PRINT November 1993

The Broken Mirror and American Art in the 20th Century

It’s a provocative enough title, “Der zerbrochene Spiegel” (The broken mirror), for it acknowledges a break, in theoretical discourse if not in the practice of painting itself, and thus lets the exhibition off the hook for making a promise it cannot keep. That implicit promise (whether we interpret the “mirror” as a metaphor for painting, for our response to it, or for history) is that with 200 works by over 40 artists, the curators, Kasper König and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, cannot simply leave the broken pieces scattered about, but must somehow put them back together again. The means toward the mend, as explained in the catalogue’s forward, is a “decentralized” approach, a kind of open-door, open-mind policy that the curators maintain is the only tenable one for pluralistic times like these when a “non-center” compensates for a true center, and perhaps even creates a new one.

While König and Obrist profess a neutral and nonhierarchical view of the diverse possibilities in painting today, they stage the drama of the broken mirror as an unresolved ideological split between figuration and abstraction. By resurrecting the bones of this old stylistic dichotomy, they have adopted a schema that is historically loaded, stylistically overdetermined, and—since they fail to make a convincing argument that an unresolved frisson exists between two equally compelling approaches—that reinforces an interpretive model of painting that is structurally insufficient with respect to the conceptual dimensions of recent practice.

The concept of decentralization that the curators wish to represent is ultimately undermined by the reassertion of the primacy of traditional abstraction, especially in its gestural forms, to test painting’s potential. Although this emphasis negates the “decentralized” premise of the exhibition, it proves to be its most revealing aspect. The term “gestural abstraction” immediately calls to mind the heroicized bravura of Abstract Expressionism and Tachism, but König and Obrist go a long way toward expanding its capacity to articulate a complex relationship to spontaneity, immediacy, and other forms of subjective engagement. On the “hotter” end of the gestural spectrum are painters who include Georg Baselitz, Arnulf Rainer, Albert Oehlen, Eugène Leroy, Luis Claramunt, Per Kirkeby, and Herbert Brandl. Mary Heilmann, Günther Förg, Sigmar Polke, Robert Ryman, Helmut Federle, and Maria Lassnig occupy the temperate zone. The cool stratum is defined by Gerhard Richter, Bernard Frize, David Reed, and Niele Toroni.

If the subtext of the exhibition measures painting in terms of an emerging gestural “ism” (one that may include figuration as well), it is accomplished at a carefully calculated arm’s length from anything that smacks of neo-Expressionism or other so-called “appropriation” strategies, as well as from anything that questions the object status of painting. Allowing for a few acrylic deviations here and there, the smell of oil paint permeated the show, whetting appetites hungry for “the real thing.” Indeed, the curators play it rather straight as far as technical definitions of painting are concerned. With the exception of Maria Eichhorn’s installation of canvases in storage racks, and Edward Ruscha’s painting on the exterior of the Kunsthalle, all works hang on the wall. No rambling Gerwald Rockenschaub scaffoldings or Robert Irwin stretched scrims or Rudolf Stingel carpets or Jessica Stockholder installations or Wendy Jacob breathing walls to confuse the issue. Instead, we are given (or should I say returned to) Painting with a capital P.

At the ideological core of the exhibition stand Polke, Baselitz, Förg, Kirkeby, Oehlen, and Rainer. The traces of post-Modernism—that is, of parody and pastiche, of irony and detachment—are dramatically downplayed in this inner circle in favor of the language of authenticity and originality, which is spoken with a decidedly European accent. This is not to say that parodistic or post-Modern attitudes are not present in the cooler variants of gestural abstraction or figuration, but they are segregated from the exhibition’s privileged core. In this respect, it is most interesting to consider the positioning of Richter, who is simultaneously burdened with the major responsibility for balancing the overall stylistic dichotomy between abstraction and figuration that the exhibition awkwardly proposes—and relegated to satellite status. It is significant that the curators do not locate Richter’s large gestural canvases close to those of Polke, Förg, and Baselitz (whose works were installed in Vienna at the center of the Messe-Palast) but assign his paintings—a small multipanel abstraction and a soft-focus landscape—to a peripheral space in the Kunsthalle, where they are surrounded by figurative works by lesser-known artists.

It’s difficult to imagine that this sacrifice is made solely for the purpose of stylistic “reunification,” for it implies a deeper renunciation of the attenuated ambiguity that is implicit in Richter’s painting. (Although seeds of tension and ambivalence are scattered throughout the exhibition, they are never directly or adequately explored, creating the suspicion that the curators reject this scenario, even though it is among the most important areas of investigation in painting today, in favor of the primacy of uncontested immediacy.) One could certainly argue that the concept of the broken mirror is typified in Richter’s work, which is premised on a volatile and uncertain pairing of apparent-opposites, wherein the collision of the spontaneous and the calculated (the hot and the cool) creates an indeterminate space for the viewer and throws the centrality of the subject into question.

A fuller consideration of what, indeed, might constitute the issues in painting today must take into account the medium’s nadir in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when it was attacked by Conceptualism and other modes of institutional critique for its association with the perceived constraints of Modernism. While painting itself never ceased to exist, what came into question when it again achieved hegemony in the late ’70s and the ’80s was the relationship between its ability to arouse and accommodate subjective engagement (authenticity, originality, expressivity are part of this package) and the new rhetoric of the vanishing subject and the “waning of affect,” to borrow Fredric Jameson’s term. A predictable reaction to canonical post-Modernism—parody, pastiche, appropriation, simulation and other such “bad” attitudes—followed. Today, we stand at a watershed. Some see painting as among the most conceptually rich fields of inquiry specifically because of the polemics that have attached themselves to the practice. For them, the challenge brought to bear in cooler or more ironic variants of gestural abstraction is that we know we can’t return to previous mores even though desire may compel us to do so. Others advocate a reactionary return to the ideologies of expressivity and authenticity associated with the ’50s—the period before the attack commenced on painting and the subject.

The curators of “Der zerbrochene Spiegel” are not alone in their desire to mark and examine the critical transition now unfolding in contemporary painting and to anchor it firmly to what has been previously identified as a “heroic” style. A similar inspiration informs Norman Rosenthal’s and Christos M. Joachimedes’ exhibition “American Art in the 20th Century,” which, centering around Abstract Expressionism, views everything else as a progression toward or digression from that model. It’s no accident, then, that they have eliminated Conceptual art and other forms of institutional critique vital to postwar American art in order to clear the stage for the reemergence of the kind of gestural or expressive abstraction represented in the American exhibition by painters such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. As noted, similar deletions occur in “Der zerbrochene Spiegel.” Of course, all this emphasis upon a style could make one a little nervous. We have only to remember how AbEx was conscripted during the cold war as an ambassador for freedom and individualism. How different is it today when a style of painting is put forth that both valorizes self-expression and eschews ambivalence or ambiguity? The problem now, as in the past, is not with the paintings themselves, but with the mythologies that build around them.

In the case of “Der zerbrochene Spiegel,” it is disappointing that the curators, in their efforts to remain neutral and disengaged, ultimately practice a form of protectionism. Rather than redrawing boundaries or throwing up our hands in response to pluralism and decentralization, we are charged at present with discovering who we are in relation to the many attitudes and approaches that exist in painting. At no time in the past has either the sense of rupture or the desire to suture it been more palpable. What we seem to be discovering is that the more things stay the same the more they change. We thought we knew artists like Polke, Richter, Förg, Heilmann, Baselitz, Oehlen, Morley, and Daniels; but who they might have been in the past, had they been painting as they are today, may say nothing about who they are in the present context. The same might be said about the position of a particular painter in the spectrum of possible abstract and figurative styles. While we still use conventional designations, the meaning of the coordinates of interpretation has modulated. In a sense, we are back at the proverbial ground zero, picking up the pieces of the mirror—pieces that reflect our own fragmented subjectivity—and constructing from them a whole new looking glass.