“Thomas Bayrle: Playtime”
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“Playtime,” the New Museum’s survey of German artist Thomas Bayrle, starts off promisingly enough, ushering viewers into a gallery filled with color-saturated silk screens from the ’60s and ’70s. These aren’t just eye-popping: They practically stuff your retinas into a T-shirt cannon and fire them into the cheap seats. The works share the same meticulous method of accreting images out of small pictorial elements—some related to the subject (a woman savoring her morning joe, formed by more than 1,500 tiny coffee cups) and some not (a man eating butter, fabricated from a pattern of shoes). As if this weren’t stimulating enough, the space is wallpapered with the Laughing Cow cheese logo, printed white on blue, while the floor is covered with wall-to-wall vinyl sheeting decorated, again, with shoes, in green, yellow and white. Meanwhile, the center of the room is occupied by a pyramid of minuscule bottles of Maggi, a brand of liquid seasoning. But, unfortunately, the childlike energy of this installation dissipates by the second half of the show, leading you to wonder what the hell happened.
Born in 1937, Bayrle is part of the same artistic generation as Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. Like them, he critiqued the consumerist “good life” afforded by postwar Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle,” which lifted the country out of the devastation of World War II. But while Richter and Polke have been well known in the New York art world for decades, Bayrle didn’t exhibit here until a dozen years ago. Since then, it’s been standard practice to hail him as a Cassandra of computer graphics—indeed, his images, carefully cut and pasted from color xeroxes, do look as if they’re pixelated. I’ll leave it to viewers to decide if this makes Bayrle a harbinger of the digital age, but it’s just as likely that his approach reflects his days spent making textile patterns during the late ’50s.
His oldest pieces comprise boxy, motorized reliefs that comically take aim at various targets, whether Mao Tse-tung or Colgate toothpaste. These “painted machines,” as he dubbed them, are populated with rows of cutout figures that resemble fans at a football game. And like a stadium crowd flipping cards overhead to create a giant image, these mobs bob up and down with the press of a button, melding into a man shaving or a glamorous model’s face before returning to their previous form.
By the end of the decade, Bayrle’s funky contraptions gave way to the aforementioned silk screens, which also indulged in portraiture and erotica, among other genres. Additionally, he made forays into filmmaking and video, but, as his oeuvre progressed, it became more portentous. Color drained from the work as religious imagery crept in: One mechanized sculpture features a cutaway car engine with its pistons pumping to the sound of the Hail Mary prayer emanating from a speaker. Elsewhere, a video depicts Christ on the cross, emerging from a kinetic grid of cars whizzing along the autobahn. Perhaps Bayrle meant to convey some irony about religion being overturned by our misplaced faith in technology, or maybe he meant to express his fear for humanity’s soul in the age of machines. In either case, his efforts seem heavy-handed.
In general, Bayrle’s work feels too bound to its moment, when technophobia bubbled out of the ’60s counterculture. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does hamper Bayrle from being more than a historical curiosity.