One evening in the mid 1960s, Nam June Paik had dinner at Peter and Krista Brötzmann’s flat on Siegesstraße. Peter had worked with Paik at Galerie Parnasse, also in Wuppertal, where the Korean-born artist mounted his earliest installations. On the apartment walls hung some of Brötzmann’s own work, which at the time featured a repeated rectangular shape – a fly-swatter or maybe, he now remembers, a spatula – and various circular forms, often etched into not-yet-dry paint. Paik was taken with these and apparently informed Brötzmann: “Great! Now you are the one who paints circles.”
If you look closely at Brötzmann’s work after that, you don’t find a preponderance of circles. Indeed, that statement might very well have put an end to the legendary Brötzmann Circle before it could even become a “thing.” That’s not a reflection of Peter’s feelings about Paik; this compliment from a great and renowned figure, to an ambitious artist in his twenties, was a nice shot in the arm. But Peter’s response, which was to turn away from such a potential signature icon, suggests a few significant things about his identity both as an artist and as a person. First of all, he doesn’t like to be told what to do. At all. This fact one can deduce from a few minutes of listening to his music. But he also does not particularly like simple categories; to be pigeonholed is, in Brötzmann’s mind, one of the most suffocating things imaginable. The perpetuation of certain stereotypes about his music rubs him the wrong way, primarily because it shuts down possibilities by being categorical (and also because the stereotypes are usually quite dim-witted). With his art he is very much the same way. Words to the wary: Don’t direct him and don’t define him.
Of course, someone with these character traits would be quite ill-suited to the political realities of the art world. Being defined and, in perhaps a more subtle way, taking direction, are two of the unstated pressures that practicing visual artists must endure. Musicians must grapple with these forces too, but in a way they are buffered from the worst of it in part by operating outside of a rigid production apparatus, with much less money at stake and less of an infrastructure to perpetuate. Compare the economies of improvised music and fine art and you’re talking oranges and apples – golden apples. With that kind of investment at risk, players in the art market generally act in a conservative manner (this in spite of the constant chatter about the “cutting edge”), encouraging artists to stick to tested formulas and to conform to preconceptions about what they do and make. Great artists naturally find ways to tell the system to take a hike. But the whole operation, from the notion of a gallery and its “stable” to the corporate convention atmosphere at art fairs, is geared towards pinning things down rather than opening them up.
Brötzmann recognized this intuitively, and it kept him from joining the art world in a public way. This, for me, is one of the most interesting aspects of his work, because it meant that he didn’t have to participate in any of the games or intrigues. Instead, he just kept making art. And a certain kind of isolation, in his case, has made the work that much more personal and idiosyncratic. If you study the early work, Peter is clearly looking at certain contemporary artists; his paintings, collages and objects in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s fit in with the aesthetics and sensibilities of several movements, including Fluxus and Arte Povera. But Brötzmann never had to conform to an evolving art scene, as he wasn’t really part of it and didn’t have anyone breathing down his neck or expecting him to produce a specific amount or type of work. Rather than continue to make work that struggles to relate to an ongoing, unfolding art lineage, his work grew of its own accord, at its own pace, doubling back and revisiting older ideas, darting into something new and unfamiliar, with Peter literally disassembling and reconstructing extant pieces, and thoroughly discombobulating any sense of linear development.
Look at Brötzmann’s newest watercolors or the sexually bold recent paintings and you will see the distillation of a whole lifetime of cogitation and experience. Go back to the ‘70s assemblages and you see the spark of a creative spirit that doesn’t give two shits about what’s hip or what’s new in anyone else’s terms. Neither is Peter’s work sui generis – he is, after all, a very dedicated viewer and reader and is fascinated by Arthur Dove and Max Beckmann and Joseph Cornell and Dieter Roth – nor is it part of a scene. It is, instead, a direct connection to the person Peter Brötzmann. A deliberative, thoughtful, dark yet sometimes surprisingly lighthearted man who makes note of all the places his work takes him and thinks about what it would mean to depict those locales. Or to revive the bridges, gas tanks, clouds, horizons, erotic adventures and other night scenes from his memory banks. To consider what happens when you put printer’s ink on the silver paper your fish was wrapped in. About what emotion it would evoke to place a feather next to wax or sandpaper or a swatch of blue cloth.
Great, Peter, that you are not the one who paints circles.
Chicago, January 2011
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