It is difficult to reconstruct the zeal with which artists of the first half of the last century projected their exclusive versions of the future. In the meantime, this constellation of movements, each representing a particular set of utopian beliefs, has dissolved into a relativist free-for-all. Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Vorticism: among this grand roll call, pluralism seems to co-opt its last letters somewhat apologetically. Coming in gangs, and dressing up statements in the form of didactic manifestos, there was an air of propaganda about their methods, and a tendency to develop a dialogue with the dominant political ideologies of the moment, either in the form of violent rejection or by dabbling, and sometimes merging, with their objectives. The politics dabbled in return, but only as far as expediency allowed and never for long.
The poet FT Marinetti, founder and main spokesperson of the Futurists--the most theatrically avant-garde of these movements (and the truest to the origins of the term in military vocabulary)--assiduously courted Mussolini, proposing his visions of technological prowess and 'hygienic' war as the ideal visual equivalent of the burgeoning Italian Fascist movement, only to be rejected finally in favour of an art more redolent of Ancient Rome. In Soviet Russia, by 1921, Lenin had already decided against the usefulness of the Constructivists.
These were artists who idealised a radical divorce from past aesthetics. Marinetti's first manifesto envisaged flooding the museums: 'Oh the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded'. If this required more fuel than they could muster, perhaps they could hitch a ride on the back of one of the versions of totalitarianism gathering momentum at the time, which were also forging a single-minded and iconoclastic way towards their own ends. Given that these were artistic philosophies which explicitly reject memory, it is ironic that the art they produced materialises so often as a catalyst for recent painting. Is this a manifestation of nostalgia for lost certainties, an attempt to ghost dogmatic narrative structures, which have long since expired, onto individualistic subjectivity? And what happens, in the process, to the political correlatives, often rebarbative, which cling to an art which is now being quoted with a postmodern irreverence? Although 'quoted' is perhaps too strong a term for an associative inhabiting of various utopian agendas, rather as an actor dons a part.
Last summer, Anselm Kiefer's exhibition at White Cube in London, 'Fur Chlebnikov', featured 30 large seascapes hung imposingly in grid-formation within a purpose-built pavilion in Hoxton Square. The dedication, 'Time, Measure of the World--Fate of the People. The New Doctrine of War: Naval Battles Recur Every 317 Years or in Multiples Thereof, for Velimir Chlebnikov' was scrawled onto the far wall. It was referring to the Russian Futurist poet Chlebnikov, whose esoteric theories on the precise historical regularity of battles at sea suggested the series. Kiefer's method is elliptical: generalised images of sea warfare only hint, through added inscriptions, at specific history (for example, the word 'Aurora', referring to the ship that fired at the Winter Palace in 1917, kick-starting the Bolshevik Revolution). What is the nature of Kiefer's affinity with a poet who called himself 'President of Planet Earth', who wished to purge all symbolism from Russian, and remake the language out of its root sounds? Manic hubris is reconfigured as weathered, rusted nostalgia, the grandeur of mythmaking. It ironises as much as it confirms the visionary triumphalism of Kiefer's own presentation.
The sheer horizon line and pseudo-deep perspective, which Kiefer has used repeatedly to describe barren, scarred earth, are here adapted to water. The simple two-zone abstraction of a Mark Rothko painting balances against the suggestion of deep traditional space, each undercutting the other's aspirations. It is a device that Thomas Zipp has taken over for his apocalyptic landscapes, which have developed into something of an easily recognisable brand in a diverse range of techniques. Kiefer's aesthetic has always seemed too unwieldy to be amenable as an influence on younger artists, too extreme a doctrine to be usefully transformed. But the mottled greys of Zipp's blow-ups of historic newsprint, overlaid and subverted by smaller framed paintings, clearly recall Kiefer's expanses of treated lead in which photographic silkscreen and collaged elements float like auratic signposts in an otherwise unnavigable terrain.
A poster for Zipp's 2004 exhibition in Los Angeles proclaimed, 'Futurism Now! Samoa leads', above a map from the beginning of the last century showing the Samoan archipelago, which was then a German colony but was seized by a New Zealand expeditionary force in 1914, and therefore subsumed under British authority. In Zipp's hands, Kiefer's elegaic meditations are rewritten as anarchic absurdity. The installation title, Achtung! Vision: England attacked by Samoa, 2004, reverses the history. A dark-grey architectural cube, open from above and by an entrance at one side, houses a sequence of mostly deserted landscape paintings. Apocryphal place names, further scrambled as though by wartime code, hover in the night skies at the end of white lines which point comically to an undifferentiated spot in the landscape beneath. The stillness is occasionally broken by farcical signs of threat: an armless gorilla looming out of the horizon's silhouette, or a rudimentary A-bomb tilted in mid-air like a giant pill. The landscape, tumb, tumb, tumb, 2005, is inscribed with the phonetic sounds of its title along the silhouette of a rocky mountain range. They refer to Marinetti's Futurist text of 1914, Zang Tumb Tumb (the sound of a shell exploding), which describes the experience of war in a fragmented poetic syntax: 'glory domination cafes war-stories Towers guns-virility-chases erection range finder ecstasy toombtoomb.' Along Zipp's otherwise silent horizon line, the childish sounds, inscribed in tiny white capitals, feebly resound with a mixture of pathetic melodrama and black humour.
In recent paintings, the sky/horizon/landscape format is a fixed stage for a psychedelic metamorphosis of signs. Clouds become speech bubbles which become mushroom clouds which unravel into swirling symbolic trees of life. Skies dappled by a fine pattern of triangular check, etched freehand in magic marker, both negate the implication of deep space as a flat decorative plane and codify it as a sublime astral curtain. Interspersed with this series are collages which adapt art-historical precedents and, by association, anchor the skyscapes in historical context. Achtung! Vision: England attacked by the Subreals, 2004, is a huge reproduction of Max Ernst's painting of the Surrealists, At a Meeting of the Friends, 1922. Obscuring their heads, Zipp has placed framed paintings of alien faces and anthropomorphic abstractions. In the original, the whole Surrealist troupe is pictured as a cluster of rigid gesturing puppets in the niche of a rocky lunar landscape. Their exaggerated postures, as though under the spell of random prompts of inspiration from the unconscious, have been reimagined by Zipp as the unhuman flailings of a collection of extraterrestrials planning an attack on England, which is represented by a framed map of the British Isles, overlaid on the far left of the reproduction, with England ominously blackened out. In Futur, 2003, the mushroom cloud motif is transformed, via Giacomo Balla's Futuristic icon of schematised electrical aura, into an aggressive octopus of light, mimicked by the swastika symbol which stands in for the F of Futur in the bottom corner. The pictorial aesthetics of the respective movements have been taken over in order to develop an ambiguous celebration/critique. It looks back, where the original artists defined themselves as only looking forward, or perhaps sideways in the case of the Surrealists. Zipp implicates his subjects' utopian visions in the history which succeeded them. The ideal is punctured, as much as it is translated into threat or comedy, by hindsight: Balla's neatly spreading aura of light, immaculately woven from the same repeated V-shaped tick, has been deflated by Zipp into a seething bulb of white oil paint smeared chaotically over a black canvas ground. Balla's 'Vs' rematerialise in Zipp's landscapes as the electrified chequered backdrop for his toxic clouds.
Arguably, Zipp transmutes his references thoroughly enough for his own idiom to comprehend the distances involved. The absurdity he generates depends on the playfully irresponsible realignments which occur when the past is given free rein to recompose itself imaginatively. If pluralism is the condition of the present, each individual artistic practice only attains credibility through the conviction of its own internal coherences, in the face of myriad apparent options; because the options, at least those provided by the past, are largely only apparent.
The question is how the essential unknowability of the past is negotiated. To what extent can you separate an artistic idiom from the inscrutable tangle of local and political contingencies which originally gave rise to it? The German writer WG Sebald was only able to adumbrate the horrors of the European 20th Century by writing around them. His circuitous narratives weave patterns which scrupulously measure the opacity of history. The pitfall of postmodernist freestyle appropriation is the presumption of access which it entails. Lucy McKenzie has built her career on a high-degree of neutral, all-purpose, illustrative facility channelled into a diverse range of painterly idioms. Her theme can perhaps be generalised as how idealism and representation come to terms with each other. In 2001, a series of paintings titled 'Global Joy' adopted the stylised posturings of Communist Social-Realist mural painting, but peopled with the disaffected youths of Western leisure rather than the usual strapping workers. The verve and technical virtuosity are seductive, but this is merely clever (like the in-joke of using as a model for one of the figures a published photograph of the teenage daughter of Gerhard Richter, who comes from the former East Germany, toying with a pistol in his Dusseldorf studio). Impressive skill and ingenuity are brought to bear on the elaborate and extremely effective illustration of a simple idea. There is a whiff of vanity in the flourish with which the surrounding political baggage is seized upon, along with the idiom, as a straightforward tool for sketching a critique of utopias per se.
McKenzie's recent exhibition in New York included a series of monochrome geometric abstractions in charcoal and chalk. A De Stijl-style neoplatonic formalism (except blown to the gallery-filling scale of Abstract Expressionism) was undercut by the evidence of street-surface rubbings in the texture of the squares and rectangles. The theosophical ideal of orthogonal planes is reframed as crazy paving, the cosmic grounded at street-level. Although the surfaces are luminously elegant and the ironic trope concise, beyond the idea, which is no more than a punchline, there is only the insipid transparency of seamless technical realisation.
For McKenzie, the particular density of historical idioms, rooted in a labyrinth of political and intellectual causality, can be smoothly extricated and deployed as a palette of signs. In contrast, the small, low-key abstractions of Tomma Abts hover over the lineaments of Constructivist, Suprematist and Futurist languages, but refuse the direct superimpositions of pastiche or appropriation. Nor can these paintings be assimilated, like McKenzie's, into the service of a readable critique: they stubbornly resist paraphrase. The affinities with classic utopian abstraction are more subliminal. This is a question of how painting can choose whether or not to communicate, and how what it communicates can be a gradual by-product of the way it conceals, as much as a stage-managed revelation of signs.
The fanning diagonals of Abts' Fewe, 2005, echo the streamlined techno-dynamism of an early futuristic abstraction of automobile motion, or a Rodchenko compass and ruler drawing with its intricate, semi-illusionistic, overlapping planes. And yet the fervent proselytising of those models has effectively imploded to leave a frozen decoration, fossilised in relief. Abts' paintings rarely allow signs of gesture, but their long gestation is visible in the ridged contours of previous compositions pressing through the surface. This accretive slowness and the narrowness of the furrow they plough--they are almost always exactly the same size--deflate and undermine the thrusting notations out of which they are constructed. It is like a memory of vitality, now spent, trapped in its obsessive reconstruction.
These are 'traditional' paintings in TS Eliot's sense of the term: they are conscious of the presentness of the past, of how the past is 'altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past'. A tone of revolutionary ardour in the loud voices of the early 20th Century is distilled into an eerie whisper. The stumblings of failure qualify unblinking belief. Relentlessness is carried over in a self-consciously attenuated form. It is like Kraftwerk's theatrical reiterations in their live perfomances of an already long-since superseded idea of the Modern.
Across one of Michel Majerus's abstractions--currently on view at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover--is written, What looks good today may not look good tomorrow, as though the painting's knowingness could second-guess whatever the future might throw at it. Majerus persistently attempted to extend his painting-based practice with silkscreened sculptural installation, and it is where relatively unmediated computer graphics take centre stage that it looks most constrained by the local--the style of Berlin club and rave flyers, and trend magazine layouts--and now, ten years on, most dated. His paintings, at best, recall Benjamin Buchloh's remark, in an interview with Richter, that Richter's career looked 'to some observers, like a vast cynical retrospective of 20th-century art'. However, these are not straightforward appropriations. He allows the logic of the past to flow through a hyperactive sampling. The historical models, though often intended to be recognised and sometimes encoded in the titles, have been digested.
Majerus's bricolage is best expressed in the grid installations of 60x60cm canvases which he made throughout his career, as an index of current preoccupations. The order in which they were hung was contingent: clusters of provisional statements, they create an exhilarating sense of exponential imaginative reproduction, as if any unpremeditated outburst of his brush, and any idiom assumed along the way, could be made to fit into the unfolding language. It is an improvised contiguity between gesture and referent.
In MoM Block 31, 1998, broad right-angled swathes of paint give onto sudden leaps into space. It shadows the bravura rhythms of a De Kooning 60s landscape, but with De Kooning's oozing build-up of oils replaced by a systematic recipe: the two-metre canvas has been lathered with roughly equal proportions of yellow, pink, blue, green and white acrylic paint which are then dragged into each other, in what can only have been the space of ten minutes, given the speed at which acrylic dries. MoM Block 44, 1997, translates the broad zip of a Barnett Newman into funky post-pop pastel shades. But the results are somehow more than Warholesque signs for gestural facture. Lightness and brevity meet the weighty heroics of the Abstract Expressionist references in a spirit of winning nonchalance. The idealism of high modernist painting may be spent but its aura may be salvageable. Majerus's magpie energy takes what it requires and moves on. It never directly quotes so it is not caught up in the trammels of critique. It evinces its own counterbalancing conviction that a vigorous contemporary reaction to the past can reinvent gestures which would appear, to a more timid artist, invalidated as forbidding cliches by the dense thickets of history.
MARK PRINCE is an artist living in Berlin.…