PRINT October 2001


Thomas Eggerer’s paintings produce vertigo through formal means: Figurative vignettes based on photographic sources are detached, floating free in disconnected abstract fields. In The Tennis Lesson, 2000, a group of young players run through their paces on a court that dissolves into flaccid brushstrokes of lavender and stone; in Trio, 2000, the tour bus of what appears to be a glam rock band is parked in emptiness. Like optical puzzles, these paintings draw viewers in only to confound their perceptual bearings. Eggerer, a thirty-eight-year-old German living in Los Angeles, has arrived at this aesthetic through an intellectually and geographically circuitous route. He was trained in painting at the Munich Art Academy, but in the mid-’90s he collaborated with classmate Jochen Klein on a series of conceptually oriented projects and essays centering on questions of identity and public space, some of which appeared in the German journal Texte zur Kunst. In one particularly memorable 1994 work he and Klein installed a community bulletin board in a public toilet in Munich known as a gay cruising spot, or “tearoom.” With this gesture the artists visualized—and memorialized—the covert constitution of subcultural communities in sites like a park’s bathrooms. Indeed, while on a DAAD grant in New York during the mid-’90s, Eggerer joined the artists’ collective Group Material in order to explore such intersections of desire, location, and history in the context of competing definitions of public and private space.

Though different in means, Eggerer’s more explicitly activist art is closely linked to his current painting. At the heart of both is a question of belonging—an exploration of how a collection of selves becomes a community. This issue is thematized in Eggerer’s paintings through his tendency to represent groups, but it is even more powerfully addressed on the level of form. For in his canvases the placement of a figure within a ground is almost always traumatic. And this formal trauma—in which the ground rejects the figure as a body might reject a transplanted organ—allegorizes social alienation. In The Coach, 2001, for instance, the figure of a tennis coach, derived from a photograph, seems to have been torn out of, or shoehorned into, the nonobjective field that frames him. The pro looks off to his right, hands on his hips, as though supervising his athletes. But for all the confidence of this posture, the solemnity of the coach—not to mention his anatomical integrity—is devastatingly undermined. Where his legs should be there is nothing but a dark brown shape, formless yet mimicking the extension of limbs sufficiently that the viewer realizes with a nasty jolt that his initial assumption of an intact body is incorrect: The coach has been ripped in half. The ground that surrounds him is itself insecure in its moorings. While its nested rectangles resemble the attenuations of Josef Albers’s art that characterized ’70s supergraphics, their hard-edged crispness is undermined by paradoxically tidy drips of paint that transgress the boundaries between colors. The effect is one of decay rather than spontaneity, suggesting that the ground itself is undergoing a symbolic castration paralleling that of the coach.

The uneasy placement of a figure within a ground is a constant device in Eggerer’s oeuvre. In Norma, 2001, an arresting painting of a tourist boat chugging toward the viewer, the sea that keeps the boat afloat and that surges up around its prow drains away at the foot of the canvas, leaving a narrow margin of emptiness punctuated with broad stripes of color. Like the cartoon character who runs off a cliff but doesn’t fall until he notices that he’s suspended in midair, the viewer of Norma and similarly structured works is caught off guard by the collapse of his or her visual moorings. Of course such artificial vertigoes are a staple of the history of abstraction, and Eggerer puns on them in a variety of ways. The limbs of some passengers in Norma rhyme with the drips that draw together the different registers of the canvas; other figures are sketched in as empty contours with lightly penciled indications of clothing or anatomy. Indeed, the men and women in Norma seem under assault from the very means of their representation. Another way of saying this is that Eggerer’s canvases are presented as palimpsests of their own making. Iroquois, 2001, for instance, which shows four hunters and their dogs, again derived from a photograph, and again facing the viewer head on, has an intentionally unfinished look. The figures and dogs are sketched rather than painted and the background is filled with unevenly covered pentimenti of earlier compositions. This aesthetic of the unfinished is consistent with the incomplete suturing between figure and ground, the approximation of readymade photographs in painted form, and the curdled sweetness of color that characterizes Eggerer’s painting. In sum, the emergence of figures as “healthy” representations is impeded, disrupted, even deformed.

Indeed, Eggerer shows this failed process of figuration to be rooted squarely in the social. A large proportion of his paintings are derived from photographs of crowds or groups engaged in sports or other forms of entertainment or strenuous activity. Typically these groups face the viewer, as though the painting contained an audience looking out. The unsettling sensation that one’s own act of spectatorship is under surveillance by an imagined community bearing down by boat or on horseback reinscribes Eggerer’s theme of the uneasy integration of the individual into the social. This time it’s the viewer who feels alienated, even threatened by a painterly universe beyond his grasp. It is this double confrontation between figure and ground within the painting and between viewer and artwork in the act of looking that gives force to the tension between abstraction and figuration which distinguishes Eggerer’s art. Many contemporary painters have attempted to reinvent abstraction by peeling away the surfaces of our designed and commercialized world to make suave images emptied of the psychological charge and conceptual force of the best twentieth-century nonobjective art; at the same time, in a related attenuation of meaning, painterly figuration has been mediated by photography, serving once again to insist that the medium can only approximate a second- or third-order experience. What is striking about Eggerer’s art is that he brings these strategies into uncomfortable juxtaposition. There’s something excruciating in the misfit of his compositions—a quality he has called “bitchiness,” but which I regard as a dialectic of competing superficialities. We may live in a world of surfaces, but Eggerer’s art won’t let us glide over them.

David Joselit is associate professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910–1941 (MIT Press, 1998).