New York

Arnulf Rainer

Grey Art Gallery / Galerie Maeght Lelong

Arnulf Rainer is an Austrian artist in his mid 50s. Long a major presence in European art, his substantial and varied body of work remains almost unknown in America. Since this discrepancy is not an isolated case, it suggests that ignorance haunts both sides of the Atlantic, creating problems for someone viewing work for the first time. The two Rainer exhibitions offered a glance at the tip of the iceberg, an introduction that left me wanting to know more.

Rainer’s work could be divided into three groups—Ubermalungen (Over-paintings), gestural hand and finger paintings, and photographic self-portraits. Of the three groups, the self-portraits are the most immediately compelling while the Ubermalungen are the least. In the latter case, the viewer needs to know the artist’s conceptual approach even to begin to appreciate the paintings. Rainer has painted a dense, monochromatic field over some of his earlier paintings and, according to the catalogue, has also painted over other artists’ work. These pieces are obsessive without being convincing.

In his gestural paintings, Rainer uses his hands and fingers to make emphatic gestures of color. One could draw parallels between both the Ubermalungen and gestural paintings and Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning drawing, Robert Morris’ “Blind Time” drawings, and some of Jasper Johns’ paintings, without arriving at any big conclusion.

Rainer’s self-portraits, however, are unlike anything else done in America. Radical in their intent. they are equally profound in their results. In these works, the artist contorts his face and body trying desperately to get beyond any pose or expression with social associations. From the hundreds of black-and-white photographs taken during these sessions. Rainer chooses those that best exemplify his desire to burst beyond the range of socially acceptable expressions. He then draws with oil crayon and ink over these photographs.

If Rainer had stopped at just the photographs, the results would have been hilarious, melancholic, and tinged with what the viewer would perceive as a theatricalized madness. However, by pushing them even farther he has transformed them into something else, something unexpected and startling. The crayon and ink are used in a gesturally linear fashion. They enclose the face in a network of lines, altering or obliterating it. On one level, the combination reminds us that we are imprisoned social animals no matter how asocial we attempt to become; the dominant society still determines what is asocial. On another level, the marks and expression work in tandem to suggest some kind of madman/saint whose message is forever misunderstood or lost. This messenger brings us urgent news we can neither comprehend nor ignore. In the self-portraits, the myth of the artist as social/asocial animal is examined with the thoroughness of a coroner. Gesture becomes a potent, self-reflexive tool.

The self-portraits in the Grey Art Gallery were done mainly in the early ’70s, while in the uptown space, the larger, overpainted ones were done in the early ’80s. Together, they constitute a body of work as strong as anything done by Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Yves Klein, or Francis Bacon; they are among the strongest works done by a European in the postwar period. To have waited more than a decade to see them in no way diminishes their power.

John Yau