‘Stingel’s work demonstrates an acute awareness of the aspirations, failures and challenges to Modernist painting, while at the same time expressing a sincere belief in painting itself, focusing on formal characteristics including colour, gesture, composition, and, most importantly, surface’ (G. Carrion Murayari, ‘Untitled’, in Rudolf Stingel, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2007, p. 111).
Painted in 1986, Untitled is a captivating example of Rudolf Stingel’s early work, demonstrating his initial engagement with the abstract vernacular of the 1980s. With sublime overtones of colour field painting, as well as the sumptuously layered chromatic surfaces of Gerhard Richter, it represents an insight into the artist’s earliest engagement with painting in a world that had declared it dead. The following year, Stingel would move to New York where, amidst the rise of post-modernism and appropriation art, he began to seek radical new directions for the time-honoured medium, authoring his own detailed painting manual in 1989. Looking back to the ornamental language of the Baroque, Stingel began to use gauze as a way of impacting the distribution of paint, creating unpredictable all-over surface patterns that transformed the canvas into a kind of opulent wallpaper. In a further series of paintings, he imprinted his own footprints into Styrofoam, transforming traditional pictorial space into a traversable ground. In Untitled, we see the foundations of this aesthetic beginning to take shape: a blurred, iridescent expanse of colour, redolent of Stingel’s later stencilled spray paintings, is intercepted by a central aperture, an ornamental fissure in the surface of the paint. Like Richter’s squeegeed canvases, the painting stratifies before our eyes, revealing an almost fossilised filigree beneath its calm exterior. It is this aesthetic that would be brought to bear upon Stingel’s subsequent oeuvre, creating a language grounded in imprints, traces and residual marks.
Extending the legacy of Robert Rauschenberg, Stingel’s oeuvre complicates the orientation of the picture plane, posing alternately as wall and floor. In many of Stingel’s later projects, this notion has been expanded to literal proportions, giving rise to the conceptual use of carpet and laminate flooring as performative artworks - surfaces that become progressively worn and besmirched by the continual traffic of gallery visitors. In the artist’s major mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 2007, Stingel covered the gallery walls with metallic Celotex insulation board and invited viewers to draw and write on its soft reflective plane. The almost topographical surface patterns of the present work may be said to foreshadow these endeavours, presaging the rugged texture of Styrofoam and the woven fibres of carpet fabric. As Chrissie Iles has written, ‘In Rudolf Stingel’s work, the parameters of painting and architecture are turned inside out. The traditional qualities of painting ... pictorialism, flatness, illusion, composition, and autonomy ... become corrupted by a new symbolic framework, in which paintings metamorphoses - sometimes literally, sometimes through association ... into a fragment of rococo wallpaper or stucco work, a mirrored floor, a thick rectangle of Styrofoam trampled by footprints, an oversized photograph, or a dirty carpet. Stingel’s disclosures produce a disturbing sense of artifice ... an un-natural state that, in the nineteenth century, was deemed decadent’ (C. Iles, ‘Surface Tension’, in F. Bonami (ed.), Rudolf Stingel, Chicago 2007, p. 14). It is this decadence that Stingel’s oeuvre celebrates, and which is already palpable in the captivating surface of Untitled.