PRINT January 2014


the Detroit Institute of Arts

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Coastal Landscape on Fehmarn, ca. 1913, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 47 1/2".

I FIRST SAW ERNST LUDWIG KIRCHNER’S Coastal Landscape on Fehmarn, ca. 1913, at the Detroit Institute of Arts when I was sixteen. As a teenager from the suburbs of Detroit and new to painting, I was trying to push myself to make anything other than sad people crouching in corners or robots with stigmata. Often, I would head out along Hines Drive, a bucolic and sinister series of parks, and think about painting landscape. (Sinister, because there were stories of bikers who lived in the woods behind the parks who would no doubt rape and kill you.) Michigan was full of such places, and as teenagers we would eagerly seek them out by car, our only reprieve from what we perceived as the relentless flatness of our life. Basically, any place with a hill or a pit could be an exotic destination. Family trips “up North” or to Sleeping Bear Dunes broke the uniform flatness, and Lake Michigan was our own version of the sublime, stretching as if to infinity. The act of driving for hours, aimlessly, was itself a kind of destination, the unfolding road becoming a space for projection and deferred possibility.

Just over one hundred years ago, Kirchner made his own escape, to Fehmarn, a remote island in the Baltic Sea. During this time, more than half of the paintings and drawings that he made were directly inspired by the island, and it was here that he connected with the jagged, pulsating compositions that mark his later “mature” work. Coastal Landscape on Fehmarn depicts a vast, calligraphic, heaving space. The horizon bends up as if touching the edge of the world, while notational sienna-red lines lacerate and lasso the view. Dashed off yet structurally locked in, the whole thing feels as if it could be spun like a wheel. What struck me back then as it does now is just how much the concave structure of the painting resembles an eye, a steering wheel, and a driver’s singular view. It has the feeling of both being near and far, like the inside of your cornea or the edge of the ozone layer.

Every time I see this painting I barely remember the time I saw it before. Like momentary amnesia, or seeing a person I know but can’t place, it’s as if I have to be standing in front of it to recall it at all. It’s a small and strange work; muted, not typical for Kirchner. What I recognize first is the scene—the landscape that looks back. Like River Phoenix’s narcoleptic déjà vu of the “fucked-up face” road in My Own Private Idaho. It’s the feeling of infinite potential and familiarity, something that draws you closer to yourself and yet carries you farther away.

Dana Schutz is an artist who lives and works in New York.