Revolutionary, Classical, Rational, Superior, Aristocratic, Reactionary. Those adjectives, written in German with Bauhaus typography on a crimson background, all framed in black, make up this piece by Gerhard Merz from 1988. In it the artist confronts the spectator with terms encoded within historical discourse and proposes a game of crossed interpretations. At the ends, the adjectives Revolutionary and Reactionary immediately seem to offer an antithetical interpretation. However, the terms in the middle open the way to a paradox, since they are, in part, words that both Revolution and Reaction have used for their own ends. Merz places the observer in the framework of the history of art itself—with its constant contradiction between modern and classical—but also in the terrain of the relations between history and the concepts that identify it in time, always with the intention of opening a dialogue ("The receiver must know as much as the author for the conversation to be between equals."). Merz starts from certain modern-formalist premises, such as those of individuality in the act of doing and seeing ("We do not live in a universal society in which art has to perform the task of making the will of the community visible. Art is by individuals for individuals."); the need for art to be self-referential, as a model for a criticism distanced from reality ("Art and life are radically separated. As an artist I do not hope to improve relations between people."); and an economy of resources that may be able to express form with a minimum of fuss. In that sense, Merz seems to dissociate himself from certain postmodern discourses which advocate going beyond the criteria of modernity, both the immediately preceding one and the one that followed the Second World War. In this work, as in others, however, there also seems to be a critical reflection on the formalist character of that modernity itself, raising the question of the role of the spectator as the engine of an open dynamic of meanings. That reflection may also be found in some European artists, such as Leonel Moura, and in the United States, such as the generation of Peter Halley, who tried to free the formalist painting of the fifties from the corset of critic Clement Greenberg, the driving force behind American formalist theory. Greenberg fought tooth and nail for the idea that art should have no references other than itself. Merz shows a great interest in managing to "objectify" the meaning of signs itself—in the case of this work, the meaning of the historical adjectives—but according to the present moment, which in most of his work means introducing irony. About his aesthetic, considered "cold" and conceptually highly condensed, Merz remarks on his lack of interest in spectacular art and adds: "Art is constructing with a cool head."
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