Untitled is a three-part painted work featuring as its centre panel a reproduction of Study for Self-Portrait 1985 (private collection), a well-known painting by the British artist Francis Bacon (1909–92). While Bacon’s self-portrait is a triptych of three similar but slightly varied figural canvases, Rudolf Stingel has eliminated the figures from the peripheral panels, leaving only simplified, curvilinear forms to ignite questions of authorship and authenticity in the viewer. Through the absence of these side figures, the artist focuses the viewer’s attention on the central panel. Unlike Bacon, who favoured heavy gold frames for his paintings, Stingel has left Untitled unframed, exposing the unevenly spaced wire staples used to attach each canvas to its stretcher. The scale of the original painting has been doubled, immersing spectators in a fashion similar to that used in his monumental orange carpet installation, Untitled 1993 (L02948). Stingel employed a muted grey-scale palette to give Untitled the appearance of an image reproduced in a library book (‘Rudolf Stingel’, exhibition summary, http://www.sadiecoles.com/rudolf_stingel/exhib2.html, accessed 2 July 2010). He has commented that, prior to the last decade, Bacon was not an artist with whom he was familiar. It was only once Stingel began to make his own self-portraits, that Bacon’s oeuvre began to seem so relevant. Of his discovery, Stingel has said:
It was as if I had found myself in a place similar to where [Bacon] was. His work became something that I had to deal with somehow; to navigate around or take on. So I decided to take him head-on; to do Bacon as I would do Bacon, to remake him as I would make him, only to amplify and isolate further the same thing in my own language.
With Untitled, Stingel moves away from questioning the constitution of a painting – a topic he grappled with throughout the 1990s with Styrofoam and carpet installations – and shifts his emphasis towards what the writer Sara Harrison has called ‘a more personal inquest into the role of the painter’ (Harrison, [p.2]). This transition began a year earlier with the execution of Louvre (After Sam) (Sadies Coles HQ), five paintings based on a single photograph taken of the artist by his friend, the photographer Sam Samore, and executed in a similarly restricted palette. The series represents a case study for the artist in which he uses repetition as a method to dissolve the self, effecting a division between the self as subject and the self as object. Offering an explanation for his interest in the self-portrait, Stingel has said that, ‘after spending half [his] life as an artist doing research and trying to throw answers into the global questioning of art, or at least trying to participate in this discussion, [he] wanted to do something ... more psychological ... The only activity in these paintings is self-doubt.’ (Quoted in Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Self Portrait’, Parkett, issue 77, 2006, p.107.) In Untitled, we see an analogous process occur except that, instead of a photograph of himself, Stingel has used a painted self-portrait by someone else as his source. By copying Bacon’s self-portrait, Stingel draws attention to the genre’s rhetoric and suggests its less obvious psychological content: the potential for self-doubt in any artist’s self-portrait.
Stingel first garnered attention in the 1980s for his monochromatic paintings, some of which bear superficial resemblance to the well-known squeegeed abstractions of Gerhard Richter (born 1932). His art at the time was predicated on the understanding of painting as not the possibility of creating a ‘painting’, but of creating endless possibilities of paintings (Bonami, p.17). This spurred the artist to develop an ironic approach to painting as laid out in his Instructions 1989 (Saatchi Gallery), a silkscreen print detailing the steps towards creating an abstract painting by Rudolf Stingel. This didactic work, parodying the spirit of Albrecht Dürer’s famous Painter’s Manual 1525 (Nuremberg), was a reaction to the intermediate position painting had come to occupy between 1960s’ and 1970s’ conceptual art and minimalism, and a reaction against those movements in the 1980s. Furthermore, Instructions satirised the do-it-yourself mentality popular at the time at the same time as disputing the authorship of a painted work that has been made by someone other than the artist. As a variation upon this theme, Stingel presents large untitled aluminium panels that are commercially produced and remain pristine until gallery goers scribble over their surfaces. Though untouched by the hand of the artist, the aluminum works bear the authorship of Rudolf Stingel and are added to the roster of his works exhibited in future shows as they are. Untitled frames the question of artistic authorship in another way, posing the question: can the author of a ‘self-’portrait be someone other than the person portrayed?
Sara Harrison (ed.), Rudolf Stingel: Louvre (After Sam), exhibition catalogue, Sadie Coles HQ, London 2006.
Franceso Bonami (ed.), Rudolf Stingel: Paintings 1987–2007, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 2007, reproduced pp.86–7.
Linda Nochlin, Rudolf Stingel and others, ‘Francis Bacon (1909–1992)’, TATE ETC., issue 14, Autumn 2008, pp.60–73, reproduced p.71.
Rachel Anne Farquharson