PRINT December 2011

Diedrich Diederichsen

Florian Pumhösl, Tract, 2011, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 9 minutes.

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, it seems an increasing number of shows have given rise to vehement debate. Such debate has often been both informal and productive: Conversational circles that for years enjoyed consensus on the merits of this or that exhibition are now having to reevaluate their views in light of new controversies. The largely tedious legibility of rooms filled with art—tedious because we now read them automatically—has been repeatedly upturned, as is evident not only in a surprising plurality of readings but also in almost physical responses on the part of viewers. And while it sometimes seems that everything that happens in the art world is recorded and stored, this phenomenon was not: The casual conversations diverged markedly from discussions about the same exhibitions in art journals. Yet another commonality shared by these exhibitions—which I often find myself defending to quite various groups of people—is that they have managed to conjoin so-called artistic and so-called curatorial elements. I am thinking of such shows as “The Death of the Audience,” curated by Pierre Bal-Blanc at the Wiener Secession in 2009; “Principio Potosí,” organized by Alice Creischer, Max Jorge Hinderer, and Andreas Siekmann, which was on view in Madrid, Berlin, and La Paz, Bolivia, in 2010–11; Willem de Rooij’s show “Intolerance” at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie in 2010; and, most recently, Florian Pumhösl’s “6 7 8” at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien this past summer—the show I will be focusing on here.

These contested exhibitions all suggest that addressing the archival history and the literal and metaphoric architecture of an institution, a strategy long familiar to us as a response to the demand that contemporary art address its contexts, has given way to something new: a certain virtuosity. The contextual approaches no longer seem a violent rejection of other, more hegemonic modes, and this is less because such reflexive gestures themselves might now count as hegemonic but because the plurality of methods has blurred the distinctions between them. Like the historicizing and interrogation of institutions, the art exhibition’s educational or discursive function has become familiar, a matter of course. Often such shows have had a genuinely critical background, but sometimes this was nothing more than a trick of neoliberal cultural politics, an attempt to undermine the sacrosanct status of these costly, state-subsidized institutions by playing with other uses for the buildings that house them.

Florian Pumhösl chose a different path. Admit­tedly, his show “6 7 8” could be read as didactic: It featured systems, instigated symbolic and actual architectonic openings, and was concerned with deconstruction in the truest sense of the word. The panes of frosted glass on the sixth floor (per Euro­pean numbering, as throughout) of MUMOK, for example, were removed to allow brighter, more direct light to strike the cycle of clear glass panels with minimal black markings that made up the exhibition’s central work, Diminution, 2010. But Pumhösl’s method of calling attention to space, surface, light, and emptiness was also, conversely, decried as sacralization. Had he in fact built a temple to modernist formalism, wrested eternal aesthetic values from the grip of polemical confrontation, and raised them up in veneration? Or was this merely a laconic visual withdrawal? After all, must empty space in large rooms always mean an exaltation of the remaining objects, or can it also be read as purposefully taciturn—in keeping with the artist’s endeavor to express his central concerns with the barest of means, to drastically reduce modernism’s formal languages to their smallest, most significant elements, just short of the collapse of their basic parameters?

Pumhösl’s resolve to take the laconic as far as it would go had decisive consequences, in that he pushed it to the extremes of two possible outcomes. On the one hand, the laconic allowed for a profound earnestness that took on the largest imaginable themes (modernism, its transcendence, its catastrophes), willfully disregarding the proximity to sacralization. On the other, these powerful acts of omission and reduction constantly pointed to an even greater instance of going unsaid—one that might also have room for uproarious laughter. The exhibition’s title itself sounded like one of those typically modernist numerical titles that serve to underscore the rigorous immanence of an artistic project. But the title was also, of course, simply a list of the floors of MUMOK occupied by Pumhösl’s show. It thus pointed blithely to the act of devoting three floors of a museum to a solo contemporary art show, only to represent a selection of modern art (largely from the museum’s own collection) jointly curated by Pumhösl and curator Matthias Michalka in a seperately titled exhibition, “Abstract Space,”on the eighth floor, while showcasing a grand total of three of the artist’s own works on the other two.

Florian Pumhösl, Expressive Rhythm, 2010–11, color film in 35 mm, 28 minutes. Installation view, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2011.

Being laconic in this case fundamentally meant having it both ways, both exaggerating proportionality to the point of absurdity and cultivating an ongoing state of suspense—just as when I say very little, I may be elucidating an important absence but I am also just saying very little. This is key, since what modernism actually said when it said very little was precisely the substantive question Pumhösl here posed.

On the eighth floor he organized rarely exhibited early- to mid-twentieth-century works taken primarily from MUMOK’s holdings into nine categories: “portraits,” “figure/dance,” “scene,” “transitions,” “concrete media,” “interstices of the representational,” “construction/plane/space,” “concepts of abstraction,” and “alphabets/sign systems.” Arranged in a square configuration, these sections corresponded to a grid of nine equally sized rooms interconnected in various ways. These categories produced intersections and connections that revealed Pumhösl’s attention to specific moments in modernity’s traffic in abstraction and information. The first half of the twentieth century appeared as a concrete site of tensions in which the formal liberation from art’s illustrative function resulted in translations into the political—as demonstrated in the juxtaposition of portraits of writers and composers by Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl with Ireny Blühovej’s documentary photographs of workers and peasants—as well as into communicative design and the development of semiotic systems, as evidenced by a large selection of Soviet magazine designs and pictographic and alphabet sketches by figures ranging from Otto Neurath to Ladislav Sutnar. Moreover, Pumhösl focused on Eastern European avant-garde movements, in particular Czech Surrealism. (It is, incidentally, too little recognized that the central point of departure of the modernisms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I was not Vienna but, to at least as great an extent, the new Czech industrial regions.)

From a distance, the simple arrangements of black lines on the verres églomisés of Diminution might have been confused with typical Lucio Fontana slashes, but after visiting the historical show two floors above, you would have made a connection with Fonction, courbes vertes (Function, Green Curves), a semidrawn painting by Georges Vantongerloo from 1938 that was displayed there, which itself consists only of three curved, thin lines on a white ground. A diminution in music is the reduction of a motif, but reduction in this case represents an attempt to formulate a problem: What is the minimum condition for a sign? In other words, how much can one reduce the characteristics of a visual sign and have it still qualify for all three of C. S. Peirce’s elementary types of signs? To go through them in order: Pumhösl’s thin, vertical, and sometimes slightly curved lines are just barely still indexical, in that a vestigial sense of nervous handwriting, of bodily trace, adheres to them. They are just barely still iconic, as scarcely legible abstractions of the human figure. And they are just barely still symbolic: They can pass as letters or elements of letters. But Pumhösl isn’t just after a semiotic game here. He is demonstrating in his art the observation that early modernism’s abstracting movement was overwhelmingly a unidirectional process of reduction (e.g., from illustration toward the letter rather than toward concretion, gesture, or index).

Diminution reduces the triad of the (symbolic) letter, the (iconic) illustration, and the (indexical) gesture to their limit conditions by converting the strangely distancing and fussily ennobling medium of the verre églomisé into something resembling a prepared slide. Using a related approach, the silent film installation Tract, 2011—the only work installed on the seventh floor—explores drawing and the line in motion using dance notations, with bare white lines traced out against a monochromatic background. Here it is less a matter of a degree zero of visual notation than an engagement with another basic question: When is a visual representation to be read as something prescriptive, a plan, or as something descriptive, an illustration? It is precisely the registration and recording of a motion, such as that carried out by surveillance systems, radar detectors, etc., that here resembles the notations for movement and their prescriptive function.

In the only other work of Pumhösl’s in the show, Expressive Rhythm, 2010–11, we could see the full implications of a collision of contradictory social interpretations of the same conspicuous formal arrangements. Here a dimly lit and very large room achieved the effect of a black box not by being closed in but through the darkness of the walls, ceiling, and floor. Viewers sat down somewhere on the ground. In between sections of pure black film we saw black-and-white images of trees and interwoven twigs and branches, which kept dissolving into abstractions reminiscent of Pollock’s allover fields; at one point we even saw the surface of a body of water—or was it snow? At the same time, between long segments of silence, we heard short phrases from Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (the “Concord Sonata,” in a recording made for Pumhösl’s piece by pianist Marino Formenti), which were so greatly abbreviated as to recall the very process of diminution that gives the verre églomisé series its title.

Florian Pumhösl, Expressive Rhythm, 2010–11, still from a color film in 35 mm, 28 minutes.

The decision to title this film installation Expressive Rhythm is part of what creates a significant context for the work: As several scholars—including Michalka in the show’s catalogue—have noted, the eponymous gouache, created by Aleksandr Rodchenko in 1943–44, anticipates Pollock’s anticompositional strategies by nearly ten years. Expressive Rhythm, moreover, marked Rodchenko’s return to painting some fifteen years after his style had proved so incompatible with the Party line that critics accused him of being a “bourgeois” formalist. (The accusation itself, of course, indicated the full rejection of revolutionary Russian formalism under Stalin.) Pumhösl evoked this background by installing a wall-mounted glass case containing an issue of the magazine USSR im Bau (USSR in Construction) from 1933, open to a two-page spread designed by Rodchenko accompanying a report on the White Sea–Baltic Sea Canal. (Pumhösl’s cameraman, Hannes Böck, shot the images for the film in the exact same landscape through which the canal flows.) The invitation to experience the sublime by looking, in a near-constant silence and in a large, dark room, at the often puzzling constructions on the screen was made still more ambiguous by the dry historical contextualization in the display case. Sorrow and sarcasm seemed implicit, along with an apparently loving presentation or even fanlike sympathy for the historical artist. Here, once more, the catastrophes of modernism were invoked in what went unsaid.

As a result of this exhibition, Pumhösl was accused in some quarters of bourgeois formalism’s contemporary equivalents. But the opposite is probably true: By reconstructing the experiments of modernism to expose the essence of design and visuality, Pumhösl refutes bourgeois formalism in a new, more lasting way. He achieves this by contrasting these pictorial elements not with content but with the other formal and structural dimensions of each sign—all of which, however, nevertheless express the formal necessity of content. You cannot construct a canal from the White Sea to the Baltic if you cannot see that treetops look like Pollocks and vice versa. Once you have achieved the purest modernist painting, you have also necessarily become a collaborator in a gigantic project of landscape design. Such a critique of the “old” formalism inescapably appears something like a new one—one whose own limitations and possibilities are still taking shape.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic and a professor of theory, practice, and communication of contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.