PRINT December 2007

Daniel Birnbaum


1 “André Cadere: Peinture sans fin” (Painting Without End) (Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany) For years, artists I admire, like Gabriel Orozco and Saâdane Afif, have told me about the work of Cadere (1934–1978), and here I finally had the chance to see it. This retrospective made clear that the Romanian-born, Paris-based artist was a huge pain in the neck—he would insert his signature striped “barres de bois rond” (bars of round wood) into any show he felt could use them, often uninvited. But he was nonetheless a great practitioner of a colorful new form of “peinture sans fin,” which allowed for countless viewpoints and ways of exhibiting. Indeed, his Minimalist instruments of artistic intervention are the most delicate paintings I’ve seen this year. Two of them are exhibited together as Portrait of Gilbert & George, 1974. They’re pretty similar, but it’s their tiny differences that matter.

2 Blinky Palermo, “Palermo” (Kunsthalle Düsseldorf/Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Germany) The mythologies surrounding Palermo (1943–1977), perhaps the true genius of his generation of German painters (and there’s some competition here), made it a bit difficult to really see his work during his time. But by now all of that has faded, leaving a truly remarkable oeuvre, as this comprehensive retrospective, organized by Ulrike Groos, Susanne Küper, and Vanessa Joan Müller, makes apparent. By placing colors in odd, unique combinations with one another, Palermo allows us to see many of them in ways no one had thought possible.

3 Olle Bærtling, “A Modern Classic” (Moderna Museet, Stockholm) and “Helldén + Bærtling” (Arkitekturmuseet, Stockholm) Bærtling (1911–1981)—the most extraordinary of the past century’s utopian artists from Sweden—elaborated his cosmic ambitions in a high-strung manifesto, saying: “The painting becomes a part of the universe, a sun, a power center broadcasting its poetic message. . . . Open formations of organized light irradiate at extreme velocities in unprecedented dimensions, infinite spaces of light travel with incredible swiftness to create the liberation of infinity.” Keep in mind this was spoken not by a member of some ancient, sun-worshipping cult, but by a key artist working in the world’s most developed welfare state. In 1960, Bærtling’s first monumental commission, the lobby of the first skyscraper in Hötorget square in central Stockholm, designed in close collaboration with architect David Helldén, was built—a labyrinth of angular painted fields and mirrors. Bærtling was also planning a huge sculpture nearby, a project that, like his enormous TV tower for Abu Dhabi, was never realized. To accompany John Peter Nilsson’s major Bærtling retrospective at the Moderna Museet, Martin Rörby has assembled a small show at the Arkitekturmuseet focusing on the collaborative efforts of the painter and the architect, the official designers of the “Swedish model,” as the Social Democratic system is often known, who made the rest of Europe look north for a decade or so.

4 “Puss 1968–1973” (Nationalgalleriet, Stockholm) Artists Peter Hellsing and Bengt Jāhnsson-Wennberg and critic Lars Bang Larsen, the leading expert on anything psychedelic, are responsible for this exhibition focused on a small magazine, Puss. Featuring countercultural overreactions to just about anything official and state-sanctioned, Puss is one of the most hilarious, satirical, and outrageous publications I’ve ever seen. Far from being a product of the Swedish model that the world marveled at, Puss was fun (so fun, in fact, that distributors refused to handle it due to its “tastelessness and vulgarity”). Öyvind Fahlström had a column in the magazine in which he featured articles rejected by more “official” publications. Puss ridiculed everyone, not only conservatives but also the bohemian cultural elite, and even the hippies.

5 Atsuko Tanaka, Electric Dress, 1956/1986 What do I remember from the largely forgettable Grand Tour this summer? At least this: Tanaka’s dress made of lightbulbs, shown at Documenta 12. I would have traveled all the way to Kassel to see this radiant beauty even if nothing else in the show had been worth the trip (which is pretty much how it was).

6 Paul Chan (Serpentine Gallery, London) Chan’s whole series “The 7 Lights,” 2005–2007, was shown here to be open-ended, even if complete. Each work was a projection—onto the floor, objects, or the walls—except for the most recent installment, 7th Light, which, running counter to expectations, turned out to be a kind of script. Each work may be finished, then, but the cycle does not seem closed off, since the final part, rather than being a piece in itself, is a score promising something to arrive (or not) in the future.

7 Saâdane Afif The infinitely light touch of Afif’s own art came across in the section of the Biennale de Lyon that he put together with Valérie Chartrain—one of the seventeen artist-curated “sequences” of the exhibition and easily the most beautiful part of the entire show. The space, which was connected by a hallway constructed by Michael S. Riedel to a gallery showing films selected by Rirkrit Tiravanija, contained works by numerous artists, including Loris Gréaud, Stéphane Calais, and Claude Closky, who were related to either the Zoo Galerie in Nantes, France, or the magazine Zéro Deux (both of which fell under the direction of Patrice Joly). Each artist seemed to make perfect sense when considered in light of the melancholic ambience that characterizes Afif’s practice.

8 Keren Cytter Wherever I go—Paris, Antwerp, Zurich, Moscow—I see a great new film by this Israeli artist that sticks the viewer, in the words of Willem de Rooij, “somewhere in between Fassbinder, John Cassavetes, South Park, and The Blair Witch Project.” In certain works, Cytter’s protagonists seem to have lost control of their own “stories,” as in Dream Talk, 2005, in which a group of friends mistake themselves for characters in a reality TV show. In the dense, rapid, looped video The Victim, 2006, five people gather around a table and one of them—the victim—is driven to the ultimate point of no return: suicide. The story pushes forward with great speed and shows there is no limit to Cytter’s technical skill. Her films are humorous and psychologically riveting. Next time I travel, I’m sure I’ll see another splendid piece. I can’t wait.

9 Simon Dybbroe Møller, Like Origami Gone Wrong (JRP Ringier) Minimalism, formalism, and Conceptualism come alive and surprising new relationships emerge in this perfect catalogue for Dutch artist Dybbroe Møller’s exhibition at Århus Kunstbygning in Denmark. “Retro-avant-garde” explorations can be a bit smart for my taste, but Dybbroe Møller’s work is simply too good to be boring. Consider, as an indication of his many influences, the interview in which he discusses the first of Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”—“Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists”—in relation to the work of August Strindberg, whose technique of exposing photographic paper directly to the night sky (to make “celestographs”) Dybbroe Møller has employed in his own practice.

10 “Richard Prince: Spiritual America” (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) It’s getting late in America. And this retrospective, organized by Nancy Spector, showed Prince’s notoriously slippery yet spellbinding paintings and photographs to be the perfect talismans for the final days of Empire.

Daniel Birnbaum is director of Frankfurt's Städelschule Art Academy and of its Portikus Gallery. He is coeditor of Teaching Art (Verlag Walther König, 2007) and is the curator of the next Turin Triennial, “50 Moons of Saturn,” which will open in November 2008.