Klaus Merkel


Julia Dubsky: Lists, The Platypus and Glow. On Klaus Merkel

Düsseldorf, introduction website, Galerie Max Mayer, 2020

“How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogues” Umberto Eco.

In a text from 1993, Klaus Merkel points to Barnett Newman’s 1970s argument that the greatest threat to Painting was posed by catalogues undermining the idea of aura through the multiplicity of reproduction. This was part of Merkel’s script for two actors in his “Jackson Pollock Bar” performances, which functioned as a catalogue of his influences and preoccupations. In 1988 he had created a show of 25 large-format paintings on a single wall in an otherwise empty exhibition space; and in 1993, he exhibited “Katalogbilder”, involving a serial index of his entire previous body of work, repainted at one tenth of the original scale. In Merkel’s pictorial practice the catalogue form riles against ideas of painting as a single site. Take “18.12.01 Master Slave System (afterglow) Carpet aus Maske”, completed in 2018. Centre left and centre right, there are sections of two paintings from the 80s that Merkel repainted to scale. He refers to these elements as ‘inserts’ and in this case they form a sort of tunnel, leading into the picture plain in ever-reducing size. I was reminded of ‘non normal lists’, such as those which contain themselves, described in Umberto Eco’s final chapter of The Infinity of Lists.

Merkel works from a cache of paint handling and entire previous paintings, available to him. The painting “02.10.02 Exhalle” is laid out horizontally on trestles, reflecting his process in which the constituent elements are arranged as though on a large palette. The paintings are not painted over, but rather the paint is laid out side-by-side and layers only occur where they were purposefully planned. Layering would affect luminosity but apart from that, Merkel also says that he wants to paint the paintings, although with caveats: the techniques he uses, including masking tape and working in sections, mean that his control is truncated. The permutations of tone bring to mind Chevreul’s colour diagram illustrating the greater change in saturation when white is added in comparison to an addition of black. A very small amount of white brightens a colour while a little more dulls it into a pastel. Chevreul is also the physicist credited with explaining the afterglow phenomenon which occurs when looking at one colour is followed by the appearance of its complimentary colour on a neutral surface. More associatively, the German term for afterglow ’Nachglühen’, has a greater implication of something ‘that is over and which comes again’, recalling cycles of Painting zoning in and out of significance.

Reams of contrasts appear in Merkel’s paintings — from washes to impasto, hard edge to bleeding, transparency to opacity, drips to assured brush marks, earth colour to synthetic colour, pure hue to tone — charting constellations of inflections that catalyse verbal listing. Amidst the proliferation of conceptual art in the 1980s, Merkel was among those who continued their inquiries into the painting medium from within, resonating with Eco’s conception that listing allows us to question definitions. Eco compares ‘definition by essence’ to ‘definition by properties’, and writes that the former presumes we know the possible categories (eg. living/animal/vegetable). In the case of the tiger, a definition by properties “must not only say that it is a quadruped, similar to a big cat, striped, but also that a tiger called Shere Khan was Mowgli’s enemy in Kipling’s The Jungle Book…”. To define by lists of properties is to work within what is taken to be unfixed. Eco humorously exemplifies a struggle amongst scientists to understand the platypus: “They found it endlessly difficult to describe the essence of this animal. It lives underwater and on land; it lays eggs, and yet it's a mammal. So what did that definition look like? It was a list, a list of characteristics.”

The most recent paintings have a strikingly medium scale of 65 x 50 cm and Merkel told me that “a figure in a middle format prompts an old-fashioned way of looking, like through a window, there’s no doubt that you are the observer, you are not overwhelmed by the ‘Gegenblick’ [‘the gaze returned’]”. At once a temporal juxtaposition occurs between this old-fashioned way of looking and a post-modern, deconstructed-reconstructed paint handling. The appearance of glow could bring to mind both internet aesthetics and the depiction of angel wings on altarpieces, which needed to be painted with psychedelic brightness to compensate for the dim conditions of candlelight. Points in time are brought into simultaneity. Although Merkel’s painting developed in dialogue with Post Abstraction in the late 1980s, and his work shows a shared investment in developing innovative paint handling, his work is characteristically dissonant in this milieu. Commodification is complicated by an entanglement of painting and display, and the elasticity of projects. Elements of the title “18.12.01 Master Slave System (afterglow) Carpet aus Maske” have been reused for the past ten years on numerous occasions (it refers to the master-board used in music recording, which is fed by cables called slaves). Titles are shared and stretched like fencing around a moving herd. It’s a private system, like a method for making passwords. An idiosyncratic approach, a signature by which we could recognise a Merkel, although indirectly, and glowing with near-contradictions.