New York

Rémy Zaugg

Brooke Alexander

One of the few true conceptual painters, Rémy Zaugg relentlessly interrogates painting to reveal the linguistic foundation of perception. Typical of Zaugg’s project would be the paintings, shown here in 1991, which bore verbal notations describing Cézanne’s House of the Hanged Man, 1873. Though Not Here, 1990–95, Zaugg’s new installation, is as reductive, austere, and monochromatic as ever, it is also, in its own fastidious way, a hoot.

Its difference from Zaugg’s other work lies in its calculated simplicity. It consists of 27 seemingly identical, small white-on-white paintings bearing the same inscription, “NOT HERE.” This work clearly deals with context, but not exactly in the manner of institutional critique. After all, it is designed to celebrate, however equivocally, the newly renovated gallery. One’s progression through the unfamiliar reconfigured space becomes a sort of treasure hunt, as though one were roaming the rooms asking, “Is it here? Is it here?” The reiterated answer, “NOT HERE,” becomes not a damper to the viewer’s sense of expectation, but rather a stimulus to it—as though with each site checked off, the next painting, in the next room, had become that much more likely to be the one at last proclaiming, “YES, HERE.”

But of course it never does. Instead, in a reversal of the strategy of “The Purloined Letter,” the elusive turns into the obvious, and the sheer unreflective pleasure of the running gag becomes its own reward. Along with it comes a growing awareness of the artisanal beauty of these objects, not, after all, austere, but radiant and lush, quite different from the comparatively straightforward and unfetishized facture characteristic of the origins of white-on-white painting in Malevich’s Suprematist works of 1918. This work of Zaugg’s is open and self-evident too, but in a different way: more in terms of its meaning than of its making. Still, it does allow for ambiguity on at least one point. Does the word “HERE” speak of the site in which it appears, namely that of the gallery, as our eager journey through these rooms would suggest? Or does the word speak of the surface of the painting itself, as though from somewhere outside it? In either case, Zaugg’s comedy of frustration yields its own satisfactions. It may even be profoundly traditional, since painting—whether or not it is conceived according to the model of a window—has always promised to give us a view beyond what is merely present, a glimpse of what is not here.

Barry Schwabsky