Franz Gertsch, Patti Smith IV, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 9' 4 1/2“ x 13' 9 3/4”.

Franz Gertsch, Patti Smith IV, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 9' 4 1/2“ x 13' 9 3/4”.

Franz Gertsch

Gagosian Gallery

In 1977, after the albums Horses and Radio Ethiopia but before Easter and Wave, Patti Smith came to Cologne to perform at the adventurous Galerie Veith Turske. Franz Gertsch was a forty-seven-year-old Photorealist painter then. Like many fans before and since, from avant-gardists to punk-rock teenagers, he had fallen in love with the magnetic butch-sylph portrait of Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe on the cover of Horses, and he came to the show to shoot his own pictures. He used a flash that annoyed the diva, and she crumpled a piece of paper and threw it at him—a storied moment captured in the painting Patti Smith II, 1978, one of a series of five large canvases made between 1978 and 1979, all of which were at Gagosian. Skinny, equine, lank-haired, lithe, Gertsch’s Smith squats to fiddle with her amp; leans forward into a tangle of microphones; grimaces gorgeously at the implied camera. She wears an oversize white T-shirt, a checked black vest, black boots, and sparkly red leggings. She looks like a hardcore Magdalene, a slumming empress; she out-Jaggers Jagger. No one who has ever sung along to “Pissing in a River” could help exulting in such images.

But how do the paintings resonate now, some twenty-five years later? The Smith cycle was accompanied by the comparably sized Selbstbildnis (Self-Portrait), 1980, which positioned Gertsch, in button-down shirt and sport coat, as an onlooker—impresario, voyeur—vis-à-vis his own rendering of her performance, thus completing a composite “situation portrait” of European art-world hipness at the end of the ’70s. In an adjoining gallery, meanwhile, hung three preternaturally detailed large-scale woodcuts of landscapes from the late ’80s and early ’90s. Together, the two groups of works established a pair of axes along which to graph Gertsch’s consistent interests over the course of the last quarter century. Moving between painting and printmaking (axis 1) and portraiture and landscape (axis 2), he has maintained an investment in the Photorealist image and its simultaneous citation and monumentalization of the photographic instant. At the same time, he has preserved a fascination with likenesses of particular people and specific locales that paradoxically serve to empty out or seal off such particularity in favor of shimmering and impeccable art surfaces, testaments to the power of the master’s eye and hand.

Such strategic emptying is, of course, the stock-in-trade of Photorealist painting, and such artist-model/subject-object relations are among the core preoccupations of painting in general. Thus the Smith scenes—which celebrate not only a named person and place, a moment in the past explicitly predicated on Smith’s fame and consequent desirability, but also Gertsch’s interaction with that fame, his implicit realization of that desire—were presented here as glam history painting, updates in the art-historical tradition of the “painting of modern life.” Smith was Gertsch’s Olympia, sneering at him but performing for him, presenting for the eager (but never satisfied) viewer a larger-than-life scene of sexy power and creative dynamism. The paired portraits of the singer’s and the artist’s younger selves became a cultural landscape, and this effect was underlined by their juxtaposition with the dappled forests and rippling waters of the woodcut pastorals Rüschegg, 1988–89, Schwarzwasser I, 1990–91, and Pestwurz, 1993. Abstracted, embellished, pure, the green-shaded woodland, blue-toned pool, and ocher-tinted leaves offered viewers a different kind of fairyland—not the irrecoverable chic of art-rock performance in 1977, but a timeless vision of hushed and perfect nature.

It’s in these juxtapositions that the awkwardness of looking at the “Patti Smith” series in 2004 arises. Gertsch could not have known, in 1979, that Smith would take a ten-year break from recording to raise her children with Fred “Sonic” Smith or that Gone Again (1996) would reestablish her niche stardom. He could not have promised that Photorealism would remain a compelling pursuit for him or anyone else. This work, in other words, was not made to look like a scrapbook proving Gertsch’s back-in-the-day participation in Smith’s enduring avant street-cred or contextualizing his own evolution into a blue-chip artist who makes flawlessly beautiful, delightfully theorized, and formally consistent collectibles. Nevertheless, the combination of such factors meant that this show, with its retrospective bent, read rather like Gertsch’s self-presentation as a male artist in the grand style—spinning a variation on the old nature/culture dyad, watching appraisingly from the corner as the muse exercises herself, fixing her temporal beauty in the amber of his authorship. The paintings Patti Smith I through V present a charismatic persona but add little to our understanding of that charisma—such “neutral” or quasi-photographic reportage is, of course, largely their point. But the pressure of time elapsed since the pictures’ moment of origin, the parting of ways in the careers of the two artists, and—most important—the grandiloquence of Gertsch’s painterliness itself combine to make his use of Smith’s image feel subtly opportunistic after the fact. The famous Horses portrait helped to create Patti Smith’s mystique; the Gertsch portraits serve to historicize it. Perhaps the paintings’ true but obscured subject is the persuasive, persistent zeitgeist-conscious aestheticism instituted by Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic photograph.

Frances Richard is a New York–based critic and poet.