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Issue 24

Still Lives

Sensual, haptic, with a theory-driven conceptual cool, the painting of Ull Hohn, who died in 1995, is now on view in a first mayor survey at the Kunsthalle Bern

BY Hans-Jürgen Hafner in Features | 02 JUN 16

Why painting now? This was the core question in a larger discussion led by Douglas Crimp in the early 1980s on the role and function of painting. Crimp’s question may have been overly critical of painting, especially considering today’s internationalized art world and high market demand for painting. While the importance of painting was once conferred by art critics, by the cold fact of its market popularity it now once again assumes its reign as fine art’s most valued medium. But even a brief look back at the polarized debate surrounding an exhibition like deutschemalereizweitausenddrei (germanpaintingtwothousandandthree), curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen at Frankfurter Kunstverein in 2003, might give an indication of how hard it was, even then, to imagine today’s scenario. Moreover, there’s ample ,evidence that painting might now be expected to deliver ‘more’ than just fodder for the art market. As the common and, sadly, often fitting verdict has it, a painting is the ideal art commodity. Admittedly, with regard to its perhaps crude confrontation of two sensitive topics – painting and nationality – the Frankfurt show may not be the perfect example. Yet conceived with a sense of openness in terms of its list of artists and in its stylistic and conceptual diversity, the Frankfurt exhibition opened an alternative timeline, assimilating painterly approaches from the late 1980s, and including work by Jutta Koether, Klaus Merkel and Andreas Schulze. Especially in contrast to the then booming Leipzig School, such positions managed to represent something other than the then familiar horizon of conceptually halfway bearable, ‘wild’ painting between, let’s say, Georg Baselitz and Albert Oehlen.

Ull Hohn was not included in the Frankfurt exhibition (though he would have been a good fit). His oeuvre, modest in size due to his premature death by AIDS in 1995, is now being ‘rediscovered’ or at least ‘discovered afresh’ due to its artistic, historical and discursive significance. Over decades, only a few works in Hohn’s oeuvre were exhibited at galleries and project spaces. The biographical aspects of Hohn’s practice and life are what have been highlighted above all. Yet, even with the artist’s sadly curtailed biography in mind, the work develops its topicality against the background of the formerly ‘problematic’ status of painting – within a period of upheaval in the late 1980s and early 1990s, accompanied as it was by an art market crisis.

Ull Hohn, Untitled (Infant), 1991. Courtesy: The Estate of Ull Hohn and Galerie Neu, Berlin 

The general disruption of that period saw many spirited careers come to an end (though, in the lucky case of Oehlen, this was only temporary). Almost inevitably it brought with it a tendency towards repoliticization, and a comprehensive reconceptualization of artistic practices and, eventually, institutional conditions. Painting, discredited by its facile success (and partly to blame for the crisis), now disappeared from view, seemingly forever. But to consider the context from which Hohn’s project emerged is not the only useful way of reconstructing it. As demonstrated by the first major institutional overview of his work at Kunsthalle Bern in April 2016, it is also eminently possible to view Hohn’s work ‘as painting’ down to the physicality, technique and iconography of the individual works.

In concentrated form, Hohn’s brief career exemplifies the dilemma faced in the mid-1980s by anyone who wished to paint with both aesthetically progressive and political intentions. The dilemma of being caught historically between two stools may not have been easy to exploit, but it was anything but unproductive. This becomes especially clear in retrospect, looking at the way Hohn gave his oeuvre an inner coherence – by compulsion, as his living and working conditions became more difficult over the course of his illness. This would also be well worth discussing in comparison with such diverse approaches as that of Monika Baer, Lukas Duwenhögger, Michael Krebber, Ulrike Müller or Gunter Reski – all of whom define their artistic position with a social and political self-awareness of the histories of painting.

Compared to these other painters, Hohn was also influenced both artistically and biographically by his years spent in New York, especially by the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP), which he attended in 1987 and 1988. Until then, Hohn had followed a very German, narrowly academic education: from 1980 to 1984 (the heyday of the ‘Neue Wilde’) he studied first under Kuno Gonschior (an established proponent of Concrete Art at the time) at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin and then, until 1986, at the Academy in Düsseldorf. There, he graduated from the master class of Gerhard Richter, whose international reputation was already well-known.

Ull Hohn, From the series ‘Nine Landscapes’, 1988. Courtesy: The Estate of Ull Hohn and Galerie Neu, Berlin

It is Richter who epitomizes, to follow the interpretation of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, the conceptualization of painting’s technical and iconic arsenal; Richter who dialectically spelled out the spirit of a thoroughly self-reflexive ‘painting after painting’. In this light, Hohn’s decision to study with Richter already appears as a deliberate prise de position: to deploy painting from a conceptual distance, in opposition to the zeitgeist marked by what Wolfgang Max Faust famously called a ‘hunger for pictures’.

With his relocation to New York, this predilection was further accentuated. He was challenged by the heavy intake of theory and debate offered by the ISP, which should be understood as an after effect of the anti-painting agenda pursued from the late 1970s in growing defiance of the art market. As his paintings from this time make clear, Hohn looked for ways to directly thematize and artistically reflect upon gay identity, physicality and sex, working these themes into his pictures.

In Foregrounds, Distances (2015), the recently published first monograph on Hohn’s work, editors Hannes Loichinger and Magnus Schäfer boldly take 1987, the year of his move to New York, as the ‘official’ beginning of Hohn’s oeuvre. At that time he was making untitled small- and medium-format paintings which (perhaps predictably, though mischievously) combine the squeegee technique of Richter’s abstract paintings with obviously stencilled penis motifs arranged into ornamental patterns across the composition (Untitled, 1987 and 1988). The affinity with the ornamental paintings of Philip Taaffe and Meyer Vaisman noted by Loichinger and Schäfer is apt, as is the remark by Hohn’s partner Tom Burr that this aesthetic was already rather ‘passé’ at the time – making Hohn all the more keen to appropriate it.

Ull Hohn, Untitled, 1993. Courtesy: Collection Wolfgang Tillmans, Berlin

This form of appropriation is ‘allegorical’ in the Benjaminian sense: at the moment in question, painting as the object being appropriated, as well as its technical and iconic potential, and the procedure of appropriation itself, were all historically exhausted. This may explain a quality unifying Hohn’s paintings (however heterogeneous they may be), the concept and execution of which are distanced as much as they are physical and direct. Yet Hohn’s approach is as different from the Pictures Generation’s strategies of appropriation and the markedly cool use of images and media (as done by Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo or Sherrie Levine) as it is, ultimately, from the self-reflexive painting of his former teacher Richter. Instead, Hohn seems at pains to open up both picture and painting for subjective and political content, but without lacking either conceptual (self-)discipline or jouissance in painting.

This jouissance is evidenced by Hohn’s decidedly sensual works, for example, a series of sculptural wooden frames to which paint is generously applied, resembling melted chocolate or shit (Untitled, 1988), or another gestural series in thick modelling paste with a pale pink enamel finish (Untitled, 1993). But there is also productive tension between Hohn’s usage of Art Nouveau ornamentation slathered with thick layers of paint (such as Interesting Shape, 1993) with the marking of the canvas as a ‘pure’ painterly act.

Ull Hohn, Untitled, 1992/93. Courtesy: The Estate of Ull Hohn, Berlin

One large group of works is especially pronounced in this respect: in 1992 and 1993, Hohn worked on landscape paintings that took their cues on the one hand from the American tradition of the Hudson River School, and on the other from the virtuoso awfulness of the Sunday painting propagated by Bob Ross in his TV series The Joy of Painting (1983–94). In these works, the bulk of the paint and the gesture of painting are mixed, the material and its form interlock in a way that is both aesthetically ‘lay’ yet informed by meta-commentary – these pictures do, after all, wish to be paintings. At this juncture, if not before, Hohn’s project proves its enduring topicality. At a time when painting attempts to self-assess in its relationship to art, and in terms of the specific individual and social demands made upon art making – painting can still be more than ‘painting’.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Hans-Jürgen Hafner is a writer and curator based in Berlin.