New York

Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

To the Anselm Kiefer school of Teutonic mythomania may not be added the lush paintings of Rainer Fetting or the frenzied works of Helmut Middendorf. For these young German painters, the romance of twentieth-century European art history is far more exciting than that of German legend. Perhaps the only pursuit more thrilling than this for each is the act of painting itself.

Fetting’s interest in naked young men in showers and bathrooms only superficially recalls David Hockney. His men just happen to be in bathrooms; their surroundings and states of nakedness aren’t nearly as sexy as the colors and shapes that define them. In Man in Mirror, a heavily outlined green-and-flesh-colored reflection of a figure stands, hands on head, looking back at himself (and out at us) from a mirror above a sink. Sink, walls, and part of the mirror are all a flat, brilliant aqua, and a small, round bar of creamy soap teeters oddly next to one of the faucets, like a whimsical detail in a Matisse. It’s hard to look at these paintings without thinking not only of the Fauves, but also of early Picasso. The reflection in Man in Mirror even looks like a Picasso self-portrait, while a head in Man Reclining is as delicate and sweet as a Picasso circus performer. In the latter painting, a brilliant-blue, one-dimensional figure is defined by outline and by black-and-green-and-black shapes—an unabashed homage to the master. A figure in Fetting’s most electric, expressionistic painting, Large Shower, is reminiscent of Cézanne’s studies of bathers.

Middendorf’s two paintings, Electric Night and Singer, explode with the sketchy hysteria of a Kirchner street scene. In Electric Night, black-and-blue, androgynous figures jeer at other masked and hooded figures waiting to attack from the wings. The background is lit in electric red. The abstractedness of Electric Night makes it less a testament to a specific incident than an expression of outrage at violence. Singer is no less charged; a bowed figure, legs apart and braced, sways with a tilted microphone stand on a frenzied, red-hot stage.

Despite the personal and issue-oriented nature of Middendorf’s imagery, he, like Fetting, is an esthete and a stylist quite unconcerned with producing paintings that seem without a history. Being a sucker for Cézanne and Kirchner, which these artists’ work recalls, I admired the beauty of Fetting’s and Middendorf’s paintings. The only problem with such direct references is that they lead to comparisons.

Joan Casademont