New York

Oskar Schlemmer

IBM Gallery

One can only hope that in fifty years the figures created by today’s artists will look as resonant and intriguing as Oskar Schlemmer’s figures do today They are remarkable in the way they reconcile divergent impulses. At once robotic and tragic, they are both tossed about in an infinite space and performers in a modern theater. That’s the trick: to rearticulate the tragic isolation of the figure in cosmic space, yet to reaffirm its continuity by placing it on the stage of a future world. Fallen Figure with Column, 1928–29, seems to say it all. Each compositional element combines chaos and order, an odd, lapsed heroism, in itself and in its union with the other. The figures in the numerous extant Bauhaus student drawings move toward the same mythical condition, the same abstract ideality that is never quite arrived at; architectonic figural forms bulge with organic body parts, and are all the more erotic for being streamlined.

Schlemmer’s machine look thus begins to seem like a hard shell or shield for a spiritually soft figure, one that remains subliminally (or, on occasion, overtly) moody while attempting to look hard and detached. His figure is visionary a reconciliation of critic Wilhelm Worringer’s influential opposition of abstraction and empathy. While the aura of the natural is maintained, the figure is intellectually mastered so that it can stand up to the "spiritual dread of space.” From this point of view, Schlemmer’s figures bring out the strong mystical streak in Bauhaus mathematics, or, rather, show that mathematics in and of itself is a defiant mystical ordering of space. Schlemmer’s abstraction is impacted expressionism.

What is perhaps Schlemmer’s most remarkable achievement, his theatrical work, could only be hinted at in this elegantly installed exhibition, despite numerous sketches and some meticulous recreations. What seemed clear is that his ambition was to create a Modernist Gesamtkunstwerk, that is, one less heavy and pompous than the 19th-century Wagnerian version, and one, it sometimes seems, whose message was a subversive (Dadaist) insistence on what Schlemmer called “medley,” or ”orchestral complex[ity],” for its own sake. Schlemmer worked at a time when insistence on purely formal matters could still be regarded as irreverent. Directing the Bauhaus theater workshop, he tried to strike a balance between man and machine, abstraction and figuration; he thought the artist could be a seer. He was fortunately in a position to be one, because he was backed by an art environment that was not only obsessed with perfection of detail, but also philosophically charged—an environment in which art was expected to create a new consciousness. Paracelsus (The Law-giver), 1923, a spiritual self-portrait, conveys this expectation.

Yet Schlemmer did something more, something that artists are now finding it harder and harder to do: he put us in touch with the unconscious without bragging about it, almost in the manner of a non sequitur. There is an innocence to Schlemmer’s figural sophistication that is profoundly moving. He shows us how it is possible to give the figure uncanny grace while making it new.

Donald Kuspit