The Immediate Touch, which closes at The Saint Louis Art Museum on Sunday, is so St. Louis.
The show is a collection of German, Austrian and Swiss Drawings (1946-2007) from St. Louis collections, so the local hook is who collected the art, rather than who made it or where it was made. Still, as I walked through the show on a rainy afternoon today, it all looked so familiar.
The collectors and their generosity to the museum explain that phenomenon, to some extent. Morton May, Earl and Betsy Millard, and Thomas F. Eagleton (the principal collectors in question) helped to make St. Louis a world center for German Expressionism. God bless them for that! Those of us who grew up walking through the Saint Louis Art Museum have been living with this edgy art all of our lives. It looks normal by now.
It also must have rubbed off on artists who live and work here. Tony Renner recently took himself deliberately through this particular show (and a course associated with it), in an attempt to experiment and transform his work. It's probably more typical for a young artist to walk through the Art Museum, have a few "holy shit!" moments in front of Max Beckmann paintings, and without necessarily noticing at the time, find her work start to move in new directions.
The focus of this fantastic show is drawings, rather than paintings, though this category has been enlarged beyond what most of us non-curators consider a drawing. It starts more or less where Beckmann (1884-1950) left off, with the primary artistic force here being Joseph Beuys. That also helps to explain the familiarity of the show. I know so many St. Louis artists who underwent an aesthetic heart and head transplant after encountering Beuys' work.
Most of the artists in this show - like so many artists in St. Louis - are the spiritual children of Joseph Beuys. His strong concept, his restless changes, his spiritual hunger, his willingness to subordinate technique to these other forces - I see this everywhere in the creative heart of the St. Louis art scene.
The curators (Francesca Herndon-Consagra and Sydney Norton) say the works in the show have two things in common: they were made by German speakers and collected by people who lived in St. Louis. The curators would probably agree to a third commonality: a restless urge to experiment. This is one of the most varied shows I can ever remember seeing anywhere. It's as if, between them, these artists tried everything.
This show has eye candy (Anselm Kiefer, "Heliogabal"), a number experiment (by Hanne Darboven), stark portraits (by Max Uhlig), cartoons (Rosemarie Trockel, "The Seven Walls"), a gonzo inscribed photographic self-portrait (Arnulf Rainer, "The Black, Yellow, Red Mouth"), conceptual think pieces (by Beuys), a noir thug scene (Sigmar Polke, "Heist"), psychodoodles (by Erwin Pfrang), Kandinsky on crank (Martin Disler, "The Blue Rider"), abstract nature explorations (by Herta Muller), and even old-fashioned Expressionism (A.R. Penck self-portraits).
And I feel like I have seen it all before, because these are all the roads my peers found open when they started to make art, and they have continued down those roads. I continue to enjoy the journey.
I chose for my illustration a quiet, haunting piece by Gunter Brus that reminds me of the illustrations Marc Chagall did for Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls. It is titled after the beautiful sentence Brus wrote at the bottom of the image, which translates into "I wanted to warm you, but winter is your friend." I'll be working the rest of my life to write a line like that.
It has not all been ghostly pastels with scraps of poetry for Brus, who is Austrian. He had an action art period that I have seen mostly closely approximated, in St. Louis, by Jason Wallace Triefenbach. In a fascinating catalogue essay, Sydney Norton describes one of Brus' art acts as "cutting into his chest and thighs, covering himself with his own excrement, and singing the Austrian national anthem while masturbating."
While nothing nearly that intimate (or disturbing) awaits you if you visit The Immediate Touch, it does seem like an appropriate place to end this squib, with the Republican National Convention chattering on behind me.
The show closes at The Saint Louis Art Museum on Sunday, Sept. 7. It's free tomorrow, on Friday, but worth a few bones if you want to wait until the weekend. I also can't say enough good things about the exhibit catalogue.