‘Little known on these shores, Franz Gertsch’s paintings are considered landmarks in his native Switzerland’s postwar art scene. The Swiss Institute’s “Polyfocal Allover” centered on a series of acrylic paintings the artist (b. 1930) made in the 1970s that portray countercultural youths who belonged to a commune in Lucerne. Gertsch bases his paintings on photographs he projects onto his canvases. While the examples in this show can be considered forerunners of photorealism, they also resist the strict verisimilitude associated with that tendency, revealing more painterly dimensions. Thus, they might more accurately be called “hyperrealistic.”
‘Artists Luciano Castelli and Urs Lüthi were among the members of the commune, and figure prominently in the series. Portrait of Urs Lüthi (1970)—the earliest painting on view—shows Lüthi up close, wearing sunglasses indoors and looking wholly distracted or disaffected. In this and other images we find the “polyfocal” effect referred to in the exhibition title, for Gertsch retained the different degrees of focus brought by the mechanics of photographic reproduction (which are alluded to by the camera placed on a table behind Lüthi). Certain zones of the paintings crystallize into vivid focus, while others appear somewhat more blurred. At Luciano’s House (1973), a scene showing young women in a cluttered room, the curtain and floorboards are far crisper and clearer than the righthand figure’s fur collar, which slips into an almost painterly flourish toward the bottom. In a similar vein, Luciano I (1976) shows Castelli seated at a table strewn with dirty plates and glasses, all distinctly delineated, while an inexplicable blue splotch on the tablecloth directs attention to the brushstrokes apparent elsewhere.
‘With the sitter’s sidelong glance and a door cracked open at left, Luciano I also hints at some sort of elliptical narrative, undermining the notion of cold, perfunctory documentation and evoking a vaguely anecdotal air. What, to take another instance, should we make of the butterfly that appears in At Luciano’s House? Is it perched on the room’s wall, or is it instead a fanciful element thrust into this otherwise ordinary scene? Perhaps more striking than the painting’s realism is the extent to which it—like Portrait of Urs Lüthi and Luciano I—anticipates the kind of imagery Nan Goldin would capture in the 1980s. Given Swiss bourgeois propriety, these individuals’ embrace of rock and roll, American-style dress, and play with gender roles was all the more transgressive. Indeed, Castelli, Lüthi, and their crew featured prominently in “Transformer: Aspects of Travesty,” a groundbreaking 1974 exhibition in Lucerne, curated by art historian Jean-Christophe Ammann, that explored the connections between cross-dressing in rock music and tendencies in contemporary art.
‘Before taking up painting, Gertsch had created a number of children’s books. He conceived the stories—fairy tales featuring subjects ranging from a bear who wants to be a boy to a large walking teapot—himself, and produced spare woodcut prints to illustrate them, a few of which were on display here. Since then, Gertsch has made woodcuts employing his characteristically hefty scale. The exhibition included not only a handful of woodcut portraits of a woman named Natascha, but the massive plates involved in their making. Gertsch dyed one of the plates a silvery teal, so as to better conceive of how the excisions from the wood would translate into representations of light and shading. Another print, a 1991 example from a series called “Schwarzwasser” (Black Water), focuses on the whorls and ripples of a body of water. Given the image’s large scale and tight framing, the viewer is placed directly over the shimmering surface, which, displaying the same sort of dynamic seen in the paintings, flickers between realistic liquescent eddies and flecks of pure form.’ — Ara H. Merjian
Museum Franz Gertsch
museumfranzgertsch @ instagram
Franz Gertsch @ Gagosian
Franz Gertsch Retrospective
Franz Gertsch @ Arthur
Book: ‘Franz Gertsch: Looking Back’
Frances Richard on Franz Gertsch
Franz Gertsch @ Louis K. Meisel Gallery
Book: ‘Franz Gertsch: Polyfocal Allover’
Book: ‘Franz Gertsch: The Seventies’
Franz Gertsch in den Siebzigern
Interview mit Franz Gertsch
The Hyperrealistic Works of Franz Gertsch
Hochgeladen am 24.05.2011 Franz Gertsch arbeitet in seinem Atelier an «Winter»
#SpotlightOn: Franz Gertsch, Medici, 1971/72
Aufbau der Ausstellung Franz Gertsch die Schenkung
Franz Gertsch au Kunsthaus de Zurich
Frances Richard on Franz Gertsch’s Patti Smith Paintngs
In 1977, after the albums Horses and Radio Ethiopia but before Easter and Wave, Patti Smith came to Cologne to perform at the adventurous Galerie Veith Turske. Franz Gertsch was a forty-seven-year-old Photorealist painter then. Like many fans before and since, from avant-gardists to punk-rock teenagers, he had fallen in love with the magnetic butch-sylph portrait of Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe on the cover of Horses, and he came to the show to shoot his own pictures. He used a flash that annoyed the diva, and she crumpled a piece of paper and threw it at him—a storied moment captured in the painting Patti Smith II, 1978, one of a series of five large canvases made between 1978 and 1979. Skinny, equine, lank-haired, lithe, Gertsch’s Smith squats to fiddle with her amp; leans forward into a tangle of microphones; grimaces gorgeously at the implied camera. She wears an oversize white T-shirt, a checked black vest, black boots, and sparkly red leggings. She looks like a hardcore Magdalene, a slumming empress; she out-Jaggers Jagger. No one who has ever sung along to “Pissing in a River” could help exulting in such images.
But how do the paintings resonate now, some twenty-five years later? The Smith cycle was accompanied by the comparably sized Selbstbildnis (Self-Portrait), 1980, which positioned Gertsch, in button-down shirt and sport coat, as an onlooker—impresario, voyeur—vis-à-vis his own rendering of her performance, thus completing a composite “situation portrait” of European art-world hipness at the end of the ’70s. In an adjoining gallery, meanwhile, hung three preternaturally detailed large-scale woodcuts of landscapes from the late ’80s and early ’90s. Together, the two groups of works established a pair of axes along which to graph Gertsch’s consistent interests over the course of the last quarter century. Moving between painting and printmaking (axis 1) and portraiture and landscape (axis 2), he has maintained an investment in the Photorealist image and its simultaneous citation and monumentalization of the photographic instant. At the same time, he has preserved a fascination with likenesses of particular people and specific locales that paradoxically serve to empty out or seal off such particularity in favor of shimmering and impeccable art surfaces, testaments to the power of the master’s eye and hand.
Such strategic emptying is, of course, the stock-in-trade of Photorealist painting, and such artist-model/subject-object relations are among the core preoccupations of painting in general. Thus the Smith scenes—which celebrate not only a named person and place, a moment in the past explicitly predicated on Smith’s fame and consequent desirability, but also Gertsch’s interaction with that fame, his implicit realization of that desire—were presented here as glam history painting, updates in the art-historical tradition of the “painting of modern life.” Smith was Gertsch’s Olympia, sneering at him but performing for him, presenting for the eager (but never satisfied) viewer a larger-than-life scene of sexy power and creative dynamism. The paired portraits of the singer’s and the artist’s younger selves became a cultural landscape, and this effect was underlined by their juxtaposition with the dappled forests and rippling waters of the woodcut pastorals Rüschegg, 1988–89, Schwarzwasser I, 1990–91, and Pestwurz, 1993. Abstracted, embellished, pure, the green-shaded woodland, blue-toned pool, and ocher-tinted leaves offered viewers a different kind of fairyland—not the irrecoverable chic of art-rock performance in 1977, but a timeless vision of hushed and perfect nature.
It’s in these juxtapositions that the awkwardness of looking at the “Patti Smith” series in 2004 arises. Gertsch could not have known, in 1979, that Smith would take a ten-year break from recording to raise her children with Fred “Sonic” Smith or that Gone Again (1996) would reestablish her niche stardom. He could not have promised that Photorealism would remain a compelling pursuit for him or anyone else. This work, in other words, was not made to look like a scrapbook proving Gertsch’s back-in-the-day participation in Smith’s enduring avant street-cred or contextualizing his own evolution into a blue-chip artist who makes flawlessly beautiful, delightfully theorized, and formally consistent collectibles. Nevertheless, the combination of such factors meant that this show, with its retrospective bent, read rather like Gertsch’s self-presentation as a male artist in the grand style—spinning a variation on the old nature/culture dyad, watching appraisingly from the corner as the muse exercises herself, fixing her temporal beauty in the amber of his authorship. The paintings Patti Smith I through V present a charismatic persona but add little to our understanding of that charisma—such “neutral” or quasi-photographic reportage is, of course, largely their point. But the pressure of time elapsed since the pictures’ moment of origin, the parting of ways in the careers of the two artists, and—most important—the grandiloquence of Gertsch’s painterliness itself combine to make his use of Smith’s image feel subtly opportunistic after the fact. The famous Horses portrait helped to create Patti Smith’s mystique; the Gertsch portraits serve to historicize it. Perhaps the paintings’ true but obscured subject is the persuasive, persistent zeitgeist-conscious aestheticism instituted by Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic photograph.
Miriam Sturzenegger: I have dated the beginning of your official work at 1969. Can you explain why then was the time for you to make a change in your work, to embark on a new path? There were also other people who made a strong impression during this period.
Franz Gertsch: The famous “Attitude” exhibition by Harald Szeemann in the Kunsthalle set something in motion. For example, I was more motivated than disappointed. Harry Szeemann was surrounded by a group of Bernese artists, a kind of avant-garde at the time, who were always oriented towards the latest trends that Harry Szeemann exhibited in the Kunsthalle. And everyone had their style or their material and they stopped on this material and the “Attitude” exhibition was a shock for them. I think you can say that Markus Raetz, Jean-Frédéric Schnyder and I survived it well – were even inspired by it.
MS: Did the emergence of conceptual art at the time also make it possible to take very different, individual positions? You did something completely different than some of your artist friends.
FG: Yes, but you have to understand that in my case, in terms of conceptual art, the concept was simply to capture reality photographically and then make the selection and ultimately the execution, the interpretation – such a three-part process.
MS: In principle, the dominance of one style broke out at the end of the 1960s that no longer existed.
FG: Right. And then in 1965 or 1966 Jean-Christophe Ammann showed up with us. At that time we lived in Bern on Helvetiastrasse, across from the grammar school and one day he showed up. At that time I was doing this collage work and we had a very intensive discussion — I learned a lot there, I have to say. It was then that the forms that I had already taken from photo templates became more and more abstract and simplified.
MS: The pop influence is a bit in there.
FG: Exactly. And then I just felt that it couldn’t go any further and I couldn’t really live out my talent as a painter. I think this last work was done in the spring of 1969 and then I stopped working for six months and thought like this: “How should this go on?” And then I had a vision of how things should go on, that I now should use the camera. And at the beginning, even up until the Documenta, people thought I was doing this because that happened in America with photorealism. But that was not the case, I didn’t know anything about photorealism at the time, it was simply a development in my work.
MS: You were rather alone in your environment with what you did?
FG: Yeah. And then it just started with the one picture, the “Huaaa …!” picture. Jean-Christophe Ammann was then already in Lucerne and we hardly had any contact, but once he visited me in the studio on Junkerngasse and then he saw the “Huaaa …!” picture. And then he said: “That died,” and that encouraged me to keep going. Then these family pictures were made and then the artist-friends-portraits and one day he came and said he would like to do a big exhibition the reopening of the museum in Lucerne. And then I had a little over a year [laughs]. And I still remember, he said: “It must be a delirium.”
MS: Do you always have a camera with you to capture possible motifs or was it more of a coincidence? If we maybe look back a little longer: The first of your photo-realistic paintings were first created on the basis of existing templates, from pictures from newspapers or magazines … there is this “Huaaa …!” and then the Vietnam picture.
FG: Even before that, I was always looking for newspaper clippings, even when I was making these collage pictures. And when I started with this realistic work, there were already some motifs and that was the beginning. I know, for example, one was a tulip field in Holland, the other a group of horses on the Franches-Montagnes, horses on pastures in the Jura. That was basically the first picture, but I didn’t succeed. Back then I noticed how difficult it is to have a projection as a template and then paint on it. It’s not that easy at all. At the first exhibition with “Huaaa … !”, people were shocked. It’s hard to understand it now, but it just happened that way.
MS: What shocked people?
FG: They said: “What is this now? It’s easy, just follow a slide projection! And so on … “So what?!”
MG: Then the question was about the photographs and what role the motifs played?
FG: Exactly. And then I realized that I wanted to contribute a little more from myself and then I started taking photos myself. Quite wild at the beginning. I always had the Nikon with me and took a lot of pictures. There are really nice pictures – I could have made more pictures of them – of the family, the children and Hannelore as a naked girl and so on. But I was looking for new motifs and then came my artist friends, Markus Raetz and Jean-Frédéric Schnyder and Urs Lüthi.
MS: What was it that interested you in painting your artist friends? Was it more the interest in the motif for the painting or was it more the artistic environment that you knew, also from within?
FG: I think it was both. Obviously, I always did something that was obvious [laughs]. I think I wanted to represent life, freedom, sensuality and that was not possible by painting a bank employee. My artist friends were just suitable victims, yes.
Franz und Luciano, 1973
Christina I, 1983
Barbara und Gaby, 1974
Maria mit Kindern, 1971
Patti Smith I, 1978
Patti Smith III, 1978
Patti Smith IV, 1978
Patti Smith II, 1978
Patti Smith V, 1979
Grosse Pestwurz, 2018
Irène VII, 1981
Jean Frederick Schnyder, 1972
Markus Raetz, 1970
Marina schminkt Luciano, 1975
Gräser I, 1996
Brecht, Hanne-Lore, Silvia, 1970
Johanna II, 1985
Maria (Guadeloupe), 2012
Medici II, 1972
At Luciano’s House, 1973
Saintes Maries de la Mer III, 1972
Saintes Maries de la Mer II, 1971
Maria und Benz, 1970
At Luciano’s House II, 1973
Silvia I, 1998
Dr. Harald Szeemann, 1970
Urs Lüthi, 1970
Luciano I, 1976
Aelggi Alp, 1971
Soufrière (Guadeloupe), 2013
Gaby und Luciano, 1973
Sommer I, 2017
Luciano II, 1976
p.s. Hey. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. That would be ironic. I should at least watch the finals. People I know who are following the Euros closely seem to think Ukraine is going take the sucker home? ** tomk, Hi, Tom! Me either re: Sparklehorse. One of the reasons I re-upped it. I think the blog vacation will be for about three weeks. Awesome about the cover! So exciting! So excited! ** Jamie, Hi, Jamie. No, the mouth pain thing is lingering. It had just better peter out before my flight. We’ll see. Beatific … kind of. Met up with Zac and our friends Lucy and Chris. They’re both wonderful writers, and Lucy (K. Shaw) also edits the great projects/ online magazines ‘Profound Experience’ and, before it, ‘Shabby Doll House’. I haven’t seen them since the Covid descent, and we had Mexican food, lots of talk and ‘drinks’ at a cafe (L’Atmosphere) along the canal. Pretty nice. Otherwise just some work and emails and so on. Thank you, thank you for the ‘Pepsi’ links! I’ll get those materialised in a sec. Kind of you, man. Yeah, increasingly excited about the trip. I can’t believe I’m going to actually be out of France again, it’s been so incredibly long. Scotland sounds like a very nice destination, even if you know it so well. Thank you, a cloud interior-like day sounds primo, well, as long as it’s not a cloud hovering above the Bermuda Triangle. I hope everywhere you turn today, there’s a puffing fog machine (not the chemical fog kind). Love, me. ** Misanthrope, Over here, it seems/feels like the French are just sliding back into normally like the veritable ducks to water. A lot of bliss in the air. If someone other than you told me that story about a farting umpire, I’d believe it. ** Ian, Hi, Ian. All thanks to rewritedept wherever he is. That sounds like a pretty nice vacation right there. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Nova Scotia, but those words are equivalent to beauty in my head. Awesome if you can get some revising in, of course. Sounds really good. Do all three of those work possibilities sound equally good? Heavy variety there. Enjoy every millisecond of today. ** David Ehrenstein, Pearl Bailey! I haven’t heard her name in decades. ** Ferdinand, Hm, I would think they’d cut you some slack in the visa arena, the world being the topsy turvy turf it currently is. Hope so. Thanks a lot for the link. I’ll luxuriate there as soon as I dot the final ‘i’ here. ** Jeff J, Hi, J. Thanks. And, yeah, talk to you ever so soon! ** Dalton, Hi, Dalton. Too many dead among the best authors. I’m still sad about DWF. I knew him, and he was a really nice, great guy on top of everything else. That would be a magical time. Magically impossible, I guess. Cheers to you! How’s your weekend revving up? ** Right. Today I open my little galerie for a show of the Swiss super-realist painter Franz Gertsch. See what if anything it does for you, thanks. And see you, naturally, tomorrow.