Werner Büttner @ ZKM, Karlsruhe

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

Werner Büttner @ ZKM, Karlsruhe

Postby CAP » Thu Apr 18, 2013 3:29 pm

“I wonder what’s happening in Karlsruhe?”
“Yeah, I wonder…”

I hear you nervously ask one another, in those blanked-out moments in studio visits. To put your minds at ease, I’m here to report on the current Werner Büttner retrospective at the Centre for Art and Media Technology, in glamorous downtown Karlsruhe. Werner who you ask? Well Büttner was part of the Hamburg chapter of the Neue Wilden or Neo Expressionist movement that boasted Martin Kippenberger, Albert and Werner Oehlen. They took a very punky approach to painting in the early 80s – naturally were in terrible bands as well - and generally departed happening Hamburg at the first opportunity. They were in their early twenties, what can you say? Significantly, Polke was teaching in Hamburg around then. Anyway, their take on Neo-Ex was basically a Dadaist impulse of the really, really bad, or as travesty. Büttner, I remember largely on the strength of his Self-portrait Masturbating in a Cinema which is dated 1980, in the authoritative Hunger Nach Bildern by Max Faust and Gert de Vries from 1985 (Dumont, Cologne), but I’m almost certain it takes its inspiration from the 1982 movie Diner by Barry Levinson, with its notorious penis in the popcorn gag and hence suspect the painting issues from that year. I could be wrong of course, the penis in a popcorn carton could be a German invention, but I’m sensing Büttner would have been well into Diner. His paintings essentially work as gags, and not especially sophisticated ones, largely depend upon the titles and unlike Kippenberger or the Oehlens, more nuanced or ambitious agendas never really beckoned.

He is one of the forgotten Neo-Exers these days, although that hasn’t stopped him having a respectable teaching career and quietly doing the rounds of the German provincial circuit. But international recognition has not come and this career survey is unlikely to change that. The gags are amusing, but there’s nothing here that you won’t find Kippenberger taking further, being ruder and more inventive about. Büttner can drop the badness and paint in other styles – he is at least as good a technician as Kippenberger or the Oehlens – works like Meine Frau liest und Deine? (My Wife Reads, Does Yours? ) (1993) find him pacing a kind of Post Modern Surrealism, but including the titles as captions only underlines a fairly limited function for the pictures. The bottom line is probably that Büttner never wanted any more from them. This isn’t so much bad Magritte, as just lame. Later works like Wer die Malerei nicht prügelt, hasst die Malerei (Who Can’t Beat This Painting Hates It – a rough translation) from 1999 seem particularly sub-Polke. Still later works like Der romantische Imperativ (2007) find him straining after the kind of juxtapositions we associate with Salle, without particular distinction.

Büttner is not alone in being sidelined, of course. There is a sort of accepted attrition rate with any art movement, and with the vast number that subscribed to Die Neue Wilden, understandably this rate is quite high. The Cologne chapter (or Mulheimer Freiheit, the address of their studios) comprised Hans Peter Adamski, Gerard Kever, Peter Bömmels, Gerhard Naschberger, Walter Dahn and Georg Jiři Dokoupil, none of whom really kicked on. I always thought Dokoupil showed the most promise. Then there were artists like Milan Kunc, Andreas Schulze, Stefan Sczcesny and Volker Tannert who were named in the squad but never came off the bench. Then there was the Berlin chapter, proper – K. H. Hödicke, Bernd Koberling, Bernd Zimmer, Helmut Middendorf, Salomé, Rainer Fetting, Ina Barfuss and Thomas Wachweger; none of whom ever really achieved escape velocity. The heavy hitters were actually the older generation, Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, A. R. Penck, Jörg Immendorff and Anselm Kiefer. They do make the cut and become, together with Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger, what we generally associate with Neo Expressionism.

Neo – Ex Now

I expand a little here reflecting on an article by Raphael Rubenstein on the Art in America site – Neo-Expressionism Not Remembered, which takes a very New York-centric, indeed Art in America-centred perspective. Rubenstein thinks Neo-Ex is currently the most uncool movement of the twentieth century and that everyone is now embarrassed by the likes of Kiefer, Penck, Kippenberger and Oehlen. Even for a parochial New Yorker this claim seems far-fetched. He ignores later exponents like Dana Schutz, Barnaby Furnas, Andrew Piedilato, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Joyce Pensato, Peter Gallo, Valerie Favre and Daniel Richter, for example (I choose examples from artists mainly exhibiting in NYC). The influence of Neo-Ex on figurative painting has been incalculable. He might qualify the claim by allowing that later Oehlen or Kippenberger are acceptable, but it is hard to see how or where one might draw the line in their developments. Their approaches to abstraction, installation, photography and video are part and parcel with their approach to figuration.

But Rubenstein’s argument is really with the critical reception the movement received in AiA, particularly at the hands of Craig Owen, a senior editor at the time. Owens could find only a thoroughgoing nihilism in Neo-Expressionism, a blind rejection of Modernism (obviously understood as excluding Expressionism). Donald Kuspit, a regular AiA contributor at the time, goes into bat for Neo-Ex but on such woolly terms – he’s essentially interested in psychological and sociological issues – it comes off as not much more than a pretentious string of likes and dislikes. The trouble is Kuspit doesn’t actually know much about painting (he’s a psychoanalyst by trade) so formal issues are a massive blind spot that no amount of historicising can disguise. For Rubenstein, Owens wins that debate although he doesn’t question Owens’ dubious use of terms like 'modernist' and 'tradition'. Expressionism is surely part of Modernism, a ‘Neo-Expressionist’ movement to some extent draws from that and renews it in some way – how then is Neo-Ex not just as traditional as Owens’ favoured conceptualists or Post Modernists like Levine or Sherman? If Kuspit’s defence was hopelessly woolly, Owens' attack is implicitly specious. Actually the result is a standoff. Kuspit recognises the inadequacy of Owens’ aesthetics, but can’t really engage them at a formal level. Owens' narrow canon simply has no means of dealing with current figurative painting that is not explicitly derived from print sources. As Rubenstein suspects, a carefully nurtured doctrine is under threat here.

But the real issue of course is mainly chauvinism. A New York critic affronted at radical developments coming from Europe. It’s one thing for Beuys to be accorded a survey at MoMA in 1979, it’s another for his former students, Kiefer and Immendorff to then start using painting with related agenda. It’s not just Post-Modern photography that is being upstaged, but New York as cultural centre (or center) – the city that ‘stole the idea of Modern Art’ from Paris – now gently relegated to clearing house or market. This is closer to the real threat encountered by Neo-Ex, animates the ferocity of the rejection. There is, after all an enormous institutional investment on the line. The movement never does find a truly articulate champion, anymore than Pop Art or Photo-Realism did. For this reason it never quite achieves the kind of intellectual respectability of some abstract painting, or the kind of photography advocated by Owens. If New York critics still find it embarrassing, it is because they remain hostage to a crippled version of art history, a sterile doctrine of ‘mediums’ and progress. Kuspit got that part right. He may have lost the battle over Neo-Expressionism, but his accusations go unanswered, hang over critical orthodoxy in New York like a perfect storm.

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