The Morning After: David Zwirner. Through June 19
White Flag – Pink Flag: The Power Plant, Toronto. March 27 – May 23
It was just a little over a year ago, before missiles began streaking into Baghdad, before tanks full of soldiers and eager network journalists began racing across the Iraqi desert, that some of the largest peace rallies ever organized took place in cities around the world. Hundreds of thousands, millions in all, gathered in spring warmth or spring chill in Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, Toronto, and New York City in global protest of the impending onslaught of reckless American imperial aggression. Though these demonstrations did not devolve into anarchy, marching riot police, tear gas, and barricades, they were related in spirit to the anti-globalization events in Seattle, Quebec City, and Milan: they amounted to people raising their collective voices against state and corporate greed, exploitation, and violence. Both the most recent incarnation of the peace movement and the anti-globalization movement created a sense of renewed hope for grassroots activism and a broader sense of solidarity, supported in part by the remarkable new tools for alternative media and community on the internet: websites sprang up, images and information furiously circulated. Both of these movements are distinctive for having had virtually no discernible political or social impact beyond the subjective experiences of the participants, which suggests that they were not so much movements as fantasies of movements fueled by their own spontaneous publicity machines. But then even a year ago, few fully understood the degree to which the world’s most powerful democracy had degenerated beyond recognition into corruption and lies in a way that is almost as significant as the collapse of communism in 1989.
In the German painter Daniel Richter’s immense “Phoenix” (2000), which was on view in White Flag – Pink Flag, a traveling survey of his work at the Power Plant in Toronto, a burning, phosphorescent yellow figure is being shoved down over a wall by a wild mob of club-wielding thugs, their faces either masked or distorted by the kind of drugged hysteria familiar in Edvard Munch’s paintings. The crumbling wall that cuts across “Phoenix” inevitably evokes the Berlin Wall, the spaces on either side of the bleak, rubble-strewn, graffiti-covered no-man’s land that made post-war Berlin an eerily incoherent city. But the throng here is not celebrating the end of communism—or anything. The violence is rancid, mocking, and pointless, the perpetrators drunk, anonymous clowns, and, despite the mythological reference of its title, the painting seems more about debasement than dethroning powerful gods. The old Berlin Wall with its razor wire and gun turrets, its observation posts and moat, already feels medieval as an image of the enforcement of repressive state power; state power in affluent, technologically advanced societies is asserted electronically, abstractly, and at a remove. The violence enacted and implied in “Phoenix” is smoldering, diffuse, and confused, without formulated ideology and without knowable enemy.
Educated in both the art school and the radical squatter movement of Hamburg, Germany in the 1980s, and subsequently working as an itinerant punk rock graphic designer, Daniel Richter developed a reputation in the mid-1990s for his small, intense, and beautiful conceptual abstractions. Richter began making anarchic, highly expressive figurative paintings in the late 1990s, often on a massive, mural-like scale. These are the works for which he is best known and are represented both at the Power Plant survey and in the current exhibition at David Zwirner, Richter’s first solo show in New York. In interviews, Richter has described himself as reviving classical history painting, and this is an intriguing if perhaps half ironic idea. History painting, from David’s “Death of Marat” to Goya’s “The Third of May” to Manet’s “Execution of Maximilian” has always concerned itself both with the depiction of events and the evocation of larger historical forces—revolution, insurrection, imperial adventures. The advent of photographic images, and their proliferation in media of every kind, from newspapers to product advertisements, means that our relationship to the history of the present is principally a relationship to an avalanche of deceptively imminent, fragmented images. This is perhaps why Leon Golub constructed his politically charged paintings of soldiers and mercenaries from a personal archive of magazine photographs, and why Gerhard Richter’s masterpiece, October 18, 1977, seems to use official photographs as a way of exploring our degraded, confused historical memories. Yet compared with the current context, the premises of both Golub’s and Richter’s earlier work are almost quaint. We now live in a continuously shifting sea of images and information, on television, on billboards, on computers, on cell phones, where pornography, politics, and private communications flow one into the other. History painting now is impossible in part because no single image can carry authentic, representative weight.
Like Golub and Gerhard Richter, Daniel Richter uses photographs as source materials, but in a way significantly different from his predecessors. In Daniel Richter’s work, images culled from what one might call our collective photographic unconscious are lost in complex, fractured, hallucinatory compositions whose bright, seeping surfaces are both psychedelic and toxic. In “Zuberes” (2000), for instance, from White Flag – Pink Flag, a ratty monkey decked out in frilly little girl’s clothes is hiked up on an organ grinder’s back, and all around are clowns, soldiers, street people, addicts, and lovers, all loitering in drizzling blue night rain beneath the slanting awning of what looks like a shopping mall. In “Süden” (2002), also in The Power Plant exhibit, there are wild, lurid pink trees tilting houses set on steep hills, and an array of melting, faceless gnomes with their hands raised to a dark, bleeding purple sky, monstrous conspirators consorting in a garden at the lower edge of the canvas. Richter’s array of characters—giants, clowns, circus animals, ghouls—in some ways evoke the savage and mocking allegories Max Beckmann painted in exile in the 1940s. But for all their apocalyptic pitch, Richter’s paintings remain slippery and enigmatic: they are embodiments of confused states of being, which the carefully spattered and glazed layers of acidic color make both beautiful and nasty. When Richter attempts to push more obviously iconic imagery into the foreground, as with the garish battle of airborne dogs, horses, and roosters in “Hotel Jugend” (2002), or the giant, sugary horses rearing up against one another, teeth bared, in “Halli Galli Polly” (2004), his work falls flat. The paintings need the fluid menace of indeterminacy and confusion.
Much of the work in The Morning After at David Zwirner has the same air of mockery, abandonment, violence, and amoral, narcissistic indulgence as those in White Flag – Pink Flag. In “Nerdon” (2004), for instance, a huge, old white guerrilla sits in a wheelchair contemplatively stroking his chin, and nearby a nerdy bearded creep stands holding a dead fish and a dead rabbit; ghoulish hordes seem to clamor in an urban background of warehouses, factories, and bridges. In “Tefzen” (2004), a huge dead man is splayed across the floor in the middle ground, a regal blue lion gazes out toward the viewer, a dog obscenely lolls on its back, and an old fashioned dancing girl in sequined white dances in place, white feathers fanning out all around her. And in one of the exhibit’s strongest paintings, “Ebb” (2005), shimmering, ghost-like refugees in disintegrating chemical yellow and orange flee across an undulating sea of aquatic green, their bodies dissolving into tracers, gritty clots, and spatters.
Richter’s approach might be compared with Peter Doig’s work, especially Doig’s paintings based on scenes from the Friday the 13th films. Like Richter, Doig builds up deep, translucent, glowing surfaces to create moody, cinematic effects, but the British artist’s work is much more academically postmodern in its use of popular culture. Richter, by contrast, is more interested in decadent, destabilized immersion, a combination of violence, disorder, and unbridled pleasure. Beyond their anxiety and doom, Richter’s paintings smolder with sick desires. The great size of some of the paintings is meant both to evoke urban mural painting, perhaps even a luxuriant form of vandalism (close up, the surfaces can look corroded and polluted, even diseased), but also to encompass internal discontinuities of scale. The figures in Richter’s paintings are off-kilter both with each other and with the architecture and landscape around them, so they seem lost in a space that is ultimately incoherent, like feverish, kitsch hallucinations. Nonetheless, the vastness of the paintings occasionally works against them. The strangeness of Richter’s incommensurate figures relies upon the compression and tension of the expanses between them, and in the least successful paintings, like “Punktum” (2003) in the Toronto show, with its throng of ghouls and the huge splashed yellow silhouette in the center, the figures become merely disconnected and random.
The most effective paintings in both The Morning After and White Flag – Pink Flag are less overtly grandiose, their technique less overbearing, their dystopic vision more subtly repressed; they are paintings that even allow themselves moments of awkward, compromised lyricism. In the beautiful “Konstruktion (In Jenem Traum)” (2001) from White Flag – Pink Flag, for instance, cool, velvety bluish-purple tree limbs and roots snake horizontally across the canvas, and on them are perched hollow-eyed, skeletal aliens, the background a dark, luxuriant green. The dreamer himself is innocently curled up in the foreground in a blur of vegetation, and it is impossible to say whether these specters he has dreamed are angels or demons, redemptive or destructive. In “Das Erstandlich Comeback des Dr. Freud” (2004) in the show at David Zwirner, a man’s bearded head sits slightly twisted atop a woman’s body, a splashed bleach white forest blazing in the background, and in “Erben Von Burden”(2004), a woman appears to be remounting a stuffed animal head onto a wall already crowded with trophies—lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes. She is like a member of the janitorial staff of the unconscious: she tries to keep the animals safely dead and on the wall, but we know that they will burst forth and begin roaming the streets soon enough. And in one of Richter’s most compelling and macabre paintings, “Tuwenig”(2004), a woman resembling Marlene Dietrich in a blue dress and top hat does a song and dance routine in a sea of dogs, ghosts as usual lurking in a hut in the middle ground, deep blacks and purples dripping down from the sky. In a way, “Tuwenig” sums up what is best in Richter’s sensibility, for it is full of pleasure, ugliness, menace, and lightheartedness all at once. For all his global pessimism, there is a side to Richter that is a call to anarchy, partying, and perversion.
We are still not in a good position to grasp the full implications of what happened on September 11, 2001 and the American government’s ongoing response to it. The war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the global war on terror, the implementation of the Patriot Act, the establishment of extra-judicial prisons, the jettisoning of the Geneva conventions, the bald and unrelenting lies and corruption, all of that and more has left many artists and writers bewildered, overwhelmed, and without a potent language with which to respond to it: in such circumstances, still more mass demonstrations, with their banners and speeches and swelling sense of solidarity, seem beside the point. Fortunately, German artists of the 20th century have a wealth of experience with the disintegration of civil society. I have in mind not Joseph Beuys’s longing for redemption or Anselm Kiefer’s operatic guilt, but rather the savage black comedy that unfolds in the work of artists like George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann. It is the work of these great and often underestimated pre-war German artists that Richter’s paintings often evoke. Not burdened by anxious American moralism and righteousness, these artists had a visceral sense of vice and corruption, and they read the German catastrophe as collective. Existing in an unresolveable zone between industrial rave, squatter riot, idle fantasy, global fear, drugged hallucination, and absurdist violence, Richter’s paintings tap into a deep inner ambivalence and disorder: his “history paintings” are not public but solipsistic. The walls have come down, the mobs are on fire and fleeing, the circus animals have taken over, and we are curled up in some alley, doped and dreaming hideous and destructive and beautiful dreams.