Thomas Bayrle: Playtime at the New Museum of Contemporary Art
June 20 to September 2, 2018
235 Bowery, between Stanton and Rivington streets
New York City, newmuseum.org
Thomas Bayrle is a systems man. This five-decade survey at the New Museum, whose 115 works include paintings, moving sculptures, prints, textiles, wallpaper, video, and more, delves into systems of culture, politics, economics, infrastructure. “Playtime,” is the German artist’s first major museum show in New York. Although hardly a household name in this country, Bayrle is something of a national treasure in his native land.
A preoccupation with repetition and dissemination predated Bayrle’s becoming an artist. Born in Berlin in 1937, he had worked already in advertising and publishing, and was first exposed to mechanization as an apprentice at a weaving company. But don’t picture young Bayrle as a cog in anyone’s machine: He threw himself into the student protest movement of the 1960s. “Playtime” reflects the tension between these dynamic experiences.
The two floors of this show present such different visitor experiences that it might color your ultimate takeaway. Starting on the fourth floor, I found myself in the company of Bayrle’s signature idioms, the “super forms” and “praying machines,” along with a selection of small portrait prints, and a hanging textile. The “super forms” are images that comprise a large object tessellated from myriad tiny versions of the same. For example, Flugzeug [Airplane] (1982-3), Bayrle’s biggest work in this series at approximately 26 by 44 feet, is a photo collage of more than one million airplanes. At first, these look like small exact replicas of the macro image, but upon closer inspection it is revealed that Bayrle has taken a Warholian approach. Despite the mass, each digit is unique, juxtaposing ideas of mass production with a distinct artist’s hand. These slight alterations mark the difference between a consumer ad and a more interesting art object. As Bayrle says in his catalog interview, “Even in billions, everything is singular and unique. Every cell, every atom, they are singular. I think that’s the richness of art, to define this singularity in the mass.”
These mammoth collages are set to an odd audio accompaniment at the New Museum, emanating from a selection of four of Bayrle’s “praying machines” in the middle of the gallery. Comprised of car, plane, or motorcycle engines with exposed moving gears, belts, and pulleys, these objects each have their own built-in soundtrack. The robotic sculptures, individualized but inhuman, splice together human voices and mechanical growls. As most feature Catholic prayers, the high-ceilinged gallery takes on a cathedral-like atmosphere, inspiring reverence in visitors. The heavy use of Catholic iconography and symbolism in both this series and other works might incorrectly make one think that Bayrle is Catholic. He is actually Protestant, but from a young age was drawn to Catholicism by the structure and rhythm of its traditions and imagery. In the praying machines, Bayrle unsteadies that rhythm, making the soulless robots recite the rosary (another mechanical process), taking on a human effort to save themselves.
The repetition within the objects is echoed in the space – the neutral colors, the aural buzz from the machines and visual buzz from the repeated super forms. However, this is oddly broken by the inclusion of the only hanging textile: iPhone Pietà (2017). An instance, perhaps, of curatorial tongue-in-cheek anticipating visitors capturing their visit with a photo or video (which, during my visit, was a popular trend with the praying machines), ultimately I thought the piece felt out of place. It’s blue fabric and lack of the traditional super form patterning didn’t fit among the monotone paper and metal. True, it did connect thematically with its interesting contemporary meditation on technology as religion and the worship of the smartphone, but ultimately this break in the organized system of the gallery went too far.
The sparseness of this floor is all but thrown out the window in the near-clutter of the almost 100 objects downstairs. And yet, this part too – with its proliferation of neon-colored wallpapers, prints, videos, and paintings (either still or his “painted machines,” whose small parts move to reveal a new image) – cleverly reinforces Bayrle’s central themes. Going through the space, shocked in my transition from the upper floor, I thought: Where do I fit in amidst this overwhelming repetition?
With his investigation of individualism and early adoption of innovative, pre-digital technologies, Bayrle made his mark. This legacy was explored at a July 19th panel at the museum, “Social Fabric: Thomas Bayrle’s Expanded Network,” which featured artists Jordan Wolfson, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Lena Henke. Moderated by art historian Alex Kitnick, each artist addressed how their work deals with various of Bayrle’s themes, including digital technologies, systems, production, and – most prominently – the relationship between pop aesthetics and politics. This younger generation meditated on how subversion and any definition of “radical” isn’t just about materiality and process – as in Bayrle’s inventive copy techniques, or in contemporary digital video art – but has to include a sense of the artist as witness to change, of art as intervention. For Jordan Wolfson, the contemporary artist has to “make pop and politics subvert each other.”
Bayrle’s “painted machine” Mao (1966) is an early example of just this process of intervention. In this piece, small moving wooden pieces slowly morph the paramount leader’s portrait into the communist star. Bayrle would later witness communism first hand in visits to China in the late 1970s. (Fun fact: His Mao actually predates Warhol’s by about five years.)
Among the plethora of objects on this floor, there was one piece that I kept going back to, placed in an alcove at the back of the gallery, almost shrine-like in its forced intimacy. In Himmelfahrt [Ascension] (1988), crucified Jesus is made of fractured, repeated images of the autobahn, which also constitutes the work’s background. Looking at this piece I was reminded of the voices in the sculptures upstairs – the prayers on repeat in a gallery-cum-cathedral – reset for the road: I could imagine someone praying for traffic to ease up among a chorus of car horns. Standing in front of Jesus on his cross, I kept trying to pick apart the comedy and the tragedy of this contemporary purgatory. I tried to reconcile the image of a monumental religious icon slipping into the scene like a commercial break in the middle of regularly scheduled programming. The geometric energy of the repeated autobahn making up the vulnerable Christ forced me to stop and look and think about the disruption taking place. This experience captured the show as a whole: at once an overwhelming fun house questioning the structures by which we live, and a wake up call to shift my perspective within the routines of daily life. Despite all of the stimuli of the gallery, I felt asked to focus and notice the quirks throughout – the distortions of the tiny airplanes, the not-quite-aligned edges of the autobahn-Jesus shards, the slight shudder of the painted machines’ movements. I left wondering if looking closely at the kinks in the system would become a trend of its own.