Georg Ettl

In his most comprehensive German exhibition to date, Georg Ettl presented a versatile body of work that seemed more like a thematically harmonious group show of the pluralistic art of the ’80s than a retrospective of a single artist. The show included a selection of early abstract sculptures from 1969; modellike concrete pieces decorated with relieflike pictograms from 1975–76; sandblasted granite slabs incised with stylized silhouettes of heads from the middle ’80s; leaping Lipizzaner horses of gold leaf, and minute reproductions from the realms of kitsch and art history from 1979; batik works on cloth that just border on tastefulness from 1980; and last but not least, simple miniature silhouetted buildings on painted steel plates from 1986.

Ettl, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 19 and honed his esthetic consciousness on the rigorous reductions of Minimalism, ultimately expanded or even undermined Minimal purism by means of an ambivalent reversal. In 1969, when Ettl took part in the exhibition “Other Ideas,” the critics went so far as to label him a “romantic.” Employing suggestive color or oblique angles, Ettl did, in fact, transfer rational abstraction into the sphere of the utilitarian object or even into the province of metaphysical content. As Jiri Svestka pointed out, this violation of Minimalist protocols should not be misunderstood as mere irony, as a roasting of esthetic ideals; instead, it must be seen in terms of the artist’s personal background and as an advance payment on his esthetic of ambivalence.

Ettl brought with him to America a magical faith in pictures from his native Bavaria, a belief that was bound to collide with the esthetic nihilism of Minimal art; yet he managed to tackle this dichotomy and transform it into a theme within his own work. After returning to Germany in 1973, he pursued a range of figurative and symbolic themes. The sentimental gilded poodle on the concrete cube of 1976 exemplifies his ambivalence with respect to the tension between absolutism of form and historicism, between abstraction and ornamentation. It would not be altogether correct to regard Ettl’s work as a forerunner to the historicist appropriation that informs the neo-Minimalism of the ’80s or the socioesthetic fieldwork associated with Jeff Koons. Instead, Ettl offers a kind of archaeology of Modernism, which questions the possibilities and functions of an autonomous art, by tracing its limits or even craftily maneuvering around them. From this vantage point, the conceptual unity of Ettl’s oeuvre emerges without obscuring its esthetic peculiarities.

Markus Brüderlin

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel