New York

Helmut Middendorf

Annina Nosei Gallery

Helmut Middendorrs paintings are incorrigibly, erotically black. The artist exhibits a black humor that is at once resigned to and rebellious against the world—the morbid black of a jaundiced view of things. But Middendorf’s black is also a tonic, energizing his comic strip figures so that they seem beside themselves with dangerous life. For example, in Interieur (Interior, 1988), the stark black of a tree visible through a window conveys the intense lust of the male figures for the body of the naked female model. In other words, the black is not only a general atmosphere, but a particular instrument of displacement; it conveys the general grotesqueness of the world, as well as the life force of individual beings. Thus in Ameise—Schwarz (Ant—black, 1988), the giant ant throbs with black life. Having vitality represented by black was a common Expressionist way of suggesting that the sensation of death-in-life is truer to reality than the belief that life is generally a bright affair. Brightness does burst through, now and then—in the form of color—but it always seems constrained by a lurking blackness, waiting to pounce on the light and consume it, as though it were a big mistake to let any light into the world in the first place. The code of blackness, of course, gives an instant apocalyptic aura to whatever it embraces, but I think here the effort is to show how much blackness can sustain life, as well as signal its futility. That is the triumphant paradox of these works.

These are unforgettably Berlin paintings, as Berlin, 1988, makes transparently clear. Middendorf’s vision of the city is of an artificial, insular world, one that, for all its eager modernity and brave westward look, is full of hidden despair and funny little broken people. Light flickers intermittently on the grim scene, a mosaic of parts that adds up to an indeterminate whole. The key again is the central dominating black, which spreads like a fungus and plague, a mood from which no recovery seems possible. But the Berlin of these pictures still seems destroyed in spirit, in an emotional posture of self-destruction. Seeing a Berlin in which raw emotions are expressed in a self-mockingly primitive and sophisticated way is typical—that is the mythical Weimar Berlin—but it is strange to see pictures in which the famous Berlin sarcasm has become quite so black and institutionalized. In the past the Berlin sense of the perversity of life was tied to specific situations. It is no longer clear from Middendorf’s marvelous pictures what those situations are—what leads him to respond with such vehement blackness. The blackness of the outsider may be the only emotional grandeur left to those whose lives are unlikely ever to be as grim as their forebears’.

Donald Kuspit