"... Even in the very moment of its conception the (art)work confronts its author and its audience as something objective, something which makes demands in terms of its own inner structure and its own logic ... the work is neither a reflection of the soul or the embodiment of a Platonic idea. It is not pure Being but rather a 'forcefield' between subject and object."
Theodor W. Adorno, Valery Proust Museum (1967)
Before I begin this short piece, I would like to make some comments about the conditions in which it was generated. The article stems from an involvement over the past three or four years with Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's work; by "work" I do not mean so much the actual paintings or Farbkonstrukte that he has produced as I do mean the thoughts and motivations that have inspired him to produce that work. Indeed my ruminations in this article – and they are only ruminations, not explanations – about his paintings are not based as much as I would have liked on the actual experience of viewing all of the paintings in this exhibition. This has of course had a limiting effect on what I can confidently write about the paintings at the same time it has freed the possibility for me to discuss other issues which I am interested in or that have been part of recent discussions or debates in the art world of the east coast of the United States.
The issues that I raise here are grounded in large part on my discussions and extensive communication in person and by letter with Burghard Müller-Dannhausen, so my ruminations are based on his thoughts (which he is quick to say do not necessarily proceed the paintings) about the position of abstract art in contemporary culture and its effect on the viewer.
I use the word "abstract" advisedly; Burghard Müller-Dannhausen feels as I sometimes do that this category of art-making is too constricting, its boundaries too clearly marked. In fact, he would define himself first and foremost as a painter rather than as an abstract artist. This is of course not to say that he is unaware of the concept of abstractness or of the mechanisms of abstraction. For him, his distilled experiences as expressed in his paintings are primarily the focus of his work. In a Speech made 12 May 1991 he clarified this point: "... Impressions of reality are at the beginning. That is a condition for my painting, this relation to reality. But it's not the detail from reality, which matters, it's always a totality of impressions, for instance a special character of daylight."1) For Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's purpose as a painter is to act as a conduit to that Impression of reality or experience. Now, these impressions of reality that he to some degree telegraphs through his work have survived in his memory. They have been edited so that what is evident ultimately to the viewer is not the first Impression of reality that Müller-Dannhausen experienced but the condition of viewing the painting itself.
As Burghard Müller-Dannhausen further explains, "it's not that origin where I join the viewer, I join him somewhere else. I join him at his viewing experience. The viewer strives to surmount the real ingredients of the painting by his act of contemplation. The picture has to lead to transcendency."
What interests me so much about this attitude towards painting is that the viewer is included as part of the construction. Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's painting loses its meaning (or perhaps has no meaning) unless that meaning is formed in the mind of the viewer. The paintings anticipate the viewer. Now this may seem like an immensely rudimentary or obvious statement to make – that a painting anticipates the viewer. Most things that are created anticipate to some degree a viewer, someone who will see or use or read that work. So, I feel a little foolish to insist that works of art exist in part in order to be viewed, that we in fact do view them and that it might be worth thinking about what happens when we do. I seriously doubt that anyone denies that paintings, and people who view paintings, exist. While a theory of aesthetic response is not the primary focus of Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's effort, it is a subject that I would Iike to raise in this brief article because I think that it illuminates some very interesting aspects of Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's work and the potential meaningfulness of this kind of abstract art today.
In his seminal book "The Act of Reading", Wolfgang Iser defined art (in his case literature) as consisting of two poles – the artistic and the aesthetic.2) The artistic pole is defined as an author's text while the aesthetic is defined as the realization of that text as accomplished by the reader. Thought of in this way, it is perhaps plausible that these poles could be applied (loosely) to painting as well. In this construction, it is clear that the painting-work itself cannot be considered identical with a "painting" (or text) or with the realization of that painting by the viewer. It must be situated between the two, between the objects hanging on the walls of the exhibition hall and the viewer looking at those objects. There is then a virtuality to the character of the painting-work, for it cannot be reduced to either the reality of the object or the subjectivity of the viewer. It could be said that the dynamism of that work derives its power from this condition of virtuality. This is not meant to deny the essential significance of these two poles, it is simply to say that if we lose sight of the relationship between the two we lose sight of the potential meanings of the virtual painting-work.
To paraphrase Mikel Dufrenne on literature, in order to gain access to the virtual state of the painting-work, we must alienate ourselves in a painting, as if to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of that work.3) We must contribute something to the artistic object, the painting itself.
This does not mean that we should add to the painting a commentary consisting of images or representations which will eventually lead us away from the aesthetic experience. Rather, one must be oneself fully by gathering oneself together as a whole, without forcing the "silent plenitude" of the work to become explicit or extracting any representations from the painting's Images. Our alienation is simply the end result of the process of careful observation by which we discover that the world of the paintings into which we have submerged is also our world. We are, as Dufrenne suggests, at home in this world. We can understand the affective quality revealed by the painting-work because we are the quality, just as the painter is his work.4)
Now, what is useful about a retrospective show such as this one is that it helps us to establish the apparent codes by which we may respond to the work. We must, as we look at the Farbkonstrukte on the walls here or in this catalog, search for structures or codes that will enable us to describe or define for ourselves the basic conditions of the interactions of ourselves and the paintings. Of course I do not mean to imply formal or compositional structures in the work, but rather ways by which the work sets our minds in motion. Only by doing this will we have the ability to gain some understanding of the possible affectiveness of the work. By this I do not mean to refer to the calculated effects integral to the method of theatricality, which is intended to manufacture a limited and surefire response in the viewer. Unlike the passive response often induced by theatricality, this retrospective requires us to participate both in the production and the comprehension of the works' intention or meaning.
Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's work is structured in terms of what Iser called "two-sidedness" – it is both visual and affective.5) The visual aspect steers our reaction and prevents it from being arbitrary. The affective aspect is the realization of that which has been prearranged by the language of the painting. Any useful definition of the interaction between the two must include both the structure of the effects e.g. the painting itself, and that of the response, e.g. the viewer. It is within this useful description of the interaction between the two that we can begin to assemble the meaning of these paintings for ourselves as a process of recreative dialectics that will ultimately result in a differentiation of our original focus.6)
I would now like to return to the concept of "virtuality" that I see as crucial to a possible method of constructing meaning in Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's work. In an infamous attack against minimal sculpture, titled "Art and Objecthood" and written in 1967, Michael Fried saw the post-painterly abstractionists he admired as securing their work's relation to Art by locating it within the domain of the virtual.7) In describing this domain of virtuality, Fried referred to the Greenbergian belief about the aesthetic value ("aesthetic" defined as the realization or concretization accomplished by the viewer) of "rendering substance entirely optical."8) He agreed with the ostensible goal of this newly abstracted form of illusionism, specifically "that matter is incorporeal, weightless, and exists only optically like a mirage."
To this idea of mirage, accomplished by the demolition or at least extreme reduction of matter, Fried added his own notion of the "medium of shape" and made a case for the special importance of similar demolition/fracturing of edge, the establishment of the illusion that the viewer cannot realize the experience of distinct objects because he/she cannot adequately locate all of their boundaries. Fried went on to expose the "preoccupation with time, more precisely, the duration of experience" that constituted minimalist art practice at that period and which posed a threat to the kind of post-painterly abstraction he championed. What Fried demanded of art was what he called "presentness", a transcendent condition in which the past is without influence, and the future is unimaginable (he referred to it as a state of "grace"), in which "at every moment the work itself is wholly manifest," What he saw replacing that condition as a result of the sensibility he saw at work in minimalism was "presence", the indispensable condition of theater.9)
While I am fairly certain that Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's work is not explicitly grounded in any reading of Fried, I think it instructive to consider briefly the Farbkonstrukte in this exhibition and the painter's writing, along with Fried's text as a kind of "reader" of the painting-work. In the paintings we have before us, we can sense Müller-Dannhausen's treatment of pictorial surface as one which tirelessly "strangles" or destroys the shapes it supposedly offers to view, forcing them to hover in an "unlocatable nonspace" especially evident in paintings like Mai 1988 XII.10)
Here we realize the production of virtuality – of the painting shimmering like a mirage. That requires, even presupposes, the concretization of that mirage in the viewer – a mirage made evident by a "cannibalism of shape" which results in a "painterly structure that is defined as a location of color and light".11) Now, if the viewer is implied in these paintings, and if in that implication the viewer's role is laid down in the painting, then what might be drawn from the interaction of these paintings and the implied viewer is that the viewer, like the subject of the painting, is not there or at least exists in a similar unlocatable nonspace. This experience is set up in reciprocity with the Suggestion that the work is a mirage, that it cannibalizes the viewer's space in much the same way it cannibalizes its own.
But, as Rosalind Krauss has pointed out in her critical evaluation of Fried, this effect of not being there must be tempered, for we are not really experiencing total absence e.g. an empty exhibition hall with no paintings in it.12) What we have, in Krauss' terms, is a "fiction of nonpresence"; even as the work insists that it is immaterial in the same way that the letters that form the words – and perhaps the words themselves – on this page are immaterial, it has a material reality or "artistic" as opposed to aesthetic presence. So we are, in interacting with the painting, encouraged to take our cues from the paintings, to be abstracted from our bodily reality and recombined as a non-bodily vehicle of spiritual experience. What we have, then, is a condition which is not a nonpresence but, as Krauss defines it, one of abstract presence, the viewer transformed or recreated through interaction with the abstract presence of the work.
It seems that the intention to create this experience of abstract presence is supported by something that Burghard Müller-Dannhausen wrote about his own work regarding time. For him, time is not an immanent element in the picture any more. "In traditional paintings, time is readable as a sequence of single drawing acts, so that the dimension of time belongs immediately to the productive process and the receptive process as well. In my integrated systems however, everything exists from the beginning, the apparition is definitely simultaneous"13) As I mentioned before, Michael Fried wrote about time or duration as being the enemy to the work of the post painterly abstractionists. For Burghard Müller-Dannhausen, time is a kind of enemy; temporality and site specificity are not supportive of his aims. Theatricality is for these works a distraction, one which is not useful in constructing the meanings of the work in the viewer. "We all need some kind of utopia, because the bare reality is not the place where a human being can feel at home."14) Just as the intended immateriality of the paintings themselves suggests a kind of abstract presence in the mind of the implied viewer, so the actual location of these paintings in the exhibition hall is also not intended to bear on the fundamental experience of the work. These paintings strive to exist outside of place, outside of material and additionally outside of time itself, in order to achieve the condition of abstract presence by virtue of their "presentness".15)
What these works achieve then, contemplated as they are in the mind of the implied viewer, is an autonomy that is a prerequisite of utopia. The presentness of these paintings calls for an experience of intense abstract presence on our part in relation to the paintings themselves. An experience which in this case could be called one of pure cognition or an instantaneous moment in which we get a mental grasp of the work both immediately and forever so that the flash of transcendence, of "getting it" lifts us out of the temporal altogether.
Now, what about the concept of abstract presence as a means to constitute a utopia? As Carter Ratcliff reminds us, Barnett Newman and others in his generation frequently made progressive utopian declarations about new days that would never dawn and which, in retrospect, had no hope of dawning.16) However, to give in to such distracting speculation is understandable and in a way to be commended. We want to be receptive to the appeal of utopia, but we also want to be wary of the potential problems of utopian promises. One of which might be that progressive art will produce discernable improvement in the world, which is undoubtedly one of the least tenable notions of utopia. Utopian aesthetics runs the risk of drawing us into a transcendental realm of what is now popularly called "political correctness", encouraging us to feel incorruptibly certain about the sweeping effects artworks or paintings should have.
The minimalist's interest in objecthood that Michael Fried discussed reacted against these utopian metaphors, but provided it with its own kind of certainty: certainty about the material qualities these works should possess. Certainty in any form is seductive, but is also misleading because knowledge must always be partial.16) In the case of Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's Farbkonstrukte, certainty would take us far from these works' potential meanings, which reside in the ambiguities of the present moment in which we confront them. For, it is from the construction and experience of these meanings that we can begin to form a significant image of our world.
I would like to point out by way of conclusion that in these Farbkonstrukte transcendence is not achieved by a fusion of intellect and spirit alone. Almost in spite of my earlier mention of the "abstract presence" of this work, matter is an inescapable element in these paintings. In fact, matter is not only the vehicle used to fuse the intellect and spirit of the viewer in a transcendent state but also the element to be transcended. In a sense, the physical reality of these paintings – the paints, the stretchers, even to some degree the scale-like shapes of the compositions – is a basis of transcendence and acts as its necessary opposite.
In the struggle to overcome the limitations of matter, Burghard Müller-Dannhausen's work stands as a convincing argument that not all veins of the spiritual possibilities of abstract art have been mined.
1) Burghard Müller-Dannhausen, Lecture delivered at the Stolánová Gallery, Wiesbaden, 12 May 1991, unpublished.
2) Wolfgang Iser, "The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response", John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1987, p. 21 (originally published as "Der Akt des Lesens: Theorie ästhetischer Wirkung", Wilhelm Fink, Munich, 1976).
3) Mikel Dufrenne, "The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience" translated by Edward S. Casey et. al., Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973, p. 555.
5) Iser, "The Act of Reading", p. 21.
6) ibid. p. X.
7) Michael Fried, "Art and Objecthood", Artforum 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967), p. 21; reprinted in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1968, pp. 116-147.
8) Clement Greenberg, "Modernist Painting", Arts Yearbook, no. 4 (1961); reprinted in The New Art; ed. Gregory Battcock, E. P. Dutton, New York; 1973, p. 74.
9) See "Theories of Art after Minimalism and Pop", Discussions in Contemporary Culture, ed. Hal Foster; Bay Press, Seattle, 1987, pp. 55–87 for an in-depth critical evaluation of Fried's seminal text by Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, and Michael Fried himself.
10) Krauss, "Theories of Art after Minimalism and Pop", p. 61. The term "unlocatable non-space" was coined by Krauss to describe in this case the misaligned color separations in Warhols screen paintings.
11) Burghard Müller-Dannhausen, "On My Painting", unpublished notes, 1986.
12) Krauss, "Theories of Art after Minimalism and Pop", p. 61 ff.
13) Müller-Dannhausen, "On My Painting"
14) Müller-Dannhausen, Lecture, Stolánová Gallery.
15) Rosalind Krauss et. al., "Symposium Discussion" Discussions in Contemporary Culture, p. 75 ff. See this discussion for more on the concept of "presentness".
16) Carter Ratcliff, "James Bishop: Remembering How to See", Artforum 26, no. 9 (May 1988), pp. 130-132.