As a young autodidact, Axel Kasseböhmer could have been a cousin of the bright kid slipping out of class in François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical film, The 400 Blows (1959). But, instead of escaping to the movies, Kasseböhmer, who passed away last year, hit the museums. Having trained at Düsseldorf’s Art Academy in the late 1970s, studying under Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter, Kasseböhmer first came to attention amidst the Rhenish excesses of neo-expressionism. He was into quotation – a sample of Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Steer’s Skull (1942) here (Bull Skull, 1985), a snippet of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) there (Green Dress with Red, 1979) – and was predictably labelled a postmodern painter, spoken of in the same breath as the likes of David Salle. Kasseböhmer hadn’t seen the original versions of these works in the Louvre or the National Gallery – only reproductions in books.
This was teasing, daring; Kasseböhmer was thumbing his nose at pieties.Then, he tired of these games. Apparently, he stopped the quotation series as soon as he heard his work branded postmodern. His solution was to turn to landscapes, which the public clamours after but no one in the critical apparat wants. Kasseböhmer would be anti-ironic; a real reactionary. He would be badder than the bad boys by painting good paintings. This was art about paint alone; an art seemingly at odds with that of his peer group and their frequent use of computer-aided design, collage and inkjet printers.
All three areas of Sprüth Magers’s Berlin space are given over to Kasseböhmer’s painterly evolution, much of which is long unseen. The exhibition begins with early quotation works, such as Landscape with Architecture (1981): its sample, a detail from Nicolas Poussin’s Eliezer and Rebecca (1648); its sandstone pier caps and empty hills rendered in a rather un-Poussin lilac. Cloth 1 (1981) blows-up the folds of a dress featured in Francisco de Zurbaran’s Saint Isabel of Portugal (1635), mutating its silk into what resembles tawdry PVC. Upstairs, in distinct contrast, are examples from the ‘Landscape Yellow, Green’ series, which saw Kasseböhmer restrict himself to a single compositional template – ground, sky and woodland – and the titular two colours. Landscape Yellow-Green Nr. 7 (1997) has lonely trees: one lush in circular bloom, the other bare, decidedly deciduous.
The main gallery is given over to a never-before-seen sequence of works that focus on an exploration of landscape: variations on three horizontal zones of cloud, hills and lake, with skyscapes, ripples on water, the moon’s reflection. These large-scale canvases were the last that Kasseböhmer worked on. At first view, the series looks like a group show majoring in mutations on one motif. An inordinate variety of styles are shuffled, from the Ben-Day dots of Roy Lichtenstein and Sigmar Polke to the thin drip markings of Peter Doig, as in the coldly alpine Walchensee 44 (2014). With Walchensee 37 (2014), the oil renderings of wavelets and sky are scuffed and scored in textural experimentation. Walchensee 47 (2014) is particularly beautiful, with its soft indigo hills, the slight turquoise swells of the lake below and an audaciously empty volume of pure white airspace and reflection.
A memorial blog, written by the German art historian Wolfgang Ullrich, notes how the artist would sometimes launch into Thomas Bernhard-like monologues. Kasseböhmer can, in this regard, be seen as a contrarian: constantly interrogating his markings, worrying at the possibilities of oil painting, nagging incessantly via looping rants akin to those of a Bernhard novel. After all, both had an insistent belief in repetition and reworking.
Axel Kasseböhmer runs at Sprüth Magers, Berlin until 7 April.
Main image: Axel Kasseböhmer, Walchensee 37, 2014, (detail), oil on canvas, 100 x 150 x 3 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin/London/LA; photograph: Timo Ohler
First published in Issue 195