Gerwald Rockenschaub

Galerie Paul Maenz; Galerie Tanja Grunert

The simultaneous presentation of the young Austrian artist Gerwald Rockenschaub by the Maenz and Grunert galleries was due more to the two dealers’ overlapping interests (both are astute observers of the young-contemporary art scene) than to the fame (and market value) of the artist’s work. Maenz, who discovered the “Mühlheimer Freiheit” group, has astonished only the absolutists by including the polar trends of ’60s and ’70s minimal/conceptual art and recent “content” painting in his exhibition program; his focus is on discovering and representing artistic languages that are, at least, relevant in the context of the present. And Rockenschaub is a case in point.

When his work was first exhibited in Cologne in 1983, in an exhibition of young Austrian painters (tellingly and questioningly titled “Woher sind wir wieso gekommen” [Where did we come from and how did we get here]), Rockenschaub’s thoroughly geometricized formal vocabulary initially seemed something of a misfit, a counterpole to his colleagues’ raucous experiments in spontaneous painting. In his catalogue essay Wolfgang Drachsler described the works in that show as “pure painting,” a term that is actually quite appropriate to Rockenschaub’s work “Pure” most accurately describes his repertoire of elementary signs and his variations on geometrically structuring color in his paintings at Galerie Maenz; pure, too, his tiny wall objects exhibited at Galerie Grunert, brilliant red boxes filled with pseudo-precious found materials ranging from mirrors and glass to blue plastic and faux marble. Pure above all is his use of color itself and his refusal to impose a personal signature of any kind. In one painting at Galerie Maenz, a pink quadrangle was subdivided by black lines in such a way that it became a closed geometric ornament; similarly, a series of mini canvases, thickly impastoed with silver oil paint, serenely and formally presented variations on elementary geometry—horizontal and zigzag lines, circles—delineated in thick red strokes. Even his reduction of color, form, and surface in the wall objects at Galerie Grunert boldly stated that his work is rooted in a rich tradition of nonobjective painting.

Are we dealing with a new version of Concrete art that runs counter to mainstream Post-Modern art? Just as surely as the neo-Expression ists thrive on tradition, so it is with Rockenschaub, too; yet Rockenschaub attempts to “purify” abstraction through the synthesis of a formality undeniably bordering on that of commercial design and a simplified formal vocabulary reminiscent of primitive ornamentation. Decorative color, geometric form, and ornamentation are disabused through Rockenschaub’s intuitive handling, winning back a quality of primordial significance that places them in opposition to the disingenuous “primitivism ” that informs neo-Expressionist painting; they are elements of autonomous painting that stand for themselves and nothing more.

In this regard, the installation at Galerie Grunert spoke a remarkable language. The lacquered boxes, exceedingly spare and few in number, were positioned well above eye level, making them appear ceremonially distanced. In their simple construction and playful handling—they are at once frames for still lifes of found materials and paintings-with-found-materials—they provide a succinct definition of contemporary painting as an art form cautiously balanced between banal oversimplification and a formal purity that may be interpreted as banal.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.