Nicolás Guagnini: Master Slave System (afterglow)

New York, Joe Sheftel Gallery, 2014

In an interview from 1993, German painter Klaus Merkel discusses Barnett Newman’s attack on painting catalogues as foundational to his pictorial project:

Barnett Newman’s attack has become famous. It claims the battle is aimed at the catalogue and, from this point of view, he surely means the copy-like character of reproductions. He feels the catalogue as such works against painting because the sublime, pure picture we see and are meant to perceive is destroyed by its reproduction. But I would like to intensify the issue for the present debate. Painting today not only has to defend itself against the catalogue, but also has to internalize the catalogue in order to maintain its hold on pictures and exhibitions as a consequence of pictures. The catalogue as such would then be something like the final container for pictures.1

Newman’s defense of the auratic was expressed with the violent clarity that characterizes the polemics of his generation in a 1970 issue of Art News to celebrate the centennial of the Met: I have always had a distaste – even a disdain – for reproductions and photographs of artworks, even those of my own work. That is why I do not own a collection of books of reproductions. Unless I have seen the original work so that a photograph can remind me of my own real experience, photographs and slides have little interest for me. It seems to me that an art education based on this material is nothing but a mirage.2

There is in Merkel’s claim an explicit link to the function of reproduction as part of the distribution system of artwork with “exhibitions as a consequence of pictures.” That resonates with other debates of the late 60′s and early 70′s, notably Daniel Buren’s 1971 text “The Function of the Studio” in which continuity between the physical space of production (the studio) and of distribution (the gallery and Museum) is denounced and dissected. Five years before, in 1966 Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa and Raul Escari issued a manifesto called “An Art of Communications Media” confirming Newman’s belief: “In mass civilization, people are not in direct contact with cultural events; rather they are informed about them via the media. For example, a mass audience does not see an exhibition, attend a Happening or go to a soccer game, but it does see footage of the event on the news. (…) In the final analysis, it is of no interest to information consumers if an exhibition took place or not; all that matters is the image of the artistic event constructed by the media.”3

Of course this position, solidified at the shadow of McLuhan’s influence and closely associated with the origin and some of the most radical applications of what would later be called Conceptual Art does away with – or dematerializes, to stick to proper period jargon – the art object. This is the official course of history and historicity, the magisterial lucid position of the avant-garde fulfilling its critical mandate. Merkel chose the opposite, to stick to the problem of painting itself. There is in Merkel’s statement an assumption, an implied extension of the problem Newman finds with the archive, that positions the catalogue not only as the end of the sublime experience in the hands of mechanical reproduction, but also as a depository of images arranged in series, grouped, categorized.

Merkel broadened his practice between 1993 and 1995 with a series of performances that functioned as a catalogue of his influences and preoccupations. “The Jackson Pollock Bar – Life Playback Performances (Theory-Installations)” was instigated in collaboration with Christian Matthiessen. They stated “we aim to install theories. This method is as simple as powerful: installing a scenario of aesthetic discourse. We reconstruct lectures, conferences, panel discussions, interviews etc., by transcribing the texts, translating, editing and re-record them; then re-enacting them with actors on stage, lip-synching to the playbacksoundtrack.” Numerous texts including Philip Guston and Ad Reinhart polemics were enacted. In recent email correspondence with the artist Merkel explained, “All these games around text, work, authorship, representation, and look were finished with the making – but it was a beautiful situation to split off all elements. Of course this was much more effective in performance, but after all I had to put this in painting. It was not clear in those days, but my break came at the perfect time, 1995, when I decided to put the ‘stagequestions’ into the single painting as a place of installation interventions. ‘Painting as display’.”

Merkel works in sets, groups and series that interlock in an overarching project, introducing extended time in an open-ended project composed of sub-series. The basic structure is diagrammatic. The composition of each individual painting is a catalogue of frames and gestures that refers to the catalogue at large. Conversely, the relationship between formats and individual paintings is analogical to the internal composition of each. This mode of production is potentially infinite but by no means indeterminate. Ultimately, the terms “catalogue” and “series” collapse into a perpetual feedback loop, cataloguing itself without closure. This stages a specific resistance to highly convincing endgame scenarios, to the mandate to produce “the last painting.” Merkel is historically positioned such that his project negates and makes unavailable to him the Hegelian notion of the avant-garde, in which each formal problem comes to a solution, a problem epitomized by Newman and Ad Reinhardt.

To situate Merkel in his own context, that of post-war German painting, two points of reference must be mentioned. One is Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, which is a photographic catalogue and archive of his work and life and a visual encyclopedia of what informs both. The other is Martin Kippenberger, born in 1953, the same year as Merkel and twenty-one years later than Richter. Kippenberger’s experiments – with social scenes and spaces of intersection between his selfhood and commerce, with galleries and restaurants as an artistic form in itself, and with the boundaries of authorship, all of this somehow consolidated and grounded around producing and selling objects identified with classic disciplines such as painting, sculpture, drawing, and photography – resonate across various “new” scenes around the globe periodically, including New York’s Lower East Side, where Merkel’s paintings are now being presented. But Merkel’s catalogue paintings (and painting-catalogues) are not external to themselves. It doesn’t net-work like that. The master avant-garde signifier “persona” does not apply.

Which other master signifiers are evoked and addressed here? Who is enslaved? Reinhardt, Newman’s principal interlocutor, once referred to his black paintings as “the only paintings that cannot be misunderstood,” leading to half a century of misunderstandings. Can Merkel be understood in his perpetual refractory re-mastering of his own images? The slave resists. What is this exhibition resisting in the era of flippers, of dollars and paintings changing hands at digital instagramic speed? “Crapstraction” and “Flip Art” are ostensibly process based and quickly executed abstract paintings. Process in Merkel is always carefully framed within the structure of the catalogue – drips and brushstrokes can only co-exist relative to strict compositional elements. If anything, his visual project is a critique of the unified picture, and of vision and the mechanism of perception itself, harking back a debate about the pictorial plane initiated in analytical cubism that precedes even the Newman/Reinhardt axis. The anachronism is the afterglow. The master-slave dialectic is full of historicity. The present hurts. Here, now, Merkel is topping from the bottom.

  1. “Klaus Merkel talks to Christian Matthiessen”, Text For Two Speakers/ Two Actors, The Jackson-Pollock Bar, First Theory-Installation, 1993, Trans. Elizabeth Schüth, Vector Journal, no. 1, 2008 [...]
  2. Barnett Newman, “In Front of the Real Thing”, In Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by John P. O’Neill, 195-196, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Originally published in ARTnews 68, no. 9 (January 1970), p. 6 [...]
  3. Eduardo Costa, Raúl Escari, and Roberto Jacoby, An Art of Communications Media (manifesto), originally published as “Un arte de los medios de comunicación (manifiesto)”, in Happenings (Buenos Aires: Editorial Jorge Álvarez), 1967 [...]