Gustav Kluge

Galerie Rudolf Zwirner

The location of Gustav Kluge’s paintings is an experiential realm that lies somewhere between external reality and the unconscious. Here, isolated figures swim about in an impastoed sea of petit bourgeois experiences—petit bourgeois in this case having nothing to do with class-specific behavior but rather with the generation of our lives into trivialities. One of the most striking works at Zwirner showed a small, rather helpless-looking female creature carrying an enormous black male figure like a club through a landscape of paint. Entitled Der Spielgefährte (The playmate, 1985–86), this is an almost brutal image of the self’s fight for survival in an untenable situation, a universal expression of our sense of entrapment, and our inability to act. And yet it is a vision that in its very absurdity has something of the liberating effect of a violent shock, an impetus to overcome existentialist dread and take responsibility for our lives.

Kluge blatantly rejects harmony of any sort, his art advancing to a threshold of pain where anguish, guilt, and anxiety can be suppressed only with great effort. In the diptych Ein leerer Platz im Paradiese (An empty place in paradise, 1985), an irreal creature stretches helplessly toward the heavens like a stricken angel. The faces of isolated onlookers are marked by either anonymous horror or deadly indifference. Tormented by the inexplicability of a situation that is torn between normality and abnormality, they are unable to wrest themselves free, as though the weight and melancholic overtones of the paint had paralyzed them.

Kluge’s paintings do not represent objective reality as such, though there are numerous references in them to familiar milieus of the everyday world—department stores, the corporate workplace, family settings. They are heightened realities which intrude upon our consciousness, transcending interpretable situations and material probability. The boundary between reality and its apperception is broken through by painting, by images that arise from color applied so richly that it becomes in itself content, a representation of despair. Although they contain neofigural imagery Kluge’s works have little to do with the brash, chaotic dramas of many so-called expressive paintings of the early ’80s; nor do they feed from the trough of myth-laden German art currently enjoying an international popular revival. They are existential propositions that arise as a result not of formal decisions but of an empirical approach to painting (and to art) which has at its disposal the entire range of possible techniques, from linear perspective to abstract color field, developed throughout the medium’s history.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.