Painting as Rewriting, or Painted Discourse

In Decorum, Cologne 1997, Markus Brüderlin

The new debate about contemporary painting seems to make sense solely with reference to the ornament and its meaning for modernism, whereby we must finally abandon the prejudicial view of the ornament as a purely decorative form, and acknowledge the reflective aspects of the ornament as a "critical form", much as Werner Busch has treated the meaning of the arabesque in Romantic art. Against this backdrop, Thomas Werner distils from the ornament a pictorial principle that links the reflective moment, beyond irony and cynicism, with the endorsement of a painterly practice and therein activates the conceptional and, as we shall see, contextual functions of ornament and decoration which were always inherent in this genre and which only came to be obscured by the decorative function in the last two centuries. Linked with the ornament is the hope of having found a method which prevents reflection from ending up in an enforced "painting against painting", instead of one by which reflective artistic action ultimately reveals the meaning of sensuality and, nota bene, can also lead to a renewal of painting.

Ornamentalisation and the History of Painting. Re-writing has to do with an elementary act of appropriating the history of painting, which latter goes beyond one's own existential and experiential circle and becomes dissolved in the possibilities of one's own artistic present. The method also exposes the subjective longing to inscribe oneself into the narration of painting through the ritual act of repetition in order not only to legitimate one's own action, but also to experience something of the sensus communis, the cultural subconscious. Mention has already been made of the fact that this ritualising and historicising action is now being carried out by many artists as an impressive kind of "ornamentalisation" of the potential of modern forms. But to what extent can history and the past be thematised in the ornament, and what can be derived from this process today for our understanding of the "embodied present" and our own artistic identity? Initially, the above-mentioned repetitive character of the ornament indicates a realisation that everything we do has already been done, momentarily discovering in this the exhausted condition of modernism. Abstract art is itself one tradition among many, and playing with non-figurative forms has become one aesthetic model among others. Many see this as a justification for helping themselves liberally from the quarry of "art history", once the patents have expired. It can be shown, however, that artists like Sherrie Levine, Philip Taafe, and Blinky Palermo before them, do not just haunt the past in the form of arbitrary raids, but instead focus on modernism's neuralgic points in order to draw on their contradictions and puzzles as a basis for their own artistic inquiry. As a result, this retrospective avant-garde can assume the role of modernism's memory or conscience in the hope of tracking down and updating forgotten possibilities in recollective flash-backs and in keeping with the words of Adorno, according to which "immersion in the historical dimension" has the task of prospectively revealing "what once remained unsolved". How is an artist who investigates the history of modernism behaving: like an archivist, an archaeologist, a citation exploiter, or as an "applied art historian"?

The Paradox of Style and Avant-garde. The fact is that recapitulating strategies of appropriation once again raises a problem which we would rather believe has been "despatched" to the annals of art theory, the problem, namely, of abstract art as the creation of a supraindividual, generally comprehensible style. This question usually arises when the unease about the "cult of the individual" begins to gnaw at the zeitgeist and the particular triumphs over the general. At the moment, the art business is busy with the question of how, without recourse to a "semantic police" or dogmatic calls to order, some binding form can be negotiated in the unbinding confusion of signs. Even the pioneers of abstraction, who at the time had just escaped the stylistic ecstasy of historicism, were confronted with the task of legitimating their anything but easily comprehensible individual posits in the form of a demand for supraindividual meaningfulness. As a solution to the problem, they got carried away in an artistically convoluted argumentation: On the one hand they had to allay the suspicion that abstract painting was nothing more than the stylistic principle of the ornament rendered independent in pure form, the ornament of the ornament; on the other hand, they wanted to provide proof that the artist-individual can also have an impact on style, and that the particular can be distinguished from the general as a valid expression of a comprehensive state of mind and attitude to life. To resolve the conflict, the Constructivists in particular, and partly, too, the Concrete artists and those of the De Stijl group, invented an agenda aimed at eliminating individual art in formal concepts that had no originator. This led to a basic paradigm of modernism. The irony of art history is that in carrying out that agenda one comes back repeatedly to the ornament.

Thomas Werner: Abstract painting as a continuation of the history of the ornament.
Thomas Werner's painterly concept works with the retrospective gesture of re-writing, even though, at first glance, its colourful ornamentation adheres more to Lipps' "beauty fulfilled in being seen", which is untrammelled by the awareness of the history of painting. Only on closer scrutiny of the paintings and the impact of their extremely subtle deep and surface layers and clever mixing techniques do we realise that in them the artist has also directly processed a piece of "history". Stored in the development of the individual work is, as it were, art history as "re-writing" and its formal transformation. It is important to know that the colourist ornamentation at which Werner arrived, almost seven years ago, was initially derived not directly from ornamentation's given set of meanings and forms, but instead even surprisingly for those who are not familiar with his earlier works from a Cubist-figurative corporeality. In 1984 Werner produced a series of small portraits in which, through Cubist simplification, he tracked down the general, suggestive, expressive force by means of a depiction that was free of all individual features. Through his ambiguous, lustrous, three-dimensional handling of paint, he succeeded in creating a quite unusual magical effect. These works do not deny their precursors, Oskar Schlemmer and his Swiss student and artist friend Otto Meyer-Amden, and their two respective artistic positions, which about seventy years previously when Cubism and Abstraction had become fully formulated digressed from the orthodox line of the avant-garde. Throughout their lives, both those artists remained indebted to a figurative pictoriality and imbued Cubism with a unique impetus. This applies to Meyer-Amden in particular, who suppressed the purely formal, deconstructivist aspect of Cubism in favour of a deep human sensitivity. By comparison with his statuary inwardness and immaterial effulgence, Schlemmer's dynamic architectonics, firmly integrating the human form into an external rhythmic construct, can be described as lending contours to Meyer-Amden's visionary atmospherics. In these two strange personalities, Thomas Werner found an artistic point of identification on which he reflected, confessionally but no less playfully, in order to derive the preconditions for his own independent development. In 1984 as a kind of completion of this aesthetic self-discovery he painted the two Guards, which expand on the portraits by including the whole body. The magical impression made by the paintings remains dominant through the dark, chthonic colouring and the strange play of the chiaroscuro, and is sustained by the almost threatening monumentalism of the figures which are squeezed into the rectangular format of the paintings. In the lower part of the Guards' clothing there is already a hint of a purely abstract division of the plane, which was to become the determining feature of the following colourist phase and of the visual aspect of his recent paintings, on show in this exhibition. Thomas Werner deformed and extended the geometric-cubist planar construct to a point where the outlines of the figures began to adopt formal, ornamental aspirations. Stripes cross the pictorial field at right angles and end in wavy tracks, the dynamic thrust emphasized by lines in the internal plane. The whole formal idiom has been subjected to ornamental rules such as those of reflection, repetition, counterpoint or linear rows. Grids and interweaving lines dissolve the fixed contours of the objects. This change from the magic-cubist pictorial tectonics of a painting to the ornamental "life of forms" (Focillon) can also be seen as an archaeological analysis. The act of appropriative "re-writing" announces the fate of so-called "colour cubism", a fraction formed by Juan Gris, Albert Gleizes and later Schlemmer, the roots of which are to be found not so much in the decomposition of classical Cubism as in the ornamentation mediated through Art Nouveau. Currently, art theory is in the process of discovering a "second line of development in modern art on its way to non-figurativeness", which alongside the finalist posits of Malevitch's black square and stylising Abstractionism (from the Impressionists to the Cubists to Mondrian) runs via the aesthetics of Art Nouveau. Some thought is being given to the peculiar situation where almost "all the pioneers of non-figurative painting went through an Art Nouveau phase, while not all went through a Cubist phase, as did Kandinsky, Hölzel or Kupka, for example.

In 1900, Adolf Hälzel, teacher of Meyer-Amden and Schlemmer, published his postulate of "absolute painting" according to which the art work was to be built up as a harmonic pictorial whole from out of the specific value of the pictorial means and the pure organisation of planar forms. Hšlzel's teaching was oriented mainly around the pictorial laws of the ornament and thus formed a bridge for the "secret" transfer to autonomous art of the ornament, only recently released from the context of style. His analysis of the objective laws of plane design was necessarily linked to the de-individualisation of the figural form and had its theoretical roots in ornamentation (Ornamentalistik), referred to once by the famous theorist of style, Wšlfflin, as "art history with no name".

The Conceptualisation of Decoration
In the 1920s, the attempt to resolve individual formal concepts in a supraindividual style was linked to the aspiration to lend overall shape to the everyday world according to abstract-constructive concepts of form. In concrete terms, this aspiration was to be realised in a renewed merging of painting and architecture, in which painting was not, however, to be subordinate to the existing space, as in traditional peinture decorative, but where, vice versa, the panel painting would form the nucleus of a new Stijl architecture. The ambitious experiments of the De Stijl movement and the Bauhaus era failed; painting was thrown back on to the panel painting, from whence as a substitute, so to speak, for its impracticable social function it has since been trying to conceptionally structure its context, that is to say, its architectural, institutional and social environment.
How can painting thematize its own context? This was made clear in Concept Art of the 1970s: by verbalising and theorising pictorial materials in texts. By contrast, painting had to resort to a historical peculiarity and thematised itself as "decoration". The primary concern here was to liberate the category of decoration from its pejorative evaluations and to establish it on the painting level in formal correspondence to that which, since Duchamp, functioned on the object-art level as the category of context. Just as context describes the formation of meanings and functions by setting art in different relations, so too, decoration makes visible the borderlines between the different formal, social, ontological and historical realms and forges links between them. As the text becomes context, so too, the autonomous panel painting is today being transformed into decoration. The first method functions by positioning, the second by framing.