More than six feet high, Adrian Ghenie’s Burning Books is a blistering inferno of paint. Ghenie depicts a group of people—including a man with a smeared grimace worthy of Francis Bacon, and a faceless woman sporting distinctly mid-century blond curls—throwing books onto a bonfire in the foreground. Every inch of the painting crackles with heat. The flames erupt in incandescent orange, melting upward into a rippling haze of ochre, violet, pink and inky blue. Thick pigment buckles and blurs as if physically singed. In some areas, Ghenie has created vaporous, smoky blooms of color by pressing flat the still-wet surface. Elsewhere, bright licks of impasto build the blaze into near-sculptural presence. Masked-off flashes of marbled paint—evoking ashen pages and tongues of flame alike—hover like collage, sitting proud of the canvas in crisp, three-dimensional focus. Flickering between abstraction and figuration, Burning Books conjures a hauntingly beautiful vision of a moment of historical darkness. At a time when issues of censorship, fake news and cultural vandalism dominate the headlines, its scorching intensity feels vividly urgent.
What interests me is the texture of history.”
Born in Romania under the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu and currently based in Berlin, Ghenie has long been fascinated by the darker forces that shaped the twentieth century, and which continue to impact our present. He often works from black-and-white photographs he finds online, centering on powerful figures and pivotal moments that have left indelible marks on history. His subjects have included scientists, artists and dictators, with a particular emphasis on the legacy of the Second World War, and on the looming specter of fascism in all its forms. Burning Books is derived from a photo documenting the burning of “trash literature” at an East Berlin elementary school in 1955. In his painting, Ghenie enacts the depicted destruction on the picture itself, searing it with fissures, erasures and molten daubs that distort and obscure its clarity. At the same time, his textural, Technicolor reimagining gives the monochrome source-image an engaging new life. Ghenie’s rich surface asserts history as layered, mutable, ambiguous and complex: no single viewpoint or narrative, he implies, should be taken at face value.
For me, chronology doesn’t exist in art. Caravaggio and de Kooning were trying to solve the same problem. Deep inside every painting exists a deep abstract challenge”
In tandem with his dialogue with historical events, Ghenie’s work is animated by a deep love for the history of art. As a young painter, he sought to emulate artists like Rembrandt, to whom he had been drawn since he was a child; he hid this interest from his teachers at the art academy in Cluj, who advocated an Abstract Expressionist style of painting. As his practice deepened, he began to enfold a kaleidoscopic array of allusion into his works, drawing on centuries of painterly achievement. In Burning Books, an Old Masterly chiaroscuro defines the shadows; the male visage echoes Francis Bacon’s tortured subjects; abstract passages invoke the scraped technique of Gerhard Richter and the swirling, electric brushwork of van Gogh, who is a totemic figure for Ghenie. “You can’t invent a painting from scratch; you are working with an entire tradition,” he explains. “The pictorial language of the twentieth century, from Kurt Schwitters’s collages to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, makes up a range of possibilities that I utilize in order to create a transhistorical figurative painting—a painting of the image as such, of representation” (A. Ghenie in conversation with M. Radu, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat. Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 31).
Ghenie understands painting as a space of illusion. Like a cinema screen, the canvas is a surface for projecting stories through color and form. “I’m jealous of the specific power of cinema to build a virtual state,” he has said, “and of its capacity to break with reality. For two hours you’re completely under its spell! … I’d like to bring something of this magic, of this entire force, into painting” (A. Ghenie in conversation with M. Pop, in ibid., p. 83). He especially admires the work of David Lynch, whose disquieting, dreamlike movies are laden with the sense that dark and mysterious currents are at work behind the scenes. It is no accident that Ghenie’s paintings are composed with a virtuoso sense of light, staging and suspense. Burning Books crops close to the action from the much wider source photograph, dramatically framing the fire so that it engulfs almost half of the painting. The woman’s pleated skirt hangs like a heavy red curtain, recalling a motif beloved of Lynch and Bacon alike. To the right, a ghostly, outstretched hand is spotlit into frightening focus.
While he revels in painting’s theatricality, Ghenie—who typically first views his source images on a laptop—also sees the medium as a way of restoring material reality to the contemporary gaze. He speaks of remembering his own favorite paintings by their “temperature”: of experiencing them somatically, sensually, in a way that cannot be replicated through a flat digital display. “My generation knows what life was like before the Internet”, he says. “And so you still happen to hear echoes of the old world when you wake up in the morning … you realize that the world is changing its texture, is changing its skin. I am very sensitive to this aspect” (A. Ghenie in conversation with M. Radu, ibid., p. 32). By splicing, remixing and deconstructing different modes of representation, Ghenie’s paintings examine the various artificial lenses through which we see our present, as well as those which overlay our past. Burning Books shimmers like a mirage, menaced by combustion. Yet to encounter it is also to feel the fierce heat—the visceral, physical presence—of painting itself. It is an incendiary object. Ghenie offers both a dire warning about where a blinkered, myopic outlook can lead, and a vital celebration of paint’s power to help us see the world more clearly.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).