Negotiating Inclusions of Meaning
Doris von Drathen

We are sitting in front of tall stacks of books which all have the same format and bear the same title: “Steidl.” Below this title are the words “Semi-Annual Program,” and alongside is an indication of the respective date. These are his books, I hear the artist say, and I sense how he is delighted by my fathomless confusion.

He picks up one of the books and lets the profusion of pages flip rapidly between his thumb and index finger, so that a superabundance of images dances before my eyes as if in a sped-up film. When he hands me the book for my own inspection and I now discover on page after page an overflowing universe of overpaintings, it suddenly seems to me as if, in this confusion of drawings and paintings, there were one which I had already seen before—a long, right-angled, zigzag line which traverses an entire page diagonally, and upon which a stick figure descends, step after step. If the page corresponded to the space of a building, were the zigzag line in fact a set of stairs, and the figure actually someone, then this someone might possibly be heading all the way down to a subterranean level hidden far beneath the earth’s surface.

But there is no space, no figure. There are only a few strokes of an ink pen upon silvery, overpainted paper. Nor is there anything familiar here. Could it be that, upon his first flipping through the pages, this diagonal zigzag line caught my attention in the fraction of a second? Perhaps because it abruptly reminded me of the long stairway of which Pessoa speaks in his “Book of Disquiet”?[1] The more I mull over this association, the more it seems to me as if it corresponds to the particular state of mind of this artist. Perhaps one could in fact conceive of Steidl’s books as being driven by that disquiet described by Pessoa—namely by the Janus-faced feeling on the one hand of standing at the edge of a long stairway spiralling into the dizzying depths of existence, and of peering downward from this precarious edge; but on the other hand, of allowing oneself to be distracted and of gazing through an attic window out onto the world.

But in fact there are neither books nor a title—at least not in the sense of standard publications of works. There are books in a relation of one-to-one. These were already there. Johannes Steidl infiltrated already existing material, namely the catalogues of a publishing house with which he happens to share the same name, and overpainted their pages with his own world. Thousands of pages. A standardized, chronologically linear, horizontally extended arrangement had to yield to his own order—namely his procedure of examining things with regard to their essential nature, of inquiring as to the truthfulness of their surfaces, of pursuing them back to their origins, as if someone were not to trust the warp and woof of a woolen carpet until having traced it all the way back to the sheepfold.

This oeuvre—which does not desire to be one—is characterized by the spirit of subversion, by the position of making a principle out of non-adherence to a principle, of maintaining the concept of having no concept, of there being no logic immanent to the work because of the necessity of constantly beginning anew, of creating paintings through destruction precisely because of the artist’s respect for painting. Steidl hates smooth floors, decries the polished paving stones in shopping arcades designed to provide urban entertainment, dismisses the institutionalized artistic predilictions of the chic in-crowd. As I listen to him, there come to mind more and more the voices of Karl Kraus and his artistic associates who, in Vienna at the beginning of the last century, denounced “good taste” as the “ape of art” or the “decoration of decline.”[2] In fact their radical denunciations resemble in a surprising manner the passionate vocabulary used a century later by this contemporary opponent of the art world and its system of commercial interests.

In his early years, Johannes Steidl—who was born in the Salzburg of the nineteen-fifties and has a problematic relationship to his “uncanny home country”[3]—exhibited primarily beyond the bounds of culturally sanctioned spaces, for instance in parking decks, stairwells, garages, and also in dark cellars where the eyes of the visitors first had to adjust to the obscurity. When during his New York period he received attention from the galleries, he shied away from exploitative appropriation and regularly interrupted everything which might have tempted him into complacent routine.

Today the material which he prefers for large pictures is no longer canvas but polyethylene, the cardboard coated with aluminum which preserves beverages and other foodstuffs and is used for standardized packaging in the system of container freight and supermarkets. Steidl, however, employs sorted-out industrial material. This context is familiar to him. His Salzburg studio is located in an industrial district. Amid the factory buildings near the airport, it is integrated into the halls for wholesale trade in cut flowers. So the artist is embedded in the everyday context of workers who drop by his studio regularly and whose questions are welcome to him. For that is exactly what he strives after, a hybrid form between the world of labor and the domain of art.

Steidl selects that part of industrial material which is unsuited for standardized use—the beginning and end sections of the large, standardized cardboard rolls which are cut and grooved by automated machines. So the artist is interested in what doesn’t fit, in the remains, the rolls which are sorted out when the material is delivered out of the containers.

As he is relating this to me, I continue at the same time to be involved in leafing through his books. My gaze settles upon a small drawing rapidly executed with an ink pen: Stacked upon a carriage are barrels—or are they rolls? The stick figure of a coachman, one could almost say, has the face of a devil. These sorts of likenesses appear frequently upon the pages of these books. But why does the carriage remind me of the transporting of a corpse? He doesn’t know that either, Steidl says, but the thought has occurred to him as well, and it happens to him again and again that these figurations emerge from his sketching or painting hand and, at a single stroke, come to populate his books.

As I continue to listen to him and to look at his work, it seems to me more and more as if it were this which constitutes the two poles of Steidl’s oeuvre—the beginning and the end of the roll, the irresolvable puzzle of our whence and whither, which are perhaps the only two genuine questions. Painting at the edge of the abyss? No, certainly not—nothing more than material, working conditions.

The most radical of all working conditions. For it is a matter here of entering into oneself, of arriving where there now exists nothing other than subversion. But what this means in radically categorical terms for this artist—for this is how Steidl’s words sound to me—is the very essence of living, namely the savoring of each moment as a new beginning, the fleeing from any situation which threatens to establish a fixed definition, a final state of affairs.

Imagery belongs to those sorts of situations. But how can a painter manage not to create any images? And what is more, how can a painter meet this requirement without falling into the trap of abstraction? All spatial elements must be excluded, for perspective and depth would create a pictorial illusion which fundamentally merits distrust as a bloating of what has been created. Only as much space is allowed as is necessary for something to become visible at all.

The material of the paint-repellent polyethelene is ideal for Steidl, inasmuch as it serves as a veritable protective shield against all imagery. For the Chinese ink which he often uses cannot stick here; it runs, clots, and dries splotchily. It manages to spread out an oscillating play of confusion between upper and lower layers, gives rise to astounding inclusions of forms.

These sorts of inclusions shine in blue through a cloudy layer darkly colored like anthracite. Obscure rays—black as if an explosion of light had projected a bursting, star-shaped shadow— scatter across the entire pictorial surface. They gather into a core which has been radically shifted from the center and thrust against the leftward edge of the painting. A second radiant form scatters in extreme whiteness, in glaring brightness. A few sparse strokes indicate feathering, perhaps the legs of a bird. The truncated canvas disallows any confirmation of this surmise. What we see must suffice.[4] But what do we see? Why does it seem to be agreed upon right from the first that it is a matter here of a drama? Why does it even seem as if we were hearing a shrill cry? Our faculty of perception is set up that way. We complete, draw connecting lines, seek after meaning, draw images further, tell ourselves a story. Is there one here? What actually is present are brushstrokes spreading out vehemently like rays upon a cloudy background. Light falls into darkness—nothing more than this happens here.

Steidl paints with shellac, also known in German as “Plattlack,”[5] because of all paint materials it most completely has the characteristic of not extending into space, of not becoming relief-like. In this detail as well, figuration has been excluded. Even the term “shellac” could be broken down analytically to reveal once again a protective shield, for this material is produced from the resinous layer of a louse, the so-called “shellac louse” (kerria lacca), which in fact carries a shield. The term “shellac,” derived from the Dutch “shel” or English “shell,” contains the image of mussel shells. But these are correlations of which not even Steidl is aware. Even if they only occur to someone who actively seeks them out, they testify nevertheless to the deep intuition of the artist, and to his integrity. His logic is coherent down to the smallest detail—in its own way. For subversion does not seek chaos; its incorruptible order is established in opposition to a reactionary order.[6]

This order of the artist, so it seems to me after a while, could be aptly summarized through the separation between what is there and what is bloated. This may sound banal, but it constitutes the core of every intellectual discipline, whether we examine psychoanalysis and its differentiation between reality and phantasm, the age-old Jewish tradition of a separation between Matza and Chametz (between flat and leavened food),[7] the epoch-connecting and culture-transcending exercise of all forms of abstinence, or the philosophical search for truth.

Precisely because of this permanent distinction between illusion and painting, Johannes Steidl nonetheless creates pictorial situations which possess universal validity as a wholehearted responsiveness to nothing other than reality. Precisely herein lies his power to unsettle the viewer in the depths of his being, and to catapult him into speechlessness. While I am still engaged in contemplation, there come to mind the words which Johannes Steidl uttered with a shrug of the shoulders at the beginning of our encounter, when we stood opposite one another in an initial mutual unfamiliarity: “What else can I do—the only thing I’m able to give is my innermost being.”[8]

There is a companion piece to the bursting, radial brushstrokes. As if the reverse image of the first one were occurring, a large, luminous explosion may be observed, a glaring, white radial shape encountered by a black form. This black form bursts and scatters almost like the white one, even partly obscures the explosion of light with its black rays, but it is explicitly rendered here as a black bird. And yet the image is repudiated. What may be seen is the overwhelming of an airborne figure, a braking counterstroke. As if feathers were being scattered, the light bursts asunder; as if a flash of terror were to blind the flying shape, as if the figure were rushing right into this terror, it seems to hover in mid-air shortly before its fall. One is reminded of Ovid’s Phaëthon who, in his desire for the heavens, sought to drive the chariot of the sun and, woefully blinded, plummeted headfirst into the depths. Ovid summarizes in a sentence not only Phaëthon’s drama, but also the plight of all humanity: “And over his eyes came darkness through excess of light.”[9] To fall in the search for light, for the unattainable, to fail because of one’s own limitations—our very existence may be brought to expression in this brief formula.

Human beings can bear reality.[10] To expose oneself to this terror, not only to look it in the eyes but to plumb its most profound depths—such a venture could well be considered to be the motor of this oeuvre which, with each new work, repeatedly recommences the struggle to respond to this challenge.

In the encounter between these two paintings, the equation between light and darkness becomes conceivable in the entirely pragmatic sense that a shadow occurs when light falls on light. Steidl seems to pursue this phenomenon in a series of works which, ever since 1997, have accompanied his oeuvre regularly, almost daily. Again and again he reexamines this relationship between bright shadow and shadowy brightness when he engages in his most radical exercise, namely the setting of a four-pointed shape onto canvasses which are not entirely squares, but also are not clearly portrait images. The four points seem to have an essential function. They measure out the four edges of the canvas and thereby trace out a pair of intersecting axes upon the pictorial surface. None of these four-pointed forms resembles another. They can be black and appear against colored backgrounds, or be scratched in sharp contours into gray ink spread with the fingers; they can barely emerge into visibility out of light as dark as anthracite, and can have black inner corners such as shadows; their dark inner surface can be so rubbed away that more and more luminosity rises to the surface. What they have in common is the form of a similarly delimited extension on the painting surface. One could almost be reminded of a physical exercise in which someone begins his day by standing with feet together, extending his head upwards, and stretching his arms out horizontally. But nothing can be seen which would give rise to this sort of association. What is to be seen is an occupation of the pictorial surface. A sign. And yet these four-pointed forms, if one observes them as a series, have more in common than simply being a hermetic repudiation of figuration. In comparison with each other, they seem to manifest a state of mind. A silent beingness.

Only one of the stars, all of which are not that and do not wish to be that, breaks ranks—as if it were not possible on that day to proceed further. That was in the year 2007. The canvas has the dimensions of 109 cm by 130 cm. It is one of the smaller paintings from the same year. One would almost be inclined to speak of a black square, but the black surface is set too irregularly upon the white background, giving rise to a quite narrow, fluctuating, white edge. One white form is missing, while three of the otherwise customary four points are present. Two extend sideways, and one points upward. This tip is the only one in the series from that year which is blunted. In a downward direction, however, the form opens into bottomlessness, into the non-painted. Irregular traces of the brush reject the form-constituting contour, cause the white canvas to gape wide open, reveal tool and gesture. If one were to taper the lower point to a conclusion, it would soon become apparent that this four-pointed shape would not have fit into its predetermined field. A failed, a fluid, a fleeting, an arising, a dispersing, a fathomless star? How deceptive words are: As if they were jealous of the palpable quality of objects, they attach themselves to each and every uncertainty and wish to resolve it, to determine it, to arrest its motion. For what would have “failed” here? The four-pointed shape? Who says that it has to fit into the surface just because the others do? But one thing seems to be revealed by this trident which did not achieve a fourth sharp point—the fright in the face of the unpainted, the need for the protective shield of a form. Does it harbor a mental image? Perhaps one which causes a hidden chord to resonate in the speechlessness of the viewer?

Something like an image-creating principle crystallizes more and more distinctly in this diametrically opposed movement between rejecting and allowing pictorial referentiality, between a hermetic barrier to vision and the emergence of a nameable form, between distrust towards the painted and fear of the unpainted. This impression becomes more and more clear, particularly while we view the extensive complex of the paintings which establish life-forms upon the pictorial surface. They seem to emerge out of dark, primordial animal domains. Like an antisymbol to our own era, one of the oldest carapace-carrying animals in zoological history confronts us with the insistence of a leitmotif. If it were to be named explicitly, the mystery of these paintings would already have been violated. Let us keep to the term suggested by Steidl himself—a sort of “turtleness.” We thereby encounter the puzzle of a creature whose being alternates between hazarding to peep out into appearance and retreating back into the safety of its shell. This is an oscillating, mixed form, a disquieting hybridity between armored concealment and momentary manifestation, the deceptive mimesis of an amphibian whose forms are capable of blending in with their environment both under water and on dry land. This creature’s alternation between self-projection and self-protection, however, seems to me to be directly related to the hermetic occupation of the pictorial surface by the four-pointed forms. In endless field research, Steidl savors the inexhaustible formal abundance of this hybrid being oscillating between appearance and non-appearance, between painting and image. After every act of painting, he “grapples with himself,” as he says, “in an attempt to negotiate insertions of meaning.”

Upon a further scrutiny of this series of works, begun sometime around 2004, they seem to reveal more and more, however, that the artist is not concerned with depicting a creature here. I have the impression that what may be observed is instead an examination of his own painting in a one-to-one relationship with this creature. Its outlines become submerged in uncertainty, as if one were to peer through a thick, dark layer of ice and to observe strange and luminous inclusions of air. A distinction emerges between delicate brushstrokes and scratched, fortuitous forms which, seeming to fly, reveal the silvery material of the painting surface. As if a light were lacerating the darkness from within or from behind, these hatchings furrow the surface and alternate with fine blurrings reminiscent of wind-blown dispersals. Floating therein is the vague intimation of a cupola whose surface is marked by irregularly contoured, amoeba-like patches. A closer observation of these surfaces reveals an utterly unique universe, an individual arrangement of mutually delimiting, overlapping, jointly dancing, tumbling drops both large and small, together with their diffusion. Earlier, one would have described them as unformed. Since Mandelbrot,[11] we know that what we have here is a particular geometrical form, namely a family of forms of the irregular, of the almost immeasurable, namely the contours of clouds, ramifications, coastlines, and tree bark. But the longer one gazes into this cupola, the more it dissolves into a flowing structure which at every instant shifts and changes further before the eyes of the viewer—until there is no more creature there, but only an oscillating surface.[12] In other words, the viewer experiences a pictorial event, as if the aforementioned layer of ice enclosing until just now such distinctly outlined forms were suddenly to have melted. And precisely this impression had struck such a chord in me in the case of the star whose fourth point dissolved into an unpainted state—exactly as if it had melted, or inversely, as if it had not yet frozen into a shield.

Precisely this world of forms, this game of puzzlement oscillating between fluidity and rigidity, between a search for form and a simultaneous dissolution of arising form, connects the paintings of “turtleness” with works from the year 2011. The solidifying flow or the melting stiffness, the incipient dynamism of manifestation, contrasts there in utterly free form with a painting surface upon which the deliberate traces of a painterly gesture come to the fore in turn.[13] The life-forms from primordial animal realms have disappeared; the imagination could certainly discover some―just like our creative vision can, as is well known, discover images in clouds and spots on a wall.

What seems interesting to me about these more recent pictures in comparison with the older ones is the fact that here the act of painting has itself taken the place of the previously observed life-forms. The shifting between a form which has arisen out of itself and the traces of a gesturality are sufficient. In the very instant of painting, says Johannes Steidl, “the question comes to a standstill.” This Other which did not grow but instead arose freely, and which is intended nonetheless in its freedom, constitutes the essential nature of this mode of painting, which is neither image, nor illusion, nor abstraction. Herein lies the secret of its encounter with the viewer. Herein lies its unfathomability. There is nothing to understand. It is only to be comprehended that we stand opposite an Otherness,[14] a foreign existence.

What Steidl presents, however, is at the same time something which is entirely ordinary. If for a moment we were to abstain from our significance-endowing, classifying perception and its colonizing references, it could not be excluded that we would be confronted by a similarly fathomless world. But who is actually ready to dare to do so?

As I continue to turn the pages of Steidl’s books, I happen unexpectedly upon a drawing whose rapid brushstrokes evoke a fern or a coral. Suddenly there comes to mind the revolutionary research of a colleague who proved not too long ago that Darwin, in order to provide some drawings of his theory of evolution, did not use a diagram of systematical trees, as had been generally assumed for decades; instead, after detailed studies and close observation through the magnifying glass, the art-historical investigation of his drawings was able to demonstrate that he actually sketched the endless ramifications of coral networks.[15] This insight destroyed a long-maintained world view: Darwin’s nature knows no order; he describes an unpredictable proliferation. He presents a nature without an omnipotent, superordinate creative principle; his cosmos is an anarchy composed of creative and destructive forces.

Coral is an anarchical plexus: This sentence pursues me like a haunting melody as I peruse Steidl’s books further and further, lose myself more and more in this world where there is no Ariadne’s thread. As absurd as it seems to me, nonetheless I ask him about the conjecture. Of course he was not thinking of Darwin’s corals. At the same time, Johannes Steidl confirms emphatically that he would assent unreservedly to the Darwiniancredo of an anarchical cosmos. An observation of the world without a safety net, without the promise of rescue, a view onto the world which, looking out of an attic window, sees the beauty of the whole and perceives simultaneously the precipitous edges of the unanswerable question, that question which ceases to exist in the moment when he begins to paint, when in free fall he encounters the scream of silence.


Translated by George Frederick Takis


[1]         Fernando Pessoa, Livro do desassossego, French translation by Françoise Laye, Le livre de l´intranquillité, (“The Book of Disquiet”), Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1988, p. 237 : “Je suis fait ainsi. Lorsque je veux penser, je vois. Lorsque je veux descendre au fond de mon âme, je m´arrête bientôt, l´esprit ailleurs, au début de la spirale que décrit le profond escalier, et regardant, par la fenêtre ouverte en plein ciel, le soleil dont l´adieu mouille de teinte fauves l´entassement confus des toits (…).”

English version by the present translator: “This is how I am. When I want to think, I see. When I want to descend to the depths of my soul, I soon pause, with wandering mind, at the beginning of the spiral traced out by the deeply winding staircase and, through the window opening in midair, gaze upon the sun whose farewell moistens with tawny hue the confused heap of rooftops (…).”

[2]         Die Fackel, July 13, 1908, p. 28 [Otto Stoessl uses the phrase "ape of art" in his essay on the 1st Internationale Kunstschau in Vienna], quoted by Werner Hofmann in the preface to the catalogue for his exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, April-May 1981, Experiment Weltuntergang, Wien um 1900, catalogue, Prestel Verlag, Munich, 1981, p.6 ff.

[3]         All of the statements by Johannes Steidl quoted here come from an unpublished working dialogue with the authoress in Paris on February 25, 2012.

[4]         Painting reproduced on the cover.

[5]         “Platt” means “flat” in German.

[6]         Cf. Edmond Jabès, Le petit livre de la subversion hors de soupçon (“The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion”), Gallimard, Paris, 1982, p. 12.

[7]         Reference to the ancient custom at Pesach of abstaining from all leavened foodstuffs (wheat, oats, rye, barley, spelt): On an ethical and psychoanalytical level, scholars interpret this custom as a renunciation of all exaggeration, illusion, pride, fantasies of fear and other figments of the imagination—a challenge to limit oneself to bare essentials, to that which is. I was made aware of this interpretation by the biblical scholar Yoav Levy and the psychoanalyst Jean-Gérard Bursztein.

[8]         Cf fn. 3.

[9]         “suntque oculis tenebrae per tantum lumen obortae,” Ovid, Metamorphoses, II, 181, translated by Frank Justus Miller, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1984, p. 73.

[10]       Cf. Ingeborg Bachmann, statement “Human beings can bear reality” in the same-named book- and lecture-title, Die Wahrheit ist dem Menschen zumutbar, Essays, Reden, kleinere Schriften, Piper, Munich, Zürich, p. 75.

[11]       Cf. Benoit B. Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 1977, in particular p. 277 ff.

[12]       The basis for this observation is the picture with the designation Chinatusche auf Polyäthylen, Alu beschichteter Karton, 128x147cm 200 [illustration before the first fish].

[13]       I refer here in particular to the picture Tuschen (China, Marker) auf Polyäthylen / Alu beschichteter Karton, 128 x 94cm, 2011 [lfinal illustration]

[14]       Term from Emmanuel Lévinas, [altérité] used for the first time in Die Zeit und der Andere, Meiner Verlag, Hamburg, 1989, p. 48 [Le Temps et l´Autre, Editions Fata Morgana, Montpellier, 1979].

[15]       Horst Bredekamp, Darwins Korallen, Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin, 2005, p. 43 ff.