Werner Büttner: Last Lecture Show

West Barn

May 13-June 23, 2022

The Ranch is honored to present Last Lecture Show, a career survey of German painter Werner Büttner (b. 1954, Jena, Germany). The exhibition travels to The Ranch from Hamburger Kunsthalle and spans paintings from the early 1980s to the present, tracing the artist’s trajectory from just after the fall of the Berlin Wall to those paintings made during the COVID-19 pandemic. The museum exhibition was organized to commemorate the artist’s professorial retirement after more than thirty years of teaching painting at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg. Devised by the artist into six “chapters,” the presentation chronicles his sweeping output through major subjects, themes, and methodological approaches.

The earliest paintings included in the exhibition represent Büttner’s artistic cultivation in Cold War Germany during the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which he developed a crude and faux-naïve painterly style to match his candid critique of existence—morality and amorality, civility and impertinence, education and ignorance. Forming a triumvirate of terror alongside Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen, eventually called Junge Wilde (Wild Youth), Büttner rejuvenated painterly possibility amid an anti-humanist dirge through a language of distrust, skepticism, and irreverence. A historic figure and contemporary master, the artist mingles the sardonic pessimism of his youth and precise cultural references to his country’s reparative struggles with a disentanglement of taboos that can be registered universally.

In Hamburg, Büttner located the fatalistic nourishment to contend with his immediate forebears of German art: Joseph Beuys, Jörg Immendorff, Sigmar Polke. His dialogue with the past of painting and its present prospects was ultimately unsociable: “I preferred to comment on the mindlessness of it all from the comfort of my own home, from my studio. So, art was a perfect match for my apathy. At last, my loathing for human entanglements had found an acceptable outlet.” Indeed, tremoring attempts to assuage guilt and institute new order in post-fascist Germany were brusquely countenanced and countered in succinct paintings that exposed complicity, consolation, and corruption.

Büttner’s iconoclast paintings continue to capture the illogic of contemporary politics and culture, establishing existentialist dread, sexual deviance, and art historical tropes as his daily bread. All which is esteemed or held in high regard is a potential subject for discrediting in the artist’s hands. For example, one section of Last Lecture Show titled “Formative Veneration” exposes the immoderate celebration of canonical artists by the navel-gazing armature of art history. Büttner purportedly situates himself along an artistic lineage only to parody the self-aggrandizing assurances of such gestures. For example, Graffiti from Late Antiquity (2018) yokes the pinnacle of classical painting with the unmediated urbanity associated with graffiti. Here, a pair of mythological figures float atop a dispersed Greek alphabet. The aphoristic nature of the myths finds a contemporary twin in Büttner’s bon mot titles. Disappointed Pupil Leaves the House of Luxury (1987) gives an apish man crawling away from the spoils and temptations of a decanted bottle of champagne and flutes. These quippish titles summarize the action of the painting and, moreover, tender ideological lessons and instructions.

In addition to Büttner’s command of painting, his disciplinary scope is entrenched in the province of language. Referring to himself as a “text-image strategist,” the artist forwards an ideology of painting in which the linguistic and imagistic cannot be uncoupled—depending on the other to amplify meaning. In fact, every day, the artist begins his practice with a morning newspaper, its perplexing reportage offering potential subjects, succinct visual puns, and verbal play. The conceptual weight of his paintings hinge on their titles, and in this exhibition, the names of the sections (notably called “chapters”). The viewer, too, is tasked with undertaking these same heuristic leaps to decipher the numerous tangles that lurk somewhere between image and letter. Toggling back and forth between realms, Büttner acrobatically stretches the figurative connotation of the image. Figurative, here, refers not only to representation but moreover to the potential of the image to operate like language: a painting can body forward with the concision of a phrase or shorthand, the complexity of a double entendre or joke, and the profundity of an aphorism or epic.

At the same time, base culture as well as the fine arts is an equally vital subject; wanton animality, libidinal desire, brutish behavior, and trifling preoccupations recurringly find themselves at the center of his monumental oil paintings. Flouting the conventions of history painting and its ambition to commemorate “worthy” events of human achievement, Büttner is continuously “amazed at the funfair of earthly phenomena” and is “obliged to manically comment on them.” The artist’s source material is further explored in the final section of the exhibition. Detourned compositions revise found paintings culled from flea markets, typically those with generic or congenial subjects made by casual Sunday painters. The artist’s subtle incursions into the original schemes evidence another avenue of distanced criticism. Standing askance, apprehending with irony, holding at arm’s length—these are Büttner’s munitions to undo the rigidity of his chosen medium and interpret the surfeit of human emotions and motives that underpin action from the mundanity of the domestic to the grand gestures of national machinations.

Last Lecture Show is the largest exhibition of Werner Büttner organized in the United States. Prior to its presentation at The Ranch, it was on view at Hamburger Kunsthalle from October 15, 2021 – January 16, 2022. Werner Büttner: Last Lecture Show, a comprehensive, fully illustrated catalogue, with essays by eleven well-known critics and art historians including Kate Brown, Elodie Evers, Jane Ursula Harris, Sarah Edith James, and Barry Schwabsky, was published in conjunction with Last Lecture Show. The 250-page publication was produced in collaboration between Hamburger Kunsthalle and the University of Fine Arts Hamburg and is available in German and English.

— Megan Kincaid

Artist Biography:

Werner Büttner has been the subject of monographic exhibitions at museums including Weserburg Museum of Modern Art, Bremen, Germany; ZKM—Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany; Kunsthalle Dominikanerkirche, Osnabrück, Germany; FRAC Poitou Charentes, Angoulême, France; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK. His work is in collections internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany; ZKM—Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany.

For more information, contact: info@maxlevai.com