"You Can't Reinvent Modernism"
An Encounter with Markus Amm
He is one of the best-known figures in a younger generation of artists critically investigating modernism's legacy. At first glance, Markus Amm's abstract photographic works, collages, and paintings invoke the formal language of past avant-garde movements. In reality, however, the least thing the German artist is interested in is a nostalgic harking back to the past. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met with Markus Amm, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection with a series of luminograms, in Athens.
||Athens is a true challenge. A ramshackle, smoggy metropolis than can compete with New York any day. From the airplane window you can already see a ring of desolation standing out against the shimmery blue Mediterranean Sea: waste material reclaiming sites, industrial areas, a periphery whose deterioration can be seen clearly even as the plane prepares to land. Later, on the way into the city center, the taxi creeps along through overcrowded streets and districts that sprang up everywhere in the fifties and sixties in a conglomerate of post-war modernist styles.
It is a brooding early summer evening; an impending thunderstorm hangs in the air. It is slowly growing dark in Markus Amm's studio. The monochromatic canvases leaning against the walls seem to absorb the city's colors: the grey of the facades, the filthy marble sidewalks, the dust on the palm trees in the park outside. Anyone who could would certainly retreat to one of the idyllic islands in the Aegean Sea-yet Amm loves it here. It was already evident on the way to the studio, which leads past groups of junkies through a rundown red light district on streets lined with import/export stores selling cheap clothing by the bundle. Amm knows these streets, which it's better not to walk through at night; he knows all the small restaurants the locals go to. Five months ago he came from London to attend the opening of his exhibition Basement and Groundfloor in his gallery The Breeder, and he's stayed-at least for the time being.
It is fitting to meet Markus Amm where the concept of the "functional city" was postulated in the Athens Charter later published by Le Corbusier; more than any other European city, Athens represents the magnificent failure of the functionalist utopian ideal. The 1969-born German belongs to a generation of young international artists that investigate modernism's complex legacy in conceptual and aesthetic terms. When in preparation for his documenta 12 Roger Buergel posed the leading question "Is Modernism our antiquity?," it was after young artists had already begun adopting the formal vocabulary of the Russian avant-garde, color field painting, and Abstract Expressionism and transposed it into a new context of current social issues.
Amm became known in 2004 for his contribution to the vanguard group exhibition Formalismus. Moderne Kunst, heute at the Hamburg Kunstverein in which he showed an installation of works that immediately brought the rhythmic geometric compositions of Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Russian Constructivism to mind: grids, color fields, diagonals marked with tape, ballpoint pen, felt marker. Shown alongside them were photographic works reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts of cherry blossom twigs or Moholy-Nagy's photograms. At the time, the Hamburg show ventured forth a daring thesis that "formalism" and "content" do not mutually exclude one another, and that political and critical content can be conveyed through formally reduced, nonobjective, or minimalist art forms. The content expresses itself not through unequivocal statements, but rather through aesthetic experience, references to art history and pop culture, and a sensitivity for material and combination. Like Amm, many of the artists in the show such as Tomma Abts, Sergej Jensen, and Wade Guyton were known primarily to insiders; since that time, they have enjoyed an international breakthrough. Even though they all work very differently, they are often hyped together under the epithet "Neo-Modernism." While this might be a catchy formulation, it doesn't really get to the point.
With his references to modernism, Amm is postulating anything but a nostalgic looking back. It is particularly Amm's early works that demonstrate an ambivalent attitude shared by many artists of his generation: "Modernism is more than a formal language or a vocabulary; it was also about ideas of a multi-cultural society, about enlightenment." Yet a reverence for the avant-garde of the past stands side-by-side with the knowledge that this myth is moth-eaten. In light of the historical, ecological, and social catastrophes of the past half-century, the modernist dream of enlightenment and progress seems played out. For those born around 1970, modernism is understood as an experience that has been repeatedly recycled, made concrete in social housing projects, and marketed as a Wagenfeld teapot or record cover designs by Kraftwerk and New Order. "There have always been these waves in which the formal language of Russian Constructivism was adapted-first by the Bauhaus and later in the sixties and eighties," says Amm. "I've concentrated on all these peaks, which also occurred in the applied arts. These were points of reference for me, and it just goes to show how strongly the eighties influenced me. I played in a punk band at the age of 15. That was when flyers and posters followed the watercolor phase. Later, I studied graphic design at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach. After not going to a single lecture in three years, I finally had to admit that it didn't interest me, and I moved to Hamburg to study art instead."
While Amm initially concentrated on works inspired by Japanese watercolor exploring color space and the subtle gradations of ink and watercolor that he himself describes as "esoteric," he suddenly happened upon a book on Katsura, the imperial villa built in 17th-century Kyoto. For Bauhaus architects like Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut, who was led to this "entirely unique world wonder" in 1933 on his "most beautiful" 53rd birthday, Katsura confirmed the timelessness of their architectonic and social utopias. In the villa, Amm discovered key elements the modern architectural movement International Style postulated three centuries later: a modular building method, transparency, and a reduced, visible structure. "Gropius is purported to have said that Katsura plus cement equals modernism," says Amm. "The idea that this formal language always existed really interested me. This was the point where I really began investigating modernism."
Amm's works from 1999 on pick up on the notion of a pure art form liberated from the fetters of all historical style-and then go on to adulterate it. He juxtaposes the Katsura enthusiasm of the Bauhaus architects with influences of a different Japanese wave that left an indelible mark on his youth-the Japanese kitsch of the eighties wave culture, when the New Romantics and pop stars from Siouxsie to Boy George wore kimonos and geisha make-up; when record covers, T-shirts, and jackets were covered in Japanese calligraphy and red suns. Amm contrasts the Bauhaus guild philosophy with its eternal values, excellent form, and quality materials with deliberately cheap industrial materials. He marks the architectonic grids, color fields, and diagonals in his works with tape, ballpoint pen, felt marker, and nail polish. Even though the works look like paintings, they are not painted, but rather collaged and drawn. The photograms that accompany Amm's pictures evoke a cherry blossom aesthetic, but were made with birch branches that could have been snapped off in a nearby park. This mixture between a hypersensitive, reduced aesthetic and subliminal humor does not please everyone on the Hamburg scene, which is currently dominated by gestural expressive painters like André Butzer and Markus Selg. Amm initially remained an insider's artist until the gallery dealer Karin Günther took him into her program.
Just how multifaceted Amm' approach is can be seen in the luminograms he began working on in 1997 and created for ten years parallel to his other works. Among these is an untitled series from 2005 purchased by the Deutsche Bank Collection. "You make a 'photogram' by laying an object onto the photographic paper and recording it as a negative apparition," explains Amm. "A 'luminogram'-like 'lumen,' light-is made when you work only with light and not with an object. I folded the photographic paper in various different ways and then exposed it. You can see exactly where the light traveled along the folds-where it penetrated, where it didn't; where it was reflected by the photographic paper or reflected itself. For the first few trials, I simply rolled the photographic paper into this roll and then exposed it to light with a cigarette lighter. Because the light penetrated the various layers of paper in different ways, it resulted in different gradations of grey." The images that arise in this way seem almost auratic. Yet, as Amm stresses, they are also "fairly primitive" in the making.
It is precisely this ambivalence between pragmatism and transcendence that characterizes Amm's artistic strategy. He aestheticizes artistic processes and problems; the traces of the folds in his luminograms indicate that the photographic paper was previously folded into a three-dimensional object or rolled, and so the idea of space is already built into the exposure. Preliminary drawings can also be detected in many of Amm's works. "For me, this process-based aspect is very important," explains Amm, "the fact that the viewer can see that I haven't adhered to the sketched lines and that something entirely different from the sketch arose." In Amm's work, the break between the "pure, holy idea" and the work of art is always palpable. "It's about composition, but it's also about completely taking a composition apart," Amm says, "or also about making the exact opposite of a beautiful picture."
Whether Amm continuously photographs details of his own constructivist wall paintings, enlarges these, and recombines them to form new works; or allows the application of paint in his oil paintings to be structured by the stretchers pressing through the canvas-the references Amm makes to modernist movements are characterized by distance and ambiguity. In his latest exhibition at The Breeder, he showed the classic white cube as an obsolete paradigm: in the gallery's corners were the traces of over-sized taped lines just like in the desktop models of galleries that artists paste tiny reproductions of their paintings into to try out the hanging. Additionally, Amm installed sculptures that imitate the barriers placed before valuable works of art to protect them from visitors. This misappropriation radiates a reduced formal austerity as well as a specific kind of irony. The barrier, which symbolizes separation and elusiveness, itself becomes an auratic work of art, while the white cube has long since served its purpose as modernism's sacred location.
Amm addresses this break with latent humor, but entirely without cynicism: "You can't act as though modernism can be reinvented; everyone knows the historical development it went through. Humor and irony are perhaps a good way to approach it. I wasn't interested in holy values that lay claim to a final and timeless beauty. I don't believe in that; on the contrary. When I approach modernism it means breaking with all these clichés."