New York

Werner Büttner

Metro Pictures

Werner Büttner was as malevolent and witty as ever in this show. I tend to prefer his malevolence to his wit, since it seems truer and implies a deeper emotional engagement to the reality he deals with; his “subject” seems to be the stupidity of German daily existence. But the wit is tolerable for the bit of distance it affords and the air of amused innocence it generates.

The malevolence is all in the paint, which looks both viscous yet corrosive, insolent but bleak, affirming yet negating—a true achievement of “duplicity.” In the act of constituting objects, conveying their solidity, the paint hollows them out. Oppressively present but stripped of meaning, they are strange, yet more meaningful than they ordinarily would be. It is a peculiarly surrealizing device without Surrealist showmanship—what might be called a “still(ed) life” strategy.

Büttner’s paint is neither “wild” nor fetishized for its sensuous effect. Instead, he uses it like the stuffing in a scarecrow, to show the falseness of reality in the process of falsifying reality It thus conveys an eerie, brutal truth. I regard this as an “advance” in expressionist attitude: rather than belabor the object depicted as though to force (sadistically lash) it into being, the paint is used in a masochistic, sulky way, to undermine its being. Indeed, Büttner sometimes uses a smooth—if far from refined—handling, to make a murky painterliness seem even more delirious than it is, as in the contrast between the background and the dizzy bird in Bird at 16 Past 7, 1986. Franz Marc’s idea that “being is flaming suffering,” and his use of paint as emblematic being, is replaced by Büttner’s idea that “being is the ashes of boredom” (as it might be formulated), where paint is a paste made of cinders and piss. In general, Büttner’s paint makes his objects look bewitchingly nasty, as in The Old Wastepaper Basket, 1986, or Things at 5 Past 7, 1986. I don’t think this transfers so well to his sculpture; Babylon, 1986, looks more funny than insolent. Similarly, his series of English-language works on paper seem to me too facile, if not lacking a certain cleverness. Their cynicism strikes me as tired, as in such works as those containing the words, “What is an orgasm? Nothing but a cough in the urethra,” 1986, and “Happy days are here again, the message is the medium,” 1986. Büttner needs his outrage; the works are more about pent-up anger at the German banality of it all than about witty release.

Büttner doesn’t want to be cynically chipper and liked, but embodies a scorn that would eradicate small-mindedness. His is an art of contempt that refuses security of style in order to articulate his abhorrence of the German Kleinbürgerlichkeit (petit bourgeois attitude), with its obsessive and smugly defensive concern for security, as horrifically as possible. Style is a trite security, like the objects depicted, all of which represent the banal sureness of the home. Painted in a sinisterly mocking way, his objects become oddly insecure and ominous in their triviality. At the same time, the mad mundaneness of Büttner’s scenes can erupt into violence and a hacking painterliness, as in Brothers at Half Past 7, 1986. His paintings smell of an ominous vulgarity—or is it a vulgar ominousness?—that subverts Everyman’s small security. At Home at 11 Past 7, 1986, shows a badly shaken-up living room—the room of the living dead. Like the writer Hans Fallada in the ’30s, Büttner seems to ask the average German, “Little man, what now?”

Donald Kuspit