View of “Michael Müller,” 2014.

View of “Michael Müller,” 2014.

Michael Müller

View of “Michael Müller,” 2014.

Austrian writer Robert Musil’s most famous character, the “man without qualities” known to readers only as Ulrich, spends an entire novel stumbling through the year 1913, a native of the fin de siècle lost in the dawn of the twentieth century. At first glance, Michael Müller, who considers Ulrich a soul mate, seems just as much at odds with his own time. Musil’s lost young man was also the spiritus rector of Müller’s recent exhibition “Was nennt sich Kunst, was heißt uns wahrsein?” (What is Considered Art? What Does It Mean to Be True to Oneself?), an exceptionally intense—even manic—congregation of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and texts. As the show’s title suggests, this abundance (the checklist cites a whopping eighty-six objects) elaborated on nothing less than the nature and meaning of art and the essence and drive of artistic creation. The show thus explored many of the issues or leitmotifs that infuse Musil’s fragmentary novel: the tension between rationality and mysticism, between the individual and the masses, between serious engagement and ironic detachment.

Müller’s installation appeared overwhelming, if not labyrinthine. It was, however, organized according to an encyclopedic logic and systematic exploration of art-related subjects: Works such as Trojanisches Pferd (Trojan Horse), 2014, a small-scale geometric sculpture made out of cardboard and tape, probe the relationship between artwork and title; Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst (I See Something That You Do Not See), 2013, questions the role of the beholder, placing an aquarium inhabited by axolotls (a kind of salamander native to Mexico) and blind fish in front of Müller’s imitation of a Jackson Pollock. Ein Versuch von Poesie (An Attempt of Poetry), 2014, a taxidermy swan whose wing, at a certain time of day, casts a butterfly-like shadow, refers to time-bound notions of art; and I, 2013, a shelf with four paintings of the letter in the title, is a reflection on the artist’s ego and on self-portraiture as a genre.

Works referencing the cultural and political backdrop of Musil’s novel—begun in 1921 and published from 1930 onward—complemented Müller’s aesthetic reflections. Some were quite direct, such as zündeln (Kindling), 2013, a swastika made out of matches; others, such as portraits of James Joyce, Rudolf Steiner, Ezra Pound, and Hermann Rorschach (all based on images from around 1913), more generally evoke the literary and psychosocial climate of the time. As notions of mental health and illness feature prominently in Musil’s novel, whose dramatis personae include a psychiatrist called Dr. Siegmund, three glazed ceramic sculptures are named after psychological conditions researched by Freud: Satyriasis, Hysterikerin (Hysteric), and Spastiker (Spasmos), all 2014.

Pink walls and carpeting lent the exhibition a Philip Guston–like hue, but also evoked the Nazis’ stigmatization of gay men. The exhibition was further enveloped by a comprehensive text that covered four of the gallery’s walls, a sort of mock manifesto amalgamating Müller’s own reflections with excerpts from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science—rich in aphorisms on art and a major influence on Musil—an analysis of a painting attributed to Jan Brueghel the Younger, and Joyce’s Stephen Hero, an early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Text and artworks were like translations of one another, in that they took Musil’s, or rather Ulrich’s, musings as a template for Müller’s often ironic reflections on his own role and time. The extent to which Müller merged with Musil’s fictitious character was demonstrated by a small painting—based on a 1915 self-portrait by the relatively unknown German artist Jakob Fischer-Rhein—titled Ulrich, with an underscore under “ich,” “I.” There was surely something self-obsessive, and old-fashioned, as Musil might have put it, about this show. Yet a hundred years after the start of World War I, Müller’s perspective on the mood and makings of the era leading up to it—and our own—remain timely and rewarding.

Astrid Mania