C. O. Paeffgen

Galerie Denise René-Hans Mayer

The West German artist C. O. Paeffgen has challenged the intellectual and esthetic sensibilities of both the viewing public and the purveyors of art with a dense complex of works that resolutely blocks easy access and assimilation. Superficially, he has done this by constantly changing media and styles, asking us to acknowledge the unsettling unpredictability of the terrain of art.

For years, Paeffgen has characterized each of his installations in terms not of formal tools but of intellectual decisions. This applies to his latest thematic exhibition, “Neun bis null” (Nine to zero), a title borrowed, undoubtedly, from the jargon of the nuclear-countdown age. The individual works and the exhibition as a whole were dominated by a smoothness uncharacteristic of Paeffgen's earlier work. Each painting in the series displays a number from nine to zero; all share the same format and a constellation of cliched colors that, for all our blase response to provocation in art, is visually hard to digest. The arabic numerals are painted in a straightforward block style, reminiscent of commercial art, yet their awkward, off-balance placement in the paintings makes them appear to be tumbling.

Unrivaled in their simplicity, the numbers are formally provocative, yet the purity of these utilitarian tools of logic is seductive. Set against a pseudopainterly background, with which their flat, saccharine colors clash, the numerals are decorated with tails and geometric addenda. Their insistent decorativeness, even frivolity, is a reaction against the overrationalization of the computer age. But this is not the first age in which numerical logic has been used as a tool to manage reality, in preference to other ways of drawing meaningful connections within experience. As far back as human memory reaches, numerical systems have been used to penetrate the surface of reality; they have been considered, in different times, the key to the realms of the rational, the magical, the religious, and the scientific. In Paeffgen's paintings, though, numbers are stripped of their utility in each of these spheres, and instead are treated as pure form. Each figure floats in its painting like Kasimir Malevich's black square, a simple familiar form without a hint of sensationalism. Paeffgen, however, makes the simple provocative through his use of color that has been made indigestible through overuse.

Subject and medium, number as the essence of reason and painting as the means of sensual stimulation, engage in a dialogue to test their questionable/controvertible cores. They survive this test as lapidary yet seductive icons of an ambitious philosophy of art. “Beauty” is the essential mainspring of Paeffgen's art. Seduction and its antithesis, irritation, are the essential tools currently available for approaching an ideal equation: art equals beauty.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.