THE SHARP END OF THE BLUR
Stephan Berg, in “HORSTKEINING – SCOOP“, Edition Cantz, 2019, Translation by Stephen Reader
When a painter of the likes of Horst Keining in principle devotes his entire life as an artist to negotiating in paint the fault-line between image and reality and the fundamental undefinability of their rapport (or lack of it), it should not come as too much of a surprise if, sooner or later, he turns to extend that debate to the field of catalogue reproductions: a step the more to be expected given that it has been prepared, as it were, over many years in advance. In his every engagement with the picture surface, Keining is a systematic worker. For a larger part of that career, this has meant being something like a sharp-painting definer of exact contours, a precision painter who would brook never a hint of deviation or disorganisation and in that mould, until about 1997, he devoted his time primarily to fathoming the relationship of line and plane, and thereupon the relationship of colour field and script.
In 2003, triggered not least by a big commission for seven mural paintings at Schloss Mariakirchen, Keining abandoned the uncompromisingly hard contour in favour of uncompromising imprecision. From that point on almost no painting has relied on the brush alone, Keining taking recourse above all to the spray gun, with which he applies his water-soluble pigments bound with synthetic resin directly onto the picture support. Changes in content are minimal in comparison. Script remains a determining element in many of his series of paintings; now albeit in combination with ornament. Then again, the currently blurred impression overriding in the images is not so much a fundamental reorientation as a reinforcement of the enquiry his œuvre has always pursued.
What is the portent of de-focusing in an image? As a concept stemming from the technical media of film and photography, from media whose technical apparatus inherently offers the option of switching between focus and haze, the term itself becomes blurred when applied to painting: by its nature, applying paint with a brush or other painting tool cannot be out of focus. To paint blurs is therefore to imitate the ill focus of another medium without the depicting medium itself being capable of such imprecision (or conversely, without imprecision being capable of precision). This sharp or, depending on one’s viewpoint, blurred juncture in the painterly discourse on indeterminacy has been nowhere so precisely perceived and fixed than by Gerhard Richter, nor in that process his fundamental credo so succinctly stated, namely that it is impossible to make in an image any valid statement about reality.
Horst Keining’s is a similar motivation and his penchant for convening in his works the ornamental and scriptorial consistent, text being commonly associated with a content that can be apprehended with precision but ornament in this respect with the greatest conceivable openness and indeterminateness. In this light there is in each of these paintings a meeting of sharp definition (the text) and the je-ne-sais-quoi (the ornament); a confrontation that makes it startlingly plain how both, that is, the seemingly certain and the seemingly uncertain are stripped of their logic. All the paintings of this artist, then, operate on several planes at once and so accord to an uncertainty relationship.
According to this Heisenbergian phrase for a quantum-physics phenomenon, two complementary properties of one particle, such as location and impulse, can never be determined with precision at random but only in the form of a statement of what is probable. In that process the imprecision of the impulse increases in proportion to the precision with which the location of the particle is defined, and vice-versa.
In that structural indefinability lies the quintessence of Keining’s œuvre. He presents us with pictures in which the striving to fix a given pictorial element can only force the other’s elusiveness and vice-versa – images that in displaying, to some extent undermine each and every element they display, rendering it opaque or indistinct and thereby fuelling the beholder’s curiosity. Imprecision of outline becomes in this painter’s hands a tool for perception’s honing. Keining’s dialectical procedure thus takes up, in some sense, what the Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden (1893 – 1970) elaborated in his theory of indeterminacy: according to which all occurrences of voids or of indeterminacy in a painting rouse in the viewer a need for subjective reification. To rephrase: far from cheating our urge to see, the instances of absence or of imprecision in the image activate that urge and ensure that we fill them with the subjective content matter that we produce in cognitive manner. (1)
Assuming that premise to hold true, and if the soft focus in Keining’s paintings is taken as their central and essential high definition, the problem he derives from it for the present catalogue project emerges as more than consistent. ‘Is there’, he asks, ‘a way to have the reduced scale of the reproduction without to all effects forfeiting the blurredness of contour that is so crucial to my painting?’ The answer Horst Keining finds for himself and for us is an artist’s book that again adheres manifestly to a systematic structure. He begins by establishing three different picture formats in which his translation of the blurred image into the catalogue reproduction is to be tested. The originals used are paintings measuring, respectively, 24 x 33 cm, 90 x 75 cm and 185 x 135 cm. These are to be rendered so as to relate fittingly to the proportions of the catalogue with its pages of 16.5 x 23 cm or a double page of 33 x 23 cm.
This means that the small-scale works which provide the first part of the catalogue can be reproduced almost in original size, that is, on a scale of 1:1. From each the works of the largest scale, making up the middle section of the book, Keining chooses a detail in horizontal format which he then has reproduced full-page in the catalogue. On the double page following the detail illustration is, on the left, a small black-and-white illustration of one of the original motif photographs from his comprehensive photographic archive. The page on the right shows the entire original picture printed in bleed format. For the paintings of medium scale, forming the end section of the volume, the artist chooses a detail which bleeds over the fold into the adjacent page, and thereby obtains a certain three-dimensional effect. The catalogue ends with a fold-out concertina page showing miniatures of all the works featured in the book.
What may read at first sight like an over-complicated, formalistic laboratory experiment proves to be a well-wrought piece of dissimulation not a million miles from irony, on the relationship of reproduction and original. Appositely it is in reference to painting that photographic reproduction in a catalogue is so often said to fall short and that only the original can develop its full effect. At the same time it is true, of course, that most works of art reach their public via reproductions, such that we need not hesitate to agree with Wolfgang Ullrich’s conclusion in a press item of 2009 (Wolfgang Ullrich, ‘Raffinierte Kunst. Der Katalog macht die Kunst’, FAZ, 7 August), that the course of art history has been defined less by artistic originals than by the reproductions made of them.
The painter Klaus Merkel, who teaches at Münster, is not the least to have responded accordingly and, in his Katalogbildern, presented all his works completed from 1988 on again on a scale of 1:10 on large panels, as it were as a painted catalogue raisonné. (2)
In a way, Keining follows suit, but he takes the matter a stage further. Whereas Merkel copies his own paintings in reproductive miniaturisation, thereby creating new originals, Keining, with his almost full-scale depictions of the small images in the catalogue, achieves their de-facto duplication, then only to let the longing for a truly satisfying, persuasive impression of the painting in the printed image run aground: the detail chosen (at random, at that) from the original whole image of which it is but a very small part, while it makes visible the way the respective blur effects have been created, makes it impossible to perceive the whole.
Viewers, erring continually between the zoomed-in detail element, the black-and-white photographic source image and the scaled-down and in addition, bleed total image soon deem themselves in a hall of mirrors in which part and whole utterly defy cogent reconciliation. In other words, the effort to achieve the greatest possible correspondence between the original and the catalogue reproduction ultimately produces precisely the focussed blur that all Keining’s paintings are about from the outset. Like a researcher on his own behalf, the painter sets his box of apparatus and his archive material out before us, offering us as the point of departure of a painting for example, the famous Rosenquist spaghetti, while, in other works, source material as heterogenous as coupons for free gin-and-tonics, townscape photographs, Richard Strauss’s Elektra, or material from pattern-books come into play – and then he leaves us alone with it all.
For, of course there is no justification nor any inner necessity for having chosen, say, horizontal-format details out of the large-scale paintings, or that might explain why, in one of the paintings, it is Nabokov and his wife whose source media image happens to provide the point of departure. That is frustrating only as long as one fails to understand that the purpose of this entire laboratory setup conceived with as much method and precision as, simultaneously, on whim, might consist in making it plain to us that every image, whether original or reproduction, is in turn but an image of another image. Quite possibly the fuzziness in Keining’s work is eloquent of nothing if not the fact that in today’s circumstances, painting can only be engaged in if it is acknowledged that pictures couple amongst each other and if it is accepted that they cannot become more real than their own state allows.
1) Cf. Roman Ingarden, Das literarische Kunstwerk (first published in Poland, 1931, an Eng. edn The Literary Work of Art, transl. George G. Grabowicz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973), and the collected essays, Untersuchungen zur Ontologie der Kunst. Musikwerk-Bild-Architektur-Film (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1962), published in English as The Ontology of the Work of Art, transl. Raymond Meyer with John T. Goldthwait (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1989)
2) Cf. amongst others, Klaus Merkel, Katalogbilder, with essays by Rudolf Bumiller and Doreet LeVitte-Harten (exhn cat., Freiburg, Morat Institut für Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft, 1993. In German).