New York

Konrad Lueg, Handtuch (Hand Towel), 1965, casein on canvas, 78 3/4 x 57 1/8".

Konrad Lueg, Handtuch (Hand Towel), 1965, casein on canvas, 78 3/4 x 57 1/8".

Konrad Lueg

Konrad Lueg, Handtuch (Hand Towel), 1965, casein on canvas, 78 3/4 x 57 1/8".

For some, making art is a second act: Henri Rousseau was a tax collector prior to retiring, at age forty-nine, to paint; Frederick Wiseman taught law before filming his first documentary; Grandma Moses picked up the brush in her seventies. Others, like Maureen Paley and Pat Hearn before her, channeled youthful creative inclinations into different art-world pursuits. In the late 1960s, Konrad Lueg forsook painting to open Berlin’s Konrad Fischer Galerie (he had taken as his artistic nom de guerre his mother’s maiden name). Before becoming a beloved and legendary dealer, however, he was a charter member, with Kunst-akademie Düsseldorf classmates Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, of Capitalist Realism, postwar Germany’s rejoinder to Pop. (A fourth fellow traveler, Manfred Kuttner, subsequently turned to advertising.) This exhibition, Lueg’s first solo American-gallery presentation and his first significant showing in the US since a 1999 retrospective at PS1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1), assembled nearly thirty paintings and works on paper executed during the five years he was a practicing artist.

Some of the selections were slight: cutout photographs of curtains, unsubtle collages of photos and glitter-edged cards, a sheet of graph paper bisected by a row of gummy bears. Still, to say about Lueg’s work that “one will search in vain for the barb of social criticism,” as a 1966 exhibition catalogue declared, is to overlook what was a thoughtful consideration of the upshot for art of a nascent consumer culture. The ovular slits that replace faces in Untitled (Kopf Mit Hut) (Untitled [Head with Hat]) and Untitled (Kopf Mit Roten Haaren) (Untitled [Head with Red Hair]), both 1963, at once assail flatness and enact Pop’s disruption of subjectivity, while Untitled (Seerosen-Palette) (Untitled [Water Lily Palette]), 1967, a palette-shaped piece of chipboard covered with a plastic shower curtain printed with water lilies, concretizes the invasion of the aesthetic by the domestic banal. Betende Hände (Praying Hands), 1963, a canvas across which extends interlaced, manicured fingers, is interesting less for its frank demonstration of figuration sliding into abstraction than for its exhibition history: It was hanging in the Düsseldorf furniture emporium where Lueg and Richter staged “Living with Pop,” a 1963 Happening in which the artists reposed on armchairs and gave visitors tours of the store and its Wirtschaftswunder wares. The performance’s innuendos—about incursions on artisanal practices by mass production, an attendant leveling of fine art and commercial goods, and, especially, the seductions of the decorative—animate the superb “pattern paintings” that anchored Greene Naftali’s show and evidence Lueg’s artistic acumen.

These ample works, six of which were on view, employ designs derived from the dish towels, washcloths, and table linens then marketed to a swelling middle class. Using cheerful, flat casein colors, Lueg covered canvases in geometric arrangements comprising hundreds of individual dingbats, usually a lopsided heart or a form simultaneously resembling a flower and a tadpole. Often, a light feathery marking, applied using an embossed rubber roller, underlies the patterns. Lueg thus taps the look and means of interior decor for abstraction, and though the extent to which he was critical or celebratory remains an open question, he does signal an awareness of the ironies of his endeavor. He somewhat preempted the risk that abstract painting might too easily become mere ornamentation—that it might come to function like wallpaper—by devising paintings that outright look like wallpaper, and keeps alloverness in check by ensuring that his grids and stripes are rarely coterminous with their supports. The blank left border of Schräge Tischdecke (Tablecloth Out of Line), 1965, for instance, and the irregular swoop and margins of Handtuch (Hand Towel), 1965, register as slivers of resistance, reminders that, despite their consumerist guise, these are crafted things. Certain works, such as Ohne Titel, 1966, are scored with pencil lines, on either side of which their motifs shift slightly in tone, as if a fabric or wallpaper repeat—a canny manual aping of the effects of machine production.

This show left one wanting more; Untitled (Onkel) (Untitled [Uncle]), 1965, would have benefitted from juxtaposition with other portraits, to say nothing of Lueg’s late efforts with glow-in-the-dark paint. And indeed, Capitalist Realism will get a New York reckoning this summer at Artists Space (albeit with facsimiles). Still, one can’t understate the influence of Konrad Fischer in championing Minimalism and Conceptualism: Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Bruce Nauman, among others, had their first European outings at his gallery. Compelling as the art of Konrad Lueg is, history gained from the tradeoff.

Lisa Turvey