New York

Helmut Middendorf

Bonlow Gallery

No matter what one may think of it, “neo-Expressionist” painting has become the dominant mode of art production on both sides of the Atlantic. Studios and art schools everywhere are once again dirty with the traces of much frenzied paint throwing. As a convenient label “neo-Expressionism” is the most popular because the least specific, but when considering this kind of work I think it important to separate out artists who may be less interested in reviving an expressionist ethos than in using a look for a variety of more or less interesting ends—artists one might want to identify as “pseudo-Expressionists.” This distinction aside, however, the expressionist style will be with us a while.

But as the style has spread it has become clear that it is most often merely a style, and a carelessly understood one at that. Despite the rhetoric of authenticity that has been developed to surround and support them, few of the paintings do more than maintain appearances. The style’s speed has already overtaken it, and the paintings we have seen this year by new establishment stars like Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, and Julian Schnabel, not to mention their countless dedicated followers, look dated and somehow beside the point. And in the meantime, further diminishing the style’s long-term chances, the only concerted attempt to give it intellectual credibility, Achille Bonita Oliva’s “Transavantgarde” theory, has become an apologia for provincialism. This should perhaps not be so surprising, since any definition of provincialism would include an overeager engagement with last year’s fashion. Which is all a rather roundabout way of saying that we are now in a position to begin looking more closely at specific works and artists freed from the hot polemics of “the new.”

One group desperately in need of such reevaluation is that of the “violent painters” from Berlin, and Helmut Middendorf’s recent show provides a useful starting point. The main question is whether the work is to be understood as “neo” or “pseudo.” Middendorf never appeared to be one of the strongest of these painters, but it is often easier to discern the essentials of an idea in minor work. The Berlin paintings are fast, simplified, overscaled (American-scaled?) renditions of one or two Expressionist tropes used to depict single figures and figure groups that are usually meant to have something to do with Berlin’s nightlife—typically club scenes, sex scenes, street scenes, the occasional paranoid visions of ax murderers, and so on. Middendorf’s contribution has been a sad young man alone in a dark city street, and, more recently, large clusters of clownish faces gazing with apprehension into the gallery as though fearful of what they might have to look upon next. Middendorf’s signature is a dry midnight blue, the kind of color guaranteed to evoke an automatic response. But his repertory of imagery and effect is too limited to sustain itself. If the melancholy of the work is genuine, its repetition dilutes it; if there is an element of mockery in the work, it suffers a lack of wit (there is certainly none of the wry self-awareness evident in an earlier “pseudo-expressionist” if failed painting like Duchamp’s Sad Young Man on a Train, 1911). It comes across as merely ridiculous, sentimental, and blue, oh so blue.

As it first appeared over here this work, and that of the other Berliners, seemed interesting because it seemed to address issues of authenticity and authorship through its exaggerated use of the clichés of personal expression and, in a more limited way, through its preference for working collaboratively. However, whatever rigor there was in this seems with hindsight to have been imposed by the intervention of the viewer and critic, and not to reside in the work. It now appears likely that these painters were, and continue to be, sincere in the dopiest, least self-reflexive way possible. They are neither “neo” nor “pseudo” anything, simply lucky enough to stumble on something so dumb it had to be taken as smart, at least at first sight. In this their work seems analogous to a great deal of rock music, coming on strong and simple, with a speed and aggression that carries all before it until it is time to make the follow-up—at which time the packaging turns stale, overproduced, and pretentious. The fast lane runs from uncomfortable rebellion to easy comfort.

Thomas Lawson