New York

Martin Disler

Martin Disler may look like a Johnny-come-lately in the neo-expressionist binge that is saturating New York, but this Swiss artist has been drawing and painting in an increasingly—one might say uncompromisingly—fluid way since the mid ’60s. As his drawing and painting have merged, the swift, skeletal character of the one given substance by the viscous reserve of the other, his work has become less of an expression of desire (in erotically active figures) and more of a demonstration of power. In this group of drawn paintings the figures—and there are figures within figures here, all emerging from a dense visual stream of consciousness—are imagos of Death, or, more precisely, a demonstration of the inherent destructive tendencies within the erotic.

Thus there are usually two primary figures, as in Ashes to Ashes, 1983, and one of the untitled paintings from the same year. They seem monstrous just to the extent that they relate, as if to relate intensely to another were to become unrecognizable in oneself. Their grotesqueness signals the primitive character of their relationship, the axiomatic irrationality of the erotic encounter. When what seem to be isolated skeletons emerge from the flux, they remain libidinously charged, as the pieces of painterly flesh clinging to them suggest.

On one level Disler’s work can be regarded as a demonstration of Freud’s death wish—of the life forces themselves victimizing the living being. On another, Disler’s work fits in with the current drive to “relibidinize” art by way of painting. When all the dust is settled, it will have to be asked why, in contemporary Western society, art turned to the pursuit of raw expression, however unsatisfactory it may seem to be. (By their nature, the results of the expression of libido seem anticlimactic.) Does it have to do, on the macrocosmic level, with the renewed cold war between Russia and the United States, with its ominous overtones of nuclear holocaust? Or, on the microcosmic level, does it have to do with an attempt to restore the individual to some credibility at a time when he or she seems not only vulnerable, but of no account, without the possibility of influence on social forces? These levels, of course, are not unrelated.

The important thing is that neo-expressionist painting at its best, as in Disler’s work, articulates a difficult tension rather than a facile release. Also, of course, such painting suggests the inadequacy of intellectualistic art as a response to the psychosocial situation. The mobilization of the libido represents a defensive response to threatening world events, a defense that may in the last analysis be only a final efflorescence of art-making before its collapse into irrelevance. Such libidinous defensiveness becomes a kind of essential criticism of society, utterly offensive to the more superficial kind that thinks its angry comments on the social forces that cause the prevalent sense of oppression will do any good.

Purely on the level of art, the importance of Disler has to do with his sense of drawing as art’s last line of defense. Drawing restores the dream of bodiliness to art, and is even a kind of sexual, perhaps masturbatory, act: “the deepest drawings originate when i believe that the blood flows out of the pores like in sexuality,” he has written. This sense of the libidinous origins of the primary artistic act is crucial in a world in which art has become increasingly routine, worse yet, the retarded child of the mating of narcissistic and capitalistic concerns. Paradoxically, the narcissism is artificially inseminated by a dubious radicality (the capitalism is infertile) preserved from the early avant-garde days, when art thought it was a revolutionary activity that could change the world. Art has become exhausted by its own expectations of itself; Disler is among the best of those artists who want to return to a primary, desperately individual, libidinous “act of art,” an art free of all pretension of doing the world any good. This is one of the reasons it is truly radical.

Donald Kuspit