The Humpty-Dumpty Dilemma: The Broken Mirror and American Art in the 20th Century

By Avgikos, Jan | Artforum International, November 1993 | Go to article overview

The Humpty-Dumpty Dilemma: The Broken Mirror and American Art in the 20th Century


Avgikos, Jan, Artforum International


It's a provocative enough title, "Der zerbrochene Spiegel" (The broken mirror), for it acknowledges a break, in theoretical discourse if not in the practice of painting itself, and thus lets the exhibition off the hook for making a promise it cannot keep. That implicit promise (whether we interpret the "mirror" as a metaphor for painting, for our response to it, or for history) is that with 200 works by over 40 artists, the curators, Kasper Konig and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, cannot simply leave the broken pieces scattered about, but must somehow put them back together again. The means toward the mend, as explained in the catalogue's forward, is a "decentralized" approach, a kind of open-door, open-mind policy that the curators maintain is the only tenable one for pluralistic times like these when a "non-center" compensates for a true center, and perhaps even creates a new one.

While Konig and Obrist profess a neutral and nonhierarchical view of the diverse possibilities in painting today, they stage the drama of the broken mirror as an unresolved ideological split between figuration and abstraction. By resurrecting the bones of this old stylistic dichotomy, they have adopted a schema that is historically loaded, stylistically overdetermined, and--since they fail to make a convincing argument that an unresolved frisson exists between two equally compelling approaches--that reinforces an interpretive model of painting that is structurally insufficient with respect to the conceptual dimensions of recent practice.

The concept of decentralization that the curators wish to represent is ultimately undermined by the reassertion of the primacy of traditional abstraction, especially in its gestural forms, to test painting's potential. Although this emphasis negates the "decentralized" premise of the exhibition, it proves to be its most revealing aspect. The term "gestural abstraction" immediately calls to mind the heroicized bravura of Abstract Expressionism and Tachism, but Konig and Obrist go a long way toward expanding its capacity to articulate a complex relationship to spontaneity, immediacy, and other forms of subjective engagement. On the "hotter" end of the gestural spectrum are painters who include Georg Baselitz, Arnulf Rainer, Albert Oehlen, Eugene Leroy, Luis Claramunt, Per Kirkeby, and Herbert Brandl. Mary Heilmann, Gunther Forg, Sigmar Polke, Robert Ryman, Helmut Federle, and Maria Lassnig occupy the temperate zone. The cool stratum is defined by Gerhard Richter, Bernard Frize, David Reed, and Niele Toroni.

If the subtext of the exhibition measures painting in terms of an emerging gestural "ism" (one that may include figuration as well), it is accomplished at a carefully calculated arm's length from anything that smacks of neo-Expressionism or other socalled "appropriation" strategies, as well as from anything that questions the object status of painting. Allowing for a few acrylic deviations here and there, the smell of oil paint permeated the show, whetting appetites hungry for "the real thing." Indeed, the curators play it rather straight as far as technical definitions of painting are concerned. With the exception of Maria Eichhorn's installation of canvases in storage racks, and Edward Ruscha's painting on the exterior of the Kunsthalle, all works hang on the wall. No rambling Gerwald Rockenschaub scaffoldings or Robert Irwin stretched scrims or Rudolf Stingel carpets or Jessica Stockholder installations or Wendy Jacob breathing walls to confuse the issue. Instead, we are given (or should I say returned to) Painting with a capital P.

At the ideological core of the exhibition stand Polke, Baselitz, Forg, Kirkeby, Oehlen, and Rainer. The traces of post-Modernism--that is, of parody and pastiche, of irony and detachment--are dramatically downplayed in this inner circle in favor of the language of authenticity and originality, which is spoken with a decidedly European accent. This is not to say that parodistic or post-Modern attitudes are not present in the cooler variants of gestural abstraction or figuration, but they are segregated from the exhibition's privileged core. …

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