Julian Schnabel, Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis), 1980, oil on velvet, 7' 6 1/8“ x 14' 1/2”.

“The Old, the New, the Different”

Julian Schnabel, Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis), 1980, oil on velvet, 7' 6 1/8“ x 14' 1/2”.

ANY NEW EXHIBITION at the Kunsthalle Bern may boast of an array of impressive ancestors: from Harald Szeemann’s epochal “When Attitudes Become Form” in 1969 to the 1992 Michael Asher intervention, commissioned by Ulrich Loock, in which all the radiators from the building were relocated to the lobby, to “The Idea of Africa (re-invented)” (2010–11), a trio of politically invested projects organized by Philippe Pirotte. An institution with no permanent display, the kunsthalle has no liquid capital beyond these memories and the continually changing discourse around them. For the venue’s curators, this history must be assimilated but also, perhaps, exorcised. The first show organized by Fabrice Stroun in his new role as the Kunsthalle’s director was an opening effort in this larger endeavor. Idiosyncratic and irreverent, it spoke of both continuity and rupture and cunningly delivered on the promises of its title: “The Old, the New, the Different.”

With thirty-four artists but fewer than fifty works, the exhibition stayed within the confines of what would seem to be a self-imposed modesty. The polymorphic subject in question was painting—but painting for the most part programmatically reduced to the “old,” two-dimensional, flat-on-the-wall format. Bringing together key painters of recent decades, including members of the Pictures generation (Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine), neo-expressionists (Julian Schnabel), and representatives of pop-figural “bad painting” (Karen Kilimnik) and postfeminist transgression (Jutta Koether), along with younger artists who owe much to these precedents (Wade Guyton, Daniel Hesidence), Stroun stayed away from the kunsthalle’s more temperate conceptual traditions and evoked a different one, getting as close to punk as the rectangular field allows. In a text that served as a brief prologue to the show, the curator cited “psychedelic retinal overload,” “elegiac monuments,” and “hard-edged optimism” as some of the atmospheres permeating the exhibition’s several galleries, which he emphasized were “designed to be experienced physically.”

The show acknowledged both painting’s continuing animation and vitality and the perpetual discourse on its “death.” How could it not? But if the anthropomorphic metaphor of death was operative at all, then it worked not to posit painting as melancholically deceased but to propose the form as a kind of zombie, a dead thing imitating life. The exhibition’s literal centerpiece, like a blasphemous altar presiding majestically in the middle of the main space, was Schnabel’s Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis), 1980, a tender memorial for the Joy Division front man, thinly painted with white strokes on two panels mounted together and covered with black velvet. On the right-hand panel is a robed figure collapsed in grief; based on a 1978 photograph by Bernard Pierre Wolff taken at the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa, Italy, it is recognizable from Peter Saville’s iconic design for the cover of Joy Division’s final album, Closer (1980). The left-hand panel is a void—featureless, velvety black, except for an ornamental floral border. Appropriating Saville’s cover, which is often said to have unconsciously anticipated Ian Curtis’s death, Schnabel’s painting is a meditation on loss both personal and visual. Installed in the same room, Koether’s La Femme (Fantasy or What do you want from me?), 2006, a huge canvas featuring a spooky nude woman looming over a rough sea of black paint, furthered the conversation with the black monochrome, that notorious death knell of painting. And so did the late Steven Parrino’s Kitten Natividad, 1991, on the wall opposite the Koether work—two black-painted panels of unequal height installed one atop the other that seem to exhale violence. The top one is taut and smooth, while the canvas of the lower one has been loosened and then forcibly stretched again, exposing bare, unprimed portions. One came away from this spare installation of dark, morose abstractions and near abstractions with a sense that the a black monochrome here was more a blackboard than a calcified symbol of negation and demise—a ground on which to stage and restage new discursive interactions among images and artworks.

Beyond the main space, other rooms opened onto feasts of color. A wide variety of abstract and figurative genres were represented, ranging from the post-Photorealism of Goldstein’s fighter planes (Untitled, 1980) to the cartoonish grotesquerie of Vittorio Brodmann’s Every time a couple gets married, two singles die, 2012. The aphorism “Art . . . is more cult than culture”—coined by Parrino and picked up by Stroun in his text—may help account for some of the exhibition’s more cryptic moments, such as self-taught Swiss artist Hans Schärer’s Madonna, 1973, a pale pink, featureless effigy with a gaping oval hole instead of eyes, and a gravel-filled orifice, a vagina dentata, in place of a mouth. This work carries a sense of esoteric secrecy—a private iconography—that infused the exhibition as a whole. Painting today, old and new, was here diplayed as a kind of criminal argot, a hermetic language whose difference offers a form of resistance to the transparent articulations of mainstream pictures and the industries that support them. In other words, the often ludic cryptolects of artists like Schärer are a type of strategic refusal. Indeed, the attitude given form in “The Old, the New, the Different” was nowhere better expressed than in the title of Brodmann’s 2012 painting Samba Si—Arbeit No. The insouciant translation? “Samba yes—work no.”

Adam Szymczyk is director and chief curator of the Kunsthalle Basel.