Wolfgang Max Faust – Artforum January 1983


Wolfgang Max Faust


The exhibition site—a partially restored, superb neo-Renaissance palazzo in West Berlin, designed by Martin Gropius and formerly the Prussian Museum of Arts and Crafts—is itself spectacular and mnemonic. The political monstrosity slicing the city into two radically separate parts, the Berlin Wall with its land mines, runs scarcely ten meters away. The site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo is also nearby; now-filled-in cellars right beside the exhibition building were torture chambers of the SS. Here both German and world history—the rigorous division of the world into East and West—meet. The place itself promotes a challenge to the emotions and the intellect.

The title of the exhibition—“Zeitgeist”—is invested in its popular use with the idea of hitting the nerve of the moment. It also recalls the Hegelian concept of the objective spirit that unfolds in history and has an effect on the individual manifestations of an era. It proves to be a strategic title: it emphasizes the so-called “return to painting” that we are witnessing everywhere and it also, by suggesting a philosophy that possesses concepts of a before and after, legitimizes this painting as an approach to the “true.” What the 1982 Venice Biennale and Documenta 7 did not or could not show is made the center of attention here. Just as art had to “go through” language (conceptual art), nature (land art), technical media (photography, film, video), the artist‘s body (body art), and physical action (happenings, performances), presently much of its development seems to need to “go through” images.

By their choice of place and title the show’s organizers, Christos Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal, implicate a series of questions: how does the art shown here reflect the present cultural situation, how does it determine and have a part in shaping it, and how does it face up to the current crises of the industrialized societies of the West, with their problems of redistribution, their unemployment, their many troubles and hopes? The title “Zeitgeist” implies affirmation that this particular “route through” images is indeed a way to confront the present. But is there such a thing today as the Zeitgeist, or is it not more likely that Zeitgeist today can only be understood as the complex, contradictory dovetailing of various positions? Actually the “Zeitgeist” exhibition is presented primarily as a display of painting. Of the 46 artists from eight countries, who are represented with almost 250 works, 40 are painters. Even the expressly different approaches of, for example, Joseph Beuys’ splendid Hirschdenkmäler (Monuments to deer; 1982) installation, Jannis Kounellis’ impressive vermauertem Fenster (walled-up window; 1982), Jonathan Borofsky’s I Dreamed I Found a Red Ruby, 1977–82, and James Lee Byars’ The House of the Zeitgeist by James Lee Byars, 1982, tend to emphasize painting rather than to question it; and this is also true of the sculptures by the painters Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz, and A.R. Penck, which can clearly be recognized as steps toward a “painterly” sculpture.

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What is the cause of the concentrated presence of painting right now, and what does this painting reveal by its presence? Over and above the problems raised by individual works, these questions emerge from the form of the exhibition itself. A consciously classical method of hanging provides artists with separate spaces whereby works build up a dialogue with themselves; the effect of this very traditional approach in the context of the museum is to legitimize the work and to close it off from question. “Medici of our time,” Joachimides and Rosenthal commissioned eight artists (Francesco Clemente, Cucchi, Rainer Fetting, Bruce McLean, Helmut Middendorf, Paladino, David Salle, and Salomé) to create 32 paintings in a prescribed format (4 by 3 meters each), to be hung in the two galleries of the buildings surrounding the interior court that houses the Beuys installation. These special “Zeitgeist” commissions can be seen as a summary of the direction of the entire exhibit ion, accentuating the main tendencies of the new painting and demonstrating both its achievements and its failings.

The focus of the new painting is “figurative expression” revolving around a set of problems. These include: how is the will to self-expression and self-experience in painting shown in figuration? How can questions about painting be “figuratively” answered in painting? What are the realms of experience that make figurative imagistic innovation possible, and by what tension do they define themselves, as figural realism or as abstraction? One thing seems certain: “figurative expression” refers primarily to an imaginary image reality whose meaning lies between the illustration and the symbol (or the allegory, or emblem), in associations between forms and reality. As open ciphers these associations refer both to themselves (as painting) and to the experiences of art against the background of a general epistemology. That this can lead to thoroughly contrary solutions is revealed in the two extremes of the commissioned works, the paintings of the “young Italians” (Clemente, Cucchi, Paladino) and those of the “young Germans” (Clemente, Middendorf, Salomé). The works by the Germans, who are part of the Berlin “Heftigen” (“the violent ones”), seem at first glance to correspond most clearly to the “Zeitgeist” theme. They are aggressive, challenging, and in some way reckless. The Italians answer the fragmentation and “brutal beauty” of the German artists with a more placid sovereignty. Just these two polarities, the Italians and the Berlin artists, make it clear that the art of the present cannot be grasped under the heading of “neo-expressionism,” as Hilton Kramer attempts to do in an oversimplistic essay in the catalogue.

The work of the contemporary painter concerned with “figurative expression” is based on a multitude of stylistic possibilities, not on the continuation of a one-track tradition. It seems that painting today needs to express inner contradictions if it is to become more important to us than the mere “well-painted picture.” The new, astonishing, enigmatic image innovations intend to fascinate the viewer with an ambiguous latency of utterance that affects the layers of both theme and treatment. To achieve this, all means seem possible and correct. Even the discontinuity of the oeuvres becomes a tool for avoiding a determining definition of artistic intention. This is shown most convincingly today in the work of Clemente; a comparison of his “Zeitgeist” contribution with the pictures in the “Indian style” that he created for Documenta 7 reveals a disquieting “esthetic of dispersal.” Individual imagistic innovations in the styles of the European tradition are related by Clemente to image concepts of other cultures—such as India, for example—for the purpose of striving toward a “transmodern” multiplicity. The fact that this “esthetic of dispersal” achieves its persuasive power mainly by the unreserved tie to the self can be felt in Clemente’s pictures. It becomes possible to experience the anthropological concept of a “multiple self” that detaches itself from our familiar conceptions of a functioning subjectivity and of an identity found through art.

That this is an important topic of debate in contemporary art is also shown in Salle’s contribution to “Zeitgeist.” But here the “esthetic of dispersal” acquires a different accent. It is constructed programmatically (and in too sterile a way) in a juxtaposition of different styles. Salle is too clearly concerned with intention rather than with intensity. The same problem can also be seen in the images of McLean, which consciously contradict the prevailing trend toward expressionism. The work’s draftsmanlike character, which unites figures and abstract configurations in a total statement, is accentuated by the incorporation of language particles that lead the language of visual symbols into the conceptual realm. In some way McLean’s paintings are answers that are comforting and somewhat too lapidary, while the paintings of the other artists circle with great vehemence around new and disquieting questions.

After the complex legitimization of new forms and media over the last 20 years, the return of painting as a focal point or route is partly a resumption of discarded strands of the fine art tradition. It also reflects a reorientation of the recent problems of legitimization in fine art. Since painting clearly does not have to legitimize itself as a medium, it seems to separate itself from other media, which it is in the process of overwhelming almost imperially. This attitude is reinforced not only by the artists but by the art business and the art connoisseurs, representing painting once again as the medium, the absolute essence of art. Buried in the drive toward autarchy, however, is a fundamental challenging of painting that results only in part from our knowledge of developments in other media. Much of what painting right now achieves on the one hand with the authority of history as its legitimization and its context is, on the other hand, its blemish and its curse: even if it seeks the most remote image innovations, the most extreme justifications for picture construction, it always confronts the question of whether everything in painting has not already been stated. “Zeitgeist” is defined by this question.

Hardly a work in the exhibition is exempt from a diachronic relationship to the past. We recognize Delacroix behind Fetting, Monet behind Salomé, Alberto Savinio behind Chia, Courbet behind Julian Schnabel, Alexei von Jawlensky behind Jiři Georg Dokoupil, Giuseppe Arcimboldo behind Clemente, classicism behind Andy Warhol, cave painting behind Penck, etc. Wherever we look, images surface behind other images exhibited, so that seeing vacillates between recollection and déjà vu. The deontology of the new painting is that it denies itself inventiveness, the paradigm of esthetic change that defined earlier avant-garde art. This denial is carried to an extreme in that each deontological justification is refuted by the sheer quantity of imagery, with its internal contradictions, ruptures, and deliberate anachronisms, and by an unrestricted appropriation of historical rationales for painting. These rationales cover a historical spectrum familiar to us all, including the ideas of the painting as reproduction, as reflection of reality, as the site of a varied range of “realisms,” and as the projection surface for dreams, visions, hallucinations, psychic experience, and so on. Questions about the terms on which painting exists are visible proof of our acceptance of its legitimacy; we take it as the symbol and emblem of the world around us, as act of faith, as the equivalent of words in material theoretically alien to concepts, as “painted philosophy,” as the portrayal of pictorial thinking, as the locus for archetypes, pictograms, hieroglyphs, and traces of writing and memory. And we know there is no “natural” relation between picture and artist, between painting and subject. “The natural” is a fabrication; it is specific to the individual, tied to the world that produces it, and dependent upon historical context.

However, does not the body—the fusing of head and hand that is manifest in painting—guarantee the “natural,” shake off history, and return to “the origin?” Do we have art because we are no longer capable of a state of nature? Because these new pictures constantly deal with history, they circle around the relationship between nature and art—around the dream of a “beheaded hand” that can remain silent about the reasons for painting, because, as stated earlier, painting is instantly accepted as authoritative. If the immediately preceding phases in the development of art (especially, of course, conceptual art) referred to language, the new painting refers to a realm beyond language, to a seeing saturated by history and desiring both the provocation and the destruction of history. Proceeding from the fact that nature can only show itself in relation to history, the new painting attempts to turn diachrony into synchrony. It wants to create a here and now that devours the before and after for the sake of the present. Chronological parallels, layerings, and paradoxes become visible. Emotionality and indifference are shown side by side. The meaning of painting is simultaneously vehemently affirmed and questioned by the most various strategies. Divergencies and discontinuities are placed side by side, and characterize the individual works as loci of an “esthetic of dispersal” that reaches on the one hand into the history of images and on the other into the tradition of concepts of painting, or prejudices about the nature of art. Consequently, along with quotations of style, subject, and theme, we currently find thematic treatments of the permitted and of the forbidden simultaneously in art. We see eclecticism, dilettantism, moments of coincidence, as well as the disdained category of historicist thinking connected with one another in contemporary painting, because it is striving for a multiplicity that opposes any unequivocal conception of painting. As “painting according to painting,” art flees identity. By means of painting, these painters want to become something other than painters. The “route through” images transcends not only the images themselves but also the concept of the painter.

Elements of risk and question repeatedly infiltrate the colorful realm of Chia’s very tasteful painting and sculpture, but since the disclosures in his images are mainly preoccupied with the beauty of art, his work has a smoothness that results in some closeness to a decorative concept of “post-modern.” Mario Merz seems to combat this problem in his painting installation for “Zeitgeist” by formulating his topics—nature, art, development—with an almost aggressive vehemence that contradicts any classification under the title “decoration”; the work of Gérard Garouste and Christopher LeBrun, on the other hand, is the most precarious example of the decorative use of art history in the exhibition. Schnabel’s paintings too are touched by a sentimental use of tradition, which is reinforced by the connotations of the found elements used—antlers, broken plates, charred wood; but his vacillation between the banality of his materials and their symbolic layers of meaning creates an excitement that exceeds the impression of nostalgia. There is in Schnabel’s work a contradictory quest for archetypes which, despite the personal references in his subject matter (Portrait of My Daughter, 1982), can be recognized as “objective striving.” Susan Rothenberg, the only woman in the “Zeitgeist” show (!), takes a far more radical position, treading a fine line between the archetypal and the historical through the relationship between the title and the content of a work.

The impersonal element in the works of Schnabel and Rothenberg accentuates the aspect of the orientation of American art toward the surface, toward the auto-reflexive factuality of “one sees what one sees.” This should not be confused with superficiality. The art of the surface is also represented in the exhibition by the paintings of Warhol, which deal with the Germanic aspects of classicism and with Nazi esthetics. And Frank Stella’s reliefs also treat the theme of the beautiful, multi-layered surface. In contrast, Robert Morris’ “Firestorm Series,” 1982, which attempts a Leonardo paraphrase, at first seems a deep analysis of the contemporary consciousness. But on closer examination one recognizes that Morris, perhaps precisely because of his naively used drawing virtuosity, has transformed the set of problems concerning the representation of horror into a surface phenomenon that hardly does justice to the paradoxical structure of guilt, anxiety, and destruction in contemporary society.

Cy Twombly’s contribution to this exhibition ranges from the surface to the depths. Twombly, for example, transforms the topic, “Goethe in Italy,” into a spiritual dispute between the visible and the legible, i.e. between the painting culture and the linguistic culture. Twombly’s work is in a dazzling way old-fashioned—and in just as dazzling a manner it is transcultural and transnational; it is Mediterranean, American, German. That is what gives him his outsider position. Confronted with this loner, the (West) German contribution to the exhibition has the effect of a concentrated group phenomenon, even though the range of individual artistic positions is very broad. In “Zeitgeist” German painting is presented in unprecedented breadth.

The absolutely central role that German art plays in the “return to painting” has to do with the meeting in Germany of two generations of painters. The “fathers” assert themselves to the same degree of relevance as the young generation. The tension between the two generations seems to be responsible for the enormous vitality of contemporary German painting. Thus it is possible to recognize clear lines of demarcation between the works of the Berlin painters Karl Horst Hödicke and Bernd Koberling and their “students,” who in the themes of their images also approach an “expressive classicism.”

Georg Baselitz’s inversions of subject are so heavily concealed by the brutality and force of the brush thrusts in the works shown that the inversion which has slowly become a cliché seems to dissolve as the justification for the paintings. An extreme expressivity dissolves the conceptual support of the works and they achieve a reckless inner tension which, as “critical form,” seems to lead to fundamentally new possibilities. While the tension between subject and painting as subject comprises the focus of painting in Baselitz’s work, lmmendorff has been dealing with the ideology of painting. His use of German political Emblematik, which is determined by an awareness of the painter’s mission, is documented here in further variations.

Anselm Kiefer deals with the role of the painter in a basically existential sense. His titling of Dem unbekannten Maler (To the unknown painter; 1982) transforms the public creation of myth surrounding the “unknown soldier” in an almost grotesque manner. He does so to insert image into the field of tension between the subjective and the public experience of self. Kiefer’s work—despite similarities to that of Schnabel, its exact opposite—is saturated with history and myth, with the repressed German past, and with the longing to master these, at least for Kiefer as a painter. The ciphers he creates for this purpose constantly expose themselves to risk and consciously lay themselves open to misunderstanding. Deep belief in art mingles with an almost self-destructive skepticism, which becomes painfully visible in, say, the brutal partial destruction of the “skin” of the paintings.

If there is trust in painting among the generation of Kiefer, Baseritz, Lüpertz, lmmendorff, and Hödicke, it is more called into question by the young artists. Fetting takes up the current anxiety on the subject of nuclear power, neutron bombs, and so forth, and trans., forms it into grotesquely distorted, hysterically colorful image ciphers. He carries the topic, which is discussed to death everywhere, to an extreme, driving it into the hardly bearable, thereby upsetting not only our experience of everyday reality but also our experience of art. Middendorf’s vigorous paintings, like Fetting’s, do not conceal their antecedents, which lie mainly in the tradition of German Expressionism. Striving for the character of visual metaphor, his paintings depict contemporary subjects, showing him as an artist involved in transforming his experience of everyday reality into pictorial ciphers. Salomé also draws on the history of painting in his “Zeitgeist” work. Behind his Kampf im Seerosenteich (Struggle in the Water Lily Pond; 1982) we see a debate with Monet’s paintings of the Giverny period. But with Salome the harmony of infinitely beautiful nature is conveyed by crude painting bordering on the arbitrary that ambiguously puts up for discussion the problem of dilettantism. An impression of involuntary failure comes into being, making the artificial paradise striven for by the images seem more like a wish than fulfillment.

Walter Dahn achieves “figurative expression” with a lack of restraint that touches on the arbitrary. Werner Buttner incorporates a “sociological” rationale into work which is not free of cynicism, although at the same time it displays an ironic love of self. He also puts “public topics” up for debate and considers the articulation of his images as the transition of private feelings into the public realm. Peter Bömmels attempts an individual iconography that relates very subjective dreams and visions to contemporary topics. His Sprung aus der Geschichte (Break with history; 1982) is a raw vision in the manner of art brut. His vision has focused on the insanity of the strip between East and West Germany, the no-man’s-land that perhaps—paradoxically—preserves a promise for the future.

Dokoupil is stateless. Like Dahn and Bömmels, he is part of the Cologne group, Mülheimer Freiheit. Dokoupil is represented in this exhibition by two series of works that on the one hand refer to an abstract concept of image-making and on the other present a mythically exaggerated, banal, everyday iconography. Anyone unfamiliar with Dokoupil’s work will be led astray by these pieces; like Clemente’s, Dokoupil’s “esthetic of dispersal” barely permits the artist a consistent identity. In each exhibit he differs and is new.

In German painting the work of Gerhard Richter can be considered a historical model for this attitude. For almost 20 years his work has been preoccupied with the phenomenon of stylistic ruptures as well as with the discontinuity of images of painting in relation to the subjectivity of the artist. Admittedly this is done in a cold, intellectual manner that repeatedly circles around the problem, with the consequence that ultimately there is nothing that speaks for painting, but also nothing that speaks against it. The fact that Richter is not represented in “Zeitgeist” seems a clear loss. Particularly his works of recent years, which simulate a precisely planned “abstract expressionism,” could serve as the impulse for a further development (or overcoming) of “figurative expression.” A possible direction is offered by Sigmar Polke’s contribution to “Zeitgeist.” A dissolution of the figurative support is visible in these images, which entrust themselves to coincidence, to arbitrariness, to the almost no longer visible. Moments of vanishing can be detected, a fundamental rejection or transcendence of the figurative. The fact that painting may be on the way toward a postfigurative abstraction is most clearly intimated here. It appears, in fact, an almost inevitable consequence, like the transition from painting to sculpture now being made by numerous painters.

Penck, for example, who only a few years ago moved to the West from the German Democratic Republic, is represented in this exhibition with a sculpture. His main contribution, however, consists of two enormous pictures (ca. 196 4/5 by 393 2/3 inches) on which East and West are represented on their respective walls over a major staircase in the Gropius structure. In these works Penck returns to his “system pictures.” The now monumental resumption of his pictogram metaphors creates an ambiguous impression: what formerly was effective by means of the indefinite character of its assertion as to whether reality, consciousness, and experience could be comprehended in superpersonal symbols, now appears barely problematic, since the pictography seems almost automatized. It approaches being a representative illustration whose tension results mainly from the fact that Penck’s pictograms strive toward an “idiolect”—toward subjectively coded meaning for which ultimately there is no general, unequivocal translation.

The art of the avant-garde has always possessed a specific quality of opposition to the existing that has mitigated against its subsummation under the universal (as represented by the concept of Zeitgeist). Yet at the same time—and this has determined its greatness—it has convincingly suggested that it crystallizes the conceptions that, in a given era, lead beyond oppressive reiteration of the status quo. If an exhibition attempts to summarize the present new situation in art under the name “Zeitgeist,” the question, of course, is: does it do this in the spirit of reification or of criticism? Does it perhaps correspond to the general trend taking place in the political sphere of coping with crises by reactionary response, or does it, more optimistically, reflect an open reappraisal of all values?

The exhibition’s location does not fully account for the predominance of German artists in “Zeitgeist.” In the paintings of these artists ideas that refer back to a German expressive tradition, while also breaking with the taboo that German art has had toward its own past, have the potential for being realized; but to see this as a new German nationalism, or as a striving toward hegemony in art, seems mistaken, for it is possible to recognize in it a general tendency to turn away from the program of internationalism. This tendency results in a regional interest in the past which reaches back to tradition in order to criticize it in a contemporary way. The resulting consequence for German painting is a thought-provoking conundrum: since the state and the nation are (again) coming apart in Germany, nationalism is pure fiction, beyond any possibility of realization. That makes the “German vehemence” bearable; and, paradoxical as it sounds, it makes this “Germanness” an exemplary international attitude. Only in fragmentation, only in a shimmering mixture of reality and unreality is it possible today to accept the idea of nationalism, i.e. only in its connection to self-questioning, dissolution, and dispersal. Only in combination with contradictions, certain fixed ideas, and fictions can nationalism be connected with contemporary thinking.

Just what problems emerge for art as a consequence of this must be sought behind the glossy surface of the “Zeitgeist” exhibition. The new painting, which has predominantly emerged as “figurative expression,” is now approaching a crossroads. Having found itself by strength of resistance to the more “progressive” media, it is in danger of denying its specific quality of inner contradiction. Instead of an “esthetic of dispersal” that demands intensity instead of intention, we are beginning to see the temptation toward a decorative “expressive” arbitrariness. Instead of the dangerous “shock of beauty” we see the delight in surface. Instead of a “post-modern” expressivity that tests its own reaction to the assimilation and extension of historical styles, we see expressive fulfillment of subject matter.

One reason for this is indicated in the shift of interests taking place internationally in reference to the new painting. As the spectrum of painters in the “Zeitgeist” exhibition shows, its center is made up of European thinking that is currently in the process of becoming Americanized. This process has not only affected the breathtaking developments in the price of the paintings, but also their semiotic/deontological dimension. Paradoxical as it may sound, the strength of the new painting still consists in its “provinciality,” in its casting of the artist as a member of a minority, which not only defines him or her as the “outsider” but prolongs his or her subjectivity. To become a minority oneself, in the process of painting, seems to be a main point of the pictorial innovations of “figurative expression.” This quest has given rise to the fascinating poles that are being put up along the “route through” images. Whether the “route through” painting will lead onward, or will actually arrive somewhere, remains to be seen. Just where it is headed is an open question. When conceptual art began, Seth Siegelaub insisted that art has to change what you expect from it. The statement is also applicable in regard to images today.

ARTFORUM January 1983

›Wolfgang Max Faust holds a PhD in literature and art history. He is a lecturer at the Technische Universität and Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. He is the author of Hunger nach Bildern: Deutsche Malerei der Gegenwart (Hunger for Pictures: German Painting of Today; Cologne: DuMont, 1982).

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.‹

Fußzeilen aus dem ARTFORUM, January 1983, zuletzt besucht 23. Februar 2022


And there is somewhere the orginal text? (mein Englisch is not so good and it says is a translation made by Martha Humphreys)

I hope you can do something with all this research, good job to everyone


Sybile Ott


Sehr geehrte Frau Ott, wir nehmen an, dass der Text ursprünglich auf deutsch geschrieben wurde. Uns liegt aber leider die Urfassung nicht vor.

Viele Grüsse

Jürg Steiner


Hier ein Interview

Annya Üding



Sehr geehrte Frau Üding,

das Interview das von Ihnen gepostet Interview ist unter der Rubrik Interviews im Forum zu finden.

Viele Grüsse

Jürg Steiner


Jürg Steiner, nächste Mal Sie können ein Danke sagen… Das wäre nett...

Ich dachte das diese Seite war eine Webseite wo man kann infos über Zeitgeist geben... aber sieht Jürg Steiner wollte das nicht.

viel Erfolg

Annya Üding





Olga Zimmermann 

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Magazine "Mein schwules Auge" Special Edition Berlin in 2019


O. Zimmermann