The Transylvanian Rising Star

On the work of Adrian Ghenie

ZOO Magazine #45, 2014

Read the PDF

By any standards, the career of Berlin-based Rumanian painter Adrian Ghenie (born 1977) is exceptional. In 2009, merely three years after his first solo show, he was already nicknamed the “Transylvanian rising star.” Last June, The Fake Rothko, a painting from 2010, was auctioned at Sotheby’s London for nearly 1.5 million pounds, along with paintings by Francis Bacon, one of his major influences. Is Ghenie’s success solely due to institutional frenzy, or are there other reasons for this Sputnik-like course?

In its auction catalogue, Sotheby’s describes Ghenie’s primary interest as being “the gap between fact and subjective memory” most dramatically expressed under totalitarian regimes, be it communism or otherwise. The artist, who was originally trained as an academic painter in the Soviet tradition, brings the best of his Eastern European education — the mastery of the conventions of realist painting — in silent dialogue with emblematic modernist painting techniques such as drippings and splatters. The artist uses this idiosyncratic combination of figuration and abstraction to create theatrical scenes with a surrealist-like atmosphere in which areas have been distorted or seemingly left unfinished. His characters are often disfigured, gesturing in quasi pain or humiliation, wandering in derelict settings.

If all this wasn’t enough to trigger the imagination and to reflect upon the clash of civilizations, Ghenie also uses countless motifs and references to art and recent history, with figures such as Van Gogh and Stalin featured in his work. His quotation-saturated works appear as ghostly reminders of past glories and collective traumas still haunting the European imagination. But the ultimate reason for the irresistible appeal of his work is perhaps best illustrated by his choice of studio space, a former gallery situated near the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum.

In the face of the progressive obsolescence of the ideological function of modern art galleries as Cold War ambassadors of anti-communist culture, the takeover of a white cube by a child of communism hints at the most striking aspect of Ghenie’s work: it pinpoints the shared essence of socalled liberal democracy and totalitarianism. By juxtaposing and merging their respective aesthetics, Ghenie reinvigorates contemporary Western art by showing that abstract expressionism might have been an ideological instrument as much as socialist realism had been for state communism. In its turn, the institutional success of this endeavor reveals that self-critique through art has become a cherished emblem of liberal democracy’s triumph.