Visual Arts

Exile Adrift

If you'd like to see some extraordinary art by someone whose name has all but vanished from the art world, go to Vanier Gallery and look into the paintings and drawings of Jochen Seidel.

Seidel has been called "the German Jackson Pollock" and "a unique link between German and American art in the 1960s" by no less an authority than curator Harry Rand of the Smithsonian. His works are owned by just about every major museum in the U.S. and Europe. And yet, if you feed Seidel's name into an internet search engine, you'll get less than a handful of relevant results back, in any language.

The two most compelling explanations for this omission are as follows: First, Seidel, a star of socialist realism and then of the postwar art scene in West Berlin, had bad luck starting over in New York in the mid-'60s, when the tide was turning away from painting that celebrated painting. Second, even though Seidel was respected and admired as an artist on both sides of the Atlantic, gallery owners were reluctant to take him on -- and not because his work wasn't minimal or op or pop.

This, after all, was a man who got so wrapped up in painting his large canvases that, rather than take a break to go to the bathroom, he simply pissed in his pants. He was known to "complete" a painting by attacking it with a knife, sometimes after it had already been hung in a show. He came from a family background shredded by depression and suicide, and he tried three times to kill himself before finally succeeding.

Seidel was painfully aware of his situation. In 1970 he wrote to a friend from the mental hospital where he was being treated, calling himself "a victim of advanced capitalistic artistic miseries and my own best enemy." Less than a year later, at the age of 47, he hanged himself. He left behind two failed marriages, several children and his work, which his friends Jo and Mel Roman rescued by buying Seidel's estate at auction. (Mel Roman, a psychotherapist and artist, now lives in Phoenix, which is how Seidel's work ended up at a gallery in Scottsdale.)

The dates of the paintings in the Vanier show range from 1964 to 1970; Seidel spent his last years painting over and over his earlier works, creating autobiographical layers. "I have a statement of a human kind to make in my work," he wrote in one of his later pieces, "and the raw material for it is my life."

In much of Seidel's work, the energy comes from the tension between his abstract (but still very German) expressionist impulses and his fondness for the loopy organicism of painters like Miro and Picasso. There's also more than a dollop of '60s trippiness going on.

Funeral, from 1970, combines quirky staccato doodles, jazzy Stuart Davis-like passages, and swaths of textured greens and reds. It doesn't look funereal in the traditional sense, but two shapes suggesting the heads of women move across the canvas from right to left, as if part of a procession. (Half the fun is picking out -- or imagining -- representation in these intricate works; they're like groovy Rorschach tests.)

The shapes that play across the painting's surface are familiar but distorted, like the suits from a deck of cards -- clubs, hearts, aces and spades -- blown apart and reassembled haphazardly. They create a wild eclectic music -- you can almost hear Seidel painting -- which leads me to the one major criticism I have of the show: The Muzak that is piped into the gallery is offensive, especially so in this case. It competes with and distracts from Seidel's work.

In Figura, which is dated 1964/'70, the difference between the cloudy brush marks and the swooping shapes is even more pronounced. Seidel juxtaposes bright, intricate passages with broad, muddy expanses that look, in places, almost like flesh. It's as if one of Seidel's earlier, more strictly abstract works had collided with a van full of stoned Miros. And again, there's the tension between different ways of painting, and of seeing, that creates its own pictorial language.

Variations of a Poem VII shows Seidel moving toward his powerful final painting, Poem Destroyed. Dated 1964/'65/'70, Variations, like most of Seidel's work, is still startlingly immediate. The canvas is a vast, snowy expanse through which we can make out some of his characteristic dense doodles, but they're muted now. In the middle of the painting, four floating green figures that make up a square on the outside and a circle within enclose a similar quartered figure in red. Within that red figure is the same motif in black, but much finer, so that the outside edges of the final circle also are the edges of the square.

We are at the center of something. A brush, painted black and decorated with a white doodle, pokes through the canvas and becomes an element in the painting, as if Seidel left it there to say, "I did this, and I am done."

Compared with influential abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann (and certainly the concurrent exhibition of Hofmann's late works at the Scottsdale Museum of Modern Art invites comparison), Seidel is the exile adrift to Hofmann's landed émigré, the restless thanatos to Hofmann's eros. He used the maps drawn by the great movements in 20th-century art to find his way somewhere strange and new that is still entirely his own and, on the basis of the magnificent paintings at Vanier alone, he deserves at least an entry on