German or French? Part III
“I don’t think Expressionism is the issue. I think what’s going on in painting now is coming out of national identities. People have withdrawn into their own histories try to find meanings. So you have art that seems like it can only be made out of a sensibility identified as Italian. England is enjoying a kind of rebirth. France, as well. And Germany. When Italians and Germans go back into their history, they’re going back to their strengths. A lot of American art is going back to sources, too – the 50s, Pop Art – which I don’t think is going back far enough. As you go back farther than that, you get to a time when America was more isolated – when its strengths are not easy to find, because American artists were very influenced by Europeans. It’s almost like a denial of American strength to go back into American history – say 60 years.” [Eric Fischl, The Expressionism Question I, AIA (DEC 1982)]
“Expressionism was an attack on convention (this is what characterizes it as a modernist movement), specifically, on those conventions which subject unconscious impulses to the laws of form and thereby rationalize them, transform them into images. (Here, convention plays a role roughly analogous to the censorship which the ego exercises over the unconscious.) Prior to expressionism, human passions might be represented by, but could have no immediate presence or reality within, works of art. The expressionists, however, abandoned the simulation of emotion in favor of its seismographic registration. They were determined to register unconscious affects—trauma, shock—without disguise through the medium of art; with Freud, they fully appreciated the disruptive potential of desire. Whatever we may think of this project today—whether we find its claims to spontaneity and immediacy hopelessly naive or whether we believe that the expressionists actually tapped a prelinguistic reserve of libidinal impulses—we should not overlook its radical ambition.” Craig Owens “Honor, Power and the Love of Women” 1982
The resurgence, in European art, of regional inspirations had not come overnight—nor did it come as some reaction against America. It began already in the early sixties and in the case of Arnulf Rainer or Joseph Beuys even earlier. It came from various directions but most strikingly from Germany and from Italy. This is not the place to recall the history of how the art of Georg Baselitz or A.R. Penck found its vital eccentric expression, or the work of Iannis Kounellis or Mario Merz—and all those around them. That history is by now well-known. For a while those new developments took place under the shadow of international (or American) Modernism. For the many observers who passionately believed in Modernism as the mainstream style, myself among them, it was at first difficult to acknowledge what was going on. Esthetic habits are tenuous. I remember seeing for the very first time, in 1975, some raw black paintings by Anselm Kiefer. I found no way to respond to them. It took time to adjust to their utter differentness. The same happened with Kounellis. Then I began to understand that more was happening there than just another shift in style. Obviously these artists had found sources of inspiration that had led them to their profoundly different expressions. Once this was clear, that this new art from Europe was establishing itself with undeniable power, then the position of American art also changed: it became an alternative. [Rudi Fuchs on Julian Schnabel and the resurgence of European Modernism in the 1980s]
There is no mode of painting that can cover such a wide range of themes and non-themes, but that was exactly the point. Like Büttner and Kippenberger, or above all Sigmar Polke, Oehlen used such statements to push the subject matter and imagery of painting to the limits of its potential, as a way of demystifying the medium, undermining expectations and, ultimately, liberating art from the mission it was purported to have by collectors, institutions, and admirers of artists like Joseph Beuys or Anselm Kiefer. “So, what you had to do was to put an excessive amount of stress on the medium [painting], that’s how the real beauty comes out,” Oehlen explained in a 1991 conversation with Wilfried Dickhoff and the Austrian linguist Martin Prinzhorn, who was among the first to participate in the discussion of this strategy of making excessive demands.
In the exhibition catalogue for a show at Galerie Borgmann Capitain in Cologne in 1986, Prinzhorn gives an accurate description of how Oehlen’s art resists any simple meaning being ascribed to it: “For art criticism, that old game of allocating form and content is always central. No matter how complex it might be, it ultimately always aims at a form of ‘understanding’ that presupposes such an endeavour as a meaningful allegory or metaphor. The art we are discussing here does not allow for these kinds of interpretative mechanisms.” [Daniel Baumann on Albert Oehlen’s work in the 1980s]