Wolfgang Breuer is known for his playful inaccessibility, but with ‘Milka Ritter Sport’ at Kunsthalle Bern he surpassed himself. Fifty or so pastel-shaded, A4 paper printouts were spread through the rooms of the Kunsthalle – generously spaced and neatly mounted in wooden frames. Each vertically-formatted work shared the same composition: in the lower half, a simplified rendering of a reference piece – including Albert Oehlen’s Born To Be Late, 2001, Hans Hofmann’s Magnum Opus, 1962, and Robert Motherwell’s Western Air, 1946–4. Each rendering was made using Microsoft Paint and ‘stuck’ to the orange, green, blue, yellow or pink paper with four ‘pieces of tape’, also made with Microsoft Paint. In the upper half of the composition, the details of the work in question (artist, title, year) were written in the hard-to-read bubble lettering Breuer has used variously in the past. Due to their deep colour, and the semiotic blurring of a typeface that also claims to be a picture, the supposed written commentaries strangely outdid the actual pictures – not least because the works themselves are more or less swamped by the pastel colours of their backgrounds.
Next to these framed works, on a kind of ‘label’ (this time, fastened to the wall with real tape), were the actual titles of Breuer’s own works, also incorporating the reference work. In the case of the piece featuring Oehlen, for example, the full title is Oben links Milka und unten rechts Ritter Sport. Albert Oehlen. Born to be late, 2001 (Top left Milka, bottom right Ritter Sport. Albert Oehlen. Born to be late, 2001; all works undated). In Breuer’s semiotic grid, ‘Milka’ – a brand of chocolate – stands for the work’s rectangular pictorial content (the verse press release speaks of ‘party content’). ‘Ritter Sport’ – another brand of chocolate, this time square-shaped – stands for the square ones. Both ‘categories’ are derived from Kippenberger’s painting Keine braune Schokolade (No Brown Chocolate, 1994), also ‘repainted’ here and given the following title by Breuer: Oben links Milka und unten rechts Ritter Sport. Martin Kippenberger. Political Corect III, Keine braune Schokolade (Top left Milka, bottom right Ritter Sport. Martin Kippenberger. Political Corect III. No brown chocolate). In this case, Breuer’s description matches – Kippenberger actually did paint bars of chocolate in the source painting – elsewhere neither the abstracted ‘painting’ nor the corresponding source work contains squares or rectangles.
This did not stop Breuer from aptly pigeonholing numerous pictures by Kippenberger, Robert Ryman, Julian Schnabel and Blinky Palermo within a uniform style. His playful use of random descriptive categories is more like a testing of possible legibility-enhancing tools than an effective picture-defining strategy: besides the two chocolate formats, there is Becher, a wavy line extracted from a photograph of a water tower by Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Begrüssung des Publikums (Greeting the Audience), a squiggle derived from an unidentified picture by Oehlen. Moreover, Breuer is clearly interested less in accessibility than in engaging with his own private canon (Oehlen, Kippenberger, the Bechers, Michael Krebber, and so on) to develop a closed system of categories. Through this, Breuer productively leverages that system’s shortcomings and nonsensicality. In any case, for the viewer, it is enjoyable to compare description and picture, copy and original, due to the visual puns generated by omission, modification or misunderstanding: the squiggles in the Oehlen piece, for example, do not stay within the original’s structure, but wander around the whole pictorial space instead.
In the works in the basement, the Microsoft Paint versions of reference works were replaced by images of floral still lifes from the 17th century onwards, classified using the same set of categories, as in Oben links Ritter Sport und unten rechts Ritter Sport. Jacob van Walscapelle. Flowers in a Glass Vase, um 1670 (Top left Ritter Sport, bottom right -Ritter Sport. Jacob van Walscapelle. Flowers in a Glass Vase, around 1670). And precisely because classification into squares and rectangles – or a reading direction from ‘top left’ to ‘bottom right’ borrowed from writing – does not work here, the theme of the works is the difference of approach to reading pictures. Finally, Breuer’s recurring bubble typeface poses the question of legibility, as does the cover of the third issue of Eye Magazine: the only non-artwork used as the basis for one of the prints (Begrenzung. Eye, No. 3, Vol. 1, Spring 1991, Boundary. Eye, No. 1, Vol. 1, Spring 1991). A check online reveals that the issue in question contains a polemic against the functionalist dogma of legibility within typography (the article claims that legibility is an anachronism when applied to typography). Clearly this suggests a blueprint for Breuer’s rereading of his own canon via categories of ‘chocolate’, attempting to make the originals legible while the written details of the pictures are inflated to the point of illegibility. Behind Breuer’s elaborate jokes, what shines through above all is a fundamental exploration of the communicative channels surrounding artworks: wall label, press release, presentation, commentary, hermeneutics. Rather than mere incidentals, they are elevated to art’s main theme.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell