I felt at sea with this show of racy, moody, at times startlingly David Salle-ish paintings that are very refreshing and seem peculiarly up-to-the minute, so I phoned the painter. She is Rita Ackermann, a Hungarian 29 years old and six years in New York. She stands high among new artists who are rejuvenating the old game of pigments on canvas. She told me that she derives major inspiration from Downtown music and performance scenes, in which she participates as a sometime singer and puppeteer. I was afraid of that.
Is it just me, or is this city more epically crowded than at any time since glass-plate photography of immigrant-choked Delancey Street? At least in my neighborhood, the sidewalk-obliterating mobs are scarily youthful and alert looking and are up to stuff that I'll never know about because at my age it happens past my bedtime. I mentioned to Ackermann that I don't keep up with new music, and she said, "Oh," compassionately. What could we even talk about?
Paint. A one-of-a-kind five-foot-tall acrylic head in the show, Angryboy, has a frantic, unapologetically early-1980s, neo-Bad Painting look, though with densely lovely colors -- grabby greens and a strange red -- that slow it way down. Ackermann said she made it in one three-hour go while listening to recorded heavy-metal rock featuring her husband, a musician from Corpus Christi, Texas. Uh-huh. I was happier learning about the colors: cadmium green light, a couple of other greens, and a crucial bluish green that she couldn't name because she had used up and discarded the tube. The red is mixed gold and copper. As often in Ackermann's work, the paint was applied and moved around largely with her fingers.
The generic-with-a-difference Angryboy typifies a fledgling career that has already notched several distinct manners. Ackermann is a magpie stylist, a chameleon, even a sort of painting impersonator on themes of adolescent joy, pain, and effrontery. Her work is often most striking precisely where it most closely resembles something we have seen before. The Salle reminiscences in some of the pictures here -- laconic overlay drawing, paint handling as an image of itself, congested texture and irritable color-- suggest formal influence less than vernacular infection, like a funny accent you can't stop talking in until, eventually, you are bored with it.
Ackermann made her first splash in 1994 with paintings like big, colored-in sketchbook pages of sinisterly sweet, nymphetish girls in underwear who looked like each other and, I'm told, like her. It was as if Henry Darger darlings grew up a bit and vamped Ingres harem scenes in the mode of brightly simplified Matisse bathers. Something like that. There was also a hint of Sue Williams' sexual-abuse carnivals, only a lot more demure. I well believe what I've heard: this Ackermann flavor has a painting fetish following, notably in Japan, that reacted with anguish when, for her last show, she made Eric Fischl-like paintings from old snapshots of her little brother, touchingly lonesome looking in outdoor settings.
Always with Ackermann, there is a sense of lively, shared artistic lingos that are in the air. They perch on her hand, then fly away. Some of them, hardly hip in themselves, may be in the air because she put them there, such as a charge of the ponderous German Georg Baselitz in her way with paint. Her ventriloquy declares personal motives: first wanting to fashion a negotiable persona for herself as an ambitious young artist in an alien land, then needing to renew emotional roots of a homesick soul. This a common sort of artist's story. Compelling about Ackermann is the unusual nakedness of her quest, which amounts to a coming-of-age in public. I am just unclear about who and what the operative public might be.
My reliably plugged-in friend, the critic Jerry Saltz, assures me (on the phone, my lifeline to the world) that this public regards the various styles of early-'80s Neo-Expressionism -- phenomena that still seem to me scandalous, for better and worse -- as accomplished facts in the settled cultural landscape. Thus painting tropes that one reeked of malicious audacity, as with Salle, become purely matter-of-fact in the works of rising generational heroes like Ackermann. Irony is out. Humor is in. Sincerity is a given and no big deal. There is a remarkable absence -- a vacuum, almost -- of discernible attitude. (How am I doing, kids?)
Take Teenaurora, my favorite painting in this show. Unlike Angryboy, a labor of weeks, Ackermann assured me, it includes in its compacted imagery the battleship Potemkin, stenciled words of 1968 Parisian agitprop, a Russian religious procession in the snow, a 1940s satirical photo of content forbidden in Hollywood movies (a sexy drunk woman shooting a policeman), a hand making the V sign, and overlaid sketches of Frank Sinatra and his abjectly adoring son. The identity of these subjects, which mostly you wouldn't know if you weren't told, doesn't matter much, but their specificity does. Each comes with an ineffable guarantee of personal significance.
Ackermann said that the content of Teenaurora was suggested by the day she started painting it: November 7, anniversary of the Russian Revolution. She remembers celebrating that holiday in Budapest enthusiastically as a child and then, as a teenager, derisively. The picture is a palimpsest of revolts and revulsions, perhaps. It works by generating a dense, palpably inspired visual sensation that stands for density and inspiration of thought and feeling without communicating anything in particular. It commands attention.
Another painting, Sameface, accumulates efforts in different styles and techniques to get right the ambiguous expression of a woman in a photograph that haunted Ackermann. In a field of clots and washes of paint, the efforts all failed, she said, but then she succeeded at last with a few big, quick strokes that unify the canvas. It's true. The ultimate, floating, cartooned face is breathtakingly eloquent. Also finishing the picture is a finer-painted floral burst, which in Ackermann's lexicon seems a sign that grueling work has given way to happy pride -- as if to say, "Look, I'm a real painting!"
It is sheer common sense to let oneself be charmed by Ackermann, albeit gingerly as befits her work's tentative, mixed signals. This remains tyro stuff. It is worth discussing because of the artist's spectacular skill and resourcefulness and because youthful flux is her subject as well as her condition. But the only sure thing may be that her art will yet again become quite different quite soon. Meanwhile, the experience goes to prove, as many things do these days, and as one might have said in my day, that something is happening and I don't know what it is. Signed, Mister Jones.
Rita Ackermann at Andrea Rosen Gallery, Jan. 9-Feb. 7, 1998, 130 Prince Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.