It has been 45 years since Eugen Schönebeck has made a work of art; we are worse off for it. In an incredibly brief career—starting with his first drawings circa 1949 at the age of 13—Schönebeck challenged the cyclical nature of post-war German abstraction (opting instead for impressionist inspired mark-making), drew in a Gothically illustrative style that few to none have since matched, and returned to his roots with full blown figurative portraiture, transferred by grid and charcoal onto monumental canvases. For “The Drawings”—on view through February 25 at Nolan Judin in Berlin and later this spring at David Nolan Gallery in New York—curator Pamela Kort brings together a remarkable swath of the (still Berlin-based) former artist’s work. It is the kind of exhibition that reaffirms one’s faith in art’s ability to speak; as Barthes might say: it exists.
Though retrospective in nature, the works’ age only reveals itself by the papers’ acidized yellow surface. Beginning with his university-era tusche and pencil drawings, a clear progression reveals itself—a move away from the established schools of the time. Two works from 1958 and 1959, titled Landschaft, give squared off nods to his contemporaries in Germany, while a more erratic untitled work from 1960 channels Pollock undeniably. A work from two years later for the “Second Pandemonium” (manifesto) reveals Schönebeck’s first definitive break from his abstraction-obsessed peers, with head-like and corporeal forms clearly emerging from the black swarm of ink.
Most remarkable of the oeuvre on view are Schönebeck’s comic-like figurative works, created during an incredibly prolific period between 1962-1963. Engaging in various stages of Rabelaisian carnivalesque, his subjects often appear mutilated—some in self-inflicted states of hanging, while others appear shocked at the sight of a blown off limb or two.
This seemingly represents Schönebeck’s method of historical reckoning. Where his classmates fought figuration to redeem the tragedies of their recent past, Schönebeck confronted it directly. He showed the marred minds and bodies of his countrymen, rather than trying to evoke a feeling of “marred-ness.” Alternatively, as seen in an untitled pen and ballpen work from 1963, he places a swastika squarely on the side of a lizard-man chimera’s skull. In a final series of large portraits, human visage reenters, now stripped of all background, excess gesture and line, revealing still-marked faces, but almost as if they’d been chiseled out of the hard granite found near his hometown of Dresden, both allowing them to be recovered from strife and sealing their effect forever.
by Alexander Forbes
[Image: (left) Eugen Schönebeck Ohne Titel / Untitled, 1963; Tuschfeder auf Papier / Pen on paper; 31 x 23.8 cm; Courtesy of Nolan Judin (right) Eugen Schönebeck, Portrait Liz Kertelge, 1966; Grafit auf Papier / Graphite on paper; 86 x 61 cm; Courtesy of Nolan Judin]