Left: John Currin, The Moroccan, 2001, oil on canvas, 26 x 22“. Right: Glenn Brown, The Rebel, 2001, oil on panel, 33 1/4 x 27 1/2”.

Left: John Currin, The Moroccan, 2001, oil on canvas, 26 x 22“. Right: Glenn Brown, The Rebel, 2001, oil on panel, 33 1/4 x 27 1/2”.

Cher Peintre, Lieber Maler, Dear Painter”

Cher Peintre, Lieber Maler, Dear Painter” is the latest in a crop of international exhibitions devoted to the subject of painting. “Painting on the Move,” the Kunstmuseum Basel’s recent tour of the practice during the twentieth century, was the most exhaustive, starting with Cézanne and ending with young contemporary artists like Lucy McKenzie and Wilhelm Sasnal. The Walker Art Center’s “Painting at the Edge of the World,” 2001, and the Whitechapel London/MCA Chicago’s “Examining Pictures,” 1999, took the temperature of the present through a selective reappraisal of post-’60s painting. Whereas “Painting at the Edge of the World” argued for an ontological broadening of the medium to incorporate aspects of architecture, performance, sculpture, and photography, “Examining Pictures” raided the icebox of postwar painting to offer an admixture dedicated to the solipsistic pleasures of making and looking. Whether pointing the finger at Duchamp or digitization, Pollock or photography, all three shows addressed the fact that painting—however archaic, anachronistic, or critically short-circuited—refuses to lie down and die. Homing in on a particular strain of figurative painting, “Cher Peintre” narrows the scope of these investigations and poses a more specific question: Is it possible to conceive of figurative painting as a radical force in the aftermath of modernism and postmodernism? By grouping works of disparate quality and maturity, curators Alison M. Gingeras, of the Centre Georges Pompidou; Sabine Folie, chief curator of the Kunsthalle Wien; and Blazenka Perica, of the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, effectively, if unintentionally, provided an answer: sometimes, depending on who is doing it and in what context.

At the roots of the family tree of painting proposed in “Cher Peintre” are Picabia’s female nudes of the early 1940s, which he extrapolated from images in risqué French magazines. With their robust mix of kitsch and academicism, these nudes are now generally considered radical rather than reactionary—a sarcastic riposte to the Nazi decimation of modern art (and thus related to Magritte’s contemporaneous infatuation with Renoiresque erotica in occupied Belgium). The show’s genealogy then continues with Bernard Buffet’s attenuated figure studies from 1949 to the mid-’60s; Sigmar Polke’s Capitalist Realism of the early ’60s; Alex Katz’s ’70s conversation pieces; and Martin Kippenberger’s 1981 series “Lieber Maler, male mir” (Dear painter, paint me), in which he delegated the act, but not the idea, of painting to a firm of commercial poster painters. His series inspired the title of “Cher Peintre” and its primary paradigm: for this is an exhibition in which figurative painting’s critical potential emerges not from traditional qualities of direct observation and subjective expression but rather from probing style, source, technique, image, and metaphor. “Cher Peintre” is about painting thinking about painting: reflexive, self-conscious, aware of the medium’s critical endgame but never despondent about its continued ability to create meaning or to seduce. Seen in these terms, Picabia, Polke, and Kippenberger, followed by contemporary artists John Currin, Glenn Brown, and Luc Tuymans, emerge as figures central not just to the exhibition, but increasingly to the history of postwar painting.

The show stumbles when it confuses truly innovative efforts with figurative art that merely lies outside the mainstream. It’s difficult to subscribe to Gingeras’s view, put forth in the catalogue, that the lamentable Buffet was an “antagonistic thorn in the side of European post-war art history.” His existential kitsch may briefly have looked oppositional in the eyes of the post-Occupation abstractionist École de Paris but thereafter could happily have hung on the railings of Montmartre: He’s bad, but the wrong sort of bad. Outré figuration is better represented in the show by Alex Katz’s not-so-shiny-happy people, but even here it seems more a case of retreat than of revolution, more Eric Rohmer than Jean-Luc Godard.

Among younger painters, the appeal of Elizabeth Peyton’s ruby-lipped boys is wearing as thin as her pellucid paint—though, to be fair, it’s hard for an oeuvre to mature when premised on adolescent fixation. If Peyton is suffering from overexposure, take note, Kurt Kauper, of your full-frontal, perma-tanned Cary Grants in the next room. Slick painting isn’t enough—unless, of course, you’re already a Picabia. The cartoonisty Brian Calvin (Alex Katz’s heir apparent) and the breathlessly brushy London-based painter Sophie von Hellermann show that while it is relatively easy to forge an offbeat style, it’s another thing to come up with one that is conceptually dense.

More demanding is the hermetic figuration of Germans Kai Althoff and Neo Rauch. With vague allusions to Prussia’s military past and to esoteric religion, Althoff’s hesitant, nervy works are as impenetrable as a meeting of the Freemasons. Neo Rauch’s allegories dazzle visually but at times appear weighted down by their historical references—de Chirico, Constructivism, socialist realism. There’s a fine line between repeating history and reformulating it to reach something original, and the difference is exemplified here by Brown and Currin, both of whom, despite the familiarity of much of their work in this show, look startlingly fresh. Their virtuosic techniques, married to a close understanding of the historical pleasures and powers, as well as the problems, of painting, enable them to draw fresh water from the reservoir. Like Tuymans, who is represented by the seminal cycle “Der diagnostische Blick” (The diagnostic view), 1992, in which human illness, so poignantly evoked by his anemic, fragile brushstrokes, stands as a metaphor for the malady of painting itself, Brown and Currin understand that painterly technique exists to mediate a psychological exchange or, better, a pair of exchanges, between painter and subject and between canvas and viewer, beginning with sight and ending with thought.

“Cher Peintre” is on view at Kunsthalle Wien through Jan. 1, 2003; travels to Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Jan. 15–April 6, 2003.

Kate Bush is senior programmer at The Photographers' Gallery, London.