Zurich

Emil Michael Klein, Untitled, 2017, oil on canvas, 101 1/8 x 75 5/8".

Emil Michael Klein, Untitled, 2017, oil on canvas, 101 1/8 x 75 5/8".

Emil Michael Klein

Kunsthalle Zurich

Emil Michael Klein, Untitled, 2017, oil on canvas, 101 1/8 x 75 5/8".

Emil Michael Klein’s paintings are as boring as the novels of Bret Easton Ellis or Karl Ove Knausgaard. Klein’s paintings, like Ellis’s descriptions of sexual violence or Knausgaard’s of his breakfast, are painstaking, methodical, and indifferent to the audience. And like both writers’ prose, the results are repetitive, inhumane, and strangely compelling. Asking if Klein is a good painter seems as beside the point as asking if Knausgaard writes well—for their works have as much of the character and motivation of scientific experiments as they do of artworks. What these works present is a clear hypothesis, systematic construction, and an attempt at completeness. Which is all a way of saying, as Sianne Ngai might, that this is interesting boring.

Take, for instance, a recent series of pink monochromes, “Untitled,” 2015–17. In making these soft, thick fields of color, Klein begins where a painting normally ends—with his signature. For an artist to make his name the subject of a painting is not new. Josh Smith, for instance, has become known for playing with his name as a formal element. But Klein deviates from all predecessors in two crucial ways. First, he does not make the signature large and central. Rather, he leaves it to its conventional, innocuous place at the bottom right of the canvas. He then paints out from and around the signature to create a color field. He does not assert himself through this signature (not even ironically), but rather treats it as a point of departure, even an obstacle to be circumvented. Second, he does not present it in the classic form of a semilegible glyph—half word, half ligature—but rather in impersonal capital initials, EMK, like a brand or a stamp.

One of the traditional tasks of the artist’s signature is to certify the work as from his own hand, but the signature also has another, more oblique function. Within classic pictorial perspective, a two-dimensional squiggle across the picture plane has always been a way of sealing off the fictitious space of the painting. Furthermore, the autograph is a messenger within the picture of the always absent fourth dimension: time. It records a microhistory of a few seconds’ movement of the painter’s hand, a chronicle that can be reenacted through the focal point of the viewer’s gaze, with its abrupt turns and saccadic wriggles. The signature says, “This is finished,” but also, “Someone was painting.” The autograph is therefore typically also a kind of biograph. Painting has always been unable to adequately show the passing of time, but the tangled line, a one—dimensional being trapped in a two-dimensional world, refers to it not through illusion, but through its own reduction. Klein’s replacement of the line with block letters is therefore doubly impersonal, both because the letters refuse to “certify” the work as an autograph, and because they refuse to reveal the person of the artist—that is, to be a biograph.

Klein bases each image on a study, in which he first draws the initials and then selects a shade of pink. The process of selection is an exercise in deadpan seriousness, because the studies are made on an iPad screen that can produce only a limited gamut of pinks. All digital pinks, it seems, wish to converge on magenta. This digitally constrained pink is then meticulously transferred into the much richer possibilities of oil paint. The more methodical the process, the stranger the results. These paintings are abstract, but they are not designed to communicate concepts to the viewer. Nor are they paintings without objectives. Rather, they are search functions, machines set up to test the limits of painting. Klein is not alone in attempting to find the medium’s boundaries—many have taken up such a search—but here, these limits have been pushed very far out, to positions that are correspondingly inhospitable and difficult to reach. It takes endurance to keep going. The air here is thin, and it is pretty cold. This is no easy way to make a living.

Adam Jasper