New York

Troy Brauntuch

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

Coming on the heels of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent “Pictures Generation, 1974–1984,” Friedrich Petzel’s retrospective—for that is what it was—dramatically underscored (often with intense poignancy) the thirty-year remove between Troy Brauntuch’s hesitant emergence among the original five artists in Douglas Crimp’s seminal 1977 “Pictures” show and his more recently attained master status. Indeed, this exhibition made clear that Brauntuch’s hand, if not his oblique sense of what constitutes a proper subject, has over the years grown suppler, suaver, and more capacious.

A broad array of the artist’s seemingly stray spurs to creation was presented here, aide-mémoire that make public the conventionally private: illustrations torn from magazines and newspapers; sketches, photographs, and snapshots of all types—ambient and ambivalent talismans of the artist’s slowly achieved, ambitiously scaled drawings. Though, of course, Brauntuch’s work is nominally not “about” drawing but about postmodern theory—near–Richard Princely exercises in finding just the right kind of understated images already out there in the world. At least that was how we were enjoined to see things under the old Pictures generation dispensation. But what did these drawings mean then? What do they mean now?

Despite the impassivity of Brauntuch’s art, these ruminative memorandums frequently flame in terms of their subject matter—Sarajevo, soldiers, Fascism, Hitler’s architectural sketches, Holocaust references such as the wisps of drawings by prisoners at Dachau. In a similar vein, among the first notable Brauntuchs that were shown at Metro Pictures or Mary Boone was a large depiction of a dark studio interior, that of Josef Thorak, sculptor of Nazi “heroics.” Thorak Studio, 1980, an exquisite photograph (on view here) cropped with long-dried masking tape, reveals the source of this early drawing.

As before, Brauntuch’s imagery insists on being stripped of declarative meaning; it remains drained by means of a willed absence of affect. “Cool” is far too slangy an expression for this kind of self-distancing, a visual passive-aggressive intensified by the concentrated gradations of gray the artist achieves in his finished work. Brauntuch is as contrast-averse as Ad Reinhardt ever was.

Circa 1980, Brauntuch drew—as he still does—in white pencil or gray-blue conté crayon upon black fabric. Back then, his stroke emphasized eccentric shape, either as depicted form or as projected shadow. Today, Brauntuch rejects tentative rendering and the odd filling-in of profile, favoring a suave stroke unmoored from the edge by a drawn-brushed-redrawn technique, tamped down upon fine cotton or linen surfaces. This method transforms the recent work into drawings that are paintings in all but name, an effect further emphasized by the equality of weight given to a tenebrous dark and light pattern. A number of such drawing/paintings are part of this revelatory show. The three versions of Bag with Garbage, 2009, are representative efforts of close grading and perplexing subject—neither stepchild nor godchild of Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” paintings of Pop art’s golden age.

The retrospective moment permits observing that Brauntuch seems much larger a figure than he did when first met in the context of the Pictures generation. The argument made on behalf of this group of artists was simple and reasonable; it allowed for the world of mediated images taken from advertising, photography, film, and the like to enter an expanded field of what could constitute Nature in the old saw about Art being a mirror of Nature. Yet, oddly, none of the original quintet are particularly gifted painters, at least so far as we can judge from their careers thus far (with perhaps the exception of Jack Goldstein). Color was not their bag; black-and-white, yes. But a scrupulous application of this new mediatic grasp of nature was endemic to the group (with Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman as the reasonable exceptions). Ironically, granted their focus on drawing, the new critical desiderata and code words of the period—simulacra, appropriation, and suchlike—signaled a growing disparagement of the arts of the hand in favor of those of the camera. This deeply felt exhibition by a veteran of the original fray (who has worked with both forms) reverses that course; it shows how far the theoretical biases of the Pictures generation have been vacated and how radicalism may in time mutate into gradualist tradition.

Robert Pincus-Witten