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John Miller

Zeitgeist, — February 22 — May 7, 2017
Press Conference, Tuesday February 21, 11am, Opening at 6pm


Based on the observation that there is a renewed interest in figurative and expressive practices — visible in art schools and studios alike, both in Switzerland and abroad —, this exhibition outlines a genealogy of these practices through forty European and American artists who have been active between the 1960s and today.

If the title of the exhibition (the spirit of the time) intends on qualifying a current atmosphere, it also refers to an epony- mous exhibition which was held at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, in 1982. Very much discussed at the time, this exhibi- tion was a testimony to the surge of figurative and expression- ist works appearing from both sides of the Atlantic, with the American neo-expressionism, the Italian Transavanguardia, and the German Neue Wilden. Both an assessment and a manifest of this period, the Berlin exhibition left its mark in the recent history of art as the high point in the debates between modern and postmodern, often argued in terms of life and death of the painting.

David Salle’s monumental diptych Zeitgeist II, shown at the Martin Gropius Bau in 1982, evokes this historical controver- sy in the way the painter crystallized the heated debates around figuration. Although figuration, on the cusp of the 1980s, is indeed denounced by some as being too academic, reactionary and market-oriented, it is also celebrated by oth- ers as a liberation from abstract and conceptual constraints which had prevailed in the modern narrative of the post-war era. The return of the figure thus appears as that of an out- cast, free to delve into the grotesque and the abject.

One should also mention that simultaneous to the emergence of a turbulent expressionism came a progressive re-evaluation of a kind of painting marginalized from the official history of art, as revealed in the exhibitions Bad Painting, in 1978 and The Other Tradition, in 1966. In a provincial sort of way, it went against the aesthetic cannons and delt with an extraordinary diverse iconographic repertoire, from Antiquity to mass cul- ture. In this respect, we should mention the importance, today largely recognized, of figures such as William N. Copley or Dorothy Iannone, and the threads they managed to weave between the American vernacular and European avant-garde.

These international artistic debates found a particular reso- nance in Switzerland. In Zurich in the 1970s, the artistic eccentricities of a Friedrich Kuhn are a clear disavowal of Max Bill’s dogma of concrete abstraction, whereas Peter Fischli and David Weiss found in art brut and folklore means to question the virtuosity and the status of the artist.

If this “other” tradition, this “other” modernity was perceived for a long time as a parallel narrative caught up the dialectics of insider/outsider, it appears today as an extension of the field of pictorial possibilities. Popular culture, myths and irony are some of the many tropes available to artists now.

This exhibition at MAMCO leads the visitor through the sev- eral stages of this divergent narrative in the context of the transatlantic geography. Some historical protagonists are gathered (William N. Copley, Jean-Frédéric Schnyder, Dorothy Iannone), while several rooms deal with the critical question- ing of the image (Walter Robinson, Aldo Walker, Christian Lindow, Rosemarie Trockel), expressiveness (John Miller, Jutta Koether, Sue Williams, Mai-Thu Perret, Josh Smith, Rachel Harrison) and style (Jana Euler, Laura Owens, David Hominal). More contemporary practices are far from being left out with contributions from younger artists such as Caroline Tschumi, Seyoung Yoon, Walter Price, Sarah Tritz, Hayan Kam Nakache or Konstantin Sgouridis. These contri- butions remind us that in our digital era — marked by a satu- ration of images — contemporary practices are perhaps more figural than figurative, and that expressiveness is to be thought as a critical tool rather than the testimony of an ever uncertain subjectivity.