Can any theory about art’s mission be universal? Or is a theory, with its investment in a narrative of progress, more contingent and narrowly focused than the art world is willing to acknowledge — enthralled as it currently is with deskilling and relational aesthetics, as it once was with Greenbergian formalism? Isn’t a widely regarded theory (or vantage point) a sanctioned form of exclusion? An approved way of privileging one thing over another? A smart way of establishing a hierarchy while claiming to be aligned with Marxism?
In Wong Kar-Wai’s film, Happy Together (1997), Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yiu-fai, a gay couple living in Hong Kong just as its sovereignty is about to be transferred from Great Britain to China, decide to go to Buenos Aires in hopes of repairing their troubled relationship.
Wong Kar-Wai chose Buenos Aires as the film’s locale because he felt uncomfortable being in Hong Kong during the last days before it was “handed over” to China on June 30, 1997. And yet, understandably, the imminent change Hong Kong was about to undergo — in relation to both its colonial past and its communist future — was very much on the filmmaker’s mind. This is what he said about Happy Together in Bomb 62/Winter 1998:
I didn’t want to make a film about Hong Kong in 1997. After we made the film, we knew that it was not about Buenos Aires, but was somehow more related to Hong Kong. So instead of calling it “Buenos Aires Affair,” which was its working title and would have been very exotic but misleading, we called it Happy Together.
In Happy Together, the audience barely glimpses the city of Buenos Aires. There are no panoramic views or aerial shots. The filmmaker never rises above his gravity-bound characters to explore the city — however exotic it might be — to which the two men have come. Similarly, theorists cannot admit their inability to rise above the rubble they helped create, and to which they keep adding debris.
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Hanns Schimansky was born in East Germany in 1949. Living there until 1990, and the beginnings of reunification, it was never a matter of “beating” or “joining” the system. That dialectic, which Hal Foster claims is pervasive in a capitalist society (you can either beat the system or join it), was never an option for Schimansky.
Schimasky was trained as an agronomist engineer and, other than taking the equivalent of adult education drawing classes, is self-taught. In his mid-twenties, he began drawing in earnest. In 1979, he committed himself to art. At the time, he was working in Rostock, which is on the Baltic Sea. After World War II, and the defeat and division of Germany, Rostock became a major industrial center as well as the principal harbor for East Germany (German Democratic Republic or GDR).
Born midway between Sigmar Polke (1941–2010) and Neo Rauch (1960), Schimansky never moved, like Polke, to West Germany. Another difference between Schimansky and both Polke and Rauch is that drawing is his principal medium, not painting, photography or video, which generally cost more to make and which sell for more than drawings do.
Schimansky’s materials include paper, pencil, graphite, oil stick, chalk, ink, and gouache — inexpensive things you could have bought in East Germany before reunification.
When Germany was reunified in 1990, Schimansky was forty. He had been drawing for more than fifteen years and — more importantly — his drawings were abstract, many of them done in black ink on sheets of inexpensive brown paper. He never worked in a socialist realist manner, which was taught in Eastern German art academies, such as the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts, where Neo Rauch was a student.
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I met Hanns in the mid-90s, and I see him whenever I go to Berlin. I often spend an evening or two hanging out in his studio. Initially, his studio was in his modest-sized apartment in Charlottenburg. While he has not moved to a fancier or more fashionable neighborhood, his current studio is a larger space with high ceilings further out in the city, in a row of small industrial spaces devoted to light manufacturing. There is seldom anyone in the adjacent spaces when I am out there, which gives the area a deserted feel. It seems appropriate for Schimansky, who doesn’t have a studio assistant; he has neither started working with more expensive materials nor enlarged his scale to corporate proportions.
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One night, while we were driving somewhere, Hanns asked if I wanted to listen to some music. He happened to have a CD in the car that he thought I would find interesting. Hanns has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and is friends with a number of musicians.
I don’t remember the name of the band. And, if I did, I probably would not know how to spell it. According to Hanns, it was a Polish rock and roll band that was popular in Poland in the 1970s. For him, one of the interesting things about the band was that it was inspired by the Beach Boys. He was delighted by the fact that their music got all the way to Poland in the middle of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. “And there was no surfing in Poland at that time,” Hanns said with a mischievous laugh.
Hann’s affection for this band seems to me to be in keeping with his life in Rostock. He said that whenever he walked down to the harbor and looked at the ocean, he told himself that Denmark was just beyond the horizon. After reunification he took a ferry from Germany to Denmark and visited the area directly across from Rostock and, in his mind, the spot where he stood. He said that on the other side of the water from Rostock was a town with a lighthouse. He stayed a few days, but it wasn’t very interesting and he took the ferry back to Germany.
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One of the topics that Hanns and I keep returning to revolves around the question, “What is a free line?” For Hanns, the question is political, philosophical and aesthetic. It is not hard to understand why he doesn’t want to make art that aligns itself with an ideology. He made abstract drawings on paper in East Germany until he was forty. The authorities frowned upon what he did, but, luckily for him, they also decided it was harmless.
He has told me that he felt free for the first time when he was sitting down by the harbor, drawing. It didn’t matter if it was cold. Making a drawing wasn’t about being efficient; it wasn’t about the product of his labor, which was a central concern in East Germany. It wasn’t even about enjoying himself. The terms “deskilling” and “skill” are insulting to Schimansky’s project because their dichotomy diminishes it.
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In this Sunday’s New York Times, I read Carol Vogel’s report on Wade Guyton, who is having a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art: “Growing up in Lake City, Tenn., Mr. Guyton remembers how his stepfather, a Sunday painter who worked in a steel mill, did his elementary-school drawing homework for him. ‘I didn’t have the patience for drawing and he enjoyed it,’ he recalled.”
Maybe it comes down to something as simple as Hanns Schimanksy being confined to a situation where he had to draw to survive, and Wade Guyton living in circumstances where he didn’t enjoy drawing because there were other, more exciting things to do.
The narratives of progress currently in play in the art world cannot address both these possibilities. Skill and de-skilling are beside the point, an empty paradigm. It has everything to do with looking. Schimansky makes drawings that require the viewer to look slower, to look without looking for something.
In Schimansky’s “foldings,” drawings which are done in gouache and pencil on paper gridded with sharp creases, he works on each of the variously sized sections independently of each other. He refolds the paper into different configurations and works on the area he sees. At any point he doesn’t know what the rest of the drawing looks like. Never seeing the work in its entirety, he undermines his own vantage point.
Guyton’s machine-made paintings are about a very different kind of looking, one based more on speed and recognition. The uneven inking of the canvas surface is a parody meant to appeal to refined sensibilities. If you are smart and hip, you will get the references to Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman.
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Although I have known Hanns for more than fifteen years, I only recently have seen his early work. Curious about his beginnings, I asked him if he had any of his first efforts. Their confidence immediately struck me.
Even in the early works one sees Schimansky drawing in a way that is counterintuitive. He is drawing a landscape — one that seems to be made of both refuse and brush — but the lines are largely abstract. This is in keeping with what happens later in his work.
This is from an essay I wrote about Schimansky’s drawings in 2010:
Instead of using a pencil or crayon to make a quick or delicate line across the surface, he will roll, twirl, or push the tip of the medium against the paper. The changing tension and friction between medium and surface becomes unpredictable, causing the means to become something that the artist cannot completely control. In fact, I feel there are moments when the artist functions as a conduit between means and medium, when he must be attentive to the give and take between the drawing tool and the paper’s topography.
By establishing a particular, often awkward orientation between the medium and the surface, the artist goes a long way toward denying any kind of fluidity or mastery. By holding the instrument at an acute angle to the surface in order to make downward moving lines or rolling the drawing tool to make a twisting, rough-edged line, Schimansky undermines the movement of a pencil or paint stick across the paper. Within these and other processes, he often stops and starts, with each stop signaling a transition from one kind of line or shape to another. In some drawings, it’s as if different abstract hieroglyphs have invaded each other’s territory, forming a new hybrid language. Schimansky’s drawings aren’t unitary; they don’t resolve themselves into an easily consumable composition. They demand to be scrutinized, to be disassembled and recombined in the mind’s eye. And it is this connection between eye and mind, and the visual and the tactile, which lifts Schimansky’s drawings and “Foldings” into their own resonant realm.
Schimansky’s drawings are notable for their breaks and transitions in conjunction with different kinds of forms, marks and linear signs. These shifts and ruptures result in a collection of polysepalous fragments in which family resemblance is tenuous at best. Instead of investigating the more familiar path in which repetition and variation are paired, the artist brackets repetition and its seeming opposite, rupture. This surprising combination results in drawings unlike anyone else’s. The viewer senses that the logic unfolding in the drawing, and to some extent governing its outcome, is neither singular nor discernible. Even when the drawing feels incremental, the result of the artist repeating similar marks, he always introduces a different order of marks. In counterpoint to Minimalism, and its emphasis on paring down, Schimansky works incrementally, but seldom along a single trajectory. It’s as if one thought or perception interacts with another and another in no predictable way.
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In the above-quoted passages, I did not pay enough attention to the “foldings, which Schimansky began making in 1980. The finished “folding,” as presented, includes sections that have been drawn over as well as parts that are still folded over and thus remain hidden, giving the paper a layered, sculptural dimension — it is both a drawing and a shallow relief, a hybrid.
Because we are unable to see the entire sheet of paper, we become acutely aware that our view is both complete and partial, and that the relation between the two eludes our grasp. It is an experience that resonates with our current understanding of the universe, and of the existence of things and forces (dark matter, for example) that remain partially hidden in the realm of conjecture.
Schimansky’s “foldings” are unlike anyone else’s drawings. They advance a world that is simultaneously visible and unseen. Some forms are connected; others seem to be untethered to what’s around them. And yet, the drawings never strike me as arbitrary. Decisions have been made at every step of the process. They just don’t add up in ways that we are used to, and find comfort in. I suspect that Schimansky recognizes such comforts are an illusion, that we can never construct a sanctuary that is perfect for every occasion.
* * *
Is it getting harder to believe in something, anything? Is this why so many young artists settle for parody and citation?
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When Hanns and I talk about a “free line,” he often asks why an artist would want to submit to an external system. Systems aren’t just theories about art — they are repressive ideologies which offer a false sense of security. In this regard, he agrees with Richter and Rauch. He doesn’t agree, however, with their use of oil paint and the large scale of their works.
Hanns doesn’t make drawings because he is modest, though modesty in this day and age is not necessarily a bad thing. Look at Raoul De Keyser or, closer to home, Thomas Nozkowski, both of whom the artist admires.
Hanns’ has a voracious appetite for art. There are four tall piles of art books on a table in his studio. In one pile, a Barry Le Va monograph lies on top of one devoted to Gaston Chaissac. He loves their work, but has no desire to be like either. Hanns’ drawings are recognizably his, but he doesn’t have a style. And, in that sense, he doesn’t have a product. Perhaps that is one thing he is after when he asks, “What is a free line?”