A lot of the work in “Formalismus: Moderne Kunst, heute” (Formalism: Modern Art Today) seemed unfinished but in a perfectly justified way. Wade Guyton’s ripped canvases with large rectangular spots look spontaneous but are, in fact, calculated computer prints. Sergej Jensen’s linen-and-cotton works seem unmacho, even shy, abstract, and totally lacking in content, but the shapes have exact points of reference––to German politics, for example. Rather than signal a return to purified ideas of painting and sculpture, the imperfect appearance and precise, self-conscious shabbiness found in many of the contributions by the twenty-four mostly German, British, and American artists indicated what was really at stake: a reexamination of the basic ideas of modernism in light of the very contemporary cognizance that every detail of presentation and production is already contaminated by specific histories. Still, the fact that there are no “forms” in the old high-art sense is no reason not to address them. On the contrary, the archaeology of contamination and the beauty of its limits can only be experienced when such apparently pure artistic decisions are addressed. To borrow Adorno’s famous term, this is the state of material in the visual arts today.

There are influential theorists who write little but whose pedagogical performances leave lasting impressions, and influential artists who stint on work but are an inspiration to a generation to follow. Michael Krebber is a case in point, and the phenomenon of his influence is one of the pillars of this exhibition. Now fifty, his effect on younger artists’ thinking has come through his presence, his manner of discourse, and the way he never allows his work to become too objectlike, too fixated. Instead, he leaves gallery spaces or canvases virtually empty save for a few specific marks: a film poster here, a seemingly unfinished painting there. Krebber offers a rare gift: the ability to make detailed and decided judgments on often quite minuscule formal aspects of every kind of art. Above all, he is able to divine, from the subtlest indices of the artist’s intention, what is and what is no longer acceptable in a way not unlike Adorno’s notion of the “state of the material.” Although often surprising and unconnected, his judgments of taste do seem to add up to something like a system. This, in fact, is the way schools of thought are formed, and most of the work on view (by artists like Helena Huneke, Martin Boyce, Bojan Sarcevic, and Katja Strunz) shared in Krebber’s tendency toward aesthetic withdrawal and a sense of the “state of the material.”

Hamburger Kunstverein curator Yilmaz Dziewior’s thesis was apparently that the formalistic side of modernism did not end with the postmodern art of the ’80s and the neo- and post-Conceptual art of the ’90s. Rather, certain formal issues have become even more pointed with the return of site-specific and reflexive practices. Dziewior countered the familiar charge that formalism is politically and intellectually abstemious by arguing that precisely in view of form as social desideratum, as the historical material of art, and as its condition of possibility, art’s political dimension has continued to develop in a nontrivial sense. This line of thought constitutes the second pillar of the exhibition, represented by a dialogue printed in the catalogue between Dziewior and the philosophers Juliane Rebentisch and Alexander García Düttmann. Krebber, who is well represented in the show with, among other things, Ich habe nie Begleitung. Ich habe Magenprobleme (I Never Have Company. I Have Stomach Problems, 2003), which features white, rectangular, painted marks on found bed-linen fabric printed with motifs of a family of cheetahs, also participates in the catalogue discussion.

Theoretical ambitions notwithstanding, the exhibition offered a sophisticated overview of art today. The work provided an alternative to certain regressive and particularistic tendencies: on the one hand, the return to a normality of painting and spectacular images in keeping with the logic of the art market; on the other, the recourse to an art that is satisfied with constructing global networks of semi-politicized creative subcultures.

Of course this alternative is achieved not simply by a retreat to formal modernism but through dialectical synthesis. Adorno’s concept of material in the “fine arts” required updating. If in this exhibition formal languages were expanded according to their own rules, then it was always with the knowledge that these forms are not only the layered residue of history but also forms that have had concrete cultural-historical and subculturally specific meanings. Markus Amm’s large, constructivistic wall painting (Untitled, 2004) thus refers not simply to Kandinsky but also to a Kandinsky “look” as interpreted by an album-cover design. Seen neoformalistically, in the sense of this exhibition, his painting is not merely a pop quotation but concerns the very unavoidability of problems of pictorial composition. While perhaps at one time one could choose to work at a remove from the culture industry or could attack it with its own weapons, many of the participants here successfully remobilized visual material by breaking the culture industry’s semantic monopoly.

Hence, in While you were out, 2003, Dirk Stewen reappropriates objects—a silk tie, a paper streamer, a cock ring—that have coded but clear meanings in gay and other subcultures, releasing them from their strict unambiguity and placing them in a new, meaning-devoid flippancy that might still be called formalistic. The tension created proves what a formalistic approach offers to a world choked with referentiality: It can fashion, attack, or even praise the manner in which we assign meaning to form.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based writer and a regular contributor to Artforum.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.