Arnulf Rainer

When the Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer began his “Übermalungen,” 1954-75, or “Overpaintings,” he was canceling past art—literally obliterating his own and others’ works with swathes and splatters of pigment. Similar in appearance to American Abstract Expressionist works but opposite in intention, Rainer’s “Übermalungen” seek a spiritual, transcendental release beyond the esthetic surface.

The “Übermalungen” and the “Kreuzen” (Crosses, 1956-91) contrast starkly with the notorious mid-career “Self-Portraits and Face Farces,” ravaged photographs of himself and others with powerful over-drawings that evoke the precognitive and pathological dimensions of human psychology. Consisting entirely of works from Rainer’s own collection, this exhibition provides a rare opportunity to examine the psychospiritual dimension of his art—his desire to articulate, through gesture and matter, the inarticulable extremes of death and rebirth.

The “Übermalungen,” often black, sometimes green or blood-red, resemble tar or sediment surging over parched remnants of pale ground. In Übermalung Krapplackrot auf Neapelgelb (Overpainting, madder lake red on Naples yellow, 1958), a blotched curtainlike mass swoops downward, its rim an infinite arc chopped by a crude frame. In the late ’60s, Rainer, inspired by the legend of Saint John of the Cross, transformed his rectangular fields into cruciforms to encompass his own suffering and self-mortification, creating passionate symbioses of transfiguration and resurrection. The black “Kreuzen” represent an essential phase in the increasingly spiritual scope of his work. The relative single-mindedness and austerity of the works in this exhibition, 59 paintings nearly all of the same scale, are overshadowed by the power and range of his assaults on their surfaces and form. These human-sized “Kreuzen” both attack the conventions of representation and struggle to elicit the raw sensations of religious experience.

The painted surfaces of the early “Kreuzen” are nearly impenetrable in their opacity and rigorously apposite to their physical supports. Zugedeckter Christus (Covered Christ, 1968) totally black but for an underlying flesh tone on the tip of one corner, looks like charred film on wooden planks from the front, but when viewed obliquely it appears to be a black hide on a crude skeleton. Intersecting rectangles, Rainer’s black “Kreuzen” are secular forms transformed into sacred icons that in repudiating canvas for wood, a humbler material, make reference to transubstantiation. Rainer’s elaborately tiered and serrated black crosses, rigidly symmetrical but as vibrant in their contours as the radiant mandorlas of medieval illuminations, extend the religious iconography of his work.

By the ’80s, after an exhausting decade of fierce concentration on the “Face Farces,” the “Kreuzen” reemerged as polychromed gestural paintings, some executed over enlarged black and white photographs of the crucified Christ. The late “Kreuzen,” Rainer says, are attempts to “approach the colorful, light-hued attire of the kind angels have always been thought to wear.” Unlike the early, somber wooden crosses, in these later works the paint is slapped on with fists and fingers, lunging across the full length of the canvas in arm sweeps and long pours of color, to puddle and clot between canvas and frame. Some are impaled with earthly objects—a monkey hand-puppet, a coiled snake. Despite these formal and thematic departures, paintings like Blaubaum (Blue tree, 1990), with its black trails of handprints and branchings of smears, echo the origins of Rainer’s youthful wooden works as if to reaffirm his obsession with the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

Joan Seeman Robinson