New York

Hans-Peter Adamski

Sonnabend Gallery

The most sensational, nasty, cynical work in Hans-Peter Adamski’s exhibition is the painting entitled Die Musikanten II (The Musicians II, 1982–84). Two colloquial German expressions seem to me directly relevant to this work, as well as indicative of the general “colloquial” basis of Adamski’s (and other German painters) imagery: “hier liegt ein Musikant Begraben!,” which roughly translates as “I am stumbling over something,” and “da sitzen die Musikanten!,” which roughly translates as “there’s the rub!” What Adamski’s proverbial German musicians, generally symbolic of the (unmistakably military) march of German history, are stumbling over is a gigantic swastika built of black bricks. There’s the rub.

When Adamski’s work is not about the skeleton in the German closet, it is about the failure of reason through the irreducible animality of human beings. One 1982 work is actually called Tränen der Vernunft (Tears of Reason); in Plato and the School of Athens, 1982 (not in this show), a group of semievolved creatures look like the mud of the earth given a more or less human shape. And when the work is not about the irrationality of the human condition and the essential bestiality of even the most “heroic” human figures—Mao Zedong, for example—it is about the absurd, compulsive character of supposedly elective affinities: the strange, perverse matings that love generates. Irrationality, the perverse, the repudiation of rational expectations—these are the content of Adamski’s painting, which articulates an almost Aristophanic sense of comic rage.

That rage, the motor that drives Adamski’s art, manifests itself in the maddening murkiness of his painterliness, in the unremitting density and coarseness of handling which brings out the allegorical potential of his cartoonish figures and functions as a kind of material correlate of his black humor. Adamski offers a kind of self-caricaturing expressionism, an expressionism that mocks its own pursuit of rawness by showing that the raw is a manifestation of institutionalized irrationality—it is completely acceptable socially, as is clear from the fact that it is common historical practice. Adamski is among the most brilliant of the German moralist painters, in part because his grimness incorporates a profoundly comic sensibility. Comedy is harder to achieve than tragedy, for it takes an everyday, undistanced, frog’s-eye view on the human condition, a view that threatens to dissolve everything, even art, into nihilistic quicksand. Adamski’s nihilism is restrained only by his sense of the irrational givenness of the artwork itself. Its muddiness signals the unconscious, which still remains the best window through which the world can be seen for the stupid, cruel place it is, for the unconscious not only registers the apparent shape of the world but reveals its hidden monstrousness.

Donald Kuspit