New York

Daniel Spoerri

Zabriskie Gallery

With the unconscious long since colonized by art and, indeed, objectified as an artistic cliché, are new dreams still possible? Can enigma redeem banality, or has the hegemony of banality itself become the mystery? Daniel Spoerri’s “Background Landscapes” respond to these questions like a Delphic oracle, suggesting that mystery and banality are inseparable. Each is recognizable in and through the other. There are still mysteries, these pictorial tableaux seem to suggest, but they are commonplace: death, Eros, and the emotions that speak in the name of these drives.

Spoerri has described culture as “an obsession with death”: we futilely try to transcend death—to posit immortality—in the act of acknowledging our mortality. Thus, his famous glued tables preserve the sediment of a meal in an ironical gesture of immortalization, a bad joke of memory—a Dorian Gray experiment that doesn’t work. Similarly, in the “détrompe l’oeil” tableau works mergers of found landscape paintings with attached objects—one is presented with screen memories instead of everlasting universal truths. But then a screen memory is an everlasting private emotional truth.

Spoerri, it seems, was taken by the landscape paintings of an obscure German artist named Erich Bamler, who was enrolled at the Munich academy before World War II, and who Spoerri believes may have been a professional copyist at the Pinakothek. Made for himself, Bamler’s paintings seem naively to express an innocent eroticism. In my opinion, Spoerri purchased them because they comprised Bamler’s entire estate, that is, they were the dream relics of a dead man. The question Spoerri seems to have asked himself was whether these old dreams still had emotional life in them. The first thing he did was to enlarge and transfer the paintings onto fresh canvases with the aid of a computerized technology called scanachrome. Then he transformed them from kitschy dream landscapes into uncanny images by the addition of a variety of found objects, from toy airplanes and animal skulls to seashells and furniture parts, and above all mannequins in various states of fragmentation. This combination of banal paintings and banal objects generates a fresh sense of unconscious mystery. The erotic and death wishes latent in Bamler’s landscapes literally spring out from their flat surfaces in hallucinatory form, indicating that they are less innocent than they appear. Bamler was more twisted—sex and death were inextricably bound together in his mind—than one might suspect. In fact, Spoerri suggests that he was completely mad underneath his neo Böcklinian banality—and it is this madness that redeems his work. In The Elephant, 1991, a monstrous figure strides out of the benign landscape into the spectator’s space. Similarly, The Ram, 1991, threateningly impinges on our space, as though it were a projection of our own unconscious death wish, as an attached scythe implies. Again and again the same sense of confronting our own inner, monstrous, destructive self occurs.

I believe these works have a profoundly personal meaning. Spoerri was born in Romania, and his father—a Jew who converted to the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church—was arrested and killed in the Holocaust. Spoerri claims to have no memory of his childhood in Romania, and, as he says, he “was never in a Romanian context” in any case, being brought up in a mad world where “my grandfather was Jewish, the country was Orthodox and my father was trying to convert the Jews.” In fact, I believe the dead Bamler functions as a symbol of Spoerri’s dead father, and Bamler’s landscapes represent screen memories of his repressed childhood world—the world in which his father was still alive. “Background Landscapes” suggest the inherent contradictions and complications of that world. In effect, they show him splitting his father in two: one part is the dead Jew represented by the symbols of violent death Spoerri imposes on the scene; the other is the converted Jew who believed he would enter the Christian Kingdom of Heaven, represented by the bland paradisiacal landscapes Bamler painted. Spoerri identifies with both parts, which remain unreconciled in his mind; indeed, the erotically painted landscapes and the deadly found objects disjunct in the very act of coming together. Spoerri’s tableaux show us what the unconscious and its spontaneous dreams can still mean. They offer inner resistance to, and refuse to be reconciled with, the official, socially manufactured dream of reality; in this respect, they will always betray one. In Spoerri’s tableaux, the emotional realism of the true dream confronts and overpowers the false dream of a utopian world, even as it acknowledges its alluring, inescapable presence. Spoerri’s works are a form of mourning for his dead father and for his irretrievable childhood, and they signal the profound conflicts that inform both.

Donald Kuspit