Art as Accident

America is getting its first extensive look at the work of controversial Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer

THEY look like the wild scribblings of a child or the violent paint hurlings of an angry adult. Some are almost totally black. A few are covered with one or two flat colors. And several are painted on irregularly shaped canvases. But strangest of all, many have faces looking out from behind the scribblings and slashes of paint.

They are the creations of Arnulf Rainer, the controversial Austrian artist best known for his impetuous overpaintings and alterations of photographic images, especially of human heads.

Some 140 examples of his work from all periods of his career have been assembled at the Guggenheim Museum here for the first full-scale museum exhibition of his paintings and works on paper in the United States. They were selected by R.H. Fuchs, director of the Haags Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, Netherlands, who also contributed an essay for the exhibition catalogue.

Although much better known in Europe than America, Rainer's name began popping up with greater frequency here after the Guggenheim Museum's 1980 Joseph Beuys retrospective. Thanks to this huge and revealing survey of Germany's most seminal artist of the 1950s and '60s, American interest in other highly individualistic European painters and sculptors who had remained independent of all major movements accelerated dramatically.

Among the beneficiaries of this newfound interest was Arnulf Rainer. Three of his altered photographs were illustrated and discussed in Robert Hughes's popular 1981 book, ``The Shock of the New.'' And from 1983 on, a small trickle of his works began finding its way into major American museum exhibitions and collections.

Even so, it's unlikely he'll ever become an American favorite. We prefer our art a bit less purely autographic and considerably less psychologically and metaphysically volatile. But then, he's Northern European in origin and steeped in the self-analytical tradition seen in the work of D"urer, Van Gogh, Munch, and Kokoschka.

Rainer didn't start out that way, however. He evolved by adapting his youthful talents and ambitions to whatever modernist theories and practices made the most sense to him. First came Surrealism, primarily because its emphasis on automatism liberated his imagination and gave him free rein to express his dreams, emotions, and desires in any form he wished. Next came a series of nearly abstract, almost totally black drawings.

In 1953, when he was 24, he began his ``Overpaintings,'' the works which first brought him serious recognition. In them, he effaced his own images and the paintings of other artists. After that, he took up ``Action Painting,'' which permitted him to work as freely and passionately as he pleased.

Throughout his career, Rainer has depended on accident (unpremeditated scribblings or splashes of paint) and intuition for his imagery and effects.

Unlike many other highly impulsive painters, however, he generally then has either added to, or refined, what appeared spontaneously on his paper or canvas.

In 1980, Rainer returned to the ``Cross,'' a religious theme he had explored in the mid-1950s. These shaped works constitute a summary of his enigmatic, even paradoxical style, and demonstrate his belief that painting is an active physical process informed by the emotional potential of the image.

WRITING in the exhibition catalog's foreword, Diane Waldman has this to say about Rainer's creative realities: ``Rainer is drawn to primitive forms of art and seeks to communicate some of its basic expressiveness, which has been lost to our culture, through his own images. In this, he shares with many 20th-century artists a desire to capture the force of a primary impulse. Interwoven with this positive quest is a profound sense of the absurd, a nihilism born of the European condition engendered by two world wars and reinforced by the artist's image of himself as an isolated and alienated individual.''

Because of this perception of himself, and because he seems incapable of rising above frustration or despair in his art, viewing this otherwise impressive exhibition becomes considerably less than a stimulating experience. Above all, it is excessively confrontational, both in its ``message'' and in the way that message is shaped and hurled at us.

At first viewing, many of the paintings and works on paper appear chaotic or accidental. A few of the original photographic images, especially those in ``Untitled'' (1974) and ``It'' (1970-73), seem actually to have been vandalized by the streaks and daubs of paint slapped on in front of and around them. And some of the recent ``Cross'' images obviously erupted into life without the imposition of a human sensibility.

The exhibition becomes no more stimulating or satisfying the second or third time around. Still, if one looks carefully, one can find an occasional intriguing or engaging image (``The Circling Mountain''), or even a slightly humorous one (``The Throne'' of 1973). Overall, however, this show comes across as an accumulation of dead-end efforts by a clever and serious artist with a desperate need to be seen - but with nothing of real substance (or with anything we don't already know) to communicate.

After its closing at the Guggenheim on July 9, ``Arnulf Rainer'' travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, (July 29-Oct. 15); and then to Vienna, The Hague, Madrid, and Turin.

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