New York

Gerhard Merz

Sperone Westwater Fischer

Gerhard Merz’ work is up to date, but not contemporary in the accepted sense. He refuses to care about the kinds of things that inspire painters like Walker and Naber. He wants to make work that makes you think, and that looks good, looks snappy. And he succeeds. He makes paintings that are aggressive visually and intellectually, that make you look and keep you thinking.

Merz has no faith in the authenticity of the individual gesture, no trust in the notion that a painter expresses himself directly and uniquely through the handling of paint. He has no conviction as far as technique is concerned, and is therefore free to use whatever method is necessary in any given situation. And yet he obviously understands the thinking that inspires modern painters who so touchingly continue to have faith in the validity of their individuality. He understands that thinking, and uses his understanding the better to deride its pious simplicity, its willfully naive refusal to acknowledge the utter conventionality of both life and art.

He does this with a boldness that is astonishing in its accuracy. He uses signs that are commonly understood to have specific meanings, but renders them in such a way that they must be seen as essentially vacant, interchangeable, and totally impersonal—for example, in a long horizontal canvas, evenly painted a bright yellow, on which Merz has painted his name in bold black letters in the upper right-hand corner; or in an all-over gestural painting made by rolling, in an offhand manner, hot salmon pink, yellow, green and turquoise in a crisscross pattern.

The best modernist work, of course, was never as pious as Merz would have us believe. The self-reflexive mode was always given a critical dimension through the use of irony, the workings of which could make precarious the most firmly entrenched ideas and beliefs. However, this ironic attitude was most often directed at the self, and through overuse it has become sentimental, an easy escape from any necessary confrontation. Merz has grasped this, but rather than abandon the method, he has turned it on his public. Not only does the artist distrust the authenticity of his own private feelings, not only does he doubt the ability of any artist to get through the cage formed by the impersonal conventions of art, but he also has no faith in the individuality of those who come to look at his work—knowing that their responses will be predictable.

Merz understands the world, and his understanding leaves him numb, so numb that all he can do is arrange his work so that it looks as good as possible. He knows his time, and the limitations it imposes on him. Knowing it, he can say he loves it. He has no choice.

Thomas Lawson