Artweek, 01. December 2002

GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN AT MODERNISM
Jonathon Keats

This was the moment when I sensed for the first time," Helnwein has since written, "[that] you can change something with aesthetics, you can get things moving in a very subtle way, you can get even the powerful and strong to slide and totter, anything actually if you know the weak points and tap at them ever so gently by aesthetic means." For the following three-and-a-half decades he has relentlessly pursued that goal, masterfully incorporating everything from painting to performance to photography, regularly causing art world outcry and public fury.

Yet as his knockout exhibition at Modernism last October made clear, his art is successful less for its evident tendency to provoke than for its extraordinary ability to perplex.

The first and last enduring lesson Gottfried Helnwein learned in art school came about the day he refused to sketch yet another classic nude, and instead took a razor to his fingers and drew a portrait of Adolph Hitler in his own blood. The year was 1965, the city Vienna, and all Austria seemed tacitly to have agreed that responsibility for Nazi atrocities would be forgiven if only the whole horrid era were forgotten. So, rather than praising Helnwein's exceptional draftsmanship, using so painfully original a technique, his instructor gathered the entire faculty and accused him, in front of the student body, of attempting to ruin the school's reputation.

"This was the moment when I sensed for the first time," Helnwein has since written, "[that] you can change something with aesthetics, you can get things moving in a very subtle way, you can get even the powerful and strong to slide and totter, anything actually if you know the weak points and tap at them ever so gently by aesthetic means." For the following three-and-a-half decades he has relentlessly pursued that goal, masterfully incorporating everything from painting to performance to photography, regularly causing art world outcry and public fury. Yet as his knockout exhibition at Modernism last October made clear, his art is successful less for its evident tendency to provoke than for its extraordinary ability to perplex.

Ambiguity, of course, has always been the essence of art, setting it apart from mere commentary. Many, from Robert Arneson to Barbara Kruger, have ultimately failed for putting their work in the service of polemic. Had Helnwein taken too fervently to the lesson he learned in art school - had he simply chosen to be an effective agitator - he assuredly would have suffered the same fate. In truth, that initial portrait of Hitler, while gutsy, isn't especially deep. It served as a point of departure, but once he was on his way, the Austrian painter, now working in Los Angeles, let his distance from it grow greater by the hour.

 

Visit link for complete article:
http://www.helnwein.com/presse/selected_articles/artikel_890.html