“Open Mind (Closed Circuits)”

Museum van Hendendaagse Kunst

For the exhibition “Open Mind (Closed Circuits),” curator Jan Hoet chose as his point of departure a pair of extremes, opposite poles: the “healthy” classical ideal of art, as represented by the academy, and the art of the mentally ill. During the Enlightenment, the period when the academies were established, artistic expression and mental imbalance were regarded as mutually incompatible. In the radiant light of reason, all emotion, individuality, and peculiarity were put down as inadequate, hence inadmissible. The academy demanded an artistic ideal that aimed at regularity, lawfulness, and orderly delimitation; fantasy and obsession were banned from the world of academic art.

However, parallel to that development, the German Sturm und Drang rejected the classical insistence on reason and venerated the artist’s feelings and individuality. This led to the German cult of the genius, the romanticizing equation of brilliance and madness—notions that still shape bourgeois expectations in regard to art. According to Thomas Mann, the artist “as a brother of the criminal and the lunatic” becomes a tragic hero, who pits his individual will against a hostile world and is often destroyed by this conflict.

In the first room of this exhibition, Hoet presented the romantic image of the tragic artist. Guillaume Bijl’s Sorry, 1987, acted as a curtain-raiser: in a nest, along with two white eggs, sits one deviant red egg. Nearby were illustrated Monstrorum Historie books from the 18th century. Behind them, on a temporary wall, a long series of adjacent countenances, actually grimaces, were painted by Martin Disler; the title is Vase des Schmerzes—ausfliessendes Gesicht weisser Rasse (Vase of pain—out flowing face of the white race, 1985). There were also paintings by Anselm Kiefer, Francis Bacon, Max Beckmann, Constantin Permeke, and Louis Sutter. Nor was the dreamer Salvador Dali missing; two of his small paintings squared off against the crude sexual fantasies of the Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar and the Belgian Felicien Rops.

The next room was stuffed with plaster models recalling academic art. Contrasting with it in a semicircular space were works by Adolf Wölfli, as well as drawings by other mentally ill people. Elsewhere, an entire room was devoted to the painter James Ensor and his masklike portraits. In the remaining rooms, Hoet traveled through the spiritual labyrinth of creativity, never losing sight of the two antithetical poles. Throughout, he traced the question of artistic authenticity, for it is precisely authenticity that both connects and separates the lunatic and the artist. A demand originating in the Romantic tradition has been the call for authenticity in the artist—an appeal that has come up over and over again in our century. According to this appeal, the artist is supposed to appear undisguised, unvarnished, unadulterated, unmediated, and self-contained.

Yet the authentic artist always runs the risk of displaying only sensitivity without intellectual reference, aggressiveness without reflective discipline, a whining shriek aimed at everyone and no one. When the distinction between personal reality and the demands of objectivity is lost, there is no difference between the artist and the madman. Yet art lives and evolves precisely from the conflict between these two realms.

If, however, the artist can distinguish between and draw from both, the results can be fascinating, and Hoet masterfully presents such artists with love and unusual skill. The high point of the exhibition is the green room in which Robert Ryman’s lonesome white painting on a white background faces a wall containing pictures by Bernard Schultze, Cy Twombly, Jean Dubuffet, Sigmar Polke, and Lucio Fontana, among others. This is an original encounter, disrupting our visual habits, opening our minds to new questions and thoughts (Ryman as the heir to Classicism, challenging the Romantics shown here?), while simultaneously closing the circle; this grouping reveals that the same passion, even obsession, unites Robert Ryman with these other painters.

Hoet invited several artists, including Jonathan Borofsky, Bruce Nauman, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Jan Vercruysse, to do site-specific works for this exhibition. While the older artists maintained their subjectivity and authenticity against the rest of the world, the artists of the late ’80s seemed to regard themselves as subjectless reflecting surfaces of a world that is disintegrating. They offer no more monsters, no sorrow or obsession, preferring aloofness, sobriety, and matter-of-factness. Perhaps the time is gone for good when mugs, masks, and monsters could be brandished against a rationality that kept tending more and more toward idealization. Even the classically beautiful face of Reason seems to be turning into a grimace.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.