By Jason Farago
More than twenty years ago the critic Deborah Solomon observed that Cologne—hometown of Max Ernst and Jean Arp, Martin Kippenberger and Rosemarie Trockel—was a city where “yesterday’s rascal is today’s blue-chip master.” That transfiguration is underway now for painter and musician Walter Dahn, whose first New York show in two decades (curated by Richard Prince) reasserts his centrality to German art of the 1980s. Dahn, like the other members of the loosely knit group called the Neue Wilde, rejected the pieties of the minimal or conceptual avant-garde and painted in a rough expressionist mode that drew on graffiti and cartoons. While not every work that resulted was a masterpiece, taken as a whole his spiky paintings and “anti-silkscreens”—Dahn’s term for one-off multiples—argue persuasively for an aesthetic beyond politeness.
In The Memento M., 1982, a large messy black-slathered painting, an arm reaches out from the side of the canvas and holds in its hand a deformed skull. It’s a punk Hamlet, and the Danish prince’s melancholy and rejectionism also inform more simply sketched examples such as Geburt der einarmigen Malerei Birth of Armed Painting Art, 1985, a work on paper featuring a Haring-like humanoid balanced on the edge of a knife. But the best work here is Skulptur (Hase) Sculpture (Rabbit), 1996/2004, a small acrylic painting that depicts, barely, a bronze rabbit sculpture on an untreated linen background. A tribute, surely, to his old art school professor Joseph Beuys, it’s an object lesson in how Dahn and his generation gobbled up a German tradition and transformed it into something darker and more ravenous.