PRINT December 1985


TO SAY THAT a body of work is unique is to see it as existing outside the norm, without, however, necessarily denying its connections to the spirit and trends of the times. Michael Buthe’s work is unique. If one rated his art by whether or not he participated in major exhibitions, one would have to conclude that at times it has been perceived as important, at times not—he contributed work to Documentas 5 through 7 (in Kassel, West Germany, between 1972 and 1982), but not to the “Zeitgeist” show, in West Berlin, in 1982, nor to Düsseldorf’s “von hier aus” (from here out) exhibition, in 1984. This is not a useful criterion, however. Buthe’s roots as an artist lie in the ’60s, and his development as an artist took place in the ’70s; his work agrees with the art zeitgeist in the connection it supposes between art and life, in its disregard for boundaries and for the conventions governing the use of both valuable and valueless materials and images, and, most important, in its utopian impulses, its concern with the social energy that can radiate from art to bloom in the life of the individual. So much for chronology. For all these connections to the art of the times, the source of the central energy in Buthe’s creativity lies inside his individual personality, which in many ways places him outside the mainstreams of art today as formally defined. His work is unique in the intensity of the unbounded, willful emotions it generates, in its deliberately timeless and placeless Ursprünglichkeit (both primitiveness and originality). Buthe is unique in his radical extension of this artistic principle of Ursprünglichkeit into his life as well as his work. Nothing reveals this more profoundly than his self-description as “Michel de la Sainte Beauté” (Michael of the holy beauty).

The impetus of Buthe’s work might seem to lie in the territory between naiveté and intellectuality, emotion and analysis, spontaneity and formal discipline, visual seduction and abstract thought. To see these as clashing opposites, however, is a misunderstanding (if an unsurprising one in this age, when we are alienated from the intuitive side of our natures); it ignores the essential fluidity of everything connected with life, creativity, growth. It is precisely what is fluid and boundless, what cannot be conceptually defined—in short, life itself—that interests Buthe, and his cultic approach to it can justifiably be called religious. One doesn’t necessarily have to know an artist personally in order to understand his or her work, but personal acquaintance with Buthe’s way of living is clearly helpful in coming to terms with his art. It is not just that his actions are part of the work, as in performance art; in a less genre-specific way, Buthe’s life (a kind of performance) and his work are seamlessly connected, integrally unfolding together.

Buthe has living-and-working quarters in Cologne, which he temporarily vacated in 1976 to spend a year in Florence. In his absence he opened the space, with its interior intact, to friends, and designated it the “Museum Echnaton,” fusing together the sites of culture, cult, and everyday life. In the atmosphere of the studio imagined entities—Ikhnaton, the pharaoh who called himself the son of the Sun God, and “Michel de la Sainte Beauté”—evoked a series of further names and images, which have multiplied in the ambiences of Buthe’s various other dwelling places, in the individual works themselves, and especially in the artist’s installations of the works. Words, names, and phrases like those Buthe uses always run the risk of being construed as kitsch, or as a retreat into some kind of idyll of past times and values. The excessive fascination in today’s art with the ornamental and with the cult of gold as eternal value is an example of such a retreat; beauty for its own sake is once again celebrated these days. But while both gold and a sense of the beautiful appear in Buthe’s art, linking it with artistic attitudes of the ’80s, overall he is as little in tune with the spirit of the present decade as he was with that of the ’70s. He may search for inspiration in myths and poetry, and in southern, especially non-European, regions that still seem relatively untouched by modernity, but this has nothing to do with nostalgia or with our nauseated horror at today’s urban reality. If his work were not so singular, one would have to view it as a kind of bridge of artistic concerns, but it rests less on an intellectual foundation than on an intuitive, radical faith in Ursprünglichkeit as the wellspring of life and art. Buthe’s obsession with this faith takes the form of an uninhibited grasping at the timeless, essentially erotic sources of art and life, a quest that doesn’t bother with distinctions between reality and fantasy or dream, and in fact deliberately tramples such boundaries.

Buthe’s earlier work consists of torn, tattered pieces of cloth, patched together here and there and loosely stretched in frames. These works are closely related to arte povera and share in the virulent attacks of the early ’70s on the art conventions of the ’60s. Gradually, and increasingly after Buthe’s first trip to Morocco, in 1970, the materials in his pictures, objects, and installations, and in his “private” as well as his “public” work, come to embody the real energy of his pieces. The role of fabric as the stuff from which clothing and housing (tents) are made becomes clearer, for example. The boundaries between art and “real life,” value and worthlessness, beauty and ugliness, rarity and banality fall away. Primitive societies inscribed their visions of life, in a quite literal way, into the materials that made up their world (on the walls of caves, for example); Buthe’s work takes off from here. However, it is marked by the split, both theoretical and experienced physically and psychically, between on the one hand the magnetic power of myth and on the other the knowledge of myth’s loss of collective validity, and of the dangers in assuming any myth has a universal application. From this contradiction Buthe creates his work, freely breaking the barriers between things that he feels belong together, in whatever way.

Magic, cult, myth, religiosity, irrationality, ecstasy, ritual, emotionality, mystery, initiation—any or all of these labels could come up in a discussion of Buthe’s work. But these words’ catalogued meanings capture as little of the phenomena behind them as does an interpretation of a painting based only on details of the materials used in it. Buthe may be linked with Joseph Beuys in the way he uses cultic objects and the materials of myth as the building blocks of his art, without limiting himself to the projections of meaning that occur in the Western fields of anthropology or ethnology. He is concerned with conquering an overdefining archiving mentality present both in art and life, and calls for the exploding of the boundaries of the known and the definable. Only from this vantage point do the motifs and media of Buthe’s work come into their own: sun, night, angel, madonna, saint, altar, sky, tent; gold, wax, blue and yellow pigments, wood, bristles, feathers. All the transitions in his art—between planes, figures, and spaces, and between materials—are seamless. One could engage in a scholarly debate over the themes implicit in Buthe’s iconography and media, as well as over the mythical, historical, and contemporary figures represented in the titles of his work—the Muslim Marabout holy men, the 19th-century Egyptian ruler Ismail Pasha, Ikhnaton, Icarus, and others. But such source research would do little more than dust off the viewers’ imaginations.

From an art-historical point of view Buthe is a ground-breaker among his generation of artists, a generation that breaks artistic conventions, and the deeper boundaries that underlie them, with radical abandon. But his antiformalist approach to materials and pigments, to the relics, signs, and fetishes of different peoples, to ritual objects both found in nature and produced in culture, does not make up the essential accomplishment of his work in and of itself. His actual artistic focus lies rather in his extraordinarily personal, emotionally ecstatic unfolding of all the components of his art, of its material as well as its nonmaterial energies, and in his sensual, almost baroque exploration of a multitude of expressive modes between the cultic and the artistic. The heroic figures and mythical images that recur in Buthe’s work are not quotations from history, but personal symbols, with which the artist can identify as though slipping into a skin, shattering contemporary constraints on identification with the Other. The modern temperament rooted in the Enlightenment, in pragmatic, functionalist rationality, is here overrun by the repressed forces of the imagination—by sensual intoxication, ecstasy, and spirituality. This is the single current that runs through all of Buthe’s art.

In 1975, when Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was still a taboo subject in Germany, Buthe celebrated the seminal significance of the philosopher’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra, 1883–91) for his own life and work in a performance at the Oppenheim Studio in Cologne. (The book retains its importance in his present work, not for its literary qualities but for its overall philosophical stance—its vision of the unifying of emotion and reason.) Standing before a wall aglow with candles, Buthe appeared as himself in the piece; breaking down the barriers between artist, work, and public, he created a ritual site of inspiration, a utopian place where art was united with life. The performance did not occur in a vacuum: as early as 1972, the critic and curator Harald Szeemann, thinking of artists such as Buthe, had coined the term “individuelle Mythologien” (individual mythologies) to describe a drive he perceived in contemporary art.

Buthe’s work bears witness to the fact that the era of any socially unifying, universally valid myth is past. In the second millennium AD, myth has been supplanted by the trivial fetishes of mass gratification and collective satisfaction. Our drive to overcome the limits set by death, our quest for God-like unbounded life, run head-on into our knowledge of the ever-increasing power of the forces that limit our lives and also render reality banal. By setting the all-embracing. sensual, erotic quality of prescientific interpretations of life against the obviously trivial fetishes of today’s superreal world, Buthe shows the split consciousness of the contemporary individual but also maintains a utopian vision. That utopia lies in the realm of fiction; Buthe is fully aware of the limits of materials in conveying ideas, and of the difficulty of realizing ideas in the world at large. Yet in a spirit of primal poetic anarchy, he celebrates both material and ideas as integral parts of a made-up utopia of holy beauty. A monumental, seductive homage to beauty, his work bespeaks a radical commitment to art as an elixir to act in reality and life, and for that very reason it sows its subversive seeds within the social realm.

Annelie Pohlen writes regularly for Artforum.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.