The new exhibition in Sprüth Magers’ Berlin gallery offers a retrospective look at the work of Axel Kasseböhmer, who passed away last year after a long illness. Though Kasseböhmer consciously pivoted away from various painting trends throughout his lifetime, his work impacted the 1980s Cologne art scene and played a key role in the development of West German painting. He leaves behind a vast, influential body of work characterized by a radical, conceptual approach to painting.
This spotlight exhibition of Axel Kasseböhmer’s oeuvre is the second show taking over the whole Berlin gallery. Many paintings in the exhibition have long been inaccessible to the public. The show’s main focus is the Walchensee (Lake Walchen) series created during the last years of his life—a never-before-seen body of work and the brilliant finale to a singular, lifelong exploration of painting as a medium.
Axel Kasseböhmer made a name for himself in the late 1970s while still a student at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf, where he studied under Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys. His breakthrough came with a series of enigmatic oil paintings featuring enlarged details from historical paintings, elevating them to a motif in their own right through a play of perception and proportion. At a time when art history was less and less the standard measure in contemporary art, Kasseböhmer—who regularly skipped school as a teenager so that he could visit art museums instead—returned to the classical repertoire. While some motifs in this body of work are fairly easy to trace (his 1985 Picasso-homage Stierschädel [“Bull Skull”] for example), most leave the viewer uncertain as to their origins. Häuser (“Houses,” 1980) for instance, draws on an insignificant architectural detail from a Fra Angelico crucifixion painting. Grünes Kleid mit Rot (“Green Dress with Red,” 1979) inflates a vaguely-familiar excerpt from Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait to a full image motif; the large-scale work Stoff 1 (“Fabric 1,”1981) quotes the folds of a dress in a saint portrait by Francisco de Zurbarán while Landschaft mit Architektur (“Landscape with Architecture,” 1981) cites an arbitrary painting snippet from a neoclassical allegory by Nicolas Poussin. In most cases, Kasseböhmer never saw the original paintings, which hang in the Louvre, the National Gallery or the Prado. Instead, he painted from color reproductions printed in books and catalogues. His works are testament to an incomparable trust in the persuasive power of historical paintings, yet they also have a completely autonomous, sensual and auratic quality of their own.
Kasseböhmer once said that he ended his quotation-series when it started to be subsumed under the term postmodernism. From that time forward, he concentrated mostly on genres of painting that have been little more than an art historical footnote since Modernism: still life and landscapes, again and again. Kasseböhmer used various styles and methods to systematically probe the possibilities of painting, something that becomes particularly evident in his series of tree, city and marine landscapes from the 1980s and 1990s. His development of original content and a signature formal language was accompanied not only by an increased exploration of the painterly craft, but also with a progressive seriality in which he “played through” this language in an almost musical way. One example is his Meereslandschaften (Seascapes), for which Kasseböhmer used oil paint that was so diluted that it took on a water-like transparency, allowing the paintings to oscillate between naturalism and abstraction. The gestural forms in his Landschaft gelb, grün (“Landscape Yellow, Green”) series, for which he focused on only two shades, point to both environmental themes and the destruction of art. Kasseböhmer’s decided renunciation of irony struck a distinct contrast to many of his contemporary Cologne painter colleagues and their ideas about the end of painting. His pictures confidently counter a time when anything could be made into a mediatized picture and any facet of painting could be conceptually “destroyed.” Instead they try to show the viewer what only painting can do.
The Walchensee series of large-scale paintings, created in the years before Axel Kasseböhmer’s death after a series of smaller Walchensee landscapes, brings many strands of his lifelong exploration of painting together. He knew that Lovis Corinth’s last landscapes were also created just before his death by a lake in the Alpine foothills of Bavaria. Like Corinth, Kasseböhmer was pursuing a private project in his two Walchensee series: recalling the religious tradition of meditation images, he appears to be confronting his grave illness and immanent death.
The stylistic elements of these works are in some instances art-historically coded and reminiscent of Corinth, Matisse, Munch or contemporary artists such as Richter, Polke and Lichtenstein. Some draw on experimental painting techniques. The oil paint on these paintings is frequently scratched, combed, dabbed or painted on canvas. Sometimes Kasseböhmer uses the paint in a way that makes it shine; other times, he gives it a matte finish. In some cases it seems virtually transparent; in other instances, it is applied so thick that an orange peel-like texture appears on the surface. The result is a panorama that playfully captures the landscape around Lake Walchen, but also the history of landscape painting and the associated idea of a “landscape of the soul.” These paintings seem both obsolete and exceedingly contemporary at the same time.
The salient feature of the Walchensee works is their resistance. The images are characterized by a psychological energy that deeply believes in the painting tradition—an energy that also comes through in Kasseböhmer’s last two self-portraits, which are painterly variations of a photograph and can also be seen in the exhibition. In some ways, Kasseböhmer’s entire oeuvre can be understood as an attempt to save the pictorial space of painting and bring it intact—with all its rich knowledge base, technical interplays and entire depth of meaning—into the present day. Kasseböhmer was always aware that this attempt was doomed to failure from the outset. His work is based on the belief that it is nevertheless important to continue trying. It is an oeuvre that sees in painting a model of hope and a lifeline—expressing the conviction that painting can be so much more than life.
Axel Kasseböhmer (1952-2017) lived and worked in Munich. His works have been shown in institutions including Deichtorhallen, Hamburg; Guggenheim Museum, New York; ICA, Boston; Kunsthalle, St. Gallen; Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf; Kunstverein München; Leopold-Hoesch-Museum, Düren; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Axel Kasseböhmer’s paintings are in various collections including MoMA, New York; Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt and Pinakotheken, Munich.