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Reading Rämistrasse #112: Mitchell Anderson on Ralph Bürgin at Livie Gallery - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #112: Mitchell Anderson on Ralph Bürgin at Livie Gallery

Each of the ten paintings in Ralph Bürgin’s beguiling exhibition The Great Escape share renderings of a human profile which has been lifted off the shoulders of the central figure in Oskar Schlemmer’s Fünf Figuren im Raum, Römisches (1925). They’re depicted in pairs as fountains or on slinky male nudes recalling the best of Matisse, but the main collective effect derives from close groupings of three or four entering at the edges of a canvas and looking at peopleless scenes. Gazing at empty parks or roads one wonders what this assembled crowd’s purpose is. Can something be threatening with nothing to threaten? While the Schlemmer quotation is direct, these paintings also recall the Baroque Biblical motif of Susanna and the Elders. That story of rape and social humiliation was a favorite of painters and patrons alike for its rationalization, to prude church and government officials four centuries back, of the inclusion of a female nude. In Bürgin’s paintings the groups look at nothing, and the nudes in his exhibition are of men with laughably small heads and equally small dicks. Bürgin is clearly interested in rerouting canonical modernism and the joy in composition, color interaction and paint handling, altering gently from one work to another, powers it all. Chus Martinez’s exhibition text almost entirely challenges, and in some ways justifies, Bürgin’s position as a male painter today. The 1963 film that shares its name with this exhibition is, by the inclusion of Steve McQueen, sexy and cool despite the fact that it ends with a Gestapo mass execution. The Schlemmer painting reanimated here came to the Kunstmuseum Basel, the artist’s hometown, from a Nazi sale of degenerate art. Unfortunately, art and life have always had to deal with morality police. Bürgin’s show is both lovely and knowing.

Ralph Bürgin, The Great Escape, Livie Gallery, 2023

Image: Esther Mathis

Ralph Bürgin, The Great Escape, Livie Gallery, 10 February–24 March 2023

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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