New York

Rudi Tröger


In Rudi Tröger’s very Germanic portraits, a traditional sense of objectivity is curiously blended with the artist’s suggestively subjective treatment. Tröger’s figures remain recognizable in their social presence, but they are at times saturated in atmosphere, making for a peculiarly ethereal effect, or blurred to the point of seeming abstract. Thus, if never as ruthlessly clear and detailed as, say, the work of Otto Dix or George Grosz, there are portraits that tilt toward empirical description, for example, Bildnis A. (Picture A., 1970–71), and Bildnis S., 1985–86, portraits of children, from whom Tröger probably felt a certain detachment and distance. Yet in murkier, even amorphous portraits, empiricism is completely sacrificed for an effect of uncanny emotional intimacy, for example, the untitled figure on a bed, 1966, and Bildnis Ph., 1967, in which a distorted, possibly female subject, the face almost a complete blur despite skull-like details, perches precariously on top of a lurid red bed, set in an otherwise gloomy, empty space.

In general, the set of elements that go into modern portraiture have tended to be constant: an isolated individual, alone with his or her eccentricities, presented in an at most minimal environment—that is, a figure innocently estranged from itself, as well as inherently strange to us. Tröger struggles when he presents less introverted, more socially engaging figures—for example, the athlete-dandy, accompanied by his dog and youthful valet, in an untitled 1986 painting—but the artist is much more convincing when he sticks to figures that, whether sitting with their hands humbly crossed in their laps (Bildnis W., 1970–71) or their arms arrogantly crossed on their chest (Bildnis M., 1969), remain emotional worlds unto themselves. He is even better when, as North European portraitists since Vincent van Gogh have done, he presents individuals who are a sum of distortions failing to amount to a whole person. And even though some of Tröger’s early figures, like the subjects of Bildnis W. and Bildnis Ch., both 1964, are conspicuous in their eccentricities, those portrayed in Bildnis L., 1970, and Bildnis L., 1982–83, are not as bizarre as the figures in Oskar Kokoschka’s and Francis Bacon’s portraits, to mention two noteworthy examples in which the tendency toward the grotesque prevails as a way of signaling a disturbed sense of self. But Tröger’s subjects have more than their fair share of morbid peculiarities, suggesting that their identities, while not flamboyantly idiosyncratic, are odd enough.

If portraiture is implicitly about the relationship between the portraitist and the portrayed, as well as the character and appearance of the latter, then what Tröger brings to the genre is a remarkable degree of seemingly effortless sensitivity and attunement. Where Bacon unempathically leaves the sitter emotionally bared and helpless with little regard for the naked emotions and vulnerability sensationally displayed, thus creating an effect of irreducible alienation, Tröger penetrates the individual’s defenses without destroying them, thus allowing his subjects their illusion of dignity and invulnerability. Tröger lets his subjects be, supplementing their being with his tender concern for their well-being and self-worth. While Bacon is no doubt the more radical painter, there is something to be said for Tröger’s insightful humanity, however unfashionable it may be.

Donald Kuspit