San Francisco

Stefan Kürten

Stefan Kürten’s paintings are slight, self-effacing, but nonetheless wise. Many of them are small, less than 12 inches square, and are strewn with homey, literally thumbnail-size sketches. Kürten’s subjects are generic, as his titles suggest: Jewelry, Hearts, Sperm, and Eggs, 31 Sunsets, Beauty Supplies, Bar Codes, etc. (all works 1990). Blithely, he makes the point that the daily glut of media images ultimately trivializes the image generally.

Kürten’s method and the visual quality it generates are crucial. To make a picture, he takes a primed, stretched canvas and sets it face down on a coated lithographer’s stone. Then he draws on the back of the canvas with a pencil; this pressure causes ink to adhere to the primed surface. The tooth of the canvas gives his image a delicate, grainy quality that resembles the impress of rubber stamps, full of material detail, yet representationally and expressively muffled. Sometimes Kürten tints portions of his images with gouache, sometimes he leaves them uncolored.

Anything he can draw or trace is liable to make its way into Kürten’s pictures, but generally he favors symbols with big, banal associations and readymade sentiments attached: sperm and eggs for the sexes and for life, sunsets or sunrises (which he draws like closed eyelids) for days and nights, snatches of sheet music for the pop cultural patrimony, and map profiles for the world itself. In The New World and The Old World, he has scrambled shapes from maps to produce abstract patterns in which the viewer can recognize figures but can’t quite put names to them. These pictures allude to Jasper Johns’ map paintings and to the geopolitical (and corresponding nomenclatural) reshuffling of recent decades.

Kürten’s technique communicates his sense of art-historical position—post-Johns, post-Warhol, post-LeWitt (especially in Bar Codes). His sensibility, though not his strategy, is perhaps further from theirs than. from a fellow European expatriate like Öyvind Fahlstöm. Some of the larger pictures in Kürten’s show—the big maps, One Thousand and One Mornings—are plainly beautiful. But half the charm of Kürten’s work is its humor, so subtle and unforced that at times it is almost imperceptible.

Kenneth Baker