The large and small works in Adrian Ghenie’s “Recent Paintings” show at Pace Gallery in New York—comprising recent paintings, as might be surmised, but also preparatory collages—range from figurative to abstract and back again. The finer points of such distinctions, however, are beside the greater overall point for an artist who retains a lot of faith in painting as an enterprise.
“Every painting is abstract,” Ghenie said in the midst of an exhibition that counts as his first in New York in nearly four years. “I don’t believe in figurative. As soon as it starts to imitate, to depict something, then a painting is dead. This is the moment when you kill painting.”
Compositions can be figurative, he said, but the power of painting—when it has any power at all—is less in the cause than in the effect. And that effect is abstract regardless of the elements that went into creating a picture or considering it after the fact. “People imagine that abstraction is some kind of gesture,” Ghenie said of those who approach abstraction as a rhetorical stance. “But when you try to paint a tree, you realize, ‘I cannot paint all the leaves, I cannot paint all the textures.’ So you have to invent a movement of the brush that would suggest, in your mind, a tree. That is, essentially, abstract.”
Subject matter, though, can be as concrete as could be imaginable. To the points of reference he has privileged as personal touchstones throughout his career thus far—Tintoretto and the Venetian school, the early Flemish Renaissance, Vincent van Gogh—the 39-year-old artist has added more recent allusions. Rest During the Flight into Egypt (2016), full of slashing, sloshing colors (magentas, blues, and reds) and drama that is inescapable at a scale of nearly 10 by 8 feet, draws on the recent refugee crisis roiling Europe. So does Crossing the Sea of Reeds (2016), the same size but darker and more ominous, with gulls and fish spying a water-borne figure bobbing in a lifejacket.
“Painting has always reacted to big, epic stories, whether battles or biblical stories,” Ghenie said. “Art history is already full of this kind of depiction”—of struggle, toil, persecuted people moving en masse. “Everything you see on TV, if you remove the clothes, it’s the same as a Renaissance scene—a man followed by his wife holding a child with a landscape in the background. The only thing that’s missing is a donkey.”
The refugee crisis has struck close to home for the artist, who has lived for years in Berlin after having grown up in Romania. But it is another abstraction of a kind for a painter who remains—in Ghenie’s mind, at least—fated to abstraction no matter the subject at hand. “The subject of migration was used by artists in the Renaissance and the Baroque era as an excuse to paint landscapes,” he said. “The church would never pay for just a landscape, so the landscape had to be a background for a biblical scene in front. Artists were not going to fight with the church, so they found this perfect subject. They shot two rabbits with the same bullet.” (This last point, he averred, is a Romanian way of otherwise talking about birds and stones.)
The present sense of upheaval in the world, however, is more than just mere aesthetic pretense for an artist whose roots grow back to Romania. “I’m not trying to make my biography like I grew up in a communist dictatorship—I was just a kid, I didn’t have any trauma,” he said. “But what happened in Romania after ’89”—the fall of the Berlin Wall—“was very interesting. When you realize a whole country can be manipulated and made to believe one thing about itself, and then the regime falls and you find out that no, it was the other way around . . . I saw how it is possible to manipulate a whole country. What is the truth? What is trauma? Do we just think we’re humiliated, or are we really humiliated? In the end, wars and tragedies are all the same.”
His art is not political in a direct sense, he said—at least no more or less political than any other artist’s. “Can you be apolitical today? Could you be apolitical after the French Revolution? Was Rothko apolitical and Rauschenberg political? Was Goya a political painter? This is a fake concept.”
Another subject surrounding Ghenie right now is the ascendance of his work on the market, with paintings of his commanding prices that not all agree are rational—including the artist himself. Nickelodeon, a work from 2008, fetched £7.1 million ($9 million) at auction at Christie’s in London last October, and Flight into Egypt (2008) went for $3.9 million in November in New York.
“You can’t ignore it—how can you ignore that?” he said. “Asking an artist, ‘How does the market’s hysterical behavior affect you?’ is like asking a crazy person, ‘How crazy do you think you are?’ Maybe it has affected me, but I would say, to the mirror in the morning, it hasn’t.”
He continued, “In the beginning it was flattering, but then it got to be a bit weird. It’s like if somebody tells you there is a porn movie about you on the internet and you cannot do anything about it. How would you react? They say, ‘Oh, no, you look good in it—you’re hot.’ But it’s still a porn movie, and you realize, Okay, I have to live with that. My friends and everybody can see it, but it’s not bad. It’s not embarrassing. It’s something vulgar, but it’s not in my control.”
Living in Berlin provides a buffer, he said. “One of the things I love about Berlin is it’s not a city that is obsessed with celebrity. Because there is no money there really, it’s a city that has accepted anonymity. We don’t have a social pyramid like London or New York. In Berlin, I don’t think anything of it.”
Nonetheless, it is a matter that is inescapable. “One thing I can say for sure is that the media and the market created a second persona, a person created and fed by the media and the market,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s me, but this person exists.”
Questioning of that sort would seem to pertain to a series of self-portraits in the Pace Gallery show (on view through February 18), which features smaller frontal headshot paintings that present the artist in what appear to be varying stages of evocation and erasure. “I want a deconstruction of the portrait,” Ghenie said. “In the 20th century, the people who did it really radically were Picasso and Bacon. They took elements of the face and rearranged it. There is no nose, there is no mouth, there is no eye—no sense of anatomy.”
“The portrait,” he continued, “was a landscape, basically.”