Peter Zimmerman

Tanja Grunert

The desire to speak in a painting? Practicing the desire to paint, the “concreteness that has been depicted,” in a speaking painting? The man who wants all this is the Conceptual painter Peter Zimmermann, who, since 1987, has been depicting book covers as paintings. There’s nothing wrong here: he cleverly chooses the titles, which all come from books of the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s. These books include several atlases, An Introduction to Modern Linguistics, Abstraction and Empathy, Michelin and Baedeker guides, as well as how-to books like Think and Get Rich and Wallpapering Today. These titles can all be recognized, indeed read, as special and general problems of contemporary art. Whether referring to Donald Judd’s aluminum boxes or to universal artistic goals, all categories get equal treatment. Reception is put on the same level as the act of painting.

Earlier, Zimmermann painted book covers true to life: realistically, yet enlarged. Then he began to sabotage his brainstorm, but always within his own rigorous system. The book covers were distorted to an oblong format and letters were deformed, creating a striking effect. This literally displaced the ’60s esthetic of the original covers with contemporary style. The books’ colors were retained in spite of the typographic distortions. Was painting saved?

Zimmermann’s new exhibition once again focuses on problems of communication and reception, while retaining the size distortions. This time, his theme is translation. We see the painted covers of dictionaries: German-Spanish, German-Dutch, German-Chinese, German-English, German-Esperanto. Zimmerman raises questions of the learnability of translation by representing languages such as Chinese, which most Europeans don’t understand, and Esperanto, the stillbirth of a utopian language involving the union of all tongues, that is, the idea of total communication (in practice Esperanto represents total specialization, almost a quirk, cultivated by very few). On the other hand, Spanish, English, and Chinese are languages spoken by most of the world’s population, and represent opportunities for large-scale communication. Zimmermann, the West German painter, stands in the middle, aloof. No gestures. An obstacle to meaning, at best, touching on meaning. Entropy comes into the head and hands of a painter who used to paint abstractly. Now fully committed to his own system (for the distortions ultimately knuckle under to the omnipotent “content” of the absent book), Zimmermann presents a different way out in this exhibition. The paintings are covered up by something concrete: pictures of plaids, which are expertly painted with grainy surface effects. Once again, the painter functions here as an obstacle to meaning. One sinks into the plaid. While these paintings confront the dictionary paintings, they also get along famously with them. They sink into one another. “The spatial arrangement makes the indefinite practicable,” Zimmermann writes in the catalogue. But here, the practicable is the fusion of visual and linguistic stimuli and codes in order to help the act of painting itself.

Jutta Koether

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.