New York

Michael van Ofen


It took only a glance at Michael van Ofen’s first exhibition in the U. S. to peg him as one of Gerhard Richter’s former pupils. What identified van Ofen as such wasn’t simply his evident concern with the relation between painting and photography, the slippage between abstraction and representation. More important is the way such essentially formal concerns can be seen as a means of registering the weight of history through reticence and distance, through an “objective,” methodical approach that might just as easily have fallen into solipsism. The paintings in this show (all works untitled, 1992) were in fact exercises, recklessly courting academicism. Representing land or cityscapes, and unpopulated architectural interiors, they were, in the first instance, lessons in tonalism.

By painting each image with only one color and controlling shading by adding more or less white to the blend in each application of pigment, van Ofen isolates the brushstroke as the image’s fundamental constructive unit. At another level, however, the brushstroke contradicts the very images it constructs. Van Ofen’s touch is suave yet forceful. Though capable of a girdered solidity, at moments his broad, driving strokes of paint flower with an explosive energy that threatens to shatter pictorial illusion. If all that sustained interest in his paintings were this implicit tension or contradiction between representation and abstraction, between the image and the constructive schemata that sustain it, then there might be little to distinguish him from a host of astute peers. What makes his paintings unusual and haunting is that in them the space between representation and abstraction, between the picture and the way it is painted becomes palpable.

In van Ofen’s paintings this space resonates with an undertone of mourning, as reminiscent of Anselm Kiefer’s work as of Richter’s. But hovering as they do between the recognizable and the unfamiliar, these paintings seem to survey scenes that are completely alien, making them as distinct from Kiefer’s smoldering, self-consuming mythographies as from Richter’s ironic specificity. In his accompanying essay, Mario Diacono speaks of “the intended absence of an expressivist, ‘subjective’ mood” in van Ofen’s paintings, but this distancing screen or monotone, through which the image emerges, corresponds to nothing so closely as to an overpowering feeling that modifies and colors one’s perception of any experience. In this sense the specter haunting these works could be just that mood of haughty and wounded aloofness that might characterize a subjectivity self-consciously exiled from the spaces or structures meant to house it—a spiritually dispossessed subjectivity. Yet however knowing, even resigned, this art may be, it still retains the essential freshness or naïveté that permits the insistence on a desire, however unfulfilled, for restitution.

Barry Schwabsky