Rudolf Stingel paintings at the Fondation Beyeler
« Incredibly contemporary, whilst being work that has developed over 30 years. You never feel that anything has not been created in the spirit of our time ».Udo Kittelmann, Curator and Director of the National Gallery, Berlin
In 1991, artist Rudolf Stingel covered the floor of Daniel Newburg’s otherwise empty gallery in SoHo, New York with a blazing orange rug. The subversive, wall-to-wall gesture challenged traditional notions of what a painting can be. Stingel’s prolific exploration of the medium of painting has informed his artistic practice ever since and given the art world one of the most versatile artists of our generation.
A major presentation at the Fondation Beyeler whose summer exhibition this year is dedicated to the Italian artist marks an acclaimed return to Europe for Stingel. It is the first show in Switzerland since the one staged at the Zurich Kunsthalle in 1995 and the spectacular 2013 installation at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice.
In close collaboration with the artist, Udo Kittelmann, director of Berlin’s National Gallery and leading authority on Stingel has curated a masterly, playful selection of works taken from his key series over the past three decades. Never-before-seen abstract pieces feature as well as site-specific installations interspersed throughout the Beyeler’s south wing and Berower Park restaurant.
For Kittelmann, the exhibition requires few words. “One feels what it’s about” he says. What visitors to Basel experience is Stingel’s unorthodox, original artistic practice and a universal attention to painting space, surface, colour and image. Beyond that, it confirms the overwhelming beauty of his oeuvre.
From Merano to New York and an art manifesto
Born in 1956 in Merano in the Tyrolean alps, Stingel went to school in the Val Gardena. Aged sixteen and caught up in the rebellious spirit of the late 60s and early 70s, he went to art school. “The only art school in the area was in the ski resort of Val Gardena where there was a long tradition of woodcutting. It was a vocational school and in the 60s there was a painting department….. It was a small school with eighty pupils and all the outcasts from the region went there….. For me it was a revelation. I had the best three years of my life there”.
At eighteen, Stingel proclaimed himself ‘an artist’, but arriving at the point where painting became a daily occupation was gradual. “Then things became more complicated” he reflects. Finding himself outside of the classical ‘art system’ unlike other art school students, meant that navigating the world of galleries was difficult. It wasn’t until 1984 that he had his first exhibition in Milan.
Later, Stingel spent time in Vienna where he saw Swiss artist Franz Gertsch’s 1971 painting ‘Medici’. Up close, the massive four by six-metre painting is wonderfully abstract, blurring to grey. But viewed from a distance, concrete images of adolescent youths emerge like a spontaneous, psychedelic photo snapshot.
Seeing the monumental portrait of five friends embodying the spirit of the 70s was a seminal moment for Stingel. “In Franz Gertsch, I saw everything that was important for me in art and the reason I became a painter….. How he painted and the size made an impression….. I visited him in Switzerland recently, it was a very special encounter. He is my hero” proclaims the artist.
It was in New York in the 80s when conceptual art was just emerging that Stingel first came to prominence. Using a paint sprayer and tulle, he made silvery, abstract works with undertones of red, yellow and blue. In 1989, he published an illustrated ‘do-it-yourself’ manual in six languages. It was a eureka moment.
“I have always found it a difficult question to answer, what is my work about, what am I doing?” Designed as a step-by-step guide on how to make his paintings (the cover was orange and the inspiration for the carpet), the art manifesto, as he called it, gave meaning to what his art was about. By following the instructions, the artist suggested that anyone could create their own Stingelian work. The same instructions have been followed by Stingel for a new series of pink and purple-hued paintings created specifically for the Beyeler.
Photorealist paintings and an orange carpet
The Basel show poignantly opens with a monumental, photorealist painting of a spray gun and a small canvas depicting paint being squeezed from tubes. Presented as the artists’ instruments, they are based on black and white photographs which first appeared in his manual.
The orange carpet revealed in 1991 makes a bedazzling come-back, not laid this time but hung on the wall. It demands participation. Painterly gestures are left (by those who dare to touch), effaced and remade on the surface of its shocking, synthetic 70’s shine. “I ordered a lot of orange carpet from a German carpet company, it wasn’t specially made” says Stingel.
He admits that he wasn’t the first to put a carpet in a gallery but the impact of doing so was instantaneous.“After I put the carpet in the gallery in New York, it became cool, it was a radical step and I was invited to places to just put up carpet. Everyone wanted the carpet!”
In the same year, he decided to paint in the style of Franz Gertsch. In his studio in Merano, he completed a large two-and-a-half by four metre painting of a garden table with orange cloth. It was his first figurative painting.
Then, in 2005 came the portrait of New York gallerist Paula Cooper. Based on a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, the arresting black and white image was the only painting in the exhibition. It was a masterpiece. At the same time, Stingel intuitively painted the gallery floor in white. Self-portraits followed but using new materials, he admits, is what saved him.
Materiality, colour and a silver-lined wall
Throughout his artistic method, Stingel has created a wealth of motif variations, shifting from abstract and photorealist paintings to unconventional works made from carpet, Celotex, Styrofoam, rubber, cast metal and paint. “There is always an element of surprise in his work, one wonders what will be next” says Udo Kittelmann.
From the late 1990s, Stingel was already using insulation material as a base for his paintings. By gouging out channels in its high-density surface, he created distinct, textural possibilities (the carvings in blue evoke ancient, layered ice). Stingel is an artist with the painterly ability to reproduce primeval, striated glaciers using industrial insulation.
For all the aesthetic languages he has developed using unorthodox materials, Stingel remains faithful to the painterly process throughout. It would be true to say that he is the most purest of painters.
On the wall opposite the spray gun at the beginning of the exhibition is a silver panel, etched in a criss-crossed pattern resembling metal fencing. It’s effect is compelling. At once drawing the onlooker closer with its curious, reflective sheen, it simultaneously partitions viewer and artist by confining the art to a delineated space. Yet despite these apparent boundaries, Stingel’s method invites the passer-by to interact and become an instrument of the art.
Kittelmann points out that the concept of participation in Stingel’s work was never planned. In 2001 for his solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto, Italy, the artist lined one of the rooms with metallic Celotex insulation board.
“I thought it could be fun to plaster a room with cheap material” grins Stingel “….but I didn’t realise the impact it would have”. Almost immediately, visitors scratched and graffitied their names and other drawings onto the surface of the paneling. The artist was amazed by what he found when he went back to the museum a few months later.
In Basel, visitors are invited to repeat the action on virgin Celotex board installed in the final room. Stingel has since developed the conceptual idea by casting the original paneling in metal. A colossal example in copper, nickel and stainless steel taken from one of these installations is exhibited at the Beyeler. The spontaneous engraving transforms into something new and concrete, taking on a historical legitimacy within Stingel’s repertoire.
Painting the architectural space
The exhibition runs in no chronological order but considers the specific confrontations of individual artwork in response to the Beyeler’s architectural spaces conceived by Renzo Piano. This relationship between two-dimensional mediums and three-dimensional spaces is what Stingel concerns himself with. “The important thing is to cover every square centimetre of the canvas” he says. For him, the canvas can be floor, wall or both.
In Manhattan in 2004, Stingel used an industrially-printed pink and blue floral carpet to cover the entire floors of Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall where commuters footprints became a part of the art. In 2010 at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, Bauhaus met decorative flamboyance when patterned carpet inspired by an old, Indian Agra rug extended over the granite floor of the gallery’s large hall.
By introducing depth into the spatial encounter thus converting hitherto flat surfaces, Stingel has produced some of the most innovative installations in recent times. His transformation of the Palazzo Grassi in 2013 was arguably his most radical gesture. He lined the main atrium with a red oriental-style carpet, layering walls and floor in every room of the historic palace. Adorned with his grisaille paintings (including a Franz West portrait), the mesmerising pattern united the entire architectural space. It was an unprecedented example of what painting can be.
Stingel’s fascination with pattern and repetition in a historical context is reaffirmed with a new carpet installation dominating one of the Beyeler exhibition rooms. The motif is taken from a Persian Sarouk rug, enlarged in black and white. A photorealist self-portrait ‘Untitled (After Sam)’ in oil and a weighty, cast bronze and nickel tablet both vie with its tactile surface. The three elements, each as painterly as the other, are a triumphant testament to Stingel’s versatile approach to the state of painting.
A fox, a flower garden and the memory of mountains
In 2013, Stingel made a series of animal paintings. The images were, he says, inspired by a 1960s nature calendar bought from a flea market featuring alpine wildlife. The nostalgic motif of a red fox in the snow, blown up to over a metre square is familiar yet distant. Through the medium of paint rendered in precise brush strokes, Stingel meticulously reproduces the original photograph and its imperfections.
Two stunning triptychs will delight visitors to Basel. One, painted with an (almost) identical flower repeat, is based on the photographic representation of a mid-nineteenth century wallpaper. The other presents an all-over damask motif in violet and silver. Both are beautifully offset by the Beyeler’s own gardens which fill the transverse window at one end of the room.
In a composition reminiscent of the landscape of Stingel’s place of childhood and upbringing, Tyrolean mountains are painted from found photos with the most extraordinary attention to detail. The canvas has been intentionally left on the studio floor to gather dust and scratches producing random or deliberate traces of use and the passing of time.
What Rudolf Stingel does next will be eagerly awaited. A hefty catalogue conceived as an artist’s book to accompany the exhibition provides a pictorial insight into the scope of the artist’s practice so far. As Udo Kittelmann says, few words are needed. Being Stingel, it’s the seeing and touching that leaves an indelible mark.
Rudolf Stingel solo exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler until 6 October.
For information go to www.fondationbeyeler.ch
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