"My parents tried to show me good taste, but I rebelled against it," Anselm Reyle told a packed house at the Des Moines Art Center theater during a presentation on the opening weekend of his first U.S. museum survey. The German artist grew up in an artistic household. His mother painted highly textured abstracted landscapes influenced by European tachiste painters of the 1950s and '60s, such as Antoni Tàpies and Emil Schumacher, whose dense, earthy abstractions built up with layers of sand-encrusted pigment were the epitome of informed good taste.
Born in 1970 in Tübingen, near Stuttgart, Reyle attended the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design before transferring to the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied with Helmut Dorner. Reyle took an early interest in landscape design and music before finally homing in on painting and sculpture. He was inspired by 1960s psychedelia and especially the Day-Glo, hard-edge agitprop look of graphic design in the early punk movement. The acid-yellow-and-black cover (European version) of the Sex Pistols's first LP, Never Mind the Bollocks, was a touchstone that he often cites.
Soon after graduating in 1998, Reyle set up a studio in Berlin, where he began to produce ultrarefined abstract paintings and sculptures, plus elaborate installations with neon. Riffing on postwar abstraction, he pokes fun at formalist conceits, as in his meticulously executed vertical stripe paintings. Some of these recall works by Kenneth Noland or Gene Davis, but Reyle employs rather jarring color combinations and his stripes also bear wildly varied textures, including silver foil and glittering black sandpaper, that hardly conform to the Color Field style.
In a short time he established an extraordinarily successful practice. Solo shows in Berlin in 1999 and 2001, followed by others in Rome and at Gavin Brown's enterprise in New York within the following two years, cemented his reputation as a rising international art star. He soon became a darling of collectors, dealers and auction houses, with his works routinely bringing well into the six figures. He moved into a larger Berlin studio and hired some 60 assistants to fulfill the demands of an ever-growing waiting list for works. With that kind of meteoric success comes an inevitable backlash.
Some critics in the U.S. and abroad have derided the artist's highly polished, luxuriant paintings and objects for their seemingly superficial allure, which they dismiss as über-kitsch. This, however, is precisely the provocation Reyle is after. From the outset, he opposed the predominant taste-setting trends in contemporary German painting. Except for Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and a few others he admires, Reyle reacted against paintings he sarcastically labels in interviews as muddy and messy pseudo-Expressionist compositions, often embellished with funky figures, photo fragments and the occasional swastika for dramatic effect. Instead, he seeks to channel the proto-Pop sensibility of the Nouveaux Réalistes—especially Yves Klein and Arman—and adopts the approach of artists in the Zero Group, whose German founders Heinz Mack and Otto Piene engaged in experiments with light (natural and artificial) and unorthodox industrial materials and processes in the 1960s and '70s. Above all, Reyle feels a kinship with California abstraction, including the highly polished monoliths of John McCracken and the L.A. Finish Fetish artists, such as Larry Bell, Peter Alexander and Kenneth Price.
The Des Moines survey is an excellent overview of Reyle's achievement to date. Organized by museum director Jeff Fleming, the show contains 13 major examples of the principal motifs, styles and types of works-paintings, sculptures and installations-that have preoccupied the artist for the past decade or so. A Reyle exhibition can have a kind of fun-house atmosphere. Meandering through a show of works with such highly reflective surfaces and vibrant colors, often literally glowing with neon and pulsating LEDs, viewers can get a bit giddy and light-headed. But the Des Moines show is generously paced and airy, allowing for plenty of breathing room for audience and art alike.
The superficial glamour of Reyle's surfaces attracts viewers like fish to a flashing lure; and as with a fishing lure, there is a hook. Uninterested in mere sensation, Reyle demonstrates a consistent intellectual rigor, alluding to art history as well as urban industrial decay and a host of other environmental issues. The first piece visitors encounter is a large (approximately 8-by-6½-foot) untitled relief painting in teal, about 5 inches thick. Part of an ongoing series of monochromes in sumptuous colors, the work, completed last year, at first appears to have a gem-encrusted surface. On closer inspection, the jewels prove to be junk. Strewn with industrial refuse, the surfaces contain auto parts and shattered computer equipment, plus chains and broken beer bottles. The shimmering assemblages convey a sense of entropy alluding to a toxic wasteland and emblematic of the demise of the Industrial Age.
The works in this series (a smaller example in magenta is also on view) result from an elaborate process that can take up to two years to complete. To begin, the artist arranges on the canvas flotsam and jetsam that his assistants have dragged in from streets near his studio. (Recently, Reyle started a refuse exchange with one of his friends, the artist Franz West, whereby each sends the other studio discards for the week for possible reuse in their work.) The entire trash-strewn surface of Reyle's composition is carefully cast in aluminum as a single relief panel and sprayed over with many layers of rust-resistant car paint. With the help of assistants, the artist burnishes the surface with chrome polish until it acquires its improbable sheen.
Covering one wall, Relief (2008) consists of neat rows of square panels, each with a slight horizontal fold in the middle, that are based on discarded metal facade sections commonly used in Soviet-era government buildings. Retrieved from demolition sites in former East German cities, the panels were cast in resin and coated with powdered rust. Mounted to the wall with LED lights fixed to the back, each panel glows around the edges. Despite its ostensibly simple construction, Relief mesmerizes, as each panel's halo slowly shifts through the colors of the rainbow over a half-hour sequence determined by computerized rigging embedded in the wall.