“Heute” Westkunst

“Heute” Westkunst

The “Heute” (“Today”) section of this summer’s “Westkunst” exhibition in Cologne was about as small and evolved as the human appendix. “Heute” was in fact a kind of appendix, or better, a coda, to the enormous, almost overwhelming panorama of the main exhibition. The “Westkunst” catalogue lists 238 artists, many of them represented by more than half-a-dozen works. By contrast, the entire burden of showing the work of today fell on a mere 37 contemporary artists. Worse, the selection seems to have been influenced mightily by the ability and willingness of each artist’s commercial agent to foot the costs of getting his or her goods to Cologne.

Whatever the complaints legitimately provoked by the selection of art for “Westkunst,” the principal exhibition had sufficient contextual kinship that it could be presented, for better or for worse, as sets of internally cohesive units: the panorama of 1939; work done in exile; emigrés’ and natives’ symbiotic influences in New York; the late 1940s as a time of continuity and contradiction; the new beginnings of the early ’50s; abstraction as a universal language; the infusion of reality into art in the late ’50s;— Fluxus, Nouveau Realisme, Pop, et al.; Minimalism, concept art, and Arte Povera. Assembled from a European point of view, the composite neatly cut down the myopic chauvinism that infects us younger American students of advanced post-war art. This made up a long and fascinating pilgrimage of hundreds and hundreds of paintings and drawings and very little sculpture. But the cumulative fascination of the first two-thirds of the show was tempered by a mounting unease in the company of its last third. Moving closer to the present inevitably prompted feelings of puzzlement—why this artist rather than that one?—compounded by a very strong sense that even the chosen few were almost never represented by their best work. Especially (or so it seemed to me) among the Americans, many of the right (by consensus) names were there, but almost nothing of significance by them. The impression grew that, by the time the show came to the late 1960s, its spirit was largely exhausted. Whether for want of money or of space, or as a result of the arguable judgment that it was not an interesting period. the 1970s did not exist within “Westkunst.” A large floor and wall rebus by Marcel Broodthaers and a fainthearted group of late-’60s Italian objets closed out the show.

“Heute” announced itself as an exit from this scatter-shot reconstruction of the ’60s. Dog-trot style, a central hallway, given to Michael Asher, opened to the right onto a suite of ten fairly large rectangular spaces under a big shed roof, and to the left to six more. One led directly into the next, a bit like stalls at an agricultural fair: from hogs to sheep to cattle to chickens, with no relief. Bewilderment at how to get out rather than curiosity propelled the move from one space to the next. Nor was there much organizational rationale, other than shared commercial patronage, evident in what was shown in “Heute.”

Asher’s hallway installation, modeled after the glassed-in furniture ensembles at the design collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, tersely presaged what was to come. Asher lined each side of the hallway with long risers supporting chairs from each of the galleries sponsoring artists inside “Heute.” Most recent in Asher’s hocus-pocus manipulations, this commentary on each dealer’s self-image as manifested in his or her establishment’s decor, was the transition from past to present in the exhibition’s scheme.

As if to signal the passive bedlam prevalent throughout the wing, there were few bona fide labels on anything after Asher’s tableau. Crudely stenciled paper signs with the artists’ surnames were sometimes tacked up at odd spots, but almost never with titles, dimensions, media, or provenances. This random and incomplete method of classification, coupled with a reluctance to seek out any special assistance on my part, obliges me to admit that in at least half of the cases, after three lengthy tours of the premises, I remained so confused as to who had done what that I still did not know, for instance, which was Franz Graf’s work, only realizing later, after lengthy perusal of the catalogue, that he had been a collaborator with Brigitte Kowans.

But these are more procedural than substantiative problems. The real problem with “Heute,” aside from the very small number of artists chosen, was that a double standard seems to have operated in their selection: nearly all the foreign artists were of a certain quality, whereas all the German-speaking artists were of another, radically inferior one. With the exception of the painters Anselm Kiefer, Salomé, and Luciano Castelli, the Germans served up course after course of barely re-heated avant-gardisms. Visits to galleries, museums, and alternative spaces in Cologne itself and in Düsseldorf and Berlin confirmed that, in those three cities alone, there are easily three dozen artists better than anyone in “Heute.”

After repeated visits to the show, two generalizations kept suggesting themselves. Both in the immediate past and now, two polarities are discernible within individual sensibilities, providing an odd, almost unwitting continuity with the present.

I call the first a taste for literalism. This itself subdivides into two related if distinct species: one that exalts the inherent expressionism of materials (e.g. minimalist sculpture, Joseph Beuys, Arte Povera): the other an even more overt literalism—one that describes motive, intent, realization (the word composers, conceptualism in its many guises). In the latter category were such artists as the Canadian Jeff Wall, who showed large, ceiling-suspended, back-lighted color photos of a “movie audience”: and the wall-sized social-comment installation of photos and didactic panels by Barbara Bloom, an artist from Amsterdam. Asher’s work conforms here as well.

In a related vein, the New York artists Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin collaborated on a large word/image installation. In it a roughly drawn face was repeated as an isolated central image on different-colored enamel plaques to form a half-wall grid of serial images. Positioned beside them, in a related configuration, were several metal plaques bearing a variety of messages in English and German, some of them presumably found, some invented. These quips, observations, and injunctions all seemed to be snatches of an interior monologue, and a decidedly feminine one to my mind. This secularization of certain conceptual ideas now more than 15 years old struck me as the first interesting development in the genre for some time.

The more surface-oriented, expressionist side of the esthetic was unrepresented in “Heute”, excepting the charming teapots and cups of ceramist Andrew Lord, also from Amsterdam. But then, besides Judy Pfaff, there were no abstract artists here.

As an exhibition, “Westkunst” left the impression of being weighted to favor representational art, which is probably an accurate reflection of the quarter century it summarized. Likewise, “Heute” serendipitously attests to the current moment’s widespread antipathy to abstraction. The second generalization to which I alluded earlier, then, is that a taste for pictorialism lies behind nearly all the remaining art in “Heute.” From its evidence it would appear that Americans and Italians are in the forefront of this move, though in two recent visits to the German Rhineland, and from the large and interesting delegation of younger German painters included in last winter’s Royal Academy show in London (“A New Spirit in Painting”), Germany may be the leader in this revival of subject-matter painting.

The work from the late 1960s and ’70s against which these younger artists at least initially posited their own work, was scarcely represented and shown under less-than-flattering conditions. Pop and older, more expressionist styles to which they connect very nicely, on the other hand, basked in sympathetic installations. Thus, “Westkunst” formed a peculiarly ambient background to much of the most interesting work in “Heute.”

Pop’s bewildering disjuncts, prompted by still advertising, has worthy successors in the paintings of David Salle (despite his arcane imagery from the 1930s) and Kim MacConnel. If Salle has yet to acknowledge the television/video aspects of what he is doing (namely, that anyone can do it) and so appears a bit pompous in his leaden combinations of the meaningless meaningfully rendered, MacConnel has gone to the limit of elevating everything to beautiful shmatte.

Robin Winters’ work, represented here by an enormous patchwork of small paintings on cheap stretched cloth, exploits Salle’s esthetic—perhaps intolerably. Using a comparable repertoire of TV and idiotic imaginings. Winters’ prolixity reduces content to the mechanics of decorative drawing, every little doodle being infused with portentous meaning. In both instances—Salle’s and Winters’—television has superseded previously credible cultural myths to supply, if not the exact visual data that in turn is transformed into a painting, then an attitude of rapid-fire disconnectedness in which every datum is potentially as revealing or catalytic as every other. That Salle’s work to date so far outstrips Winters’ is directly attributable to the former’s restraint; he understands his sources to be dispassionate and, unlike Winters, seems content in glorifying their cheery amorality. That this work is so obsessively serial may be explained by the simultaneous nature of broadcasting, with many programs, live, current, or re-run, being equally available at any given moment.

Perhaps the key word in this work, as well as in that of Julian Schnabel, Robert Kushner, and Jonathan Borofsky, is access. At even a cursory glance, it is available to nearly everyone. But Schnabel’s and Kushner’s particularities of drawing, and their raptures in combining the most unlikely of materials, removes their work slightly from the greater public arena. Schnabel, in his taste for imagery from art of the past, his deliberate artiness, positions himself to the right: I think this is why his work seems more at home among the Europeans than that of any of the other Americans. His palette admits the same richness as the Italians. Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi (shown in one room at “Heute”), and Mimmo Paladino; and, like them, Schnabel doesn’t hesitate to construct big painting machines. Older Italian art did not fare so well in the larger “Westkunst,” but, as the recent “Realisms” show organized by the Centre Georges Pompidou (and, by coincidence, shown at Berlin’s Kunsthalle at the same time as the Cologne extravaganza) inadvertently made clear. Clemente et al. are perfectly logical within their indigenous culture. Part of the American critical resistance to Schnabel, it seems to me, is that most of his paintings are by far too rich for our blood. They simply don’t look American.

Something like that could also be said of Robert Kushner’s work. Certainly his sense of color is an unusual one. But, like Schnabel, the effusiveness of his drawing provokes a deeper consideration of the work. Kushner is awkward in a way that Schnabel’s chosen elegance prevents, and his work, quite unlike Schnabel’s, is rambunctiously cheerful and incessantly baroque. Kushner’s baroqueness no doubt accounts for the widespread acceptance of his work among Europeans, even while explaining in part why many Americans see it as an affront to their precious and hard-won sophistication.

Borofsky and Pfaff participate in other, considerably less materialistic notions of the baroque—notions more of how to engage a given space to the maximum psychological and visual advantage. In “Heute,” Borofsky reconstituted, in spirit, the Ping-Pong-game environment he first set up at Paula Cooper Gallery last fall. Again, the coy suggestion above the table—“feel free to play”; again, as always, Borofsky’s turbulent somnambulistic reality. Wall drawings fled to the ceiling, and social commentary (comparing armament expenditures of the United States and the USSR) dropped from wall to floor as crumpled paper souvenirs of Borofsky’s netherworld, part imagination, part conscience; a physical counterpart to Delmore Schwartz’s realization that “in dreams begin responsibilities.”

Pfaff, like Borofsky, works hard to overcome gravity’s tyrannical rule of space. For him, it seems to function as a spatial analogue to what passes for reason today, and thus to require many forms of contradiction; for her, gravity demands to be overruled as an impediment to the free-thinking instantaneous continuum that sight achieves when liberated from the other senses. Unlike the deliberately physical acceleration of motion that has characterized Pfaff’s work of the past year or so, the “Heute” piece, Ziggurat, induced a single circular preambulation of the space constructed to suggest a continuing upward spiral. More dense than its immediate predecessors, this a rare Pfaff—to be looked at and pieced together rather than looked through and separated. The elaborate drawings in space that animate her ensembles are in evidence here, but slowed down slightly and flattened out in an increased dependence on careful nuances of paint handling on the side walls. Ziggurat consolidates the transient ecstasies Pfaff has so consistently conjured of late.

The centrality of drawing in their work is common to Borofsky, Pfaff, MacConnel, Kushner, Schnabel, and Salle. Drawing, albeit of a much more fractured sort, also plays an important role in the work of Salomé and Luciano Castelli. They worked together on a huge, unstretched painting on canvas. Salomé doing one half, Castelli the other. Both used the figure of a naked, androgynous, human body painted all over in brilliant colors in camouflage-like compositions. Salomé’s less dense arrangement and thinner color makes his the more legible half of the piece. He also has greater command of depiction of the moving human form. Castelli’s half (the painting was deemed too large as a single object and so was cut and shown as two on opposing walls) is more crowded and darker, and, in its greater frenzy of strokes, the more agitated of the two. Both artists’ abilities to successfully incorporate light (without recourse to translucent material) made their work an especially appealing part of the exhibition.

It was all the more appealing when contrasted with their “Heute” roommates. Juergen Klauke makes sharp-focus black-and-white photographs of himself variously sitting in and lifting a chair and then presents the singularly uninteresting results as large symmetrical compositions; and Urs Lüthi, from Zurich, who at least mixes his similarly uninteresting black-and-white photographs with some figurative line drawings in paint on canvas that seem lifted from an idiot savant cartoon book. All this photographic gloom was increased manyfold in a nearby grotto of foreboding, a temporary home to the work of Robert Longo, Troy Brauntuch, and Jack Goldstein. The latter two resurrected my preconceptions of television’s insidious occupation of the imaginations of a generation of American artists just coming into their own. Of Brauntuch, I can truthfully say little. Not only were his big photographs or drawings or drawn-upon photographs so framed as to make a blinding glare reflect every inquiring look, but their imagery was so opaque, so illegible as to discourage any further looking once past the wall of glass. Goldstein offered more split-screen Warhol-like disaster imagery, a little darker than I recalled his paintings to have been in the New York show earlier this year. But until these two get picture tubes capable of lighting up things sufficiently for comprehension, I pass.

Longo showed some black plastic wall reliefs and a large drawing, isolated on its paper ground. A stylized bas-relief of a group of skyscrapers in partial view has joined Longo’s bas-relief lineup of male torsos. But this architectural fragment does little to alleviate the overwhelming sense of déjà vu that pervades these shiny black versions of George Segal. Longo’s drawing style makes clear my objection to the tenor of his work in general, which always seems to be isolating theatrical gestures as if to imbue every contortion of the body with a wealth of enigma that it cannot possibly sustain. The fragmentation, occasionally of the physical reality of the movement, always of its causal sequence, exalts the pose, celebrating the most simplistic and narcissistic of self-consciousnesses—one that says “I am being watched, ergo what I am doing must be significant.” At least Segal has continually had the humility to present his mat-white specters in an appropriate three-dimensional context, admitting his work as a continuation of American scene art. With Longo, pretensions abound; trivialization is converted into an attribute.

This is not true of John Ahearn’s figurative wall reliefs. Ahearn’s pieces aspire to a reality of appearance that clearly demonstrates both their class origin and their strong social-realist inferences. At “Heute,” Ahearn had covered his wall with tar-paper siding, as if to reinforce the proletarian miseries of his subjects, the urban poor. His work brought some street smarts into an otherwise lily-white enclave; another infusion of “new reality” into the egotistical excesses of contemporary art?

Largely by accident, “Heute” mirrored, however dimly, the larger artistic demography it was meant to represent. As with the outer world, more than half of its contents (including, unfortunately, all but three of the German-speaking artists) was more witless art about art, minute shiftings of a long-dead corpse in a vain search for a more becoming light. The strong minority that remained, principally of Italian and American artists, shared a desire to produce a new art that both acknowledges its lengthy and distinguished ancestry and is free and strong enough to survive in today’s climate.

As Richard Armstrong’s review indicates, “Westkunst” and “Heute” should be critically regarded as two separate (but intrinsically connected) exhibitions. A review of the historical section of “Westkunst,” by Annelie Pohlen, will follow in October.