Rudolf Stingel’s show at Gagosian in New York (until Saturday) opens with three large black-and-white self-portraits of the artist as a young man (he was born in northern Italy in 1956). The three untitled canvases are all the same size and based on the same photograph, down to the scratches in the background and small spots from moisture damage. They are not photorealist paintings, however. The daubed black backgrounds testify to the painter’s hand, and a few variations creep in: in the first painting the widow’s peak is a swooping curve, in the second it’s more of a sine wave, and in the third it’s rigid and angular. More important, the repetition suggests that the process of making them is the pictures’ real subject: conceptual paintings in photorealist drag.
They recall Stingel’s large 2006 painting Untitled (Alpino 1976), recently on view at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, which is based on an identity card photograph of the artist aged 20, gussied up in military uniform. Members of his Tyrolean regiment were allowed to wear a beard, but there’s something else non-conformist about the image: his closed eyes are possibly blinking, possibly clamped shut. Most of Stingel’s self-portraits, however, which he’s been making since 2005, depict him in middle age, heavier, unkempt and in wrinkled clothes, smoking and drinking, lying in bed fully dressed, or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, apparently alone.
As well as canvas, Stingel has worked on Styrofoam, Celotex insulation board and, frequently, carpet. At Gagosian he has returned to carpet, though as an image on canvas rather than a material. There are ten square paintings, all silver, in which an Oriental pattern has been stencilled, overlaid on different regions of each canvas. He has used a roller to build up the image, and the medallions and flowers of the pattern become almost topographical when you get up close.
New York’s great postwar artists – Pollock, de Kooning, Newman – are currently enjoying even greater visibility than usual thanks to MoMA’s all-out survey of Abstract Expressionism. But heroic, gestural abstraction, in which the painterly surface becomes what Harold Rosenberg called ‘an arena in which to act’, is now as obsolete as realism, a point Stingel drives home with a suite of five massive paintings on backgrounds of gold leaf. Produced on the studio floor, they are covered with footprints, drips, oxidation marks, outlines of paint cans, and stencilled patterns – bricks, roses – in a colour it’s hard not to call dirt. The last of the five also has a deeply incised arc at least twelve feet long, suggesting that even the most virtuosic gesture may be no more meaningful than the trampling of boots.
Through a narrow door past the gold paintings is one final gallery, containing another self-portrait. It’s the same size as the three in the first gallery, and based on the same photograph, but in colour, a first for Stingel: not only the bright red of the artist’s V-neck sweater and the pale flesh tones, but a burgundy background, rather than black, suggesting the dye shifts of a photograph now at least thirty years old.