Angelus Novus Anew: R.H. Quatyman’s Chapter 29
Rebecca Quaytman: חקק Chapter 29 at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York
October 7 to November 15, 2015
36 Orchard Street, between Hester and Canal streets
New York City, 212 995 1774
Paul Klee’s 1920 painting Angelus Novus has, for a long time, been the subject of much interpretation. In her present exhibition, Rebecca Quaytman further opens up that process. Two years ago, when visiting the Israel Museum, she discovered that Klee had glued his painting, which is a monoprint, directly on top of an old engraving, identified with a date in the 1520s and the initials LC. Walter Benjamin’s much-discussed essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940) uses Angelus Novus to stage discussion of a Marxist vision of historical progress. Benjamin owned that painting, which then after passing through the collection of his friend, Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, entered the museum in Jerusalem. The picture, Benjamin wrote,
[S]hows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. […] This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. […] A storm is blowing in from Paradise. […] This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin says that the angel looks out at past events, which are in front of him. But the engraving found by Quaytman is behind that angel. And so now the analysis must become still more complex. Normally interpretation of a painting is written, but sometimes an artist may be said to interpret prior paintings; think of how Picasso re-interpreted Poussin and other old masters. Responding as an artist, Quaytman offers a series of painted variations on Benjamin’s commentary, which constitute an unexpected interpretation of Angelus Novus in light of her remarkable discovery. She presents here a number of rectangular, painted-wood panels, some containing an inked, rectangular silkscreen, as in Preview of Angelus Novus (2014). These paintings display Klee’s painting along with the underlying print, in perspectival constructions that open up the picture space. And some of her works on display — for example an encaustic titled O Tópico, Chapter 27 (2014) — provide information about the scientific techniques (x-rays, thermography) used in the investigation of the print.
“[Haqaq], Chapter 29” (Haqaq, in Hebrew, means engraved, carved or inscribed) is something of a tease. Suppose that LC are the initials of the 16th-century German painter Lucas Cranach—and perhaps the portrait shows Martin Luther. What would that reveal? The gallery says that a full report on Quaytman’s discovery must await the publication of her catalogue. Perhaps! Meanwhile, however, a reviewer must report on what he sees. Quaytman’s paintings don’t really tell us how to understand Angelus Novus. Rather, it seems that interpretation of Klee’s painting has become an open-ended process. Inspired by her, allow me to take analysis one-step further. She is the daughter of the distinguished late abstract painter, Harvey Quaytman, who loved to paint cruciforms. His 1998 exhibition at David McKee surprised Leo Steinberg, who found it “astounding to see the most familiar of signs de-semanticized, de-centered, de-Christianized, and emancipated to exercise its own territorial power.” Here, then, Rebecca Quaytman extends what has become a familial tradition, playful visual exegesis of Judeo-Christian iconography. The meaning of Klee’s picture remains elusive.