Franz Graf

Galerie Nächst St. Stephan

Individual expression is so tightly entwined with cultural and temporal factors in Franz Graf’s new work that it is difficult to tell them apart. Even the phenomenal reality of these works is difficult to ascertain: are they paintings, objects, or spatial installations? Multiple possibilities and references are implied in these hard, black, and materially rich artifacts hung blatantly on the wall. As “picture objects,” they enter into a visual dialectic with the room’s traditional stark-white neon lighting.

One picture per room is no longer novel for this gallery. For at least two years the gallery has attempted to counter the esthetic of abundance and waste brought on by the painting boom of the early ’80s, with a frugal and reductive esthetic. This has occurred largely through precisely realized exhibitions in the name of geometry and abstraction, and has included artists such as Gerhard Merz, Helmut Federle, Imi Knoebel, and Gerwald Rockenschaub.

Federle, for example, here limited himself to three large-format paintings in which both the history of his own paintings and their basic modes of construction were clearly legible. Graf extended this frugal and noble esthetic into the antiesthetic domain. Any rhythms, ponderings, or references between the paintings were broken. The disks and nocturnal suns compelled the viewer into the middle of each room. External signaling and pulling toward the center were delicately balanced and harmonized in the dirty materiality of india ink, pen and ink, and pencil. A second image per room would have been distracting, for the work’s strength came from its central hanging, whereby spatial axes came into play that subtly influenced the organic rhythms of the moving viewer. To avoid walking around the work would have been to experience it only summarily Something compulsive, intransitive, and vehemently urbane was hereby expressed, with perhaps a glimmer of the sacred.

This work thus conveyed a radicalism unusual for the art scene of the past few years. One was reminded of ’60s “degree-zero” painting: Frank Stella’s black series, Yves Klein’s monochromes, or the half-sacred re-tracings of Arnulf Rainer (whose assistant Graf was for four years). Rigidity permanence, constraint, and the dirt in these pictures attest to a position of refusal fundamentally different from the thematically comparable motifs of artists such as Rockenschaub or the Americans Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe, among others. Although pure and formal, Graf s works remain images of the soul, spiritual indicators.

Graf collaborated with Brigitte Kowanz from 1979 until 1984. Their videos, installations, transparent and double-layered paintings, color alchemy, and near-sculptural picture fragmentation conveyed a total instability in which space and painting were simultaneously penetrated, a bottomless abyss filled with labyrinthine, hallucinatory space. All such escapist themes have vanished in Graf s new, autonomous work. Personal rebirth and the search for new footing has become a continuous theme in the work’s evolution.

The catalogue of autonomous photographic works clearly demonstrates the continuity of these problems. By means of overexposures, Graf creates sequences that project from the studio floor into free space and finally into the images themselves. These may be seen as the final poeticization of space, or spatial compression. They refer to the actual environment, but only so as to tame and reveal another more compact and internal space.

Helmut Draxler

Translated from the German by Cornelia Lauf.