Joseph Shaikewitz reviews Meet Albert Mertz at Freddy Gallery
In recent years and perhaps more than ever, the instant appeal of contemporary art—in all of its gritty, daring, and unapologetic grandeur—pulls our collective attention from equally meaningful, albeit earlier moments in the history of art. The display of a specifically ‘modern’ art tends to be relegated to the sidelines, making room for exhibitions that precariously approach a kind of hackneyed repetition and critical dystopia. Where the ‘60s, ‘70s, and our current decade have dominated art historical—and consequently, museological—narratives, others have gone under-noticed in the cycle of American art exhibitions.
A promising number of writers and curators have endeavored to combat this gap in public scholarship, including Helen Molesworth with the exhibition “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” and Nicolas Bourriaud’s examination of relational aesthetics across a premillennial generation, yet the amount of exhibitions that subscribe to the prevailing grand narrative far outnumber those that attempt to shake it at its core and (re)present modernity once more.
Meet Albert Mertz at Freddy Gallery is one such exhibition. At first I was intrigued to discover the premise of the show—the artist’s Baltimore debut and Freddy’s first solo-presentation of an international artist. Mertz was born in 1920 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and exhibited to a chiefly Danish audience over the course of his career. Freddy’s posthumous assemblage centers around work from the final years of the artist’s life; this includes a selection of modest paintings from the year of Mertz’s passage in 1990 that appear just as lucid and ambitious as those from earlier in his lifetime.
In the sheer selection of an artist that represents not only a timespan but a geographic region all too often swept under the rug of our art historical consciousness, the organizers of Meet Albert Mertz begin to uproot the popularized trends that risk to dull the dynamic potential and available scope of art exhibitions. Modernity, the exhibition seems to suggest and above all demonstrates, is teeming with possibilities for new examinations and re-imagined viewpoints. Applied through the lens of Mertz’s compulsive and gripping practice, this exhibition quietly yet smartly exposes the relevance of artistic predecessors at a time when their inherent importance is becoming increasingly overlooked by art institutions and, as a result, their audiences.
The compact quarters of Freddy’s single-room space accommodate Mertz’s small-scale paintings with refined ease. Red and blue paint covers each half of the gallery floor, a curatorial gesture that mimics Mertz’s constrained palette and reinforces his dual-chromatic tendencies. Two series of works on paper line the walls while a projection and accompanying audio recording occupy a makeshift nook toward the rear of the exhibition.
I’m immediately drawn to the effortless nature of Mertz’s style. A trio of untitled sketches at the entrance presupposes the artist’s all-consuming and facile reliance on straight-from-the-tube red and blue pigment. On three sheets of unassuming graph paper, Mertz applies the pattern of a red square adjacent to a blue analog on each half of the surface. The resulting rectangles are numbered one through six and collectively bear a scrawled heading: SPACES CORRESPONDING TO A SQUARE (“MELLEMRUM SVARENDE TIL ET KVADRAT”).
The Minimalist undertones are overt, actively recalling Frank Stella’s declaration that “what you see is what you see,” yet the intimate scale and visible craftsmanship of each piece drives the self-reflexivity of this preceding movement to refreshingly expanded heights. Despite its demonstrated seriality, Mertz’s approach is anything but exact. Squares subtly err beyond their set parameters as if the gridded structure of the surface is a suggestion rather than a requirement. As an alternative to Minimalism’s stringent reinforcement of a near-perfectionist regularity, these works emerge as an art that refuses to take itself too seriously. Mertz humanizes the sterile confines of geometric forms in a move akin to artists such as Agnes Martin and Agnes Denes and, as a result, posits a two-tone vision that is anything but complacent toward dichotomous modes of being and belonging in the world.
A second series by the artist constitutes a vast majority of the exhibition and features twelve blocky, gouache portraits in the ubiquitous red and blue hues. On the left wall, the row of profiles face right in unison and incorporate red faces that float over blue backgrounds; on the opposite wall, the paintings are rendered under converse conditions. The works comprise Mertz’s proposal for the 1991 Bienal de Saõ Paulo where the artist was chosen to represent his home country of Denmark. However, Mertz’s death the year prior to the biennale leaves the series in a peculiar state of un-realization. As such, the works both offer insight into the artist’s preparatory process and testify to the resolute persistence of his steadfast aesthetic position.
The angular shape of each portrait instantly recalls the arbitrary arrangement of tangram puzzles with their sharp diagonals and cubic features. Underneath the thin coats of paint, sketched vertices interact with the whole of each image. These lines extend past the frame of the portraits and tend to establish symmetry or section off a given form. Again, Mertz finds comfort in a system of binaries and the dissolution of their boundaries. His images are consistently predicated on quadrants and modes of conformity, but become distinguishable through adjustments to the coded language that references a face.
Mertz relies on a single eye, a protruding nose, and the suggestion of lips to rudimentarily render the semblance of a human visage. Even so, the vernacular through which this is achieved entrusts geometric ideals and balanced proportions. Mertz continues to imbue what may initially read as structural confines with the possibility for familiarity, intimacy, and humanity. A triangle-nosed, square-eyed figure, for example, seamlessly shuttles between abstract fragments and a personable figment that exists to the viewer alone.
Amid this tension of evading sterile modes of abstraction, Mertz’s relationship with color—or rather, his relationship with two chosen colors in particular—carries an interest in the presumed establishment and eventual deconstruction of symbolic value. Vibeke Peterson, Danish curator of the aforementioned biennale exhibition, writes that “the qualities of art [in Mertz’s work] are emphasized through the simple choice of color, but also complicate the painting, as it does not express anything but only is. The painting becomes object, and the object becomes painting.”
If we follow this line of thought and accept the selection of red and blue as merely arbitrary, then Mertz can again be seen to be testing the limits and inherent absurdities of dichotomous units. Red and blue may share a place in the primary color family, but ultimately lack any inherent aesthetic accord in their simple juxtaposition. The two may want to emblematize a broader notion, but under the artist’s hand are reduced to sheer visual information—existing without necessarily conveying. Mertz’s contemporary, Ellsworth Kelly, emerges as an obvious comparison as the two entertain the complex relationship between abstraction and reality through a resolutely shrunken palette of brightly saturated hues. However, where Kelly does so in a careful play of shadows, depth, and space, Mertz leaves the entirety of his chromatic logic to play out within the enclosure of the picture plane. This ultimately reinforces the notion that color may assume an existence outside of our daily semiotic associations and elevates it to a place of pure, impenetrable being.
The exhibition concludes with a video installation that reinforces the otherworldly tendency of the artist’s visual and conceptual reasoning. A projector in an ad hoc niche of the gallery rests on the floor and produces the static image of a blue letter ‘A’ over a red background that shrinks infinitely into itself. Mertz provides the soundtrack to the work as he repeats the phoneme /a/ in near-even intervals. During his continuous pronunciation of the letter, the artist’s tone goes through an array of variations: articulate, disgruntled, enlivened, enraged. It’s as if the very act of reciting a single letter in forced repetition might dismantle its meaning and decipher its underlying form—if there ever was one to begin with.
I’m reminded of an excerpt from alt-lit author Heiko Julien’s piece There Is No Reason For Tigers To Be Beautiful, They Just Are. He writes: “It is strange to think that your parents are just other people. Becoming aware of this fact feels the way saying a word over and over until you realize it is just noise feels.”
After a brief silence in the audio and the suggestion of an end to this quasi-linguistic experiment, Mertz cries out a final remark: “B!” His proposition that this is not merely a fleeting exercise but a subversive approach begging subsequent applications is encouraging, as if Mertz acknowledges the transience of worldly things yet nevertheless yearns for the enduring presence of ideas. The video becomes a heartbeat, its thud-thud of the letter ‘A’ alive for our consumption and experience years after its realization.
Albert Mertz, in his retrospective presentation, goes beyond the notion that past artistic creation can continue to provide something new and meaningful—he embodies it. His visual speculation into the metaphysical, be it with respect to color or consonance or everyday codes of meaning, reads as determined and unbroken even decades after the material creation of his works. The artist performs persistence through an approach that is at once concerned with and in resolute opposition of this-worldly phenomena. Freddy Gallery stands aside and fully allows Mertz’s unassuming mark to reveal the power of otherness in exposing new modes of perception and awareness—an achievement, I would argue, that speaks to the ever-present urgency of embracing modernity and demanding a more total representation of its innovators.
Meet Albert Mertz was exhibited at Freddy Gallery in Baltimore from July 18 – August 22, 2015.
Author Joseph Shaikewitz is an independent art historian, curator, and recent Johns Hopkins graduate from St. Louis, MO.