PRINT December 1988


Fragments of. . . rock. . . often present the characteristic forms of the cliffs from which they have been broken. . . . The same causes which produce the small forms fashion the large ones; the same influences are at work.
—Edward Whymper,
Scrambles amongst the Alps in 1860–1869

THE STRENGTH OF JÜRGEN PARTENHEIMER’S images is the strength that comes in powerlessness. The signs he devises are delicate, the shapes expose their own fragility; yet they are vehicles for the energy of directness. When you look at a Partenheimer work you feel that it is addressing you and no one else. Art can be direct in a number of ways, and this particular directness may seem to radiate a feeling of ease. On the other hand, it may also give rise to the sense of irritation some people experience in the face of openly displayed unprotectedness.

The drawing Die Quelle der Wörter (The source of words, 1985) offers a suggestive avenue in to Partenheimer’s work. Three spindly pencil lines are stems supporting roughly drawn rectangular blocks, some of them filled in with smudged red or black. The title suggests that these are the family trees of language. It directs us into the field of etymology, where we might begin by fixing on the word modus—the Latin “measure,” or “rule,” or “limit.” This is the root of the contemporary words “moderate” and “modern.” To be moderate is to live within a set framework that is never exceeded—to stick to a measure, a norm.1 And this was surely the goal of a good part of the Modern movement, of Modernism in its programmatic, systematized, conceptual aspect, the Modernism of grids and geometry and the suppression of ornament. We post-Modernists, or some of us, may describe this Modernist moderation as “Less was bore,” or “Form followed fiasco.” But what do we offer in its place? The various post-Modern “neos”—“Forms follow forms”—are evolving at such a rate as to lead one to suspect that more may be bore as well.

Johan Huizinga remarked that “the player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a ‘spoil-sport’. . . . [That player] robs play of its illusion.”2 The “neo” modus operandi may be a departure from Modernism proper, but it does not violate the rules of the game. It has been known, in fact, virtually ever since those rules appeared. Almost by definition, a “neo” art conforms to a norm, for it mimics, however subversively, a certain style, from which it cannot too far depart. One reason Partenheimer’s works seem frail, and direct, is that they lack the armored shell of an instantly recognizable style. But one can also say this the other way around: Partenheimer’s works cling to frailty in order to evade stylistic imprisonment. In doing so, they become strong.

Can we accept both strong and weak thought, both pensiero forte and pensiero debole?3 Can we refuse the typologies by which artists are cast either as Aristotelians (orderers) or Platonists (dreamers)? Can the space of art be both a “pyramid of reason” and a “labyrinth of experience,” as the architect Bernard Tschumi has suggested?4 Partenheimer’s work rests on just these dualities. It respects the terms on both sides of the equation, trying not to homogenize them but to keep each of them active, to indulge simultaneously in both control and play. The idea of balance appears in all Partenheimer’s art, and sometimes—not often, but regularly—it is made explicit in a reference to a pair of scales. The painting Tiny Balance, 1986, is virtually a self-portrait of the artist as “a utopian idealist, with his identity, caught between vision and reality, and with his strength, which derives from the confession of his weakness.”5 In Partenheimer’s art, equilibrium is not even or still; it oscillates, as it actually does in life, where keeping one’s balance simultaneously involves risk and folly, fear and fun.

In Partenheimer’s arte debole, both intuition and intellect, poesia et pictura, phantasia (letter) and precision (number), feminine and masculine, are on equal footing. None of his images—and this is not a rule, a modus, but an inner necessity—denies any one of these terms to favor any other. The resulting ambiguity gives the work an open, androgynous character, as in the sculpture Kouros (weiblich) (Kouros [female], 1985), a construction that sets a ragged sponge on a wooden rod which in turn stands on an oval bar of soap and a plastic lid or cap. The kouros, of course, is in classical Greek sculpture invariably a male figure, yet here this man-connoting genre activates a female representation—though the actual sculpture seems readable as either gender, or both. In this shifting of meaning, a particular sign, ordinarily a fixed symbolic reference, expands outward, as if concentric circles of meaning were rippling out and away from it (here one should remember James Joyce, working in the realm of language), so that it includes rather than excludes its opposite. We can read these signs in a variety of ways, depending on the approach we choose—the sign can support, or “lift,”6 a number of different methods of interpretation.

A hypersensitive self such as Partenheimer’s rarely accepts the restrictions that are imposed by limitation to only one technique. Such a self must activate all the vehicles of sensitivity at its disposal: both the relatively distant contact with material in painting, drawing, and watercolor, where the hand is separated from the medium by the brush or pencil, and the closer relationship in sculpture, where the materials are handled physically. This kind of immediate contact leaves on the work a visible sign of the artist’s identity, which Partenheimer cherishes, even in his paintings and drawings: he literally puts his fingerprints on them. The prints are a manifestation of the self, a subtle game between Eros—in the imprint of one skin (flesh) upon another (the canvas or paper ground)—and Thanatos, the fear of leaving no trace. And they also establish a relationship, a connection, between the art and the world. From Lascaux on, the trace of the finger or hand on the painting indicates what Georges Bataille called the spirit of movement, which carried man forward and tore him away from stagnation.

Partenheimer has written of the “image within the picture,” the imagery transferred from the mind of the artist into the preexisting picture genres of painting and drawing. Fulfilling as he may find that creative relocation, he is as much involved in its verbal equivalent, the “discovering by doing,” as Bruno Glatt has called it, to be found through expression in words. Some of the artist’s texts can be seen as images in language, others are layered fragments, simultaneously discursive and poetic, relating to his idea of his own identity, or to his openly utopian, idealized position as an artist in the world. Partenheimer is suspicious of the public personas through which we demonstrate our presence here, preferring to declare himself as far as possible through his images instead. He is comfortable in the life of the mind. A key word in his writings is “wandering,” or, rather, “going astray”;7 in an intellectual sense, the term may describe a way of being at home as easily in Novalis as in Native American myths, in Heraclitus as in Hinduism, in fairy tales as in astrophysics, in literature as in mathematics, in Wassily Kandinsky as in Francis Picabia, in Schopenhauer as in Gaston Bachelard.8

These parcours narratifs are the sources of many of the titles of Partenheimer’s works, which, however, are not devised as illustrations of the texts; indeed, they are named only after they are completed. The artist’s intellectual “going astray” is not so much a new Alexandrianism as the adoption of a spiritual place (locus genii), the mental condensation of a reevaluated and filtered past. This place then becomes a homeland, a country to which one belongs as the result of one’s life rather than of one’s birth (genius loci). To what extent does the intellectual component of Partenheimer’s work control the process by which he makes his images? Which comes first, the idea or the deed?9 For Partenheimer, "The image is not the result of an analytical procedure, it is the result of a synthesis. Thinking and image become one: the image becomes a way of thinking. The thinking is not a recipe for the image. . . . Sometimes I say that these are not images, they are notes, because I write them down. They are my definition of reality.”10

Partenheimer’s work of the early ’80s was close both to the Blaue Reiter group, with the multi-layered quality of color that those painters used, and to the capricious line demonstrated in Picabia’s 391 magazine. Selbst (Self, 1981) brings together such extremes as Kandinsky and Funny Guy, Picabia’s alter ego and occasional autograph. At the same time, the artist was making large-format drawings based on a poetics of epitomization, an exploration of a few simple forms—ladder, spiral, mountain. Beginning in 1983, the content of the art became myth.11 If Partenheimer’s approach is based on duality, it was easy for him to enter the binary world of mythical thinking, which is based on dichotomous concepts: spatial (in/out, here/there), locational (home/abroad), sexual (he/she), temporal (the span between departure and return).

At first, mythology was linked for Partenheimer to what Susanne Langer has called the “culture-hero,” and to models of wandering and searching, departure and absence from home. But his encounters with non-Western legends, his experiences not only of their stories but of their landscapes, changed the sense of space in his pictures. Partenheimer comes from the tradition of German Romanticism, which, from Caspar David Friedrich on to Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, has always been closely involved with nature. It was an easy step from there to the cosmogonic myths of Native America, China, and Japan, which deal not only with nature — sky, earth, water, air—but with nature personified, with the “preculture-hero,” such as the characters of the Frog Woman, Coyote, and Four Winds in the indigenous stories of the American Northwest. These characters give their names to pieces in Partenheimer’s recent oeuvre.

Balancing the opening up of the content of Partenheimer’s art to contain myth, his palette was reduced, so that the mid-’80s works are predominantly blue (sky) and yellow (earth). Likewise, the division of the picture space is generally simplified into upper and lower regions. Besides the mythical meanings of Partenheimer’s colors, one should remember Kandinsky’s remark, in “On the Spiritual in Art,” that “yellow and blue go in opposite directions”: here too, then, Partenheimer preserves a duality. Another binary model appears in the titles of the recent works, which offset the suggestions of departure, of wandering, in Partenheimer’s earlier myth-related pieces (as in Wanderschaft [Wanderings, 1985]) with ideas of homecoming (Verwandlung—Heimkehr [Metamorphosis—return, 1987]). The moment of return—of the incoming journey, the deed done and past, as opposed to the exploratory venture outward—confronts us with mortality. Where Joyce saw death as an infinite tearing away of masks, for Partenheimer it is “a sort of relaxed distance.”

If abstraction “brackets reality” (Edmund Husserl) and myth “eliminates reality” (Roland Barthes), the artist who deals in both is doubly open to the charge of avoidance, of escapism from the noisy sound of the real world. But Partenheimer’s investigations of myth have no mystical or ritual involvement. In fact, he doesn’t believe in these myths, at least not with the belief that they originally commanded. His interest in them stems from their transcultural, transtemporal power. The space of myth is semper et ubique, eternal and everywhere, whereas an artist’s images must emerge under the influence of the noisy hic et nunc, the here and now. Partenheimer’s images are a kind of superstructure for their mythic content, granting it diachronicity, a home in which it can grow and change over time. The space of the image is a fragment of the vast overall space of myth.

The word “fragment,” of course, or—excuse me—His Majesty the Fragment, is a magical term in the post-Modern vocabulary. But Partenheimer’s fragments are not the same thing as the quotations so common in contemporary art. The artist interprets the word thus: “Every single work is fragmental to the entirety of the work. But at the same time, it bears most of the essential and most important aspects of the entirety of the work. So it is complementary to the rest but remains a fragment of the whole.” This is a discourse evocative of the new “geometry of nature,” the budding science of “fractals” developed by Benoit Mandelbrot and others.12 If we return to etymology for a moment, we see that both “fragment” and “fractal” have the same root—the Latin frangere, “to break” (and also “to weaken”). Between myth and contemporary science, Partenheimer has continued a play of dualistic terms usually considered opposed to each other.

There is, however, an important difference between fractal mathematics and fractal art. Mandelbrot argues that to see is to believe.13 This is not the case in art. Were Jürgen Partenheimer’s images merely interesting combinations of new forms, our eyes, always ready for the new, would instantly consume them. Their involvement in content, however, makes us look longer—engages not only eye but mind. Partenheimer’s ethics of weakness are based on a strong belief: “Art has a wonderful quality. . . . it can be absolutely invisible. It’s there but it’s invisible. There is a certain remoteness and respectful strength to it that does not have to come out and convince anyone.”

Bojana Pejić is a curator at the Student Cultural Center in Belgrade, and an editor of Moment _magazine.

_Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Ivan Vejvoda.



1. See Umberto Eco, “L’irrazionale ieri e oggi,” in Alphaheta no. 101, Milan, October 1987, pp. 36-38.

2. J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, 1950, reprint ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, p. 11.

3. “Weak or soft thought . . . indicates the sense of passing through: it is the way leading away from dominating reason, from which we know that it is impossible to part. It is more than anything the acceptance of a position: to put everything at the disposal of a certain ethics of weakness, which is in no sense simple, which is much costlier and much less encouraging. . . . Why not presuppose that restraint from pensiero forte could produce an encounter in a different field that is normative and disciplined?” Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovati, eds., Il pensiero debole, Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983, pp. 10-11.

4. Bernard Tschumi, “Question of Space: The Pyramid and the Labyrinth (or the Architecture of Paradox),” Studio International 190 no. 977, London, September–October 1975, pp. 137–42.

5. Jürgen Partenheimer, cited in the introduction to his essay “Orpheus Turned Round,” Behind the Eyes, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco: Museum of Modern Art, 1986, p. 131.

6. “A good test for art is to load it with theory and see how much it can stand. The work of art is like a Schwarzenegger, it’s about how much theory it can lift.” Donald Kuspit, interviewed in Bojana Pejić, “Kritičar je umetnik,” in Moment no. 6-7, Belgrade, September/December 1986, p. 42.

7. The word appears in a number of Partenheimer’s texts, including “Die Phantasie der Genauigkeit,” in Irrawaddy 1, Düsseldorf: Institut der Phänomenologie, 1980; “On Tradition and Vision in Contemporary Art,” a lecture given at the University of California, Davis, in 1985; and “Antieconomic Positions: The Provincetown Lecture,” Amsterdam: Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, 1988.

8. The duality between the latter pair is emphasized by the titles of two of their works: Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The world as will and representation) and Bachelard’s Le Monde comme caprice et miniature (The world as caprice and miniature).

9. “Sure I write: in the beginning there was the deed.” Goethe, Faust. “It may be true that ‘in the beginning there was the deed,’ yet the idea comes first.” Paul Klee, Creative Credo, 1920.

10. Interview with the artist in (and going to/coming from) his studio, Mönchengladbach, September 1988. All further quotes of Partenheimer are from this interview.

11. Antje von Graevenitz has described the forms in Partenheimer’s prints, drawings, and writings from this period as “rites de passage.” See von Graevenitz, “Der Baum der Wünsche,” in Jürgen Partenheimer: Der Ort des Bogens, exhibition catalogue, Münster: Westfälischer Kunstverein, 1984, pp. 56-66. Partenheimer thinks of this exhibition as “Fragmente III.”

Partenheimer also relates the installation of his exhibitions to their content, as in, for example, “The Space Between,” at the SCC Gallery, Belgrade, 1981; “Der Weg der Nashörner” (Fragmente II). Kunstraum, Munich, 1983; and “Verwandlung—Heimkehr” (Fragmente IV), Nationalgalerie, West Berlin, 1988. In operatic collective shows where the space is out of his control, Partenheimer has used a chamber-music strategy (“De Stultitia,” in “Aperto,” the Venice Biennale, 1986).

12. See Benoit B. Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1982; and Gregoire Nicolis, "_Brisure de symétrie et perception des formes," in L’Art et le temps: Regard sue la quatrième dimension, exhibition catalogue, Geneva: Musée Rath/Musée d’art et d’histoire, 1984, pp. 35-41.

13. Mandelbrot, p. 21.