Abstrakte Malerei

Galerie Nächst St. Stephan

A comparison between art in America and art in Europe is always tantalizing and sometimes enlightening—not just because the critics are busy debating who’s on the leading edge and whether the critical discourse is valid, but because the relationship between the New World and the Old World has been of such decisive importance in the entire postwar period, since the time when American art came into its own. By and large, the potency of much American art of this period derives from its radicalization of various theoretical problems and its clear sense of what is in fact do-able; and European art of the same period gains its power from a balancing act between cultural traditions—including those of Modernism—and the avant-garde. Although this exhibition, entitled “Abstrakte Malerei am Beispiel von drei europäischen and drei amerikanischen Künstlern” (Abstract painting exemplified by three European and three American artists), did not illuminate these cultural distinctions with such clarity, certain basic differences still came across.

The choice of three Minimalist artists from America—Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, and Robert Ryman—underscored the tendency of many American artists of the past thirty years to exploit and reflect on the basic postulate of painting, i.e., to pursue their more or less profound responses to radical skepticism about the project of painting. These three artists are not concerned with the expressive possibilities of paint; rather, their works are straightforward declarations of the facticity of painting. Two works by Mangold, Distorted Square Circle No. 8, 1973, and Orange/Pink/Green + Painting, 1982, display his objectlike treatment of the support surfaces and demonstrate his concern with establishing a balance between depersonalized structure and atmospheric surface; in the later work, however, the priority of structure over optical, surface appearances is evident. With their almost metallic quality, Marden’s monochrome-panel works, such as Tropezienne (Thinking Blue), 1969–70, leave all concern with painterliness far behind. Ryman’s paintings are process-oriented works that emphasize the facticity of painting even more strongly than Marden or Mangold. He incorporates the basic materials of painting and the image-and pigment-supports in a systematic exploration of the physical conditions and the syntax of his chosen medium, as can be seen in both works shown here, Untitled, 1969, and Pilot, 1978.

By contrast, much European art has continued to draw on a cornucopia of sources. Of the three Europeans featured in this exhibition—Helmut Federle, Imi Knoebel, and Gerhard Richter—Richter demonstrates the broadest range of artistic approaches, from his own form of quasi photorealism to pictorial, gestural paintings such as Fenster (Window, 1985), which was shown here. Although Richter is also skeptical about painting, he manages to maintain a more painterly tradition in his work. Federle builds up powerful, constructive paintings in which slabs of color point not to themselves and their own qualities but to emotions and states of being. Even Knoebel embodies a more painterly mode of seeing in his work, by combining several picture-objects into a rhythmic line—as in Konstellation (Constellation, 1975/86), with its arrangement of angular, stark white, shaped canvases—and thus distinguishes himself from artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Mangold.

The exhibition did not argue on such a level, however, but instead tried to lead the spectator’s eye in between these different artistic positions. One of the most interesting things to see was the different treatment of surfaces. In one room a cool and static picture by Marden joined the rhythmic objects of Knoebel and at the same time confronted the easiness and transparency of Ryman, whose careful, flocky application of white paint evokes “distances” of nearly Cézanne-like character. In another room you could compare Mangold’s constructive balances with Federle’s more expressive use of color, although the works of both artists feature atmospheric surfaces. Richter’s grand, gestural painting, in its own room, remained off in the background. The clear difference between the temperaments of Richter and Mangold was highlighted by the presence in the show of monochrome gray works by those two artists and by Marden, even though the works were distributed over several rooms and thus isolated from each other’s contexts. Despite such inconveniences, on the whole enough context was provided to make some observations, if not to come to any conclusions.

Helmut Draxler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.