Lothar Baumgarten, Tetrahedron, 1968. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris
Critical language, in reviews and catalogue essays, often reflects the subject it seeks to canvas. In an unconscious act of mimesis, writers adopt the tone of artists, repeating phrasing and concepts in almost mathematical parallel. This is compounded when the artist's work is language-based by a seamless meshing of the artist's writings into critical prose. If the artist's writings are his or her occasional - or only - form of art, then the scholarly text may take on the status of artwork, while the artwork becomes art history. Artists such as Daniel Buren, Lawrence Weiner, John Baldessari and Michelangelo Pistoletto - along with many others who have used writing and commissioned the writing of others - often design their own exhibition catalogues, choosing paper types and fonts for essays and articles that are thus both on and by them.
The risk for the artist is that even in public forums, from museums to urban spaces, a web of support and cocoon of reception is created that insulates the artist from engagement with the general populace. Artists often do not create really public works for the 'man on the street' because this kind of work is neither solicited nor mandated by commissioning institutions or entities. Artists of a certain stature are generally remarkably free to adopt whatever theme or form they desire, and their public works may take on relatively abstruse forms. There are exceptions, artists who seek to engage this public and engender a more direct kind of speech. Gillian Wearing, Ken Lum and Martin Creed might be considered 'public artists' who work with vernacular and spoken tongues, but on the whole the Conceptual generation blazing the trail for this type of work - from Art & Language to Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger - had little to do with actual street speak and somehow never bridged audiences with the immediacy of Auguste Rodin's great public sculpture, Les Bourgeois de Calais, The Burghers of Calais, 1888). Much of the work of key figures from the 1970s takes place on a metaphoric, near poetic level that no matter how earnestly it aims to be civic-minded still constitutes a dialogue for insiders. The graphic qualities are indisputable, but when language is involved there is an opacity that poses a certain limit in understanding for mere mortals, and keeps the language referential and specific to the author and cognoscenti, rather than to the general public. German artist Lothar Baumgarten is magisterial in the production of visual programmes and in the kind of critical reception he choreographs and engenders. We know the artist through superlative essays on his work by writers such as Craig Owens, Hal Foster and Anne Rorimer, from his sweeping installation incantations of Native names, and a generally unifying logotype and 'brand' worked out through years of fruitful collaboration with the Dutch typographer Walter Nikkels. The many forms that Baumgarten's work takes are all engineered by the artist, and function seamlessly to spread worthy messages such as the disappearance of the Urwald (or primeval forest), the massacre of indigenous peoples or the relentless ruin of the natural landscape. Baumgarten's artistic agency and his use of language merits close study. We are in a time when historically separate disciplines, from art to architecture, information design, advertising and public relations, are increasingly indistinguishable. Today what we may call the 'signage' of an artist such as Baumgarten is also the domain of the industrial designer, the architect, the urban planner and the advertising executive. What distinguishes the work of Baumgarten is the types of commissioning bodies, the freedom from editorial restraint, the unfettered content and his claim for public, and in some ways, universal relevance. Another distinguishing feature of his work is the visual logic and consistency between works, and his decades-long elaboration of an over-arching moral platform, all well-known hallmarks of what we view as good art. In Baumgarten's complex installations on the disappearance of indigenous cultures and mournful laments to languages and landscapes lost, the artist - and the writers who support him - creates a new kind of monument, one whose message is communicated on many planes.
The work of Baumgarten furnishes models of cognition that function precisely because of their delicate balancing act between critical practice and works of art. Work that comes ready-made with its own critical support system heightens its adaptability and suitability to many kinds of environments and commissions. Baumgarten's work, on the surface at least, is an overtly public kind of art. Municipal governments grappling with the problem of memorials are best served by turning to polymorphous artists like him, who can work with any type of architecture and implant not only formally logical, but conceptually cogent works of art. Our only question, then, can be whether an artist like Baumgarten, who sets an ambitious moral standard, is himself accountable, or could be subject to a script other than his own.
The full range of Baumgarten's influence is still underestimated because his work does not adopt any one 'look', and takes on guises that the artist consistently strips off, like masks. As is well known, the artist investigates what has been called a politics of identity, using the tools of the ethnographer in an act that has now become standard usage for artists. In a catalogue for a recent survey of the artist's work at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), Baumgarten is said to 'engage ethnography as a discursive and material practice, [and] in so doing - and this is crucial - the physical and phenomenological experience of space, its materialisation, remain decisive for the work's process'. 1 His innovative stance and practice has proven inviting to many younger artists: Mark Dion, Renée Green, Christian Philipp Müller, Christopher Williams, Thomas Struth, and Max Becher and Andrea Robbins, to name a few, can be said to have followed in the spiritual footsteps of Baumgarten. These younger generations have used Baumgarten's conceptual and visual repertoire, incorporating text, photography and installation in their work to make many of the same points about the fluidity of truth claims in academic disciplines, or in the application of media such as photography or the usage of language and imaging systems to describe and define and classify.
In his works on the disappearance of indigenous cultures and the devastation of landscape (for example, Montaigne Gold / Mercury Strip Mining, Km 85, 1977-85), Baumgarten has created a discursive practice that works in Trojan-horse style, inserted into all sorts of forms: publications, wall drawings, outdoor sculptures, photography, films and, increasingly, an abstract and seemingly industrially produced form of painting. The critical language describing his strategy of conceptual excavation (the best of it collected in the MACBA catalogue) often mirrors the aims of the work. The curator of the MACBA exhibition, Bartomeu Marí, writes that Baumgarten seeks to 'make explicit, with greater or lesser insistence, the movement of the sun and the precariousness of the image, the solidity of the symbol and its abstractions, the avatars of life and the impossibility of the fusion and dissolution of each physical sense'.2 The design of the catalogue for this exhibition was made in tandem with Nikkels, and the resulting publication bears the multiple and simultaneous aspects of Baumgarten's many languages: artwork, artist's book and scholarly text.
Baumgarten's symbiosis between text, work and message seems complete. So, where does language fall short? Where are lacunae and how might scholarly criticism propel rather than mirror the artist into fields beyond his traditional purview? Perhaps one might look at the subjects that Baumgarten does not mention. Perhaps one might speculate on the real public of Baumgarten's art: the beer-swilling Germans who pass by the Fridericianum on the way to the Wurst stand; the kids spray-painting swastikas on the entrance to the subway; the Germans still whispering that the numbers were wrong. As loudly as Baumgarten speaks of the plight of indigenous cultures, and as movingly as this is reiterated in many art historical-cum-anthropological critical texts, there are absences and silences that can also be contrasted with the utterances of the artist. There are topics present but not mentioned in the work of Baumgarten, beyond the words he intones and in the subject matter of essays built up over decades. These are names omitted both in the writing on Baumgarten and in the artist's installations. Dachau. Buchenwald. Auschwitz. To name but a few.
Lothar: the Germanic word composed of hlud (fame) and heri (army). Lothar, the ninth-century Frankish king, son of Louis I, who ruled the region called Lorraine. Baumgarten: the tree, the garden. The full name of Baumgarten incarnates the kind of antithesis that the artist so frequently speculates upon. The contrast between culture and nature. The Germanness of an artist who writes in non-Germanic tongues. As hinted in artworks from the 1960s on, Lothar Baumgarten would rather be elsewhere.
This sense of flight from the reality of Germanness is familiar to this writer. With my own German family replete with linguists and ethnographers, Jesuit missionaries and scientist émigrés espousing or abhorring the homeland, it is no surprise that an artist born one year before the end of World War II would rather live in New York or sail the Amazon than inhabit the bombed-out ruins of Nordrhein-Westphalia, where some of my own relatives lived. I prefer it there better than in Westphalia (Eldorado) is the title of a Baumgarten work begun in 1968. Based on a fragment from Voltaire's Candide, ou l'Optimisme (1759), the title displays a vernacular nonchalance - almost Martin Kippenberger-style - that holds both a profound identification with and simultaneous alienation from Heimat. In magnificent installations such as America, conceived for the German Pavilion of the 1984 Venice Biennale, Baumgarten chose not to confront the national context of his host institution, as Hans Haacke would later do by shattering the marble pavement laid during the regime of Adolf Hitler. Instead, he selected the topography of the Amazon Basin as his topic, drawing parallels with the archipelago that constitutes Venice.
What is this avoidance? In much of Baumgarten's work one senses the lack of the idea of Vaterland driven so hard into the generations preceding him. Germany is elided as theme and material, and the art of his countrymen is almost wilfully opposed. The materials of his teacher, Joseph Beuys, must have somehow appalled Baumgarten, as he seems to have purposefully eschewed the rubble, straw, ashes and images of blood that Beuys and later Anselm Kiefer used to establish a sense of place. Baumgarten's own materials always speak wistfully of forms used by other, mainly non-German artists. The powdered pigment sculptures (Pyramid, 1968-69) recall the work of outsider Blinky Palermo; landscape photographs (Carbon, 1987-90) refer to the tradition of American landscape painting and photography; language-based work conjures up Anglo-Saxon Conceptual art; colours are reminiscent of Piet Mondrian, Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman; and the use of type and colour developed with Nikkels establishes kinship with Lawrence Weiner and John Baldessari. Baumgarten's work is almost a glossary of homages. Though the work's visual result is glorious, it is composed of a parade of ghostly references marshalled into installations and forms that are always supremely subservient to Baumgarten's master design, time and again attested to in visual symphonies such as the 1993 Guggenheim Museum installation featuring the names of Native American tribes written along the ramps. 3 Baumgarten's work seems to be composed of shadows nonetheless.
In 1982 at documenta 7 in Kassel, Joseph Beuys crowded the main public square in front of the neoclassical Fridericianum with seven-thousand basalt stones which would accompany 7,000 oak saplings in a mediatic gesture of art, ecology, urban activism and pedagogy. Baumgarten chose to represent himself in the catalogue of that same documenta standing alone, in shadow form, hugging a tree. His work that year consisted of a litany of South American indigenous tribal names (Tupinamba, Borro, Xavante, Toba, Arekuna) decorating the outside of the Fridericianum's belltower. But it is the portrait of Baumgarten hugging a tree in Tableau Vivant (1969) that speaks loudest, and which also happens to appear in the opening pages of the MACBA retrospective catalogue.
In a conversation with the late critic John Russell, Baumgarten
said: 'You cannot reflect your own society, unless you know a
society that is remote from it. To know that society, you don't
want to walk into it, get a PhD and turn the page. You have to jump
into the bushes, almost naked, as I did.' 4
Baumgarten clearly has the gift of the great artist, in creating
images and visual practices that speak on a universal level. But
whereas Beuys neither adopted the language of the academic, nor
went 'native' - unless one considers his adoption of the shaman
role to be a form of ethno-costume - Baumgarten is somehow caught
between academic discourse and the temptation of fleeing into more
'authentic' situations. In this writer's opinion, Baumgarten's
potential is as a public artist, one who can address universals and
provide positive and galvanising moral models as great as those of
his teacher. But his work is at a critical juncture. He must flee
the very kind of academic language that supports his work, and
eschew the usual sites of his practice. Baumgarten is at a
crossroads facing any artist who claims to speak on ethical issues.
He must dig deep within himself and speak to a wider society.
Rather than exempting his own subjectivity, spoken of repeatedly in
theoretical terms and pointing to foreign climes, Baumgarten must
look closer to home. It is time for the artist to get naked again.
With public commissions of great historical moment at stake and the
ongoing insufficience of adequate memorials to the consequences of
the Third Reich, events and attitudes which took place on
Baumgarten's - and every German's - doorstep, the challenge to this
artist will be to rise above the safety of the art world and the
languages he knows, and to take on a real public, far from the
confines of the museum and catalogue. While the belch of the beer
swiller, or the 'tsk tsk' of the grandmother clicking her tongue as
Turkish youngsters scamper past, lack the gravitas of
ancient Indian names or the comfort of academic jousting, it is the
cacophony back home - the bellows, barks and shouts so deeply
embedded in the language of Goethe - that might just need to be
spoken of first.