Doreet Levitte-Harten: wordperfect, in: Klaus Merkel Catalogpaintings

Freiburg, Morat-Institut für Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft, 1993

There is an intriguing phenomenon in Klaus Merkel’s works of art. Those works which he painted already are being painted again, this time in a miniature scale, many on one big canvas. It is as if Merkel superimposes a memory scale, a concentrated information which wants to investigate the relation between the primary pictures and their remembered effect. In this way he builds a glossary, a concordance whose relation with the original, works undermines any attempt at literal reflection ‑ that is of reflection that uses words to explain pictures ‑ with ironic patina.
In the first works and later in their miniature copies, colors and forms are used sparingly as if adapting themselves to the dense style of their dictionary character. Even their rectangular format indicates the economy of means, the wish of the picture to refer as little as possible to something beyond its boundaries. White, red, green and black colors occur in variation. These colors emphasize the feeling of primacy. It all tends toward an implosion, toward the dissatisfaction of the work to be interpreted by anything but its own means. It is like that: each work could be a letter or a word or a sentence and once it is combined with other works the feeling that something new is being said, that an attempt is in process to build a language, is unavoidable.
Only these pictures are not about communication, at least not the one we are accustomed to receive whereby we take the role of the interpreter. In this capacity the viewer knows always more than the picture. The discrepancy is that the more one knows, the stronger becomes the notion of the work’s autonomy. It is tempting to speak about Merkel’s art as autonomic since it appears to refer to nothing outside itself, although we came to understand that autonomy needs a background, a relation that states its independence, an infrastructure that mediates that notion of freedom. Even this mediator is missing here. What you see is what you have, innocent of meaning, rejecting an exegesis of ‘reality‘. Here communication does not mean the syndrome of the Big Question, the hubris in explaining matters of the soul by means of painting. Communication is hermetic, between one picture and the other.

We will never know on what semiotic level the pictures operate for there is no spiritual tree upon whose branches could be hung the trophies of the symbolized. To put it straight: the one who looks goes to hell. If he gets the satisfaction of revelation it is a by‑product. The works of Merkel launch their campaign only in the presence of the ultimate spectator which is the other picture.
At this point it will be worthwhile to note some crude truths like the fact that I, as well as Merkel, as well as hordes of theoreticians, know that the jargon of art debased itself eons ago. This thieves’ Latin, this vulgar solipsism that we came to know as art criticism, willy nilly attaching itself to the visual event, had already expired in the ancient times of Rosenberg and Greenberg at which time art’s right to exist on its own merit was recognized an legitimized with no proof excepting a sort of gentleman’s agreement (and its cost).

Nevertheless it was exactly then, when literary interpretation became useless that an avalanche of words covered the field to the extent that often the theory preceded the works. Where would Jeff Koons be today without Baudrillard, Peter Halley without Derrida, Cindy Sherman without Benjamin? Not to mention that phalanx of objectmakers who were told something about the disappearance of the subject (thus glorifying furniture as a comeback of a starry object). With those masses of Pickwickian sense which would turn art into its own science fiction, the jargon became empty soon enough. In the amok run to get out of the trap, one adapted the bad grammar of a philosophical pidgin as the field became open for the blind and passionate contemplator of the sociological order. Needless to say that there was a great happiness behind all that stuff.

But the discrepancy only grew bolder. Either if art exists by itself it needs no explanation or if it needs an explanation its existence can not be legitimized but if an explanatory body is needed even though the autonomic category was legitimized, it surely could not be of the same grammar as that which was used before art became self sufficient phenomena. Nobody had yet explained the necessity of the bread to the hungry.
Seen against this background, which is dominated by people who explain art with their backs turned against it, who charm a visual field into a text, its explication into discourse and the transposition of the whole into simulated virtual reality (whereby actual virtual reality works still perversely try to convince us their actuality if not desire to be so). The attempt to describe the work of art by its own grammar is almost heroic and I should mention it represents only one facet of Merkel’s work.

I once wrote about him that his paintings are conscious of themselves being art and that an accumulation of them knows itself to be an exhibition. At that time I meant the comment to be pejorative and it took me some time to realize that the myth of art being like sleeping beauty, heart warming as it may be, contradicts its claim to authenticity. If we equate the notion of simulation with that of consciousness (an equation that was constantly made in the framework of postmodernism), more specifically the knowledge of the art work to be a work of art as an inherited factor of its perception, qualities established before and without need of the process of evaluation, indeed we risk condemning such art before any consideration. It provokes a background of cynicism, albeit ironic, and where those curled darlings rule nothing can be important or serious. The maliciousness of such an equation is rooted in the immediate caricatural effect that any visual message carries with the misalliance of consciousness and simulation which I think corrupts symbolic value into a hyper‑real sphere. If, upon agreed assumption the artness of a work allows the object to depart from its symbolism and becomes a reality sign, that is a sign that sits in reality which is constructed and valued higher than the original purpose of its symbolism, then this object is replaceable, is unimportant. In other words: its visuality does not count. This is what theoreticians welcomed as the disappearance of the object into or by virtue of its own ecstasy.

There have been some masters of disappearance along the course of art history. Watteau was one. Ad Reinhardt was another, Merkel is on the way. But their kind of disappearance has nothing to do with the triumph of the symbolized over the matter, the simulated over its reality. It is more an admittance that whatever is being painted renders an essence somewhere else. It is about the impossibility to paint and about the modesty that is involved in this submittance. There is no ecstasy here, There is a lot of hard work.

Could it be possible that the picture which knows itself to be art will escape the black water of the simulated idea without devastating consequences? Can we see the visual values of a said picture before the establishment of its artness, of its pictureness, so that the latter will not shadow that which is seen at cost of that which is intellectually agreed upon?
I take it there are several ways of gaining the victory of the eye over the theory. I take it also that living in a post‑modern era (whatever post‑modern means and indeed it does not mean much in the field of visual art) the contradiction of fighting the disappearance of art through its theory is further complicated with the ‘help‘ of yet another theory. Klaus Merkel fights the act of art vanishing into thin air through the mode of reflection.

Introducing reflection, I assume that the modes of reflection and contemplation are a vanishing art. No cloisters of the soul. A spiritual desert is no longer available for the hermit of the thinking order. So the art of reflection becomes rare. All the more so when reflection is to be made with the same tools as that which is to be reflected upon. There was a time when it looked like pictures were having a hell of a time monologuing with themselves (that was the case already with the sublime abstraction of the New York School). That was quite an illusion. Actually they dialogued with religion and on a wider scale with the notion of culture whereby culture in this contest was considered the good guy. I am thinking about Newman and Rothko. Later it was Kiefer who reminded the Picture of its author through his palette but had to submit to the aura of religion as well. From this destiny which brought the reflectory act to the lions den of theory few were saved. This kind of modesty is not exactly welcomed when it is translated into market terms.

Now Merkel reflects upon his own works with means of other works of his own and they in turn will be contemplated by the same tools. It is quite difficult to negotiate art history out of the work and yet remain in the contemplative mood. In this hermeneutic circle, theory becomes another picture. Since he paints color and not objects the reference to an outside reality, or the morality imbued in its symbolism, is totally amiss. These works need not simulate reality since they have one of their own without the battle cry of autonomy. We cannot call them abstract because they abstract no feeling and no object. Neither can we christen them as concrete. They refer to no title and to all titles. Above all they are somatic.

I noticed this kind of reflection in other artists. Remember Watteau. Beside the fact that Watteau often paints figures with their backs to us (practically hiding the pictures), those works which are brutally frontal deal with figures of the theater. Since Watteau wrote very little, it is not clear whether he considered theater to be an ultimate reality or whether reality did not interest him at all for in his works nothing stinks, nothing breathes but the shimmering fabric of the court dames. Now this Antoine Watteau made towards the end of summer of 1720 a weird picture in spite of its normal appearance. He suggested to his friend Edmonde‑Francois Gersaint, an art dealer, that he commission a ‘Ladenschild‘ for his shop on Pont Notre Dame. Watteau is the initiator of the picture. It is ordered differently than most of his works which means he had a certain interest in painting it.

Now when we look at the picture we see people engaged in the same act. Some have their back turned to us while viewing the depicted paintings or while observing themselves in mirrors, the famous trumeau of that time which were even then out of fashion. But it is not hard to read their body language, this diagonal approach, half careful, half cultivated that we still maintain today in front of a picture. Watteau recognizes the ritual and renders its structure. It is difficult to see the partings the people are looking at, actually it is the somatic attitude of looking which is emphasized, As we continue looking at the paintings depicted on the walls of the shop, we realize that they are less intriguing than those works which we can’t fully see but observe ourselves simultaneously in the same act of looking as are the painted figures. One starts to ask where the hell is the picture? Conversely the works revealed are the very works which look at us, which reflect upon us while we are searching for of hidden works. The picture contemplates its viewers. While we look the picture reflects us both in a physical as well as in a conceptual way.
Watteau was innocent of the concept of art autonomy. In his age art had to argue time and again for its validity as a powerful medium but he claimed this validity through the act of reflection and since he did not have abstraction as a weapon he considers art by the act of its making as the mediation of reflection and goes a step further by claiming a post-modernistic scholasticism: the picture is about what could not be there with means of that which is present. It was a tremendous achievement. A master of disappearance was Watteau. He wasted not one word of theory and yet put forth a perspective that could not be avoided.

So what is the moral? That you cannot do art but you can do pictures, Merkel learned this lesson in an early stage of his career. Ad Reinhardt, who wanted to paint the last picture (he must have read Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man‘ was a great example. Not doing art means ignoring history. Not by pretending that it does not exist but by stopping the manipulation which is created by making history of art’s consequences a part of the work. We know many culture‑orphans, or should we say history‑orphans, like Julian Schnabel or Haim Steinbach who chose to lay history within the frame of their works to assert their quality. Merkel’s denial of history, of its idea of progress has no post‑modern roots. It is more an attempt in the process of forgetting that lets his pictures breathe.