Critics’ Picks

Michael Buthe, Untitled (Landschaft), 1987/88, acrylic on canvas with tree branch, 50 x 182 x 30".

Michael Buthe, Untitled (Landschaft), 1987/88, acrylic on canvas with tree branch, 50 x 182 x 30".

New York

Michael Buthe

Alexander and Bonin
47 Walker Street
March 3–August 14, 2020

Richter, Polke, Kiefer. . . Why not Buthe? Though he shared their protean quest to reinvent the role of the German artist, Michael Buthe’s star, fast-rising and once dazzling, has faded considerably over the years. Perhaps it’s because his greatest triumph—his eccentric mystique, which the artist worked hard at cultivating and lavished upon his ephemeral, room-size exhibition-environments—is so difficult to summon today without Buthe himself, who died in 1994 at the age of fifty. As he said, “There is no art, only life.” This small survey—a reversal of that claim—makes a case for a complicated figure who, in his efforts to self-canonize, can feel simultaneously behind and ahead of his time.

Soon after first gaining attention as a student with a series of slashed-canvas sculptures, some of which were included in Harald Szeemann’s landmark exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” (1969), Buthe traveled to Morocco, a transformative spiritual experience. He began to split his time between Cologne and Marrakech, painting gold-flecked abstractions steeped in shamanism and the occult. In the 1980s, Buthe expanded his mythology by employing a Rauschenbergian approach to his surfaces, incorporating whatever was around: coffee filters; famous faces clipped from magazines; or, as in Untitled (Landschaft), 1987/88, large tree branches. For Steine (48), 1991/92, the artist applied acrylic in blistering colors over a photograph of a stone, an allusion to the martyrdom of thirteenth-century Christian mystic Ramon Llull. Like Anselm Kiefer, Buthe was a bricoleur of ritual and rupture, his intimate encounters with history often conflating the kitsch with the consecrated. This tension erupts in an uneven late style characterized by galactic swirls and Kusama-esque dots: See Untitled, 1989/93, which fills an entire wall and puts one in mind of a busted kaleidoscope. Such things will not convert you, but they do remind us to remain open, wherever we are and while we still can, to astonishment.