New York

Volker Tannert

Sonnabend Gallery

Mountains, like forests, exist deep in German memory, romantic symbols of inner nature as well as ardently experienced reality. Joseph von Eichendorff’s Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing (1826) includes a little poem whose last lines read: “I mount in the silence apart/To the highest mountain-top, singing:/Bless you, Deutschland, with all my heart!” The mountain is a political entity, inseparable from the nation; both stand apart, special manifestations of nature, destined in their greatness and permanence. But the mountain is also nature at its most demonstrative, implicitly the residue of a violent eruption of earth. Simultaneously, then, it is nature at its most transcendental and nature at its coarsest, its most real. Volker Tannert’s paintings present this “double-edged” nature.

Crude natural object and raw psyche are inseparable here; the one does not really represent the other, as in conventional Expressionism, but rather the two converge in a state of “vision” in which the issue of representation is beside the point: The unpredictable drifting and stumbling rhythm of the paint in a Tannert work cannot be described as text, or language, for while fragments of representational codes are visible in it. they lack the cohesion needed to raise the level of the picture as a whole to readability. It doesn’t value that condition. Interpretation is thwarted, forced back on the feelings that arise from the attempt to read the “discourse.” Part of the readers responsibility to the “text,” after all, is to the feelings it arouses; the more obscure the text, the more inchoate and intense the feelings, and the more difficult it is to state them, let alone interpret them. Tannert’s landscape texts verge on pictorial chaos, which makes the feelings they generate seem all the more archaic—fundamental yet obscure. This is the oldest and still the only viable use of landscape: to obliterate language. “Timeless” landscape is always timely, since it shows language as such always on the verge of collapsing, of indicating its inadequacy in the face of being.

Tannert pulls the viewer back from the brink of the abyss of feeling by a kind of pseudo representation, an art-historically familiar “dialogue” of ruins and landscape—of civilizing art and untamed nature. The familiar allegory gives the images a superficial decipherability; it is a traditional cultural code, and Tannert’s landscapes have been understood as grafting this code onto that of painterliness. But the graft doesn’t take; the cultural element in the picture stands out like a sore thumb, sits like a deadweight. The problem with the “language of culture” interpretation of Tannert’s landscapes is that it neglects the “poetic” effect of the painterliness, an indefinite effect resulting in part from the realization that painterliness is finally not codifiable but “transcends” codes. It is an unsteady support for any mode of representation-any effort at acculturation-for it dissolves every code within its energetic materiality. It presents the eternal substratum of raw being on which visible reality uneasily rests-a substratum which sooner or later makes itself visible, disrupting the culturally accepted, creating an effect of chaos. For me, the dialogue Tannert outlines between civilization—in the form of glamorously artistic ruins (sometimes classical temples, sometimes structures that seem to belong to more ancient, less ideal worlds)—and empirical nature is secondary to the push toward an extreme painterliness. His work shows an absolute viscous rawness whose formlessness breaks the hold of any code—which floats on it like driftwood on the sea—and seems to preclude the reconstitution of culture. One remains mired in the primitive.

Tannert’s pursuit of this special, all-consuming coarseness seems to me exemplarily Germanic. It restates a constant ideal of Germanic identity, which privileges itself in relation to the "the depths”—which are always coarse. In one of his imaginary dialogues Novalis has someone say, “Nature is tremendously coarse, and to know her aright, you have to grasp her coarsely . . . Our ancestors must have had great insight into Nature, for only in Germany has true coarseness been discovered and cultivated.” Tannert’s work has this same humor, with its anti-Germanic implication—its irony concerned both to make a virtue of German coarseness and to put it in its place. Like many of the German conceptualist painters, he struggles with German national identity, trying hard to save what is best in it.

Traditional German spiritual identity is premised on a mystical relationship to the depths, which reveal themselves through that coarseness which is the sign of will, that is, of ego that has the full force of instinct at its command. In this sense, Tannert’s paintings are profoundly political in their engagement with German romantic conceptions of Nature as Being. They understand that the civilization/nature dialogue is only the surface of the German sense of nature; more basic is the German sense of privileged relationship to the impenetrable coarseness of being. This is exactly why in German thought it is dangerous to be German, and yet being German is the only way “to be.” The socioesthetic message of Tannert’s paintings is that Germany remains dangerous because it still believes in asserting primitive being.

Donald Kuspit