BY Dominikus Müller in Features | 18 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 21

In Through the Out Door

A look back at the extraordinary work of Michael Buthe

BY Dominikus Müller in Features | 18 AUG 15

Michael Buthe, Musée du Echnaton (Afrika), 1976, installation view, the artist’s studio, Cologne. Courtesy: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn & Michael Buthe Estate, Cologne

There’s a scene in Amelie von Wulffen’s pencil-drawn comic book At the Cool Table (2014) where the protagonist accompanies a friend to see an exhibition by Michael Buthe. Standing before five of Buthe’s assemblage-paintings, Von Wulffen’s protagonist (recognizable as her alter ego) says: ‘I used to hate Michael Buthe – I thought it was the kitschiest shit ever. It’s crazy how a little time can change that. Now it looks totally cool in a neo-hippie way. Suddenly you see it’s formally very precise. I’m trying, right now, to bring something similar into my paintings, like bad taste. But seeing this here, I think the way I employ style and aesthetics is kind of dumb. I mean Buthe really lived it – Morocco, Udo Kier, communes, the Dionysian – there isn’t any space in our goal oriented world for that anymore. Here it’s about overcoming easel portraiture defined by the commercial and by bourgeois taste.’ Cushioned in ambiguity as this statement might be in the context of a comic strip about life as an artist, it captures a genuine fascination with – and amusing ambivalence over – Buthe’s work. This complexity of feeling apparently derives from that which, for the past two decades, no one wanted to venture near: mystical, near-kitsch ‘hippie’ art. Yet all of a sudden Buthe’s work is seen to carry a formal precision and sensuous daring. As Von Wulffen’s protagonist ponders the work’s relevance, she notes how different times allow for different ways of seeing – suddenly, one views radicalism and authenticity in Buthe’s ‘anti-bourgeois’ stance, in his pure pursuit of freedom and spirituality.

Michael Buthe was born 1944 in Sonthofen in Allgäu, Swabia; he died in 1994 in Bonn. A later four-time Documenta participant, while still in his mid-twenties Buthe was invited by Harald Szeemann to participate in the epochal When Attitudes Become Form (1969) at the Kunsthalle Bern. Buthe – once a student in Kassel under Documenta founder, artist and professor Arnold Bode – made his debut in Bern as a post-conceptual artist who slashed fabrics and then sewed them back together. In the early 1970s he embarked on a series of trips to Africa and the Near East, coming back as a spiritual healer-artist and poster boy for ‘Individual Mythologies’ (after the section in Szeemann’s Documenta 5 in which Buthe was included). Concurrently, Buthe began writing fairy tales and producing strange, almost voodoo-like sculptures and environments of explosive colour. Toward the end of his life, he made brightly coloured assemblage-style paintings which almost seem to burst out their frames, and painted faces over photographs of stones and combined them with poems in homage to the medieval Majorcan mystic Ramon Llull, who was stoned to death while a missionary in Northern Africa (Stones, 1991–92).

Michael Buthe, Landschaft (Spanische Energie), 1985, mixed media on canvas. Courtesy: Alexander and Bonin, New York, Michael Buthe Estate, Cologne & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Buthe’s work will be on view this fall in a major retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Luzern that will travel next year to the S.M.A.K. in Ghent and the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Buthe isn’t really a ‘rediscovery’. It’s not accurate to lump him into the host of artists the art establishment has dug up over the past two decades and reincorporated into itself. Buthe was and is simply too well-known for that, at least in Germany. In contrast to the West German shaman-artist Joseph Beuys, Buthe was reluctant to be brought into the context of the then-dominant American art world. Four times at Documenta speaks for itself, and in the Rhineland, everyone still seems to have an anecdote to tell about him. Yet Buthe still seems to have been a kind of lone wolf, while his art plays with elements that can seem questionable from today’s perspective. The work feels ‘contaminated’ by the ideologies of its age – on the one hand, by a tendency to romanticize cultures and influences from outside Europe, and on the other by an earnest spirituality that is difficult to communicate in secularized times such as these. To a certain extent, one is tempted to neutralize or contain Buthe’s art: either due to the eccentric and flamboyant figure that Buthe is always characterized as being (with catchwords like ‘queer’, ‘camp’, ‘hippie’, ‘artists’ commune’), or, on the contrary, through an art historical classification (such as ‘Individual Mythologies’). But both of these would be incorrect.

Buthe is someone who took a leap of faith, of sorts, in the early 1970s, at least partly abandoning an existing career to try something new in all seriousness, and asserting an extraordinary level of artistic freedom, fearlessness and conviction in the process. The sheer number and variety of the works – in form and quality – evince a figure who was bent on asserting an extraordinary level of artistic freedom and conviction. Buthe seemed unafraid of making mistakes. And that’s a rare quality. In the 1980s, Buthe lived for a time with German actor Udo Kier and Marcel Odenbach in Cologne-Ostheim. Kier collaborated on some of Buthe’s performances and films, for example When love is wrong, I don’t want to be right (1981) and Fantomas Phantastico (1979), which Buthe made with his friend and dealer Dietmar Werle. When I recently spoke on the phone with him, Kier – in Palm Springs, California – told me that, ‘I learned a lot from Michael, especially the freedom to do what I want to do. Because as an artist, Michael simply did whatever he wanted’.

Michael Buthe, Weltkarte, c.1970, collage. Courtesy: Kunstmuseum Luzern, on loan from private collection © Pro Litteris, Zurich

But first things first: back to the late 1960s, to the beginning of Buthe’s career. The works that he created back then which gained him initial attention were geared in style and method toward Arte Povera, post-minimalism, and process-based art. Buthe completed paintings on fabrics that were often dyed, torn, shredded and sewn back together; shreds hang from the exposed stretchers like baggy remnants. Despite all its ‘poverty’, the works nonetheless look extremely elegant, demonstrating a self-reflexive approach to the basic elements of painting – canvas, paint, stretcher – while having a firm conceptual base. But even if a strong fixation on materials can be detected in the minimalist reduction of these early works, some of the pieces bear traces of an excessive, strikingly sensuous colouration. Even the drawings of this time – which often depict a kind of frame construction or geometric objects and rooms combined with wild, free marks – seem like the exposed roots of Buthe’s later work. In a recent conversation, Heinz Stahlhut, curator of the forthcoming Lucerne retrospective, suggested to me that in these drawings, Buthe juxtaposes ‘geometric order and Informel. This already demonstrates one major aspect of the work: joining opposites together’.

So far so good – we all agree on the quality of the early work. As formal and abstract as these works appear to be – with a discreet, conceptual reflexivity – they fit not only into the parameters of ’60s late modernism, but resonate with various different meta-painting discourses of the past five to ten years. But from today’s perspective, what happened during the 1970s can no longer be easily grasped and narrated, even if there are clear continuities in the work’s development. Marcel Odenbach, a close friend of Buthe’s since the early 1970s, expressed to me his view on this continuity: ‘It’s interesting that Michael was well known in the early ’70s for his conceptual work. These works fit very well into the American minimal and conceptual art canon. But then he traveled to Africa and the Middle East and came back a different person. A huge break happened there.’ This break led Buthe to develop his idea of ‘healing’ from a formal, technical ligature of opposites. Following these trips to Morocco (he later bought a house, and spent long periods of time, in Marrakesh) and Afghanistan, his concerns changed to spirituality – and so Buthe explored a more comprehensive, artistic way of thinking that was not merely set on bringing together eclectic artistic approaches and traditions, but also the work and the person, art and the world, the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’.

It was then that Buthe increasingly began to work with sculpture and assemblage (even though he continued to paint throughout his life, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Buthe, over time, explored every possible permutation in reducing material qualities to the essential. Yet over time, symbolic connotations come to the fore, belying the formal essentialism that can be read prima facie. A work that shows this clearly is Boulli Afrikaa (1968), a cluster of things resembling wooden gazelle heads with chains hanging off them and colourful woven ropes. From the side hangs a pair of old shoes that Buthe received as a gift from a Senegalese musician, rolled up and wrapped in red wool. (This work of Buthe’s was one of several artists’ works opening Okwui Enwezor’s 2012 Paris Triennale.) Even when Buthe used worn-out found materials, these suddenly became charged, coalescing into a vague form.

Michael Buthe, My Love To Etienne, 1969, fabric on stretcher. Courtesy: Kunstmuseum Luzern, © Pro Litteris, Zürich

Around this time, Buthe also began working with a cupboard in his studio in which he gathered objects together: newspaper clippings, civilization garbage, things he picked up on the side of the road or brought back with him from trips. The cupboard – according to art historian and curator Stephan von Wiese – was a ‘large, mythical-magical mixmachine’1 that transformed everyday life into art – and was able to unite apparent opposites. Buthe brought a collage approach of combination and assemblage to two- and three-dimensional works from this point onward. World Map (1973), for example, is a huge, round, two-dimensional paper collage made of countless small cutouts from catalogues and brochures measuring nearly two meters in diameter. The work is composed of countless bits: catalogue and newspaper photos, African tribal masks, Renaissance youths, labels from cans of dates, images of a Picasso painting, and one of Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba. The entire thing is covered in and held together by thousands of tiny painted gold dots, which from that point on often reappeared in Buthe’s work. World Map seems like map of his own personal world and interests – a visual atlas of desire for something other than ordinary European art.

The naiveté and fascination for the Other, namely Africa – often enough a clear problem in the work – becomes reflexively reabsorbed and replayed through references to Riefenstahl and Picasso, at least in the World Map. In contrast to Sigmar Polke – a close friend of Buthe’s – nothing is poked at with too-obvious humor or ridicule, despite the lightness and openness of the work. Even Polke hit the hippie trail headed East in the 1970s, returning with footage of bear fights in the Afghan hinterland and dancing monkeys on the side of the road – to which he added a funky fusion jazz that lent the whole thing a disturbing, surreal touch. Nowhere in Buthe’s work are the awful photos of pasty-looking white men having their pictures taken in penis sheaths in the jungle (as in Polke’s Day by Day, 1975). Dietmar Werle, for a while not only Buthe’s but also Polke’s gallerist in Cologne, points to their differences in humour: ‘Buthe was pretty humorous, too – but not as sarcastic as Polke,’ he recently told me. This distance, which Pop made possible, is what makes Polke easier to consume today than Buthe. ‘With Buthe’, Werle went on, ‘it was more about a certain cheerfulness and lightness.’ Buthe insisted that even projections – for instance of the non-European ‘Other’ – had to be taken seriously, that one’s (problematic) fascination opened up a unique aesthetic terrain: seen this way, negating one’s faculty of (Western European) projections through self-mirroring are simply the easy way out. More difficult still is to take a leap through those very projections, entering them through earnestness in the hopes, ideally, of arriving elsewhere.

Another artist who bears a family resemblance to Buthe is Paul Thek, who shared Buthe’s interest in Catholic-derived notions of transubstantiation, healing and holistic practice. And similarly to Thek, who turned to Native American cultures, Buthe moved to supposedly ‘primitive’ societies in the hopes of finding something there that seemed to have gone missing in Western civilization. Where Thek’s work contains disturbing, relic-like wax casts of bodily parts and even an entire body (particularly in his famous The Tomb-Death of a Hippie, 1967), from the 1970s onward Buthe’s work featured life-sized human silhouettes painted after friends and visitors to his studio.

Michael Buthe, Musée du Echnaton (Sonnenraum), 1976, mixed media installation, artist’s studio, Cologne. Courtesy: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn & Michael Buthe Estate, Cologne

Exemplary here is his large installation-environment Homage to the Sun, originally presented in 1971/72 in the Toni Gerber Gallery in Bern and once again modified in 1972 for Documenta 5. (Buthe’s additional plan to erect a city of tents in Kassel and put on a festival with Moroccan musicians was unrealized due to budget problems.) Placed in the section ‘Individual Mythologies’, in Homage to the Sun a kind of drawer or gurney lies on the floor, while on the wall is a life-sized figure with outstretched arms, surrounded by a radiant sun and suspended against a background of light: not least a complete liberation from context, a centralization of the human subject at the very historical moment when he begins to be displaced from the center. The Berlin gallerist Thomas Flor, who in 2012 exhibited the late painting works depicted and mentioned in Von Wulffen’s comic, contextualizes Buthe’s cosmos as follows: ‘In reduced, post-minimal conceptual art the human figure was already more or less irrelevant. But then Buthe brought it back again – and with it, the dimension of spirituality. Suddenly there’s this attempt to put back together those things that had blown up in our face – all the great existential questions. You know that that doesn’t really work anymore, but you try it anyway, to tackle it somehow.’

This cutout figure in Homage to the Sun is a visualization of the freedom that Buthe sought – departing, for one, from the modern art historical tradition that he’d already inscribed himself into so successfully at the beginning of his career. ‘I believe that Buthe was one of the first to follow a form of anti-modernism in art’, says German curator Zdenek Felix, who first encountered Buthe during When Attitudes Become Form while working at the Kunsthalle Bern. Later, as director of the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Felix dedicated a major solo show to Buthe’s work, The Endless Journey of the Painter, in 1980. Commenting on Buthe’s turn from the modernist tradition towards other sources of inspiration, Felix continued, ‘at that time, in 1970s Germany, it was something highly unusual. Even if there were stirrings of postmodernism in the air, I consider Buthe more of an ‘extra-modern’ artist.’

In the 1970s, it was precisely this ‘extramodernism’ that Buthe’s work formally exploded into: excessive, captivating, unbelievably rich in color. Here, everything seems interconnected with an abundance of gold, feathers, sequins, dried flowers, branches, garbage, all cast off and reassembled in a seemingly casual way. Buthe’s room-sized interactive environments turn into their own worlds: theater backdrops for self-discovery in which a piece is performed that’s all about cathartic expenditure, about opening and conjuring spaces designed to open up onto other spaces. During his fellowship at the Villa Romana in Florence in 1976, Buthe, with the help of Werles, turned his whole apartment and studio into the gesamtkunstwerk Le Musée du Echnaton. (Additionally, exhibitions by artist friends like Polke and Rune Mields took place here.) Only two of these environments exist to this day in full: Taufkapelle mit Mama und Papa, made in 1984 for the SMAK in Ghent, and Heilige Nacht der Jungfräulichkeit, 1992, shown at Documenta 9 and currently on view at the Kolumba Kunstmuseum in Cologne. Buthe usually dismantled his environments and used the individual parts in new contexts, carrying the work from one incarnation to another, parts missing or added. ‘Sculpture’, von Wiese writes, ‘doesn’t congeal into a solid form in Buthe’s work. It remains transitory. And it’s always a particle in an over­arching context […].’2 Like Buthe himself, the work is ‘nomadic’.

Michael Buthe, o. T. 1992, triptych, mixed media on wood. Courtesy: Galerie Thomas Flor, Berlin, Michael Buthe Estate, Cologne & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; photograph: Eric Tschernow

To what may we attribute the odd contemporaneity of Buthe’s work, seen today? What is it about the work that gives the impression of having ‘fallen out of time’? First of all, this has to do with the way the work stands somewhat askew in the history of postwar German art. It comes out of the blind angle between ’60s conceptualism and the ironized, sardonic painting practices of the ’80s: on the one hand, it’s free from the severity and hostility to pleasure found in conceptualism, and yet, despite all its exhilaration and exuberance, the work never pokes fun at anything. Despite all its lightness, it’s strangely earnest. And at the same time ‘felt, touched, and intuitive’, in Felix’s words – and yet despite this ‘highly reflected, very serious, and principled’, as Flor puts it: ‘This is not a gut-driven artist, that would be a complete misunderstanding’. Buthe might have indissolubly interwoven his persona and his work, but he also introduced a kind of floating theatricality that left room for maneuvering – both Buthe’s own aesthetic nomadism and, in turn, the interpreter’s.

Buthe’s work comes down to the sheer power of projection, in the sense of the notion of another life (and another art) beyond what classical European modernism offers. Or, as Flor says, ‘the Orientalism that it’s so easy to accuse Buthe of today is nothing more than a kind of fandom: a person discovering how he’d like to live’. In the end, it’s about minimizing the distance between sign and thing, about how a door, for instance the one Buthe uses in the series La portö el Paradiso (1977), can indeed be a gateway to another space entirely. It’s about how The Wanderer (1972), a vaguely anthropomorphic sculpture leaning against a wall with a trunk made from an old tin pail, a head from forsythia branches, two branches for legs, and feet with Moroccan prayer belts wrapped around them, is indeed a wanderer between cultures.

One must, of course – in a way that might seem old-fashioned today – be willing to ascribe to a work of art the spiritual power to make something like this happen. You have to believe in art. Only then can a work of art merge with the viewer to become a machine of imaginative power. This entails a theatrical, real-unreal space of the ‘as though’, a dimension of playfulness. It’s a matter of maintaining this tension – more ‘as well as’ than ‘either/or’. The fact that Buthe himself didn’t always succeed in this might explain the ambivalence that often arises in approaching his work. In a time when art seems to be oscillating between the poles of investment object and research-supported alternative science, maybe it’s this that can be learned from Buthe: that we have to try anyway.

At least that’s my own projection onto Buthe and his work. In a way, I stand like the protagonist in Von Wulffen’s comic before these late paintings, in which – suddenly – everything comes together in a strange, remarkable way. The depth and vitality of pure colours, the radical materiality, the symbolic power of found things, the cheap shine of generic aluminium foil, and the abstruse romanticism of garden snails, the canvas and its destruction, a renewed junctionn that’s fragmented yet wonderfully connected. Even if it’s a faulty comparison, Buthe feels somewhat like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on canvas: things pasted on, looped and metamorphosingn, meanings tacked on and transformed – reality heeded and toyed with in all seriousness. And, in the end, this amounts to a radical affirmation. And then back to the canvas: a face, a spoon, a broom (the tryptich o.T., 1992). a pinecone, a spiral, a sun with dots (another untitled painting from 1992). Oh, the frame broke. No problem, we’ll tack it back onto the painting. It even works better that way. Fantastic.
Translated by Andrea Scrima

All quotes from Zdenek Felix, Thomas Flor, Udo Kier, Marcel Odenbach, Heinz Stahlhut and Dietmar Werle are excerpted from conversations with the author conducted in the summer of 2015. 1 Stephan von Wiese, Michael Buthe. Sculptura in Deo Fabulosa, Verlag Silke Schreiber, Munich, 1983, p. 10 2 von Wiese, ibid., p. 9

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.