New York

Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger, Albertoehlen, Markus Oehlen

Metro Pictures

I admire these artists quirkiness, irreverence, and contempt. I first saw their work several years ago in Germany, and I’m glad to see they’ve become still more perverse or saucy, to use a word they like. One can label their work neo-Dadaist, which suggests that their attitude is more important than the objects they make. Certainly they seem to aspire to become sacred monsters, although that’s nothing you can work at, even when you have command of seemingly limitless reserves of (Dadaist) disgust; the world makes your monstrousness happen.

However large the range of their activities—they write as well as make music—it is as painters that these artists exist in New York. No doubt their painting is just another kind of performance, but it leaves behind a deliciously smelly residue. It is this odor of garbage that attracts us. We sense that the artists are trying to set painting right after it has betrayed us by pretending that it can become attractive flesh hanging in museums and apartments. Garbage must be garbage, in the name of the honest truth; this claim of authenticity is a traditional one, like many others around today, but it’s harder to resist than the others, for history and art history’s pile of garbage continues to grow. Compost heaps are never out of fashion. These young Germans, like true youth everywhere, are obsessed with the decay of both art and meaning, which they have decided to enjoy with as many crocodile tears as possible. They have seen through everything; they know the shiftiness of everything; they know shit is the only substance eternally present. They quote Dali with approval: “I don’t like it when something goes in the nose and comes out the anus, but I love that which slips in the anus and exits through the eye.” They have restored paranoia to its original anality, making images and meanings, and of course paint, into so much shit they playfully offer the world that has mothered them.

Werner Büttner gives us murky pictures in which the paint seems not only turgid but constipated. He just can’t get it to flow; it clumps on contact with the canvas. His three versions of Shehu’s Death, all 1984, together with his two versions of putti, remind me of the fake shit sold in novelty stores. These pictures are jokes for the cognoscenti, fun with a serious point, namely that there is no point. From Martin Kippenberger’s abstract Women and Money III, 1984—in case you didn’t know, that’s what Freud thought (male) artists worked for—to his “social realist” illustrative For A Life Without A Dentist, 1984 (the bourgeois dream), the artist’s assorted styles add up to a single meaning: not simply “down with art,” but “art is already down, for a count of ten.” Albert Oehlen, in Guernica, Hell, and The Body of the Poor, all 1984, among other works, makes the same mocking point, with mock virtuosity of means; a mirror is included so that the public can pay its respects to itself and "complete the work in a good old-fashioned Duchampian way. Oehlen is great at tunnel-of-fun spatial tricks, and at a sort of generalized haunted-house look. The style is as turgid as Büttner’s but slightly less constipated. Markus Oehlen’s works, with Kippenberger’s, are less turgid. On a scale of one to ten forturgidness, with Büttner at ten and Albert Oehlen at eight, Markus Oehlen makes five and Kippenberger is at three, although Great Hunger, 1984, shoots to six. Despite what some people think, I am also a connoisseur, although I prefer to hide it behind my philosophicality.

The gallery press release presents these artists with great seriousness, and they certainly take themselves seriously, at least in America. “We explore things that exist, use the daily language of the system in which we live,” they claim. And of course I too can be solemn, making semiotic remarks, suggesting that they use “utterance” in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense of the term, that they create “double-voiced images” which represent the “struggle among systems and between systematic and unsystematic elements.” I could even point out that they reenact the traumatic birth of (visual) language, in which we “simply enter upon the stream of communication.” Their images add up to everyman’s heteroglossia. They show us how inhabited we are by images and they give a certain intonation to familiar images that makes them “sensitive barometers of social change.”

I prefer not to take them seriously, though, but to enjoy their spiteful antibourgeois satire as part of the eternal return of shit. Many eternal returns to them, and I’ll be their fan.

Donald Kuspit