New York

Jiří Georg Dokoupil, Plukasibo, 2014, soap lye and pigment on canvas, 78 3/4 × 57 1/8".

Jiří Georg Dokoupil, Plukasibo, 2014, soap lye and pigment on canvas, 78 3/4 × 57 1/8".

Jiří Georg Dokoupil

Kasmin Sculpture Garden

Jiří Georg Dokoupil, Plukasibo, 2014, soap lye and pigment on canvas, 78 3/4 × 57 1/8".

It’s hard to believe that the abstract Plukasibo, 2014 (which was on view in this show), and the cartoonish Der Leser (The Reader), 1981 (which was not), were made by the same painter—the Czech-born German artist Jiří Georg Dokoupil. One of the six artists in the Mülheimer Freiheit group and a leader of the aggressive Junge Wilde, Dokoupil made his reputation as a figurative painter, rendering the human form sometimes as a quasi-surrealist comic monster, sometimes in the manner of realist kitsch. Generally, his paintings were designed to provoke, their targets ranging from the art world (their seemingly sloppy painterliness was a rebellion against the tidy insularity, not to say self-righteous reductionism, of then-dominant American Minimalist and Conceptual art) to German politics (the works Dokoupil made with Walter Dahn in 1980 and ’81 flash the forbidden swastika—something other German artists, such as Sigmar Polke, felt compelled to do as well in order to counter the national amnesia that set in after the war).

Now that Dokoupil is older, has he decided that abstraction is wiser? Has he grown out of his youthful wildness to a more aesthetic maturity? Winston Churchill once said that you’re a fool if you’re not a revolutionary when you’re young, and a fool if you’re not a conservative when you’re old. At age 60, Dokoupil seems to have abandoned his quirkily revolutionary figures for true-and-tried abstraction. But however seemingly conservative these works may be, Dokoupil’s ten new abstract paintings—which he made from soap lye and pigment oftentimes suffused with diamond dust—have precedents in his earlier work: Their globular forms embody the free-floating, phantasmagoric look of the protoplasmic figural fragments in Philosoph I and II, 1981, to name but one example. As many viewers have noted, the colorful translucent bubbles that flood the canvases (one with a white ground, the other nine with black grounds) evoke jellyfish. The bubbles sometimes burst, making small holes that seem like eyes, suggesting that they are “really” swimming fish, in a deep underwater abyss.

In other words, these works are at once imagistic and abstract: They induce a kind of double vision, what the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion calls “reversible perspective,” that is, the condition of seeing something from the perspective of the unconscious and from the perspective of consciousness, at times simultaneously. I am suggesting that there is a dreamy, twilight-zone quality to Dokoupil’s abstractions. The oddly mutating, seemingly weightless colorful shapes, sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque, have an iridescent, quasi-psychedelic aura, one that is all the more intense when they overlap and converge, flooding the canvas with a mystifying glow. This sense is supported by the eerie luminosity of the diamond dust. But I also think the works contain a commentary on their own creation: Dokoupil suggests that making art is like blowing bubbles, yielding limited, evanescent forms that will sooner rather than later burst and disappear in illimitable space. Dokoupil’s bubbles are units of space-time falling into the black hole of oblivion.

Donald Kuspit