PRINT March 1985


Das was in der Wissenschaft das ‘andere’ heisst fur mich das eine ist. Nur bin ich vorsichtig und weiss, man verliert die Power an die rationale Erklärung.

(That which in science is the “other” . . . for me is the one. But I’m cautious, because I know you lose power when you try to explain things rationally.)
—Isolde Wawrin, 1982

FROM CONTEMPORARY ART SINCE THE beginning of the ’80s it would seem that the spell of internationalism, dominated by American mainstreams, has been broken. In capitals of the art world, attention has been focused specific regional or national achievements: exhibition programs have celebrated national triumphs, and reports of them—starting with news of “the Italians,” followed by “The Germans”—have dominated the professional journals. In Europe, America too has come back into view as a specific region, with exhibits like “Back to the USA” (first shown in Lucerne in 1984) and “New York Now” (first shown in Hanover in 1982). But now the question is, what have we learned from this nationalist Olympics of thirty-year-old stars? Which countries have won gold medals, and are there national peculiarities to their achievements? After all, what could be the meaning of this merry-go-round of nations, if not to direct our attention to issues of regional particularity and identity? Is it a coincidence that so-called Expressionism in Germany; the graffiti scene in the U.S.; the “trans-avantgarde” with its hot eroticism in Italy; and the cult of Asterix comic books in France, are all enjoying enormous success? Does this evidence truth or reinforce prejudice? That’s the question.

Can we do more than merely speculate about a regional or national context and its ramifications on artwork? Apart from our own projections, do the suspected influences actually show up in the work? What makes the art world mention in the same thought Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, and Enzo Cucchi, from Italy; or, from Germany, Walter Dahn, Jiří Georg Dokoupil, Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Markus Lüpertz, Georg Baselitz, and A. R. Penck; or, from France, Hervé di Rosa, Robert Combas, François Boisrond; or from England, sculptors from Tony Cragg to Richard Deacon? Is it solely market mechanisms and journalistic sloppiness that have catapulted these individuals into the categories of groups or trends? Of course some of this has occurred, particularly in later attempts to jump on the bandwagon. But to assume that there could be only such obvious mechanics behind these different national groupings would be the easy way out of thinking about this complex issue. It is impossible to seriously contest the fact that much of the art we are looking at is openly and actively engaged in a cultural journey with specific stops at national or regional sites. This observation is not meant to deny the individual expression of each artist, nor to deny common tendencies in all civilizations. Most important, this observation is not meant to deny the limits and dangers to human culture that can occur when regionalism or nationalism takes priority over common human ideas or visions. However, once these dangers are felt and known there is much to gain from looking at the work with the perspective of a cultural dialogue instead of an exclusively formalistic approach.

Perhaps the best way to explore this question as it affects contemporary art is to look also at those artists who have not yet been “sorted out” and see if they justify reflection on differences and similarities among regions. A not-so-coincidental coincidence suggested this approach to me. In 1983, the Italian artist Nicola De Maria came to Haus Esters at the Krefeld Museum as the first recipient of the newly established Mies van der Rohe stipend. At the end of his fellowship he organized an exhibition of his works in the neighboring Haus Lange. While in Krefeld he met the German artist Norbert Prangenberg, and the two became good friends. Nothing unusual at first glance. But was it chance or the subtle affinity of two artistic mentalities that accounts for the fact that this friendship was soon accorded the status of a public connection as well: Prangenberg was De Maria’s “successor” as fellow in Krefeld. I decided to study closely the work of both artists, their similarities and particularities. When they learned of this, both of them balked at first. But if it turned out that lines of connection did exist, and that interruptions of these connections might be explained in terms of the two artists’ different backgrounds of experience, this would suggest the value of looking at the rich cultural dialogue occurring between contemporary Italian and German artists. Potentially this could enlarge our perspective on the European North-South dialogue. “Wilde Malerei” (wild painting) and “trans-avantgarde” have been cast as the “true” bastions of recent art from the North and the South. One represents the rude anarchy of the imagination; the other, the glowing, carnal lust of the South. But what if, instead, North and South could be seen as allied in a common search for a cosmic vision, within which their different worlds of experience had condensed into different forms?

The point is not to replace the old set of labels with new ones. The following examination of the contemporary North-South dialogue in light of the work of Prangenberg, Isolde Wawrin, and Wolfgang Laib, from Germany, and De Maria, Clemente, and Luigi Mainolfi, from Italy is not possible without some degree of speculation. But this speculative foray is undertaken with the hope of gaining a potentially useful perspective on developments in the arts today.

For over a century natural science, in league with philosophy, kept alive the belief that the world could be analyzed. The idea of progress drew its strength from the promises of logical order offered by science and philosophy. Science has enriched us with information and explanations, but at the same time created ever deeper alienation. With the demise of the belief that we could totally understand the world, faith in progress per se has also collapsed. The deathly fright of the Western world at the sight of the rubble of its own civilized excesses has driven artists once again to undertake journeys into other types of mental space than logic and analysis, and into exotic regions as well. In particular, primitive cultures and ancient cultures of Asia have served yet again as healing waters. The journey has not always been a physical one, but this hasn’t hindered artists from mentally exploring mystical spaces where barriers between spirit and matter dissolve. To journey to “the other,” if it exists beyond science, we must become empty, completely empty and light, in order to become open and receptive, like a battery that recharges itself with new energy.

Clemente went to India for the first time at the age of 21. Today, Madras remains a crystallization point of his artistic world. The affinity with the East in his work is very evident. Wawrin journeys to the South American Indians, to the “primitives,” the aboriginal races, not in actuality but through painting, drawing, and writing. De Maria searches for the Queen of Flowers in Byzantium, in China, everywhere that his dreams take him. His suitcase, packed with mysterious treasures, travels with him from mental station to mental station wherever the Queen sets foot. Mainolfi travels to a Valley of Fire, Prangenberg to the cosmos of stars, passing through matter into nothingness and All. Laib, who like De Maria was trained as a physician, journeys to the realm of flowers and the kingdom of marble and through the centuries to the 13th-century Persian poet Jalal-ud-din Rumi. Let us turn to the individual works in order to gain deeper insight into the spirit that overarches all these separate manifestations in North and South.

In 1984 Prangenberg wrote a number of poems. One of them reads as follows:

es war 3 n. chr
ich lag unter bäumen und träumte vom paradies
do kam eine frau und gab mir ein glas wasser.

(it was 3 A.D.
i lay under the trees and dreamt of paradise
a woman came and gave me a glass of water.)

The words of this poem are distributed on the page in what could be interpreted as a tree shape. The interior of the top of the tree is empty. The phrase, “glass of water,” is put where the earth, in which the tree is rooted, would begin. The empty space in the tree, the glass and the water as symbols of transparent materials, as crystalline, flowing matter, and the reference to the earth and the human figure all represent life. In Prangenberg’s work the site of emptiness—the cut in the paper; the cutout in sculptural materials; the negative, often white, space in the two-dimensional surfaces of his drawings—all embody a potential for concentration: concentration as the meeting place of the energies of the work. In the artmaking process it is concentration that guides mental energy to its appropriate forms. Is the hole, the circle, the square—counterpoint to the rapturous sphere—site of emptiness, or the site of the most extreme density? It is the site of insight: the nothingness against which the All measures itself. The question in Prangenberg’s work is how to escape the gravitational pull of matter, the stuff of which everything is made, all bodies, all life, all art. And where would the soul of the body lie, where the soul of the picture? Between the poles of matter and nothingness, of color as material and color as light, between articulated form and unbounded formlessness, between the blackness of night and the brilliance of the sun? Prangenberg’s work is full of polarities, antitheses, confrontations, boundaries, crossings of boundaries—it is a journey into the cosmos of painting, a poetic transformation of the journey into cosmic vision. The artist approaches the spiritual dimension through the materials of art. By its very nature, this materiality resists the spiritual yearning or prescience of the artist. It is only in the material’s artistic application that it creates room for experience, and for the sense of the presence of spiritual visions. Prangenberg’s work with color as matter, with malleable masses of clay, bronze, and concrete in sculpture, and especially his compositional use of the most elemental structural units of geometry, penetrate the gravitational force of matter without denying it. The oscillating interplay and polarity of fullness and emptiness, surface and space, staticity and movement, color and light, porousness and a forbidding, unapproachable impermeability, all nourish a sensitivity to energies that liberate intuition from material experience.

Deeply connected with this spiritual space is the work of Laib, an artist living in Germany in Biberach an der Riss. After concluding his studies in medicine, Laib turned his full attention to art. The rural region from which his work draws both its power and its subject matter provides a living space where quiet and concentration flow into the process and form of his work. Throughout the year Laib gathers pollen, which he stores in glass jars and which for exhibits he sets free in public spaces, arranging it into precise forms of circles or squares. In the exhibitions, jars of pollen, the stuff of his work, stand off to the side. In counterpoint to the pollen pieces are the milk stones—white marble, slightly hollowed out and filled with milk to recreate a surface flush with the stone. A third element in Laib’s work is a combination of brass and rice. In some, brass containers—small cones—sit on the floor like strange, magical objects. Full of secret knowledge, these unpretentious yet ceremonial containers conceal and protect the rice they contain as though it were some precious material. In yet other works brass bowls filled with rice suggest the vital force of seeds. Like the pollen and milk, the rice represents growing life. Labs works—sculptures, pictures, installations (which concept really fits?)—do not represent anything, not even in the sense of abstract art. From a formal point of view, they come close to Concrete art, but unlike Concrete art their essence lies in the spiritual exchange between matter and life, between articulated form and the passage of time, and of life between a condition of motionlessness and unfolding.

The advancing disease of the modern age announces itself as the “missing center” (“Verlust der Mitte”).1 Laib’s works, like those of the other artists under consideration here, revolve around this lost center. In his work the vision of the center in which the isolated, “autonomous” individual could find his or her source glows like a utopia in the circling motion; in the dissolution of the boundary lines between contents, images, colors, words; in the rhythms of materials, colors, forms, and signs; and above all in the dissolution of boundaries separating work, culture, and life. Laib’s works are at once ceremonial and unpretentious in a simple and extraordinary way. The degree to which the artist stores up meditative energies is so evident that one hardly dares speak of it. A circle of pollen, a marble stone with milk, are receptive to these energies. They are by their substance energy themselves, and yet at the same time they embody the pure artificiality of sculpture. Pollen in an exhibition hall no longer produces life. It is sculpture or painting done with the colors of nature, and also the final outcome of an action. Equally artificial is the connection between stone (which Laib finds in his wanderings through Italy) and milk—which because of the natural metamorphoses it undergoes must be changed at regular intervals, and which thus illustrates in retrospect what precedes the works made with pollen: time as a ceaseless stream, as simultaneously a flowing out and a circling back on itself, as a cycle of death and life. Just as in Prangenberg’s work antitheses coalesce into a cosmic vision by canceling out each other’s boundaries and at the same time exponentiating each other, Laib’s work draws life from its contradictions, even in its incredible meditative quietness. These contradictions recall the Asiatic yin and yang, and merge into the Western mystical tradition of hermits. Laib’s connection between nature and culture, the disruption of which is among the greatest losses of contemporary civilization, communicates a deep sense of the spiritual grounding of his quietly intense work. It belongs to a tradition of intuitive-analytical and spiritually meditative art which has too often been neglected in German art.

Wawrin’s work builds a substantive and formal bridge with the vision of a reconciliation of nature and culture. In a catalogue about her work there is a photograph of her in which she is in a sense naked; her body is daubed and painted all over in green. In the essay for the catalogue Margarethe Jochimsen writes that Wawrin “strives for moments in which the universe concentrates itself in her, and she herself is the universe.”2 Like Prangenberg, Wawrin is gifted with a deep sensibility for the sensuality of her materials—art, paper, and pigment. And more than Laib, she oversteps the boundaries between the different mediums out of her need to shape her materials. Unlike Laib and Prangenberg, Wawrin “narrates” through her use of naturalistic image-signs of birds, other animals, plants, and humans. Monumental rolls of paper are covered with natural ciphers, written as if in a book. Yet they remain a mysterious cosmos of signs, full of magic, like ceremonies of a primitive culture. Wawrin is particularly drawn to the cultures of the South American Indians, whereas Laib’s spirituality is doubtlessly more deeply nourished by Eastern thought. When Wawrin fills the surfaces of her drawings or paintings with signs of nature, the result is not a story about the beauties of nature but rather a fabricated utopia, an abstract cosmos of natural ornaments whose cultic intensity makes figure and geometric sign, the chaotic stream of life and a higher, embracing order, all grow together into one fabric.

The cultic character of Wawrin’s work is clearly delineated in her earlier spatial objects, fragile sculptural forms made of paper. In these is revealed, even more than in the drawings, a joy in shaping and molding things, which comes about through small acts of creation.

Is it a coincidence that at Documenta 7 in 1982, Rudi Fuchs, the exhibition’s artistic director, juxtaposed Laib’s work with Clemente’s, or that Prangenberg (in even more crowded corners) shared a space with the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, or that the route from Wawrin to Mainolfi was a short one? Let us consider the Laib/Clemente confrontation—a catalytic one, though Fuchs motivation may not have been sophisticated. In the context of the then-dominant discussion of the so-called international “neo-Expressionist” movement among young painters, Clemente’s interest in Asian spirituality must have appeared a mere exotic sideline, and so certain works were split off and shown with those of a “meditative’ artist. This split in understanding Clemente’s work is common. Critics note his sojourns in Madras with admiration and mention his ideogrammatic art, only to quickly turn back to his image-fantasies. But the intensity with which he investigates the Asiatic world of signs as a meditative cosmos is also to be found in his obvious fixation on erotic subjects. Here too one has to feel out the suprasubjective cosmic unity that feeds off the contradictions and that above all points beyond the alienation of the body and matter, without denying the unattainability of this unity. For the European, Western mind, his signs are the narrative reflection of a world split between pain and ecstasy, desire and failure—a chaotic story, an explosion of secreted extremes of bodily pleasure, attacked taboos. An Eastern view would overcome the split between desire and pain by overcoming matter, and the incoherent fragments of this absurd story could alloy themselves into a unified whole which transcends positivistic logic. Clemente’s ”this isn’t what it pretends to be"3 images are signs of a nonscientific, meditative logic. In Clemente’s image world, this meditative logic is imbued with the banal, vulgar truths of human experience in both the spiritual and emotional-sensual sphere, on both an individual and species level, both time-bound and timeless.

Today, many young Italian painters are making a brutally harsh and rebellious journey through the lands of erotic desire. None of his Italian colleagues works as incisively, with an intellectual and visual razorblade, as does Clemente. In comparison, De Maria’s journeys into the wide-open cosmos of the imagination seem like the softest of songs from another planet. De Maria certainly occupies the most idiosyncratic position in the constellation of young Italian artists today. His paintings and installations are the visual equivalent of poetry, of timeless fairy tales, and of music. Colors and signs, images and words produce a cosmic sound in which the song of the creative artist and his beloved muse, the Queen of Flowers, can be heard. De Maria’s imagination is fragile and infinitely porous. Its oscillations penetrate the viewer’s intuitive consciousness by means of the rich and transparent colors of his work, the sensitive, mostly graphic signs written into the ground colors, and the musical notation-like stream of poetic words. The “correspondence” among all creative energies that Baudelaire wrote about, the synesthesia of tones, colors, and smells, is evoked in a unique way in De Maria’s visual poetry. His poetic journey into the transparent spaces of color lets us experience the colors as sound, the words as song, and the spaces as incomprehensible cosmos. There, in a color-saturated cosmos, the poet and the Queen unite in a lovers dance, free of all bodily-material ballast. It is the realm of light, of day flowers and evening stars.

In this realm of light, the boundaries of national geography dissolve. There the divided cultures of the West, of Byzantium, of Asia and Africa, unite. There the separate cultural rivers flow back into the all-embracing cosmic ocean. De Maria is a poet, a narrator, an inventor of fairy tales. He is filled with unself-conscious, childlike fantasies of love and the mature spirituality of the timeless mystic. In De Maria’s work, line, surface, and space interweave in a location without coordinates, beyond scientifically, rationally describable sites that imply boundaries.

Mainolfi, an individualistic artist apart from the Italian “scene”: works his way into the fire-bathed cosmos of Earth, in action and in art. His materials are clay and earth colors. By modeling clay he reenacts the creation, the birth of life, of vital energy growing out of primal matter, that fiery mass of the planet whose cold, hardened crust is the bearer of life today. Just as De Maria amplifies graphic line as a medium for image-traces into graphic line as an instrument of poetic word-traces (not just in picture titles but as integral elements of his works), so too Mainolfi expands the materials of his image-making by the inclusion of words as part of the presentation of his work. His prose, which appears, for example, in exhibition catalogues, is the poetic translation of his images (the reliefs and sculptures) into word-images, into a fairy-tale atmosphere where the artist strives to return to the cosmos of the fiery earth, from which these “new” old images draw their energy. The elements—fire, water, wind, and earth—are the primordial forces of his visual and verbal poetry. His physical works are remarkably lapidary—landscapes with trees modeled in clay, for instance, where the vital force of Eros thrusts its way quietly through the primal sludge of earth, of clay. A hill grows into a breast, the earth’s crust becomes a pig, revealing the pleasure of wallowing in the earth, and also of reexperiencing this with the same sensual intensity experienced in childhood. Mainolfi’s visual and verbal imagination concocts a fantasy realm where the childhood kingdom of fairies harmonizes with the ominous power of the elements. There is an essential affinity between Prangenberg’s few, lapidary poems and Luigi Mainolfi’s prose, as between Wawrin’s and Mainolfi’s fascination with natural materials and their efforts to reclaim them as art materials.

Only a few critics—among them Johannes Cladders4 and Hermann Kern5— have focused attention on the indisputable religiosity of fundamental currents in contemporary art. Predecessors such as Gotthard Graubner in Germany or Lucio Fontana and later Cy Twombly in Italy should be mentioned lest this focus on recent art be left in a vacuum; moreover, these examples put in context the reflections here, which by no means are intended as theses. But a tentative observation, at least insofar as a consideration of the work of contemporary artists allows us to judge, is that the crystallization point in the North seems located in a rather more abstract imagination, while the Southern sun appears to give preference to a more narrative impulse. The art of the present has long since forfeited the task of realistic narrative mimesis. Where would one tell and retell these stories today, since in our disintegrating world there is no place for them to take root? This renders all art today in a sense abstract, unattached. Nevertheless, the warmth of the South nourishes the blossoming of poetic stories, and the cold of the North gives priority to the struggle to survive. The South thrives on excess, the North lives by hoarding.

What I refer to as the cosmic vision of these artists is an insistent, creative, religious impulse which overcomes the separation between science and cult. Nature brought forth a plant, the mimosa, which also goes by the name of noli me tangere. The plant’s name comes from mimos, the Greek word for actor or mocker. When touched or when submerged in the darkness of night, its blossoms shrivel, while quiet and light bring out its whole radiant glory of tropical color. In the South, the mimosa grows luxuriantly, burying huge stretches of land under its purple brilliance. In the North, it is a hothouse plant, artificial and fragile, an epithet for overly sensitive people. “Don’t touch me!” When De Maria opened his exhibit in Krefeld at the end of his fellowship, the glow of glorious Byzantine light flowed into Mies van der Rohe’s cool nordic hall—a sensual glow, activated by the Northern light, which spoke of the artist’s journey through the cosmos of the marvelous Southern world in the form of a painted suitcase. When Prangenberg, at the end of his fellowship in Krefeld, opened his exhibit in the same hall, a dialogue unfolded between clearly distinct, separate groups of work, between cool, elementary, geometric form and the materiality of the colors, between the fullness of composition and the density of what was left out. Both the artist of overflowing riches and the composer of clear reduction filled the space with the splendor of a grand vision and the equivocal associations of noli me tangere, displaying the defensive thorns that beautiful flowers turn to the greedy.

The thorn in the work of these artists, with the possible exception of Laib, is the irony that accompanies their great visions. In De Maria’s work it emerges rather quietly, with the image of the real worldwide attempt to conquer the cosmos appearing as a small painted television and breaking in upon the fairy-tale love story between the Queen of Flowers and the poet. In Prangenberg’s work, the irony is in the colors of his ceramic pieces, which he pushes to the very edge of kitsch, and in the way abstract forms can suddenly turn into jewellike allusions to everyday objects appearing in the “wrong” place. Mainolfi’s erotic union of human figures, nature, animals, and earth bears the imprint of the irony of desecration. For instance, a grunting pig wallowing in mud is made the symbol of life reunited with the primordial matter from which, according to Biblical mythology, the human species was formed. Then there is Clemente’s painfully ironic aggression, which approaches the very limits of what the Western mind can bear. And in Wawrin’s monumental drawings, one can’t help but note the latent comedy of the goings-on of creatures who have been reduced to signs. Laib eschews these ironic, comic, or scurrilous intermediary levels. The composition of his work is so filled with the fragility of his vision, so full of the untouchability and transience of the materials that feed his vision, that the defensive thorn needs no explicit articulation.

In closing, I would like to emphasize again the speculative character of this reflection on the work of six artists, and the North-South dialogue. But how can one escape the increasingly rigid structures of even the cultural world without at least some recourse to speculation? These artists oppose the boundaries and burdens of the rational-scientific and technocratic-functional, materialistic world with the nonmaterial energies of vagabond anarchy, of irresponsible dandyism, of the languages and myths that unite cultural epochs and regions: the energies of chaotic stylelessness, bad taste, aggressive triviality; and/or the energies of a meditative, spiritual vision of cosmic unity transcending all times, cultures, and conceivable material dissolution of boundaries. Their barely audible notes of an imaginary symphony of life and death, matter and spirit entone against the flood tides of today’s all-too-available, hand-me-down apocalyptic thinking. The South narrates with lusty pleasure, the North composes with reserve; both fail to satisfy the rational positivists of North and South. Continually eluding the grasp of the legislators of logical consistency, they offer baroque richness to those who choose to drink it in deeply, yearningly.

Annelie Pohlen is a critic and editor who lives in Bonn. She writes frequently for Artforum and other magazines.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.



1. Hans Sedlmayr, “Verlust der Mitte” (1948).

2. Margarethe Jochimsen, “Isolde Wawnn—Malerei,” catalogue of the Bonner Kunstverein, 1980.

3. Francesco Clemente: “Pasfelle 1973–1983.” Publication to accompany an exhibition tour, 1984–85, Munich: Prestel-Verlag. Text by Joseph Leo Loerner, “Nicht Francesco Clemente,” pp. 43ff.

4. Johannes Cladders, director of the Museum am Abteilberg in Mönchengladbach, provided an exemplary illustration of this with his exhibit of Hanne Dar boven. Gotthard Graubner, and Wolfgang Laib in the West German Pavilion at the 1982 Venice Biennale, and also in his exhibition of A. R. Penck and Lothar Baumgarten at the 1984 Venice Biennale.

5. Hermann Kern, director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, unfolds this vision in the large exhibition “Labyrinthe,” which began in Milan (with accompanying publication) and is to be shown this year in Munich in a more comprehensive form.