Published in: Michael van Ofen, Distanz-Verlag, Berlin 2011.
Several scenes of departure by the Austrian Biedermaier painter Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller form the starting point for four works by Michael van Ofen, painted between 1993 and 1997. From a certain distance, The Bride’s Departure (1993) provides an inkling of the construction of an interior, yet due to the relatively generous application of paint this remains a mere allusion. The question of from whom or what the bride is actually departing remains unanswered. Details of social relations and spatial facts disappear from the beholder’s view. Two perspectivally stretched parts of the picture form a bright, window-like limitation of the interior space. An area of brightness gives the impression of light falling onto the space. The strong emphasis placed on contrast and contours alone allows for a certain differentiation of spatial perception. Furniture or other details are not depicted in this two-dimensional scaffolding, never mind the bride mentioned by the title. If details are to be found here at all, then they can be discerned in the notably broad traces left by the brush. In the lower half of the image, the contours of various paint movements frequently change their direction. If these painterly gestures owe their existence simply to the artist’s physical activity, they also indicate the schematic movements of the group of figures presented.
Despite the strong tendencies for figure and detail to disappear, a starting point in the nineteenth century remains identifiable by way of the work’s title and the use of light. The scene of departure has not yet been completed; the site of origin seems palpably close. All the same, the practice of wet-on-wet oil painting makes it impossible to recognize any intermediate steps of an artistic engagement, but the visible level marks a certain finality in terms of the process of production. It is as the upper layer of paint attests. Ofen succeeds, as it were, in creating a situation between his historical reference points in genre painting and influences from conceptual art. In so doing, the impression of a certain open-endedness emerges that formulates a notable distance to painting’s “this-is-how-it-is,” despite remaining faithful to the medium of the model. In later works, too, Ofen takes this almost Brechtian alienation effect to the limits of the conceivable, which at the same time creates a distance to the possible motif and something like proximity to the painterly gesture. This could be called a “conceptual approach,” but Ofen is not a conceptual artist who also paints: for almost thirty years, he has exclusively worked with canvas, oil paint, and brush. Just following his first individual exhibition, Ofen switched in 1981 from a conceptual and open-media way of working towards the limited visual space of painting. Asked if he considers himself a painter, the artists would nonetheless reply in the negative. And this for two reasons: first of all, he started with painting due to a sense of alienation vis-à-vis the medium. And secondly, he wouldn’t call his results painting in the genuine sense, but a pictorial key stimulus to engage with the history of the artistic representation of political power. This might first sound like coquetry vis-à-vis European painting’s history of depiction. Perhaps at issue is a pointed distance from the illustrative quality of pre-modern found pieces, and at the same time a categorization in the sense of genres of art history. Clearly visible movements in the application of paint and schematic outlines of more or less familiar subjects provoke something like a figurative key stimulus precisely because of their gestural trace.
Departure also means that contact between the bride and her past has not yet been severed. While the intention of separation has already been formulated, it has not yet been completed in the process of departure. In 1997, Ofen once again takes his point of departure in a Waldmüller motif in a work with the same title, but this time at issue is an outdoors scene. The Bride’s Departure also alludes to this by way of a diagonal distribution of light moving from bright, cool shades to darker, warmer ones. Just as the earlier work of the same title, the color scale hardly departs from various nuances of gray. Only here—apart from the distribution of brightness—no spatial construction is alluded to. Not even rudimentary outlines can be recognized. By way of the generously applied paint in the center of the picture, with a vertical orientation, where the radius of action corresponds approximately to the movement of the forearm, a gestural dynamic develops. With the landscapes, interiors, and figures alluded to, the names of pre-modern genre works resurface that at a certain point in time had been loved by the audience, but now lead a largely unnoticed existence in storage, calendar illustrations, and collection catalogues. Clearly, the modern developments that began with impressionism and the trends towards abstraction in the painting of the nineteenth century that are oft cited as the predecessors of current visual culture are not among Ofen’s preferred points of departure.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, art—painting in particular—increasingly took leave of its role as a visual dominant and mass medium in Europe due to pioneering developments in technical media like photography and film and a material culture of industrial production based on the division of labor. Now freed of sacred and feudal contexts of representation, artistic works were exhibited and traded in newly founded associations of affluent bourgeois. The first public museums opened their doors to the educated audience, making a contribution to social progress in the wake of the Enlightenment. At the latest with the French Revolution, in Europe the process of departing from feudal culture began—a process that would take decades. And in the years around 1789 classical painting in particular found itself at the forefront of these social transformations. Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii (1785) served as one of the few prominent models for Ofen’s work. Created as a commission for the French royal house (whereas the minister responsible for this commission only stipulated the format) the painting came to be considered an icon of the bourgeois revolution just a short time later. Three young men in warrior costumes and helmets stretch their hands toward a bearded old man who is holding up three swords. In the background we can see a row of columns and several female figures taking care of children in the semi-shadows. According to the interpretation of the then contemporary audience, familiar with the Horatii legend from literature and the opera, the three sons swore their patriotic readiness to defend Roman dominance. With the modeling light relations and the emphasis placed on physical tension, David develops a presence of gestures and movements that achieves almost sculptural qualities. In retrospect, the Oath of the Horatii seems to be the turning point of a corporeal aesthetic in French painting and emblematic of a classical view of art interested primarily in ancient models. “Classicism is an object art,” but at the same time “all expressive functions take on an unexpected amplification,” Heinrich Wölfflin wrote on the “classical figure silhouette,” the “emphasis on drawing,” and the “melody of the outline.” An art of sharpened outlines and contrasts emphasizes in a special way actions, movements, and gestures. Enlightened and active individuals appear here as figures. There is a collective discussion about the orientation towards actions, there are no particular interests, only individuals interested in finding the truth together. Classicism and the Enlightenment meet here in the project of creating a new society by way of aesthetic education. After the French Revolution of 1789, Jacques-Louis David also worked for a time in the politics of the new state.
But Ofen’s Horatii XXXX serves no patriotic oath, but rather legend formation supported by painting: already in terms of its title, the work removes itself from the semantics of its 200-year-old model, making a mere reference to the Roman family. With the usual broad application of paint and strongly emphasized lines, the visual language is based above all on the choreography of the figural movements in David’s painting. Ofen transfers the physical tension of the Horatii to gestures of painterly activity. In the vanishing point of raised hands and swords movements of the application of paint now meet. The contours appearing with side lighting set themselves with their glowing red, white, and ochre tones against the dark allusion to a columned corridor in the background. In contrast to the clear and generous outlines of the foreground, this spatial effect is achieved primarily by way of frequent interruptions and changes in direction of the painting motion in the darker parts of the image. In contast, physiognomic details that had been so precisely emphasized by David are not recognizable. Instead, Ofen accents the visual principle of historical-political representation, and in so doing uses the heraldic analogy of glowing red robes from David, which there signalizes related members of a community whose individual declarations of belonging are stylized as a spontaneous impulse of the spirit.
Against the backdrop of the historical highpoints of the history of bourgeois representation in painting, the artist actually presents a departure in a double sense of the word: on the one hand a departure from the styles of pre-modern genre painting and on the other hand from the “general object” of conceptual art, fully open in terms of media. In 1999, Rosalind Krauss wrote about this “post-media object”: “In flowing through the channels of commodity distribution it would not only adopt any form it needed but it would, by a kind of homeopathic defense, escape of the effects of the market itself.” What Krauss presented using the example of Marcel Broodthaers’ works in various media as a defense against the commodity logic of the art market would influence the art discourse until today. In so doing, no genre emerged in terms of media (although the look of conceptual art is primarily linked today to language and photography), but a constant engagement with the question of whether and under which conditions art is at all possible and conceivable.
Precisely the field called painting has reinvented itself several times under the influences of conceptual practice since the 1970s. Here, the preferred media of distantiation—photography and language—play a special role in moving from physical immediacy to the meta-level of conceptual discourse. As effective semantic tricks, the German neo-expressionists of the 1970s and 1980s used ironically pointed titles in their attempt to resurrect painting. As an example of this, think of Martin Kippenberger’s work complex Untitled (Dear Painter, Paint for Me) from 1981.
Ofen’s titles have never moved so deeply into the realm of ironic commentary: On the contrary, while Horatii even refuses any narrative information about the kind of action alluded to in the painting, it still refers to the legendary patrician family from Roman history. The convention of a historical genre title is taken to a certain point, but refers only to the starting point for a way of seeing the work: the reproduction of the painterly subject from the eighteenth century that was found in some catalogue. Already a tension develops between the level of title and the perception of the image, that refers to something that lies both beyond the narrative of a situation as well as beyond the ironic commentary. A certain distance emerges between painterly practice, its models, and speaking about them. Within the context of the history of social and political representation, a great deal of leeway remains for an unclosed view of painting. That this intermediate space is at all conceivable is primarily due to the almost schematic approach to painting, reduced to the use of light and the application of paint, that at the same time alludes to discontinuities of a potentially open process of visual production and perception.
This unfinished aspect—indeed even the question of whether a work at all has emerged—can now be considered part of the standard repertoire of the reception of conceptual art. With the rediscovery of certain conceptual current, in recent years the term “romantic conceptualism” has been coined. Jan Verwoert sees a historical parallel between the radically “unfinished” works of conceptual art after 1960 and the preference of the fragment among the early romantic writers from around 1800. The writer sees both movements as symptomatic of the exhaustion of Enlightenment and as artistic attempts to set oneself apart from works of modernism in the twentieth century or the “absolutely complete works” of the classical eighteenth century Enlightenment. “The romantic form of poetry is still in becoming; indeed that is its genuine essence, that it is always only becoming, can never be completed . . . The romantic mode of poetry is the only that is more than a type and at the same is the essence of poetry: for in a certain sense, all poetry is or should be romantic.” This view of romantic painting can at first be attributed to the contemporaneity of the writers who published a manifesto in the journal Athenäum at the end of the eighteenth century. Yet a deficit of truth or meaning in art and society were not encountered with classical completion, but romantic openness. Clearly, they generally favored a process of “becoming” and the fragment against the perfect, “dead” models of the classical enlightenment. And not least the notion of expanding authorship to the audience and thus triggering “chains of ideas” allows us to think of a spiritual affinity between romantic and conceptual notions of art. The reduction to idea fragments also means challenging the audience to take part in coproduction. The question as to what extent this kind of participation actually takes place or was only intended as a linguistic figure in the very moment of its formulation would have to be examined on case-by-case basis. At any event, the artistic demands of romanticism around 1800 and conceptual art around 1970 are bound to fundamental social and economic transformations. In the first case, a European bourgeois economy developed to an extent that was previously unknown—with public museums and other art institutions in cultural terms as well. Around 1970, conceptual art (especially as far as the New York scene is concerned) was perceived alongside the civil rights movement and a visual culture defined primarily by pop, advertising, and a language of public relations. And quite in contrast to what Krauss describes as an “escape effect,” these developments did not lead to a greater independence of conceptual art vis-à-vis institutional and economic paths of distribution, but rather to their almost complete integration within the institutions of the culture industry.
While the 1997 work entitled The Bride’s Departure hardly takes on a function of depiction, the work nonetheless by no means leaves behind an incomplete, fragmentary impression. This could however be said for Head Study (2008), one of a series of similar studies. Before a beige backdrop, the outlines of a head come forth in dark grey tones. It is an unusual portrait. The supposed facial traits are lost in the dark-sandy application of paint as well as the potential surroundings. Only in the place where usually the hair would be imagined does the impression of a cleanly brushed side part seem to emerge, resulting from the finely structured strokes of a brush made of bristles. The strange analogy between the hair represented and the hairy tools of artistic production in fact comes quite close to figurative depiction. But the contours of the head-like shape in particular are only vaguely set apart from the sandy nuances of the background. Light and blue-cool gray tones form an imaginary backdrop on the side of the contours of the head. However, the heightening of the white overlaps in part with the dark gray contours of the head. The application of paint attests to the use of a rough tool. Even the modest title Head Study refers simply to an artistic attempt where the result is left uncertain, but begins with a concrete motif.
In many more recent works, the artist has taken leave of explicit historical references, yet remains in a paradigmatic reference close to the genre of the portrait. The way in which one had oneself depicted in an artistic medium turns as a representative gesture toward a potential audience. The bourgeoisie could now also museumify themselves as a gallery of ancestors. Briefly before technological procedures for creating images around the end of the nineteenth century took over the production of portraits for family albums, representative genre painting experienced what is presumably its final heyday. Up to the late 1980s, this could have been said in retrospect. But since the 1990s, artists such as Elizabeth Peyton are again placing the genre of portraiture in the present. Yet with a great distinction to earlier centuries: instead of fulfilling a representative task, at issue for Peyton is rather her own view of the poses of her (mostly) famous friends from the art scene or stars from the realm of culture and politics. At issue is rather the perspective of a fan very well trained in terms of painting on the esteemed models. The return of history painting in the form of Neo Rauch’s large format sojourns into recent history picks up in its qualities of representation and figurative representations earlier interpretations of this subject matter from the nineteenth century. Now both positions do not question the depicting and thus re-presentative function of painting, nor do they interrogate the status of their process of production. On the contrary, by way of the presence of famous personalities, historical myths, and not least the use of an especially glossy surface, this effect is amplified even more in Peyton’s work.
In general, Ofen seems to maintain a distanced relationship to the history of painting, its motifs and his own product. At the same time, he emphasizes the act of applying paint. The choreography of physiological tension is marked in contrast to his predecessors not alongside the bodies of represented figures, but is structured by a trace in the emergence of the image. The way the artist works within the character of depiction, a certain open-endedness and a self-questioning trace of production can be termed conceptual. But is there at all something like conceptual painting? Its production and object characteristics seem too much an antithesis to what Krauss calls the “general object.” Perhaps the conceptual discourse has influenced all other genres of art so greatly over the decades that this media-specific question can no longer be posed in this sense. After conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s had postulated a radical detachment from certain conventions, and the biting irony of neo-expressionism of the 1980s amused itself once more at the cost of a genre long declared dead, Ofen’s work still seems invested, despite all these scenes of departure. Representative motifs from the founding age of bourgeois capitalistic social orders in Europe emerge schematically: “subject, labor, work, and progress.” The way this artist uses the tools and materials of painting is an unfinished departure from existing images that despite all distance recalls the presence of a body movement. The traces of physical labor, a subject, and history clearly do not let go of Ofen’s artistic work, and in this way recall the fissure that runs through modern thought and all its “posts.” After the numerous deaths of the discipline and its represented figures in the past two centuries, painting has long lost its unchallenged position as a medium of representation. Even if painterly practice now again enjoys greater popularity and in the meantime has come to be accepted as a conceptual gesture by the critics, the current situation is far from evincing a self-evident legitimacy. On the contrary: painting as an artistic practice is perceived as one among many others with the fundamental question mark of conceptual art, yet at the same time it is forced to rely on a media-specific view of its own background. Ofen’s works do not solve this dilemma in an old or a new genre of painterly production, nor are the traces of their story of emergence lost in the multi-media channels of the culture industry’s “commodity distribution.”
 Hoffmann, Jens: “Was Malerei und nur Malerei kann,” in: Michael van Ofen (Berlin, 2009), 10
 Including Pierre Corneille’s play Horace (premiered in 1640) and Antonio Salieri’s opera Les Horaces (premiered in 1786).
 Johnson, Dorothy: Jacques-Louis David: Art in Metamorphosis (Princeton, 1993), 14: “David imposed on French painting a new aesthetic of the body, in which the configuration of the entire human figure radiated meaning and served as the locus of expressivity and communication . . . extraordinary filiations exist between Diderot’s theories of gesture and David’s gestural inventions in The Oath…”
 Wölfflin, Heinrich: “Die Schönheit des Klassischen,” in: Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Dresden, 1983), 352–353
 Ibid., 355
 Bürger, Peter: Zur Kritik der idealistischen Ästhetik (Frankfurt, 1990 ), 31ff.
 Krauss, Rosalind: A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Postmedium Condition (London, 1999), 11
 The exhibition of the same time was curated by Jörg Heiser in 2007 at Kunsthalle Nürnberg and Vienna’s BAWAG Foundation.
 Verwoert, Jan: “Impuls Konzept Konzept Impuls,” in: Romantischer Konzeptualismus (Bielefeld/Leipzig, 2007), 47
 Schlegel, Friedrich; Schlegel, August Wilhelm; Novalis; Schleiermacher, Friedrich: Fragmente, in: Heinrich, Gerda (Hrsg.), Athenäum, Fragmente einer Zeitschrift (Leipzig, 1984), 75–76. The journal Athenäum was published in 1798 and 1799.
 Sol Le Witt mentions this word in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” in Novalis we find the statement: “The true reader has to be an extended author,” quoted in Verwoert, “Impuls Konzept Konzept Impuls,” 50.
 Bürger, Peter: Ursprung des postmodernen Denkens (Weilerswist, 2000), 155