New York

Dieter Appelt

American-European Art Associates, Inc.

GERMAN ARTISTS HAVE ALWAYS UNDERSTOOD that the hand is more expressive, particularly of suffering, than the face. Nowhere in the history of Western art are there such eloquent images of anguish as the hands of Mary and John in Lucas Cranach's Crucifixion, 1503, or Mary and Mary Magdalen in the crucifixion scene of Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1510-15. Even in such a different image as Otto Dix's 1926 portrait of Ivar von Lücken, each finger of the distressed hand seems to have an agony all its own.

Dieter Appelt extend; this tradition with his three brilliant series of black-and-white photographs: “Zahlensystem der Massai” (Number system of the Masai), 1977; “Die Befreiung der Finger” (Liberation of the fingers), 1977-79; and “Vergrasung der Hände” (Weed growth of the hands), 1978-79. The images are records of Appelt's performances, the best known documented by “Liberation of the Fingers.” In the attempt to purge himself of wartime childhood memories of decaying bodies, Appelt set out to become one himself: He whitened his body with marble dust and wrapped his hands and legs in linen, as if preparing for burial. We have seen such bandaging before, most famously in the more surgical work of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, but Appelt's performance in the aftermath of the war carries a different meaning: The artist was not only burying himself alive, as it were, but resurrecting himself, that is, functioning as his own Christ—or shaman, in the tradition of his contemporary Joseph Beuys.

In “Number System of the Masai,” Appelt signs with his fingers in the language of the African Masai people, but the expressive power of the gesture itself quickly overwhelms its meaning. Some fingers point, some are bent, creating a tension that, along with the grimy whiteness of the hands and the ropelike linen around the wrists, suggests a figure bound and tortured. The hands in “Liberation of the Fingers” are even more macabre. One is darkened with earth, while the other has a ghostly luminosity. In “Weed Growth of the Hands,” the chalky hands look like remnants of a bodv that has turned to dust. (Indeed, the absent body, missing in action, plays an important if invisible role in these photographs.) Displayed in a ring around the room, the hands grasp each other as if for dubious comfort, or to perform a dance of death, or even to summon the devil in a Faustian pact.

Appelt's work belongs in the German postwar culture of mourning and melancholy. The artist is processing his own unhappy experience, but he is dearly not the real victim, as the anonymous character of the hands suggests. As photographs, however, the images demonstrate the medium's expressive potential. However morbid, visceral, and grossly realistic, the hands seem strangely abstract, even painterly (by reason of their bandages and caking), built of carefully nuanced gestures. It is the intensity of the image that brings the hands to life, making them all the more uncanny.

These photographs provide needed relief from the kind of social-observation work that has become all too prevalent in the medium. While they doubtless have a social aspect, it has been universalized beyond recognition; the images transcend their reference to postwar German misery even as they mediate it. Appelt also provides a welcome alternative to the archly staged, parodic photographs of Cindy Sherman, however entertaining their Grand Guignol theatricality. He reminds us that photography has expressive possibilities that the best entertainment art never imagined.

Donald Kuspit