Cologne

Jochen Klein

Galerie Daniel Buchholz

The first solo exhibition of work by Jochen Klein—an artist who died last summer from AIDS-related causes—was especially tragic because of the great promise it revealed. Klein was only thirty at the time of his death. After studying at the Munich Academy of Art, he traveled to New York, where he became a member of Group Material. This was not the first time he took a theoretical approach to artmaking: in Munich he had participated in group exhibitions at the Munich Kunstverein dealing with utopian design and gender. Together with Thomas Eggerer (with whom he collaborated on theoretical texts), he also conceived an entry for a Munich exhibition titled “Oh Boy It’s a Girl,” 1994, that consisted of a gay topography of the English garden and a tearoom chalkboard on which viewers could leave messages.

Klein was also a painter throughout his career; while studying in Munich, he had created his first paintings of reclining nudes. This exhibition, which focused on works from the last two years of his life, featured images of young women stretched out in the grass or pausing dreamily in dancers’ poses. In these works, young men with naked torsos also emerge out of blurred landscapes like figures in a dream, or lean against tree trunks, lost in thought. In many of the paintings, the observer is assigned the role of a voyeur. But despite these subjects—which sometimes seem to have been lifted from a soft-porn flick—eroticism is offset by the style of painting and the kitschy, faded colors. The homage Klein pays to the Impressionists and the early work of Richard Hamilton, as well as his work’s critical engagement with kitsch and camp, call for a theoretical reception. It is clear, however, that this is not a matter of “theoretical painting,” but rather of a wholly independent approach to the medium that allows for an immediacy (despite the work’s manifold references) far removed from irony or, indeed, cynicism. Klein’s images are moving because they combine an intellectual edge with personal expression.

In addition to the young men and women, Klein’s canvases are peopled by small boys who linger in forest glades: lying on blankets, or sitting under trees with rapt expressions, they evoke memories of solitary childhood moments. Motifs from the pages of drugstore calendars (geese, for instance, or a woman with a horse) are also occasionally integrated into the paintings as collage elements. In some cases, Klein painted over the edges of these cutouts, so it is often difficult to discern what was found and what was not, especially because sometimes he used photos as sources for the painted motifs. In some instances Klein’s use of line invites comparison to Michael Krebber’s. As in Krebber’s work, one also senses the struggle to capture a particular moment coupled with the awareness that the paintings come out of an art-historical genealogy that includes contemporary artists such as Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz. In the style of paint application, there are also affinities to younger painters like Matthias Schaufler or Ralf Schauff, artists whose work appeared alongside Klein’s in the Cologne group exhibition “Glockengeschrei nach Deutz.”

In Klein’s best canvases, one finds an astonishing multiplicity of formal styles, ranging from near-photorealism in the collage pieces to partially abstracted figuration and complete nonobjectivity in others. Beyond its painterly qualities, however, his work defines a gay aesthetic that, for all its lightness, reveals great social, personal, and artistic significance.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.