Over the course of his three-decade career, the German artist Anton Würth has produced just a handful of print portfolios and a dozen-and-a-half artist’s books, which he calls his Carnets. Working mainly (though not exclusively) in engraving, and engaging the print cultures of earlier eras, he registers as something of an anachronism. (Indeed, for the past decade he has been represented by CG Boerner, the Upper East Side Manhattan gallery better known for old master prints.) Yet Würth should not be placed among the ranks of those contemporary artists who embrace historical styles from a position of efficacy or reaction. Indeed, looking closely at his enigmatic, paradoxical images, one might argue that, from his perch on what he devises as the razor-edge dividing abstraction and representation, uniqueness and repetition, decoration and content, Würth has arrived—via an unabashedly old-fashioned conveyance—at some of the fundamental issues of art in our post-postmodern age. Würth belongs nowhere in particular, yet his rather brilliant awareness of what that means, and his embodiment of that state in his work, uniquely position him in our epoch of unmoored signification.
Würth’s latest feat is a nine-part portfolio of engravings that stem from his recent extensive investigation of decorative ornament books in various European archives. Here we see his signature style, in images composed of a spare, well-controlled line that seems to breathe on the page, and plenty of unmarked areas that feel nonetheless inhabited, a combination that imparts to every sheet a subtle vitality. In each print, he juxtaposes an oval, something like a mirror (on the left), with a pair of shapes derived from common—though in some cases outmoded—utilitarian objects or articles of clothing (on the right). In comparison with his earlier works utilizing such shapes, these are pretty much identifiable, though incredibly distilled: mittens and caps, a wine carrier, a hot-water bottle, shoe forms, and other shapes I didn’t recognize. Some are composed of tiny chains resembling knitted stitches, others of florets, zigzags and other linear patterns. One pair is covered with a luxurious brocade-like design. The variations are numerous, and part of the pleasure in contemplating the set as a whole lies in comprehending the permutations, both within each sheet and from print to print.
Each of the mirrors, its body constituted by minute parallel lines, is bordered by a different narrow, ornamented frame—scalloped, chained, looped. And some form of graceful arabesque often accompanies the paired images, like a flourish on a signature. The sheer whimsy of the prints, their decorative variety and jouissance, fly in the face of the obvious planning that must go into their making, and the wrist-aching technique and execution that brings them into being. We find ourselves growing philosophical as we ponder them: are these objects, or covers of objects—and by extension mere surfaces? What is the nature of the craft (hand-made, industrial?) and artistic will (pragmatic, fanciful?) that has produced them? What is the relationship between the mirror and the objects? Is it merely the sort of accident that one often encounters in antique pattern books, where a random grouping of things might testify at once to feverish creativity and a scarcity of paper? Or is some statement being made about, say, the vanity of ornament, put to use in baubles and accessories meant to beautify a person or her environment? Or about the self-reflective nature of ornament, which tends to travel from era to era, culture to culture, in a kind of transhistorical migration that takes flight from the more identifiable transmission of influences represented in the evolution of styles?
And so it goes: as one contemplates this lovely portfolio, in some ways the lushest that Würth has yet produced, the implications of its modest images deepen and spread. The time he spends on each of his projects seems generously to be transmitted to us viewers caught in the rush of technology and spectacle, and we luxuriate in the pause he invariably offers.