Staatliche Kunsthalle

Armando, born in 1929, is a Dutch painter who has been living in Berlin since receiving a DAAD award. For a long time he was known only to a small circle of Dutch admirers, but interest in him outside Holland, and especially in West Germany, has been growing, and not just as a consequence of his inclusion in the Dutch Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale. This retrospective, which began at the Institut Néerlandais in Paris before moving here, offered paintings and drawings from the period between 1953 and the present. It provided necessary information on Armando, and not just for those being introduced to his art for the first time.

Armando’s artistic intention permeates every aspect of his work, down to his assumed Latin name. “Armando”—“being armed”—is more than a pseudonym, as Carel Blotkamp points out in his important catalogue essay; it is a new name which Armando has allowed to replace and obliterate his original one. The roots of this reach back into the artists childhood, when he lived in Holland during the German occupation and experienced the misery of a concentration camp. Armando’s inquiries into art have been intertwined with problematic questions on contemporary civilization. The titles “Schuldige Landschaft” (Guilty landscape) and “Kriminelles Bild” (Criminal painting) are used repeatedly. Although the early work displays clear formal connections with Abstract Expressionism, it also makes clear that Armando was never concerned with the investigation of painting through painting, or with the creation of a subjective signature or a psychogram of the unconscious. More significant, in any case, were his affinities with the Cobra group and Jean Dubuffet.

From the start, Armando’s painting is marked by his sense of the painting as metaphor—not a metaphor for the self, but a reflection of our state of existence in the aftermath of Auschwitz and World War II. He is particularly interested in landscape, and the record it bears of war, violence, blood. The work from the ’50s—in which black and red confront each other, with now the one, now the other dominating the crusty, creviced canvases suggests that Armando’s interest in crime extends to a concern with the degree of innocence or guilt in painting. During this period Armando also produced a great number of drawings, some of them done directly on landscape photographs; restless, abruptly terminated lines economically cover the surfaces. Suggesting the tracks left by horsemen at night, they creep toward the edges of forest, where they are lost. These drawings, like many of the paintings, are often composed as diptychs or triptychs, heightening their sense of fictive events taking place in or on contiguous spaces or surfaces.

The more objectlike works that Armando did in the ’60s, during which he ultimately turned away from art altogether for a time, were not represented in this show. The exhibition resumed where Armando returned to painting and drawing. More radically than before, with more reduced means—the palette is limited to black and white—Armando concentrates on the power of surface and line to suggest both movement and fixity, painting as a trace of human existence and painting as painting per se. The gestures in his drawings develop further in his paintings; restless strokes of black paint eat into white grounds, only to be buried by them. Feind-beobachtung (Observation of the enemy) and Feind unterwegs (Enemy on the move) are typical titles for these works, whose drama grows in inverse proportion to their reduction of painterly means. Despite the fact that they lack any literary element, and that the gesture is reduced to a minimum, the works are highly expressive. They spark a sense of violence, of impacting forces and dangerous collisions.

In 1982 Armando painted his “Fahnerl” (Flags) series, in which black expanses on white grounds become fields of existential metaphor simultaneously suggesting stasis, power, and movement. In his Berlin work Armando returns his attention to landscape, to forest. Black creeps into white in broad, fluid tracks. Zones of ambiguity emerge between light and night, the visible and the mysterious dark. The forest as image of darkness, of violence, but also of the hidden, the secret—all these ideas are brought into play.

Is it possible that the renewed German interest in the past, with all its undigested meaning, is responsible for the current interest in Armando in this country? The artist’s combination of painting and history obviously invites comparison with Anselm Kiefer’s. But where Kiefer luxuriates in myth, pathos, and the excesses of painterliness, Armando creates paintings of the utmost spareness out of a consciousness of threat, and not just in the past. His works are open, provocative questions directed at art and current history.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.