Klaus Merkel

Galerie Frieder Keim

Ever since illusionistic pictorial space was transformed into the actual picture plane in the ’60s, painting has been preoccupied with its borders. It is no longer the interior space of the picture but its boundary, dividing the picture from or uniting it with reality, which is significant. After neo-expressive painting at the beginning of the ’80s tried to return illusionistic pictorial space to painting, “new abstractionism” brought painting back into the fray of this modern discourse. It took up the impetus of analytic painting, which had shown that painting could no longer be construed as an illusionistic, isolated image world but must be understood as an energy field. It appears as a structure made visible, and consequently it must be defined in terms of its boundaries: in a word, painting has become the frame.

The opulent, impasto works of Klaus Merkel seem to address themselves to this situation. Merkel does not reduce the canvas to a monochrome, but rather addresses painting today in terms of the traditional categories of ornament and decoration, saving abstract painting from its self-dissolution and continuing the discourse of “the painting becomes frame” on another level. With its treatment of the surface, its sometimes idiosyncratic use of color, and its standardized, systematized conceptuality, this work asserts that the radical consequence of abstract painting is ornament. This working concept developed not only out of Merkel’s autonomous view of art, but also from his encounter with a specific existential space: during his stay in Vienna in 1980–81, Merkel slipped, as it were, into an old, “baroque stone cauldron,” whose urban organism flowed into his graphic, impastoed, gray-on-gray paintings. In these works he already employed multiple combinations of individual panels, simultaneously reflecting the totality and the fragmentation of living space as urban gesamt ornament. Subsequently this experience was expanded into an autonomous, self-directed system in which individual, isolated pictures were made universally accessible by a reduction to simple types. The artist achieved a new kind of functionality for painting, by transforming a salon hanging into a wall-filling “tapestry of paintings,” in his 1988 Düsseldorf show.

Here Merkel was aided by the consistent radicalization of the frame-theme and the expansive, monumental handling of surfaces developed over the past year. He furnished the walls of the gallery in a regular fashion with a dozen standardized tall-format panels. Spaced at the proper distance from one another, they preserved a tension between the undisturbed individual panel and a unified panorama. With a monumentality that sometimes grows into monstrosity, and with painting driven to its limits by heavy impasto and idiosyncratic color, Merkel’s works succeed in conveying his concept of panel painting.

Markus Brüderlin

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.