Michael Buthe

A transfixing photograph sets the exhibition’s tone. From 1969, it captures Michael Buthe jumping in mid-air while shredding a pock-marked canvas using his hands and a pair of scissors. A consummate explorer and mystic, the artist looks like he’s about to leap into the frame and break through to the unknown.

The canonization of Buthe (who died in 1994) has long been incomplete, though not for lack of exposure or critical enthusiasm. The artist defied singular categorization—occultist, hippie, gay, Catholic—but is best known for radiant paintings that incorporate unusual materials, such as feathers, sticks, wax, and gold. The thirty-odd pieces in this show, from the late 1960s to mid-’70s, reveal another side of Buthe still. Here, we see the unlikely student of Arte Povera and post-Minimalism who caught the attention of Harald Szeemann. It was this body of work that led Szeemann to place Buthe in his famous 1969 exhibition “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” at Switzerland’s Kunsthalle Bern.

The gallery’s second show devoted to Buthe combines the uproarious, proto-punk energy of his torn canvases with his more delicate paper studies. It is an unlikely pairing of meticulous draftsmanship with explosive results, and  it works. The more cultic-inspired Buthe is only hinted at in pieces like Untitled, 1968–70, a wooden box with a mane-like emanation of string, and Untitled, 1975, a haunting empty stretcher wrapped in a ritualistic masque of tinfoil.

The ripped-up canvases steal the show. In Untitled, ca. 1969, slices of unprimed fabric droop, fold, and fall into each other, then tighten with the writhing imbroglio of a pit of snakes. It is for art historians to figure out whether these works “deconstruct the frame” of late modern painting or carry off any other such teleological coups. Personally, I’m more about the expressive frisson of the artist’s work frock, stretched taut over a canvas (Untitled, 1971), which makes it look like it’s flailing in a straightjacket. Buthe always refused to be hemmed in.

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