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Heimo Zobernig: The Painting After the Last Painting

Ever since the advent of photography in the early 19th century, critics have declared painting dead. Indeed, faced with the camera’s unique ability to realistically depict the world, painting—the medium that used to be synonymous with art itself—has been compelled to constant reinvention. This is why many modern artists of the 20th century used their work to reflect on these most fundamental questions: What is painting, what are its potentials and limitations, and what is its role in an art world increasingly open to pluralistic practices?

In his painting, sculpture, installation, interior design, and film, the Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig, who has taught sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna since 2000, has interrogated this red thread of modernism since the 1980s, when he began exhibiting in Austria and Germany. Although his first solo exhibition in New York in 1991 was over 20 years ago at Andrea Rosen Gallery, he remains less known than his friends and collaborators Albert OehlenMartin Kippenberger, and Franz West. This is likely due to the fact that Zobernig’s work—at first gloss spartan, recalling American minimalism of the 1970s and buttressed by his sustained exploration of color theory (in 1995 he co-authored a book on the topic, titled Farbenlehre)—is difficult to situate within postmodern art.

It is neither the ironic, pop-cultural abstraction of 1980s neo-geo, such as Peter Halley’s neon paintings, nor does it follow the machismo of neo-expressionism or the sly cynicism of the late ’80s. Are we to understand it within the context of the geometric abstraction of the early 20th century, or does it relate to minimalism, or institutional critique? The answer is all of the above, and it is these movements that Zobernig engages with critically. But however austere his aesthetic, his sensibility is witty and irreverent. Since 2000, he has worked on a series of grid paintings, often on chroma-key fabrics—typically used in green screens in film and TV—which harken back to the grids of Piet Mondrian or Sol LeWitt. Due to their associations with special effects in popular media, however, these align the modernist game of abstraction with the illusory nature of movie worlds created in post-production.

After seeing a Picasso show at the Kunsthaus Zurich in 2011, Zobernig started integrating gestural abstraction into the grids, albeit in a highly calculated way; he rejects the idea of artistic genius spewing forth spontaneously. As seen in his use of chroma-key fabrics, or in a 2011 installation at Petzel Gallery, for which he wove a ghoulish papier-maché figure through minimalist shelving, there is often something amiss in his work—a “hiccup,” as he calls it, here and there—even as he iterates on the concerns of modernism in an analytical, almost scientific, process. Curator Achim Hochdörfer has written that Zobernig’s work “displays a paradoxical desire to dissect a joke,” the joke here being modern art. As if alluding to one of the central tenets of the scientific method—that the results gained from empirical experimentation be reproducible—Zobernig has said: “The immediate, expressive gesture is a fiction. One isn’t surprised and satisfied right away. If I succeed in realizing a certain idea, I always want to know whether I can repeat it.”

Modern art tried to purge geometry of meaning, or at least to make it transcendent to the human experience, finding in it the most pure expression of universal laws with a dedication that verged on the spiritual. Zobernig brings this meaning back in a very anthropocentric way. For his video work No. 19, he applied a grid of blue adhesive tape onto his body, using the chroma-key process to edit out parts of the frame in post-production, so that his body became progressively abstracted and fragmentary over the course of the video. For an installation at Galerie Christian Nagel in Berlin in 2003, he covered dismembered body parts from mannequins in blue-and-white grids and checkers, arranging them on a blue floor to comic effect. Bathed in a blue reminiscent of Yves Klein’s signature indigo, legs jutted up from the floor, a foot balanced on its toes, and arms rested on each other, the work resembles a Dada death by blue grid.

In a similar vein, Untitled (1986) is a black monolith about the size of a person. It is based on a pseudo scientific invention by the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, called an “orgone accumulator.” Roughly large enough to accommodate a man sitting down, the tall box-shaped device was designed to concentrate a fictitious life force postulated by Reich in the 1930s, called “orgone.” Zobernig’s own box recalls minimalist sculpture in its form, but, diverging from the formal purity of the movement, he re-introduces content. By associating his object with the bizarre theories of an outré pseudoscientist, Zobernig nods to modern art’s frequent dalliances with anti-positivist philosophies: for example, Mondrian, on whom the Austrian artist frequently draws, was a Theosophist.

Beginning in 2000, Zobernig created a series of stackable chairs that resemble the modular, mass-produced minimalist aesthetic of the Swedish furniture retailer IKEA. This gesture brings to mind a comment the art historian Patricia Mainardi made at a recent conference on the question of art history teaching methods. Mainardi spoke about her experience introducing students to the Bauhaus for the first time. This German art and design school, established in 1919, brought together artists and craftsmen and introduced modern, unadorned geometric designs to the public, radically changing architecture and interior design for centuries to come.

Mainardi’s students, like many contemporary viewers upon first encounter with this most modern-looking historic movement, were not impressed. “What’s the big deal? It just looks like IKEA.” What her students failed to recognize was IKEA’s indebtedness to the Bauhaus for its popularization of modern design. Zobernig plays with such perceptions, as if to respond, “Yeah, this modern art does look like IKEA.” This is an art history joke par excellence, but the joke is on those who would still regard only purist modernism with reverential seriousness.

Recently, at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2009, Zobernig hung paintings on sliding doors in a black wireframe cage, as they would typically hang in storage. Such gestures have earned Zobernig comparisons to institutional critique, which emerged in the 1960s as artists like Michael Asher and Hans Haacke sought to interrogate the ideologies and power structures underlying the circulation and display of art.

As Arthur Danto theorizes in The End of Art, art as we used to know it—the practice of depicting the world—gave way to an era of ideology, one that institutional critique took as its subject matter. And then it gave way to the present era, in which “anything goes.” Zobernig’s work relies on this “anything goes”—witness his seemingly contradictory embrace of display structures, abstract painting, and found objects, from mannequins to materials used in television production—while questioning broad claims, like Danto’s maxim that painting has exhausted itself. He notes: “Challenging models is important. Sometimes it can be fun to paint ‘the painting after the last painting.’”

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