Tassenfrau (Milchkaffee) (Cup Woman (Milk Coffee)) (1967) is an important early work by Thomas Bayrle. In a silkscreen composition stretching almost two metres in height, repeated ranks of tiny cups and saucers in electric blue, red, yellow and brown function like pixels: while seen up close they seem to be arranged in an arbitrary pattern, they resolve, when viewed from afar, into the portrait of a woman drinking a cup of coffee. The first of a series of five images composed in this manner – other subjects from the group, which Bayrle printed on plastic with the help of his wife, include shoes and oxen – the work is among the earliest examples of the artist’s iconic ‘super-forms’, which conjure large images from scintillating, cell-like assemblies of smaller pictures. Bayrle considers Tassenfrau (Milchkaffee) the finest of his plastic works, and has another example in his personal collection, which was shown in his retrospective at the New Museum, New York, in 2018. The work was made in 1967, the first year that Bayrle first abandoned painting to experiment with silkscreening. In parallel with the work of his German contemporary Sigmar Polke and the American Pop artist Andy Warhol, the serigraph medium allowed Bayrle to replicate a factory-like mode of creation, reflecting his fascination with the structures of mass culture. The central notion of Bayrle’s practice, which now stretches over half a century, is one of individual parts weaving into a larger whole – in capitalist, communist, or fascist society, in religion, in industry, and in our very bodies. Bayrle sees all constructions of human life and power as interlinked. Blending aspects of Pop, Op and conceptual art, his early works were vastly ahead of their time, and anticipated much of the digital, network and systems-based contemporary art that is so relevant today. Combining a satirical eye on consumerist kitsch with a near-transcendent vision of the interconnected elements of life, Tassenfrau (Milchkaffee) exemplifies Bayrle’s multifaceted and complex idiom.
Bayrle’s apprenticeship at a textile factory in 1956 – he worked on Jacquard loom, a machine that itself would evolve into the first computer – was crucial to his understanding of the world as a tissue of physical and social fabrics. Settling shortly afterwards in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, he studied at the School of Applied Arts and began working in graphic design; he later published artists’ books of concrete poetry and experimented with kinetic paintings and automata before arriving at his first ‘super-form’ silkscreens. Like Warhol, he made the shift from commercial work to his symphonic version of Pop art in the 1960s. Bayrle’s foundational idea, however, had come to him as early as 1949, when he was just twelve years old. He saw a group of women praying in the Catholic village his family lived in after the war: ‘… this mountain of old women, all in black, praying the rosary very fast: “bababababa...” I brought it together immediately with the sound of engines, with the repetition of machines. And it’s not just in Catholicism, it’s everywhere, in mantra for example, a kind of world reality. I thought, no I felt, that our existence is built on billions of repetitions, heartbeats, breathing, eating, shitting, anything in the body itself, endless repetitions, to keep us alive. Later, when I apprenticed at a weaver’s, using the Jacquard weaving machine, I just connected that sound and reproduction thing together automatically with this rosary. For me it was absolutely normal’ (T. Bayrle, quoted in M. Herbert, ‘Thomas Bayrle and the Art of Transcendent Boredom’, ArtReview, April 2016). This ‘world reality’ informs Bayrle’s entire body of work, whose vital importance was recently reaffirmed with his New Museum retrospective last year, and another at Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2016. An industrial-spiritual chorus of hallucinogenic colour, form and rhythm, Tassenfrau (Milchkaffee) is an icon of his practice.