Erwin Wurm, Stephan Balkenhol, Jaume Plensa, Jonathan Lasker, Bernand Frize, Katharina Grosse.
2ª Visión del Arte contemporáneo
Review of tradition Miguel Cereceda
Painting today may have established the avant-garde paradigm of contemporary art not only through the successive transformations after impressionism, but particularly based on clear self-criticism, which has been carried out with a certain frequency throughout the 20th century to the very point of annihilation. From the moment painting reached the conviction that “a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman or any old anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours brought together in a certain order” as Maurice Denis said in 1890, this conviction, which radically asserted its own autonomy was also the start of its self-destruction.
Scarcely twenty five years later, that self-destruction began to gather speed, both in Marcel Duchamp’s work, particularly in the execution of his “The Large Glass” (which he started in 1915 and abandoned in 1923), and in the Black Square by Kasimir Malevich, also in 1915. “Everything we loved was lost” wrote the critic about this subject “We are in a desert! What we have before us is nothing more than a black square on a white background!”. The signs that warned of the death or self-dissolution of painting became more obvious from then on, and one of them was the self-proclaimed “silence of Duchamp” and his apparent withdrawal from the world of art.
However, we would have to wait until the end of the Second World War for those signs to begin to exercise a true effect over contemporary art. When Ad Reinhardt published his “Twelve Rules for a New Academy” in 1957, his anti-expressionist manifest which would lead to the Black Paintings of the sixties, other European painters such as Yves Klein or Piero Manzoni we already likewise working on achromatic or monochromatic experiences which would eventually lead painting towards nothingness or towards emptiness. It was Pierre Restany, speaking of the work of the “new realists” who in 1960 decreed the “death of painting”. The later developments of painting, (which Clement Greenberg named “Post-pictorial Abstraction”), with the appearance of the Minimal and the Conceptual, only served to confirm this trend of painting of disappearance or even to the disappearance of painting.
Nevertheless, afterwards, the attempts to rehabilitate painting went through a statement undoing the prejudice of the pleasure of painting or obstinate rejection of the contributions by the avant-garde and generalised condemnation of its commitments (both formalist and political). This was the golden age of the return to painting in the eighties which, as if nothing had happened, reaffirmed even the most traditional shapes of figuration and the return to the old channels of distribution, i.e. museums and galleries. That was the age of the Italian trans avant-garde, of Madrid style figuration or the German New Savages, which were artistic movements that in general repudiated the conceptual tradition and abominated the inheritance of Duchamp. Another two trends opened up however, outside this reaction, trying to establish the lines of possible painting. Some were the post-pictorial experiences by Daniel Buren and others were experiments of “painting without paint”.
From the three painters chosen by Ana Serratosa, we could say that all of them have tried to tackle the problem of survival and continuity of painting, trying to find specific solutions for the problem. The first, Jonathan Lasker, through a procedure that we could call “systematic” which he uses to try to articulate a conceptual possibility for painting, to the point that we could consider it as a species.
Born in New Jersey in 1948, Jonathan Lasker studied at the New York School of Visual Arts and later moved to the Institute of the Arts-Valencia(California). Right from his first exhibition in the Landmark gallery in New York in 1981, he has attracted considerable attention for the atypical nature of his orientation, at a time when figuration was making a strong return from its damage. As a critic wrote at the time “his paintings were seen by many as the work of a reactionary, a traditionalist or a misfit, ignorant of the problems of painting, who was obstinately swimming against the tide, which at the time was irremediably moving towards representation, narrative and pastiche”. Nevertheless, that work gradually achieved its recognition through the eighties and therefore, at the outset of the nineties, he started to have large exhibitions at major museums and international art centres. Jonathan Lasker has exhibited at Pennsylvania University ICA, Witte de Witt in Rotterdam, at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and in 2003 at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid.
In an interview with Santi Olmo for the magazine “Lápiz”, the artist stated that “the hostile mood towards painting, which was dominant when he was at the California Art School, had been the most reassuring experience for his artistic purpose, making it a very interesting place to start to be a painter”.
Undoubtedly the evident hostility towards a specific type of art was reason enough to make a stance to defend and renovate that art. But it is also true that, in that defence and attempt at renovation, Jonathan Lasker was not alone. On the contrary, all the contemporary history is in some way a reiterated attempt to defend it. In fact, that was what happened with Pop-Art in the sixties, before the nihilistic trends of abstract expressionism. It was also what happened again when Supports/Surfaces appeared in the mid-seventies. And of course it was what the media tried to do both in Italian trans-avant-garde and the German New Savages, and the Madrid-style New Figuration, in the eighties.
But it must also be pointed out that, apart from the attempt by Supports/Surfaces, all the other rehabilitation processes of painting were not only cleverly designed business manoeuvres, which once again authenticated the old art dissemination channels (museums and galleries), but they also openly revoked all political and emancipating commitments acquired by avant-garde art, simple reasserting the pleasure of painting and blindly condemning conceptual art and other avant-garde practices, as if they were a nonsensical species leading art down a blind alley.
That is why Jonathan Lasker took the challenge of the problems of the tradition of painting and those of the conceptual avant-garde, trying to find a new solution that would not be a simple step backwards to illusionist figuration, nor an abandonment of conceptual demands. Lasker is not, however, a conceptual artist.
His work is not interested in the problem of sensitive representation of an idea. Quite the contrary, it exclusively centres on the conditions of possibility of painting, after painting itself has been exhausted. That is why his work is only conceptual in this sense. As for what he takes as essential for paintings are basically three elements, which he keeps to scrupulously. These three elements, purely pictorial, to which he has referred for over twenty years now, are. The background, section and drawing. Thus articulated, his paintings in general appear to be simple geometrical compositions on which he occasionally introduces a chromatic distortion, always seeking strong colour contacts between complementing colours. In this way, all the paintings always have the appearance of three superimposed surfaces or three reading levels, within which all the pictorial illusionism of the old background/figure relationship appear once again, leading to a certain degree of visual movement and even a certain perspective.
Although, the paintings by Bernard Frize could bear a certain formal analogy to those by Jonathan Lasker, particularly concerning the reiteration and persistence of his schemes and patterns, the procedure is radically different. In fact, in spite of the extremely beautiful and fascinating finishes, Bernard Frize is more interested in the creative processes than in the visual or aesthetic results. For him the creative process is so important that he establishes a kind of compositional set of rules for his paintings, which the executors later have to follow, almost as if it was a kind of mechanical ballet of painting. Some of Frize’s pictures are painted in a way that suggests they must have been done with four hands, by four different participants (usually the painter and three helpers), who follow specific compositional rules. Sometimes the lines unfold over the canvas, not with four hands, but with four and sometimes up to seven brushes, each in a different colour, held together in a bunch and dragged across the canvas until the pigment completely fades.
Bernard Frize was born in Saint-Mande in 1949 and lives and works between Paris and Berlin. In addition to exhibiting in the best European galleries, he has also exhibited at the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag, at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, at Kunstverein St. Gallen, in Switzerland and at Musée d’Art Contemporain of Nîmes, in France.
The third and youngest of the three painters is Katharina Grosse who was born in 1961 in Freiburg and lives and works between Düsseldorf and Berlin, the latter being where she is currently an art teacher at Weissensee Kunsthochschule. In spite of her work fitting in perfectly with this post-pictorial tradition of painting, a tradition which she could be related to with her male colleagues, such as Bernard Frize, Jonathan Lasker, Juan Uslé and particularly the great master of post-painting Daniel Buren, her painting is introduced not only as an expansion of painting to the terrain beyond pictures, but particularly as a kind of angered protest against the immaculate pureness of museums, against the white box and the perfect container. A container, on which paint runs, as her work shows categorically. She stains, makes dirty, contaminates everything with paint, producing an amazing explosion of colours and pigments, of earth and surfaces thrown across museum halls. Surfaces which are sometimes canvases, sometime large spheres such as huge globes hanging from the ceiling, saturated with pure paint. And, nevertheless, as usually happens in museums, when the exhibition ends, everything is repainted. In this way museums acquire their fascinating quality of an immaculate container, far removed from any other kind of container, both removed from what assets it and what denies it. That is why Katharina Grosse’s painting shows that aggressive, violent and disrespectful appearance to what is traditional. Her painting stains, without excessively staining. It takes power over floors, ceilings, walls and staircases and impregnates everything with its colour, reminding us that, until not long ago, the museum was a sacred space for painting. That is why, unlike the restrained, respectful styles of her colleagues, Katharina Grosse’s painting also has the appearance of profanation.
If there is something we can say that is common to these three artists it is the fact that all show persistence in painting that tries to escape what we could call linguistic paradigm. In other words, theirs are not narrative paintings, in the sense of the old figurative paintings, but neither are they illustrations of ideas. In other words, neither are they conceptual paintings. Undoubtedly, they take minimalist and conceptual tradition into account, they accept their demands, but they are not limited to repeating their results. That is why they account for another step, within that contemporary search for possible painting.
In spite of contemporary sculpture not having suffered the repeated crises as painting has, perhaps because that did not embody the paradigm of fetishist objectivism of art and the privileged object of market consumption and that of galleries, neither their paths and the contemporary problems are radically different. In fact, this parallel path, as sister arts in a common destiny, is exemplified here jokingly as one of the best and most interesting contemporary sculptors, Erwin Wurm, in his painting with jersey, called Mental Green (2007), which being a sculpture nevertheless has the appearance of a painting.
But, although sculpture did not undergo a similar authentication crisis to painting, nevertheless, in some way the offensive by Conceptual Art also radically affected its line of flotation. However, sculpture was also forced to question its objective past and radically rethink its conditions of possibility and concept. In this sense, Erwin Wurm is possibly one of the most interesting and most renewing artists in the international picture of contemporary sculpture. Born in Austria in 1954, he trained at the Academy of Fines Arts Vienna, where he lives and worked. He has exhibited at Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, at Kunstmuseum in St. Gallen, in Switzerland and at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon.
Revoking the merely objective and purely decorative nature of most of the old sculpture, Wurm has developed work of interaction between objects and the human body, to such an extent that it permits mutually articulating them as temporary sculptures. Some of his pieces, called “One Minute Sculptures” consist of, for example, a body (that of spectators or the artist or a performer) in absurd or ridiculous positions, in relation to everyday objects, remaining in that position for one minute, thus making for a living sculpture. In his series of “Hotel Rooms” the artist stacks furniture from the different hotel rooms where he stays, thus creating small private museum installations which he later photographed. Many of the Wurm’s pieces invite spectators to carry out a number of simple instructions, thus returning art to life and transgressing the usually impassable limits between the piece of work (one that is viewed) and the spectator (as a passive viewing subject). In this way his sculptures fit in perfectly, without a shadow of a doubt, with what we could call “post-sculpture”.
And that is something that we could also say about the German Stephan Balkenhol. Born in Fritzlar (Germany) in 1957, Balkenhol studied at the Hamburg School of Fine Arts, tutored by Ulrich Rückriem, with whom he worked as his assistant in his studio from 1980. Balkenhol has been a Professor at the Hamburg School of Art and at Frankfurt. In 1987 he took part in the Münster Sculpture Project, which brought him international fame. In 1992 he won the Professorship at the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Arts, where he currently has his studio, as well as another one in the French town of Meisenthal.
If Balkenhol is inserted in the tradition of post-sculpture it is only because of the serious way in which he has taken the minimalist tradition and his strict reflection on what sculpture is. Far from being work in a return to classical figuration, with which he only shares the figurative appearance of his dolls, insofar as those representations appearing as people from everyday life, Balkenhol’s images lack any transcendence, they lack history, they do not tell anything, nor do they pretend anything, but rather, as was true in the minimalist tradition, thy are simply there.
As Frank Stella stated about his paintings: “Everything I want to say is represented there. The picture is the idea and the idea is the picture”. In a similar sense, Balkenhol’s sculptures are self-sufficient, they do not refer to anything outside them. They are, as Joseph Kosuth would want from pieces of art, tautological. But, even though they are tautological, and openly proclaim that that all pieces of work proclaim (i.e. basically the assertion that “I am a piece of work”), Stephan Balkenhol’s sculptures also refer, nevertheless, to a specific way of the tradition of sculpture itself. That is why, the first thing that they openly claim is simply that that contemporary sculpture had lost on its journey towards Modernity. In other words: the pedestal. Balkenhol’s sculptures are, before anything else, pieces of work on pedestals or even, more so, they are pedestals from which, as an excrescence, a figure has arisen, in the same way as branches or flowers could have sprouted from them. Balkenhol’s sculptures are reminiscent of the work by the German expressionists at the turn of the century, the rough, unrefined style of Kirchner or Erich Heckel. And it is true that his carvings in wood could hold something of those aesthetics, of their brutalism and even their colouring. But it is also true that his sculptures are, as has been said earlier, “German expressionism, but without the expression”, because in the end, and that is something which the artist himself has apparently insisted on, they do not signify anything. They have no history.
Without being a conceptual artist, Jaume Plensa has in some way continued a tradition that we could define as conceptual, by basically using the word as a constructive material for many of his pieces. And, in the same way as Joseph Kosuth and Art and Language painted their pictures framed with text, making the text itself or the concept a piece of art, in the same way Jaume Plensa builds some of his sculptures with words. He makes bodies with words, rooms with words and curtains with words. He insists on that through that philosophical truth of the linguistic construction of reality. But although his textual type work is sufficiently interesting for recent sculpture, where the artist really shows his skill, is in the transformation of the old concept of monumental sculpture which, since the sixties, had undergone a certain decline, as a result of self-criticism. As Gregor Paulsson categorically stated at the end of the Second World War: “Totalitarian societies have always used monuments to extend their power over the people; that is why a democratic society is anti-monumental by nature”. Plensa, who is one of the great contemporary Spanish sculptors, born in Barcelona in 1955, and who has worked in very diverse fields of sculpture, creating scenery for example for La Fura dels Baus, has nevertheless reached international fame with his most relevant piece of work, namely “Crown Fountain” (2004) for Millennium Park in Chicago, which is a monumental piece of art that considerably transforms the traditional concepts of monumental sculpture by removing its totalitarian nature by opening up the idea of the monument to society and a democratic culture, and by introducing new techniques, on the other hand, as an expressive resource, such as video and projecting images on a gigantic LED screen. Thus, his sculpture, is really a gigantic double fountain erected over a pool, to become the new conscience of the citizens, since it is there that the faces of over one thousand inhabitant of Chicago are reproduced, as photographed by the artist. He thus introduces the image of a society that is reflected and one that recognises itself over the fountain. Occasionally a huge jet of water spurts from the mouths of those gigantic faces, which turn them into a kind of contemporary gargoyle, for new democratic, monumental aesthetics.