Formative/Existential Art

 

The juxtaposition of form/structuring with the existential . . .

 

written by Neil Chassman in conversation with Peter Schwarzburg

In Memoriam

Self in the Hotel Bar
Peter Schwarzburg
September 2, 2002
1933 - 2002


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THE WORK AT TIMES HAS AN ARCHITECTURAL PRESENCE.

As some time as elapsed since the last one-man show of Peter Schwarzburg's opened at the Terry/Chassman Gallery in May of 1984, it is revealing to describe not only the paths of his work but also to examine the changes which are occurring with the "art world".

Peter's work is more than anything else characterized by authenticity, i.e., it is direct, which seems to imply, and in actuality is, a full-integration of form/structuring with the calling up of deeper levels of the psyche. It never seeks to strike a pose and never aspires to be anything but that which it is. The work is powerful but could be said to have the quality of being at ease with itself. Although it is lyrical, beautiful, and at certain moments even sumptuous, one would not refer to it as decorative because such a term connotes the form/structuring side of a more superficial synthesis.

The three significant tendencies in early 20th century art are brought together in his work: the cubist, which is the element underlying the formal or form/structuring side of his art, the expressionist, which founds the lived experience dimension, the surrealist, which is frequently a hovering sensibility for him. The juxtaposition of form/structuring with the existential is a key to understanding what is happening. Many artists tend to emphasize one side or the other - or may be virtually barren in one dimension. When the form/structuring side isn't well developed, the work leans to sentiment or emotive thrashing about and tends to run off in incoherent directions. When the lived experience dimension is weak, the work results in the merely decorative: an art of surface alone. These opposites present together in Peters' work are in dynamic fusion and generate a naturalness and an aliveness. It is interesting to observe as well that this synthesis is not merely an option but rather that it is a requirement for a first-rate work. If one component is diminished, it is not alone that the work is incomplete but more that even the dimension attended to, while overwhelming the work, is also less than it could be if it had its defining partner.

Some years back, perhaps seven or so now, the Neo-Expressionists came to notice on the New York scene. Ostensibly, they were trying to over come the lack of the expressive side which, since the waning of the Action painters' influence of the late 50's, was not often to be found. Instead the cooler, ironic, and highly aestheticized tendencies of surface prevailed in varying degrees in pop, op, miminalist and related developments. These painters sensed a deprivation and sought by returning to expressive roots sometime earlier in the century to provide substance and an experiential base for art and, in a sense reminiscent of the Action painters but purportedly in a grass roots fashion, bring to the fore once again the potential of the countries of Europe unwilling to accept New York as the center. At the same time they tended to continue the anti-high art sentiments of recent years. In this regard hey are raw in subject matter and seemingly raw in technique, seeking to undercut the hyper-aestheticizing tendencies of Jasper Johns, Tad Day, Andy Warhol, and others.


. . . in his work everything is just right, there are no excesses . . .

But, in fact, Neo-Expressionism has not succeeded. What is noticeable now that was not nearly so evident in May of 1984 is that there is widespread dissatisfaction with their work. Writers in many journals recently have been alluding to something unfulfilled about these works but are rather unable to say what. They have been hoping for a "profounder" extension of what they have seen thus far. What they miss is a developed artistry and a certain aesthetic level. They likely don't care about the internal subjective element. But they sense that the Neo-Expressionists opened up possibilities that none of them has been able to fulfill. They are to be appreciated for having "opened a door", for having noticed an "omission". This observation on their part may yet prove to be a boon.

The concerns of the reviewers, although unfocused, are correct; Neo Expressionism is still far from completing its promise:

a. Its raw technique is mannered.

b. Subject matter has long been irrelevant to quality - the Neo-Expressionists merely state the obvious.

c. The American ascendancy of post-World War II was in reality questionable - so their attempt to resurrect the centrality of Europe is somewhat hollow.

d. European chauvinism is beside the point.

e. They only return to the trappings of pre-Abstract Expressionist art and this results in an art of the surface.


Their work at times has an architectural presence and a decorative pleasantness, et it partakes quite extensively of the specific strengths of the art which it seeks to supplant, frequently lapsing into empty gesturing or even distanced and anesthetized ironic aestheticizing. When it is on, it is more like theatre than art, and so at times seems to betray a callowness.

The real failing of this work is its inability to have gone beyond critique - an embracing mystery is absent, and with it, it lacks the magic substance of integration - its form flakes off, charming though it may be. Its poetic content side is too conservative. Perhaps because they take a social stance, i.e., they participate in an art activity which is fundamentally socially defined, they are distracted and the level is lowered. The existential has always implied authenticity. The mystery must be preserved, alluded to, and lurking - it must not be laid bare. The preservation, the allusion, and the coming and going are the functions of form/structuring. Then the form/structuring is in a dance with the mystery. In Peter's work there is no pretense and the mystery is unrelenting. Therefore, the form/structuring is not decorative but the extent and depth of the mystery allows for a powerful constructive dimension. Lack of pretense, courage and experience are the necessary elements which Peter's work supplies.

If the work doesn't come out of personal experience it lacks nourishment. This gives it also honesty and the directness of approach which breathing has. Constantly on guard, Peter alternately describes his activity as a "toughening up" a la Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, invoked when experience tends to obscure form, and as a "living through" when form threatens to crowd out the poetic/expressive.

What is remarkable is that in his work everything is just right - there are no excesses. Even when there is allegory there is no theatre.

The works in this exhibition are drawn from several widely separated periods of time from the late 1950s to the present, with a substantial number done since the exhibition of 1984, and/or not previously exhibited work. More than twenty years ago Peter's work had been exhibited with modern masters such as Nolde, Ernst, Derain and Leger. As a young man he had already reoriented within his own work some of the aesthetic experiential possibilities which he had seen in their work. Thus he "opened doors" very early on.

Prior to 1984 Peter had either developed his works as a reinvented nature or they were phantastic and symbolistic. Recently almost everything comes from a reinvented nature - symbol is now rarely present and although there is a diffuse and transparent surreality in the landscape, it has not of late had the overt presence so often seen years earlier. As a cognate development, forms are simplified and some of his paintings on paper are done in a very heavy impasto approaching a painted relief sculpture. Peter is, however, careful that this simplification doesn't bland out the way in which later works of several major artists, e.g., Matisse, have tended to do. His palette has changed as well, having become more lyrical in color relationships, utilizing lighter and/or more thinly painted works are more spontaneous, and the heavier works indicate his having taken a risk at reworking and working-in and is a strengthening process. He can't be afraid. In order to be steadfast in the challenge he must be in a good state - sometimes engendered by reading, sometimes by writing and sometimes by the discipline of going into the work no matter what. This reworking occurs constantly for him. Almost all of his works are approached this way. After beginning them at the landscape itself, he then returns to his studio where for long periods he lives with the work before him and "images into" the work, i.e., sifts the work in his mind, takes the elements already laid down and with his mind's eye sees into the potential phases of development - actually, in a sense, perceiving an array of developing images prior to their actualization. He seeks to thus reinvent nature in terms of a remembered experiential texture of his own self and the demands of the already articulated form in response to an immediate encounter with the landscape. He is developing an inner landscape on paper or canvas in a Proustian manner. Above all, then, his work is a personal art both in time and beyond it as he himself steps between worlds.

Because his work takes a few years to settle in, he usually goes back and forth amongst many works, sometimes reaching back twenty years or more to create a new moment in the history of a piece.

His work may be considered a continuation of the modernist tradition, or in his resynthesizing method maybe like Post-Modernist tendencies which break a tight reality, seeking structure in the unstructured and allowing the structuring and de-structuring to come together - perhaps the true quality of Postmodern.

He continues to work in a figurative mode because he believes that abstraction may have been, at least in this moment in history, largely exploited. It is more limited in potential than using the figure as a vehicle from which to engender his personal synthesis.

The synthesis of form/structuring and experience is more mature now in his work. Cubism is now a little more under the surface. What's interesting to think about is that the authenticity is IN the synthesis. Authenticity allows the synthesis to be and the strength of the synthesis is a direct measure of the degree to which authenticity is present. The high of high art is the authentic. Strange then to think that the high is currently rejected.

There was much abstraction in Europe in the 1950s - but it wasn't there, but in New York that the center occurred. And now in New York again, even though there is so much figurative expression in Europe, with the work of Peter Schwarzburg, New York is the center. This is the world level attained. It waits behind the veil.

Neil A. Chassman
New York

Ideas in this essay developed over five years of dialogue with the artist.

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