December 3, 2010

Beer under palm trees

I don’t remember anything. Which is okay, since this is a shout-out to a largely unknown painter.

We’re in Paris, I guess it’s 2004. We’ve done honest tourist work somewhere on the fringes of sightseeing, now we’re sitting in a café, relaxing. There’s a flyer on the table which says that exactly this afternoon the arrondissement we’re in will open its artist studios for anyone to visit. That’s great. Of course we don’t go for the art, we’re voyeurs who want to see how people live.

We get to see students’ dumps and garden houses hidden within city blocks where people have too much money and too much time. A maghrebian joint serves spice tea with the art. I have a vague recollection of walking into the particularly promising back entrance of a pretty ramshackle historicist building, wide stairs, plaster dripping from the vaults. We have to go all the way up, and there, behind an inconspicuous door that should lead to the attic, is paradise.

I mean, like I said, I don’t really remember this. Also you can’t separate the rooms from the fact that they’re in Paris, and no sane person should be able to afford them, but anyway, this must have been the most beautiful studio I’ve ever seen. Rather irregular, high windows following the roof slope to the back. A rather dark partition to the left (but then it’s getting night and we can see the city turn electric over the rooftops) where paintings are hung.

How were the paintings? Well, not great, but worthwhile. Figurative but with a twist to it that I can’t find a description of in my brain files. They looked rather like the work of a young man who’s just a little step away from hitting on something really good. So we were somewhat surprised when we met the artist himself, a very interesting looking seventyish man who still had the air of somebody with a motorcycle in his life. We didn’t really talk to him, because, well the art was not quite marvellous enough for the slow-burning ecstasy we felt at the fact of his existence. So we nicked a small catalog from 1976 and an invitation card from 1985, which is all he had to his name, and took our leave.

The internet doesn’t know much more about him than that old catalog. Werner Ritter, born 1933 in Basel, Switzerland, has a secure footnote in art history as one of the first generation of Swiss pop and a member of the Farnsburggruppe, a kind of smalltime secession that formed 1967 in his hometown (they have an archival website, in case you read German). By the mid-1970s, his style had arrived at something close to photo-realism filtered through a kind of heavy fuzz that seems informed by Gerhard Richter’s black and white work and today again looks pretty young, if not massively original.

The catalog (really just a brochure) is called Automobile, that’s German for cars, and it comes with a motto by writer Christoph Mangold, which roughly translated reads: “At home cars were parked even in the marmalade, under the pillow, in the fridge. The kids could not talk in complete sentences yet, but they already knew the names of the race drivers and the car brands.” There are only two color illustrations in here, but these seem to show a use of mauve and beige and pastel blue in these car pictures that chimes very well with the domestic motto. (Girl colors, as my own kid would have it, and which he would never use except to paint a present for his mother or some other girl. The artist is much freer.) I’ve selected a black-and-white image of an accident painting called Spalenring, though, which I much like because here real life has done its best to emulate an artistic translation of facts into aesthetic forms, and the painter just had to record life’s poetic license with the integrity of things in a realistic manner.

The only other evidence I carried from the studio was the invitation card from 1985 you see on top. I must admit, at first view I thought this was pretty gruesome stuff. But hey, the title of this is Beer Under Palm Trees, so it can’t be all bad. See how subtly these four folks trying to look purposefully businesslike are undermined (the blurry faces, the beer bottles on the floor), and how with very sparse means—just a few stray palm leaves and some girl-colored light on a shutter—their self-perception as extras from a Miami Vice episode is suggested . . . I think I do get what it’s about and why it needed to be painted, so it gives me pleasure.

I’ve found one newer image on the net. This is called Bunkoman and is from 2000 and looks like a transitory jumble of all kinds of motifs and styles (now I wonder why I seem to mention Picasso in almost every post here, but the old trickster seems clearly referenced through that). I think if I really strained I could read something allegorical into it, but frankly I don’t care for the thing, so I won’t. Now if only I could tell you what the 2004 paintings were like that we saw in the studio. Not like that, but they also were of people, not cars. And they were good enough to make us feel glad that here was a man who had his work cut out for him, who seemed to do his thing regardless of a lack of public recognition, and who stood in the most beautiful studio in the world and managed to make sense there and have deserved it all.

It says on the internet that now he’s back in Basel. That’s not something I would have wanted to know.

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