New York

Walter Dahn, The Momento m., 1982, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 45 1/4".

Walter Dahn, The Momento m., 1982, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 45 1/4".

Walter Dahn

Walter Dahn, The Momento m., 1982, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 45 1/4".

Walter Dahn is a founding member of Mülheimer Freiheit, aka the Junge Wilde, a group of young German artists who took their moniker from the Cologne street on which they once worked. The artists in question were part of a generation of talented painters whose work was seriously informed by the “capitalist realism” of Sigmar Polke and by the shamanism of Joseph Beuys. “We were . . . like a band. We went to every concert we could see. . . . It was a kind of mixture of an insane asylum, kindergarten, and art school,” says Dahn in an interview with Richard Prince that appears in the exhibition’s catalogue. Prince, who both curated and loaned to this retrospective of thirty-plus works dating from 1981 through 2007, clearly regards Dahn as a bloody genius.

Dahn’s early works carry the day. Selbst im Anzug (Self in Suit), 1982, a comic, seemingly ax-hewn head, or The Momento m., of the same year, featuring a Yorick-like skull held aloft by a mostly out of frame Hamlet (reasonably a stand-in for the painter himself, a substitution repeated in Der Trinker [The Drinker], 1983), are representative Mülheimer Freiheit efforts. At this moment, the group still flew the pennant of the Spartacists’ failed Socialist uprising of 1920, an all but forgotten event that, in being incorporated into the Mülheimer Freiheit mythos, reinforced a rebellious cachet.

At the turn of the 1980s, Dahn, Jiri Georg Dokoupil, and several others—Hans Peter Adamski and Peter Bömmels among them—were still at work in a country split between a Soviet East and a capitalist West. Some, such as Dokoupil, had managed to flee Eastern European countries still held incommunicado beyond the Iron Curtain. These artists, escapees in a certain sense from the infinitely mirroring worlds of Marxist or capitalist materialism, swallowed whole the provocations of Polke and Beuys, who themselves had deeply rejected the complacencies of postwar German abstraction (think Fritz Winter or Ernst Wilhelm Nay). In turn, Polke, with his no-holds-barred painterly efforts, and Beuys, with his magically healing mode, came to epitomize the new professoriat to which the Junge Wilde would willingly be indentured.

My memory of the rapid American embrace of Dahn and Dokoupil around 1983 (reflected clearly in Prince’s enthusiasm) is marked by their noteworthy early stylistic confraternity with the neo-expressionism of, say, Julian Schnabel or George Condo and, to be sure, several members of the East Village phenomenon, Donald Baechler most particularly. These expressionist inclinations were evidenced here in the blurred linearity of the acrylic Ausfegen (Sweeping Up) and in the screen-printed depiction of a self-pleasuring fellow in Les Premiers Jours du printemps (The First Days of Spring), both 1986. As his painting lost steam, Dahn turned to making bronze sculptures not dissimilar to those of the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino: Die natürliche Dreifaltigkeit (The Natural Trinity), 1986, with its horned head, tree limb, and two crosses, embodies the corny symbolism that was typical of Dahn’s work at this moment—striving sans a redeeming sense of irony.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Dahn eschewed large canvases, rejected painterliness entirely, and began producing works that were increasingly word-based, therefore establishing in his art a certain accord with Prince’s Joke Paintings, which he began in 1987, or the canvases of Christopher Wool at his most woolen, not to mention Ed Ruscha—though, in comparison with these reasonable American models, Dahn’s relatively recent work is far more obscure. April 1968, 2003, tightly spells out the words DUST IN MEMPHIS; Bill Callahan, 2004, presents the word SMOG; Double Damage, 2006, is a picture of the second word of the title and its shadow; White Riod, 2006, scrambles the Dior logo. Dahn’s work, in three decades, thus sadly devolves from an early and uncommon talent. Not an uncommon story.

Robert Pincus-Witten