Susanne Titz -
The End of the 20 th Century

Reflections on the painting of Anne Berning

The works of Anne Berning are to do with looking at perspective from the observer´s point of view. The viewer sees paintings positioned individually in a room: some works are propped against a wall, others lie on a table. The works are not hung in the normal fashion and the viewer starts searching for explanations. The perspective of a new century is required, since it appears that this standpoint offers a means of approaching Anne Berning´s form of painting, even in retrospect. It is difficult to say goodbye to 20th century - have we really left it behind? Is another style now valid? Do other concepts and other rules apply?


Berning´s works deal with the history of painting and its position is one of detachment - a consciously perceived change in artistic activity that has developed into an artistic imperative and acts on the process of observation. The history of this process of detachment started in the 1980s and is present in both Berning´s work and in that of many of her contemporaries: since then, the function of the visual quotation and the original picture cited is in the foreground, motifs and gestures are used, whose recent existence has opened up a fresh form of iconography. ´The work of art in the age of technical reproducibility´ is apparent in this iconography; Walter Benjamin´s book of the same name has evolved into a free artistic discourse. The act of contemplation now revolves around the process(es) of intention, action and reception, around phenomena of artistic self-positioning and their public perception, around their resonance and propagation in the media. It is an analytical discourse that reflects the current status of art, and that has been conducted by artists for some time. In Anne Berning´s work this discourse has been brought to a specific perspective: the artistís works always deal with the entire historical spectrum of art, and within this spectrum always with the presence of paintings.


In Berning´s latest exhibitions, various work complexes from the past decade appear alongside medializations of the masterpiece - in catalogs, in libraries, on postcards of artworks, in each case alienated by means of a magnification of the original work or a return to the creative moment of the painting. Visual and textual quotations, title and signature appear next to one another as individually functioning co-ordinates. The spatial constellation again makes clear what was important in all phases of the work: Anne Berning´s painting is not mimicry and does not set out to achieve illusion or appropriation. Instead it adheres to a thoroughly objective and documentary representation of the chosen subjects (although the motifs are often fictitious). In contrast to Elaine Sturtevant, for example, whose contradictory perspectives have already been frequently quoted, Anne Berning thus does not work to achieve a perfect representation, but pursues a strategy of detachment that acts as a filter and unifies all motifs in a common mediality. This style of painting can be compared with a structuralist process. It carries its text with it, like a photograph with a caption, which, as Roland Barthes noted, always requires this as an accompanying indication of its importance.


The most striking aspect is the aura of the painterly. The phenomenon is marked by an enlargement the motif, the name or the topic, and each painting becomes a model of this power. It is not simply a case of size, but of an eye-catchingly managed example of the sublime, which opens up the discourse. The works and handwriting quoted are from all eras of art history and the environment that Berning has created establishes relationships that are at odds with artistic categories and chronology. Another aspect is therefore that of order: a canon of art history that is subverted by Berning´s selection and that gains an artistic countermanifestation, for example in the alphabetic sequence of book spines - a formalization that symbolizes the external act of organization.


Anne Berning´s painting creates a spatiality of art history. The motifs, the brushwork, the formats and the positioning of her paintings all act together. In contrast to the large-format art books and postcards against the wall, Berningís tables appear at the level of the artistís studio as allegories of artistic production. Berning tried out such positioning of her paintings in her work 'Guston' from 1993/94: a series of art books and catalogs are arranged around Philip Guston´s painting ´The Painter´s Table´ a still life of artistic sketches which in turn are also of still lives. In her latest work complex, ´FIRST CHAPTER, LAST PAGE´ (1999/2000), Berning again deals with the table as a framing device. The works on this table, an apparently random series of completely different formats and motifs, suggests that Berning is starting to tell the story of an artist. ´FIRST CHAPTER, LAST PAGE´ is an archive of visual material filled with reproductions of forms and subjects from the history of painting and with painted textual quotations, remarks about changes and failure: History; The Puddle; Color A over Color B; It´s All Been Done Before; Nothing New; I'm Completely Exhausted; Dying is Easy; and a long text about the drama of continuing to paint written from the perspective of the author Gertrude Stein that is simultaneously both sympathetic and sarcastic: "I often feel sorry for them (i.e. the artists)".


Here, Berning´s motifs are much more diverse than in previous works: they extend the subject, are taken from paintings and drawings, written texts and from photographs, and appear as fragments, details and notes. The human body, the portrait, the still life, the interior, the horizon, the color, the composition are present; the phenomenon of the real - the trace, the index - and also the phenomenon of interpretation - Leonardoís first drawing of an anamorphosis, colors on the palette.


Anne Berning´s painting activates archives and the viewer´s perspectives of perception. It generates self-reflection on the part of the observer that meets with a past self-reflection on the part of the artist. Leonardo´s anamorphosis, a historical document of this process of activation, which for the first time required an oblique viewpoint, is found again in Bruce Nauman´s moments of movement from video images. The historic frame of reference of our perception is visibly extended, the sources of visual dialogs lie in past ages, but their continuity is now apparent. The state of the present hangs in the balance, and is only alluded to by the phenomenon of this reflection: ´The End of the 20th Century´ once an expansive gesture by Joseph Beuys, has become a documented observation.