New York


Amsterdam-Paris-Dusseldorf at the Guggenheim Museum is not one exhibit but three, selected independently by Fritz Keers of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Blaise Gautier, director of the Centre National d’Art Contemporain in Paris, and Jürgen Harten, director of the Stadtische Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf. Subsequent to its choice of the three cities, the Guggenheim functioned with almost complete neutrality. The imposition of American tastes and presuppositions has been avoided which is admirable even when it results in the presentation of esthetic and cultural enigmas outside the contexts that might clarify them.

Joseph Beuys forms the paradoxical case of an artist of international reputation whose work seems to have been emptied out in the process of crossing national borders. A professor at the Düsseldorf Academy since 1961, a leading member of the Fluxus group, a tireless and charismatic proselytizer for his all-embracing revolutionary esthetic, and one of the few German artists to have received much attention in New York in the ’60s, Beuys is represented here with disappointing sparseness. He has mounted a circular diagram on the wall, a kind of power mandala. In flow-chart dynamics, it suggests a way to transform West Germany’s current “two-party dictatorship” into a participatory democracy. In the translation provided, his ideas seem naïve. A deep familiarity with the Düsseldorf scene and Beuys’ influence on it would be required in order to give this display any value. Gundfana of the West—Dschingis Kahn’s Flag (1961), a banner of roughly stained cloth and a fir tree trunk topped with a crude lead insignia, forms an indecipherable presence which only underscores Beuys’ absence.

Klaus Rinke seems far less immersed in a local setting. His pieces have a Conceptual-theatrical content shared not only with a wide range of contemporary American and European performance artists, but also with the Happenings of the late ’50s and the works of the Fluxus group that emerged at roughly the same time in Düsseldorf. More specifically, Rinke seems to regularize some of the impulses of Bruce Nauman. Like Beuys, however, Rinke is absent. One sees only an artifact, a wide circular trough of water with a plumb bob suspended above its center. This translates the horizontals and verticals of Constructivism into gravitational (that is, Process) terms, but without Rinke’s presence this is little more than a stylistic clue to an activity that obviously will not take place. Rinke presents a further enigma—even though he has made a point of developing along self-consciously international lines.

Related stylistics can be seen in Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of gas storage tanks, water towers, and so on. They avoid Rinke’s difficulty in this setting through a regularization not of personal action, but of the photographic medium. The process that creates their imagery allows them to impose a Constructivist order and at the same time to project the esthetic assumptions of that order onto the nonesthetic objects they record—which is fitting if not very exciting, since those objects display the industrial functionality which guided the development of Constructivism in the first place. The Bechers’ elaborate, widely familiar, by now traditional modernist values. The Conceptual elegance and directness of their elaboration makes their work more accessible than anything else in the entire exhibit. This is not necessarily a virtue in a setting where interest comes more and more to lie in the enigmas one confronts.

But enigma is not a sure source of interest. Konrad Klapheck’s oddly looming, foreshortened bulldozer (in a painting entitled Splendor and Misery of Reforms) and Andre Thomkins’ gouaches and collages, with their look of ’30s science fiction and fashion illustration, provide variations on the standard mysteries of Surrealism. One assumes that an understanding of local conditions and expectations would explain how these artists come to represent Düsseldorf at an international level. One makes the same assumption with Beuys, but at least with him there is a vacuum to be filled, possibly with significant meaning. Here the meaning is all in the persistence of the outmoded. Klapheck’s variation draws on Pop art, Thomkins’ is purely nostalgic. Gotthard Graubner combines ’60s-style reduction with a generalized Dada-Surrealist whimsy, allowing his monochrome canvases to sag here and there in vaguely anthropomorphic ways.

Dieter Rot is another Düsseldorf standby. He is no more original in his assumptions than the previous three, but his “self-portraits” in chocolate, the maddeningly lightweight insistent quality of his typographical experiments, and the sheer luxuriant awfulness of his cheese and sausage works give his antiart posturings a personalized funkiness which may be a genuine, localized response to his own situation. One would have to be from Düsseldorf to know.

Marcel Broodthaers, born in Brussels and working in Düsseldorf, showed his Eagle Museum at Documenta 5. This was a room containing images of eagles from innumerable sources, high art, advertising, and so on. Here he shows My Collection, a two page document with a portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé (“the founder of contemporary art”) on one page, and on the other postage stamp-size reproductions of documents related to exhibitions in which he has participated. Reproduction of this work in the Guggenheim catalogue is part of the piece and will be reproduced in a future work chronicling his participations since the time represented by the original documents. My Collection is, as he says, tautological—and so, in its way, is the Eagle Museum. The tautological “art propositions” of American Conceptualism are recalled much as the Bechers’ photographs recall the standard Constructivist meanings. Like the Bechers, Broodthaers seems to be a Düsseldorf artist for no necessary reason—he achieves a similar, and similarly unprepossessing, international clarity.

If Dieter Rot gives Dada a local funkiness, Gunther Uecker’s wooden panels and frames bristling with nails give Constructivist geometry a private obsessiveness. This isn’t ingratiating but it is arresting in an understated way; Uecker transforms the meditative tendency of Group Zero to an endless ruminating over process and texture. This is most successful in his Spiral of Sand, in which a 13 1/2' metal bar rotates slowly, dragging numerous short ropes over a circle of sand spread on the floor. Mechanical process creates “natural” imagery (dune grass blown in circles by the wind, and so on). Finally the nature/machine opposition is submerged in endless textural variation.

Sigmar Polke, the youngest artist in this section (born in 1941), shows an attraction to natural forms and substances which aligns him with Rot and Uecker, but he transforms their funkiness and obsessiveness into an eclectic dandyism. His large Drawing of the Potato House is pasted together from square sheets of paper bearing mock-Surrealist sketches. This mock-Constructivist grid is repeated in the lattice of his Potato House, an arbor of wooden lathe with potatoes fastened to its cross-points. This allows one to see a formal connection between natural forms and the forms in his drawings. The connection is there only by virtue of a knowing silliness at the root of Polke’s art, which he “rescues” by means of an unrelenting willfulness. Polke may or may not turn out to be a significantly inventive artist, but the variety of his materials and his high-handed way with them provides a reflection of the Düsseldorf section as a whole, its seeming arbitrariness, its overall indecipherability.

Four of the six Amsterdam artists evolve directly from Constructivism. They work in the generalized, clarified area occupied as well by Bernd and Hilla Becher, but where the Germans present anonymous objects in an anonymous manner, these four impose elegantly personalized touches on geometric form. Ad Dekkers’ wood panels, finished immaculately in white enamel and bearing neatly arranged slit and ledges, draw the material into the realm of the diagrammatic. Jan Schoonhoven, in ink drawings and paperboard constructions, inflects the diagrammatic with tasteful—even tactful—evidences of his hand. Carel Visser’s sheet steel pieces, often in series, show process integrating itself with geometrical concept. Jan Roeland—of the four, the only painter in oils—takes his use of a traditional medium as permission to turn the Constructivist esthetic toward peculiar, earthy colors, and an odd foreshortening of abstract shapes.

Writing in the catalogue of the Amsterdam section, Cor Blok is at pains to defend Dutch modernism from the charge that it all derives from Mondrian. Everyone would go along with him there, but he doesn’t address himself to the obvious point—that, if this selection is anywhere near being representative, then the values of Constructivism are still pursued quite faithfully by some Dutch artists; and, further, that in contrast to Rinke, Uecker, and the Bechers they have not expanded the Constructivist esthetic beyond the confines of the wall- or floor-object.

Jeroen Henneman (born in 1942), shows immaculate drawings and mixed media constructions. The drawings present optical illusions, the constructions three-dimensional versions of Magritte, or domesticated Cornelis, with towels and light bulbs instead of exotic “treasure.” Reinier Lucassen shows paintings in which images from Van Gogh, Morandi, de Chirico, Horst Antes, and others are jumbled together in a flat Pop-art–derived style. Blok is correct in pointing out that the interest here is in the presence of conflicting representational systems within one work. This of course has been a conscious feature of modernism since the Symbolist period, showing up in such diverse representatives as Munch, Klimt, and Redon. And it is perhaps to be found in all painting, modern or not, obviously so with painterly styles and perhaps in the most rigidly linear as well. Lucassen’s work is interesting for its suggestion that one of modern painting’s tasks, bringing the disparity of pictorial codes into consciousness, is still in need of being carried out in Amsterdam. This is more than doubtful, but of course the selection of Dutch art on view here can’t provide a firm judgment. Again, one would have to be there to know. But it’s also true that being there might for some be the condition of not knowing.

The Parisian section is more erratic in quality than the other two; it is the most alien to the New York setting and, in the depths of the enigmas it presents, the most important. Jean-Pierre Reynaud presents a number of serial works, each containing four identical objects with an immaculate coat of industrial paint—red, blue, yellow, and green. The objects are automotive parts and traffic signs. A wall label suggests that the effort here is to establish semiological stability but Reynaud’s “structures,” if he would presume to call them that, are too primitive to engage any issues of importance. His work derives from the attempt of French Pop art to “civilize” ordinary objects prior to showing them in an art setting. He represents one of the weakest lines of descent from Duchamp.

Almost as weak is the Duchampian heritage represented by Ben Vautier. Here as at Documenta 5 and numerous other places since the early ’60s, Vautier shows signs and labeled objects exhorting the viewer to believe that “Ben doubts everything,” “there is too much art,”—all of diluted modernism diluted further until it becomes a nostalgic lampoon on romantic sensitivity. The words “Look Elsewhere” are written in such small letters that the viewer will of necessity disobey. Irony doesn’t get much lamer than this—the Vautier enigma is his ability to inhabit a complex, cross-cultural situation without presenting any enigmas at all.

The French selection covers the range of contemporary trends more conscientiously than either the Dutch or the German one. Jean-Michel Sanejouand is a representative Earthwork artist. He is able to show here only diagrams for completed and future works. Where banal American Earthworks attempt to translate the expansive energy of Happenings and action painting into the vast American space, Sanejouand, as might be expected, attempts to translate the primly ordered energies of late-late School of Paris modernism into the orderly European space. Typical is his plan to erect a right-angled framework of beams within a grove of trees so that it encloses as much space as possible without extending beyond the outline of the grove.

Joel Kermarrec paints in acrylic on canvas, surrounding semi-abstract household forms with suggestions of graphs, industrial materials, and other accoutrements of recent art that have attempted to expand beyond the boundaries of painting. Sometimes he places a wooden version of a painted form on the floor in front of his canvas as his contribution to Pop art semiology. Gerard Titus-Carmel’s careful pencil drawings show boxes whose mirrors and compartmentations create involved visual games of reflection, word reversal, and other gratuitous mysteries. The variations through which these two artists put their images are safe, boring, and ultimately Surrealist.

Claude Viallat, Christian Boltanski, and Jean Le Gac are the three remaining artists in the Parisian section. They have received intense consideration from a range of critics extending from Louis Aragon at one extreme and Marcelin Pleynet at the other. Le Gac especially raises questions of a structuralist and, more importantly, “poststructuralist” nature—questions which could be easily overlooked through the similarity of his documentary style to that of Dennis Oppenheim and Douglas Heubler among others. Any comment on the work of these three artists necessitates a full examination of an unfamiliar, not to say alien critical tradition. This is a task of importance for the state of criticism in New York, and one that I would like to reserve for a later date.

Carter Ratcliff