TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 2008

ABANDONED PAINTING: THE ART OF JOCHEN KLEIN

What is that lovely thread of
water running through this
soft land?
It is so shy.
It hides under the ground.
Is it a smile from the landscape?
Is it an anonymous gift of
Nature?
Is it an exquisite tear, wrung
from the rocks?
I do not think so: it is the main
sewer.

—Erik Satie1

EVEN THOUGH THE SMALL REPRODUCTIONS of Jochen Klein’s paintings that I saw many years ago, in a catalogue loaned to me by a friend, nestled themselves obstinately in my mind, I am always surprised by these inimitably weird and touching works when I see them in person. They do not age, and to stand in front of them brings back an unmistakable quiver of shrill sweetness. The paintings have such a lightness that it’s easy to miss their significance. But it is in contempt of the artistic taxonomies on which such judgments are founded that Klein’s paintings—exhibited most recently at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich this past spring—evince a self-conscious use of the medium against itself, infiltrating painting with alien implications. They are landscapes without genealogy, heterotopias that insist on the freedom to call into reality something that has not yet existed, which cannot exist. Revealing themselves in layers that are not pure and that keep dissolving or tearing away at one another, they have the particular quality of a blurry sensation turned into an image. When a cobbled-together fantasy coalesces as a distinct vision, as it does in Klein’s paintings, it follows the logic of the fragment that dreams itself whole.

Children, young men, or women (sometimes in the company of domesticated animals)—cut from popular printed material such as calendars, posters, or hetero “soft” porn—are collaged onto canvas and elaborated, given a setting by their painted surroundings of trees, clearings, patches of flowers, and the streaks, daubs, and drips of paint that also count as flowers, pleasure, delight. Filigree shorthand, vermicular strokes, and halos of light hang together in the conviction that ornament is a code for the chaotic relatedness of incidents. When the figures are not glued, but painted with Watteau-like delicacy, they remain foreign to the landscape that has been dreamed up around them—or which they themselves are dreaming, in wilder, experimental strokes.

Where is this place, between art history and any afternoon, lying in the sun in a public park? Is it the surrealism of childhood? Academic painting, parlor painting, Sunday painting, the hysterical dream kitsch of antihistamine commercials? People appear, isolated in brief instances of rest, privacy, reflection, amid passages of flamboyant color, as though I were passing them on a bicycle. A peculiar interiority is heightened by the draining of narrative—the paintings are moments of quiet, pauses drawn out to a complete stillness in which I find myself. I am reminded by these works of the potential for paintings to embarrass: I am never sure how to behave around them; they seem to know my foibles. Some flirt, or correspond to a recent mood, like the ballerina wearing a concerned look as, above, a squall of viscous varnish threatens to overcome her. Or like the young man in a pale blue summer shirt, in another painting, who looks out at me with great benevolence, emanating such sweet-toothed empathy that everything around him falls out of focus: distortions of vision induced by great happiness, silliness, sadness, love. The shirtless boy in blue jeans, huddled on a blanket in the grass, his hands comfortingly close to his face, dreams with his eyes open and I can’t stand to look for very long. It is, as Michel Leiris wrote of the theatricality of death,

a dream objectified, a dream that we look at, that touches us though we are not in it—What can this be, then, if not a set of actions that are proposed to us and that we consider with a passionate interest, as we would if, extracted from our lives but remaining lucid, we could be detached from our own history and see it played out before us, transformed by the perspective inherent in our new status?2

While a student at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1990s, Klein actually abandoned painting, perhaps with no intention of ever returning to the tradition into which he had been educated. This suspension of painting, shared also by Klein’s friends and fellow students Thomas Eggerer, Amelie von Wulffen, and Josef Kramhöller, stressed the conclusion that to paint is to embellish power, or to stagger under the weight of an unwanted inheritance. For some time Klein devoted himself to producing socially critical texts and projects, in collaboration with Eggerer (from ’93 to ’96) and as a member, along with Eggerer, Julie Ault, and Doug Ashford, of Group Material (from ’94 to ’96), before his return to painting, in wild profusion, from 1996 to 1997—the year of his sudden death, at age thirty, from AIDS. Klein’s interest in individual self-determination, as well as in the possibility of articulating public spaces against their normative inscription, forms links among all his projects of the ’90s. In his catalogue contributions for “Die Utopie des Designs”—the 1994 exhibition at the Kunstverein München conceived by artists as part of a seminar led by Helmut Draxler—Klein presented an arrangement of historical data that draws out the streamlining of utopian ideals within corporate identity. He zeroed in on, among others, Otl Aicher, whose philosophy privileged design as the only creative form equipped to address the broad social and cultural challenges posed by the Neuaufbau (Germany’s postwar reconstruction), yet who is now known for the universal legibility of the logos he designed for Braun and Lufthansa and his pictograms for the Olympics. In Ikea, a collaborative installation with Eggerer made for the windows of New York’s Printed Matter in 1996, playful and precise juxtapositions of quotes and archival material take on the absorption of radical politics into “lifestyle” marketing; the slick rendering of bland universality is made terrifying. “I was fed up. In place of revolution, reforms became sufficient. We bought ourselves new beds. You are right, the others [old beds] were impossible,” reads a line from Bernward Vesper’s 1977 novel Die Reise (The Voyage), printed on a poster-size enlargement of a page from a ’70s IKEA catalogue in which female models in their stocking feet loll about with indisputable boredom. “The English Garden in Munich,” an unpublished 1994 manuscript by Eggerer and Klein, presents the park as a palimpsest upon which the eighteenth-century lifeworld collides with the park’s illicit repurposing as a cruising area, while in “Virtually Queer—Gay Politics in the Clinton Era,” which appeared in 1996 in Texte zur Kunst, the artists unravel the leveling of gay activism and resistance. It is interesting to go from the paintings to the documents and back again; there is a refusal to make a closed loop. The sense of continual reconsideration and incorporation of past concerns into the present, of keeping the object of contemplation turning in constant crisis, poses a problem for the airtight packaging of “practice” so eagerly assimilated by many artists today. What is clearly not a contradiction in Klein’s work—the critical framework versus the pleasure of painting—exposes a formulation of art as a space for interpersonal articulations of politics and love: a plea.

In the blurring of paint that approximates the soft focus of commercial kitsch photography, there is a confusion between the concrete and the contrived; this is the threshold between the complacent gloss of le bonheur and that which I can barely acknowledge that I want. Figures are lifted from the continuum of empty image-production and placed in a scene over which a banner seems to be unfurling: IT COULD ALSO BE DIFFERENT. To look is to enter into a pact with the subject, the object, and the whole vanishingly rapturous scaffolding of the picture. The fragility of this proposition is cruelly underlined by Klein’s deliberately bawdy “failure” to adhere to the delicate tropes of sentimentality. I am reminded of Martha Rosler’s film of industrial flower farming. I am also reminded of Walter Benjamin’s hermetic definitions of flower types in One-Way Street:

Geranium.—Two people who are in love are attached above all else to their names.

Carthusian pink.—To the lover the loved one appears always as solitary.

Asphodel.—Behind someone who is loved, the abyss of sexuality closes like that of the family.

Cactus bloom.—The truly loving person delights in finding the beloved, arguing, in the wrong.

Forget-me-not.—Memory always sees the loved one smaller.3

In the painting of a naked man lying in the grass, his head propped up on his hand over a dozing kitten, both engulfed in a bath of yellow light, a flimsy attempt has been made to paint flowers over his crotch. The attempt goes beautifully wrong in its muddiness, trails into a fragment of out-of-focus something, and on to a soliloquy of confused brushwork. Shit-brown sludge encroaches upon the scene from all sides, rendering completely hysterical what might have otherwise been a splendid paradise. It is as if you are peering into the scene through an asshole, becoming wedged between complete frustration, devotion, fits of laughter, perfection, irreverence, and lack of care. The “straight mind,” Monique Wittig writes, “cannot conceive of a culture, a society where heterosexuality would not order not only all human relationships but also its very production of concepts and all the processes which escape consciousness, as well.” Yet Klein’s throbbing hieroglyphs turn away in passive contempt from logics of masculinity and hegemony, to unfold themselves in the company of paintings like Chuck Nanney’s monochrome canvases stretched over tree branches, Jutta Koether’s “Apfelsinenfrau,” Christian Bérard’s On the Beach (Double Self-Portrait), the embroidered canvases of Nicolas Moufarrege, and Michaela Eichwald’s Animals at War Memorial—paintings against the straight mind.

Nick Mauss is an artist based in New York.

NOTES

1. Erik Satie, A Mammal’s Notebook: Collected Writings of Erik Satie, ed. Ornella Volta, trans. Antony Melville (London: Atlas Press, 1996), 23.

2. Michel Leiris, Scraps, trans. Lydia Davis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 41.

3. Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kinsley Shorter (New York: Verso, 1997), 77.