Gustav Kluge

Galerie Zwirner

Gustav Kluge claims that he is not interested in painting. This may sound like an exaggeration, particularly coming from an artist who has mastered the language of that discipline so profoundly. Yet Kluge’s goal is not located in painting per se. As both a painter and an enemy of painting, Kluge uncompromisingly inquires whether his chosen medium is necessary or useless. His angular, unsparing depictions of the crippled, the tormented, the hopeless monsters—outsiders excluded from the triumphant march of evolution—exist on the other side of the easily digestible world of advertising images.

With the works in this exhibition, Kluge imagines a fictitious dispute between Savonarola and Antonin Artaud. He locates a point at which their two contrary viewpoints meet across the centuries. While Savonarola calls for the burning of paintings that interfere with “true devotion,” Artaud postulates that “artificial adherence to forms” is odious and futile: artists, he says, should be like “men condemned to be burned alive, making signs from the stake.” This unconditionally harsh esthetic code marks Kluge’s work. His figures, emerging from a grossly mixed gruel of pigments, blaze a trail to the painting. They stand out of the background, heralding the painting, the vision, rather than constituting a complete and delimited picture. In Savonarola, 1989, the solitary figure is rendered in a white chiseled face. He is crowned by streaming arches of color, which resemble the horns of a ram, and the image blazes like a dark flame. This Savonarola drives a pencil into his own back. His gesture (derived from Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty) is again taken up by Kluge in the triptych called D.I.S.P.U.T., 1988–89. In the right panel (“Artaud’s Argument”), the author lies face down, a torture victim, his oversized hand thrusting a pencil into his back. In the opposite panel (“Buried Eyes”), two gigantic, half-closed eyes peer through the muddied canvas. Their vision seems to color the earth in which they are buried; they shine red-hot, like the rays of a setting sun. The buried eyes are dedicated to Savonarola—they are a sign of inwardness, the rejection of an “artificial adherence to forms.” Inwardness also informs the central part of the triptych, in which wooden slabs conceal a drawing on a printing block underneath.

Kluge’s interest in visionary introspection is actually greater than his interest in the formal issues of painting. His paintings are never truly narrative; they may focus on a theme, an idea, but they do so with a disjointed allusiveness. With their shell-like surfaces, they are hermetically sealed against any exterior intervention; their monstrous figures prevent any facile reception. No painting of his is done at one thrust—spontaneous and shiny-wet. Instead, the rutted, tormented surface, which keeps drying and turning brittle throughout the slow painting process, bears witness to Kluge’s struggle to find the most intense form of expression.

Doris von Drateln

Translaled from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.