Werner Büttner

Rodin’s The Thinker, sitting placidly on a roundish stone, is getting on in years. It is impossible to tell whether the smoothness of the stone is due to the sitter’s backside being so broad, or whether the surface has been worn down by time. Perhaps the thinker is merely indolent, having chosen the ideal resting place. Although he is impressively stout, he is only a shadow of his former self—with a jutting belly and sacklike back. It is open to speculation whether Werner Büttner’s three paintings entitled Denker, in die Jahre gekommen (Thinker, getting on in years, all 1996) are self-portraits, but male arrogance is an important motif in Büttner’s work. In a work entitled Imponierschwellung (Swelling to impress, 1995), a tiny man’s overripe belly appears next to the blown-up craw of a huge bird.

The man’s sagging belly has dignity, even a kind of sex appeal, introducing another of Büttner’s themes. Even in sleep, as in the painting Cojones (Schläfchen) [Balls (nap), 1995], masculine energy virtually explodes from these images. An upright arrow, given human form by the addition of two legs and a male upper body, enjoys a well-earned afternoon nap, though it sleeps upon two round bombs with burning fuses, promising a spectacular ejaculation.

In recent years Büttner seems to have distanced himself from the often rigidly defined political context of his earlier actions with Albert Oehlen, in which they played a perverse game within a set political context. A loaded motto like “The enemies of our enemies are also our enemies” (a slogan Oehlen used on a poster) may sound harmless enough today, but it created an uproar during the ’80s. One looked to Büttner, Oehlen, Kippenberger, and company because their vision crossed the political, ideological, and moral lines of a rigid Left, exploding the distinction between friend and foe.

Now, however, their collaborations have become history. Büttner displays his strengths in a seemingly inexhaustible wave of strongly graphic pictorial impressions, while indicating an underlying continuity by exhibiting twenty new drawings from his ongoing series “desastres de la democracia” (disasters of democracy, 1978–). He seems, however, to have exchanged his political context for a universal one. By his own account, Büttner simply sets down what he finds around him: the general absurdities of human sexuality and behavior. Horchposten (Listening post, 1996), a picture of a stretched-out yet huddling rabbit, who extends one of his ears antennalike toward heaven to receive wondrous, barely legible written signs, has certainly been inspired by the recent controversy surrounding the wiretapping of private citizens’ phone lines in Germany. Büttner transcends this issue, however, by evading the question of political partisanship.

The question for Büttner remains the following: to what degree can painting serve an ideological purpose? Jörg Immendorff has made “Stop painting” his motto, but he has continued to paint. Büttner’s case is similar; this show suggested, however, that painting affords the most pleasure when it has discarded the notion that it embodies the essence of aesthetic truth.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.