If Peter Dreher can paint a subject once, he can paint it five thousand times. He is best known for his observational paintings of a single empty glass. He started this series, Tag um Tag guter Tag (Every Day Is a Good Day) in 1974, and has painted as many as one hundred in a single year, always in the same position. He depicts the solitary glass in the middle of a canvas slightly larger than the subject. Nearly all of them measure around 10 x 8 inches. The view is eye-level and direct, the glass being the same size in the painting as its real-life counterpart.
Done over a period of more than forty years, the series now numbers more than five thousand. The paintings present viewers with a visual conundrum: they are exactly the same but each one is unique. Dreher has found a way to approach Andy Warhol’s mechanical reproduction and Walter Benjamin’s “aura” from an oblique and provocative angle. There are no masterpieces in this group, and reproducibility has been subverted in advance. At the same time, despite individually painting each glass and never resorting to mechanical means, Dreher has cited Warhol’s importance to him and has said that he wanted to “be like a machine.” I think what Dreher means by this statement needs to be unpacked.
In choosing a mass-produced, ordinary glass as a subject, and returning to it with a gentle relentlessness, over and over again, Dreher focuses on the thing as it exists in the passage of time. In the painting, this seeing of time, place, and thing is registered in the reflections you can see in the glass, making it a kind of mirror. Humility, tenderness, pride, and absurdity are rolled into one transparent cylinder in which the sky, seen through the studio window, is reflected in the paintings done during daylight hours. Look carefully at the dabs of paint and, in many of the daylight paintings, you will see a tiny self-portrait of the artist, framed by the window. The glass and the artist’s self-portrait are inseparable. He is as persistent as the glass, and as fragile.
Always thorough in what he does, Dreher has painted the glass at night and numbers them differently from the daytime paintings so as not to confuse the two groups. A master tonalist, his sensitivity to changing light is evident. Each painting is a record of living in time, with one leading to another. Often arranged in a grid, when a group of these paintings is presented in an exhibition, the result is mind-boggling. It is understandable that you might think this is an elaborate joke — dozens of paintings of the same subject — but it is not at all. The paintings are poised on the cusp between the absurdity of reality and reverence for the ordinary.
Meanwhile, the paintings invite viewers to recognize differences, to savor small pleasures, to slow down and enjoy the particulars of each painting, while discerning what changes and is particular about each work.
In our minds, they both blur together and don’t, while making us aware that perhaps our liking one more than another is purely subjective. Standards, you could say, have been thrown off.
In an interview with Lynn Tillman, an early champion of the artist, in Bomb 57 (Fall 1996), Dreher revealed that painting the glass is the only thing that calms his anxiety:
It’s very funny to say, it’s the only place and the only hours in my life when I really feel quiet. Maybe I don’t make the impression of being unquiet, but I am.
The source of Dreher’s deep anxiety is his childhood. He was born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1932, and belongs to the generation whose childhood was directly affected by World War II. When he was 7, he began drawing and knew that he wanted to be an artist. When he was 9, his father was killed while fighting in Russia. Because he was an exceptional student, the Nazis sent him to study in Alsace, France, in 1943, separating him from his mother. In 1945, he escaped from the school and wandered about the war-torn landscape until he was able to reunite with his mother and two brothers. By this time, by allied bombs had destroyed the family house, leaving him feeling even more uprooted, without a home.
If painting the glass enabled him to feel calm, what does it mean for him to repeatedly paint and draw a skull? In his exhibition, Peter Dreher: Behind the Mirror, at Koenig & Clinton (April 13 – May 20, 2017), his second at this gallery, the single subject that is on view is the artist’s depictions of the human skull. (The one exception is a somber self-portrait done in graphite.) The earliest group of skulls dates from 1947, when Dreher was 15, which, as the gallery press release states, “mark the start of his formal training.”
And yet, while the gallery understandably downplays the artist’s biography, I find it hard not to think about the time and circumstance in which Dreher made these academic works: it is the aftermath of World War II and the Shoah. Dreher’s own life has been shattered. The great German writer W. G. Sebald has written that these years mark the beginning of the postwar German amnesia regarding the ferocious Allied bombing of 131 German cities and towns, including Mannheim. Conscious of what Germany, as a nation, had done to the Jews and others, it became difficult to think about the ferocious bombing of civilians that took place in the last year of the war. A feeling of numbness persisted throughout the divided, humiliated nation.
It seems to me that Dreher’s repeated examination of the skull is an attempt to face his own sense of mourning, mortality, and shame, as well as quietly resist the personal and collective numbness that afflicted many Germans. Instead of evading his awareness of death, or becoming morbidly fascinated with it, as was Warhol, he looked at an anonymous skull without averting his eyes. He became fascinated with what we became: a skull devoid of flesh, a lifeless thing. He brings his consciousness to bear upon an object that no longer possesses awareness, though it once did.
The size of the skull within the different sheets of paper underscores the artist’s intimacy with the subject: he is not looking at an object lying on a table. Even as a teenager, he closed the distance between himself and the thing he was looking at. In an untitled work from 1947, done in watercolor, ink, and pencil, Dreher scrutinizes an open-mouthed skull, which he renders as barely contained by the paper’s edges. One sees in the tension between subject and container an inkling of what is to come when, in 1974, he turns his attention to the empty glass.
Dreher has said that he picked the glass because, as an object, it is a simple thing. I have the feeling he might say something similar about the skull, particularly the way he draws and paints it. In both cases, he wants to depict what he sees, to overcome his feeling of floating around, by concentrating on a single object in front of him. The thing becomes his anchor — it grounds him in the everyday. There are feathery graphite drawings of skulls in which the subject is cropped by the paper’s edges. It is looking at you with vacant eye-sockets. In these small drawings, I had to get so close to a drawing to see it, I had the feeling that Dreher was inviting me to kiss the subject.
Another group, done in white gouache on black paper, is like looking at an X-ray. The application and density of the gouache, synonymous with the thickness of the bone, underscores the material existence of the works; they are things to be looked at, contemplated, reflected upon. They are modern vanitas. What Dreher has done is strip away all the drama surrounding this subject until all that is left is a skull looking back at us, as if in a mirror.
It is in four monumental gouaches that Dreher goes over the top, attains something that viewers are apt to find playful, weird, funny, loving, disturbing, and that’s just the beginning. Dreher may not want to make a masterpiece, but that certainly is what he has done in the six gouaches on paper, each of which is more than five feet high and nearly ten feet wide.
On grounds ranging from gray to black the artists has painted over one hundred skulls, often arranged in uneven rows. He must have had to return to this work day after day. Did he do a skull a day, or more than one, in each sitting? Why, in one of the untitled works, did he partially cover one skull with another, or cover the lower half with the gray, brushy ground, suggesting that it was either slipping under or emerging from a layer of paint. What about the skull that is upside down? How was he able to work on such a large scale?
All six gouaches are dated 2005, when the artist was in his early 70s. (The most recent works in the show are works dated 2017.) Although Dreher has used a Buddhist title, Every Day Is a Good Day, for his series of glasses, he readily admits that he is not, nor can he become, a Buddhist. And yet, looking at these six gouaches, which are stacked in two rows of three each, and take up an entire wall of the gallery, I was reminded of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series, Sea of Buddha (1995), which focuses on the one thousand unique, gold-leafed, life-sized wooden sculptures of Buddhist deities found in Sanjūsangen-dō, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto that was first built in 1164. The Buddhist deities are arranged in two groups of ten rows of fifty columns. Sugimoto made 48 photographs as well as a three-channel video projection, Accelerated Buddha (1997).
Are Dreher’s skulls grinning at us or is that just the way they look? In the gouache with a black ground, they seem to be floating, as well as emerging out of the darkness. Dreher has turned one wall of the gallery into a catacomb, with rows and rows of skulls facing us. The black gouache, which isn’t filled and is placed in the upper left corner of the six works, awaits us.
Dreher can be simultaneously grim and funny. In making his glasses and skulls, I get the feeling that he is not interested in making art, that he is more intent on looking at something ordinary, which was part of his and everybody else’s daily life. Painting becomes an intense form of meditation that grounds him. By looking at these and other subjects again and again, he has been able to calm himself while acknowledging the absurdity of existence. The glasses and skulls don’t add up, and they don’t go anywhere — and that seems to be Dreher’s compassionate view of life. “Every day is a good day” are the words of a survivor.
Peter Dreher: Behind the Mirror continues at Koenig & Clinton (459 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 20.