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Retrospective of the work of Michael Buthe on view at Haus der Kunst
Michael Buthe, My Love to Etienne, 1969. Stoff über Keilrahmen, 162 x 291 x 15 cm, Kunstmuseum Luzern, Foto Andri Stadler, Luzern © Pro Litteris, Zürich © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2016.

MUNICH.- Michael Buthe was born in Sonthofen in 1944 and died in Cologne in 1994. After completing his studies at the Werkkunstschule Kassel and at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Buthe began his artistic career, at a time when German "Informal" and American Minimal Art were shaping new approaches to making and the medium of painting was in crisis. Michael Buthe's cloth objects from the 1960s and the early 1970s were a tactile response to this period. Following the creation of his first cloth canvases, Buthe continued to push the medium of painting ever further into the surrounding space, opposing the cool conceptual framework of Minimalism with a pronounced sensuality, and rigorously questioning the value of spirituality in a secular society.

The retrospective follows these developments and presents Buthe's oeuvre chronologically. Although his work does not constitute a rediscovery in the strict sense, through Buthe's assimilation of other cultures - particularly the juxtaposition of visions of Western and Eastern mystics - it gains a new relevance.

Buthe's acute spatial understanding is evident in the installation "Die Heilige Nacht der Jungfräulichkeit" (1992), originally created for documenta IX. The work consists of engravings - which the artist made by tracing the contours of his friends' bodies - and a spiral chandelier adorned with numerous votive candles, crowned by two golden ovoid elements. This all-sensory experience of light and dark, shimmering copper and gold, and the radiant heat of the lit candles envelops the viewer in a "floating idea of a cosmology of a universal utopia" (Michael Buthe). "Die Heilige Nacht der Jungfräulichkeit" is Buthe's last major installation and resembles a Gesamtkunstwerk. The exhibition brings together several major installations, including the "Taufkapelle mit Papa and Mama", displayed in a solo exhibition at the Villa Stuck in 1984, which returns to Munich for this exhibition.

In 1970 Michael Buthe began shuttling between his home in the Rhineland and Morocco. Like Robert Rauschenberg on his trips to Italy, France, India and Israel, Buthe experimented with materials and began working with fabric dyers in Morocco. Characterized by an eccentric personality with a tendency towards egomania, the artist's archaic-looking assemblages, luminous works on paper, intensively worked canvases, collages and paintings in gold attest as well to his spiritual orientation. With this attitude, and particularly his interest in the language of symbols, ornamentation and mystique of the Maghreb, he permeated the everyday world - even when, "as an almost manic collector, he created his rituals and festival culture out of the tempestuous life between work and family life." (Ulrich Wilmes)

The artist's so-called diaries are also included in the exhibition. They reveal Buthe's precise and formal creative drive and how he developed compositions out of integrated objects. One such work is wrapped and sealed like a mummy; its content thus eludes the grasp of the beholder, and its secret is preserved. Even when Buthe inflicted wounds on the canvas - as the image carrier - this was not simply the result of an actionist gesture or a passionate emotion. Drawings, also on display in the exhibition, document the artist's considerations before performing such actions - even if his intentions were never implemented 1:1.

The retrospective raises the fundamental question currently faced by curators: How to exhibit Buthe's work today? The spaces he created for his installations are incompletely documented, as stringent documentation of exhibitions was not common practice at that time, and Buthe himself was not particularly meticulous about such matters. For him, even existing works were subject to revision, e.g. "Mäusenest", a work made of paper, paint, wax, gold paint and mouse droppings, went through several stages between 1970 and 1982.

In Buthe's late work, colorful, multiform assemblages are often integrated with found objects; "Landschaft (Spanische Energie)" is exemplary of this period. By contrast, the wall sculpture "Fliegende Landschaft" seems to defy gravity. In fact, it is made of a railroad tie, and was created in 1992, two years before Buthe's death.

The film "When love goes wrong nothing goes right" (28 min; with Udo Kier) is on view in the stairwell. It presents Buthe's close friend Udo Kier as a flamboyant transvestite leafing through one of the artist's diaries. The film focuses on Buthe's unrealized project for documenta 5, for which he tried in vain to bring befriended Gnawa musicians from Morocco to Kassel. The Gnawan community shares similarities with the Sufi order in the Maghreb; their music guides players and listeners into ecstatic states and, in the film, is combined with Western post-punk sounds.

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