The Remains of Today

Dave Hickey

A friend of mine said this: “The earth doesn’t care if it’s ruined or toxic or depopulated. When it finally comes to that, when it all comes loose, quakes up, melts down and burns out, it will still be the earth and it will go around the sun.” With this in mind, I was looking at a painting by Pia Fries. I found myself thinking that, if alien aesthetes arrive someday on this ruined and depopulated earth, if they decide to wander around, like tourists at Machu Pichu, and, if they are free of memory and expectations, they will probably find the wreckage of this world and what we did to it enchanting – full of terrible beauty and brutal grandeur, and if, amid the rubble, they should come across a painting by Pia Fries, they will almost certainly take it home as an un-sentimental memento of the ruined planet. This is one of my ways of explaining, at least partially, a feeling I have always had about Fries’ paintings that they are the most European “American-style” paintings I have ever seen. Of all the continental exemplars of rowdy, American abstraction, Fries’, I think, are the most knowing and cosmopolitan, the most forgiving of nature and culture catastrophically jumbled, the most tolerant of the past and present fatally blurred.

Certainly, Fries’ paintings are the least innocent, the least personal and the least pure paintings in this tradition. Their exuberance promises the comforts of expression and delivers the randomized, chemical residue of industrial culture. Their eventfulness promises narrative and delivers, instead, the end of narrative. Their fractal physicality promises the rhetoric of landscape and delivers the worldly pictorial dynamics of pre-modern European painting. The title of the painting Schwarze Blumen (in 4 parts) promises a pastoral and delivers an ominous serial frieze in the compositional manner of Tiepolo with hard overtones of Baudelaire. Thus, despite their physical analogies to New York school paintings, the American art that Fries’ paintings call immediately to mind (to me at least) are Robert Ryman’s early, brown-linen abstractions, Rauschenberg’s roughest combines and Robert Smithson’s bulldozer interventions, and these because of their stupid courage, their unsentimental, physical bravura.

This boldness, I think, explains why Fries’ paintings always seem intimidating to other painters, whether they like them or not. I will stand with a painter before one of Fries’ works and the painter will stare enviously at a pricey, crusty, archeological, slab of multi-colored paint that is part gesture and part puddle, which is willfully applied in exactly the wrong place. The plain impudence of the act is so daunting that these painters shake their heads and start talking about Gerhard Richter, with whom they know Fries studied, and with whom they are more comfortable. This is a cross that Fries must bear, the early influence of a great painter, and it is not all bad, since Richter is certainly a more userfriendly artist than Fries. Even so, the two share, at best, the contiguity of ships passing in the night. They share a penchant for beginning with primary designs and painting them out, of course, but their agendas could hardly be more different. Richter begins with what one might call “aesthetic” under-painting, a design, which he eventually scrapes down like an asphalt parking lot. Fries, in the traditional manner of European painting, begins with orderly under-painting and seduces it into chaos and madness.

Fries’ debt to the master, then, is more contrary than informing. A generational divide separates the two artists, as it separates Fries from Sigmar Polke to whom she also owes a debt. The simplest way to explain it is to suggest that Richter and Polke grew up in “crazy Europe”— in a civilization so misshapen and haunted by madness and ideology as to be almost incapacitating to an artist of any stripe. Pia Fries, on the other hand, grew up in the midst of its contra-coup – in “sane Europe”— in a culture so bureaucratically ordered, sanitized, forgiving and well-meaning as to be similarly incapacitating. So Fries’ paintings come at us from a new angle, from a new place. Their manner of address is not so much messy and intense as rough and arrogant, rather in the mode of early Warhol – an artist whose early reputation, like Fries’, suffered somewhat from his being perceived to be a pleasant young lady.

So, the ships pass in the night between “crazy Europe” and “sane Europe”. Richter will risk banality is his struggle for sanity; Fries will risk chaos in her search of some informing madness. Yet, even so, Richter’s paintings remain a little disturbing and crazy, while Fries’ paintings are equally disturbing in their high sanity and rather like Rauschenberg’s in this way. The fact that we are more disturbed by emotional equanimity than madness makes Fries the more specialized taste. She asks for no forgiveness. She requires no preliminary accommodation for any presumed deficit, cultural or psychological. Her paintings come at us straight and there is no way for any of us, in the act of beholding, to achieve a moral advantage over her extravagant sanity, especially when we come upon it in the act of breaking its own heart.

The second cross that Fries must bear is that her work is not properly “modern” or “post modern” according to the current critical patois. To come to her painting, for instance, with some expectation of reflexive criticality is to be horribly disappointed. The search for irony of any evidence of Richter’s “post-modern doubt” is equally unsatisfying. In their place, Fries proposes an aggressive condition of disbelief, something closer to Enlightenment rage or, if one can forgive the oxymoron, Swiss promiscuity. From this position, Fries may appropriate the rich, mixed styles and intervening collage from her elders and effectively strip that idiom of narrative and atmospheric reference. Thus, when we come upon silk-screened flora in her paintings, when we take note of collaged fabric, we do not, as we might with Sigmar Polke, wonder immediately what they might mean. We do as we often do with Picasso: we wonder whether these additions mean anything at all, or if, perhaps, they are only formally efficacious scraps that fell to hand, or if, perhaps, Fries is teasing us for our old fashioned habits of interpretation while fulfilling her pictorial intentions.

Having said all this, it should be clear that Fries’ work, which is too confident and authoritative to qualify as “post-modern”, is simply too sophisticated, too tertiary and “chemical”, to bear the attribution of neomodernism. Fine distinctions like this hardly matter anymore, of course. Terms like “modernism” and “post-modernism” have certainly devolved into academic knife-rests, designed to keep the sticky off the linen, but the distinction does point to a lost attribute of modern art that Fries’ paintings do manifest. They have about them what Bob Hughes calls the “shock of the new”1 – a sense that they could not have been made at any other time or in any other place. Since narrative history is presumed to have withered away around 1968, we hardly use this phrase, “shock of the new”, anymore (or its formal equivalent, “temporal defamiliarization”) but we should.

The concept remains relevant because history may have stopped but time has not. It continues in its unfolding and to deny “the shock of the new” is to deny that things get boring, to ignore the toxic consequences of this ennui, which is the habit of sitting down to dinner every night with the same utensils. It is true enough that, in the present, the new does not pre-empt the old as it once did (there are too many “sustaining” institutions for that), but it does open a door and make a little space for the kids. In a space like this, Pia Fries may dispense with Utopia and The Fall, may provide a hedge against fantasies of “global meaning”, and a dose of bravura knowingness as an antidote to being “in the know”.

Most importantly, Fries’ paintings deliver that quiver of cold, potential emptiness that accompanies the advent of anything new in the realm of art. We confront a work of art. We know some of the words, but we don’t know the language at all, and we haven’t the instrumentalities to understand what we instantly appreciate. Thus, we are assured of having something to look at tomorrow. So, for the moment, I am thinking of Fries’ style as visceral rococo. It is related, in my mind at least, to the great stucco church interiors that populate her neighborhood and are wedded to their pre-modern compositional strategies. It is blended with the improvisational daring of late Picasso and enabled by the craggy, cultural archaeology of kinesthetic post-minimalism. To be honest, I never could have imagined anything like that, and this, I suppose, is the whole idea.

  1. Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1980.

First published in: Pia Fries: schwarzwild. London: Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 2006, p. 4 – 9.