Werner Büttner

Zdenek Felix had long since presented Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger at the Deichtorhallen. To close his directorship, Felix invited Werner Büttner to mount a comprehensive retrospective and complete this “Friends’ Trilogy” in Hamburg. No art-school product, Büttner came to painting at Oehlen’s suggestion. Or better, he was provoked into painting, a medium that did not enjoy high standing in their eyes, being too burdened with ideas like sublimity and truth. But painting, as we well know, can also be summoned onto the canvas by destructive desires and the revaluing of values. Büttner’s images, which run against the grain of the “good brushstroke,” attest to an obsessive desire for erasure, an impulse to subject redemptive ideologies to a painterly torture. Büttner has always cultivated a kind of iconography of the miserable and pathetic.

Not infrequently, artists have started out representationally only to head out to the greener pastures of abstraction in their old age. As a gross generalization, this stereotypical artist’s trajectory of classical redemption moves from darkness to light. With Büttner, though, such “noble” ambitions are scarce. Painting as “worship,” as he describes the tendency toward painterly transfiguration, is instead relegated to the realm of vanities. Thus his self-portrait, Selbst als Karrierefred (Self as Career Guy), 1996, depicts him climbing up a corporate ladder composed of a colorful geometric pattern whose affinity to Color Field painting is obvious. A dig at abstraction, even if Büttner is only playing games with this suggestion—but the observer must draw his or her own conclusions.

In any case, Büttner remains true to representation, to “darkness.” “At most I shine to make the darkness visible,” he declares in an interview in the exhibition catalogue. And where is it dark? “I meet the sublime,” he says in a different context, “in dark and dreary places and store its worn-out face in my memory.” The worn-out faces of the sublime keep reappearing here: in the form of humorous everyday events (Der Künstler im Zeitalter der Fernbedienung [The Artist in the Age of Remote Control], 1990), in views of minor and peripheral images (Wurstmänade [Maenad of Sausage], 1997), or seen quite materially in the large-format computer-scanned collages Büttner began making in the ’90s. All products of pure junk images, from originals like magazines, flyers, packing material, and ads, these images, interestingly enough, are what Büttner admits as purification. In them the former image-dross undergoes a rebirth as chatty or mocking or ruminant metaphors. The godfather of this unexpected collision of images was Lévi-Strauss and his concept of bricolage.

Two of Büttner’s painting series, “Desastres de la democracía,” 1995–96—not quite Goya’s words—and “Versuche zur Emblematisierung von Dasein” (Attempts to Emblematize Existence), 1995–97, offer a nearly self-contained oeuvre-within-an-oeuvre. In them Büttner dusts off the palette of the human condition and portrays the misery of the welfare state and the lovely and mean contradictions of life in general, through diminutive but nonetheless rhetorically eloquent and graphically precise pictorial fancies. With these works, he also presents himself as untimely, something he strives to be as an artist. And, like other recent works, they show Büttner’s continual expansion on his motifs. His initial argument with conventional leftist ideology and pious artistic obfuscation has given way to a view in all directions—a view like that of Diogenes, greeting its audience pleasurably and smugly with derision, mockery, laughter, wit, and misleading questions.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.