PRINT February 1990


GERRY BERGSTEIN, IS THE KIND OF ARTIST that Harold Rosenberg (whose concerns were paintings, politics, and intellectual history) might have written about. Bergstein’s canvases are arenas for expressing the artist’s fantasies about bounty and emptiness, high-art ideals and commercialism, sexuality and purity. At the same time, these paintings wittily burlesque the fevered act-critical debates of the postwar era. The spatters, drips, impasto and accident of Abstract Expressionism share the canvas with meticulously rendered trompe l’oeil images of junk food, '50s icons, and household utensils, with the clash of Modernist sincerity and post-Modernist cynicism setting off the sparks. Tokens of the quotidian—hot dogs, hamburgers, slices of pizza, submarine sandwiches, and brooms—catapult against evocations of the metaphysical, solemn slatelike fields of gray and black. Scrambling Willem de Kooning’s muscularity of surface, Tom Wesselmann’s flat parodies of pop culture, and Andy Warhol’s hallowing of the banal, Bergstein offers pointed contemporary satire with an almost manic high-tech speed. His tongue-in-cheek titles like St. Sebastian of the Suburbs, 1984–85, and Reconstructive Surgery, 1989, for example, extend the play.

The now 44-year-old Bergstein, born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, started painting at age 12. He was encouraged by his parents to visit the Museum of Modern Art often while still in high school. Here, he got his first taste of the Modernist masters who were to become his heroes. But growing up in middle-class suburbia in the1950s in the golden years of television had an equally powerful effect on Bergstein. This self-confessed couch potato memorializes both influences in his Private Idaho, 1987. At the far right corner of this crammed composition lounges a giant potato pierced by tree trunks. At the top left corner of the painting––across a frenetic field punctuated with bodies of water, patches of land, floating logs, scraps of color, classical busts, and a huge broom––sits a television screen displaying a “generic” abstract painting. In Self-Portrait, 1980, Bergstein switches artistic channels to Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston. In the painting’s center, a miniature Abstract Expressionist painting—created by physically throwing lumps of paint at the canvas—fills the screen of a floating portable TV. (Using his palette knife as a catapult, Bergstein sculpted the pigment with hand and brush in a contemporary variation on controlled accident.) This picture screen, then, is also the only physically tactile portion of an otherwise flatly painted composition. The TV set’s on-off switch doubles as a Gustonlike mouth with a cigarette hanging from its lower lip. Bergstein himself appears both as the ghostly smoking visage of a television’s controls and as the frightened figure hiding under grimy, wrinkled sheets across the room. An umbilicallike telephone cord disappears between his legs; a small open refrigerator in the next room is empty. Only a scrambled television-screen image emits nourishing light.

Like the similarly commodity-addicted and obsessive painter Jim Lutes, Bergstein elaborates on his own idiosyncratic neuroses in order to suggest a sickness in society at large. But in Bergstein’s case, just as the canvas may feature a TV screen, it also becomes the screen: the site on which he “scrolls” his absurdist readings of mass alienation. On television, Bergstein points out, sitcom heartaches easily heal, and commercials promise that if you buy the right products, you will be loved, beautiful, secure, sophisticated, fulfilled, and forever young. But as Bergstein notes:

Of course, the promised fulfillment is never completely delivered, so the viewer can be seduced over and over again. . . .This dichotomy between media consumer fantasy and real-life problems is both funny and poignant to me, and I love to juxtapose these two things. Often, I feel like my paintings are like Father Knows Best episodes directed by Ingmar Bergman.1

Like Father Knows Best, Bergstein’s paintings are combinations of calculated wholesomeness and hoax. And like the Marx Brothers at their best, it is the cumulative buildup and rapid-fire intensity of Bergstein’s comic assaults that provide the punch––the individual jokes would be lame on their own. In an era of cool appropriationist or simulationist technique, the march of images and styles across these surfaces offers the viewer a manic “Maximalism.” It is by deploying a highly self-conscious illusionism, rather than photomechanical processes or high-tech strategies, that Bergstein seeks to undermine the notion of actual or observable reality. A seemingly endless plumbing of layer upon layer of illusion signifies the possibility of a seemingly endless process of discovery.

Like all good consumers, Bergstein is simultaneously the skeptic and the believer. Thus he will pay tribute to Modernist ideals at the same time that he pokes wicked fun at their unacknowledged assumptions to undermine them. In the small oil-and-wax painting Elements of Style, 1987 (the title borrowed from William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic text on the fundamentals of writing), for example, the artist seems to take literally Picasso’s apocryphal statement, “Van Gogh painted with his heart, Cézanne painted with his mind, and I paint with my balls.” In the foreground, Bergstein offers cartoonlike renderings of a bleeding heart, a convoluted brain, and an ejaculating penis. But these images float in a gray-and-white field populated by crudely rendered yet delicate gridlike formations, rickety buildings, and fantastic angels who resemble the Michelin Man. An inch-thick painted trompe l’oeil log, unmistakably phallic, serves as a partial frame. Moreover, a pair of voyeuristic eyes peer out of Cézanne’s (and Bergstein’s?) brain; a paintbrush issues from one of the aortic valves of Van Gogh’s (and Bergstein’s?) bleeding heart; the testicles symbolizing Picasso’s (and Bergstein’s?) conflation of sexual and artistic potency are joined to a circumcised penis that sprays viscous clouds at the Michelin Tire-Man, a pudgy icon of commercialism who floats above it all in a heaven of marshmallow fluff.

Satire is, perhaps, a convenient and pointed way to deal with the pangs of reality, and Bergstein, ever the comic, finds it difficult to take a break from telling jokes on canvas. However, in a period of serious self-doubt beginning in 1987–– wondering if his own work had become a market-dictated caricature of his deeply felt concerns––Bergstein removed many of the stock symbols from his canvases to camouflage himself behind the pinched biomorphic imagery of Arshile Gorky, an artist he sees as a kindred spirit. The results were several dark paintings framed by trompe l’oeil logs. In Gorky’s Dream #3, 1988, for example, the outlines of Gorkyesque sacs dangle amongst scraffitoed, sepia-tone fruit, and a threadlike grid of golden-brown lines that break its background into flat black squares. The haunting questions about sexual potency implicit in this somber painting become the vehicle for the expression of a profound moral and artistic conflict between existential authenticity (symbolized by Gorky) and ironic detachment (symbolized by the obviously imposed grid).

Anxieties about personal mortality merge with anxieties about the “end” of art history in Bergstein’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1988. Amidst a clotted bounty of ghostlike gray apples, oranges, and pears that almost overwhelm the suggestion, beneath, of shallow-spaced planes, a tiny head emerges in the form of a generic All-American Boy. Yet he is practically obliterated by his Arcimboldo-like halo of now thickly painted and colorful fruits, vegetables, and logs. Inspired equally by Oscar Wilde’s powerful novella Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891, and Ivan Albright’s 1943 painting of the same name, Bergstein’s Dorian Gray gives us decay and disintegration counterpointed by images of radiant youth, protective sensuality, and nourishment. Equally important, in some kind of attentuated discourse with Analytical Cubism, Bergstein lacerates even the subtle suggestions of the painting’s geometric coherence with flat areas of black holes rendered in trompe l’oeil. Like disembodied wombs, these black holes suggest the deepest reaches of the pictorial universe, and the desire to seek comfort there.

If the condition of Self is equal to the condition of art, in his most recent works Bergstein offers a baroque twist on our psychic and cultural cartography. In his huge Map, 1989, a reconstructivist alternative to Jasper Johns’ signature series on the same motif, Bergstein’s and America’s manias explode and implode across a map built up with thousands of tiny sheets of notepaper bearing scribbled testimony to the icons and images that inform those manias. Bergstein’s “stock” images are back in abundance: TVs, hamburgers, pizza, eyeballs, fruits, and logs. The appearance of testicular bags bespeaks the presence of Gorky; the specter of violence and potential response to it is suggested in the form of a Gustonlike hooded Klansman and cartoon thumb. Warhol is a soup can. We can make out Andres Serrano’s censored Piss Christ, 1987, in the shape of a telephone-pole crucifix trapped in a test tube of urine. In this autobiographical landscape, Bergstein makes no apologies for the absurd juxtaposition of critical rationales and psychic irrationality, as he recapitulates the language of 20th-century art from Cubism through the deconstructive collages of Mike and Doug Starn. Bergstein merges all these identities, and all of his identities, with the delineated United States.

Bergstein’s “estheticized” exaggerations of the little disturbances of man allow us to indulge in our own fantasies and desires. As if echoing our own struggles to reconcile the body’s gross needs with the nobler yearnings of the spirit, these canvases simultaneously condemn and exonerate our cultural stereotypes as they play their mischievous––but serious––game with the received artifices of our age.

Francine A. Koslow is a writer who lives in Boston. She contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. All quotations of the artist are from conversations with the author. October 1989.