mann and I examined photos of some of Spierer’s large collages from a few years ago, in which clumps of wadded newspaper formed islands of radiant energy in vast seas of blue, recalling both American color-field painting and the texture-rich tachiste variety of art informel. The older artist sensed that we wanted to see more.

Madeleine Spierer, “Parcours d’un espace (Course of a Space),” 2010. Variable dimensions. Rolled-up newspaper, glue, paint. Photo credit: Andata Ritorno Laboratoire d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland

“Come,” she instructed, “I want to show you something.” We followed her as she led us outside, up a hill and over to the nearby studio of a younger painter friend, who had let her use his workspace to create a new composition made up of overlapping, differently colored pieces of paper. Each had been painted with pigments-and-oil mixtures Spierer had prepared herself, then cut and shaped by hand. Titled “Nocturne,” it was an ambitious, mural-size work in a palette of dark blues, reds, and greens whose “weight,” as Fishman would put it, defied the modesty and delicacy of its materials.

In the late afternoon’s fading light, it hummed and hugged the wall, inviting us to dive with our eyes into its dark, all-engulfing sea. It was a perfectly composed abstract work. In an artist’s statement, Spierer once noted that she experiments “again and again with the relationship between line and surface, rhythm and color.” Looking at “Nocturne,” which evoked a sense of longing in the dead of night, I was reminded of how, as they explore and formulate the peculiar language of their art, the most capable abstract artists seem to make their work ever more expressive over time. Instinctively, they seem to understand that the ambiguity that is its essence is also its great poetic strength, a kind of intangible raw material that can be tweaked or prodded, but never fully deciphered or constrained.

Contributor

Edward M. Gómez EDWARD M. GOMEZ is a New York-based journalist, author, and critic. Publications available at www.edwardmgomez.com.

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Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea

Jan Verwoert

Tags: Benjamin Buchloh, Brian O’Doherty, Conceptual art, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois

1. Conceptuality versus medium specificity

What continues to give an edge to any discussion about the current status of painting as a medium is that this particular debate raises the following fundamental question: which forms of artistic production can count as contemporary and which should be rejected as irrelevant? Precisely because the theory of High Modernism pronounced painting to be the ‘Royal Road’ of artistic practice, it seems that ever since that doctrine was challenged it has been the fate of painting as a medium to provide the forum for all arguments about the road that art should follow in the future. Even if some of the original heat has gone out of these arguments in the course of their cyclical resurrection and abandonment since the late 1960s, it still remains a burning issue. An increasing interest in painting has begun to emerge, particularly in recent years. There are today, quite simply, a multitude of interesting positions in painting, each in its own way doubtlessly relevant to our times. Nevertheless, painting still has to fend off the latent reproach of being reactionary, not least because populist apologists for the medium often use reactionary arguments in its support, for example when they celebrate the ‘return of painting’ as a renaissance of authentic artistic skills. Faced with this situation, it seems useful to reconstruct the fundamental questions inherent in the arguments about the validity of painting in particular, and about the definition of contemporary artistic practice in general, in the hope of finding a way out of this notoriously intractable discussion.

One question that inevitably arises when painting is being discussed is why painting should be considered in isolation from other media? Does it make sense to make a single medium the subject of a text or an exhibition? Is this still relevant? Or is it not? A possible first answer is, ‘No it is not. Any consideration of painting in isolation tends to be reactionary, because the dismissal of Modernism’s dogmatic restriction of artistic practice to a particular medium must be understood as the most significant progress in art in recent decades. Today every medium represents only one possibility among many. The only thing that counts is the artist’s conceptual project. The choice of a particular medium only has meaning inasmuch as it relates to a strategic gain within the overall project. If a conceptual statement can be adequately formulated in terms of painting, then artists paint, but if a different medium proves to be more useful, they turn to video or build installations. In this context anybody who looks at the medium alone is missing the most important thing.’

A second possible answer is, ‘Yes it is. It is even necessary to discuss painting qua painting, because that is the only way to investigate its true significance. The enormous potential of what art can do as art only emerges when art deals with the laws, limits and history of a specific medium. The semantic depth of a painterly formulation can only be adequately appreciated if it is understood as the result of a process of dialogue with the medium. Any kind of art or art criticism that excludes all of that must necessarily be superficial. Anyone who reduces art to transferable concepts and readily comprehensible ideas has lost sight of what art is, and what it can achieve by virtue of its nature as a non-verbal language. Any art that defines itself solely in terms of content, and not in terms of its medium-specific form, becomes the kind of issue-related speciality art that critics and curators love, because it always comes with ready-made categories to file it under, such as “identity politics”, “institutional critique”, “critical urbanism” and so on. No valid art or criticism can avoid dialogue with the medium qua medium.’

Both positions seem well founded in principle. So perhaps it is unnecessary to opt for either one or the other, as one may adopt a different perspective from one case to the next. A painter’s paintings may be regarded fruitfully as engaging with the medium of painting in terms specific to that medium, while painting by conceptual artists working with a range of media, for instance, may be more readily understood with reference to the conceptual themes it proposes. From a pragmatic point of view this may be a useful approach. A convincing solution to the fundamental problem it is not. The conflict between a conceptual and a medium-specific understanding of artistic practice only becomes comprehensible in all its intensity and depth of meaning when it is viewed not pragmatically but historically. By proving that art can only exist as a concept and must be evaluated in terms of its conceptual performance alone, Conceptual Art in fact could be understood to have irrevocably severed the connection between art and its medium. Seen in this light the arguments produced by Conceptual Art at the end of the 1960s refute once and for all the ‘High Modernist’ theory (adduced by a critic such as Clement Greenberg) that true art must be conceived and executed in medium-specific terms. If one follows this argument through to its conclusion, then the refutation of the primacy of medium-specificity by Conceptual Art marks a historical caesura with normative effect and consequences that must inevitably be faced. It represents a threshold that no one can step back over.

2. The change to conceptuality as the historical norm

The assertion of the normative validity of the turn towards conceptuality became canonical largely because the school of American art criticism around the journal October made this claim one of the central tenets of its art-historical theories. In her essay ‘A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the age of the post-medium condition’, for instance, Rosalind Krauss characterises the effects of the conceptual turn at the end of the 60s as normative and irrevocable.1 To begin with, Krauss reiterates the argument Joseph Kosuth proposed in 1969 in Art after Philosophy that Conceptual Art dismisses the relevance of medium-specific art practice in favour of a general and fundamental inquiry into the nature of art – in whatever medium. Acknowledging this thesis, she describes Conceptual Art’s strategic coup as a successful refutation of the doctrine proposed by Clement Greenberg, according to which art, by necessity, concentrates on a thorough exploration of the laws of the given medium, in particular painting. According to Krauss, this global privileging of the concept over the medium in effect created entirely new, historically irreversible conditions for the production of art. After Conceptual Art, the practical basis and the historical horizon for the production of all art is set by the ‘post-medium-condition’.

For Krauss, this historical caesura manifests itself in the ‘mixed-media’ installations of Marcel Broodthaers – for example his Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Section des Figures (1972), a fictitious museum exhibition consisting of an obscure collection of artefacts (stuffed animals, books, prints, etc.), all of which show or represent eagles in one way or another. Broodthaers restricts himself in this work to the conceptual gesture of a spatial mise-en-scène. This gesture not only makes every included object into a readymade, but it also declares each one to be interchangeable. One eagle is worth as much as any other. What medium is used to represent the eagle is likewise a matter of complete indifference. Picture, object and text are all accorded the same status. Krauss interprets their equivalence as a radical withdrawal of all meaning from specific artistic media. Apart from being an attack on the traditional concept of art, the assertion that artwork is interchangeable also counts as a cynical embrace of the fact that artwork can be exchanged like any other commodity. By releasing art from the specificity of the medium, Krauss argues, Broodthaers effectively equated it to its pure exchange value.
In this way, she claims, the art object has been ‘reduced to a system of pure equivalency by the homogenising principle of commodification, the operation of pure exchange value from which nothing can escape’.2 For Krauss the liberation of art from the fetters of medium-specificity therefore leads directly to a new form of dependency, its dependency on the market.

In his essay ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, Benjamin Buchloh offers a variation on this argument.3 He too concedes that Kosuth, through his bold demands for an examination of the general conditions of art, successfully abolished the dogma of the primacy of reflection on the medium in post-war American painting. At the same time, however, Buchloh warns that the freedom Conceptual Art gained through its emancipation from the material art object and its manual production is a deceptive freedom. The suspension of all traditional criteria for judging art, he argues, in the end only strengthens the power of the art institutions. For if an object, or the practice of producing it, no longer qualifies as art on the basis of recognisable material properties, then in the end it is the museums or the market that determine whether it is art or not. Buchloh describes this dubious triumph of Conceptual Art as follows:

In the absence of any specifically visual qualities and due to the manifest
lack of any (artistic) manual competence as a criterion of distinction, all the
traditional criteria of aesthetic judgement – of taste and of connoirsseurship
– have been programmatically voided. The result of this is that the definition
of the aesthetic becomes
on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function
of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power
rather than taste).
4

Here Buchloh relativises the emancipatory status of conceptual art by pointing out that it can also be understood as a reflex of the latest metamorphosis in the capitalist conditions of production. Thus whereas pop art and minimal art still celebrate industrial production and mass consumption in their materials and subjects, conceptual art, through its fixation on the immaterial qualities of language and the written word, involuntarily replicates the way in which real work has become immaterial in the service society, and thus erects a monument to the aesthetics of bureaucracy.

These arguments lead up to two substantive conclusions about possible modes of artistic practice after conceptual art. If one follows Krauss, Marcel Broodthaers’s intervention shifts the practice of art onto a new level: while he demonstrates that all media are interchangeable and thus proves that media-immanent work is meaningless, he simultaneously establishes the conceptual gesture as the ultimate possible artistic act which can still create meaning. According to this view, the only art that has any significance at all in the historical framework of the ‘post-medium-condition’ is one that declares its subject to be the system of art, its conditions and its history as a whole. Media-immanent practice is dismissed as irrelevant as the meta-historical conceptual gesture alone can lay claim to artistic relevance. If one considers the contribution of conceptual art to constitute a normative caesura in the history of art, then the conceptual gesture is the only available sphere of activity left open to artists who seek to make work in the full awareness of the current historical condition of art production.

This conclusion is then reinforced by a second: as Krauss, and more particularly Buchloh, argue that the arrival of the ‘post-medium-condition’ in artistic practice coincides with art’s subjugation to the dictate of institutions and laws of the market, it then is not only a historical but a political necessity to adopt a detached, meta-critical position in relation to the system of art. From this point of view, those who continue to work in media-immanent terms, for example in painting, not only condemn their practice to historical insignificance, but also risk direct appropriation by the institutions and the market. The conclusion is then that only a form of art that through conceptual gestures articulates a critical position with regard to the institution of art is capable of resisting the historical devaluation of artistic media and the subjugation of production to the laws of the art-system. In this way, both Krauss and Buchloh posit the significance of institutional critique from a historical point of view as the last form of art still capable of making a difference.

3. From strategic logic to the practical aesthetics of conceptual gestures

The question now is how, in practice, are we to imagine an art of conceptual gestures? Taking the arguments of Krauss and Buchloh literally, the only conclusion that can really be drawn is that with the entry of art into the ‘post-medium condition’ the notion of practice – if one understands it as continuous work on particular subject matter using particular formal media – has lost its meaning as such. The art of the conceptual gesture stages the artistic act as a direct entry in the book of art history. A successful gesture rewrites history. Such a gesture is therefore, by definition, legible and unique. Its meaning must be as transparent as an argument in textual form, so that the general understanding of art and its history is altered by its clarity and persuasiveness. If this gesture has a revolutionary effect, that is, if it constitutes a profound intervention in the history of art, then it acquires the status of a singular event. This definition of the conceptual gesture as a unique historical event with a convincing meaning has serious consequences for the understanding of artistic production: in conceptual terms it limits the significance of an artistic work to the contribution it makes to a new understanding of art. And this contribution tends to be unique. After all, how often can anyone achieve a conceptual gesture of historic dimension?

Modernism still permitted artists to produce revolutions through continuous work in their own medium (that is to say in practice). A radical understanding of historical critical conceptualism, however, requires every producer of art to change history by coming up with a unique idea starting from absolute zero – he/she must do this in a manner that is both clear and lucid. The pressure to succeed, which modernism’s dedication to relentless avant-gardeism had already introduced, is now experienced even more acutely. As a result, we now have the tragic figure of the melancholy conceptualist, alone in an empty room waiting desperately for a revolutionary idea to come to him or her, or worse still, waiting for the next idea to come, trying to reinvent their work after their first success.

The irony here is that the type of art that in recent years has actually succeeded in turning the ideal of a historically influential and universally comprehensible gesture into reality, is in fact the so-called ‘one-liner’ art of the 1990s. The dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde fulfils all the necessary criteria, as does the artist’s self-portrait as a wax figure with the features of Sid Vicious in the pose of Andy Warhol’s Elvis: these represent unique statements demonstrating the new possibilities for interpreting both the concept of sculpture and the art-historical conventions for the representation of vanitas or self-portraiture, respectively. These works were universally understood and widely reported in all the media. So, strictly speaking, the successful conceptual gesture turns out to be nothing more than a well-told wisecrack. By taking the criteria of historical-critical conceptualism at its very word, ‘one-liner’ art demonstrates that the principle of the conceptual gesture scarcely differs from the commercial logic that lies behind the skilful launch of a publicity stunt or the effective placement of a hit single.

One might assume that the effective realisation of the conceptual gesture in the ‘one-liner’ idiom must seal the bankruptcy of the logic of strategic conceptualism. In some respects this conclusion might well be justified, if perhaps just a little premature. For only if one reduces the conceptual gesture to its strategic value alone does it cease to be possible to distinguish its significance from the media logic of the publicity stunt and the hit single. But how else is one to understand the gesture if not strategically? Brian O’Doherty suggests a more flexible definition in Inside the White Cube. He describes the conceptual gesture not only in terms of the logic of strategic intervention in history, but also in terms of an aesthetics of its own:

I suppose the formal content of a gesture lies in its aptness, economy and
grace. It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs
that bull, for it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and
ideas. It is to that degree didactic, as Barbara Rose says, though the word may
overplay the intent to teach. If it teaches, it is by irony and epigram, by
cunning and shock. A gesture wises you up. It depends for its effect on the
context of ideas it changes and joins. It is not art, perhaps, but artlike and
thus has a meta-life around and about art. Insofar as it is unsuccessful it
remains a frozen curio, if remembered at all. If it is successful it becomes
history and tends to eliminate itself. It resurrects itself when the context
mimics the one that stimulated it, making it ‘relevant’ again. So a gesture has
an odd historical appearance, always fainting and reviving.
5

O’Doherty here replaces the hard normative criteria of transparency and singularity with the more dynamic parameters of elegance, didacticism, irony and perspectivity. By stressing the particular aesthetic and pedagogic effect of the gesture on its public, he emphasises that the staging of the conceptual gesture constitutes a practice in material terms, which possesses a formal language of its own and achieves particular effects by use of particular means. Such an understanding of the material and medial aspects of the conceptual gesture as a form of artistic practice questions the ideal transparency of the gesture as an inscription in history, just as the concepts of irony and perspectivity relativise the idea of the gesture as a unique event. O’Doherty’s concept of history is not linear and normative but multi-perspectival and relational. The meaning of a gesture cannot therefore be taken directly from the gesture itself, but is dependent upon the historical context that it both actively construes and is retroactively perceived in. The meaning of the gesture (just like that of an ironic remark) is therefore not transparent but latent. The historical context is furthermore not given by history per se, nor has it one single meaning. O’Doherty understands the construction and reconstruction of historical connections as a form of artistic and critical practice in its own right. In this way, O’Doherty avoids the Modernist reduction of the gesture to one single throw of the dice by describing the staging of the conceptual gesture as material practice that opens up history as a dynamic field for action.

4. Painting as situative strategic practice which does not take its own legitimacy for granted

In principle you might say that a postmodern theorisation of the conceptual gesture differs from the modernist definition in that it understands the gesture not as a singular event with normative validity but as a strategic intervention into the history of art with a situational meaning. From the postmodern point of view conceptual gestures reflect the history and conditions of art by producing situations that show art in a light that is constantly new and changing. In practice it is probably easier to meet the challenge of producing surprising reflective situations than to cope with the pressure of producing singular grand events. This is probably why, in the context of the postmodern debate in art in the late 1970s, it again seemed possible to integrate painting situatively and strategically into conceptual practice. A common form of situative integration was the inclusion of painting as one object among many in comprehensive spatial setups (see, for example, Ilya Kabakov and the ‘Sots-Art’ artists). Another way to remodel painting according to a logic of situative strategic choices was to forcibly disseminate the meaning of the individual picture in a luxuriant web of references (for example, in Kippenberger’s paintings, where meaning can only be accessed through a multiplicity of cryptic references to other artworks and social events).

Yve-Alain Bois develops the idea of painting as conceptual practice along similar lines in his book Painting as Model.6 Referring to the theses Hubert Damisch proposes in his book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Bois describes the ‘strategic model’ in painting as the well-considered location of a work within a network of references: ‘Like chess pieces, like phonemes in language, a work has significance, as Lévi-Strauss shows, first by what it is not and what it opposes, that is, in each case according to its position, its value, within a field…’7 Bois then underlines the situative significance of such a strategic intervention in the field of art by distinguishing it sharply from the normative understanding of the historical validity of the work of art.

The strategic reading is strictly anti-historicist: it does not believe in the
exhaustion of things, in the linear genealogy offered to us by art criticism,
always ready, unconsciously or not, to follow the demands
of the market in search of new products, but neither does it believe in the
order of a homogeneous time without breaks, such as art history likes to
imagine.
8

Bois, however, goes a decisive step further in his defence of painting as conceptual practice. Referring to Damisch he argues that the medium of painting is by nature conceptual, and its conceptuality is produced not only by way of positioning a work within a particular set of external references. For Bois painting is essentially conceptual when it self-referentially and self-critically addresses its material qualities as well as the symbolic grammar of its own formal language. In relation to this immanent criticality, the strategic instalment of painting in a network of external references has the status of a meta-critical gesture. This means that this gesture essentially derives its critical force from the structural self-inquiry of a medium-specific art practice it simply takes it to another level. This conceptuality, however, only exists as a potential. Consequently, Bois differentiates between a progressive type of painting, one that recognises and develops this conceptual potential, and a more conventional painting that relies uncritically on a traditional understanding of the medium. In Bois’s view, in order for the conceptual potential to be activated, a painting must produce its own justification by means of continuous formal self-scrutiny and the creation of contextual relations.
In support of this he quotes the following from Damisch:

It is not enough, in order for there to be painting, that the painter take up
his brushes again,’ Damish tells us: it is still necessary that it be worth the
effort, it is still necessary that [the painter] succeed in demonstrating to us
that painting is something we positively cannot do without, that it is
indispensable to us, and that it would be madness – worse still, a historical
error – to let it lie fallow today.
9

In that he pleads for the possibility of justifying the medium of painting by developing its immanent conceptual potential, Bois mediates between a conceptual and a medium-specific perspective. He tries to break down the conflict between the normative account of the conceptual turn and a medium-specific perspective on art practice. Various general conclusions relating to a resolution of this conflict could be derived from Bois’s line of argument.

The medium-specific approach to painting is still possible in artistic practice and in critique. All it has lost is its status as self-evident. Since painting is realised today within the horizon of conceptual practice, it must be grounded in a context that is no longer its own. That means, on the one hand, that an appeal to the specifics of the medium as its sole justification is no longer possible. Painting can no longer just be painting. Today it is also necessarily a form of conceptual art, and as such it must be judged in relation to conceptual practices in other media, and in turn it must hold its own in this comparison. (Every group exhibition where different media are presented demonstrates this at a quite banal level.) But this also means that painting as practice can take strength precisely from the fact that by way of an immanent dialogue with its own history and conditions as a medium it arrives at a (situative strategic) self-justification within a more widely-spread conceptual horizon. In principle these conclusions correspond exactly to the thesis formulated by Thomas Lawson in his essay ‘Last Exit Painting’, in which the crisis in painting is understood as a positive opportunity, and the loss of its self-evident justification as a productive possibility that could provide painting with a conceptual basis again.10

5. Open Questions

The definition of situative strategic painting as an immanent conceptual practice has proven to be a practiceable one. It supplies the arguments for the necessary critique of retrograde approaches that repudiate the challenge of conceptual self-justification. It also allows for painting to be discussed as a relevant medium again, and thereby liberates it from the curse of a premature rejection at the hands of a normative understanding of history. Nevertheless, the ‘strategic model’ remains limited. To begin with, it can only describe the meaning of a painting in metaphors that are drawn from the conceptual field of argumentation; the main concepts that Bois finds for the meaning of painting are position’, ‘verification’ and ‘demonstration’. From this perspective, the agency of the artist would be limited to the declaration of his or her own position over and over again. ‘Here I stand, where do you stand?’ would be the invariable formula for any exchange that painting could provoke. This model is depressingly static. The description of positions in a field of opposites says nothing about the possibility of transforming that field, or any potential process of change that a work sets in motion.

Furthermore, a model that concentrates on interpreting a work only in terms of the strategic position it claims, effectively reduces the discussion of art in a no-less dismal fashion to the matter of its legitimation.11 No doubt, the question of whether a position is legitimate and how it legitimises itself is necessary if a critique is to investigate a work’s conceptual core and symbolic political standpoint. For the critique to have a conceptual edge it needs to discuss the legitimation of a work as a position. Yet, at the same time, every discussion of legitimacy is always based on the more than questionable assumption that something like legitimate art might actually exist. The experience of criticism, on the contrary, is precisely that all art can be adjudged legitimate from some viewpoints, and equally illegitimate when viewed from others. So in this sense the strategic model might be said to confuse the judgement of the completed work with the initial motivation of its production. For it does not follow from the fact that art will be scrutinised for its legitimacy that it was actually made with the intention of being legitimate, or that it can even be legitimate per se. Against this objection one of course could hold that a crucial point in the conceptualisation of art was precisely that the criticism of art was no longer considered to be a process that happened after the event, but an inner dynamic inherent in its production. Conceptual art is by definition art-critical art and the cogency of its critical position must therefore also be amenable to interrogation. Nevertheless, whether the critical potential of a work can be equated with the legitimacy of its strategic position is another question again, and one that still has to be discussed.

A further obvious limitation of the ‘strategic model’ is that, given the conceptual apparatus at its disposal, it does not provide any useful steps toward grasping the immanent qualities of a painting, even if it happens to actually recognise their existence in principle. All it can do is state that, for particular conceptual reasons, a painting is what it is. Any statement about what experience a painting communicates qua painting can scarcely be formulated with concepts like position, verification and demonstration. In fact it is questionable whether this quality of experience can be comprehended in conceptual categories at all, or whether the moment when the ‘strategic model’ reaches its limits really is the time when the art of describing aesthetic experiences comes into its own once again.

The final question that remains open is how painting, understood in terms of immanent conceptual practice, relates to the market and art institutions. A cynical position would be that as long as there are enough canvases to sell, and as long as the buyers perceive the conceptualisation of painting as just another refinement added to the commodity (one that does not trouble their bucolic conception of art), the market cares not a bit about the way painting has been subtly complicated by means of conceptual self-criticism. The counter-objection would be that, as Buchloh and Krauss point out, the abandonment of painting in favour of a purely conceptual process is no guarantee that such a practice will not also be appropriated – there are plenty of institutions specialising in the administration of conceptual types of work, and because of the absence of any material resistance, conceptual practices are even more likely to become trapped in institutional dependency. The choice of medium per se therefore says little about the critical potential that a work might develop in cases of doubt. With this contentious point we now arrive at a stalemate. It can only be resolved by a double appeal to criticism: painting’s present commercial boom certainly requires an acute conceptual critique of contemporary positions. At the same time the boom in interdisciplinary and project-based approaches at international biennales raises the question of how resistant ephemeral forms of practice are to the administrative logic of the global exhibition industry, and whether a renewed examination of the intractable materiality of certain media-specific approaches might not actually be what is needed at this precise moment.

Translated by Hugh Rorrison

— Jan Verwoert

Footnotes
  1. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames Hudson, 1999
  2. Thomas Lawson, ‘Last Exit Painting’, Artforum, October 1981, pp.40-47
  3. The transfer of the strategic model from the American school into German art criticism in this sense has produced a neurotic fixation on the examination of the legitimacy of art in discussions in the journal Texte zur Kunst, and a corresponding paranoid fear of illegitimacy among German artists.
  4. Ibid., p.15
  5. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999
  6. Ibid., p.519
  7. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, San Francisco: Lapis Press, 1986, p.70
  8. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990
  9. Ibid., p.254. See also Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaunecadmium, ou les dessous de la peinture, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984
  10. Y.-A. Bois, op. cit., p.256
  11. Ibid., p.255

===

R.H. Quaytman: Archive to Ark, the Subjects of Painting

Sarah Ganz Blythe

 

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, silkscreen ink and gesso on panel, 62.9 x 101.6cm. All images courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Onward! enough speculation

keep on copying

the page must be filled.

Everything is equal, the good and the evil,

the fruitful and the typical,

they all become an exaltation of the

statistical.

There is nothing but facts — and phenomena

Final Bliss

— Gustave Flaubert via Hanne Darboven via Douglas Crimp (via R.H. Quaytman)1

‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’, R.H. Quaytman asks.2 To address this question, she devises an ‘artist’s art history’ that follows a learning-by-doing model through which she inserts herself into the material presence of this history.

Her work in response to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) is a case in point. Klee first exhibited the transfer drawing with watercolour — a wide-eyed angel hovering with wings outstretched, gaping mouth, locks of hair and feathers fluttering — in 1920 at Galerie Goltz in Munich. It inspired Gershom Scholem to pen a poem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’ (1921), to Walter Benjamin, who had purchased the drawing from the show.3 In Benjamin’s hands, Klee’s angel became the ‘angel of history’ whose ‘face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. […] What we call progress is this storm.’4 Shortly after writing this in 1940 as part of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin is believed to have left the drawing in the care of Georges Bataille, who then passed it on to Theodor W. Adorno, who gave it to Scholem, who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Quaytman knew this life history when she visited the drawing there in 2014. She was struck by the figure’s ambiguity — angel or animal, male or female, self-portrait or alter ego? For one work in the series O Tópico, Chapter 27 (2014), she meticulously copied the image onto a wood panel, replicating Klee’s transfer technique, hoping to learn more through the making of the thing.5 In Quaytman’s rendering, a molten polyurethane splatter now comes between the angel and the past he suspiciously contemplates from a modest hole. A wide border of a geometric pattern derived from a Brazilian basket weave cleanly frames the black cloud; it is at once evocative of medieval icons and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions. Besides the afterglow of fluorescent paint applied to the top edge of the panel, there is no heavenly benevolence or ethereal escape here. It it is not the past that Quaytman’s angel surveys, but us, the viewers.

R.H. Quaytman, O Tópico, Chapter 27, 2014, encaustic, oil, gouache, urethane foam, silkscreen ink and gesso on two panels, 31.4 x 31.4cm and 82.6 x 82.6cm, detail

Such conscious positioning of viewership lies at the core of Quaytman’s work: ‘My pictures often reflect the space in front of the picture and the space the viewer is in, historically, optically or architecturally.’6 She achieves this through a working method that takes the conceptual form of an inconclusive book, in which each new exhibition of predominantly photography-based silkscreened images equates to a chapter that is developed in response to the location where they will be shown. ‘The ambition of this ongoing serialised system’, Quaytman writes, ‘is to develop a living, usable painting model, that corresponds with how — not only what — we see.’7 For example, the use of Klee’s Angelus Novus points towards her forthcoming body of work, Chapter 28, which will be presented in June of this year at the Israel Museum, while the border of the Atantowoto basket-weave pattern refers to Brazil, the eventual site of O Tópico, Chapter 27. The latter will be Quaytman’s first permanent installation, housed in a garden pavilion at the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, near Belo Horizonte. The building will take the form of the golden spiral, with interior walls positioned according to the Fibonacci sequence. The spiral’s curve is also registered in the gesso of several panels of the series, which themselves are proportioned according to the eight component parts of the golden ratio, a format the artist has adhered to since her first chapter, in 2001, and which she intends to pursue for the remainder of her career. While this conceptual framework connects the logic of the panels to that of the framing exhibition space, the panels’ surfaces register their surroundings via images of historical artworks, artists or events associated with the gallery, institution or location of display. The result of archival and field research, Quaytman’s ‘subjects’, as the Portuguese title O Tópico (‘The Topic’) suggests, are specific and wide-ranging, among them: a seed the artist found on the ground while visiting Brazil; a teenager posing in front of an old VW Bug, referring to an artwork by the Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes; and the artist Dawn Kasper, shown working on a drawing that says ‘chaos is a …’. The panels bring external referents into the gallery ‘in the hope that’, as Quaytman says, ‘…attention, whether from a gaze or a glance, can be contained, reflected and distracted’.8

In this sense, painting is made to work against some of its most traditional formulations. Rather than offering a window-like view onto other worlds, the panels press into the gallery space and are formulated so that each is to be read in relation to its neighbour or another piece in the chapter. Occasional plinths protruding from the panels of Quaytman’s paintings, or, elsewhere, shelves accommodating a selection of them, disrupt the suspension of disbelief that representational images can produce while affirming the paintings’ status as objects that will be stored away. Rather than invoking a hermetic processional encounter, in which visitors would stop reverentially in front of each work, Quaytman’s paintings are positioned ‘as objects that you passed by — as things that you saw not just head-on and isolated, but from the side, with your peripheral vision, and in the context of other paintings’.9 Working against what she has called the ‘aloneness and self-sufficiency’ of paintings that ‘behave like film in dark rooms’, the flatness achieved through silkscreen on gesso allows the panels to ‘reverberate with other paintings around’.10 A large vocabulary of artistic languages and references shapes this effect: abstraction and figuration, silkscreened photographs on gesso and polyurethane splats, absorbing Op art patterns and glimmering diamond-dust lines, hand-ground pigments and encaustic paint, printed text and striped lines that reference the panels’ plywood edges while evoking Barnett Newman’s zips.11 Quaytman speaks of creating sustained attention through a visual syntax that inculcates first, second, even third readings in which the paintings open up many possible meanings, much like words in a poem.12 For example, a sequence of silkscreened allusions to the paintings’ place of exhibition may be interrupted by an Op art pattern that also indexes the site, while a ‘caption’ in the form of an arrow suggests punctuation. This variety is held together by a grammar in the form of rules that govern Quaytman’s practice. Not unlike Richard Serra’s text piece Verb List (1967—68), which offers a series of focused ‘actions’ that generate new forms, Quaytman’s strict adherence to format (chapters), size (golden ratio) and support (gessoed plywood with bevelled edges) provides the structure through which materials and subjects may vary while remaining interconnected. Rather than closing down meaning and invention through an imposing single vision, the open structure of associative relations invoked by the panels allows distinct media, materials and subjects to remain themselves while also animating one another. Much like Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the polyphonic novel, in which many voices, styles and references coexist within the author’s construction, Quaytman’s system permits a plurality of independent voices that are each allowed their own space within the gallery context.13 In one work from O Tópico, Chapter 27, for example, a gestural blue-brown pool in waxy encaustic lies against the geometrical rigour of the golden spiral in egg-yolk yellow. Mondrian lozenges hung within viewing distance quietly reiterate a segment of the spiral’s arc while perpendicular trompe l’oeil stripes evoke the plywood stripes that hover above the basket-weave pattern. Distinct pieces, like words, exist in and of themselves while also animating one another in contribution to their group as a whole.

But, what might this whole or subject be? Perhaps it is painting itself, summoned and pointed to without solely using the medium of painting. Quaytman writes: ‘Despite my frequent use of photography, the digital and printmaking techniques, I use the name “painting” to describe what I do.’14 She seems to ask: can a painting be a painting while being something else? And, as if to test out her logic, she plays a game of substituting ‘painting’ as a noun for other words in a sentence. This grammar exercise plays out amid her notes that accompany each of the 61 plates in the artist’s book , Chapter 24 (2012): ‘Declension: the variants of the form of the noun, pronoun or adjective by which grammatical case, number and gender are identified.’15 Painting, like a part of speech, can be placed in different contexts and made to act as the subject, predicate, verb or noun and then asked if it still retains its status as painting. ‘Paintings, like words, lose their origin and become, over time, emblems.’16 Quaytman formally accomplishes this exercise by employing non-painting methods (photography, silkscreen, sculpture), but also through the use of historical paintings themselves. They make their appearance in almost every sequence, called up for their association with the exhibition’s context or to signal the next stop in Quaytman’s itinerary. Her litany of iconic paintings by largely male modernist masters includes, in addition to the aforementioned examples: El Lissitzky’s Prouns, Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun (1961), Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concepts), Piero Manzoni’s Achromes and Sigmar Polke’s artificial resin paintings. She also draws on the photographs of such artists as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Andrea Fraser. This ‘artist’s art history’ manifests itself through a range of replicative methods including the traditional academic mode of hand copying (such as the Klee) and the relatively recent technique of silkscreening (typically to reproduce paintings or photographs of other artists). Consistently, historical references are deliberately disrupted through shifts in colour, stark overlayed lines, shallow plinths, additional panels or the application of bulbous polyurethane splotches. This at once calls up the figures of painting’s past and interrupts, distorts and critically works against its utopic impulses and celebrated heroes.

Quaytman’s tactical approach is both inventive and resourceful. It balances the sheer desire to participate in painting while soberly mitigating the pitfalls of involvement.17 This is accomplished, in part, by fashioning painting’s narrative as the artist so chooses — calling up certain masters, alluding to particular radical moments. Quaytman takes what has come before as an opportunity to absorb and construct: ‘My rules were also made as a protest in a sense, but as a protest in favour of a medium — specifically painting. Maybe it was more of an accommodation than a protest. The rules come out of accommodating contextual facts that seem so unavoidable or endemic that they are not even seen anymore.’18 So, like the angel of history, Quaytman persistently assesses history and finds herself at once fascinated and unmoored by it. But rather than gingerly backing away from the accumulation of ruins, she acts as an anthropologist, collecting and marking pieces of that history. As she describes, this approach started in 2001: ‘The start of the new millennium, combined with the historical circumstances of 9/11 … induced a sharp sense of flowing time and the instinct to mark it.’19 Such marking literally manifests itself in O Tópico, Chapter 27 when her fingerprint overlays a pictogram of the Roman Empire taken from Emma Willard’s Universal History: In Perspective (1845). A source used in previous chapters, Willard’s textbook relates to other pedagogical references, including knitting patterns and instructions for making knots. Throughout, Quaytman’s acts of transformation are in the spirit of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur, who intervenes and relocates signs and sources into new positions or contexts, disrupting their original context or narrative to constitute a new discourse.20 The once-removed (silkscreened photographs of paintings) or even twice-removed (silkscreened X-rays of paintings) presence of historical materials testifies to her ambivalence about the meaning of the past, while also offering an actionable, often critical way to insert herself into a number of structures that surround it: the patriarchal nature of painting’s past, the history of place, the systems of the art world.

Lest her purposes be misinterpreted, or not interpreted at all, this process of bricolage is always undertaken with logic and explanation. Perhaps as a function of her years spent occupying many positions — curator, writer, editor, gallery owner, artist’s assistant — or in resistance to notions of the impulsive, expressive creator, Quaytman consistently explains her purpose using the art world’s most viable formats: books akin to catalogues raisonnés (Allegorical Decoys, 2008; Spine, 2011; , 2012); statements issued with each chapter; and display instructions concerning how purchased works should be hung. Knowledge gained from lived experience has allowed her to smartly play with but also work against the pitfalls of the art world to assure that hers is not the forgotten, unstorable or unwritten-about work. She manages the ‘circulation of the painting as it either folds into the archive of the book/studio or embarks into the world — archive to ark’.21 Indeed, Quaytman adopts the gallery as ark, all-containing and protective, as an inevitable construct. Unlike the negotiations between self and history apparent in her version of an ‘artist’s art history’, the gallery remains unscathed, an aesthetic container of silent dominance much like what Brian O’Doherty described in the 1970s.22 However, Quaytman’s system is devised to accommodate the reality that this well-ordered ark is but a temporary haven — its contents will soon be archive bound.

This focus on the past is tempered by Quaytman’s interrogation of the manufactured narrative of art history: again, ‘Did early abstraction inadvertently indoctrinate us into modes of thinking and perceiving that now prevent the revolutionary experience they first provided?’23 Without answering this in the affirmative or negative, the question itself opens up a line of enquiry about painting’s efficacy then and now. Did early-twentieth-century avant-garde practices actually have the revolutionary impact we now pine for? Did its novel formulations incite revolutionary experiences we can no longer access? If so, can rehearsing its forms and stories ever provide such revolutionary experiences again?24 For Quaytman, the subject of painting is the devoted commitment to continuously working through these questions, at once to ‘maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence’.25 As such, it is necessary to remain at a proper distance from which to observe, analyse and speculate, as the logic, material form and compositions of her paintings gesture back to history and location, left and right to elsewhere in the chapter or the next, and directly in front to us. Her work suggests, like the Angelus Novus, that our present is an ambiguous state of affairs, caught between the storm ‘called progress’ blowing from Paradise and a fascination with ‘the wreckage of the past’.26 In this suspended limbo, these pictures want something of us, as W.J.T. Mitchell would suggest.27 They compel us to ask: Should we perpetuate the angel’s fixation on the past, or turn around? How might the past be our constant companion along the way to Paradise? What might the subjects of painting be tomorrow?

Footnotes
  1. R.H. Quaytman,,Chapter 24, Mönchengladbach: Museum Abteiberg, 2012.
  2. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, October, vol.143, Winter 2013, p.49.
  3. See Gershom Gerhard Scholem, ‘Greetings from Angelus’, The Fullness of Time (ed. and intro. by Steven M. Wasserstrom, trans. Richard Sieburth), Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2003.
  4. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.249.
  5. I saw portions of O Tópico, Chapter 27 laid out in Quaytman’s studio in September 2014, and in November visited its full installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York, which was organised as a prelude for its ultimate destination in Inhotim, Brazil in a pavilion designed by Solveig Fernlund.
  6. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, p.247.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., text printed on the cover.
  9. Steel Stillman, ‘In the Studio: R.H. Quaytman,’ Art in America, June/July 2010, p.88.
  10. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with David Joselit, ‘I Modi’, Mousse, issue 29, June—August 2011, p.136.
  11. ‘The diamond-dust paintings attract focus, as opposed to repelling it the way the Op patterns tend to do. They pull you in while the others push you out.’ R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., p.157.
  12. Conversation with the artist, 21 September 2014.
  13. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  14. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  15. R.H. Quaytman,, Chapter 24, op. cit.
  16. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  17. Quaytman has said she lives by the Constructivist sculptor Katarzyna Kobro’s statement: ‘I like to have fun by correcting what was not finished in any former artistic movement.’ Quoted in R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.50.
  18. R.H. Quaytman in conversation with D. Joselit, ‘I Modi’, op. cit., p.131.
  19. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  20. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  21. R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit., text printed on the cover.
  22. See Brian O’Doherty, ‘The Gallery as Gesture’, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, pp.87—107.
  23. R.H. Quaytman, ‘R.H. Quaytman’, op. cit., p.49.
  24. See Saint-Simon’s definition of the avant-garde in Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and Léon Halévy’s L’Artiste, le Savant, et l’Industriel: Dialogue (1825), reprinted in translation in Art in Theory, 1815—1900 (ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood with Jason Gaiger), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, pp.40—41.
  25. R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, Ghent: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2008.
  26. W. Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, op. cit.
  27. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

========

DEMYSTIFYING GERHARD RICHTER’S GESTURAL ABSTRACTION

Painting in the Gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically?

These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.

These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities?  Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.

Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.

Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue-Yellow[Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces.In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today.  “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.

In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.

From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.

Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.

Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.

“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962),6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.

The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.

Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.

Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.


NOTES

  1. To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult gerhard-richter.com.
  2. See, respectively, whitney.org/Collection/RoyLichtenstein/662, lichtensteinfoundation.org/0391.htm.
  3. See tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-marilyn-diptych-t03093.
  4. See mfa.org/collections/object/red-disaster-34765.
  5. See www.warhol.org/ArtCollections.aspx?id=1541.
  6. For the works by James Rosenquist, see www.jimrosenquist-artist.com.

Contributor

Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism

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The Triumph of Painting

ESSAYS

AN ART THAT EATS ITS OWN HEADBarry Schwabsky


Painting in the Age of the Image


We live in the age of the image. But don’t ask me to define the word: its very elusiveness is of the essence. We talk about image when we want to indicate an appearance that seems somehow detachable from its material support. This is most obvious when we speak of a photographic image: it’s the same image whether it’s presented as a small snapshot or blown up as a big cibachrome, glowing on the monitor of my computer or mechanically reproduced in the pages of a magazine.


It has often been said that the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century changed the nature of painting by withdrawing from it the task of representation that had so long been at its core, thereby enabling the emergence, in the early twentieth century, of a fully abstract art. The initial plausibility of this story, however, should not disguise its falseness. Any mediocre painter of the nineteenth century could depict a person, object or landscape with greater accuracy and vividness than a photograph. (If nothing else, the painter could show the colour of things, hardly a negligible dimension of visual experience.) The real attraction of the photograph – beyond simple economics since a photographic portrait cost a lot less than one in oils – lay not in its capacity for iconic representation but rather in what has been called its indexical quality, that is, the apparent causal connection between an object and its image. The image comes from what it shows, a sort of relic.


Far from irrational, there may be an important truth lurking in this notion of the image as a detachable constituent of the reality it pictures. In any case, it finds an echo not only in the transformation of art since the advent of photography but even in philosophy. In the late eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant taught that we can know, not things in themselves, but rather phenomena, appearances. The ‘thing in itself’ is something whose existence can only be intellectually deduced. The perceiving mind, in this view, is something like an idea of a portrait painter. The subject of the portrait, the sitter, is over there; the painter with his brushes, palette and easel is over here. There is no direct contact between the two of them. Instead, the painter constructs a set of appearances on the canvas that somehow corresponds to the features of the sitter. At the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the camera, a different idea of perception became plausible. Henri Bergson declared that we are acquainted with the world not through mere appearances that are somehow different in kind from things in themselves, but through what he called, precisely, ‘images’, which are part and parcel of the real. The mind, for Bergson, is less like a painter than it is like a camera, its sampled images not fundamentally other but simply quantitatively more limited than the ‘aggregate of “images”’ that is reality. Our perceptual apparatus is, one might say, touched by the thing it perceives as the photographic plate or film is touched by the light that comes from the object.


Abstract painting developed under the spell of a philosophy not unlike Kant’s: that the ultimate reality was not the one indicated by the senses, but something intellectually deducible. This was the era of Malevich and Mondrian, and for a long time it seemed misguided to think of modern or contemporary painting primarily in terms of the images it might bear. The most famous and most concise formulation of this view was, of course, Clement Greenberg’s: ‘Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first.’ (Subsequently, one began to signal adherence to this dictum simply by adjuring the word ‘picture’, preferring ‘painting’, a usage still in force today.) To look at a painting for its image could only be to lose sight of the painting’s material, physical existence, leading to the absurdities eloquently denounced by Yve-Alain Bois in his well-known essay ‘Painting as Model’, where he lashes into critics who ‘would make Malevich’s Black Square a solar eclipse, Rothko’s late work stylized versions of the Pietà and Deposition, or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie an interpretation of the New York subway map’. In this view, to think of painting in relation to image was to see it as a form of representation, however veiled, whereas the great abstractionists had shown that painting could have quite other functions.


Of course, images never left painting, not even in the work of sometime abstractionists like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. In the early eighties, image-based painting took the art world by storm. Yet the renown of the Neo-Expressionists (as that generation of painters was called whether the term suited them or not) was much resented and short-lived. Their work has never had the disinterested critical assessment that, perhaps, may now be possible. It was really a decade later that a new generation of painters began to emerge, more slowly and steadily than the Neo-Expressionists, and gathering real force only late in the nineties – painters like Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Thomas Scheibitz, or many others whose fascination with images was clearly central to their work. They were clearly up to something other than a simple reversion to the dogmas of the pre-modernist academies. In fact, many of them may have been as much influenced by the work of non-painters like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley or Jeff Koons as by anything in the history of painting, both Old Master and modern, which they explore freely. Their sometimes earnest, sometimes slackerish technique – at times academic, at others approaching the simplicity of the Sunday painter or the extreme stylisation of the decorator – often seems to recklessly evoke everything that had been off-limits to serious painting. In some of this work one can see parallels in the once despised late work of artists like de Chirico and Picabia.


A criticism too enamoured of the tradition of abstraction, by now threatening to become academic in turn, is ill-equipped to deal with these new manifestations of the image in painting. But so would be a criticism based on the criteria of the Old Masters. The image as we encounter it in contemporary painting is something quite distinct from depiction or representation in European painting before Modernism. Think of all the training in perspective, the investigations of anatomy – the painter was working, in a systematic, indeed almost scientific way to reconstruct pictorially the real world before his eyes, and therefore had to understand not simply its surface but its structure. Contemporary painters, needless to say, do nothing of the sort. Bergsonians without knowing it, they work from a reality that is always already image. The Impressionists were already pointing in this direction when they changed the focus from the self-subsistent object to the shimmering play of its appearances. A more urgent precedent for contemporary painting, however, is the Pop Art of the sixties: Roy Lichtenstein taking comic strips as his models, James Rosenquist mimicking billboards, or Andy Warhol with his grainy news photos. Painters who cultivated the look of the snapshot, like Gerhard Richter or Malcolm Morley, were pursuing similar ends. But notice the difference between the image-consciousness of the painters who have emerged in recent years and that of these elders: taking photographs, comics or billboards as one’s material – simply because they are clearly limited categories of image material – still seems to imply that there could be a realm beyond the image that the artist might otherwise have elected to access: it implies a quasi-polemical choice of the image-realm over some other reality. That’s a polemic today’s painters no longer seem to feel called upon to make. Instead, they find everything to be a matter of images.


Painters like Doig, Marlene Dumas or Luc Tuymans – to name three of the most influential artists at work today – make work that is entirely permeated by a photographic reality, that is, a reality composed of detachable appearances; yet in contrast to Richter or Morley, they feel no need to represent the ‘look’ of the photograph. The painting remains painterly. To say that contemporary painters treat reality as an aggregate of images, in Bergson’s phrase, is not to say that they paint it with neutrality, or with pure aesthetic distance, or without commitment. On the contrary, their engagement with the image is precisely that, a form of engagement, and inevitably conveys an emotional stance, whether it be the piss-taking disdain typical of Tuymans’ saturnine gloom, the airy bemusement that emanates from Sophie von Hellerman’s paintings, Ian Monroe’s sense of claustrophobia, or Cecily Brown’s frenetic urgency. The effects are often uncomfortable. wangechi mutu’s images are images of the body, but always awkward and resistant, while Dexter Dalwood’s are spaces, plausible enough to draw one in but too disjointed to actually inhabit. Much of this work has a syncretic quality that could not have existed without the example of modernist collage, but by folding its disjunctive effect back into paint — an actual heterogeneity of materials is exceptional here, and when it occurs, as in the work of Michael Raedecker or David Thorpe, it represents not the shock of an irruption of the real into art, as it did in different ways for Cubism, Dada and Constructivism, but something more like an incursion of the homely distraction of crafts and hobbies into the artistic field.


This fascination with craft has the same source as the more widespread attraction to painterliness, among today’s younger painters, as opposed to the seamless surface of photorealism: not an overturning of hierarchies between high and low cultures, but a more fundamental concern with a physical involvement in the image. For although it was photography that taught us the modern idea of the image, it is painting that allows us to internalise it. It’s a question of touching and being touched. The photograph may have been touched by the light of its object, but the sense of contact is entirely subsumed in the seamlessness of the photograph’s surface. Painters like Dumas and Tuymans, and so many others who freely interpret photographic imagery, are attempting neither to disguise its photographic basis in order to retain an aesthetic effect, nor to reproduce the appearance of the photograph in order to neutralise it. Their strategy is not essentially different from that of colleagues who may not directly use photographs in the work process but who nevertheless treat the world they paint as wholly image. The surface of painting, then, is for current painting something that partakes neither of the homogeneity of the photographic emulsion nor the heterogeneity of collage. It is a place where both differences and similarities are consumed. In a way, Schutz’s painting Face Eater (2004), can be taken as a paradigmatic painting of the moment. With its evident allusions to Picasso and Bacon, it clearly signals its art-historical allegiances, but the painting wears its citations lightly – the paintings of the two modern masters, and notably those of Bacon which are themselves based on photographic vision, are simply part of Schutz’s image-world. It is hilarious and terrifying at once. A head tries to swallow itself and in the process it does not disappear, but the senses become confused: the mouth sees by consuming the organs of vision, the eyes feast on their own imminent consumption. Is this an emblem of the artist’s solipsism? Not necessarily. The painting declares itself to be – borrowing a resonant phrase from the literary theorist Stanley Fish – a self-consuming artefact, but does consumption really take place? Not really. Instead, we are shown a commotion of the senses that seems as pleasurably seductive as it may be neurotic. To look at it is practically to feel one’s own teeth start reaching up to bite the upper lip. It’s an image about interiorising as image even oneself. And in that image, touching reality.

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The Triumph of Painting


The Mnemonic Function of the Painted Image

Alison M. Gingeras


‘Not being remembered at all: this has, in the end, been the fate of the subjects of most photographs.’ Geoffrey Batchen


The desire to ensnare and preserve memory is a fundamental human pursuit. Photography, with its capacity to indexically depict the world, long seemed to surpass painting as the optimal tool for capturing the fleeting instant. Yet amid the overabundance of photographically generated images in the world today, photography has slowly revealed its limits. The advent of photography has taught us that memory is not precise; it is nebulous, malleable, ever-changing. The sharpness and precision of camera-made images conflicts with the way the human brain remembers. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen provocatively argues the ‘straight’ photograph has always been an insufficient vehicle for memory. Over the course of the medium’s popularization, people have found ways to transform photographs into objects by adorning them with paint, elaborately framing them, incorporating them into jewellery or devotional objects. The aim of making these hybrid photo-objects is to ‘enhance their memory capacities’ through sensorial manipulation. These embellishments ‘counteract the fact of death’, and aid the photograph in its struggle against being forgotten by the living.


Certain contemporary painters have long since understood the mnemonic insufficiency of the photograph and have capitalized on their own medium’s strength in this domain. The painted image, with its material sensuality, tactility, and atmospheric possibilities, corresponds more closely to the imprecision of the human brain’s mnemonic functions. Memory is often triggered by the banal, by otherwise vacant or impressionistic details that prompt the senses through association. Painted images – precisely because they lack the pictorial authority and truth-telling capacity of photography – can more easily trigger a free play of association or become a catalyst for a web of connections that relate to the viewer’s own memory bank. Inverting the photograph’s claim to instantaneity, the painstaking, artisanal nature of a painting’s own making metaphorically relates to the mental intensity and time required by the act of reminiscence. As curator Russell Ferguson has surmised, ‘with photography in command of specificity, advanced painting seeks ambiguity.’


Artists such as Wilhelm Sasnal and Kai Althoff have seized upon the mnemonic potential of painting to weave together hybrid tableaux, conflating personal stories and collective events. Living and working in Poland, Sasnal culls his subjects from several recurrent categories: architectural structures, organic/plant forms, portraiture (most frequently he paints his wife Anka), film stills (often appropriated from Polish cinema), album and book covers. Rarely painting from life, the camera’s lens is what consistently mediates Sasnal’s source imagery. Sasnal’s stylistic range is as varied as are his sources for inspiration; in any single exhibition, his work can run the gamut of pop, photorealism, informal minimalism and gestural abstraction, among others. He uses these different painterly techniques and styles to transform and elevate his photographic source images into cryptic signs, powerful emblems and poetic pictures. Mixing the historical and personal with the random and trivial, Sasnal creates a pictorial rebus that is simultaneously accessible to the viewer and yet remains deeply subjective. Each picture is like a jump cut, taking the viewer back and forth in time and space, from near present to distant past, bird’s eye view to microscopic close-ups that dissipate into abstraction. This telescoping in-and-out resembles the way the human mind retains and transforms memories, converting them into a string of ever-mutating images.


Like Sasnal, the Cologne-based artist Kai Althoff’s work is driven by an inextricable mélange of intimate fictions and allusions to Germany’s highly charged history. Althoff channels his obsession with adolescence, homoeroticism and utopian communities into an astounding formally and materially varied oeuvre. His best-known series entitled Impulse (2001) is drenched in narratives and imagery taken from Germany’s collective memory. German folklore, Prussian military regalia, as well as Catholic mysticism have directly inspired his iconography. His compositions are mostly populated by a series of androgynous characters in period settings and dress – often illustrating the artist’s own alter egos. The figures and scenes that are depicted in Impulse are rendered with great dexterity; not only do their costumes and uniforms evoke the First World War, but they strategically recall the style and draftsmanship of such early twentieth century German artists as George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. These stylistic borrowings are as much a self-conscious acknowledgement of art historical antecedents as they are part of Althoff’s mnemonic alchemy.


Three young German artists – Franz Ackermann, Thomas Scheibitz and Dirk Skreber – combine the languages of figuration and abstraction in their painting to explore a different aspect of public memory. Less narrative and personal than Althoff or Sasnal, these three artists have each developed a unique conceptual procedure (as well as signature style) that allows them to investigate universal experience and collective consciousness. An inveterate voyager, Ackermann records his journeys around the globe in the form of dense, pop-flavoured canvases that often incorporate sculptural elements or photographic collage. Entitling these works ‘Mental Maps’ or ‘Evasions’, Ackermann translates his physical and mental experiences into a painted atlas of a world that is both real and imagined. While his renderings contain numerous recognizable fragments – such as architectural motifs, sprawling urban plans, silhouetted skyscrapers and dynamic transportation networks – his picture planes equally contain passages of exuberant abstraction. Ackermann’s shrilly-fluorescent palette and undulating forms echo the fleeting impressions of the tourist/traveller who is incapable of verbalizing their experiences when they return home. Ackermann treats the canvas as a privileged site to exorcise his memories, though his cartographic recollections are open-ended enough to allow the viewer to project their own urban reminiscences. In essence, on each viewing one recomposes Ackermann cartographies according to his or her own experience.


By merely travelling around the corner to the newsagent’s shop, Thomas Scheibitz has amassed a vast archive of human experience. His countless clippings of found images appropriated from the deluge of mass media publications serve as the basis of his canvases. Scheibitz takes the most banal of singular objects – a suburban house, a flower, a man’s face – and formally manipulates them into semi-abstract compositions. Using a sickly, glacial palette of purples, pinks, blues, yellows and greens, Scheibitz subjects remain somewhat recognizable, though the abstraction process produces an alienating effect. Instead of romanticizing the mnemonic potential of ordinary consumer products, Scheibitz uses painting to distil them into cold, cerebral objects of contemplation. Scheibitz has often compared his practice with scientific research in the area of ‘public memory’. Having read about a series of experiments in which brain specialists recorded the patterns in neural activity of human subjects when hearing certain commonplace words, Scheibitz sees his choice of prosaic imagery as a similar exercise in stimulating our universal consciousness.


Dirk Skreber similarly fuels his painterly practice with collective experience, though his interest veers towards a more visceral terrain. With the saturation of twenty-four hour news channels and the endless stream of infotainment available on the Internet, the spectacle of disaster – whether natural or man-made – has become one of the most banal forms of experience in contemporary life. Painting on a monumental scale and using aerial compositional techniques that mimic the P.O.V. of surveillance cameras, Skreber portrays gruesome car crashes, floods of biblical proportion and impending train wrecks with a cold-blooded fascination. Yet unlike Warhol, Skreber’s preoccupation with death and disaster does not seem to be lifted from a mass media source. Instead, Skreber’s lushly painted images of catastrophe seem to be distilled from our collective nightmares. These disembodied images are like phantom memories, not based in actual events but part of the universal experience of contemporary life.


Albert Oehlen, who occupies the dual role of ‘senior’ artist and agent provocateur in this loose agglomeration, uses his vast knowledge of painting’s history to debase his own medium. As one of the 80’s proponents of ‘bad painting’ (alongside Martin Kippenberger), Oehlen deliberately pillages from a repertoire of established genres, techniques and idioms to demonstrate the failures of both abstraction and figuration. As Diedrich Diederichsen has written of Oehlen, ‘If [he] was to rise above the contemporary criticism of painting’s viability as a practice, he would have to work in the embattled medium: to create the object criticized. He wanted to do three things: to demystify the painting process, presenting it as a series of tricks and ruses; not only to present this critique but almost to ‘say’ it, since he believes that painting functions like, and indeed is, a language; and to create objects that were clearly paintings yet that could speak without illusion, and without constant mystification.’ In order to achieve these ambitious goals, Oehlen uses the memory of his own medium against itself, to deflate painting’s own mythology in order to rebuild it anew.


Once threatened by the advent of photomechanical devices, painting has struggled against slipping into irrelevancy, in the same way that human beings grapple with the possibility of being forgotten. Yet since the contemporary viewer has become so saturated with camera-made images, hyperrealistic forms such as photography and film have become banal and ineffective. Painting has regained a privileged status. The medium’s tactility, uniqueness, mythology and inherent ambiguities has allowed painting to become an open-ended vehicle for both artist and viewer to evoke personal recollections, to embody collective experience and reflect upon its own history in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2004, pp. 96 – 97.


Russell Ferguson, The Undiscovered Country, Los Angeles, The Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 2004, p. 18.


Diederich Diederichsen, ‘The Rules of the Game: An interview with Albert Oehlen’, Artforum, November 1994.

Fantasy Formalist Painter Nicole Eisenman: Interviews, Images & Texts

 

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W magazine

Culture » Art & Design » Nicole Eisenman: Brushes with Greatness

Eisenman with works in progress.

Nicole Eisenman: Brushes with Greatness

One of eight women artists who are storming the boys’ club.

“I take downtime seriously,” Nicole Eisenman says over the phone from her summer house on New York’s Fire Island a week after the seasonal hordes have cleared out. “It’s lovely when no one’s here.” For the Brooklyn-based painter, the moments between exhibitions are often when her brain opens up to new strategies—like when, in 2009, she traded elaborate storytelling in the form of classically painted scenes of, say, a convivial beer garden for simpler, masklike works similar to those included in the MoMA show. “For me, it was really a different approach,” Eisenman, 49, says of the paintings, which hover somewhere between figuration and abstraction. “These portraits are about color, shape, balance, symmetry. It’s as close to pure formalism as I’m probably ever going to get.” Not that she’s entirely forsaken narrative: Recently, Eisenman moved out of the Williamsburg house she shared with her then-partner and their two children—whose bedroom there is covered with murals she did years ago—and into an apartment nearby. “The kids have a whole new mural now.”

The Jewish Museum


Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder at the Jewish Museum

View of Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder, The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder at the Jewish Museum

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder
On view through August 9, 2015

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Ave at 92nd St
New York, NY 10128w.thejewishmuseum.org

In the latest installment of the Masterpieces & Curiosities exhibition series, Nicole Eisenman’s Seder (2010), a painting commissioned by the Jewish Museum as part of Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism (2010–11), is presented with portraits and objects from the institution’s vast holdings. Eisenman infuses her work with dark humor, contemporary fears and desires, and knowing critiques of pop culture and art history. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to view Eisenman’s Seder in context with seldom-seen yet important collection works that help illuminate her painterly approach and her chosen subject. Paintings by Leon Kossoff, Hyman Bloom, Raphael Soyer, and Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, among others, complement an array of Seder plates from the 18th century to the present, two of which were created by Eisenman for this exhibition. Also on view are two paintings by the artist’s great-grandmother, Esther Hammerman, on loan from the Eisenman Family. Through this varied display of artworks and historical objects in dialogue, Eisenman’s Seder can be seen as both responding to and advancing a storied visual and material tradition of Jewish culture.

Nicole Eisenman was born in Verdun, France, and received her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2005, she and the artist A. L. Steiner cofounded Ridykeulous, an artist-run collective that focuses primarily on queer and feminist art and produces exhibitions, performances, and publications. Eisenman was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 2013. Eisenman lives and works in New York.

Public programs

A Closer Look gallery talks
March 30; April 6 and 20; May 4 and 18; June 8 and 22; July 6 and 20; August 3

This in-depth exploration of select works of art in the exhibition galleries occurs Mondays at 1pm.
Free with museum admission. Find out more here.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Nicole Eisenman’s Seder is organized by Joanna Montoya Robotham, Neubauer Family Foundation Assistant Curator. The series is organized by Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs, and Daniel S. Palmer, Leon Levy Assistant Curator.

Public programs at the Jewish Museum are made possible by endowment support from the William Petschek Family, the Trustees of the Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation, Barbara and Benjamin Zucker, William W. Hallo, the late Susanne Hallo Kalem, the late Ruth Hallo Landman, the Marshall M. Weinberg Fund, with additional support from Marshall M. Weinberg, the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Foundation, the Saul and Harriet M. Rothkopf Family Foundation and Ellen Liman.

Additional support is provided by Lorraine and Martin Beitler and through public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

ART IN AMERICA
Jun. 15, 2012

Nicole Eisenman’s Prints and People

Nicole Eisenman working at Harlan & Weaver, New York.

Eight months ago, Nicole Eisenman locked her paints away and turned exclusively to prints. Operating feverishly in four different workshops, both alone and in collaboration, the Brooklyn-based artist has produced a trove of works in various mediums—etching, lithography, monotype and woodcut. Her large, inventive monotypes—colorful works focusing a big head, or on a single figure or two in playful combinations—were her contribution to the most recent Whitney Biennial, often singled out for praise in reviews of the show. Eisenman is currently exhibiting her prints in all mediums at Leo Koenig Gallery in New York, through June 30.

Eisenman first achieved notoriety in the early 1990s for her graphic brilliance, as demonstrated in drawings that she produced in profusion, at small and grand scale. The irreverence of her content—what was newly being called “queer” art—was at that time something unprecedented. Drawings ranged from one-off sight gags on tiny scraps of paper to giant murals depicting all-female scenes—shipwrecks, desert islands, an under-water film shoot—replete with sex and violence. In a wall drawing at the 1996 Whitney Biennial, she depicted the destruction of the Whitney Museum itself. While over the years she has tempered the excesses of her subject matter, Eisenman has returned to graphic exuberance in her recent prints. Her tone has darkened in these works, but she is no less experimental in her exploration of form and content.

With one of her collaborators, Andrew Mockler of Jungle Press, Eisenman took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum and looked at dozens of historical prints. One senses the ghostly presence of printmaking artists from the past—Beckmann and Picasso, Goya and Munch—in the works on view. But, as Mockler observes, “she’s just able to digest all that stuff and make it an Eisenman.”

A.i.A. caught up with Eisenman on the heels of her Koenig opening.

FAYE HIRSCH: I remember a conversation you and I had a few years ago about prints. You were getting ready for a collaboration at Yale—Rochelle Feinstein’s program of getting an artist and a master printer to collaborate.

NICOLE EISENMAN: Yeah, I was asked to pull some prints out of the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection and talk about them to the students. Then there was a separate visit—they invite artists to make a print in the print shop, and then the printer gets one, the artist gets one and Yale gets one, which is a brilliant idea. I don’t know why every school doesn’t do that. And they got [master printer] Craig Zammiello to come do the etching.

I’d toyed around with etching here and there. I learned how to do it in college when I was in Rome—really basic cross-hatching techniques and stuff like that. But it takes a concentrated effort to get to know a material as complicated as any of these processes are.

Especially lithography: still after nine months of doing it, I am as at much of a loss as I was when I first started. Etching I get. You throw acid on the metal and it burns the metal. But try to explain to me how water and oil etch a rock. I don’t get it. I can’t even frame my questions about it.

HIRSCH: I am very struck by how, with each of those processes, you do something completely different. And also by how historically savvy they are. Do you think about Beckmann or Munch?

EISENMAN: I do. As I started this project I read a lot of books and made trips to museums. Andrew took me to the print collection at the Met. I was getting a crash course in the history of printmaking. Munch is someone I looked at a lot, and Picasso was absolutely the number one man for etching. I can’t get enough of Picasso’s etchings. You don’t really understand how fucking brilliant they are until you try to do it yourself. It’s a little bit of the frustrating thing about printmaking—it kind of looks easy, and it’s really not. The level of density he gets—it came as a beautiful surprise.

HIRSCH: You really made a decision to concentrate on printmaking for a period of time.

EISENMAN:  I’ve been working in my studio for seven years painting, but in August I packed up my oil paints in a big strong box with a lock. I whitewashed the walls and the floor. And I scrubbed and disinfected every inch of it. So I had this beautiful white cube, and I started a yearlong works on paper and prints project.

HIRSCH: Why did you decide to do that?

EISENMAN: I don’t know. I think I went to the [IFPDA] print fair [in New York], I don’t know. I’m trying to remember where it came from.

HIRSCH: It seems like such a natural fit.

EISENMAN: That’s what it is. I like works on paper. My origins, back in the ’90s, were in works on paper. I was going back to that place, but not directly. I would have these processes sort of mediate the drawing.

HIRSCH: You’ve also been working at workshops—in lithography with Andrew Mockler at Jungle Press in Brooklyn, and in etching with Felix Harlan and Carol Weaver at Harlan & Weaver on Canal Street. Those are really high-end collaborators. What about the monotypes?

EISENMAN: I did those myself at the amazing Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, in upstate New York. I rented time on their press. It’s a women’s collective, just beautiful. Anyone can go there, and they give grants to some people so they don’t have to pay anything. It’s a good old-fashioned women’s collective, really well run, with really good equipment. I made the monotypes I’m showing at the gallery there. The ones at the Whitney I did in Brooklyn on a press I rented from [artist and master printer] Lothar Osterburg.

And there’s another press I’ve been working with in Brooklyn on the woodcuts, called Ten Grand Press, which is Marina Ancona’s—she’s kind of a new kid on the block. She has a great little shop.

HIRSCH: Those woodcuts are incredible. I’ve never seen anything quite like them.

EISENMAN: Really? That’s so nice.

HIRSCH: How did you and Marina get those strange colors? The values are close, but the hues so unexpected.

EISENMAN: All this stuff is so much a result of collaboration.

HIRSCH: Did that draw you to prints specifically?

EISENMAN: Part of the appeal of prints for me was getting out of the solitude of my studio. I was going through a difficult breakup. Being able to go to a shop—having standing appointments with three different shops and three different sets of people three times a week—really kept me going through the fall and winter.  Having that company, that distraction and camaraderie, was kind of a life-saver.

HIRSCH: Technically those prints are amazing, and you have always just known how to draw. But I did find the subject matter to be rather dark—even though there’s still all this clowning around and playfulness, especially in the monotypes. It seems a lot about loneliness, about going out to bars and crying.

EISENMAN: Part of this came from looking at Picasso’s prints. He was able to siphon raw feeling—his reactions to a drama he created, really, between his mistress and his wife. He poured it all into his Suite 156 etchings. They’re so gorgeous and heartfelt and heart-wrenching. And looking at those I felt free, like permission had been granted  to let it be as personal as I needed it to be.

HIRSCH: Well it definitely works. Have you found you work very differently in the different studios?

EISENMAN: The personalities definitely affect what’s going on. When I work alone, or with Marina, it’s easier for me to open up the queer and sexual subject matter. But what all three have in common, which is so much fun, is the willingness to experiment, to push the limits. Harlan and Weaver were just incredibly patient; there’s such a learning curve in etching. The stuff I did at the beginning was pretty straightforward, but the last—that beer garden—there are a lot of complex, different processes going on in that print.

All the shops present different atmospheres. Each is really a reflection of its [proprietors’] hearts and brains, and you’re walking right in and making yourself at home. Harlan and Weaver have a really beautiful, almost gentle, old-world style—so gorgeous and civilized. We have lunch everyday at noon, and all the interns, everyone working there—we all eat together. They touch a different era. Andrew is just a nut, he’s really fucking hilarious, he sings a lot, and the atmosphere at Jungle Press is fun and goofy.

The tough part is that you’re working in front of people; there’s an awkwardness of having to think on the spot. That’s why there are a lot of scenes of people drinking.

HIRSCH: What do you mean?

EISENMAN: When you don’t know what to do, draw people drinking. [Laughs] It’s become a never-ending subject matter for me, with all sorts of variations—something I’ve been doing for a long time. There used to be a little more violence than there is now. People are not cutting and stringing each other up as much as they used to, but they’re drinking together, which is nicer. Though it’s the same idea.

HIRSCH: When I see your bar and dinner scenes, I think about the “Café Deutschland” paintings by Jörg Immedorff. I think of your beer gardens, which have portraits of your friends in them, as a latter-day society of creative people that you’re a part of, an homage to that queer, bohemian culture.

EISENMAN: The pictures of people drinking together show an aspect of a community I feel part of, but it’s also a fantasy showing the best of times. There is something that already seems past tense about those scenes—they are a nostalgic fantasy, which is a feeling I get sometimes even in those moments [when we’re together].

I was looking at Bonnard a few years ago. All those beautiful paintings where the centerpiece of the painting is this big white dinner table. That was a big inspiration.

HIRSCH: You’ve also mentioned—much to my surprise—Renoir.

EISENMAN: He was my favorite Impressionist by far, if I had to pick a favorite. His paintings are really gorgeous. There’s just something joyful about showing people celebrating together.

backsm.jpg
(The following is a conversation between Butt Johnson and Nicole Eisenman.  Butt underwent the grilling process by David Kennedy-Cutler, who had been previously grilled by Ruby Sky Stiler, who had been interrogated by Talia Chetrit, who was thrust into the spotlight by yours truly, Johnny Misheff.  You see what’s going on here by now, right?  Yes, you’re right!  Eisenman will now get to pick someone to interact with about whatever she chooses.  See?  It’s FUN!)

AUGUST 2010

I first met Nicole Eisenman when I was an undergrad at RISD….she gave a talk about her work and I was immediately drawn to her sense of humor and the way she was able to use a myriad of techniques to create different images and ideas. As an impressionable young artist I found her approach liberating but also saw a sincere commitment to a thorough exploration of painting — I’ve been an avid follower of her work ever since. Her recent show at Leo Koenig seemed to me to exemplify this, and I really felt the impact of that as a bold statement about making paintings in the contemporary art world. So when she agreed to be interviewed about her work, I decided to jump right in: 

BJ: Do you see the act of painting as an intellectual pursuit, and does the object of virtuosity interest you? Do believe in the idea of the masterpiece? 

NE: I’m not that interested in virtuosity. That makes me think of Michelangelo’s David… couldn’t care less, Sir! I do believe in The Masterpieces though, like this or these: 

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NE: (continued) Virtuosity (we’re talking about the ability to handle paint here) can help to make a masterpiece but it’s not a necessary element. There are lots of different elements that make a masterpiece in various combinations like humor, touch/texture, pattern, conception, color, passion – for starters. Yes, painting is an intellectual pursuit; it’s also an emotional and spiritual pursuit, a kind of reckoning with the infinite possibilities of the universe. The pursuit is for an understanding of the deep patterns that make up our lives and that go beyond intellect and into the realm of the body – via paint. It’s the internal reacting to the external; the paint expresses the former and representing the latter. The payoff is the moment when you bring something to life that has never existed before anywhere else.

BJ: I’m with you that masterpieces can take many (or any) form (and love Picabia)…it’s such a weighty concept, was curious to hear (or see) your thoughts. Looking at your work over the years, you have hit so many different directions in how you paint, I think in asking about virtuosity I was trying to get at ways you are able to switch it up – seems to me that your skills as a painter have helped you really nail some ideas and generate such powerful images because you can work in all these different languages.  Is that something you think about?  Or maybe you just feel comfortable taking risks in your studio and kind of winging it that way? 

Some examples:

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NE: That’s a pretty great compliment.  Thanks, man!  I’ve put the focus in the last few years on buffeting homogeneity in my work and only in the last 2 or 3 years has it come together. I had a mini retrospective a few years ago at the Kunsthalle Zurich; it looked like a totally disjointed group show!  I realized that the slipperiness of my so-called style was at the heart of the show and it was interesting bouncing around all these differing realities.  I began thinking about how within a painting, different things want to be painted different ways.  I can’t imagine its very FUN to continue to work at a process you’ve gotten comfortable with or mastered, so you push into unknown territory to work out new ideas.  Paintings inevitably get good when you give up hope, then it’s easy to take a risk because there’s nothing to lose. It’s all about ruining shit and thus saving it from predictability.  Not to say I don’t have a studio overflowing with broken paintings that are beyond redemption.

BJ: How do you think about the idea of the one liner in your work… (i.e. Jesus Fucking Christ, Alice in Wonderland) lots of jokes in paintings of yours from the 90s and maybe less so in newer paintings. Is that something you have thoughts about? 

aliceinwonderland.jpg

NE: Yeah, at some point around ’01-’02 I got tired of jokes, of trying to be funny.  I wanted to focus on painting.  Painting isn’t a great medium for jokes.  It can be, to an extent.  Kippenburger made funny paintings.  Maybe some of my paintings are slightly funny but it’s a different kind of humor, not one-liners.

kippenburger1.jpg

BJ: and a follow up — how does that mean you are now able to explore more complex themes?  Or be more open about your interior life in your work?

NE: Maybe I am more open, who knows?  In the 90’s I was often the subject of my work, I really put myself out there.  Now the paintings feel more connected to my subconscious and dream life, and the themes are more personal and complex — actually they’re so complex I don’t know what they are half the time. The emotional range of my early stuff is fairly one dimensional; it was all about anger.  Now my anger is punctuated by rage… and joy and sadness and whatever else there is. 

BJ: You grew up in Westchester right?  As a former suburbanite, have ideas about the “city” entered your artistic consciousness in a way you ever think/thought about?  How has your perception of NYC and yourself as a New Yorker affected your work over your career?

NE: Yup, I grew up in the suburbs.  I was born into that universe and as a kid, as far as I knew, it was good.  When I was old enough to come into the city to hang out, I immediately hated the bullshit agenda of the suburbs.  I guess I was 15 when I started checking out the art world, the clubs, music… it was a fun and raw scene in the east village in the 80s; I became enlightened to the possibilities.  I guess the city wrenched me out of my cocoon of childhood.  Well, it depressed me too, because the difference between normative suburban culture and freaky punk fucked-up city culture where there seemed to be this amazing smorgasbord of ideas was stark!  Such was life before the internet.  Now everybody has access to everything.  There were obvious advantages to being in NY after college, I met a lot of artists and curators who where hugely influential.  It’s hard to sort out what the city’s influence has been on my work, it’s like asking what the temperature’s influence is on my work.

nicole_eisenman_beer_garden-1.jpg

BJ: Yeah, true, I guess it could be chalked up to an “everything in life” type thing – but was wondering how/ if you see yourself as a NY artist — especially because you’ve been painting scenes from the city recently — seems like its become a subject in your work? 

NE: I don’t really see myself as a New York City artist.  That makes me think of the Ashcan school or Abstract Expressionists.  I draw so much from European painting, I see myself more aligned with German art culture.  However, yes, the city (mostly bars in the city) turn up in my work.  I have been painting stuff from my life, people I know, places I frequent. 

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BJ: You had a pretty well-read blog (ha, or I read it in any case) in the early wild west days of blogging, but ended it in like 2006(?) or so…how did blogging affect your work and do you miss that presence? 

NE: Oi, the blog.  I loved that activity… at first.  Creating a little zine for a handful of friends who were mostly blogging as well was amazing; we’d have these hilarious conversations with each other.  In its own little way it caught on and I realized the extent to which I was exposing myself so I pulled back.  I enjoyed scouring obscure corners of the Internet, but that hobby wore itself out.  It gets tiresome reading and forming opinions on every damn thing: what’s cool, what’s interesting, what’s pathetic… this movie, that piece of trash on the ground, who cares.  Right? 

BJ: Ha!  Well if your opinions are good and you post interesting/funny things, people will read it…especially if they are bored and at work…  And facebook?  Does that scratch some of those itches but limit it to your friends? 

NE: That’s funny.  While all my blogger friends were doing it at their soul sucking jobs (which is totally reasonable), I was doing it instead of painting!  The problem with FB is it’s SO socially complicated!  I’m always struggling with who to accept/ignore while trying to hold on to a small shred of privacy.  I’m self-conscious on FB so I end up limiting how much I use it.  The anonymous audience on the blog was freeing.  That’s funny that you read my blog.

BJ: So how do you see the act of making oil paintings in a digital era — with an infinite amount of images circulating on the internet?  Do you think about the digital life/afterlife of your paintings?

NE: The over abundance of disposable and meaningless images gives oil painting more value.  It’s shocking to go to a museum now and be reminded of the power a painting can have after surfing the internet all day.  A good painting completely resists assimilation.  90 years after Monet painted the waterlillys at Giverny, they still confound me – I was looking at those recently.  Painting carries within it the spirit of the painter; it is an artwork’s physicality through which a deep connection with the viewer occurs.  It’s the realization that you’re not just looking at a painting, say, Van Gogh made, one can actually commune with his spirit, just by looking, and time collapses.  Sometimes when I look at paintings I love I almost feel like I’m breathing through my eyeballs.  Does that ever happen to you?  Also, the paradox of not having that connection is interesting as David Humphrey said in his brilliant book Blind Handshake…”The lack of connection between the artist and the viewer must be part of the artworks enduring and distinct appeal. The Paradox of detached connection might have fetish-like powers that could help explain the persistence of such an inefficient form of pleasure.” 

BJ: Yeah I’ve had sublime experiences when looking at paintings for sure, I’ve fallen prey to big grey Agnes Martin grids in such a way, the Rothko chapel in Houston shut my brain off completely the first time I went, and there’s some Edward Hopper maneuvers in painting sunlight on the sides of lighthouses that I carry around in my head with me every day… 

Speaking of detached connections… do you think your paintings as they exist in jpeg form are “diluted” then?  Or do you see them as inhabiting a different kind of environment? 

NE: Yes, it’s a different environment and I have no control over it.  It’s definitely diluted.  Computers can’t represent texture, subtleties of color, the affect of scale etc… You can never see how thick a painting is painted and if you can, then you can’t see something else, like the whole image at once.  That said, once the image enters into the sea of images on the internet, it has a life of its own, but it’s not art anymore.  I pull images off Google all the time and mess with them and those images end up back in circulation, an endless loop of corrosion/creation.  And of course there are plenty of paintings I’ve only seen in reproduction some I chase down to see in real life.

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Notes on Queer Formalism


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In a recent conversation with Amy Sillman at the opening of Leidy Churchman’s provocative solo show, Lazy River, at the Boston University Art Gallery, I asked Sillman about the state of painting. In 2011, Artforum considered the “The Ab-Ex Effect,” thereby attempting to take the pulse of a simultaneously revered and reviled hallmark of modernism in the visual arts. Where had painting come since then? It was a question that had plagued me ever since my first encounter with Nicole Eisenman’s paintings, prints, and sculptures.1 Eisenman’s investment in art history, when combined with her penchant for absurdity and subversion, seemed to upend everything I knew about contemporary art. The same shock occurred when I thought about Sillman and her inscrutable mixture of pigment and perversion—and iPhones. With Amy Sillman: one lump or two opening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, and Nicole Eisenman appearing in both the 2013 Carnegie International and Nicole Eisenman: In Love with My Nemesis at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in 2014, it seems that we are on the verge of a new definition of artistic practice.

I had attempted for a while to characterize this charged moment, but it was not until Sillman answered, “It’s almost a queer formalism” that I found the necessary words.2 The phrase captures something revolutionary, a sense of palpable anticipation for much-needed transition that is just around the corner. The move toward queer formalism prefigured by Sillman and Eisenman, as well as artists Elise Adibi and Leidy Churchman, cannot be fully explained in a single article or with one analytical lens. It is my hope here to offer a set of disjointed thoughts that will coalesce into a question or a basis for further investigation, but never an answer.

1. Queer formalism is a paradox. Formalism requires the centrality of an object, whereas queer rejects authorship and universal concepts. Queer subverts singularity while the medium requires it. To find meaning in the internal factors of the medium is to invest in its selfhood, its ability to signify. But isn’t this what queer accomplishes? Is this not what we have fought for—the ability to express one’s self, to speak, to be legible to others as a unified agent? Queer rejects unification, however. It advocates for a “queer subject” while attacking the notion of “subjecthood.” Where is the balance?

2. It is exactly in the immiscibility of the terms queer and formalism that queer formalism finds its power. Queerness “represents” an unsure mixture of singular embodiment and a passionate ownership of one’s identity with the refusal of singularity.3 So too does the medium.

3. If the medium is the “essence” of the art object, its internal logic, it becomes a sort of aesthetic identity politics. Formalism’s investment in the medium has, throughout art history, suffered from a limited historical awareness and a tendency to privilege normative patriarchal values. Clement Greenberg’s assessment of Jackson Pollock, a legacy Sillman and her contemporaries have inherited, is exemplary of the mid-century valorization of medium specificity and artistic heroism. Paint became analogous with the (straight, masculine) psyche of the artist, his authority to express himself. Hence the urgent need to move toward conceptualism and institutional critique, right?

4. Still, being an artist requires a direct engagement with a medium. I firmly believe that art is not purely a product of external constructs, no matter how forcefully (and rightfully) it has been used to expose capitalism, commodification, and institutionalized oppression. In some indefinable sense, art is resistant to the outside. We cannot escape materials, and while it should not be venerated, technical skill (or an intimate connection with one’s brush or sponge or pencil) should not be discounted as not “postmodern” enough. Likewise, we cannot escape the medium of our bodies, even as that medium has become increasingly described in terms of social construction, artifice, and performativity.

5. Queerness and the medium are thus parallel. They never meet, but the path they carve out engenders an incredibly productive landscape for discussing identity and the visual arts.

6. In working toward an understanding of queer formalism, it is essential to engage with the modes of being, description, and expression unearthed by “queer.” Most obviously, it is a slur that has been “reclaimed.” Some find it shamefully unspecific; others consider it beautifully and necessarily open. Queer is in-between; that goes without saying. Formalism is, in some circles, a dirty word that is reminiscent of many years of a masculinist, heteronormative tendency in modernism. Being a formalist, however, does not place anyone in danger.

7. One cannot “queer” things. No matter how fervent your search for a gay character in Othello, you are not “queering” Shakespeare. Queer is not the grafting of a theory upon an unreceptive source, and queer formalism is not the queering of formalism or the formalism of queers. Queer does not require someone to “interpret” or “find” it. But if no one does, who will?

8. Queer is not a catch-all term to rack up points for political correctness, though it does touch many more people than one might expect. It affects and engages with issues of race, class, imperialism, and politics. Its function, however, is not endless; it must be tethered somewhere. But where?

9. Queer is not something beyond gay or lesbian or transgender, nor is it more “enlightened” than the identity politics of gay liberation or second wave feminism. Queer is informed by history; it is at once conceptual and contemporary and the product of countless years of physical work. We vainly consider it a product of our present moment, but it belongs to no moment.

10. The phrase “queer community” is both necessary and deeply fraught with exclusionary tendencies. Community implies accord, and has often effaced essential differences that unwittingly perpetuate institutional biases. However, the only people who can understand a specific form of oppression are those who have lived it, and finding a community is essential for many people’s coming out process.

11. Eisenman’s Beer Gardens series is exemplary of queer formalism’s brand of solidarity, which she described in an interview with Brian Sholis as a diverse, anti-utopian group of misfits: “Last year, when I painted my first beer-garden scene, I immediately wanted to keep painting them, to paint them for the rest of my life…It’s where we go to socialize, to commiserate about how the world is a fucked up place. It is healthy to look at sadness in the world, and in yourself, and to dwell on it for a little while.”4 Queer formalism does not exist for itself. It lives for others while retaining a precarious independence.


Nicole Eisenman, Beer Garden, 2007
Oil on canvas, 65 x 82 in (165.1 x 208.3 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York.


Amy Sillman, Williamsburg Portraits, 1991-92
Ink, gouache, and pencil on paper
Set of 32: 8 x 11 inches each
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

12. Queer is within and outside the masculinist, homophobic confines of our world, phenomena to which the art object is not immune. Queer requires a not-queer, or “straight,” in order to exist. Homosexuality has been understood as not only a perversion, but also an inversion—what appears when you lift the mossy rock of proper social relations and look at the terrifying flora and fauna underneath. Queer defines itself in opposition to not-queer, but it need not always be in a state of antagonism.

13. Queer is not a mode of being or a means of deconstruction, and one who is queer need not constantly be in a state of rehearsing or living their sexuality. Queer is not always against; sometimes it just wants to sleep in and cuddle on a Sunday morning. Sometimes the pressure is too much to handle. It is, at times, deeply frustrating to “be” queer, a nuisance even. Must I always explain myself?


Amy Sillman, Untitled Cartoon from Amy Sillman: Visiting Artist, 2002
Ink and gouache on paper
9 1/2 x 9 3/4 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

14. Queer necessitates bodies, but it also rejects the solidified nature of bodies. It insists on specificities, even as it acts as an ever-expansive force. Queer is bounded by skin, but not contained by it, like the ink, pencil, and gouache in N & O v3 (2006). Sillman’s marks bleed and seep within and among bodies, yet the image retains a particular morphology, epitomized by the architectural forms that emerge from the sitters themselves. Or maybe, conversely, the bodies originate in Sillman’s scaffolding. Sillman’s bodies somehow subsume and resist the gesture, prompting an unanswerable question – Where does the medium begin and corporeality end?


Amy Sillman, N & O v3, 2006
Ink, colored pencil and gouache on paper
17 x 14 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens

15. Queer is a connective force and a merciless severing, a relational action and a rejection of the world outside the self. The medium can be made to serve both purposes as well; it is both intimate and filled with lonliness. As Helen Molesworth said of the works in Amy Sillman: one lump or two, there is an element in Sillman’s work of “trying to connect with a thing that we cannot connect with.”5 Sillman echoes this sentiment, “I’m so interested in things that split in two.”6 Like the explosion of energy that results when atoms join or break apart, Sillman’s interest in pairs transforms the body, the gesture, and the structure of the medium into a conjoined power source. She depicts art and identity at a moment of simultaneous recombination and destruction.

16. In Shade, for example, paint becomes the body and delineates the body. True to its function, paint flows and mixes, but Sillman arrests its motion. She leaves paint destitute; its final iteration is two figures devoid of individuality. Though the figures perhaps desire to lose themselves in each other, they cannot reach across the expanse of the canvas. Sillman’s paint becomes Lot’s wife, doomed to live forever as a pillar of salt for doubting God.


Amy Sillman, Shade, 1997-98
Oil and gouache on wood
50 x 60 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Photo: John Berens


Nicole Eisenman, Sloppy Bar Room Kiss, 2011
Oil on canvas, 39 x 48 in (99.1 x 121.9 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

17. Queer can be a deeply held conviction, a passionate self-appraisal that informs one’s daily, bodily, erotic life. Still, queer expands into culture, and in Sillman’s work, it becomes implicated in the artistic process itself. Sillman drew various couples she knew and reimagined the drawings as abstract paintings on canvas, such as C (2007). C approaches the realm of concept and limitless expressivity while maintaining the outlines (not confines) of “real” bodies. As Ewa Lajer-Burcharth points out in her text to accompany Amy Sillman: one lump or two, “Through repeated re-presentation, figuration was transformed into abstraction, bodies—reduced, voided—turned into shapes, lines, colors, and forces,” an operation that one can see throughout Sillman’s and Eisenman’s careers.7 Sillman presents a kind of painterly sadomasochism. Though the body is reduced to pulp, its integrity remains. The (queer) body is reincarnated as paint.


Amy Sillman, C, 2007
Oil on canvas
45 x 39 inches
Collection of Gary and Deborah Lucidon
Photo: John Berens

18. It follows that queer is both immaterial and corporeal. It is conceptual and reliant on the medium. It is deconstructive and authorial. It is the Self and the Other, together in perpetuity but not mapped onto each other. It is a multiplicity of media that lack a hierarchy, but it is not post-medium. The oeuvre of the queer formalist, like queerness itself, is invested in the interspace between and among paradoxes. Sillman has said, “I’m interested in simultaneity—the copresence of abstraction and figuration, deep space and shallow space, high and low, recognizable, literate, narrative, mythic things and dumb, vernacular, kind-of-stupid, jokey things—all these dialectics.”8

19. After all these attempts at a definition of queer, can we predict what results when “queer” and “formalism” collide?

20. To begin, in the same way that queer does not require “coming out” or “identification,” queer formalism need not exteriorize itself, or expose its contents to the world. It is somewhere between discovering and proclaiming itself and investing in what Lajer-Burcharth calls “intangible, unlocalizable interiority.”9 What might it mean to “come out” in the medium?

21. Androgyny or fluidity cannot capture the emotional, historical, sociopolitical, and artistic plenitude of queer formalism. The term androgyny advances a monolithic vision of queerness that relies upon normative visual decidability. Queer is not a project of counting the number of figures in a work of art whose gender is indeterminate. Fluidity is as bad as androgyny when used as a weasel word to give the illusion of progressive scholarship. Queer formalism is not about scrambled gender roles. For some queer people, gender roles are central to their sexual experience. Furthermore, gender/sexual identity can be as important as life itself—trans* pioneers have taught us that. Fluidity, when used irresponsibly, can negate lived experience.

22. Assessing the sexuality of the artist is not enough to establish queer formalism, though it may be a relevant factor. Queer formalism does not only apply to “queer” artists, and it is certainly not equating art made by queer artists with “queer art.” Moreover, sexuality is not something that must be constantly embodied by an artist. While it is a moral imperative to acknowledge gender and sexuality (the personal is political, and it always will be), the character of an artist must not be imprisoned by biography. One might create a work of art “as” a gay artist one day but not “as” a gay artist the next.

23. Elise Adibi, who does not identify as queer, has worked to understand, appraise, and take apart the monolithic history of the grid by assaulting it (or paying cautious homage to it?) with dripped paint, plant oils, and rabbit skin glue. She combines long-entrenched modernist discourses, such as the expressive gesture and the determinist grid, that are as consecrated as the gender binary itself. In so doing, Adibi points to the possibility of the Self and Other coming together without the specificities of either being extinguished. Adibi approximates a space described by Gayle Salamon in Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality, that is, “the place where I confront the otherness of the other without annihilating or canceling that difference or replicating the other in my own image.”10 Is this not a project of queer formalism?


Elise Adibi, Aromatherapy Painting, 2013
Rabbit skin glue, graphite, oil paint and blue tansy essential plant oil on canvas
20 x 20 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Churner and Churner
Photo: Heather Latham

24. Brief intermission. Is queer formalism only conceivable to queer critics? Is it morally tenable to discuss queer formalism if and only if the historian or critic is queer? I hope not. Am I only writing this because I myself am gay? I have no privileged access to issues of gender and sexuality. No one does, irrespective of one’s gender or sexual expression.

25. Queer formalism is tragic and destructive and vile; it wrecks our understanding of respectability and order. It is dangerous and sexy and angry and spiteful and ridiculous. In the July 3, 1906 edition of the Lewiston Daily Sun, the author reports on a lethal train crash:

Salisbury, Eng., July 2 — The embalmers are busy tonight and by tomorrow the majority of the bodies of the score of Americans who lost their lives in the wreck of the Plymouth express Sunday will be prepared for their return for burial in the land they so recently, in the fullness of life and hope, left . . . The inquest today was a prolonged and tedious formality . . . a strange proceeding to the many Americans present but which is thought to be due to the queer formalism that seems characteristic of such cases in this country.11

Queer formalism is exactly the opposite of formality, but it is not frivolous or secondary to “serious” criticism. All honest scholarship is based in passion, desire, rage, and obsession; it is always ready to brush with death, perhaps its own destruction. According to Bob Nickas, “Doubt, then, is one of [Sillman’s] most reliable and trusted subjects.”12 This is not, however, tentativeness or timidity. Indeed, queer formalism’s insecurity is a radically courageous act, a fearless celebration of the precariousness of life. Love, bodies, paint, paper, and canvas all disintegrate only to be reborn.

26. Sillman assaults her chosen medium and its support, be it paper, ink, oil paint, canvas, or an iPhone touch screen, in order to access its internal logic or confusion. Returning to Lajer-Burcharth, who describes a series in the late 1990s and early 2000s that combines humanoid figures with abstraction, it is evident that Sillman locates this (queer) physicality within the medium itself:

Violence is implicit in both the final form of these paintings—bold, sweeping, rectilinear trajectories of chroma cutting through the representational field—and the preparatory drawings showing bodies deformed by the slashes of black ink, to say nothing of the very logic of subtraction, or evisceration, that defines the process Sillman adopted in this series.13

27. Likewise, in his video project Painting Treatments (2010), Leidy Churchman equates canvas and body bag, sculpture and corpse. For Churchman, everything is a kind of medium—skin, office folders, tree branches. Bodies and paint bleed together, at times creating a beautiful sculpture, but more often a cluttered, fecal mess. There is no room for idealism in Painting Treatments—aesthetic, sexual, or otherwise. Pollock’s immortalized ejaculatory dance becomes an unassuming display of flippant eroticism that is simultaneously arousing and sickening. Sillman recalls,

They [Churchman and his associate Anna Rosen] did excessive, polychromatic things to our bodies, like dipping a banana into a can of orchid-lavender paint and pressing it against our asses, or dragging a rake with green and brown paint in its combs across our legs, or letting chrome-yellow enamel dribble off random pieces of plywood onto the smalls of our backs, or tossing some green-gray grit on us.14

Queer formalism is messy while maintaining a perverse beauty. It acknowledges the uncertainty of artistic discourses and of life itself. It is not afraid to cry or get beat up. Like my mom always said, if you’re not bleeding, you’re fine. There’s something wonderful about queer formalism’s ability to be not fine, to hurt, to expose the abjection inherent in both the paintbrush and the body.

28. Queer formalism understands history and pays homage to it. It has its own history; it fought for its own history, but in doing so, destroys history. Sillman evokes the legacy of camp in relation to Abstract Expressionism:

I would argue that this is because AbEx already had something to do with the politics of the body, and that it was all the more tempting once it seemed to have been shut down by its own rhetoric, rendered mythically straight and male in quotation marks. AbEx’s own deterioration into cliché was a ripe ground, a double-edged challenge that, to quote [Susan] Sontag again, “arouses a necessary sympathy.” AbEx was like a big old straight guy who had gone gay.15

29. Eisenman, also deeply aware of the history of art and culture, pointed out the absurdity of classical heroism in her contribution to the 2013 Carnegie International. Sometimes you have to take a break from posing and have a smoke. Standing on a pedestal all day must be tiring. Additionally, in the Beer Gardens, Eisenman draws on the style of French impressionists, her brush creating a swirling optical event.16 Despite her homage, she is no flâneur, and this is not Bal du moulin de la Galette. Free of the pretentious spirit exhibited by much of contemporary art, Eisenman plays with art historical truisms with a strange combination of reverence and frustration.


Nicole Eisenman, Prince of Swords, 2013
Plaster, wood, burlap, ceramic and crystal, 77 x 46 x 27 in (195.6 x 116.8 x 68.6 cm)
Photo: Greenhouse Media
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

30. It is not clear, however, if queer formalism is “campy,” though it does engage with the legacy of camp as Sillman astutely theorizes. We live in an age entirely run by irony, wonderfully gaudy performativity, and cultural naïveté—a veritable campy culture industry. Pop culture icons from Lana Del Rey to Lady Gaga have come to embody the neuroses of the Millennial generation, whose difficulty creating a culture of its own has left it permanently adrift in the Digital Age. Camp has become as entrenched within American culture as the capitalist regime itself, and may have thereby lost its subversive quality. In the spirit of 30 Rock, it is hip to be an outrageously uncool, yet somehow enviable, outsider. But Sillman is nevertheless spot-on. Camp retained its revolutionary sincerity in queer formalism when, all the while, camp became mainstream. Queer formalism is neo-camp and post-camp.

31. Queer formalism is not entirely theoretical, but it knows theory like the back of its hand. “Theory” is largely anti-feminist and anti-queer, but queer formalism must engage with theory in order to take it apart. Even Freud would love the grotesque, bitterly hilarious psychosexual vision in Eisenman’s Sunday Night Dinner.


Nicole Eisenman, Sunday Night Dinner, 2009
Oil on canvas, 42 x 51 in (106.7 x 129.5 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

32. Queer formalism can be represented both at the level of subject matter and at the moment of signification. It falls somewhere between representation and theory, sociopolitical effects and aesthetic origin. For example, Sillman’s Me and Ugly Mountain (2003) is perhaps a representation of the baggage of many years of “feminine hysteria” or “homosexual inversion,” as well as the reflection of those biases in the visual arts. Still, queer formalism represents the opportunity to ease that history when it becomes a burdensome assumption about the “meaning” of an artwork. One must look beyond an initial interpretive assumption about content without rejecting what is “represented.” Queer formalism is childishly truthful, but is nevertheless filled with lies, dreams, and possibilities.

33. Alongside its personal, embodied, human aspects, Me and Ugly Mountain also recalls the tumultuous erotics of paint itself. At once an abstraction and a landscape, the mountain is filled with orgiastic ideas, lines, and colors. It literally erupts on the face of the most essential mark—the horizon line—like a newly formed pimple. As a result, the mountain is not just a personal, psychoanalytic representation, but also a disruptive force buried within and essential to the material constructs of the scene.


Amy Sillman, Me and Ugly Mountain, 2003
Oil on canvas
60 x 72 inches
Collection of Jerome and Ellen Stern
Photo: John Berens


Nicole Eisenman, Conscious Mind of the Artist
(Subconscious Decision and Actions in Progress)
, 2007
Oil on canvas, 39 x 48 in (99.1 x 121.9 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York

34. Above all, queer formalism is not limited to one artist, group, or medium. It represents the possibility of a new way to discuss art in a nuanced, inclusive fashion. Art history and criticism require reinvigoration, and Sillman, Eisenman, Adibi, and Churchman, among others, are at the vanguard of a necessary transformation that is decades in the making. All queer formalism requires is a willingness to listen and see and feel. Venturing into the unknown is a terrifying process; queer formalism asks us to embrace unfamiliar ways of relating to our bodies and those around us. It begs us to think critically about how we define ourselves. A willingness to begin that journey, however, can have exciting and unexpected results.


Amy Sillman: one lump or two is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston until January 5, 2014. Nicole Eisenman: In Love with My Nemesis will run from January 24, 2014 to April 13, 2014 at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis. Elise Adibi: Metabolic Paintings is on view at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, MA until December 20, 2013. The author would like to thank Amy Sillman, Nicole Eisenman, Leidy Churchman, and Helen Molesworth for their overwhelming kindness. This article has especially benefitted from conversations with Elise Adibi, whose passionate dedication to the arts has been a source of inspiration.

[1] For a further discussion of Eisenman’s evolving relationship to lesbian identity politics, please see my essay “’Queered in Every Sense of the Word’: Sexual Multiplicity in Nicole Eisenman’s Beer Gardens“, published in Tuesday Magazine, Spring 2012.
[2] Literary scholar Eric Savoy has used the term queer formalism to describe the work of Henry James and the nuanced relationship between sexuality and criticism. See, for example, Savoy, Eric. “The Jamesian Turn: A Primer on Queer Formalism.” In Reed, Kimberly and Peter Beidler, eds. Approaches to Teaching Henry James’s Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2005. “Queer formalism” has also been employed by Robert Sulcer to describe the ambivalent, shifting nature of the gay male critic in nineteenth century literature. See Sulcer, Robert. “Ten Percent: Poetry and Pathology.” In Dellamora, Richard ed. Victorian Sexual Dissidence. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. The usage of the term in the context of literary studies is certainly worthy of further consideration as it relates to the visual arts.
[3] The role of ownership with regard to gender and sexuality was brought to my attention by Ashley Temple and Stephanie Garland.
[4] Eisenman, Nicole and Brian Sholis. “Nicole Eisenman.” Artforum (6 September 2008).
[5] Molesworth, Helen. Press preview for Amy Sillman: one lump or two. ICA/Boston, 1 October 2013.
[6] Conversation between Amy Sillman and Helen Molesworth, The Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston. 21 November 2013.
[7] Lajer-Burcharth, Ewa. “The Inner Life of Painting.” In Molesworth, Helen ed. Amy Sillman: one lump or two, exh. cat. New York: Prestel Publishing; Boston: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2013. 85. See also Molesworth, Helen. “Amy Sillman: Look, Touch, Embrace.” In Molesworth, Helen ed. Amy Sillman: one lump or two, exh. cat. New York: Prestel Publishing; Boston: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2013. 51, 53.
[8] Richards, Judith Olch ed. Inside the Studio: Two Decades of Talks with Artists in New York. New York: Independent Curators International and Distributed Art Publishers, 2004. 247.
[9] Ibid, 91.
[10] Salamon, Gayle. Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010. 140.
[11] Accessible via Google news archive.
[12] Nickas, Bob. Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 2009. 224.
[13] Lajer-Burcharth, 85.
[14] Sillman, Amy. “AbEx and Disco Balls: In Defense of Abstract Expressionism.” Artforum, Summer 2011.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Eisenman and Sholis.


– See more at: http://www.bigredandshiny.com/cgi-bin/BRS.cgi?section=article&issue=150&article=2013-11-13-081432510247154195#sthash.bOj3Ysja.dpuf

Reviews and Articles on the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy London

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photos from:

https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/anselm-kiefer-remembering-the-future/

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith, 1981

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith, 1981 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981

Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, To the Unknown Painter, 1983

Anselm Kiefer, To the Unknown Painter, 1983

Anselm Kiefer retrospective - London

Ash Flower at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective (click image to enlarge)

 

Anselm Kiefer, The Paths of World Wisdom Hermann's Battle (1980)

Anselm Kiefer, The Paths of World Wisdom: Hermann’s Battle, 1980 (click to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Painting of the Scorched Earth, 1974

Anselm Kiefer, Painting of the Scorched Earth, 1974

Anselm Kiefer. For Paul Celan, Ash Flowers, 2006

Anselm Kiefer. For Paul Celan, Ash Flower, 2006

Anselm Kiefer Royal Academy of Arts

The Morgenthau Plan, 2012: part of the RA display

 

Ash Flower, a 26 foot painting by Anselm Kiefer

Ash Flower, a 26 foot painting by Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan (2), 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013 (click image to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan (3), 2013

Anselm Kiefer, Morgenthau Plan, 2013

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Anselm’s alchemy

By Martin Gayford

Published 22 September 2014

Throughout his career, the German artist Anselm Kiefer has confronted the weight of the past and the power of myth on a monumental scale. As the RA stages a major retrospective, Martin Gayford chronicles the extraordinary vision and transformative force of this colossus of contemporary art.

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  • From the Autumn 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Walking down a hillside in the foothills of the Cévennes, we come across a group of massive towers. Multi-storeyed, irregular, almost tottering, these look at once old and new. The material they are made from – cast concrete – gives them the appearance of a contemporary shanty town or some haphazard industrial structure. Their form and presence, silhouetted against the clear southern French sky, suggest the architecture of Dante’s Italy or medieval Greece.

    These extraordinary objects – it is hard to know whether to call them sculpture, architecture or installation – are among the landmarks of La Ribaute, the estate near the town of Barjac on which the German artist Anselm Kiefer Hon RA has created perhaps the most ambitious and complex work of art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At La Ribaute’s centre is a disused silk factory, a rambling building in vernacular stone architecture containing a house and workshop. Around this, however, has accreted what can only be described as a Mediterranean landscape strewn with contemporary art spaces. The long, winding drive is lined with some 50 individual pavilions, each containing a group of paintings, sculptures or installations. Other works are housed in a maze of underground tunnels, and in glass structures of Kiefer’s own invention – part greenhouses, part vitrines.

    Just in scale, what Kiefer has done at Barjac is daunting. A day is scarcely sufficient to see everything. Asked how his retrospective at the RA would relate to this gesamtkunstwerk – this total work of art – at Barjac, Kiefer replied, “It will be a concentration of all this.”

  • Kiefer’s towers punctuate the parched landscape around Kiefer’s studio complex at Barjac in southern France, 2012.

    © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Charles Duprat.

  • When Kathleen Soriano, curator of the RA’s exhibition, first visited Kiefer’s studio, she found the experience overwhelming, but by her third visit she felt more reassured, because she had grasped that all of Kiefer’s works were connected.

    All of Kiefer’s art, she says, is concerned with “a handful of issues, themes, stories that he is constantly revisiting; at the heart of it are ideas about cosmology, the connection between heaven and earth”. Thus everything Kiefer makes is part of a whole that is always in the process of evolving. “He isn’t someone who thinks about time being linear,” as Soriano puts it. “He thinks about it being cyclical and everything being connected.” On the May morning when I saw those towers, Kiefer told me he had woken up with the idea for a new building in his mind, and an intuitive feeling – on which he did not elaborate – about what he would put inside it.

    Change and decay are built into his art, in the way that planned obsolescence was a feature of American cars. His paintings often contain materials that are bound to mutate: straw, lead that once flowed like a sluggish liquid. Some of his recent works were given a final touch by electrolysis – they were placed in a chemical bath with a cathode and an anode so that copper was deposited on its lead, which in turn became part of the surface of the painting. The copper turned green, but – and this was the point that delighted Kiefer – alterations carried on occurring. People who bought these works, he told me with glee, would have to be told that in six months they would have a different picture.

    Two of Kiefer’s towers, entitled Jericho, were exhibited in the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard in 2007. Around the towers at Barjac is strewn the wreckage of similar mini-Babels that have come tumbling down. I asked his studio manager, Waltraud Forelli, whether Kiefer minded when his works collapsed in this way. “Oh no,” she replied, “Anselm loves it when they do that!” Rubble, indeed, is one of his favoured materials. In a glass gallery space nearby lies a lead battleship, perhaps 12 feet long, having foundered on the waves of a sea of smashed concrete.

  • Detail from Kiefer’s book work ‘For Jean Genet’, 1969, showing a photograph of the artist performing a Nazi salute.

    Hall Collection. Photo Hall Collection. © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Ruins, as a matter of fact, were exactly where Kiefer started. He was born on 8 March 1945, just two months before V.E day. His arrival in the world therefore corresponded with the beginning of the postwar era; and – equally relevant to his development as an artist – he grew up among the debris of saturation bombing. A few years ago, he told me how he had been powerfully affected by that beginning. “I was born in ruins. So as a child I played in ruins, it was the only place. A child accepts everything; he doesn’t ask if it’s good or bad. But I also like ruins because they are a starting point for something new.”

    This is Kiefer’s fundamental beginning, aesthetically and emotionally: his life started after a cataclysm. Unlike a German artist of a slightly older generation, Gerhard Richter (born 1932), who has memories of growing up in the Nazi era, Kiefer knew only the aftermath: a world which had been shattered by high explosives, and a society in which the immediate past was mentioned as little as possible because it held terrible secrets.

    Unearthing that hidden past was one of his first undertakings as an artist. In the ‘Occupations’ series of 1968-69, he was photographed in various places in France, Italy and Switzerland performing the Nazi salute, as seen in his book work For Jean Genet. At the time – and for some people still – it was an outrageous (and illegal) thing to do. When work, including these images, was submitted for his degree at Freiburg School of Fine Arts, some on the jury were appalled. But the point of this extreme gesture was, of course, not to extol Nazism, but to force Kiefer and his fellow Germans to confront it. Only by doing so, he felt, would it be possible to reclaim the past – to start building again from the ruins. This was no doubt why the young Kiefer was supported by Joseph Beuys (1921-86), a leading figure in German art of the 1960s whose works, which took forms including sculpture and painting but centred around performances, often examined ideas of rebirth.

    Beuys was an occasional mentor of Kiefer’s, though not a formal teacher. Kiefer remembers how, as a young artist, he would take work to show to the older man. “I was working in the forest and I would roll up these huge paintings, put them on the roof of my VW Beetle and drive to Du?sseldorf to show him.” Of all the major postwar German artists, including Richter, Georg Baselitz Hon RA and Sigmar Polke, it is Beuys to whom Kiefer is closest. A profound interest in ritual and metaphysics is something Kiefer has in common with Beuys, as well as a deep sense of German Romantic heritage, in literature and philosophy as well as the visual arts. There is also a stylistic similarity between Beuys’s works on paper and Kiefer’s delicate and intimate watercolours, such as Winter Landscape (1970) – a counterpart to his massive paintings, sculptures and installations.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Winter Landscape, 1970.

    © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer.

  • The artists also shared a ritualistic feeling for materials. Again and again in his art Beuys used felt and fat, both materials that are connected with a personal myth about his healing after being injured in an air crash during the war. In Kiefer’s case the signature substances, as well as lead and straw, include concrete and sunflowers. In his case, too, there are probably biographical associations. His affinity with concrete, for example, is perhaps the result not only of the pulverised townscapes of postwar Germany but also of a formative stay at the monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, outside Lyon, designed by Le Corbusier during the 1950s in starkly moulded concrete. There, Soriano notes, he was affected by “the combination of spirituality and scholarship that he saw in the monks”.

    Kiefer is both spiritual and extremely well read, as well as unexpectedly jolly. A conversation with him might begin with medieval philosophy, and progress, via alchemy, to architecture. In origin, he is a Catholic, from Donaueschingen in the Black Forest, near the border with France and Switzerland (in contrast to Richter and Baselitz, who come from the Protestant north-east, almost another country from southern Germany). You could not, he told me, “imagine anywhere more Catholic” as Donaueschingen. He was an altar boy: “I’ve forgotten a lot of the poems I learned by heart but I still know the mass in Latin.”

    As befits someone who once assisted at the mystery of transubstantiation, in which bread and wine become the body of Christ, Kiefer has a metaphysical approach to materials. No doubt he relishes lead for its physical attributes: its enormous weight and sombre matt-grey surface. But he likes it as much for its metaphorical qualities. As Soriano explains: “Lead is the basest of materials but also it is changeable. If you heat it up, it bubbles, it is constantly in flux. Above all, to Kiefer’s mind, there’s its weight: he considers it the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history.”

    Kiefer uses lead paradoxically. He makes it into the kinds of objects you would least employ it for from a practical point of view: aeroplanes too heavy to fly, boats that would immediately sink, books whose pages would require huge effort to turn. At the entrance to the Royal Academy exhibition will stand a new sculpture, incarnating this paradox: lead books with wings (The Language of the Birds, 2013).

  • Anselm Kiefer, The Language of the Birds, 2013.

    Lead, metal, wood and plaster. 325 x 474 x 150 cm. Private Collection. © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Anselm Kiefer.

  • In alchemy, lead was to be transmuted into gold, and Kiefer is intensely interested in alchemy – he admires the writings of the Jacobean English astrologer, cosmologist, cabbalist and alchemist Robert Fludd (1574-1637). His work, especially in the last two decades, has been fed by deep interests in many esoteric traditions, such as the Jewish Cabbala and ancient Egyptian religion. Just as Soriano felt overwhelmed by the volume of art in his studios, one can feel as if one is drowning in references and allusions when one reads about Kiefer’s work. But – this is a crucial point – it is not necessary to decode all those layers of meaning in order to appreciate his art. They are all compressed into a visual experience; you can just look, and sense the complexities.

    Kiefer also has a deep interest in poetry. He has said that when he “looks inside himself he finds poetry”, yet he thinks in images. Indeed, he is haunted by the German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan (1920-70), whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust. Celan’s poem Death Fugue (1948) gives the titles and themes to Kiefer’s paintings Margarethe (1981) and Sulamith (1983). They refer, respectively, to a German guard and a Jewish prisoner in a death camp. Celan wrote of “your golden hair Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith”. Each painting has their name inscribed onto the canvas. Kiefer’s works often contain words in this way and, as in these paintings, they affect the meaning of the work. Sulamith depicts the funerary crypt of the Soldier’s Hall built in Berlin in 1939 by the architect Wilhelm Kreis. It was a grim expression of the Nazi cult of the dead transformed by Kiefer into a memorial to the victims of Nazism, as art historian Daniel Arasse put it in his 2001 monograph on the artist.

    If one wanted to find a stylistic description for the earlier phase of Kiefer’s art, in the 1970s and early ’80s, far better than Neo-expressionism – which was tried, but doesn’t fit – would be postcataclysmic romanticism. The principle theme of Kiefer’s work at this time was, Arasse concluded: “How can anyone be an artist in the tradition of German art and culture after Auschwitz?”

  • Anselm Kiefer, Nothung, 1973.

    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Kiefer depicted, for example, a path through a forest merging with a railway line leading to the concentration camps. He painted the forests that had been a place of refuge and also fear for his family during the final stages of the war. He also painted primitive halls of wood, often based on his own studio in the upper storey of an old school house in the town of Buchen. In one, Nothung (1973), the magical sword of the mythical hero Siegfried sprouts from the floorboards. Others in the series were executed in a sinister, shamanistic combination of oil paint and blood. This attic, as Soriano says, was “a theatre, a space in which he could act out history”.

    A number of works took as their settings the starkly severe neoclassical monuments of Nazi architecture. Interior (1981) depicts the mosaic room in the New Reich Chancellery, designed by Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer, and virtually destroyed in 1945. In the foreground, flames flicker. Such paintings have the melancholy grandeur of the masters of 19th century German art and architecture – painter of northern landscapes Caspar David Friedrich, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect of Berlin – but are overlaid with a much darker mood. The vanished Nazi buildings, destroyed in or after the war, reappear like sombre ghosts, witnesses to a terrible history. Such paintings have a spectral, sinister magnificence.

  • Anselm Kiefer, Osiris and Isis, 1985-87.

    San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Anselm Kiefer.

  • Fire, destructive and transformative, was a presence in Kiefer’s work at this time. The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975), one of his many book works, documents an imagined conflagration and destruction of the area where he was then living and working. The later pages of the book are burnt, encrusted with charcoal, just as much of Germany itself had been during the war. But fire, while terrifying and annihilating, can also be healing, as Kiefer’s title hints. The German word he used for ‘burning’, ausbrennen, also means ‘cauterisation’. This is how the traditions of Friedrich and Schinkel looked and felt to Kiefer in the aftermath of the Third Reich: burnt out, haunted by overpowering, terrible events.

    The ultimate purpose of Kiefer’s art in the 1970s and ’80s, Arasse argued, was “to perform an act of mourning for the whole of German culture and all of its finest and most ancient works”. But, he continued, the changes that took place in Kiefer’s work during the 1990s “seem to imply that the time of mourning is over”.

    In 1992, Kiefer moved to France and began to work at Barjac. From being an artist preoccupied by German history, he became, in the words of critic Matthew Biro, “a global artist”. He travelled the world and his art took on an international sweep. A series of works, including the earlier Osiris and Isis (1985-87), take as their central subject huge ruined pyramids of sand-coloured brick. These are based on structures he had seen in Egypt, Israel, Central America, southern India and the China of the Cultural Revolution.

  • Studio Anselm Kiefer, Croissy, 2014.

    © Anselm Kiefer. Photography: Anselm Kiefer.

  • Kiefer’s preoccupation with starry skies and sunflowers is both cosmographical and a response to his new environment in the south of France. Barjac, after all, is not far from Arles, where Van Gogh painted both the flowers and the sky at night. When Kiefer depicts wheat fields, however, as he has in his new series of paintings, ‘Morgenthau’, some of which go on show for the first time at the RA, he has in mind not only the cycle of life and death evoked by Van Gogh’s harvests with their yellow corn and black funereal crows. He is also thinking of the Morgenthau Plan, named after the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr, and proposed late in 1944 (around the time when Kiefer was conceived). Morgenthau’s idea was that after the war Germany should not just be demilitarised, but also deindustrialised, transformed into a peaceful bread basket: the European equivalent of the Prairies.

    This quixotic, historical might-have-been both amuses and inspires Kiefer. It also demonstrates that, no matter how far he ranges in time and space, in some way he remains rooted in his beginnings: the end of the Second World War and the start of the new era in which we are still living. A large space at Barjac is also devoted to work based on this scheme. It is an installation: a plantation of grain in the centre of the room, the ears gilded with gold-leaf and – nestling in the middle – a serpent.

  • Anselm Kiefer is in the Main Galleries at the RA from 27 September – 14 December 2014.

    Martin Gayford is a writer and artist critic.

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BBC ARTS

 

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy

Tim Marlow gets a guided tour of the German artist’s new retrospective.

The first major British retrospective of the work of painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer – widely considered to be one of the most important artists of his generation – opens this weekend.

The exhibition, which runs from 27 September to 14 December 2014 at the Royal Academy of Arts, spans more than 40 years from Kiefer’s early career to the present day.

Kiefer at the RA

Born in Donaueschingen in 1945, Kiefer’s work often explores the darker episodes of German history, as he explains in an exclusive forthcoming short film for BBC Arts Online.

He tells Tim Marlow about his Occupations and Heroic Symbols (Heroische Sinnbilder) series of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which record Kiefer’s re-enactment of the Nazi salute in locations across Europe, made in the belief that one must confront rather than suppress the experiences of history.

He also discusses his more recent work, including pieces made especially for the exhibition. You can see more of Kiefer’s work below.

Anselm Kiefer – Heroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V), 1970

Oil on canvas, 150 x 260.5 cm | Collection Würth | Photo Collection Würth / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Interior (Innenraum), 1981

Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311 cm | Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam | Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – The Orders of the Night (Die Orden der Nacht), 1996

Emulsion, acrylic and shellac on canvas, 356 x 463 cm | Seattle Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Hedreen | Photo © Seattle Art Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Black Flakes (Schwarze Flocken), 2006

Oil, emulsion, acrylic, charcoal, lead books, branches and plaster on canvas, 330 x 570 cm | Private collection, c/o Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst | Photo Privatbesitz Famille Grothe / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970

Watercolour, gouache, and graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6 cm | Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5) | Photo © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource/ Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Nothung, 1973

Charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted charcoal drawing on cardboard, 300.5 x 435.5 x 4 cm | Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam | Photo Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Palette on a Rope (Palette am Seil), 1977

Oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac on canvas, 130 x 160 cm | Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich | Photo Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Osiris and Isis (Osiris und Isis), 1985-87

Oil and acrylic emulsion with additional three-dimensional media, 381 x 560.07 x 16.51 cm | San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Jean Stein by exchange, the Mrs. Paul L. Wattis Fund, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund | Photo San Francisco Museum of Modern Art / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer – Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelowe), 1975

Oil on canvas, 220 x 300 cm | Collection of Irma and Norman Braman Miami Beach, Florida | Photo Collection of Irma and Norman Braman, Miami Beach, Florida / © Anselm Kiefer’

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Anselm Kiefer: Inside a black hole

Anselm Kiefer: Nothung, 1973. Photography: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer

Things are always falling off Anselm Kiefer’s work. Straw, sunflower seeds, chunks of concrete, you name it. Curators at the museums to which he sends his work have fastidiously collected the fallen debris and returned it to him, presumably in the expectation that he might want to repair the damage. But Kiefer, whose work is the subject of a large-scale retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts this autumn, just shrugs. He may be one of the great artists of our time; but he is not, it turns out, a preservationist. He’s keener on ruins.

Like many artists, when he is near to finishing a work, Kiefer will often get frustrated or succumb to a sense of dissatisfaction. He has learned to recognise this feeling and to respond, writes Richard Davey, the author of an essay in the show’s catalogue, by reintroducing “chaos”:

“He lets go of the work, deliberately withdrawing… so that his paintings and sculptures can take on a life of their own. He allows nature and chemical reactions to take over the creative process. Paintings in process are burnt, slashed, buried or exposed to the elements. Canvases are laid on the ground to have paint and diluted acid poured on them, while works on lead are placed into electrolytic baths and left to stand and corrode. Many paintings are put inside locked shipping containers, to await their moment of rebirth in the dark; when these voids are reopened later, it is as if Kiefer is seeing these works for the first time.”

At times he has gone even further. He has covered his works in earth, and has even been known to strafe his paintings with bullets. In a corner of his studio in Croissy, on the outskirts of Paris, he has a jet aircraft half-buried in sand.

Provocatively, but perhaps inevitably, book-burning is also in Kiefer’s repertoire: he has produced many weighty books, some from sheets of lead, many with carbonised pages, deliberately calling to mind the Nazi delirium, and Heinrich Heine’s prophecy: “Where they have burned books they will end in burning human beings.”

Kiefer was born in a town called Donaueschingen in Germany’s Black Forest region on 8th March 1945. The town, which is just north of the Swiss border, was both a rail hub and the base of a military garrison. It came under intensified Allied bombing in the period prior to Kiefer’s birth, and the situation continued to deteriorate in the following months. “During the daytime when I was a baby,” Kiefer later said, “my grandparents and my mother had to go into the woods to protect us from the bombing.” His parents’ house remained intact. But their landlords, who lived next door, were not so lucky: their dwelling was blown to pieces.

The ruin next door turned into Kiefer’s playground. Before the age of six, when his family moved, he spent long stretches of his boyhood playing in the rubble. He would take loose bricks home to build new, multiple-storey structures, which became more ambitious by the month.

He was doing much the same thing decades later when—already a world-famous artist—he turned his sprawling, 35 hectare studio-estate in the south of France, formerly a silk factory, into a massive, constantly morphing artwork in its own right, replete with ruin-like concrete towers, freestanding staircases and an underground network of crypts and tunnels. But by this time Kiefer’s playfulness—like his absurdist sense of humour, which is a central but often overlooked aspect of his work—had taken on darker overtones.

Kiefer came to notoriety in 1969 with a series of photographs of himself dressed in his father’s army uniform performing the Nazi salute—which had been banned in Germany since the end of the war—in various historically-loaded locations around Europe: the Colosseum in Rome, Paestum, south of Naples, Arles in the south of France.

Kiefer has said that during his school years, mention of the Nazi era was scrupulously avoided. But this omission only fuelled his fascination. When he heard a recording of speeches by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering, it triggered something deep inside him. “The sound goes right through the skin,” he said. “Not only through the ears and the head. I was simply shocked. And that’s how it began.” For Kiefer, the two series of saluting photographs (called Occupations and Heroic Symbols) were “performances… acts of mourning” and—against the general inclination to forget—of remembering.

Hitler’s ruinous legacy, although far from being Kiefer’s only subject, has found its way into all corners of his work. Even as he draws on ancient history and mythology, 20th-century literature and philosophy, cosmology, physics, and alchemy, his work is always in dialogue with this more recent history.

 

Kiefer uses a vast panoply of materials in his art, each of which have intricate symbolic meanings. Studiously parsed, they trigger a kind of spiritual-historical giddiness. There is the straw, for instance, that symbolises the hair of the German prison guard Margarethe in Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue.” There are the seven flames that represent Margarethe’s antagonist in the same poem, the concentration camp prisoner Shulamith, reduced to ashes in the furnaces. There is the lead Kiefer uses, again and again, to invoke the weight of history and the flux and potential of the human spirit. There are the sunflowers and crows that refer to specific paintings by Van Gogh, and the concrete that connects in his mind with spiritual striving, and with the modernist architect, Le Corbusier. On it goes. Sometimes, the allusions feel pointed, precise, and powerfully charged. At other times, it’s all quite bewildering.

Overwhelmed and confused, perhaps, by his work’s undisguised ambition, critics have occasionally accused Kiefer of getting into an uncomfortably intimate dance with Nazi tropes. When he showed his work, alongside his friend Georg Baselitz, in the West German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1980, one critic, Werner Spies, accused Kiefer of inflicting on the public “an overdose of the Teutonic.”

The accusation would have been offensive if it weren’t also true. An overdose of the Teutonic is exactly what Kiefer foists on us all. But he does so with his eyes wide open, and there is insight, empathy, and great moral energy in his approach. (Werner Spies would go on to become one of the artist’s great champions).

Kiefer’s efforts to get to grips with Nazism emerge most viscerally in two of his overriding obsessions: the aesthetics of the ruin and the motif of the forest. Much of Kiefer’s early work, as Christian Weikop points out in another of the Royal Academy catalogue’s essays, revolved around forests, trees and wood grain. In 1971, Kiefer had a studio in the Oden Forest. He made a painting, Man in Forest, which showed the artist himself in a nightshirt holding a flaming branch in the midst of a dense pine forest. “I think I illuminate the forest in such a way that it could ignite,” he said, comparing himself to Prometheus. A key Kiefer woodcut from 1978, Ways to Worldly Wisdom: Arminius’s Battle, alludes to the ancient Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in which the German soldier Hermann (also known as Arminius) triumphed over three Roman legions. The battle was a nation-defining event, to which Hitler often referred.

Kiefer’s preoccupation with forests chimes uncomfortably with the Nazi valorisation of Germany’s landscape. Again and again, Hitler and his henchmen defined the rooted, forest-dwelling Aryan race against the “homeless, desert-roaming” Jews. In 1935, Heinrich Himmler commissioned research on the role of the forest in German culture and history. And the following year, Hitler presented winners at the Berlin Olympics with sapling oaks, a symbol of Aryan supremacy. (In a strange irony, one of the four oaks presented to the African-American athlete Jesse Owens now towers over the Cleveland high school where he trained.)

“Our stories begin in the forest,” Kiefer has said, echoing this rhetoric. His statement is made bitterly ironic not just by the Nazi associations, but also by his own beginnings: his family’s forced sanctuary in the forest as his nation collapsed around him under an onslaught of Allied fire-bombing.

Rubble also piles up relentlessly in Kiefer’s work. He has always been infatuated with the poetry of the ruin. It’s why he lets his sculptures and paintings degrade. It’s why he abandons them to chaos, subjects them to the elements, and lets them develop a patina in which colours and tones seem to merge into greys and pale yellows, so that they achieve the poetic unity of tint common to ruins and old, once-vivid fabrics.

Hitler, too, cherished the poetry of ruins. He commanded his architects to build in stone because he wanted his buildings to project beauty and power long after the society that built them had expired. Stone made for beautiful ruins. This idea—Ruinenwert, or “ruin value”—was pioneered by his favourite architect, Albert Speer.

What makes Kiefer so dizzying, and at times so profound, is that, although he is forever conscious of Nazi tropes and ideas, he is also involved in an endless attempt to recoup them, to salvage meaning and beauty and something even deeper—something frankly cosmic—from the black hole of Nazism.

Kiefer once described painting as “a ceaseless shuttling back and forth between nothing and something.” Ruins operate in his imagination as an analogue of that incessant movement. The idea of the ruin represents a kind of deeper human dispensation, far from the perverse logic of the Nazis. It is a notion that was beautifully articulated in 1911 by the German sociologist Georg Simmel in an essay called simply “The Ruin.”

The ruin, for Simmel, represented a deeper reality than the pristine work of art. If art or architecture represent “the most sublime victory of spirit over nature,” as he wrote, the ruin represents a shift in the balance of power between these two opposing forces—in which nature regains the upper hand. In the ruin, nature transforms the work of art “into material for her own expression, as she had previously served as material for art.”

Simmel was telling us something Kiefer has taken to heart. He believed that the ruin, for all its poetry, was a reminder of the limits of aesthetics (limits Hitler never recognised: he wanted his fascist aesthetics to enter into every field of endeavour, especially military endeavour). When we perceive aesthetically, claimed Simmel, we are effectively demanding that the contrary forces of existence—nature and spirit—be frozen in equilibrium. But such equilibrium is an illusion, because life is always in flux.

In the ruin, we see the bigger picture, not just the false aesthetic moment. And, although it is, in the end, art that Kiefer is making, I believe he aims for a similarly broad perspective in his work. In its embrace of decay, its toying with rubble, his work is a valiant attempt at solving the problem of the “merely” aesthetic—the feeling that, as Theordor Adorno famously put it, “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” His work is an attempt at summoning, instead, that deeper reality perceived by Simmel, reclaiming the idea of “ruin value” from the perverted logic of Hitler and Speer.

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MUSEUMS

Epic Done Right: Anselm Kiefer in London

Installation view, 'Anselm Kiefer' at the Royal Academy of Arts (photo by Howard Sooley / © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts)

LONDON — Anselm Kiefer’s retrospective comes at an odd cultural moment. Pop artist Nicki Minaj recently came out with a music video so steeped in offensive Nazi imagery that the Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913 to fight anti-semitism, was compelled to make a statement. A Middle Eastern collector beat out multiple interested parties to purchase a painting by Adolf Hitler for an unprecedented $161,000; demand for Hitler’s other works is predicted to increase. And after being briefly banned from the festival for something between a bad joke and an expression of Nazi sympathies, director Lars von Trier is no longer a persona non grata at Cannes Film Festival. Are the images and symbols of Nazism, after decades of embargo, making some sort of cultural comeback? Could they even be … in vogue? The notion is stomach churning.

Anselm Kiefer, "Nothung" (1973), charcoal and oil on burlap with inserted charcoal drawing on cardboard, 300.5 x 435.5 x 4 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (photo by Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) (click to enlarge)

Amid this problematic milieu comes theAnselm Kiefer retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition is a case study in epic, from the sheer number, size, and visual depth of the works on display to the breadth and weight of the topics with which this contemporary German painter grapples. We encounter a collection of illustrated books in which delicate cathedrals emerge from between the thighs of women; a horizontal swathe resembling a sandstorm that has been sprinkled with real diamond dust; a rusty bear trap embedded in canvas, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Courbet’s scandalizing “L’Origine du monde” (The Origin of the World). Every carefully selected allusion is multilayered in a jaw-dropping tapestry of alchemy, poetry, history, mythology, theology, and philosophy. But in the thick intellectual web produced by the works on display, it’s Kiefer’s handling of Germany’s cultural memory of the Third Reich that is the most compelling strand.

The appropriation of blatant Nazi imagery is an artistic tactic Kiefer seems to have moved away from as of late. Throughout his career, though, the artist has reenacted the Nazi salute — banned in his native Germany since 1945 — in photographs throughout Europe, recreated the buildings of Nazi starchitect Albert Speer in thick lashes of paint, and suffused his canvases with the cultural language wielded by Nazi propaganda: the forests, the ruins, the Wagnerian heroes. Unlike Minaj, however, Kiefer exercises these taboo images carefully, to wide-ranging effects.

Anselm Kiefer, "Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelowe)" (1975), oil on canvas, 220 x 300 cm, Collection of Irma and Norman Braman Miami Beach, Florida (photo collection of Irma and Norman Braman, Miami Beach, Florida / © Anselm Kiefer)

Sometimes, as with his salutatory self-portraits, Kiefer plays the role of the provocative conceptual artist, mocking the representational prohibitions that give force to the tight-lipped fantasy of a national tabula rasa. Other times you can feel him genuinely mourning as he grapples with a cultural inheritance of shame, guilt, grief, and layers upon layers of loss: a sentiment so prevalent in postwar Germany that they developed a word for it,Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The exhibition’s most moving works in memoriam are a pair of paintings, “Margarethe” (1981) and “Sulamith” (1983). They reference a haunting poem reprinted on the gallery wall, “Death Fugue,” by concentration camp survivor Paul Celan. Each painting is scrawled with the name of its corresponding character from the poem: the ashen-haired Jewish girl Sulamith and the golden-haired German girl Margarethe. In “Margarethe,” the flaxen straw that stands in for the girl’s hair is matted on the canvas, a failed pastoralism caked with grey, black, and white paint. Depicting Wilhelm Kreis’s 1939 design for a funeral hall honoring German soldiers, “Sulamith” scrapes at Third Reich monumentality to reveal what lies beneath: an ash-blackened vault reminiscent of an oven. With a little pyre, menorah-like, where a tomb would be, the vault is a memorial to Sulamith, to all of the Sulamiths.

Kiefer’s work asks the big, impossible, questions: How can Germany remember and represent the Holocaust? What is a German artist to do with the deluge of images and cultural reference points that were appropriated and exploited for such an unforgivable end? Kiefer’s work isn’t riding the wave of fascism’s fetishization (though it likely has and will reap the financial rewards of such a wave). Its earnest intentions are to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust stay fresh in our collective memory; to try to understand how the Nazis leveraged culture for killing; to parse through the artist’s role in the process of memory and memorialization.

Anselm Kiefer, "Ages of the World" (2014), private collection (photo by Howard Sooley / © Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Royal Academy of Arts)

In “Ages of the World,” an installation piece that Kiefer made especially for this retrospective, a mass of stacked canvases pricked with leaden sunflowers creates a pylon-cum-pyre that attempts to capture not only decades of his artistic work but also a geological timeline of the world. The piece is an apt metaphor for the retrospective: the show at times seems to collapse under its own weight as it unapologetically — boldly, bravely, a bit foolishly — aims for the epic. Yes, it’s hubris. But if there’s anyone I trust to do hubris right, with intelligence and care, it’s Anselm Kiefer.

Anselm Kiefer continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through 14 December.

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TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION LONDON

Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy: cataclysmic, transformational, stupendous

Alex Danchev on the artist’s extraordinary and formidable work

Anselm Kiefer

Awed visitors circle it, a little warily. The material is infused with meaning; the stuff tells stories. The Kieferworld elicits wonderment

Anselm Kiefer

Royal Academy of Arts, London
27 September-14 December 2014

Anselm Kiefer
By Kathleen Soriano, Christian Weikop
and Richard Davey
Royal Academy of Arts
240pp, £48.00 and £28.00
ISBN 9781907533792 and 808

An original artist follows the path of the oculist, says Proust. Their art acts upon us like a course of treatment that is not always agreeable. “When it is over, the prac­titioner says to us: ‘Now look.’ And at this point the world (which was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born) appears utterly different from the one we knew, but perfectly clear…Such is the new and perishable universe that has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a painter or writer with an original view of the world.”

That geological catastrophe has just opened at the Royal Academy in London. It has Anselm Kiefer’s name on it. Like all great artists, his work is his own, an untracked continent as yet unnamed. Contrary to popular belief, it is given to artists, not politicians, to create a new world order. The Kieferworld is rich and strange, boundless and immersive, elemental and metaphysical. This artist traffics in fundamental truths. “Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth,” affirms Kiefer. “It never can, but it can get quite close.” At the same time, things are in flux. There is something cataclysmic about the Kieferworld. Heaven and earth take their chances in the rag and bone shop of the heart that is the artist’s studio. ­Kiefer’s studio is at once laboratory and crucible.

Perhaps the most striking quality of the cataclysm at the RA is the material. Kiefer sees artworks as actions, as he says, and not as consummate creations. The Kieferworld is in the process of perpetual transformation. Climate change has come indoors. The artworks slip and slide, corrode and erode. They age, and shed, and flake. They are weathered and distressed, scarred and mutilated. Violence is done to them, with a variety of weapons. Here are the survivors. They may or may not be happy in their skin. The dates of some of these works testify to an epic ­struggle: Ash Flower (1983-97), for example, a characteristic blend of oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth and dried sunflower on canvas – a canvas of continental proportions (382.3cm x 761.4cm), practically covering one end wall of gallery 3.

Ages of the World by Anselm Kiefer

Ages of the World

An installation made specially for the RA brings home the sense of action and transformation, and the sheer physical presence of these stupendous works. Ages of the World (2014), summarised rather coyly in the catalogue as mixed media, is a kind of recapitulation; it seems to speak of last things. The installation fills a whole gallery. It is described there as part totem, part funeral pyre. One might add part pyramid, part tomb; part sacrifice, part pile of the artist’s signature stuff. Awed visitors circle it, a little warily. The material is infused with meaning; the stuff tells stories. The Kieferworld elicits wonderment.

There is a place for belief in the Kieferworldview, belief in something above and beyond the featherless biped, but not a “salvator” or saviour. The artist’s outlook is perhaps more intellectual than spiritual. Kiefer is nothing if not a thinker-painter. Like Cézanne – another law student turned artist – he is a mighty reader. In an almost biblical sense the book is central to his practice. He makes books of his own (books of lead and books of words); he ransacks the pages of the poets for their wisdom. “I think in images,” he told the assembled company, accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2008. “Poems help me do this. They are like buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the next; in between, without them, I am lost.”

He is a formidable intellectual. The lectures he delivered as chair of artistic creation at the Collège de France in 2010-11 are published under the title of Art Will Survive Its Ruins (2011), an apt title and an apt calling. Kiefer’s breadth and depth put common or garden professors to shame. His lectures are compelling, erudite, individual. As a thinker, he is both playful and profound. “Some artists wait all their life for the word of God, and it never comes. This is the case with K, who waits in vain in Kafka’s The Castle; and even more radically with Vladimir and Estragon in [Beckett’s]Waiting for Godot, who merely play at waiting. Like spoken words, a painting may happen to contradict itself. It is by nature an aporia. It feeds on chance, signifies everything but ordains nothing.”

Books and their authors are Kiefer’s interlocutors. He responds to them in his own idiom. This can produce surprising results. Invited recently to respond to The Cathedrals of France (1914), a book by the sculptor Auguste Rodin, Kiefer produced a book of his own with the same title (2013), combining studies of cathedrals with erotic watercolours: another speciality of the celebrated sculptor. One shameless sheet on view at the RA shows a lascivious nude with an erect cathedral in her lap – Rodin meets Magritte!

The Orders of the Night by Anselm Kiefer

The Orders of the Night

At once the most considered and the most sustained engagement is with the poems of Paul Celan (1920-70), entwined with those of Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73), his lover, regarded by Kiefer as the greatest poet of
the second half of the 20th century. Celan’s Death Fugue is now canonical; for Kiefer it is a foundational text, as this exhibition triumphantly demonstrates. Bachmann’s Darkness Spoken is perhaps less well known, but no less vital:

The string of silence
taut on the pulse of blood,
I grasped your beating heart.
Your curls were transformed
into the shadow hair of night,
black flakes of darkness
buried your face.

Celan and Bachmann deal in the same darkness, broker the same black flakes. Kiefer pays tribute to the poems and the poets in his meditation on their plight. His exploration – one might better say his excavation – honours theirs: he probes the limits of language and the possibilities of art. “With art,” said Celan, “you go into your very selfmost straits. And set yourself free.” The Kieferworld is a free world, but a heavily burdened one, full of dead souls. Kiefer’s art is, among other things, an inquest and a reckoning – a reckoning with the history of the terrible 20th century.

Two vast canvases bracket that endeavour. For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night (1998-2013), with a Kiefer-figure lying in the foreground, is framed through a series of arches in gallery 8, as if the image of the artist himself were impregnated in his work. Looking back through the arches, at the other end of the galleries is The Orders of the Night (1996), with another Kiefer-figure lying at the foot of the giant sunflowers that are a recurring motif in his work, redolent of another insistent interlocutor: Vincent Van Gogh, a painter-­philosopher of heart-breaking eloquence.

There is lyric poetry after Auschwitz. The labours of Anselm Kiefer offer proof. Whatever else it may be, the Kieferworld is a challenge – an extraordinary feat of sustained creativity, an oeuvre that beggars belief. The result is monumental, inexhaustible, unmissable. Be brave. Go now. Think on.

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Anselm Kiefer at the RA

Enter into the mind of a German Artist on an exploration of beauty and history.

Walk into the first room of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition and you are struck by Nazi salutes and bonfires, followed by derelict landscapes and decrepit sunflowers. You have entered the mind of a German Artist on an exploration of beauty, horror and history.

Kiefer was born into ruins, in 1945, towards the end of the second world war and the end of the Nazi regime. His country’s past was hidden from him as a child, yet the taboo topic fascinated Kiefer and lead him to explore Germany’s willfully forgotten past in his work.

In one room an imposing pile of lead books and unfinished Kiefer paintings tower up towards the ceiling. The work crumbles at your feet, just like the art work which burned at the hands of the Nazis. The weight of history is represented by the lead books, stained by the erosion from reacting with the air. There is something intriguing about his choice of metal here. Lead is almost impenetrable, and yet it is also poisonous.

I found it unsettling to look at the crumbling pile of Kiefer paintings even before I came to understand the meaning behind it. Paintings worth millions of pounds crumbled and dismantled all for a metaphor. It seems the world’s richest living artist is not precious about his paintings. I read recently that he reportedly left some of his Royal Academy exhibited paintings out in the rain by accident, later claiming that ‘the rain won’t harm them, it might even make them better’.

With a vast amount of wealth and a 200-acre art studio in the South of France at his disposal, Kiefer’s mental playground has become a reality. As I wander into another room I confront dark and textured surfaces, hanging from the walls, like the surface of an unknown planet or the night sky on a clouded evening. I move closer I notice the paintings begin to twinkle as little stars appear. As I move closer still the alarm begins to scream and it becomes apparent that Kiefer has placed hundreds of little diamonds into the night sky.

My favourite room is a wash of serene blues and magnificent yellows, six different paintings, each on a vast scale, all reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. The decrepit sunflowers that feature in so much of Kiefer’s work are also present. Objects reach out from the paintings as you see into the landscape before you and not at it. The scale at times feels a bit overwhelming, but you soon come to appreciate the real beauty captured in these near-ephemeral paintings – they look as if I could break a piece off with the touch of my finger.

Just after the room of blues and yellows is a welcome transition to some works by Keifer that I had never seen before. Subtle and simple nudes, all of which are from sketch books. There are no lead books, or crumbling landscapes, just delicately painted bodies that look soft to the touch.

This exhibition is on until the 14th December at the Royal Academy or Arts.

 

 

Five Essays by Hal Foster on Painting

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Hal Foster

When Alfred H. Barr Jr launched the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, it was a paradoxical enterprise: a museum for an avant-garde art that was very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, for his landmark show Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936, Barr drew up a flow chart that funnelled the various streams of modernist practice to date into two great rivers that he named ‘geometrical abstract art’ and ‘non-geometrical abstract art’. In effect the diagram was a confident projection of a history that the museum would move, strategically, to display and to define. If modernist art was first made in Europe, it was first narrated in the US, and abstraction was its Geist.

Flash forward 77 years. For Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 (until 15 April), the curator Leah Dickerman offers a different diagram: not a diachronic chart of tributary movements but a synchronic network of charismatic ‘connectors’, such as Vasily Kandinsky, F.T. Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Theo van Doesburg and Alfred Stieglitz, all of whom were polemicists (critics, editors, exhibition-makers) as much as they were artists. Like the diagram, the exhibition looks back to the period when abstraction emerged, not forward to its eventual triumph; rather than project a telos to come, it historicises a moment a century ago. In doing so, the show suggests, perhaps involuntarily, a closure to this practice. Is abstraction ‘a thing of the past’, a form of art that, however world-historical once, is well behind us now?

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Inventing Abstraction opens with a complicated Cubist figure by Picasso. It is a conventional enough beginning (recall the title of the Barr show), yet there is no way around it, nor should there be: even if Picasso never went abstract (neither did Matisse, for that matter), Cubism was the fountainhead of abstraction, and key protagonists like Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich felt they had to work through it. Dickerman features Kandinsky next, but she does not present abstraction as having a simple origin. Its sources are transhistorical and multicultural (modernist inspirations include African art, Byzantine icons, and Islamic ornament): abstraction is always discovered as much as it is invented. That said, the purview of the show is strictly European (including Russia and Britain), though the selection is broad and various within this frame, with many provocative juxtapositions and far more women than in past shows (Sonia Terk and Sophie Taeuber, for example, get equal billing with their husbands, Robert Delaunay and Hans Arp). At long last such movements as Italian Futurism and Polish Constructivism are given their due, and lesser figures like the Britons Lawrence Atkinson and Duncan Grant, and the Americans Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, have their day too. Given the cost of insurance, conservation concerns and political problems (Russia has an embargo on loans), we are not likely to see such an extraordinary gathering of abstract art from this period ever again.

Although Inventing Abstraction includes sculpture, photography and film, it runs heavy on painting. It wasn’t obvious how absolute abstraction was to be achieved in those other media, and the modernist project of ‘purity’ – of an art freed from both resemblance to the world and function within it – privileged painting in any case. At the same time, many painters needed the aid or at least the analogy of the other arts, music and poetry above all. Music had long been seen as the most abstract (‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,’ Walter Pater had said), and Dickerman points out the importance not only of Wagner’s chromaticism and Schoenberg’s atonality for Kandinsky (a Schoenberg concert in Munich on 2 January 1911 was an epiphany for the artist) but also of the structural reflexivity of Bach for Paul Klee (who was a gifted musician). As for poetry, Mallarmé had already announced a crisis, and the next generation took the attack on conventional sense to an extreme in Futurist parole in libertà (‘words in freedom’), Russian zaum (transrational) texts, and sound poems (Kandinsky, Arp, van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters all produced important examples).

The tension between medium-specific and cross-media impulses was generative for early abstraction. Against formalist critics, from Roger Fry through to Clement Greenberg, who stressed the decorous ideal of painting as strictly visual and spatial,Inventing Abstraction shows how abstract artists were concerned often with the tactility of materials (faktura or ‘texture’ was a watchword of the Russians) and sometimes with the temporality of animation (alongside abstract films by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and László Moholy-Nagy, there are unexpected projects by Grant and by Léopold Survage, an artist of Finnish descent active in Paris). ‘Tested by abstraction, the boundaries of painting and other media began to dissolve,’ Dickerman argues in a riposte to the medium-specific position. For one thing, abstract painting prompted a loosening of the ground under the viewer: Malevich suggested aerial perspectives in some of his early abstractions, and El Lissitzky rotated his diagrammatic Prouns as he painted them in order to confound any sense of orientation. Such experiments led some painters – Kandinsky, Lissitzky, van Doesburg – to abstract interiors, both actual and projected, and there were other crossings as well. Dickerman opposes medium-specificity and cross-media exchange, but the two principles are not in complete contradiction: however opposed in method, the Gesamtkunstwerk and the pure painting are both committed to the idea of aesthetic autonomy.

Artists were on the verge of abstraction well before the breakthrough year of 1912: why was it such a difficult concept to accept, even for champions like Kandinsky? The principal reason was that it seemed to expose art to the arbitrary, the decorative, the subjective. If art was no longer rooted in the world, what might ground it? If it was no longer governed by the referent, what might motivate it? By and large artists sought a basis for abstraction at the two extremes, in the transcendental realm of the Idea (usually Platonic, Hegelian or theosophist) or in the material register of the medium; in this respect abstraction provided an aesthetic resolution to the philosophical contradiction between idealism and materialism, either of which it could serve. Against the arbitrary, artists like Kandinsky also asserted the ‘necessity’ of abstraction – history demanded it, art required it – and such assertions in turn prompted a flood of words: individual proclamations, group manifestos, lectures, treatises, journals. Dickerman views this visual-verbal relation as a symptomatic ‘split’, even a dissociation of sensibility: ‘This structure – of images and words existing in parallel spheres, the two held at a distance – suggests a division in modernism.’ Yet one might also see it as a relation of supplementarity, and deconstruct it accordingly: which term in the binary truly determines the other in each instance? However parsed, the insight that practice and theory (or, for that matter, performance and publicity) would thereafter compensate for one another in 20th-century art is an important one.

Abstraction had recourse not only to artistic analogies and textual reinforcements but also to radical developments in the sciences of the time, such as the theory of relativity, quantum physics and non-Euclidean geometry; yet more germane, Dickerman argues, were new philosophical paradigms like phenomenology and semiotics. According to phenomenology, perception is not detached and objective – not ‘realist’ in this sense – but subjective and embodied and thus to an extent ‘abstract’. So, too, semiotics discarded the belief that language referred directly to the world (here the intimacy of the linguist Roman Jakobson with Malevich is very telling). Although Dickerman alludes to the impact of new technologies and culture on abstraction, one would like to hear more on this score. The exhibition offers a strong sense of the ambiguous attractions of the abstract world of the industrial machine, as differently evoked by the Futurists, Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp, but little sense of the abstractive force of the mass-produced commodity, the becoming-abstract of capitalist life, as variously explored by Georg Simmel, György Lukács and Alfred Sohn-Rethel. After Greenberg (not to mention Theodor Adorno), we often think of abstraction as a withdrawal from the modern world, almost a safehouse for art, but the converse is just as true: the modern world became too abstract to represent in the old ways.

Dickerman revises Barr dramatically, but not when it comes to the affirmation of abstraction, in which MoMA is still very invested. ‘The propositions were many, and at times contradicted each other,’ she concludes, ‘but in their aggregate they marked the demise of painting in its traditional form and its opening to the practices of the century to come.’ But was abstract painting as absolute a rupture as this makes out? Dickerman insists on its fundamental break with the old model of the perspectival picture, with its metaphor of a window onto a world, its sublimation of the materiality of the painting, its assertion of ‘the primacy of the visual’, its assumption of ‘a discarnate gaze’ and so on. This is true enough: for some artists, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, abstraction did put paid to the project of representation. Yet for others it was the purification of painting, not its end but its epitome (this is an essential meaning of ‘pure painting’). Given the Hegelian cast of some theorists, abstraction might be understood in large part as the sublation of representation, that is, as its simultaneous negation and preservation. Thus, even as abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian cancelled any resemblance to reality, they also affirmed an ontology of the real; even as they rejected painting as a picture of the epiphenomenal world, they insisted on painting as an analogue of a noumenal world: appearance was sacrificed at the altar of transcendence. So, too, even as these artists broke with representational painting, they often did so in a way that continued the tradition of the tableau, reaffirming its criteria of compositional unity for the artwork and epiphanic experience for the viewer. In this respect the glorious Windows of Delaunay reflects on picturing in a way that rivals any self-aware painting by Velázquez or Vermeer.

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

So if ‘the demise of painting in its traditional form’ was not total, what about the ‘opening to the practices of the century to come’? Inventing Abstraction contains examples of avant-garde inventions nearly coeval with abstract painting, such as non-objective collage, relief and construction (an impressive model of the unbuiltMonument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin dominates one gallery). For Dickerman, abstraction prepares these devices and others too, including all that we comprehend by the name ‘Duchamp’: the readymade, experiments with chance, the artwork as idea and so on. Yet this strong claim is open to argument: already in the chart drawn up by Barr for MoMA, and later in the theory of ‘modernist painting’ promulgated by Greenberg, abstraction comes to displace these other strategies, and it would not be until after the dominance of abstract expressionism, in the neo-avant-gardes of the 1950s and 1960s, that they returned with any force. Abstraction was a break, to be sure, but it was also used to defend against other breaks that were perhaps more radical.

The final gallery of the show suggests the mixed fortunes of abstraction: there is a testament to abstraction as the necessary future not only of modernist art but of modern life tout court in the form of experimental pieces by Moholy-Nagy, a near travesty of abstraction as a kind of Dadaist nonsense in ornamental objects by Taeuber and Arp, and a set of essays in abstract form by Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński which, however exquisite, also appear stunted, with nowhere to go historically. And what about abstraction today? It does not pretend to the great ambitions – revolutionary, utopian, transcendental – of this early period; that is obviously not our mode. Many artists treat abstraction as a distant archive to cite more than as a continuous tradition to develop – but then nothing can be world-historical twice.

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SIGMAR POLKE

At MoMA

Hal Foster

For some, Sigmar Polke is his own greatest work, which is to believe that this influential German artist, who died in 2010, counts above all because of the protean force of his personality. Polke learned the importance of persona from his charismatic teacher Joseph Beuys, and he passed it on to subsequent artists who were also wayward performers, such as the German Martin Kippenberger and the American Mike Kelley. Appropriately, the Polke retrospective currently on view at MoMA is called Alibis (it will open at Tate Modern in October and move to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne early next year).

Born in Silesia in 1941, Polke fled west with his family twice, first to Thuringia in 1945 and then to Düsseldorf in 1953, where he attended the art academy in the early 1960s. Among his fellow students was another displaced East German, Gerhard Richter, who was close to Polke at the time. Today the two are bound together art-historically in a way that recalls the pairing of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, with Polke, like Rauschenberg, cast as the restless experimenter – the vast retrospective includes about three hundred works executed in all sorts of materials and media – and Richter, like Johns, as his restrained counterpart. After all the adulation given to Richter in recent years, there was bound to be a swing in the direction of Polke; this impressive show is that swing.

If Rauschenberg and Johns prepared the way for Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Polke and Richter quickly adapted American Pop, which they first encountered in magazines, to German ends. In 1963, along with Konrad Lueg (who soon metamorphosed into the gallerist Konrad Fischer), Polke and Richter claimed the title ‘German Pop artists’ and, with an ironic nod to both Pop in the West and Socialist Realism in the East, contrived the label ‘Capitalist Realism’. Inspired by Warhol’s early silkscreens, Richter developed his famous blur to underscore the mediated nature of his source images. Polke meanwhile riffed on the faux Ben-Day dots devised by Lichtenstein: although they are hand painted, his ‘raster’ spots (Raster is German for ‘screen’) also indicate that his paintings derive from photographic images in newspapers and magazines. However, unlike their Pop predecessors (among whom Richard Hamilton must also be counted), Polke and Richter did not delight in mass media or commercial culture; they had fled East Germany, but were sceptical about the ‘economic miracle’ of West Germany. In two deadpan paintings from 1963-64, for example, Polke presents three support socks and three white shirts for men, crisply folded on blank grounds, in a serial manner that suggests both white-collar well-being and bureaucratic uniformity. His immaculate images of mass-produced chocolates and biscuits from the same years depict these new products of plenty as both perfect and null, and his young man in a tennis sweater is beautiful and bland in a similar way: the good life of the postwar period as the unexamined life of leisure and sport. Might the doubt raised in such paintings about a reconstructed West Germany extend to its quick embrace of American imports like Pop art? It seems so, and this makes German Pop cut critically against its artistic source as well.

In his best works of the 1960s Polke is thus double-edged, equally biting about the vulgar lows and the arty highs of the consumer culture then new to West Germany. He was also harsh at the time about the institutional fate of modernist abstraction, though his sarcasm about it betrays a love for it too. In a watercolour from 1963, Polke reduces the pure abstraction of Mondrian, with the utopian ambition of its primary colours, to a decorative sheet of polka dots, and in a painting from 1969 he turns the transcendental abstraction of Malevich into a mock-totalitarian order from on high: Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! His best jibe is a painting simply titled Moderne Kunst (1968), an array of modernist tokens – Expressionist gestures, Suprematist geometries, Bauhausian angles – presented as so many inert signs in a one-image résumé of early 20th-century art history. These works debunk international modernism, to be sure, but they also question the West German celebration of it as a display of distance from the Nazi condemnation of modernism in particular and from the Nazi past in general – as though one could believe, as Polke once put it, in a nasty twist on the motto at Auschwitz, that ‘Kunst macht frei.’ In this respect his most acerbic piece is another painting from 1968, Constructivist, which presents, in faux-Lichtenstein dots, a faux-Mondrian composition resembling a backwards swastika. In front of an overdetermined travesty like this, which is also a well-made artwork, one hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Produced in the wake of Minimalism as well as Pop, all these paintings suggest that the abstract forms and serial formats of 20th-century art had become overcoded by the logic of the commodity image – all those advertisements for socks, shirts and chocolate bars. Nothing escapes the ‘cliché quality’ of ‘the culture of the raster’, as Polke put it in 1966, so why not push it to the limit and see what happens?

I like the impersonal, neutral and manufactured quality of these images. The raster, to me, is a system, a principle, a method, a structure. It divides, disperses, arranges and makes everything the same … [It is] the structure of our time, the structure of a social order, of a culture. Standardised, divided, fragmented, rationed, grouped, specialised.

Early on, Polke and Richter shared mundane sources such as the family snapshot, but soon Richter made banality his own, and Polke focused on the related subject of kitsch, that volatile compound of mass-produced decoration and petit-bourgeois aspiration otherwise known as bad taste. Often he used patterned fabric as the support for his paintings, on which he might screen or daub an image of a beach, a tropical palm or a heron, all tokens in the middle-class imaginary of happy relaxation, exotic travel and gemütlich decor. This anthropological expedition into the West German petite bourgeoisie is often hilarious, but it is sometimes also cruel, with a hint of snobbery about it.

Perhaps Polke sensed the problem, for in the 1970s he ditched this cool distance. With Fluxus rather than Pop as his prompt, his work became more immersive, performative and chaotic. He drew on popular forms like comics and caricature, deployed forms of amateur and outsider art, and relied on photography and film to document his antics in the studio and beyond. At this time too, with the aid of projectors, Polke adapted from the Dadaist Francis Picabia a particular way of layered picturing, which was soon appropriated by the Americans David Salle and Julian Schnabel. At its best this hallucinatory mélange suggests not a dream space so much as a media overload, a kind of Surrealism without an unconscious in which the subject, no longer home, is dispersed among images in the world at large. At its worst it becomes a matter of rote juxtaposition to which the artist seems as indifferent as the viewer. Drugs were involved here, and that is part of the problem: although psychedelia might feel like freedom, it often looks like conventionality (as any number of rock album covers attest); sad to say, the stoned mind tends to be a factory of readymade images.

In the later 1970s Polke went south: literally, as he travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Brazil, among other places, and figuratively, as his work became uneven. His experiments with chemicals, which extended to his paintings and photographs, issued in mixed results: at times the images point to realms of occult experience that came to preoccupy him, while at others they are simply hermetic; for the most part the process concerned him more than the product. In the 1980s his paintings tended to go big, often too big, as if the point were to keep up with the other boys in this time of Neo-Expressionist bluster. In some instances the scale is effective, as it is in a series of concentration-camp watchtowers from 1984. Yet even here opinion is divided: for some critics these paintings are chilling reminders of the Nazi past, ‘Death in Germany’ in the early 1940s to match the ‘Death in America’ of the early 1960s captured by Warhol with his electric chairs and the like; for others they begin to turn ‘Never Forget’ into its own kind of kitsch.

An acclaimed artist of the same generation as Polke recently remarked to me that Polke was ‘too creative’: there wasn’t enough concentration in his ideas or constraint in his materials to produce a logic that sustained the work over time – in short, he had too many ‘alibis’. But it might also be that his prime devices, parody and pastiche (devices that are often associated with postmodernist art of which he is an important progenitor), refuse precisely these expectations of stylistic consistency and subjective stability, and that the very point of his practice was to resist art-historical inscription and social recuperation: to show, as Benjamin Buchloh puts it in the catalogue, that any secure selfhood ‘rested on some type of oblivion or disavowal’. Yet there is a touch of the adolescent avant-garde-of-one in this position, and isn’t advanced capitalist life an effective enough auto-da-fé of the subject in its own right?

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THE PAINTING OF MODER LIFE

At the Hayward

Hal Foster

The Painting of Modern Life, the first show at the Hayward Gallery curated by its American director, Ralph Rugoff, is an ambitious attempt to see how this artistic project stands nearly 150 years after Charles Baudelaire proposed it in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863). There the poet called for a shift in subject matter – already begun in the practice of Manet and others – away from the grand themes of myth and history, and towards the everyday activities of urban life, especially of middle-class leisure. Such a shift in content implied a shift in form, even in medium; for example, to capture the mobility of bourgeois types on the town, the sketch might be more useful than other means (the exemplar in the essay is not the great Manet but Constantin Guys, who was then known for his quick studies). What better vehicle to convey ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’ – key qualities of the metropolitan kaleidoscope, according to Baudelaire – than the photograph? Yet the poet remained suspicious of the new medium, in part because he did not see its potential for imaginative invention, in part because he did not deem it suited to the ‘other half’ of his mandate for art, which was to extract ‘the eternal and the immutable’ from this protean modernity. The other half was still the province of painting, and so painting – perhaps pressured by photographic attributes – remained the essential medium.

Liu Xiaodong, ‘A Transsexual Getting Down Stairs’ (2001).

Liu Xiaodong, ‘A Transsexual Getting Down Stairs’ (2001).

The Hayward show picks up the representation of modern life a century later. In the interim, Rugoff suggests in the catalogue, the tense relationship between painting and photography slackened, as painting withdrew into abstraction (a comment on modernity in its own right), and photography became the favoured means of modern imaging (there are many exceptions, of course, but the curator should be allowed his premise). However, as the 1960s began, Rugoff continues, artists associated with Pop and photorealism – Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Richard Artschwager, Vija Celmins and Malcolm Morley – turned again to photography, not only as a source of images but as a way to convey the look of consumer society, already processed as so much of it was through photographic media: that is, through the ads, news photos, amateur snapshots and postcards that the painters had begun to adapt.

The exhibition begins here, and the early work looks superb still, fresh to the eye, however familiar the artists are now, and incisive about its times. In the first galleries Rugoff offers a nice range of photographic effects translated into painting in this initial moment: Hamilton capturing the tabloid glare of celebrity visibility in a lurid image of Mick Jagger handcuffed to the art dealer Robert Fraser after a drugs bust; Warhol eliciting shock cut with indifference with a newswire photo of a car crash silk-screened 11 times across a rust-orange canvas; Richter producing an empathic response in his blurred representation of a pretty woman distorted by grief (we learn it is Jackie Kennedy after the assassination); and so on – so many visions of a world more and more mediated by images, which painting, because of its remove and its delay, is able to explore in ways that photography cannot.

Yet the great interest of the show is the uncertainty – the epistemological ambiguity, the historical instability – visited on both photography and painting over the last four decades. The two media partake of different sign systems: photography is conventionally seen as indexical, a photochemical impression of the world, and (representational) painting as iconic, with a resemblance to the world that is less direct, more mediated by material, touch and tradition. A painting is also worked up over time, and usually taken in over time too; Rugoff writes well about the ‘slowness’ of painting, which in this instance allows us to review and to reflect on its photographic sources. Yet even in the 1960s these different attributes are not easily assigned to one medium or the other.

Take the vaunted reality effect of photography, affirmed by theorists from André Bazin to Roland Barthes. Some of the artists in the show are not so sure. Richter remarks that photography is ‘a crutch to help me get to reality’, yet that he can approximate this goal only through painting; this leaves him with the paradoxical formulation, ‘I am practising photography by other means.’ For Celmins, whose meticulous translations of a Timemagazine cover, military craft and a Los Angeles freeway are on display, it is also painting, and not photography, that puts the image ‘back into the real world – in real time … the here and now’. Moreover, as the show proceeds, the source images become less photochemical, more electronic, less analogue, more digital (they often derive from television, video and the internet), and so what counts as the photographic gets stretched – stretched, in fact, towards painterly manipulations. Hamilton explored this complication early on; as early as 1969 he noted the proliferation of ‘lens-formulated images whatever the chemistry or electronics involved.’

Consider, too, the question of spectatorial distance: is this a photographic quality or a painterly one? For Rugoff, it seems, it is painting that builds such detachment into the work, yet for others this distance is associated with photography: Richter speaks of his photographic blur as a ‘protection’, and Warhol of his photographic repetition as an anaesthesia (‘meaning goes away’). Or consider, conversely, our proximity to the image, as with the photorealist canvases of Morley, who describes his painting as a ‘hallucination’, or of the Swiss artist Franz Gertsch (a welcome rediscovery), whose huge scenes of hippy life loom towards us with garish details: neither strictly photographic nor strictly painterly, this visual intensity is effected through a combination of properties of both media. Indeed, some of the best works in the show mix effects of distance and proximity, the detached and the insistent, through a precise complication of painting and photography. Rugoff describes this mixed quality as ‘uncanny’ or ‘absurd’, but little seems repressed here, and nothing nonsensical; his impression of a ‘denatured’ world is more exact. Abstract painters like Kandinsky, Foucault once argued, did away with resemblance, but still affirmed the real; they simply located it elsewhere, in a transcendental beyond. Surrealist painters like Magritte performed a stranger trick: they held on to resemblance, but allowed the real to slip away; similitude remained while reference vanished. For some of the artists here this appearance without substance is the odd nature of the postwar world, and they bring us back compelling probes of it – of where the real looks lost and where it erupts again.

A divide opens in the show as one moves through it. Is its principal concern the photo-painting relation or the representation of modern life? Some works lean to one side, others to the other, but only the best hold the two subjects together, and they are able to do so precisely because the photographic and the painterly charge each other, and burn the image into its moment (and vice versa). Often in the more recent paintings this tension slackens, and purchase on the world slips as a result (the loose categories – looser than in Baudelaire – don’t help much here: ‘History & Politics’, ‘Leisure & Everyday Life’ etc). Sometimes, too, even as the category of the photographic expands, the use of the photographic contracts; it becomes more traditional, mostly a matter of sources again, with the result that little pressure is put on painting, which in turn can scarcely push back on photography. How different from Warhol, who places nasty news photos in the space of exalted abstraction, or Hamilton, who tests the great tradition of the tableau with the slick devices of advertisements. In short, many of the younger artists allow painting to trump photography too easily. Painting gets the victory, but it is Pyrrhic, and for all its advocacy the show might make some viewers feel less sanguine, not more, about the current state of the art.

The reason this issue is more than academic is that the representation of social existence is at stake here. If, for Baudelaire and company, modernity was a great fiction to celebrate, it was also a terrific myth to interrogate – and how much more so is it for us today. As art historians such as T.J. Clark and Thomas Crow have helped us to see, the great painters of modern life – from Manet to Hamilton – are also its great dialecticians; they are able to celebrate and interrogate it by turns. Hamilton uses the Duchampian phrase ‘ironism of affirmation’ to convey his edgy position on this score. Too many of the artists in this show are neither affirmative nor critical enough – of painting, photography, electronic images or modern life. In 1865 Baudelaire wrote to Manet that he was the first in the ‘decrepitude’ of his art; it was meant as a compliment.

Letters

Vol. 29 No. 23 · 29 November 2007

Hal Foster’s review of The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery is illustrated with a reproduction of a painting by Liu Xiaodong bearing the title A Transsexual Getting Downstairs (LRB, 1 November). Without knowing anything about Chinese, I suspect a better translation would be Transsexual Descending a Staircase: the subject matter and the colour scheme (if not the figuration) suggest an explicit allusion to Marcel Duchamp’s work which has always been known in English as Nude Descending a Staircase.

Benjamin Friedman
New York

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New Left Review 19, January-February 2003

If Britain rather than the US, in the fifties rather than the sixties, originated Pop Art, what ingredients made it possible, and how did its pre-eminent painter Richard Hamilton tabulate the arrival of a new ‘super-fetishism’?

HAL FOSTER

ON THE FIRST POP AGE

An epic poem of early Pop by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson, in an essay published in November 1956, three months after the landmark Independent Group exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ opens at the Whitechapel Gallery: ‘Gropius wrote a book on grain silos, Le Corbusier one on aeroplanes, and Charlotte Perriand brought a new object to the office every morning; but today we collect ads.’ Forget that Gropius, Corbusier and Perriand were also media-savvy; the point is polemical: they, the protagonists of modernist design, were cued by functional structures, vehicles, things, but we, the celebrants of Pop culture, look to ‘the throw-away object and the pop-package’ for our models. This is done partly in delight, the Smithsons suggest, and partly in desperation: ‘Today we are being edged out of our traditional role by the new phenomenon of the popular arts—advertising . . . We must somehow get the measure of this intervention if we are to match its powerful and exciting impulses with our own.’ [1] Others in the IG, Reyner Banham and Richard Hamilton above all, share this urgency.

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Who are the prophets of this epic shift? The first we to ‘collect ads’ is Eduardo Paolozzi, who calls the collages made from his collection ‘Bunk’ (an ambivalent homage to Henry Ford?). Although this ‘pinboard aesthetic’ is also practised by Nigel Henderson, William Turnbull and John McHale, it is Paolozzi who, one night in April 1952, projects his ads, magazine clippings, postcards and diagrams at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in a demonstration that underwrites the distinctive method of the IG, an anti-hierarchical juxtaposition of archival images disparate, connected, or both at once. The ‘Bunk’ idea is developed in such shows as ‘Parallel of Life and Art’, directed by Paolozzi, the Smithsons and Henderson in 1953, ‘Man, Machine and Motion’, produced by Hamilton in 1955, and ‘This is Tomorrow’, which grouped artists, architects and designers in twelve teams in 1956; it is also elaborated in such practices as the ‘tabular image’ of Hamilton, as I will discuss.

Click here to open a larger version of this picture in a new window

If Paolozzi suggests an aesthetic paradigm that is at once collagist and curatorial, it is Banham, the great animateur of the IG, who provides the theoretical arguments for a Pop Age. ‘We have already entered the Second Machine Age,’ he writes in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), ‘and can look back on the First as a period of the past.’ [2] In this dissertation, conceived in the midst of the IG, Banham exploits his distance, both historical and ideological, from the framers of modern architecture (including his advisor Nikolaus Pevsner) in order to redefine its meaning. He challenges the functionalist and rationalist biases of Gropius and Corbusier, Giedion and Pevsner—that form follow function and technique—and recovers the Expressionist and Futurist imperatives of modern architecture that they neglected. In so doing Banham also advances the imaging of technology as the principal criterion for design—for design of the Second Machine Age, or the First Pop Age, as well.

Might we operate a similar parallax today, and do onto Banham, Hamilton and colleagues what they did onto the modernists? That is, if the IG detected a shift in conditions from the Machine Age, might we trace a similar displacement vis-à-vis the Pop moment? As we frame our questions of Pop—concerning the phenomenology of the screened image, the formation of the subject in a mediated world, the representability of technologies that often appear immaterial—might we also refine our questions about art, architecture and design today? No doubt if we pursue this line of inquiry, related mistakes in self-understanding will be made: if the Pop moment showed the Machine Age to be charmed by an instrumental reason, and we see the Pop moment as taken over by a media euphoria, what might our dominant ideology be revealed to be? Or are we still too suspicious of all such epic poems, all such period fictions, to permit these questions in the first place? (Obviously I am not; I think we default on cultural narratives at great cost—one counted in, among other ways, the slack relativism of much contemporary art and the indifferent thematicism of much exhibition practice.) [3]

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If Banham is to be our model of revisionism, we need to know more about his project. First and foremost, he is committed to modern architecture, but again not to the canon of Gropius, Corbusier and Mies laid down by Pevsner, Giedion, Hitchcock and others. Banham challenges this edited version of modernism, however, according to its own criterion of how best to express the Machine Age (he too scorns all historical revivalism, including, later, the postmodern version). According to Banham, Gropius and company imitate only the superficial image of the machine, not its energistic principles: they mistake the simple forms and smooth surfaces of the machine for the dynamic operation of technology. This vision is too ‘selective’; it is also too orderly—a ‘classical’ aesthetic dressed up in the guise of the machine. Corbusier all but confesses this classicism-through-the-machine when he juxtaposes a 1921 Delage sports car with the Parthenon in his Vers une architecture (1923). For Banham this is absurd: cars are Futurist ‘vehicles of desire’, not Platonic type-objects, and only a subject who thrills to the machine as ‘a source of personal fulfilment and gratification’ can embody its spirit. [4]

In this regard Banham the Pop prophet is not so at odds with Banham the revisionary modernist. Like others in the IG, he is raised on the popular culture of American comics and movies before the war; this is what ‘Pop’ means after the war as well, not folk in the old sense or Pop in the current sense: the former no longer exists for them, the latter does not yet exist for anyone. The IG is near enough to this American culture to know it well, but far away enough to desire it still, especially in an austere Britain short on attractive alternatives (the lofty civilization of Kenneth Clark, the mealy modernism of Herbert Read, the worker folk world of Richard Hoggart). The result is that the IG doesn’t question this culture much: hence the apparent paradox of a group that is pro-Left and pro-American at once. At this time a second, consumerist Americanism supplants the first, Fordist Americanism that swept through Europe in the 1920s—an Americanism of imagistic impact, sexy packaging, speedy turnover. These become the design criteria of the Pop Age for Banham, and they lead him to celebrate the ‘plug-in’ architecture of Cedric Price and Archigram in the 1960s.

His revision of modern architecture is thus not only academic; it is also a way to reclaim an ‘aesthetic of expendability’, first proposed in Futurism, for the Pop Age, where ‘standards hitched to permanency’ are no longer relevant. [5] In this experiment Banham has two laboratories: the IG, both its discussions and its exhibitions, and his prolific essays where he applies to commercial products the iconographic methods that he learns for high culture at the Courtauld Institute. More than any other figure, Banham leads design theory away from a modernist concern with abstract forms to a Pop semiotics of cultural images, in a way that follows the shift from the architect as arbiter of machine production to the stylist as instigator of consumerist desire. ‘The foundation stone of the previous intellectual structure of Design Theory has crumbled,’ Banham writes in 1961, ‘there is no longer universal acceptance of Architecture as the universal analogy of design.’ [6] In this scheme the Book doesn’t kill Architecture; the chrome fender and the plastic gizmo do. In different ways the Smithsons and Price and Archigram take ‘the measure of this intervention’ in architecture; Hamilton does the same in painting.

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Hamilton shares many of the Pop-Futurist enthusiasms of Banham. He too sees the machine as exemplary by dint not of its functional ‘fitness’ but of its fantasmatic power, its mythic force. In his introduction to ‘Man, Machine and Motion’ of 1955, a gridded display of over 200 images of mechanomorphs under sea, on land, in the sky and in outer space, Hamilton even recycles the old Marinetti trope of a man-machine ‘centaur’ from the first Manifesto of Futurism. [7] Yet his archive of images is largely obsolete, his mechanical centaurs are almost campy, and this cannot but render the techno-futurism on offer here somewhat absurd. Never as ‘gonzo’ as Banham, Hamilton practises an ‘ironism of affirmation’ toward Pop culture (he borrows the phrase from his mentor Duchamp) or, in his own words, a ‘peculiar mixture of reverence and cynicism’. [8]

In ‘This is Tomorrow’ of 1956 Hamilton is grouped with John Voelcker and John McHale, and ‘ironism of affirmation’ is again in play. His team decides that new kinds of ‘imagery and perception’ require new strategies of representation, and Hamilton constructs his little collage,Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, to the first end—to tabulate the emergent Pop iconography of ‘Man, Woman, Humanity, History, Food, Newspapers, Cinema, TV, Telephone, Comics (picture information), Words (textual information), Tape recording (aural information), Cars, Domestic appliances, Space.’ Although indebted to Paolozzi’s ‘Bunk’, Just what is it? initiates his distinctive version of the Pop image, a space of pumped or primped figures, commodity images and media emblems that, in his own description, is ‘tabular as well as pictorial’. [9]

Two months later, in a January 1957 letter to the Smithsons, Hamilton sums up IG research to date: ‘technological imagery’ (explored in ‘Man, Machine and Motion’), ‘automobile styling’ (discussed by Banham), ‘ad images’ (credited to Paolozzi, McHale and the Smithsons), ‘Pop attitudes in industrial design’ (exemplified by the House of the Future of the Smithsons), and ‘the Pop Art/Technology background’ (the entire IG, ‘This is Tomorrow’). [10] These interests will inform his tabular pictures to come, in particular a suite of three, Hommage à Chrysler Corp.(1957), Hers is a lush situation (1958), and $he (1958–61). I want to review them briefly now—to come to terms with this type of picture and to speculate about some of its implications.

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Hommage à Chrysler Corp. begins his intrigue with the automobile as core commodity and design-object of the 20th century (that is, until the PC), and for Hamilton it is more metamorphic ‘vehicle of desire’ à la Banham than Platonic type-object à la Corbusier. ‘It adopts its symbols from many fields and contributes to the stylistic language of all consumer goods’, he writes in 1962. ‘It is presented to us by the ad-man in a rounded picture of urban living: a dream world, but the dream is deep and true—the collective desire of a culture translated into an image of fulfilment. Can it be assimilated into the fine art consciousness?’ [11] Hommage is his first attempt to meet this IG mandate, and here his ironism of affirmation is not paradoxical, for Hamilton is so affirmative of automobile imaging at mid-century, so mimetic of its moves, that he is led to ironize its fetishistic logic: that is, to expose the break-up of each body on display—the new Chrysler in the foreground and the vestigial showgirl behind it—into sexy details whose production is obscure. Not only does Hamilton associate the body parts of each by analogy (the breast, say, with the headlight), but in so doing he demonstrates a conflation of commodity fetishism with sexual fetishism, as the two bodies exchange properties, even parts (à la Marx) in a way that invests them with erotic force (à la Freud). Perhaps this conflation of fetishisms is historically new to this moment: though foreseen in Surrealism, it is only foregrounded in Pop, which acts out this super-fetishism in ways that are excessive but demonstrative.

Signal characteristics of the tabular picture are already apparent in Hommage. First, the composition is, in his own words, ‘a compilation of themes derived from the glossies’—several images for the car, the woman, and the showroom each. [12] Fragmented, the body of the car is also rotated for display (this happens to female figures in other pictures like $he, as if the skill of Old Master drawing had become a technique of semi-pornographic surveying). I read the headlight and bumper as the front, the fin and fender as the rear. Fetishistically specific (like Banham, Hamilton is a detail buff: ‘pieces are taken from Chrysler’s Plymouth and Imperial ads; there is some General Motors material and a bit of Pontiac’), these parts are also smoothened into near abstraction: if the woman caresses the car in the painting, so too does Hamilton caress its image in paint. The woman is also reduced to charged parts within a curvaceous outline, to breast and lips, which Freud counted among ‘the secondary sexual characteristics’—here represented by an ‘Exquisite Form Bra’ and the pout of one ‘Volupta’, a star of a late-night American TV show of the time. This is representation as fetishization, an almost campy version of what Benjamin called ‘the sex appeal of the inorganic’. [13] Such is the fetishistic chiasmus of this tabulation—a car is (like) a female body, a body is (like) a car—and the two commingle in this chiasmus as if naturally. (This is also borne out by the sexist lingo of the day: ‘nice chassis’, ‘great headlights’, and so on.)

Everything here is already mediated for display: ‘The main motif, the vehicle, breaks down into an anthology of presentation techniques’, Hamilton tells us, and he does highlight in paint the print versions of glossy colour and shiny chrome, all previously screened by the lens, as if there were no other mode of appearance. Space is also thus transformed: it has become display-space tout court, here a showroom based on ‘the International Style represented by a token suggestion of Mondrian and Saarinen’. [14] Foucault remarks that with Manet the art museum becomes the frame of painting, and Benjamin that its primary value becomes exhibition value; with Hamilton this frame is more purely one of exhibition—the showroom—and exhibition value is pushed toward consumption value. [15]

Hamilton also speaks elliptically of ‘a quotation from Marcel Duchamp’, whose Green Box of notes for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass, 1915–23) already obsesses him at the time of Hommage (he publishes his typographic translation of the Green Box in 1960). Perhaps he has in mind another note that speaks of ‘the interrogation of the shop window’ and ‘the coition through the glass pane’. [16] If so, this interrogation is now the enticement of the showroom where not only have traditional line, colour and modeling become means of product display, but aspects of modernist art and architecture—‘Mondrian and Saarinen’, diagrammatic signs and geometric bands—have also become devices of commercial exhibition. (This is another distinctive insight of Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, who shows us modernism mediated through comics.) Or perhaps the allusion to Duchamp is more general—that, like the Large Glass, this conjunction of Chrysler and showgirl is a kind of Bachelor Machine. But which is the bachelor and which the bride? Unlike Duchamp, Hamilton lets the two meet; the shop window is dissolved, desire is transformed.

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In his next tabular picture, Hers is a lush situation (1958), Hamilton pushes the association of body parts of car and woman beyond formal analogy to actual commingling: the lines of bumper, headlight, fin, windshield, and wheel become one with the curves of the implicit driver. Another tabulation of images from the glossies, the painting is generated from a line in anIndustrial Design review of a recent Buick: ‘The driver sits at the dead calm center of all this motion: hers is a lush situation’. [17] Perhaps this is the next stage in his Pop evolution of the Bachelor Machine, one that brings Hamilton into the Bataillean orbit of Hans Bellmer: Hers is a lush situation as a graphic updating of Machine Gunneress in a State of Grace (1937), where Bellmer renders woman and weapon one. But what is still perverse, even obscene in Bellmer has become somehow normative, almost beautiful here: a lush situation, not a surreal threat. Although Hamilton worked to assimilate design into ‘fine art consciousness’, here the flow is in the opposite direction, and it is far along: the genre of the Odalisque is subsumed in an ad for a Buick (all that remains of the nude, as with the Cheshire cat, is her smile); or, better, a De Kooning drawing is not erased by Rauschenberg but reworked by an automobile stylist. In the process, line, which is still individual and expressive in De Kooning, a medium of contact between artist and model (or nature), appears for all its lushness almost engineered and statistical: ‘line’ becomes ‘the right line’ for ‘the new line’ of Buick—a suturing device between ad-man and consumer. And if line is revalued here, so is plasticity, in a way that makes animation and reification difficult to distinguish. This old Futurist dream, which first came true in fascist culture, comes true again, in a different way, in consumerist culture. ‘More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation’, Barthes writes in Mythologiesjust a year or two before Hers is a lush situation is painted—‘the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself . . .’ [18]

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‘Sex is everywhere,’ Hamilton writes in 1962, ‘symbolized in the glamour of mass-produced luxury—the interplay of fleshy plastic and smooth, fleshier metal’. [19] This erotic plasticity is not only fetishistic, a matter of charged details, but also sublimatory, a matter of abstractive displacements—it is as if Hamilton tracks the desirous eye in its saccadic jumps across associated forms. Together these two operations, fetishistic detailing and sublimatory sliding, inform the hybrid space of his tabular pictures—at once specific and sketchy in content, broken and seamless in facture, collagist and painterly in medium.

This combination is also at work in $he (1958–61), his tabular summa, which Hamilton describes as another ‘sieved reflection of the ad-man’s paraphrase of the consumer’s dream’. [20] If the magazine image of a Chrysler provides the layout of Hommage, here it is a shot of a Frigidaire—apparently there is no end of the showroom, not even (especially not) at home. Hamilton lists no less than ten sources, all credited to particular designers and brands, for the fridge, the woman, and the hybrid of toaster and vacuum cleaner below: like Banham he is a mad iconographer of Pop representations of everyday life—that is, in this case, of domestic work. Like Hommage, $he exploits the advertising genre of the woman-wife caressing the vehicle-appliance, yet here it is the commodity that seems to offer the human for sale (this is also signalled by the dollar-sign in the title). Once more the woman is reduced to an erotic ‘essence’, not breast and lips as in Hommage, but eye and hips. As in Hers is a lush situation, the hips are in whitened relief, while the eye is a plastic one taped into position: like painting, relief and collage are exploited for fetishistic effect, not the opposite. The eye opens and closes like the fridge, turns on and off like the toaster. Apparently in the Pop world of animated things it is not only sardine cans that look back at us; and far from a threat as in Lacan, this gaze is a winking come-on. [21]

7

Maybe now I can spell out, however telegraphically, a few implications of the tabular picture. To start with the word (Hamilton is as particular about terms as he is about images), ‘tabular’ derives from tabula, Latin for table, but also for writing-tablet, in which, in ancient use, both painting and printing figure as modes of inscription. Surely this association appeals to Hamilton, who uses both techniques in his own practice in large part because he finds them, already so imbricated, in the media. ‘Tabular’ also invokes writing, which Hamilton involves through his generative lists and descriptive titles; moreover, his pictures register the traces of the visual-verbal hybrid characteristic of the magazine spread or the tabloid layout (perhaps ‘tabular’ connotes ‘tabloid’ as well), a hybrid that anticipates the visual-verbal sign (call it a bit or a bite) that dominates electronic media space today, an often lush image that carries an often insistent directive (‘click here’, ‘buy this’, ‘don’t worry be happy’). [22]

Again, some of his pictures are tabular in another sense: generated by a table of terms, as withJust what is it?; or of images, as in Hommage and $he; or of journalistic jingles, as in Hers is a lush situation or Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in men’s wear and accessories (1962–3; the title derives from a Playboy review of male fashion). More directly, ‘to tabulate’ is ‘to set down in a systematic form’, and Hamilton is often concerned, as he says, with an ‘overlapping of presentation styles and methods’: styles and methods that are commercial (as in the various display techniques that he evokes); modernist (as in the various abstract signs that he cites); and modernist-turned-commercial. (The last is most suggestive: Pop receives the ‘reconciliation’ of avant-garde and mass as given.) In his own words, ‘photograph becomes diagram, diagram flows into text’, and all is transformed by painting. At the same time he wants ‘the plastic entities [to] retain their identity as tokens’, and so uses ‘different plastic dialects’, such as photography, relief, collage, ‘within the unified whole’ of painting. [23] Like an ad-man, then, Hamilton tabulates—as in correlates—different media and messages, and tabulates—as in calculates—this correlation in terms of visual appeal and psychological effect.

In Pop it is not often clear when this redoubling is analytical and when it is charmed; this is especially so in Hamilton. Yet one thing seems clear enough: his pastiche (which is not a negative term for him) is not disruptively random, as it is, say, in many collages of Berlin Dada. Another insight of Pop—or ‘Son of Dada’ as Hamilton calls it—is that ‘randomizing’ has become a feature of the media, print and otherwise; a logic within the repertoire of the culture industry.[24] Sometimes he pushes this logic of the random to a demonstrative extreme. At other times his tabular pictures are logical in another sense, that is, almost typological, as in the suite of images Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends . . . Hamilton describes them as a ‘preliminary investigation into specific concepts of masculinity’, here typified by President Kennedy, a Wall Street broker cum football player, a weightlifter cum track athlete, and astronaut John Glenn, each shown wired to a particular mechanism of sport, entertainment or media—that is, to a spectacle-device. [25] Perhaps more than any of his images, these recall the mediated collages of Rauschenberg; yet the tabular picture should not be confused with the ‘flat-bed picture plane’ of his American contemporary (as Leo Steinberg named it in ‘Other Criteria’). [26] Both are ‘horizontal’ operations, it is true, maybe in the practical sense of how they are assembled in the studio, sometimes tabulated on the floor, certainly in the cultural sense that they both scan across ‘the fine/pop art continuum’. [27] Nevertheless, as Hamilton states as early as Just what is it?, the tabular image is also pictorial: for all its horizontal tabulation of semi-found images, it remains a vertical picture of a semi-illusionistic space—even though this orientation is associated with the magazine layout or the media screen as much as the painting rectangle; Benjamin once called it ‘the dictatorial perpendicular’. [28] The tabular picture is also iconographic in a way that Rauschenberg is not (despite the attempts of art historians to track his sources as if he were Hieronymus Bosch); and in keeping with the IG, let alone the design industry, it is also communicative, almost pedagogical—again as Rauschenberg is not. The tabular picture is also more a research model than an ‘anomic archive’ as suggested with regard to Gerhard Richter. [29] There is no American or European equivalent that I know.

8

In the age of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin once remarked, ‘literacy’ must include the decoding of captioned photographs. [30] Additionally in the Pop age, Hamilton suggests, it must entail a deconstructing of the mediated image-word bite that hails us from magazines, billboards, television, and now computers too. This ‘literacy’ is fundamental to postwar self-fashioning, which has to do far less with any canon of art and literature than with a host of media-apparitions and commodity-signs. (The recent Canon Wars in the academy obscured the fact that the primary canon today consists of television shows, blockbuster movies, sports trivia, celebrity gossip.) Suggestively, the word ‘tabular’ refers not only to graphic inscription; in ancient use it also connotes ‘a body of laws inscribed on a tablet’. Might these tabular pictures be construed as pedagogical investigations of a ‘new body of laws’, a new subjective inscription, a new symbolic order, of Pop society?

Hamilton is self-aware about the preconditions of this new order (if that is what it is). As an artist he is committed to nature, but knows that it is ‘second-hand’: ‘In the 50s we became aware of the possibility of seeing the whole world, at once, through the great visual matrix that surrounds us; a synthetic, “instant” view. Cinema, television, magazines, newspapers immersed the artist in a total environment and this new visual ambience was photographic’. He is also committed to the figure—his Collected Words ends with this statement: ‘I have never made a painting which does not show an intense awareness of the human figure’—but knows that it too is transformed, not only rearticulated by machines and confused with commodities (this is not news) but also now designed-and-redesigned as an image-product. [31]

Consumer society, Hamilton writes in ‘Persuading Image’, a paper first delivered in 1959, depends on the manufacturing of desire through design, on an artificial, accelerated obsolescence of image, form and style. In the process (which he assumes, not critically but also not moralistically) the consumer is also ‘manufactured’, designed to the product. ‘Is it me?’, he remarks of the commodities in $he, miming the ad-man miming the buyer: ‘the appliance is “designed with you in mind”’. [32] It is this condition that his tabular pictures work over: not only the fetishistic conflation of different objects and aims, but also the interpellation of the subject in the image, as an image. Today this process has become internal to the subject, who serves as designer and designed in one, a kind of servomechanism of consummated consumption. When Hamilton turns to his version of the great Pop icon in My Marilyn (1965), he adapts, in painting, a negative sheet from a photo shoot with her own editorial marks: which images to cut (she is merciless), where to crop—in short, how to look, to appear, to be. His Marilyn is still a star, but less as an erotic object than as a model designer, as the master artist of her own powerful iconicity. How different, perhaps more pointed, than the anxiety of a de Kooning or the thraldom of a Warhol. [33]

9

Just as the product is in excess of function, Hamilton suggests in ‘Persuading Image’, so demand is in excess of need. In effect he sketches a consumerist formula of Demand minus Need equals Desire that is not too distant from the formula of desire that Lacan also develops in the 1950s.[34] Lacanians will scorn this speculation, but might his definition of desire be historically grounded as well, a theory of desire inflected by consumerism? Certainly the tabular pictures seem to share the Lacanian sense of desire as a metonymic slippage, at once fetishistic and sublimatory, from image to image, a refinding of the same object in ever new guises. Again, they seem to (re)trace the saccadic jumps of the scopophilic subject.

Thus the tabular picture not only anthologizes ‘presentation techniques’, it also mimes the distracted attention of the desirous viewer-consumer. In this light its painterly subsumption of photography, relief and collage seems warranted not regressive—regressive, say, in relation to a transgressive standard of Dada (about which Hamilton is sceptical in any case, especially when it comes to readings of Duchamp). Again, he assumes the fetishistic effects of painting (condemned long ago by the Russian Constructivists), not to mention of other devices, both modernist (relief and collage) and commercial (the magazine layout). He recognizes that all these forms are now reworked in the image of a general fetishism (commodity, sexual and semiotic), and he moves to exploit this new order—which is one of semblance as well as of exchange—and, in so doing, sometimes to deconstruct it too. [35] Painting allows for the requisite mixing not only of charged details with blended anatomies, but also of the optical jumpiness of the subject with the erotic smoothness of the object; it is this unresolved combination that makes his early paintings both pull apart and hold together.

How does this effect jibe with traditional painting; that is, how does the tabular relate to the tableau? ‘In the mainstream of Western painting (since the Greeks, anyway),’ Hamilton writes in 1970, ‘it has been taken for granted that a painting is to be experienced as a totality seen and understood all at once before its components are examined’. ‘Some twentieth-century artists questioned this premise’, he adds, with the heteroglossic pictures of Klee and the proto-tabularLarge Glass of Duchamp in mind. [36] Clearly Hamilton is affined with this minor line. Yet by his own time the dominant line of the tableau—which runs perhaps from the Greeks, as he says, but certainly from Renaissance perspective through the neoclassical tableau to modernist painting as defined by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried; that is, painting ‘as a totality seen and understood all at once’—has crossed with his own genealogy. The tableau and the tabular can no longer be held apart as distinctive forms. In ‘Other Criteria’ Steinberg argues that, for all its claim to autonomy, late-modernist abstraction (e.g., the stripe paintings of Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella) appears driven by a logic of design, in fact by the very logic of Detroit styling so admired by Banham and Hamilton: imagistic impact, fast lines, speedy turnover. In other words, he suggests that an ironic identity is forged, under the historical pressure of consumer society, between modernist painting and its other, whether this other is called ‘kitsch’ (Greenberg), ‘theatricality’ (Fried), or ‘design’.

In this regard what Greenberg and Fried theorize as a ‘strictly optical’ space of pure painting, Hamilton pictures as a strictly scopophilic space of pure design; and what Greenberg and Fried theorize as a modernist subject, fully autonomous and ‘morally alert’, Hamilton projects as its apparent opposite, a fetishistic subject openly desirous. [37] This is another Pop insight that Hamilton shares with Lichtenstein in particular: that today, in both compositional order and subjective effect, there is often no great difference between a good comic or ad and a grand painting. Importantly, however, this demonstration of the decay of a totality unique to painting is made within painting (perhaps only there is it fully articulate). Paradoxically, then, this demonstration sustains painting even as it shows painting to be deconstructed, within and without, by historical forces. In 1865 Baudelaire writes to Manet, in an ambiguous compliment, that he is the first in the ‘decrepitude’ of his art. [38] Over one hundred years later (and counting) Hamilton carries this fine tradition of popular decrepitude along.


[1] Alison and Peter Smithson, ‘But Today We Collect Ads’, Ark, no. 18, November 1956. On modern architecture and mass media see Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, Cambridge, MA 1994. This paper was written for a conference at Princeton University, ‘Art, Architecture, and Film in the First Pop Age’, 16 November 2002, and appears here as given then. It is also an hommage to Richard Hamilton on the occasion of his retrospective in Barcelona and Cologne.

[2] Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, London 1960, p. 11.

[3] See Franco Moretti, ‘MoMA 2000: The Capitulation’, NLR 4, July–August 2000.

[4] Reyner Banham, ‘Vehicles of Desire’, Art, no. 1, 1 September 1955, p. 3. Also see Nigel Whiteley,Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, Cambridge, MA 2002.

[5] Banham, ‘Vehicles of Desire’.

[6] Banham, ‘Design by Choice’, The Architectural Review 130, July 1961, p. 44. Whiteley is again instructive on this point.

[7] Richard Hamilton, Collected Words 1953–82, London 1982, p. 19; hereafter abbreviated cw. The Hamilton literature is large and various; I have benefited most from the texts in the 1992 Tate Gallery catalogue and in the special issue of October 94, devoted to the Independent Group, especially Julian Myers, ‘The Future as Fetish’, and William R. Kaizen, ‘Richard Hamilton’s Tabular Image’.

[8] CW, p. 78.

[9] CW, p. 24.

[10] CW, p. 28.

[11] CW, p. 35.

[12] CW, p. 31.

[13] Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century’ (1935), in The Arcades Project, Cambridge, MA 1999, p. 8.

[14] CW, p. 32.

[15] Michel Foucault, ‘Fantasia of the Library’ (1967), in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Ithaca 1977, p. 92. Benjamin writes of ‘exhibition value’, of course, in the Artwork Essay, and alludes to ‘consumption value’ in other notes.

[16] Marcel Duchamp, The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, London 1975, p. 74. ‘When one undergoes the examination of the shop window, one also pronounces one’s own sentence. In fact, one’s choice is “round trip” . . . No obstinacy, ad absurdum, of hiding the coition through a glass pane with one or many objects of the shop window. The penalty consists in cutting the pane and in feeling regret as soon as possession is consummated. QED.’

[17] CW, p. 32.

[18] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), New York 1972, p. 99.

[19] CW, p. 36.

[20] CW, p. 36.

[21] I refer to the famous anecdote in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1973), New York 1981.

[22] See T. J. Clark, ‘Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam’, October 100, Winter 2002. Early on Hamilton calls this hybrid ‘a poster’: CW, p. 104.

[23] CW, p. 38.

[24] As William Turnbull recalls in 1983: ‘Magazines were an incredible way of randomizing one’s thinking (one thing the Independent Group was interested in was breaking down logical thinking)—food on one page, pyramids in the desert on the next, a good-looking girl on the next; they were like collages’; in David Robbins, ed., The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, Cambridge, MA 1989, p. 21.

[25] CW, p. 46.

[26] Included in Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria, New York 1972. In this shift to the horizontal site of cultural images Steinberg saw a break with traditional paradigms of the window and the mirror as well as the modernist model of the abstract surface, all oriented to the vertical and still associated with the natural—a break that he termed ‘postmodernist’.

[27] This is a term advanced by Lawrence Alloway in ‘The Long Front of Culture’, Cambridge Opinion, no. 17, 1959, and adopted by Hamilton.

[28] See Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street’ (1928), in Selected Writings Volume 1, Cambridge, MA 1996, p. 456. Benjamin writes here of script: ‘If centuries ago it began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.’ I recall this term here to complicate the overvaluation, in much contemporary art and criticism, of the horizontal and the base—as if they could somehow overwhelm the dictatorial perpendicular on their own.

[29] See Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive’, October 88, Spring 1999.

[30] See Walter Benjamin, ‘A Little History of Photography’ (1931), in Selected Writings Volume 2, Cambridge, MA 1999.

[31] CW, pp. 64, 269.

[32] CW, p. 36.

[33] On this iconicity see my ‘Death in America’, in Annette Michelson, ed., Warhol, Cambridge, MA 2001; and on consumerist interpellation see my Design and Crime (and other diatribes), London 2002.

[34] See, for example, ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud’ (1957), in Ecrits, New York 1977.

[35] On semiotic fetishism see Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis 1973.

[36] CW, p. 104.

[37] See especially Michael Fried, ‘Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella’ (1965), in Art and Objecthood, Chicago 1998.

[38] Charles Baudelaire, Correspondance, Paris 1973, vol. 2, p. 497.

 

Sigmar Polke’s Mad Alchemy – Reviews of the MoMA and Tate Modern retrospectives

Photo: AKG Images/Brigitte Hellgoth
ARTJUNE 12, 2014
The Art World Has Stopped Distinguishing Between Greatness and Fraudulence
And it’s costing us
By Jed Perl

If there were any art fever, or any intellectual fever, left in New York City, I am certain that “Alibis: Sigmar Polke: 1963–2010,” the immense retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art, would be receiving a thunderously complicated response. Polke specializes in the glamour of bewilderment, a confusion provoked by work that ranges from anemic and presumably ironic little doodles to wildly voluptuous canvases created with pours and washes of synthetic resin, mixed with pigments, silver bromide, and sundry other exotic materials. If you respond to the fascinations of slacker chic, then Polke is for you. This artist, who died in 2010 at the age of 69, is a cross between a slob-provocateur and a brutish aesthete. His outlier art-star style is just right for a moment when everybody is tired of art stars but most people have no idea where else to turn.

Compared with Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, the two other postwar German painters with enormous international reputations, Polke remains, despite his many appearances in the United States (including a drawing show at MoMA in 1999), something of an artist’s artist. His influence is now at flood tide, the mingling of gadabout hedonism and ostentatious disaffection in paintings, drawings, assemblages, photographs, and films echoed in countless little gallery shows on the ultra-hip Lower East Side. There is a princely arrogance in Polke’s down-and-dirty games, a sporadic visual avidity that complicates the self-congratulatory anomie. When he layers painted images on cheap printed textiles, the results, although ultimately little more than artsy attitudinizing, can seduce the eye. And when Polke borrows calligraphic devices from Dürer and allows them to hover over expanses of smoke-gray paint, he engineers something that at least echoes the elegant effects of the best of Cy Twombly. I find myself succumbing to the seductions of Polke’s tastiest visual play without really feeling moved. He is an egomanical seducer—an artistic Lothario.

The Polke retrospective is an event, no question about it. What I fear is that it is going to come and go without inspiring the heated debate that it deserves. In terms of exhibition space, the Museum of Modern Art and Kathy Halbreich, the curator in charge, have been extraordinarily generous; the show sprawls through much of the museum’s second floor. There are some 250 works, ranging from the comic neurasthenia of early Polke, when this man who had been born in Silesia was coming of age in Düsseldorf, through the layered paintings on printed fabrics from his drug-taking period in the 1970s and the more conventionally eye-filling paintings of the 1980s and 1990s. There are plenty of drawings, sketchbooks, assemblages, photographs, and films. The show even has audio elements, collages of live and recorded music, sounds from radio and television, and voices of friends, much of this material collected by Polke in the 1970s.

What is missing at MoMA—the absence is felt intensely in Halbreich’s catalogue text—is the intellectual firepower that used to turn MoMA shows into megawatt debates. In place of the brainy, rambunctious advocacy, however wrongheaded, that William Rubin brought to Frank Stella in the 1980s and Robert Storr brought to Gerhard Richter in 2002, Halbreich’s essay opens with the confession that the work “often confuses me” and “sometimes scares me.” I can feel her backing away from the bulldozer event she has organized, and the effect of the catalogue, with well over a dozen essays by different writers, suggests a collective hedging of bets.

In place of artistic judgments, we now have sociological observations. The contributors to the Polke catalogue gnaw on the history of twentieth-century Germany as if it were an old bone. And if this institutional pedantry were not troubling enough, it is echoed in the bland adulation and downed energies of the critical establishment, where shrinking word counts have left reviewers with little opportunity to do much more than go thumbs up or thumbs down—and online sensibilities all too often demand little more. The result is that a show that should have people arguing in the galleries and continuing those arguments over coffee, drinks, and dinner has all the force of a rapidly deflating balloon.

Among the critics, art stars on the order of Polke have become anthills to be bolstered and fortified, but without any particular enthusiasm. Even kudos are awarded with a certain weary caution. What is now all the rage is the romance of the outsider and the outlier; each critic, curator, and collector has his or her own special pets. Of course we all know what fuels this new attitude, given the ridiculous over-inflation purveyed by mega-galleries like Gagosian, Zwirner, and Hauser & Wirth, the wall-to-wall marketing marathon of the art fairs, and the seven- and eight-figure prices for some contemporary art. What is so troubling about this critical quasi-Quakerism, with its prayerful consideration of the little guy or gal and its ineffectual moral outrage, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with questions of taste, quality, or artistic judgment as applied to specific works of art.

After going along with the Pop-ification of culture that produced the current crop of creative and institutional Goliaths, the arts community has decided to side with the Davids. The trouble is that by now everybody is so entrenched in their Pop sensibilities that they are incapable of distinguishing between the acres of bombast and the flashes of poetry in the work of a Sigmar Polke or a Matthew Barney—or for that matter in any of the little people they are so eager to endorse. Not long ago I was fascinated by the paltry response to the premiere of Barney’s enormous new movie extravaganza, River of Fundament, which has passages of considerable beauty but was dismissed almost before anybody had seen it as nothing but another case of art-star swagger. And of course the Museum of Modern Art currently finds itself playing Goliath to the American Folk Art Museum’s David, with MoMA, despite widespread protests, determined to tear down the sliver of a building put up a decade ago by the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street and purchased by MoMA when the smaller institution nearly went bankrupt. While I agree with most observers that MoMA ought to have found a way to save the American Folk Art Museum’s admittedly quirky former home, the fact that the structure by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien is a very bad piece of architecture seems to get lost in the paroxysms of small-is-beautiful self-righteousness.

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Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Sigmar Polke, Watchtower, 1984

Behind the altogether human fascination with power games that turns the visual arts into journalistic cotton candy, ancient debates still percolate and shape what we are seeing and what we understand. In the arts, as in geopolitics, there is no end to history despite all the talk we have heard about the end of history. Sigmar Polke takes us right back to debates that raged in the last third of the nineteenth century and lingered well into the twentieth century, between the avant-garde and the artists whom they mockingly labeled the pompiers—literally, firefighters. Pompier (used either as a noun or an adjective) became an avant-garde term of derision for the slick tricks of painters who were the popular hits in the nineteenth century’s enormous public exhibitions. I found myself thinking about the pompiers as I sat in a large room toward the end of MoMA’s Polke show, where the compositions, many with a motif of a watchtower (which strongly suggests the Holocaust and the camps), have a perfervid-chic look, with cloudbanks of purplish pigment and showers of glinting silver. In the Larousse, pompier is said to have characterized work that was “over-emphatic” and “pretentious.” What better way to describe Sigmar Polke? So now—in a sort of reversal of fortune gleefully predicted half a century ago by none other than Salvador Dalí—Sigmar Polke, though championed as an inheritor of the avant-garde strategies of the Dadaists and the Abstract Expressionists, turns out to be the new pompier.

The origins of the term pompier remain unclear, although the most popular theory focuses on a resemblance that avant-garde artists saw between the helmets worn by classical heroes in the work of academic painters and the helmets firefighters wore. But the artists who specialized in Greco-Roman history were not the only ones who came to be regarded as pompiers. The term was applied to Bouguereau’s seductive recapitulations of Raphael Madonnas and to the photographic realism of Gérôme, Detaille, and Meissonier. It is certainly not irrelevant that pompier brings to mind pompeux, or pompous. The thing about the pompiers was that however knowledgeable and skilled they were—and many were close students not only of the art of the past but also of the art of their own day—to avant-garde eyes, their effects remained on the surface, mechanistic contrivances rather than experiences freely imagined or freshly felt. Virtuosity was detached from authenticity. If the pompier’s style was classicizing, then Raphael’s risky arabesques were turned into rote compositional curves and arcs. By the late nineteenth century, when the pompiers were adapting the lighter palette the Impressionists had pioneered in the 1870s, the blue and purple shadows and roiling brushwork of Monet were reinterpreted without their anxious edge. For decades, then, the word was a much beloved term of derision, as when Degas, no doubt thinking of the academy’s tendency to turn virtuosity into nothing but a show of hubris, observed, “C’est les pompiers qui se mettent en feu,” or “The firefighters are setting fire to themselves.”

If I am right, a great deal of what we are now seeing in the blue-chip galleries, the art fairs, and the auction houses is a new kind of pompier, with avant-garde attitudes that are by now venerable traditions turned into surface effects, mechanistic contrivances rather than experiences freely imagined or freshly felt. John Currin’s figure paintings, with their blunt-force recapitulations of Boucher and Courbet, are almost textbook pompier. So is the figurative work of Lisa Yuskavage, seen in 2011 at Zwirner, and Glenn Brown, currently at Gagosian. Pompier painting was all about a kind of knowingness. Technique was marshaled not for deep experience but for immediate goals. When the painter Bonnat showed Degas a work by one of his students representing a warrior drawing his bow and said, “Just see how well he aims,” Degas is said to have responded, “Aiming at a prize, isn’t he?” Jeff Koons, always aiming for the prize of a bigger paycheck and this summer receiving the prize of an enormous Whitney retrospective, could be said to be a pompier version of Duchamp, with the master’s uncomfortable ironies smoothed out into easy seductions. A history of the new pompiers would wind back to the 1980s, when the Musée d’Orsay opened in Paris, giving institutional legitimacy to what had already been a growing interest in the original pompiers, and the Neo-Expressionists—especially Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Eric Fischl—inaugurated an era of visual ostentation characterized by brash perplexities, by difficulty reimagined as a form of salesmanship. As it happens, Schnabel is having something of a revival just now, with a big show at Gagosian in Chelsea.
Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/ Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Wolfgang Morell
Sigmar Polke, Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald), 1963

Among the late modern and postmodern pompiers, Polke is distinguished by the verve that he brings to his painterly concoctions. The fascination of his strongest compositions is in the way he works us over, titillating with special effects, enveloping us in the big hug of his visual mood music. That is certainly how I felt as I looked at Polke’s more than sixteen-foot-wide Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters (1991), with its Abstract Expressionist torrent of white paint over which Polke has cleverly layered an engraving of nineteenth-century figures from Grandville’s book Un Autre Monde, the allegorical figure of Autumn making snow that her daughters toss across the surface. The painting is almost crushingly lovely—a Neo-Dadaist romantic stage set, a Walt Disney-ized version of what might have been a Robert Motherwell idea. Equally beguiling, near the end of the show, is the nearly ten-foot-wide The Illusionist (2007), filled with figures derived from nineteenth-century engravings and executed in gel medium and acrylic on fabric, so that everything is as if seen through a sheet of old handblown glass. At the heart of this magical kingdom framed in faux curtains is a man who must be the illusionist and a woman blindfolded in a chair who must be his prime subject. Here is one of Joseph Cornell’s dream worlds, only on steroids. These pictures represent the gentler side of Polke. Amid his work in so many media, manners, and modes, there are also quite a few that aim to repel and maybe even revolt us, but even early in the show, where Polke’s faux-naïf paintings of a chocolate bar and a trio of biscuits are crudely forthright, there is a feeling for the cuisine of painting, even if it is an anti-cuisine cuisine.

Polke’s work, with its careening diversity, reminds us how close a link there is between virtuosity and parody, for virtuosity, when detached from some deep sympathy with an idea or ideal, almost inevitably becomes a joke of one sort or another. In 1968, in a series of paintings that fill much of a room at MoMA, Polke served up self-consciously flat-footed parodies of classic modern styles, including a “primitivist” painting with a rendering of an African statue, a Constructivist composition of strict verticals and horizontals, and a Color Field painting with a quartet of casually inscribed stripes. The knowingness of these paintings suggests a con artist you quite understandably find distasteful but whose cons for some reason fascinate as well. Compared with the iciness of Roy Lichtenstein’s satires of classic modern styles, there is something almost engaged about Polke, albeit in a sniggering way. When Polke incorporates in his paintings patterns of dots derived from commercial halftone printing, he gives them more life than Lichtenstein ever does, especially in Flying Saucers (1966), where the delicacy in the coloring of a yellowish sky spins a bit of magic above a toylike skyline.

Polke’s feeling for the romance of photomechanical reproduction was what first set me to thinking about his relationship with Dalí, who also took an interest in the halftone’s dot screen. Although discussions of Polke’s use of commercial styles and kitsch motifs generally focus on a connection with the work of Francis Picabia—this was the subject of a well-known essay in Artforum in 1982 by the art historian Benjamin Buchloh—at the Museum of Modern Art, it was Dalí I found coming to mind. Polke is a far more rough-hewn character than the dandified Dalí, but they do share a voracious eclecticism. Like Polke, Dalí had a sweet tooth when it came to optical tricks and regarded avant-garde experimentalism as a dumb-ass joyride; he riffed on Yves Klein’s blue body prints by slathering models in red paint to make his own body prints. Dalí not only mimicked the academic realism of artists such as Gérôme and Meissonier, he also enjoyed parodying the splattered paint of Pollock and Matthieu, the once famous exemplar of art informel,the French parallel to Abstract Expressionism.

With Polke, as with Dalí, style is a put-on job, an act—but an act pressed with such intensity that it takes on a weird, almost repellent authority. What has been referred to as the confusion or chaos of MoMA’s Polke show is so much a matter of spectacular dissonances and layerings that it produces no real disquietude in a gallerygoer, but rather what might be called a pompier disquietude—a confusion that is an academic rerun of the old Dadaist confusions. Since there is some authentic pictorial feeling in Polke, the conflicts are more interesting than they are in some other artists, but this self-congratulatory confusion characterizes many of the more outré art stars of recent years, among them Martin Kippenberger and Mike Kelley.

I realize that calling an artist a pompier can degenerate into little more than name-calling. To some it will seem far-fetched to refer to Polke as a pompier, when he was so interested in de-skilling—the de-skilling that was one of the avant-garde’s prime tools to counteract conventional ideas of finish or polish associated with the academy. In an interview in the MoMA catalogue, Benjamin Buchloh, who in 1976 in Germany mounted the first survey of Polke’s work, argues that the slapdash look of Polke’s drawings, which he admires enormously, is grounded in a self-consciously avant-garde rejection of virtuosity. Buchloh wonders, “How do you de-skill drawing and still draw?” He asserts that Polke had to be “extremely good at drawing, to generate that degree of refined brutishness.” Although I do not agree with Buchloch that Polke is a “supreme draftsman”—I fail to see the depths in these doodles—what interests me is that Buchloh cannot avoid the whole question of virtuosity and its conscious denial, which brings us back to the great debate between the pompiers and the avant-garde. For Buchloh, the early Polke is the real virtuoso because he is a stealth virtuoso, or so Buchloh imagines. Buchloh explains that “Polke’s manner of de-skilling drawing by pushing it over to the threshold of the manifestly incompetent or deranged is always sustained in the last moment by its lyrical line.”

Buchloh’s argument about Polke’s drawings sounds like some of the arguments made on behalf of Matisse’s most daring experiments in the years leading up to World War I. And this argument about the virtues of de-skilling can be found even earlier, for example in Renoir’s comment that “some of Rembrandt’s finest etchings look as if they had been done with a stick of wood or the point of a nail.” Which is all to say that what Buchloh is making is an argument for the anarchic anti-virtuosity of Polke as being grounded in a version of old-fashioned artistic virtuosity. This is probably how the curators at the Museum of Modern Art would like us to regard the entirety of “Alibis,” although Halbreich’s admission that the work sometimes confuses or scares her may suggest that she has some worries on this count.

The retrospective presents Polke as a megalomaniacal show-off, the dystopian and utopian aspects of his personality mingled and clashed. For a time Polke was close friends with Gerhard Richter. Much as Richter’s shifts from representation to abstraction and back have been seen as an attempt to trump the old modern debates but actually only mimic them, so Polke’s Neo-Dada permissiveness ultimately feels stale and second-hand—no, third-hand. If the pompiers of the nineteenth century were condemned to reenact the old polemics of classicists, romantics, and realists as mere poses and posturings, who can doubt that Polke is reenacting as poses and posturings the old polemics of the Dadaists and the abstractionists?

A good percentage of the art world is now dominated by pompier reenactments of one variety or another; many call it postmodern, but pompier is more to the point. Of course all art is in some sense a reenactment: that is one definition of tradition. But the reenactment, to elude parody and pompier, must involve a discovery or a disclosure of what is most personal in the process of reenactment. That is what makes the old new. The Museum of Modern Art has just announced that it will host a retrospective of work by Robert Gober this fall, and although his work is in large measure a reenactment of Duchamp and Dada, Gober is anything but a pompier: his curious objects are created with a willful intentness, a finicky artisanal refinement that gives them, whether one ultimately cares for them or not, a rootedness, an authority. Robert Gober and Jeff Koons draw on more or less the same sources, but the results could not be more different. Pompier is not a style or a set of conventions but an attitude that short-circuits and trivializes a style or a set of conventions.
State of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/ Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Jonathan Muzikarvg Bild‐Kunst, Bonn/ Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art/Wolfgang Morell
Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters and other paintings in “Alibis”

The pompier artist has a shallow understanding of virtuosity, but of course it is in the very nature of virtuosity, which at its best is technique that expresses emotion, that it is almost always in danger of degenerating into an empty display of technique. That may be what Buchloh sees happening in Polke’s later work, which he apparently does not care for. It is certainly how many observers used to regard the later work of de Kooning. Nowadays, de Kooning’s canvases of the 1970s and 1980s, with their swashbuckling brushwork and vertiginous color, are often praised as Rubensesque (or even Titianesque!), but I think they are most accurately described as a pompier version of Abstract Expressionist painterliness—an unfortunate case of an artist parodying himself, and not, I think, in full control or much of any control of the joke, if that is what some imagine it to be.

Of course one person’s hard-won virtuosity is another person’s competent conventionality. A case in point is the paintings of little crowds gathered by the edges of lakes in Richard La Presti’s show at the Bowery Gallery this spring. La Presti, who was born the year after Polke, is an artist whose work I have admired for decades, and after a number of exhibitions that focused on densely wooded landscapes and struck me as overly deferential in their relationship with the prismatic naturalism of Cézanne, I am delighted to report that La Presti’s broad but exact brushwork has achieved a new depth of poetic feeling. La Presti’s paintings, with their gently comic vignettes of figures in leisure-time mode, are so far from the spirit of parody and pompier that is now the art world’s default position that it may be difficult for most gallerygoers to grasp their subtle excellence. La Presti, despite his bravura brushwork, is the anti-pompier. Setting varied physiques against the glimmerings of water, sand, and sky, he makes of each brushstroke a double drama, embodying both the reality of the paint and the reality of nature, the two in a tango. This is an old modern or even a premodern tango, but who ever said there was anything wrong with another turn around the dance floor?

I see echoes of Baudelaire’s beloved Constantin Guys in the exactitude with which La Presti observes a skinny or overweight bather or a mother with a child. And there is originality in the way his full-bodied colors are marshaled to achieve a silvery wistfulness. But in the merciless calculus of the art world, Polke, whether you love him or hate him, looms very large, whereas La Presti counts not at all. It hardly matters that La Presti’s work has been written about in the art magazines from time to time, and that in recent years he has exhibited around the country with a group called Zeuxis, which brings distinguished exhibitions of still-life painting (which La Presti does when it is too cold to paint outside) to college and university galleries. La Presti, who was trained at a famous art school, Pratt Institute, by teachers who matter or at least once upon a time were thought to matter, is neither an outsider nor an outlier. He knows the museums and the history of art, so he cannot be a beneficiary of the new quasi-Quakerism, which favors the incoherent and the ill-informed, nor does his virtuosity entitle him to find favor among the new pompiers, from whose circle he is barred by his sincerity. How good do I think La Presti’s work really is? It quite naturally makes one think of Boudin, that serenely incisive painter of nineteenth-century beaches. If Boudin’s work has turned out to live, which it certainly has, I see no reason why the same should not be true of La Presti’s.

La Presti’s paintings bring to mind a phrase that I believe was coined by the painter Leland Bell, whom La Presti admires, when Bell, half a century ago, described the work of a painter he admired, André Derain. Bell wrote that Derain exemplified “virtuosity without self-interest—virtuosity conquered.” It occurs to me that Bell, who died in 1991, was probably the last person I ever heard use the term pompier in casual conversation. He was a Francophile who had spent time in Paris in the 1950s, when he must have found the word still in currency among the city’s artists. Bell clearly meant “virtuosity without self-interest” as a riposte to the self-interested virtuosity that defined pompier painting. And his phrase still bears close consideration today, when it is the challenge of a virtuosity without self-interest that artists desperately need to embrace.

The Polke show is as interested in its own virtuosity—or in its own swaggering anti-virtuosity—as any exhibition I have ever seen. The answer to self-interest, of course, is not disinterest (a word frequently misused today), which suggests impartiality, the value of remaining above the fray. Virtuosity must be a kind of vitality, but also a kind of virtue, in the sense of being tied to honesty, to authenticity, to style as a disclosure of personality. Pompier—and certainly the pompier of Polke—is a performance, and works of visual art are not primarily or essentially performances. There are rooms in the wildly jam-packed Sigmar Polke retrospective where I feel that I am being sucked in by the acts of a man who is in equal parts singular, fascinating, and overbearing. I am held by some of what Polke has done, by the cleverness and the bravado and the sheer spectacle of it all. But I exit this retrospective that’s so aptly entitled “Alibis” with a deep sense of relief. No artist who really matters has ever left me feeling that way.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Magicians and Charlatans (Eakins Press Foundation).

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Installation view of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

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Sigmar Polke at MOMA
by Michael Pepi
Posted: Jun 04, 2014 12:01 PM

Installation view of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
There are precious few artists whose work critics truly fear. And it’s not always the ones you might expect. Categories fail to do justice to the agile nature with which the German artist Sigmar Polke moved through his career. From the first capitalist realist exhibition in 1963 to the lenticular archival drawings of the past decade, Polke flirted with charged iconography, courted amnesia, and remained suspicious of good taste.
For the variability of his source material, the diversity of his formal strategies, and the multiplicity of meanings that implicate fraught histories, Polke has garnered much scholarly and institutional attention. The latest show to take on his work is “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” in which the Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Modern have co-organized the first retrospective to include all of his mediums. The genius of this exhibition is that you risk leaving confused about Polke’s messages. Is he remembering or forgetting? Warning or celebrating? Representing or obscuring? Then somewhere amidst Polke’s impressive dexterity you see the objects unfolding before you as artistic realizations of the vexing problems of late twentieth-century art.
If these questions now have a detached, academic air, they were perhaps more urgent in postwar Germany. Depending on how you look at it, German artists of Polke’s generation were either doomed to historical impotence or blessed with a tortuous legacy that fed an ever-evolving cycle of veiled meanings. Luckily, Polke departed from many of his contemporaries by exploiting the latter.
Born in 1941, Polke originally apprenticed with a glass painter and travelled extensively, though he was active primarily in the Federal Republic of Germany, where he wasted few opportunities to situate his work clearly within his geo-political surroundings. While the exhibition shows such links to be inextricable, MOMA and the Tate Modern’s extensive catalogue points out that he often rejected readings of his work as a mere reflection of recent history or contemporary politics. The exhibition’s roughly chronological orientation provides ample space for this tension to play out. As nearly every work on view attests, postwar Germany goaded him out of conformity.

Sigmar Polke, The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, 21′ 4 5⁄16″ x 16′ 1 1⁄8″ (651 x 490.5 cm), Private Collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
The exhibition opens in the Museum’s second floor atrium. The glorious diversity of Polke’s work is all here, neatly (as possible) packed into a whiplash tour of some of his largest works. The atrium contains a recent lenticular piece, Seeing Rays (Strahlen Sehen) (2007); a tarpaulin work depicting an Al-Qaeda-hunting unmanned drone The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida) (2002); and several examples of his signature raster technique—an often manually executed variation of the Ben-Day dots that transfixed American Pop art. This process is typified by one of the show’s highlights: Girlfriends (Freundinnen) (1965/1966), for which Polke copied a tabloid-like image of two swimwear-clad women by purposefully disrupting the offset printing process used in newsprint.
The works in the atrium are big, bold, and risky. Polke had a knack—a predilection, even—for making statements at inopportune times. For example, one is likely to be struck by just how prescient The Hunt for the Taliban looks today. In 2002, Polke was among the earliest to have tapped the aesthetic capacity of the unmanned drone, that emblematic object of post-9/11 counterterrorism.

Installation view of “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
But we should expect nothing less. The Federal Republic of Germany’s politics, bureaucracy, policing of terror groups, and Cold War divisions of the most literal kind are present throughout the show. Nearby in the atrium is Police Pig (Polizeischwein) (1986), a raster painting depicting a real German drug-sniffing police pig, but, of course, the title also references the double entendre often aimed at authority. This and other political works are never within precise reach, though, as Polke is a virtuoso at contrasting these with formal elements that make their surface iconography ever more idiosyncratic. Polke made Untitled (Dr. Bonn) (1978) at the height of the bloody events known as Deutscher Herbst, in which imprisoned members of the left-wing terrorist group known as the Baader–Meinhof Gang inspired a spate of kidnappings and assassinations. A cartoonish scene of statecraft and dissent executed on a grid-patterned fabric support, the work depicts a faceless bureaucrat seated below the gang leaders’ wanted posters and pointing a slingshot at his own head. (Bonn was also the name of West Germany’s then de facto capital). This use of the rather loud fabric is essential to Polke’s work in general. Not only in the materiality and politics of its employment, but also for its ability to tie together subjects across radically abrupt shifts in visual strategy.
Season’s Hottest Trend (2003) also hangs in the atrium. It’s a later example of Polke’s Stoffbilders, the fabric works that he and Blinky Palermo became known for in the 1960s. The work is significant in its striking use of three different material bands: a transparent bottom, fake pink “fur,” and a blue monochrome section. This massive work stands as symbol of, among other things, Polke’s longtime willingness to make use of commercial materials, at first out of art student necessity, and then as improvisations that evoke his relationship to modernism and German ideologies.

Sigmar Polke, Modern Art (Moderne Kunst), 1968; Acrylic and lacquer on canvas, 59 1/16 x 49 3/16″ (150 x 125 cm), Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
We see here again that Polke had an irreverent attitude toward the generic abstraction on the 1960s. This is foregrounded by the recent history of Germany’s official opposition to Entartete Kunst as well as the political uses of modernist style as a symbol of the capitalist West’s freedom. This was best summarized by works like Moderne Kunst (1968) and Constructivist (Konstruktivistisch) (1968), in which Polke overtly quotes modernist elements in prototypical compositions. For Polke abstraction was, in this sense, a cliché worthy of parody, but also a tool that points to the difficulties presented by any such direct worship of modernist forbearers.
Everywhere he worked he exposed danger. In Cardboardology (Pappologie) (1968–69), he traces the fictional lineage of cardboard from box to box, pace eugenics. In later photographs entitled Uranium (Pink) (Urangestein [Rosa]) (1992) he captured the effects of the radioactive element Uranium on photographic paper, this right in the wake of major protests of nuclear power in Europe in the 1980s.

Installation view of Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010, The Museum of Modern Art, April 19–August 3, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. All works by Sigmar Polke © 2014 The Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany
Polke worked on fertile ground for a provocateur. From disturbing appropriation of Nazi symbols (reminders of nationalism as much as they were purposely incendiary gestures) to his routine mockery of rational scientific thought, to outright references to the barbed wire of labor camps, the current show at MOMA further mystifies Polke, drawing his wide-ranging output deeper in line with reactions to modernity’s great shortcomings. Whether it be destructive ideologies, overdependence on technology, or even the abuses of history itself, Polke’s ability to move across not just media but also aesthetic positions is on rapt display.
“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on April 19 and remains on view through August 3, 2014.

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“The Palm Painting” (1964). Polke could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase.

 

“The Palm Painting” (1964). Polke could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase.CREDITCOURTESY ESTATE OF SIGMAR POLKE / ARS, NY / VG BILD-KUNST, BONN, GERMANY; PHOTO: ALISTAIR OVERBRUCK

The Art World APRIL 28, 2014 ISSUE

Shock Artist
A Sigmar Polke retrospective.

BY PETER SCHJELDAHL
“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010,” a wondrous retrospective of the late German artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, is the most dramatic museum show of the century to date. It may also be the most important, if its lessons for contemporary art, both aesthetic and ethical, are properly absorbed. I fancy that young artists will feel put to a test. Even longtime Polke fans may be amazed by the cumulative power of the two hundred and sixty-five works on view, in painting, sculpture, graphic art, photography, and film. The modes range from the cartoonishly figurative to the augustly abstract, and the mediums from paint and pencil to toxic chemicals and meteorite dust. There is no Polke style, but only a distinctive force of talent and mind. With caustic humor and cultivated mystery, he could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase, and even from piece to piece, and he regularly frustrated the efforts that curators, dealers, and critics made on his behalf, in ways that blurred his public image and hobbled his sales. He would still be at it, if he had lived to finish collaborating on “Alibis” with Kathy Halbreich, MOMA’s associate director. (Polke died, of cancer, in 2010, at the age of sixty-nine.) Halbreich says that Polke rejected a chronological arrangement of the work. There’s no telling what sort of unnerving layout he would have demanded. Mercifully for viewers, Halbreich has imposed a conventional order, except for an olio of big works, from different periods, in the museum’s atrium. The effect is intensive and intense. We may now begin to understand an artist who, like a fugitive throwing dust in the eyes of pursuers, took pains not to be understood.

Polke was of a generation of Germans who inherited a defiled national culture. The “alibis” in the show’s title start, in Halbreich’s telling, with a postwar German mantra: “I didn’t see anything.” Polke came from the East, like Gerhard Richter, his peer and, for several years in the nineteen-sixties, his close friend. (It’s a bit distorting, but irresistible, to deem Richter the cunning Apollo, and Polke the rampaging Dionysus, of the period’s renaissance in German art.) Polke was born in 1941 in Oels, Silesia, the seventh of eight children of a father who trained to be an architect. In 1945, the family fled to Soviet-occupied Thuringia, during an expulsion of Germans from Silesia, which became part of Poland. In 1953, abandoning nearly all their possessions, they escaped to the West on a train, with young Polke ordered to feign sleep, to deflect suspicion. They settled in Düsseldorf, where Polke apprenticed to a stained-glass manufacturer and entered the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1961. Modern art was then enjoying a lofty prestige in West Germany, as a counterweight to the scalding memories of the Reich and to the menacing ideology of the East. Polke embraced the art but scorned the piety, resisting even the utopianism of the academy’s charismatic guide and teacher, Joseph Beuys. Polke quickly became a galvanic presence in a cohort that included Richter, who, nine years older, and living on refugee assistance, had recently escaped the East after having been schooled unhappily in Socialist Realism.
Young German artists were stirred by the emerging Pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Polke took to painting proletarian consumer goods—chocolate bars, soap, plastic buckets—and ordinary news and magazine photographs, in a rugged variant of Lichtenstein’s Benday dots. The first was a scrappy image of Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1963, Polke, Richter, and two artist friends, unable to interest galleries in their work, mounted a group show, in a former butcher shop, of what they termed “Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism.” The last two words resonate with an exquisite ambivalence, skewering both parties to the Cold War: the commercial West and the dogmatic East. Polke and Richter, like Warhol, conveyed underclass perspectives on popular spectacles of commerce and glamour—“outdoing each other in terms of the lowest forms of banality,” according to the German art historian and critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who knew both men at the time, and is interviewed in the show’s catalogue. But they did so with lacerating skepticism, which, in Polke’s case, abided no distinction between the vulgarities of mass culture and the pretenses of fine art. What Polke didn’t raise up he brought down, as in a work of 1968 that might qualify as the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of postmodernist sensibility: “Moderne Kunst,” a painting of generic abstract shapes, lines, squiggles, and splashes, with a white border like that surrounding a reproduction in a book. It is both savagely sarcastic and seductively lovely. Time and again, Polke projects the unlikely comic figure of a would-be destroyer of art who keeps being ambushed by onsets of beauty and charm. He is angry, but his anger makes him cheerful. His lunges become dances.
Polke was a big man with the twinkle of a gamin. I met him a few times and found him dazzlingly intelligent, funny, and exhausting. As Buchloh says, “You could not have a conversation with Polke without his continuously destabilizing your sense of self, without his suggesting that it rested on some type of oblivion or disavowal.” In 2008, I sat through much of an afternoon in his chaotic warehouse studio and home in Cologne while, pulling books from the shelves of his immense library, he discoursed on ancient philosophical and technical sources for a suite of stained-glass windows, in the Protestant cathedral of Zürich, which became his last major project. I felt awash in a sea of exotic erudition and ungraspable logic, listening to Polke as, with absorption and course-correcting irony, he listened to himself. My profit was an inkling of how he made art, monitoring an internal crossfire—or a chorus—of ideas.

There was a fearless, spooky otherness to his cast of mind, in key with an attraction to mysticism. “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black!” is the title of a canvas in the show from 1969; the corner is black. In the early seventies, he shared a farmhouse with many friends and indulged heavily in hallucinogenic drugs, which caused a dip in his career, but, in contrast to the more commonly dicey toll of such a regimen, plainly nourished the brainstorms of his later work. These include: huge atmospheric abstractions, incorporating details of the signature of Dürer; pink photographic prints, made by exposing film to uranium; majestic panels of glass, smudged with soot; paintings that orchestrate antic images from nineteenth-century engravings; and, in a slide show, the beautiful Zürich windows, some of them made of slices of agate and other stones. The Christological symbol of the scapegoat, seen both arriving in the frame and leaving it, hints at a spiritual crisis without end.

Polke trashed the conventions of painting throughout his career—overlaying images on printed fabric in lieu of canvas, for instance, or using resins that rendered cloth semi-transparent—and in the process revitalized a medium that was discounted, in the sixties, by iconoclastic minimalism and Conceptual art. His influence was slow to cross the Atlantic, though, owing partly to his principled elusiveness, and largely to the insularity of the New York art world. But by the early eighties young Americans were plundering his inventions to feed the resurgence in painting that was known as Neo-Expressionism. The belated discovery of Polke’s work came as a shock. I remember my first look at “Paganini” (1981-83), a riotous painting, more than sixteen feet long, in which the musician, on his deathbed, and the Devil, playing a violin, are accompanied by swirls of skulls and tiny swastikas. It struck me then as a one-upping of Neo-Expressionism. Here it is again, at MOMA, in a room that Halbreich has brilliantly crowded with tours de force from the artist’s middle period. Now I see it as an acrid burlesque of the movement, purging Polke of paternal responsibility for it and, by sheer excess, mocking his own virtuosity. Nearly everything he did reacted, somehow, against something. Celebrity was only one of the threats to the probity of his independence which required an emergency response. He was, and he remains, heroic. ♦

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peter schjeldahl
Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic.

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Sigmar Polke's Aesthetic Escape Velocity on View at MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Acquired through the generosity of Edgar Wachenheim III and Ronald S. Lauder
Polke takes off: Untitled (1975)

Sigmar Polke was a prisoner of his childhood, as are most of us. Born in 1941, when the Nazis were at their apogee, he suffered an impoverished youth in communist East Germany after the Third Reich‘s collapse, followed by a disorienting exodus, in 1953, to Düsseldorf and the comparative riches of the West. “It wasn’t really heaven,” Polke later said of his family’s move when he was 12. “That early painting of mine, The Sausage Eater from 1963, was critical in a way; you can eat too much and blow up too big.” The 22-year-old artist may have been reacting to gluttonous capitalism when he depicted a mouth set in chubby cheeks gobbling up 61 brown links, but he was also embarking on a voracious — not to say insatiable — search for provocatively altered states that would renew the ancient art of painting.
In 1964, Polke scripted a fake interview featuring his friend and fellow painter Gerhard Richter, in which his satiric version of Richter brags, “The big death camps in Eastern Europe worked with my pictures. The inmates dropped dead at mere sight. . . . Anyone who survived the first show was killed off by a slightly better picture.” In a 1976 exhibition, Polke erected a fence topped with wooden letters spelling out “Art Makes You Free,” parodying the sardonic “Work Makes You Free” that the Nazis had emblazoned over the gates of Auschwitz. As art historian Christine Mehringhas pointed out, Polke was employing bad — OK, atrocious — taste in an attempt to pierce his countrymen’s alibi of blindness.Polke was a one-man group show. He worked with a staggering array of materials, including paint of every formulation, photographic emulsion, lacquer, uranium, Xerox, resins, film, meteoric granulate, silver leaf, and other concoctions that he marshaled into mélanges of abstraction, figuration, mechanical reproduction, cosmic charts, dreamscapes, porn, comics, and pretty much everything else in creation’s kaleidoscope. His vision quest didn’t shy away from the most horrible specter his generation of Germans faced: the sins of their fathers, including the big lie muttered by the many perpetrators of the war and the Holocaust who later held positions of power in West Germany: “I didn’t see anything.”

Details

‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010′
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
212-708-9400, moma.org
Through August 3

See November 5, 2014

The tendrils of the horrendous past that clawed at Polke’s generation inform a striking 1978 painting displayed halfway through MOMA‘s appropriately sprawling retrospective: A blank-faced cartoon bureaucrat aims a slingshot at his forehead as “Wanted” posters for members of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang watch over his clumsy antics. (Unlike the literally faceless functionary, the terrorists have their eyes wide open.) In the ’70s, posters of these glowering Marxist revolutionaries, who blasted their way through West Germany while railing against its fascist past, were plastered across the nation. You can feel in this powerful composition — the action takes place within a cone of white light that mimics the “V” of the taut slingshot — Polke’s desire to create as visceral an impact through art as terrorists have with violence.

Polke generated the aesthetic escape velocity he needed for such titanic ambition through the unbridled combinations of scale, materials, and content he deployed in his alchemical confabulations of history and fantasy. In a 10-foot-high depiction of a watchtower, painted on bubble wrap, the semi-transparent ground and the runnels and eddies of yellow, pink, and acidic green enamel cast ephemeral shadows that echo the grayish silhouette of the observation post, a chilling yet undeniably gorgeous vision of limbo infused with menace. In another version, the ghostly white outlines of the tower float above fabric printed with flowers and partially blackened with pigment, the sooty pall harkening back to the concentration camps but also commenting on the surveillance of the entire populace of East Germany at the time these huge paintings were created (in that auspicious year of 1984).

Polke’s flair for historical hurly-burly matches that of Veronese, who, when hauled before the Inquisition in 1573 because of the licentious liberties he took in his sumptuous biblical murals, nonchalantly informed the court, “We painters take the same license the poets and the jesters take.” It was Polke’s unfettered license that helped him strike those chords of incongruous beauty over and over again, sometimes through the visual noise of the patterned fabrics he often preferred. In one small painting he contrasts a pair of wavy green palm trees against a gray-and-orange-striped fabric; in another piece, he bounces painted green circles off a rose pattern on a dun field, the brushed colors exquisitely tuned to the hues of the preprinted surfaces. Swiftly rendered herons in a trio of paintings are reminiscent of Matisse’s corporeal draftsmanship; the checkered pastel grounds channel that master’s chromatic virtuosity.

Ultimately, Polke left his past behind, pulling painting into the future with his uninhibited amalgams of concept and medium. According to a cogent essay by curator Kathy Halbreich, Polke pursued an “encyclopedic and not entirely recreational study of hallucinogens from various cultures, including mushrooms and frog urine.” One gallery brings together entrancing collages, paintings, and photos of tree-size toadstools; music from Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, The Residents, and Captain Beefheart drifts from overhead speakers, inducing an aesthetic contact high. (Beefheart, whose real name was Don Van Vliet, also lived from 1941 to 2010, and was a notoriously free-spirited painter himself.) Adding to the party vibe is a nearby print of a man gazing in wonder at the palm-tree–like penis erupting from his loins, while a gaggle of cartoon nudes giggle appreciatively. A painting covered with iron mica reflects light from a nearby film documenting one of Polke’s massive canvases as it is lifted and lowered, powdered pigment and resins mixing and wriggling across the surface like some primordial landscape shuddering into being. The metallic pigments Polke experimented with are capable of tugging a viewer’s hazy reflection deep into the voluptuous depths of his layered, densely intermingled surfaces.

In another series, Polke slid old-school engravings around on the glass of a copy machine as it was scanning in order to drag the illustrated figures out like brushstrokes; in the last gallery, a four-screen slide show of these distorted, ecstatic bodies becomes a graphic rave set to the rhythmic clacking of old-fashioned carousels.

This powerful show pays witness not only to Polke’s conceptual brilliance and technical virtuosity but also to the perverse ego that drove him. In 1969, he filmed himself attached to ropes arranged in the shape of a heart as Chet Baker crooned, in “My Funny Valentine,” “Your looks are laughable/Un-photographable/Yet, you’re my favorite work of art.”

No denying that Polke, who died too young at age 69, fits the bill.

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Hal Foster

For some, Sigmar Polke is his own greatest work, which is to believe that this influential German artist, who died in 2010, counts above all because of the protean force of his personality. Polke learned the importance of persona from his charismatic teacher Joseph Beuys, and he passed it on to subsequent artists who were also wayward performers, such as the German Martin Kippenberger and the American Mike Kelley. Appropriately, the Polke retrospective currently on view at MoMA is called Alibis (it will open at Tate Modern in October and move to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne early next year).

‘Moderne Kunst’ (1968)

Born in Silesia in 1941, Polke fled west with his family twice, first to Thuringia in 1945 and then to Düsseldorf in 1953, where he attended the art academy in the early 1960s. Among his fellow students was another displaced East German, Gerhard Richter, who was close to Polke at the time. Today the two are bound together art-historically in a way that recalls the pairing of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, with Polke, like Rauschenberg, cast as the restless experimenter – the vast retrospective includes about three hundred works executed in all sorts of materials and media – and Richter, like Johns, as his restrained counterpart. After all the adulation given to Richter in recent years, there was bound to be a swing in the direction of Polke; this impressive show is that swing.

If Rauschenberg and Johns prepared the way for Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Polke and Richter quickly adapted American Pop, which they first encountered in magazines, to German ends. In 1963, along with Konrad Lueg (who soon metamorphosed into the gallerist Konrad Fischer), Polke and Richter claimed the title ‘German Pop artists’ and, with an ironic nod to both Pop in the West and Socialist Realism in the East, contrived the label ‘Capitalist Realism’. Inspired by Warhol’s early silkscreens, Richter developed his famous blur to underscore the mediated nature of his source images. Polke meanwhile riffed on the faux Ben-Day dots devised by Lichtenstein: although they are hand painted, his ‘raster’ spots (Raster is German for ‘screen’) also indicate that his paintings derive from photographic images in newspapers and magazines. However, unlike their Pop predecessors (among whom Richard Hamilton must also be counted), Polke and Richter did not delight in mass media or commercial culture; they had fled East Germany, but were sceptical about the ‘economic miracle’ of West Germany. In two deadpan paintings from 1963-64, for example, Polke presents three support socks and three white shirts for men, crisply folded on blank grounds, in a serial manner that suggests both white-collar well-being and bureaucratic uniformity. His immaculate images of mass-produced chocolates and biscuits from the same years depict these new products of plenty as both perfect and null, and his young man in a tennis sweater is beautiful and bland in a similar way: the good life of the postwar period as the unexamined life of leisure and sport. Might the doubt raised in such paintings about a reconstructed West Germany extend to its quick embrace of American imports like Pop art? It seems so, and this makes German Pop cut critically against its artistic source as well.

In his best works of the 1960s Polke is thus double-edged, equally biting about the vulgar lows and the arty highs of the consumer culture then new to West Germany. He was also harsh at the time about the institutional fate of modernist abstraction, though his sarcasm about it betrays a love for it too. In a watercolour from 1963, Polke reduces the pure abstraction of Mondrian, with the utopian ambition of its primary colours, to a decorative sheet of polka dots, and in a painting from 1969 he turns the transcendental abstraction of Malevich into a mock-totalitarian order from on high: Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! His best jibe is a painting simply titled Moderne Kunst (1968), an array of modernist tokens – Expressionist gestures, Suprematist geometries, Bauhausian angles – presented as so many inert signs in a one-image résumé of early 20th-century art history. These works debunk international modernism, to be sure, but they also question the West German celebration of it as a display of distance from the Nazi condemnation of modernism in particular and from the Nazi past in general – as though one could believe, as Polke once put it, in a nasty twist on the motto at Auschwitz, that ‘Kunst macht frei.’ In this respect his most acerbic piece is another painting from 1968, Constructivist, which presents, in faux-Lichtenstein dots, a faux-Mondrian composition resembling a backwards swastika. In front of an overdetermined travesty like this, which is also a well-made artwork, one hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Produced in the wake of Minimalism as well as Pop, all these paintings suggest that the abstract forms and serial formats of 20th-century art had become overcoded by the logic of the commodity image – all those advertisements for socks, shirts and chocolate bars. Nothing escapes the ‘cliché quality’ of ‘the culture of the raster’, as Polke put it in 1966, so why not push it to the limit and see what happens?

I like the impersonal, neutral and manufactured quality of these images. The raster, to me, is a system, a principle, a method, a structure. It divides, disperses, arranges and makes everything the same … [It is] the structure of our time, the structure of a social order, of a culture. Standardised, divided, fragmented, rationed, grouped, specialised.

Early on, Polke and Richter shared mundane sources such as the family snapshot, but soon Richter made banality his own, and Polke focused on the related subject of kitsch, that volatile compound of mass-produced decoration and petit-bourgeois aspiration otherwise known as bad taste. Often he used patterned fabric as the support for his paintings, on which he might screen or daub an image of a beach, a tropical palm or a heron, all tokens in the middle-class imaginary of happy relaxation, exotic travel and gemütlich decor. This anthropological expedition into the West German petite bourgeoisie is often hilarious, but it is sometimes also cruel, with a hint of snobbery about it.

Perhaps Polke sensed the problem, for in the 1970s he ditched this cool distance. With Fluxus rather than Pop as his prompt, his work became more immersive, performative and chaotic. He drew on popular forms like comics and caricature, deployed forms of amateur and outsider art, and relied on photography and film to document his antics in the studio and beyond. At this time too, with the aid of projectors, Polke adapted from the Dadaist Francis Picabia a particular way of layered picturing, which was soon appropriated by the Americans David Salle and Julian Schnabel. At its best this hallucinatory mélange suggests not a dream space so much as a media overload, a kind of Surrealism without an unconscious in which the subject, no longer home, is dispersed among images in the world at large. At its worst it becomes a matter of rote juxtaposition to which the artist seems as indifferent as the viewer. Drugs were involved here, and that is part of the problem: although psychedelia might feel like freedom, it often looks like conventionality (as any number of rock album covers attest); sad to say, the stoned mind tends to be a factory of readymade images.

In the later 1970s Polke went south: literally, as he travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Brazil, among other places, and figuratively, as his work became uneven. His experiments with chemicals, which extended to his paintings and photographs, issued in mixed results: at times the images point to realms of occult experience that came to preoccupy him, while at others they are simply hermetic; for the most part the process concerned him more than the product. In the 1980s his paintings tended to go big, often too big, as if the point were to keep up with the other boys in this time of Neo-Expressionist bluster. In some instances the scale is effective, as it is in a series of concentration-camp watchtowers from 1984. Yet even here opinion is divided: for some critics these paintings are chilling reminders of the Nazi past, ‘Death in Germany’ in the early 1940s to match the ‘Death in America’ of the early 1960s captured by Warhol with his electric chairs and the like; for others they begin to turn ‘Never Forget’ into its own kind of kitsch.

An acclaimed artist of the same generation as Polke recently remarked to me that Polke was ‘too creative’: there wasn’t enough concentration in his ideas or constraint in his materials to produce a logic that sustained the work over time – in short, he had too many ‘alibis’. But it might also be that his prime devices, parody and pastiche (devices that are often associated with postmodernist art of which he is an important progenitor), refuse precisely these expectations of stylistic consistency and subjective stability, and that the very point of his practice was to resist art-historical inscription and social recuperation: to show, as Benjamin Buchloh puts it in the catalogue, that any secure selfhood ‘rested on some type of oblivion or disavowal’. Yet there is a touch of the adolescent avant-garde-of-one in this position, and isn’t advanced capitalist life an effective enough auto-da-fé of the subject in its own right?

 

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WSJOURNAL

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010′ at the Museum of Modern Art

  • By
  • April 23, 2014 5:16 p.m. ET
    New York

    In gallery six of the Museum of Modern Art’s enormous and noisy Sigmar Polke retrospective, one woman said to another: “Let’s get out of here. I’ve hit my saturation point.” Surrounded by work from the 1970s, she was only about halfway through the chronological survey, “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010.” Yet I understood and envied her premature exit.

    Watchtower’ (1984). Estate of Sigmar Polke/ ARS/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

    The two women had been dividing their attention between Polke’s large-scale illustrative drawing “Untitled” (1973), a comically exaggerated psychedelic rendition of pornography; and the 35-minute documentary film “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky / Afghanistan-Pakistan” (c. 1974-76). Distorted by the artist, it features men smoking cannabis; a costumed monkey performing acrobatic tricks; and a long, vicious bout in which dogs are pitted against a reluctant bear.

    Like all of the 11 exhibition spaces in “Alibis,” gallery six is hung salon-style—cheek-to-jowl. But it’s especially trying. Polke (pronounced POLL-ka) was known to have made extensive use of recreational drugs. He also had a tendency, according to a gallery director who worked with him, to use his provocative artwork “to torture his friends.”

    Gallery six is crammed with about 40 artworks from 1969 to 1978, including films with clashing soundtracks. Wall text informs us that because these artworks were created during “a time of great social, political and artistic unrest, as well as widespread experimentation with countercultural lifestyles and drugs,” MoMA’s “dense constellation” is intended to “evoke the stimulation of all the senses that occurs during a hallucination.” This is wishful-thinking. Let’s just call this portion of the show the worst leg of a bad trip.

    Comprising more than 250 artworks amounting to roughly 370 individual paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, collages, sculptures, installations, soundworks and video screens, which loop more than nine hours of film, “Alibis” is one of the largest exhibitions ever at MoMA. It also ranks among the most repetitive and impenetrable. But according to the museum, bewilderment and nihilism are precisely the point of Polke’s art.

    Alibis: Sigmar Polke, 1963-2010

    The Museum of Modern Art

    Through Aug. 3

    Polke (1941-2010) was born in the Silesian region of eastern Germany, what is now western Poland. He and his family fled Silesia in 1945, just before the end of the war, for what would soon be Soviet-occupied East Germany. In 1953, they escaped to West Germany, where the artist lived until the end of his life.

    “Alibis” refers in part to postwar Germany where, to deflect blame for Nazi atrocities, the common line was “I didn’t see anything.” Yet here it has at least a double meaning. The show offers little of aesthetic value to “see.” (“It’s the processes in and for themselves that interest me,” Polke said. “The picture isn’t really necessary.”) The title also refers to Polke’s antiauthoritarian antics: He grew up trusting no one and nothing, which becomes an alibi for his gamesmanship and mistrust of art.

    Polke was a postmodernist—he mocked and lampooned all artistic styles (figuration, abstraction, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism) and mediums (painting, film, sculpture, photography, craft, performance art). Jester-of-all-trades, he was actually, according to the show’s curators, “masquerading as many different artists.” But instead of variety we get the same joke—dressed up here as a photograph; over there as a painting—played out over and over again.

    Organized by Kathy Halbreich and Lanka Tattersall, at MoMA, and Mark Godfrey, at London’s Tate Modern (where the show will open in October), “Alibis” celebrates Polke’s embrace of accident and chance; his distrust, exploitation and undermining of—as well as his irreverence toward—all things authoritative. Yet his primary target was art.

    Deliberately disingenuous and ambiguous, Polke courted randomness through his appropriations and derisions. He riffed on Paul Gauguin, lifting and belittling his Polynesian women; and Albrecht Dürer, whose classic “Hare” Polke reduced to mere cartoon. He also played with Francisco de Goya, Roy Lichtenstein, Kazimir Malevich and Jackson Pollock. He noodled with comic books, magazine advertising, Rorschach tests, pornography and Victorian children’s books; atomic energy, the Berlin Wall, Nazi death camps and post-9/11 drone attacks. Often, Polke mixed artistic styles and political positions in a single soupy, seemingly unfinished artwork, as if—gunning for everyone—his position was: “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

    This sometimes meant killing the artworks themselves. Polke had a penchant for working in unorthodox materials such as soot, goofy printed fabrics, unprimed substrates and Bubble Wrap. A large yellow-orange canvas is dusted with meteorite granulite. A series of hot-pink chromogenic color prints have white halos, which have been made with radioactive uranium. He also embraced errors and accidents—blurring and overlaying negatives in the darkroom and moving images on the copy machine—as well as planned disintegration. Polke diluted photographic chemicals with coffee and dishwashing liquid. In one large painting in a series depicting concentration-camp watchtowers, he treated the finished picture with a light-sensitive silver oxide that eventually will darken completely black.

    On the cover of the show’s catalog is a photo of Polke as a boy, controlling a marionette. The point, of course, is that he’s an artist working behind, above and beyond the scene—a master-prankster, a master-puppeteer. We—no less than art—are mere playthings for Polke; and we should be pleased to let him dangle us by the strings.

    The great fallacy of this exhibition, however—and of Polke’s oeuvre—is especially apparent in the final gallery, which shifts to a more somber and reverent tone. After the show has pummeled visitors with the artist’s shenanigans, it suddenly want us to take Polke seriously as a craftsman with the aesthetic ability to handle the 2006 commission of a dozen stained-glass windows for Zurich’s Grossmünster cathedral.

    Granted, a slideshow of the finished project is the best thing on view here. But you can’t have it both ways. Polke apprenticed early on as a painter at a stained-glass factory. His seven abstract windows exploring Genesis are made of translucent, thinly sliced, artificially colored agate. Naturally attractive, they conjure cellular growth and medieval illustrations of Creation. Yet, like a boy laughing in church, Polke can’t help himself. His windows work doggedly against the established metaphoric, geometric program of the cathedral. They betray Polke’s fundamental irreverence and subversiveness in a show where nothing is sacred.

    Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.

     

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    NYTIMES

    SLIDE SHOW|13 Photos

    ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010’

    ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010’

    CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

    Get confused is the first and last message of“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010” at the Museum of Modern Art. And if you think, as I do, that some degree of continuing bafflement is a healthy reaction to art, this disorienting contact high of a show is for you.

    Polke, who died in 2010 at 69, is usually mentioned in the same breath with two German near-contemporaries, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, as one of the great European male artists of the postwar years. Of the three, though, he was the most resistant to branding, and is still the hardest to get a handle on.

    In media, he was all over the map: painting (abstract and figurative), drawing, photography, collage, sculpture, film, installation, performance, sound art; he did them all, often messy, counterintuitive combinations. Stylistically, he brushed up against Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism, only to lift their moves and mock them.

    He had a thing about making art from weird materials: tawdry fabrics, radioactive pigments, liquid detergent, soot. He put the discipline in interdisciplinary under stress. His work can be daintily detailed and virtuosic, but it can also look polish-aversive and incomplete. Sometimes he seems to start a painting or a drawing, then stop, as if to say: You get the idea.

    For a long time, museums and galleries didn’t know how to deal with him; that is, with all of him. The standard procedure was to isolate a slice of work that had some visual and thematic coherence: pictures sharing a color, say, or ones with lots of the hand-applied, Benday-style dots that the market pushed as a Polke signature. The prospect of a survey that brought the full range of his multifarious output together under one roof must have seemed daunting even to Polke himself. But that’s what MoMA has done in a show that fills all of its second-floor contemporary galleries, including the atrium, and then some.

    The arrangement is mostly by date, though because Polke was an accumulator, a recycler and a mix-master of styles, that doesn’t give viewers a visual narrative line to follow. Nor have the curators — Kathy Halbreich and Lanka Tattersall of MoMA, and Mark Godfrey of the Tate Modern — provided object labels. Instead, and this an excellent idea, they’ve designed a free, gallery-by-gallery, work-by-work checklist, a kind of Baedeker for the perplexed that incorporates some useful commentary. (Ms. Halbreich’s catalog essay, by the way, is superb.)

    Even with that, the show throws you right in at the deep end. The opening installation, in the atrium and first gallery, spans 40 years of Polke’s career, looks like a multiartist group show, and just says: Deal with it. And so, without a compass, you do, taking in at one sweep 1960s drawings of flying saucers and swastikas; jumpy films shot in Zurich and Papua New Guinea; a big, fluffy 2003 fabric collage titled “Season’s Hottest Trend”; a giant digital print tracing the routes of United States Predator drones after Sept. 11.

    From this array, you learn that Polke’s art was sometimes antagonistically political, though its politics could be hard to decipher outside a very specific cultural context. A Pop-ish-looking 1960s painting of neatly folded dress shirts refers to the “economic miracle” that was restoring a defeated Germany to bourgeois prosperity. A companion picture in the same style — “Capitalist Realism,” Polke called it — of a minute figure sucking in sausages nails the new consumerism as a form of binge-eating-till-you-black-out, designed to induce amnesia about the wartime past.

    That past was Polke’s past. He was born in 1941 into a German bourgeois family that was forced to move from German Silesia (now part of Poland) to Soviet-occupied East Germany before escaping to West Germany in 1953. As a teenager, he apprenticed in a stained-glass factory, then from 1961 to 1967 studied at the Arts Academy in Düsseldorf. There he befriended Mr. Richter, who, like many other students, was under the spell of Joseph Beuys. At once attracted by, and skeptical of, Beuys’s charisma, Polke pulled back and went his own way, which became the pattern of his life.

    “Fathers are depressing,” Gertrude Stein said. Polke seemed to agree. So did the antiauthoritarian era during which he came into his own as an artist, and in which he immersed himself, living and working communally, engaging in love fests and drug fests, traveling, cameras always in hand, through the Middle East, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. He remained, in certain ways, an unreconstructed 1960s person to the end of his life, fascinated with esoteric philosophies, paranormal phenomena, alchemy and psychochemical exploration. These elements contributed to his outsider identity within the international art world and shaped his art.

    A couple of galleries into the show, you come upon a kind of cosmopolitan hippie encampment. Films Polke shot in Pakistan and Brazil are playing. Hazy pictures he took of men on the Bowery line a wall. And there are some fantastic paintings and drawings that layer 19th-century engravings; fabrics printed with Gauguin’s South Seas beauties; references to “higher beings” (Blake, Goya, Dürer); and images of mushrooms and skulls.

    In a show that has the variety and novelty of a souk, hierarchies of “value” evaporate. High versus low, modern versus traditional, art versus craft, genuine versus inauthentic: None of these, Polke suggests, are really opposites. And even art he derides he takes seriously. He lampoons the pretensions of painterly abstraction — its egocentricity, its political escapism — but he also sticks up for it. How could you not defend an art that the Third Reich condemned as “degenerate”?

    Abstraction also gave Polke a pretext to go wild with the alchemic outré: Arsenic, meteorite dust, coffee and soap were precious work materials. And even in his abstraction, politics was never far away. A series of auralike photographs made by placing radioactive uranium on photographic plates had to have a loaded meaning for someone raised in the shadow of the Cold War. Semiabstract depictions of wooden watchtowers, traditional German hunting perches, take on inescapable associations with death camp architecture.

    Yet even in these ominous pictures, he fools around, delights in deviance, frustrates interpretive closure. One watchtower is painted on garishly cheery floral fabric; another is done on Bubble Wrap. A third has been washed with a light-sensitive silver oxide solution that will darken to black over time, obliterating the image.

    Accident, serendipitous or engineered, became the foundation for much of Polke’s late work: paintings based on commercial printing errors or on images the artist dragged across screens of copying machines. And in 2006, he went back to his beginnings with a commission for stained-glass window design from the Grossmünster cathedral in Zurich, home church to Huldrych Zwingli, an iconoclastic force in the Protestant Reformation.

    Seven of Polke’s windows are devoted to the theme of the Creation, and he turned them into the equivalent of a 1960s light show: abstract compositions made from clusters of thin-sliced, odd-shaped, color-dyed agates that suggest cellular forms. You see them in a video at the end of the show, images of primal slime with a sunlit, mescaline glow.

    Unlike Mr. Richter and Mr. Kiefer, Polke remains something of a puzzle when taken piece by piece. There are powerful things at MoMA, but also scraps, doodles, studies, toss-offs that can make you think, “Why am I looking at this?” It’s easy to envision a more tightly edited take on this artist, one that would make him look more ordinarily Great. But it turns out that his career is more interesting and unusual when seen episodically, mixed up, en masse. He has this, and other things, in common with Mike Kelley (1954-2012), whose survey at MoMA PS 1 last fall feels, in retrospect, like a bookend to the Polke show.

    Both artists are perplexing in similar ways. Their art is both protean and of a piece, riddled with weaknesses — fussbudgety viewers can have a field day with Polke; they did with Kelley — that add up to a strength. Museums want masterpieces, but Polke, though he produced some, was into process, not perfection. Art history wants wrap-ups, final accounts. The Polke retrospective is such an account, written with commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, ellipses, parentheses, but no periods, no full stops.

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    Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 review – voraciously off-the-wall pop
    4 / 5 stars
    Tate Modern’s retrospective takes up 14 rooms. And it’s barely enough to contain the messy, druggy, unfathomably elusive and wondrous art of Sigmar Polke

    ‘He was nothing but wayward’ … Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan), 1974-1978. Photograph: Estate of Sigmar Polke/DACS, London/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/PR
    Adrian Searle/GUARDIAN LONDON
    Monday 6 October 2014 12.13 EDT

    Entire artistic careers might be made from small aspects of Sigmar Polke’s multifarious art, which now fills 14 rooms at Tate Modern. The third Tate show devoted to Polke in 20 years, Alibis is a compendious and at times bewildering romp through a career that began in the early 1960s and ended with Polke’s death in 2010.

    Dealing with Polke’s legacy has only just begun. There is a lot of messy unfinished business, and much of it is here. As well as paintings, there are films of early performances and games with potatoes, weirdly exposed and manipulated photographs, a slide-show room of photocopy experiments, tables of sketchbook drawings reproduced and flicked-through on iPad tablets.
    Beginning in the early 1960s with a perverse German pop art celebrating sorry and unglamorous foodstuffs, plastic buckets, socks and sausages, Polke was from the beginning (and as one of Joseph Beuys’s favourite students in Düsseldorf) as critical as he was playful. Even Beuys’s shamanism and pseudo-mysticism became a butt for later parody, even though Polke was as much attracted as repelled by the other-worldly.

    Contaminating errant abstractions with half-hidden swastikas and dizzy, cartoonish swipes and spirals, Polke went on to conduct beyond-the-grave séances with William Blake and to commune with higher beings, who, one painting famously tells us, commanded Polke to “Paint the right-hand corner black”. Fanciful arabesques copied from Albrecht Dürer engravings, Goya’s Caprichos and hippy-trail home movies all played their part in Polke’s art.

    “My mind cracked like custard,” sings the late Captain Beefheart, in the concert soundtrack Polke used for a film which captures the artist fooling around in the countryside commune where he lived during the 1970s, and aiming a camera at a TV documentary about imprisoned Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. Another film takes us to an opium den in Pakistan, and to scenes featuring a performing monkey, and a bear being baited by dogs for public entertainment. Polke sees it all, while the Grateful Dead limber up and play along.
    Girlfriends (Freundinnen), 1965/66. Photograph: Estate of Sigmar Polke/DACS, London/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
    As with everything he did, there are layers of subtext, even in these little films. The exhibition does at time wander between retrospective and visual biography. A slightly reduced version of a show that began at MoMA in New York, the Tate’s version is more coherently arranged, though a degree of incoherence was integral to Polke’s strategy. It did, perhaps, reflect the man. Polke himself collaborated in the very early planning stages of this exhibition, which he devised as being based not on a chronological approach, but on what he called the “problematics” of his art, and proposed what curator Kathy Halbreich describes as a “slightly diabolical” mix of works. Without the problematics, and his diabolic interests in painting’s alchemy and in drugs, the anarchy and order of painting, there is no Polke.

    Polke was nothing but wayward. He played-up the part, in early, hilarious films (one has him up to his well-shod shins in a bowl of water, with cucumbers floating around his trousers), and in photographs of the artist emerging from a giant snakeskin, as though he has been regurgitated, reborn.

    But like the drugs, I feel that Polke’s art is better in somewhat smaller, condensed doses, even if the derangment of the senses, both chemically and optically, were always part of his game. All this could be tiresome, were not Polke’s restless energies capable of throwing up series and groups and individual works of such sublety, unexpected pleasures and ruminative, dark complexities.
    The great Watchtower series from the 198Os, with their structures recalling border posts, concentration camps and hunters’ lookouts, and the huge, resinous paintings with their yawing, curdled images derived from old engravings, seem to be messages from a past that refuses to go away.

    This unfathomable artist was much more than just another painter. His difficulty is also what is so tantalising. Like many of the unstable, fugitive and light-sensitive pigments he sometimes used, and those layers of brown, resinous murk, as soon as you think you see him clearly, his art takes a turn and eludes you once again. His elusiveness was deliberate, a way to stay free.

    Polke’s paintings could be cantankerous and awkward and weirdly ugly, and could also leave you standing on the brink of beauty, wallowing in gorgeous colour. There were surfaces as delicate and ephemeral as scent (using, in one work, a purple dye derived from slugs, painted on silk), and others gloopy with thick polyester resin, which revealed and obscured layers of buried and overpainted imagery, depending on where you stand and how the light falls.

    Experiment and play were at the heart of his art, but were backed up by an encyclopedic and inquiring mind and a curiosity about how paintings have been and might be made. Even his later near-monochromes and a painting of a lump of gold edge towards a kind of magisterial abstraction (it has a grandeur that Robert Motherwell or Helen Frankenthaler could dream of, but never quite achieve). But he never bought into the kitsch of the latter-day sublime.

    Polke reveled in mistakes and imperfections, sudden lurches in tempo or the shearing of material and image, the places where something unexpected breaks in. This was real magic. He knew painting was laughable and exhausted, and that that was as the place he had to begin. Polke was never only a painter, even when, and perhaps especially when, he was only painting. It was all a magnificent folly.

    ===

    FINANCIAL TIMES LONDON

    October 10, 2014 5:20 pm

    Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern

    A retrospective of the maverick German artist seeks to pin down an original, destabilising presence

    Germany and its discontents produced many postwar artists who could have been predicted – Anselm Kiefer with his scorching historical pictures, Georg Baselitz with his angry upside-down figuration, Gerhard Richter with his cool, shape-shifting ironies – and one wild card: the offhand, inconsistent, messy trickster Sigmar Polke.

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    Polke died in 2010 and Alibis, his Tate Modern retrospective, attempts to pin down an original, destabilising presence who was always somewhere else: hiding behind the double exposure of his experimental films; out of his mind on hallucinogenic drugs; or, in a series of vibrant photographs here, posing in swaths of python skin. Thus Polke shed skins, identities and artistic approaches, making style a performative act not an expression of inner necessity.

    Like his fellow German artists in the aftermath of Nazi atrocities, Polke distrusted everything – including his own virtuosity. In the five-metre “Paganini”, based on a 19th-century print of a composer dreaming of the Devil playing to him while he sleeps, Polke considers the relationship between genius and evil: swastikas swarm the surface and a fool juggles skulls that turn into radioactive signs. Polke’s build-up of images overlaid with cartoonish doodles and bravura brushwork collapses figurative into abstract, narrative into chaos.

    Polke made art to fight “the madness of facts”, says his friend, critic Bice Curiger. Born in Silesia in 1941 into a large poor family who migrated to the Rhineland, Polke was initially apprenticed to a Düsseldorf glassmaker, and transparency is really the single leitmotif of his art. The earliest works here such as “Apparition of the Swastika” (1963) feature the Nazi insignia bursting from painterly gouaches, while proto-pop ballpoint pen drawing “Soap” alludes to desires to wash away the past.

    “The Sausage Eater”, from the same year, punctures consumer complacency at Germany’s economic recovery: a tiny anaemic face guzzles, without pleasure, a never-ending line of thin brown links. In Tate’s excellent catalogue, curator Kathy Halbreich compares Polke’s lean, mean sausages to Roy Lichtenstein’s plump, triumphalist “Hot Dog”.

    Polke’s 1960s “raster dot” compositions, painted freehand with perforated metal stencils to transform newspaper snaps into matrices of magnified swimming dots, paralleled Richter’s deadpan blur: both artists aped photomechanical processes to question the reliability of the image. In “Girlfriends” (“Freundinnen”, 1966), “Family”, “Doughnuts” and “Raster Drawing (Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald)”, the dots, vibrating as if in constant motion, were a perfect model for Polke’s oscillating vision of reality and refusal to finalise image or idea.

    His next target was the fixed platitudes of modernism: the parodic minimalist paintings “Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black”, “Constructivist”, which mocks his own raster dots, and the irreverent squiggles and loops in “Modern Art”. But it was only when he and Richter went their separate ways at the end of the 1960s (“Polke drifted away into the psychedelic direction and I into the classical,” according to Richter) that Polke truly took flight, almost literally in his first film “The Whole Body Feels Light and Wants to Fly” (1969), where he attaches strings to his limbs and, giggling, stretches out like Spider-Man.

    Anyone who remembers 1970s Germany, caught between bourgeois boredom and hippy hedonism, will find Tate’s central gallery brilliantly evocative. Resonating throughout are competing soundtracks, featuring the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock and Captain Beefheart from Polke’s weird films “Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan”, shot on a road trip and focused on a performing monkey watched by an opium-addled crowd, and “How Long We Are Hesst/Looser”, where footage of Polke clowning about eating eggs is juxtaposed with TV debates on war criminal Rudolf Hess.

    Paintings, too, turn anarchic: paint poured, dripped, scrawled on to fabrics or dot backgrounds and veiled with metallic spray animates the graffiti-like portrait “Dr Berlin” (1969-74) and the hookah-smoking caterpillar and luminous mushrooms in “Alice in Wonderland” (1972), while in “Bowery”, images of the homeless are obscured by folding photographic paper wet with chemicals to produce random spilled abstractions.

    “Poison just crept into my pictures,” Polke said of the 1980s, when the spills enlarged into experiments with meteor dust and purple dye extracted from boiling snails, uranium and arsenic. In the “Watchtower” series, painted with silver nitrate, resin and enamel, Polke appropriated a doubly troubled image – the towers reference the camps as well as the border between East and West Germany – and subjected it to flux and degradation by replacing paint with photographic chemicals. A subtext of the title Alibis is deflection of blame, denial of history. How to paint the unseen? The show’s most extravagantly beautiful paintings, a pair of abstractions where resin combined with silver leaf or meteoric granulate glows gold, are called “The Spirits that Lend Strength are Invisible” (1988).

    I am less persuaded by Polke’s digital works and 1990s use of photocopiers to distort compositions but, in the 2000s, he came full-circle, back to his training with glass, and began creating handmade lenses to overlay painted fabric surfaces. In the masterly “The Illusionist” (2007), semi-transparent layers disrupt overlapping images of a pair of illusionists and a blindfolded woman to produce theatrical enchantment.

    It is a valedictory invitation into the bizarre looking-glass world of an artist who resisted all belief systems, but brought a consistent magic to disaffection and dissonance, and a lightness of being to conceptual painting, which over the decades liberated artists as varied as Martin Kippenberger, Richard Prince, Rudolf Stingel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn Brown, and makes this show essential viewing for young painters today.

    ‘Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010’, Tate Modern, London, to February 8 2015tate.org.uk

    Images: The Estate of SigmarPolke/ DACS, London/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

    ==

    NYMagazine

    Seeing Out Loud: Saltz on MoMA’s Frustratingly Near-Great Sigmar Polke Retrospective

    People look at artworks displayed at a major retrospective of German artist Sigmar Polke entitled 'Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010' during a preview of the show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, New York, USA, 09 April 2014. “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010,” at the Museum of Modern Art.

    The Museum of Modern Art’s sprawling extravagant “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010” is really good. How could it not be, with more than 260 works by a great artist on hand? When Polke died at 69 in 2010, John Baldessari observed that “Any one [Polke] move can provide a career for a lesser artist.” The Whitney curator Chrissie Iles said, “I don’t like using terms like ‘master,’ but Polke is a master; he knows it, and we know it.” I think of him as a Rosetta Stone for young artists, one whose material glee, anarchic inventiveness, and hallucinogenic Blakean imagination puts him in the same influential postwar class with Pollock, Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and his old friend and nemesis Gerhard Richter. He created his own ravishingly visual, impish blends of Pop, Conceptualism, Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Constructivism, and Process Art, all replete with philosophical heft, social bite, and an extraordinary combination of chaos and control.

    It’s a godsend to be able to see all this work he made. Yet “Alibis” is that bitter thing: a show of a great artist with great work that fails to be great. Certainly it’s not nearly as large, focused, or well selected as he deserves. Billed as the first Polke survey to contain all of the media he tackled, “Alibis” takes a rapid-fire, cocktail-shaker, look-how-much-he-did, glance-and-move-on approach. At MoMA we’re set upon by a barrage of art, jam-packed into ten galleries on the second floor. It does deliver the mad atmosphere, breakneck industriousness, and frenetic vortices of Polke’s artistic talent and all that it generated. But when you really stand still in “Alibis,” get quiet within yourself, and look around, there are far too few moments when you’re overcome with the sheer strange acidic gorgeousness of his art.

    Why? Only a little over a third of what’s on hand is painting, and most of it is hung cheek-by-jowl. I love Polke in all the media that he worked in, but without painting as the clear foundational cornerstone of a major retrospective, his accomplishment is shortchanged, and audiences are denied the art’s full brunt and cosmic beauty. MoMA’s lack of curatorial vision and awkward architecture conspire against visual experience. The show needed more space, even if it meant spilling onto another floor, as the Gerhard Richter and Martin Kippenberger shows did. This season, MoMA gave all of PS1 to Mike Kelley, and a Polke show there would have been tremendous. I suspect that the museum is banking on the art world’s deep admiration for Polke to ensure that there won’t be a negative word written about this show.

    The museum is also making gestures toward his kind of anarchy. For example, there are no wall labels*. I eventually adjusted to that, and to relying on the free newsprint guide for details. The uninitiated, however, will find it impossible to follow his development or get any sense of how prescient Polke was throughout his career. Oh, MoMA, your ideas about the language of exhibitions stagger.

    Still, as insufficient as “Alibis” is, nobody should skip it. This is Polke we’re talking about, after all. There are sound pieces, videos, a slide show of old illustrations transformed into bleary beings, and films that let us see the tall grinning bespectacled German doing antic things. (His nearsightedness was exacerbated by his close-in hand-painting of hundreds of thousands of “raster dots” — his gritty, undulating answer to Roy Lichtenstein’s regular mechanical Ben-Day dots.) One huge yellowish beauty is coated in what looks like grime floating in syrupy albumen but that turns out to be meteorite granules floating in resin. Painting as stardust made visible. A nearby dazzler has silver leaf and Neolithic tools in an abstract field of synthetic resin. These doozies are modern cave paintings, abstract nebulas. Don’t miss the best-titled painting in recent art history, Higher Beings Commanded: Paint the Upper-Right Corner Black! — a perfect comment on the absurdity of making art, and on the uncanny feeling artists often have that they aren’t doing it entirely on their own.

    There are scores of prints, drawings, and works on paper including the 1968 watercolor Polke as Drug — Pulverized Polke in a Glass Pipe, an apt equivalent of what an artist does at work. Nearby is the cartoony Malevich Looks Down on Pollock, a ballpoint-pen sketch of a plain square above a bunch of squiggles on the floor beneath it that offers a wry comment about Polke’s preference for Constructivism over Abstract Expressionism. Polke was among the most innovative photographers ever, and the show includes scores of photos that have been dripped-on, worked-over, cut-up, reprinted, Xeroxed, or otherwise messed with. Near the exhibition’s end are 21 color prints that look like sunbursts on pink grounds. These works were made by exposing the paper to a chunk of uranium that Polke kept in a lead box in his studio. There are weird mechanisms, like Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another, which consists of a wooden stool with a motor that does just what the title says, as if a lost testicle is perpetually circling its mate, trying to create a spark or break away from its gravitational field.

    If you want to avoid being bombarded, I recommend standing in front of the wall with three of the Heron paintings from 1968 and 1969. Beautiful birds in arabesque lines with kinetic reeds and lyrical water, salmon-colored outlines and pale-blue hues: They all merge with the grids of patterned fabric that they’re painted on. This is kitsch as exquisiteness, wallpaper as tour de force, a shattering of molds about what is decoratively cliché and what is painterly grace. One of the five mid-’80s paintings of watch towers is done in enamel on bubble wrap, so the image floats free, the stretcher bars show through, and the painting takes on an entirely new material and spiritual presence somewhere between ectoplasmic apparition and UFO or Roman wall painting. Other paintings of towers, which could depict concentration camps or just forest-ranger stations, are rendered in either silver oxide, polymer, dry pigment, silver nitrate, or natural resins, and show us a colorist as melodious as the great Veronese, one who is as pictorially complex as Rubens.

    In fact, Polke is in a league with Tintoretto when it comes to being in total control of vast amounts of painterly space. See the gigantic painting Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, from 1991. It’s painted on translucent synthetic fabric and hangs about a foot off the wall, so it glows with light. The picture merges with its surroundings — as if some optical bridge was being formed between what’s visible and what’s not, the past and the present. Its surface displays a huge painted image of a woman and two young girls cutting up paper, apparently making snow over the landscape. Much of the painting is a massive blast of stark white that becomes a gigantic abstract painting unto itself. Go in close, and you’ll see that the entire painting is inflected with round little fissures where the artist interacted with the paint. Mrs. Autumn has the intensity of an illuminated manuscript and the power of a Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.

    The other place you need to park yourself is in the cattle-chute corridor that contains Velocitas — Firmitudo, a graphite, silver oxide, and damar-resin giant on canvas. This sooty-looking abstract storm utilizes a teeny detail of a Dürer and is as great as its source, and it’s one of the best paintings in the show. As painter Jackie Saccoccio wrote to me, it “has equal amounts of flippant casualness, astute observation, utter devotion to material, and the alchemical stuff that happens in his photos.” Beneath this behemoth (it was originally installed high on the wall, as it is here) lie 14 little abstract paintings. These elemental jewels from the 1980s show Polke the master of accident, control, experimentation, viscosity, resin, varnish, fluorescent paint, and other liquids that metamorphose into incredible textures, unnameable shapes, new biological forms. These little works are the prototypes for tens of thousands of lesser abstract paintings now being cranked out (and sold for vast prices) all over the world.

    Which is one reason that every artist needs to see and spend time in this show. Not just to bask in the baffling ecstasies and polymorphous crucible of his art. They need to realize how many young painters now suffer from what I call the Polke Effect, ignorantly or mindlessly repeating his gestures without transforming them into anything remotely original. Perhaps this show will school a few of them, and make them take off their water wings and go into the deep end of art’s ocean, where Polke spent his entire career developing a beautiful, gigantic new Boschian cosmography.

    *This sentence has been corrected.

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