Punctuated with a self-portrait from 2019, Werner Büttner: Bilder 1979 – 2019 focuses on paintings made between 1979 and 1984. This crucial period was encapsulated by Wahrheit ist Arbeit (“Truth is Work,”) the iconic exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue, of Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen’s work that Zdenek Felix curated at the Museum Folkwang Essen in 1984.
Opening on January 10, 2020, Werner Büttner’s exhibition at Contemporary Fine Arts considers this historic moment, concurrently with Albert Oehlen’s solo exhibition at the Serpentine London (on view through February 2, 2020) and Martin Kippenberger’s retrospective at the Bundestkunsthalle Bonn (on view through February 16, 2020). This is a unique occasion to take a look back at this provocative trio, who, alongside Georg Herold, made waves with their punkish stance on painting as something subversive and expansive. Reacting against and reinventing modes of meaning making in art, their assertions about appropriation and the avant-garde, against painting and its obsolescence, continue to find new relevance.
In a number of recurrent motifs on view here – cigarettes, telephones, orangutans, soldiers and artillery, himself – Büttner plays with irony and paradox as methods to graze the truth. Büttner’s work is emblematic of “Bad Painting” – a shift in style and attitude amongst his German peers, as well as New York counterparts like Jean Michel Basquiat and the artists in Marcia Tucker’s 1979 New Museum exhibition where she coined the term. Büttner describes his process as a “methodical intuition” and identifies with a lineage of contrarians like James Ensor, Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, whose artistic projects can be understood as Gegendarstellung or counterpoints. This notion of creating from a point of resistance resonates in particular with the climate of 1980s Germany, where Büttner and his contemporaries defined themselves in reaction against inherited modalities. Here, nothing is sacred and nothing as dull, or as menacing, as well-behaved complicity.