I’m Lauren Palmor, writer of The Art Object, in conversation with Jordan Rothlein, NY DJ and music journalist. Coming from an art history background, I enjoy discussing artists and exhibitions with people in other fields. These conversations often bring up new ideas, parallel practices, and general questions which may not present themselves when art historians speak solely amongst themselves. I wanted to speak to Jordan about the Otto Dix retrospective currently on view here at the Neue Galerie in New York, both in terms of its installation and its musical undertones.
The Art Object: Jordan, what is your familiarity with Dix’s work?
Jordan Rothlein: Hey Lauren! Thanks so much for having me on The Art Object. My main internet gig is writing about electronic music, so this is an exciting change of pace. I honestly knew very little about Dix before walking into the Neue Galerie. One or two of his paintings looked familiar, and I’ve heard about him from you before, but his work was pretty much all new to me.
TAO: Before viewing the Dix retrospective, what types of images would you have imagined seeing if confronted by Weimar-era German painting?
JR: I came in with a pretty blank slate. My exposure to Weimar-era culture was more or less confined to avant garde movements like Dada, Expressionism, and Surrealism, mostly by way of a film course I took in college. I guess I knew something about the state of art in Weimar Germany, but I didn’t have a preconception about what would be represented. I could have guessed that the physical and psychological aftermath of trench warfare would be present, but I was actually a bit surprised at how Dix dealt with a lot of this by way of city life and the debauchery that entailed.
TAO: You bring up Dix’s images of trench warfare, represented in the Neue Galerie exhibition by his “War” series—fifty prints showing all subjects related to the inhumanity of World War I. I found that the exhibition design perfectly transitioned visitors to Dix’s haunting and vicious world. For the sake of readers who are not able to visit the exhibition, could you please speak to Frederico de Vera’s exhibition design and the feeling you had upon entering the show and viewing Dix’s war prints?
JR: The exhibition begins with the war prints, which have been placed in a small side gallery downstairs from the rest of Dix’s work. The museum installed a strange, asymmetrical, charcoal wall (with a small reproduction of Dix’s signature) in front of the gallery that effectively sucks you into the exhibit. This gallery feels markedly different from the rest of the museum. The lighting is noticeably darker than it is in the surrounding, which certainly adds to the mood of the “War” series (perhaps to the detriment of actually viewing the art). His paintings and drawings upstairs aren’t as acutely brutal as the drawings in this series. But seeing them first, aside from whatever chronological sense the ordering makes, really brings out the shadow this violence cast over Dix’s worldview on display in his later work.
TAO: One element of the exhibition which was not explained in the media or the show itself is its use of scent and sound. The room of war prints had the soft scent of wet earth and the quiet chirping of crickets, bringing elements of the outdoor trenches to the indoor galleries. Upstairs, one room featured cabaret music and the scent of Guerlain perfume. Was your experience in viewing Dix’s work influenced by these subtle touches?
JR: Unfortunately, I think some of these well-intentioned environmental effects were lost on me. Perhaps they were supposed to fly under the radar? I found Dix’s art visceral enough that I didn’t need too much prodding to get into the mood. I caught the music upstairs but missed the smell. And the crickets downstairs might have been drowned out by the tail-end of a docent tour.
TAO: I’d especially like to hear if you could recall any specific prints in the 1924 suite of “Der Krieg” (“The War”) etchings. Throughout the cycle of fifty prints, many of the images are exceptionally graphic, violent, or depraved. The images were sourced from Dix’s personal experience as a machine gunner in the trenches of WWI. Was the artist’s personal relationship to his subject palatable in this series? How does it read as an introduction to both the exhibition as well as his later works?
JR: There are images in the series that Dix obviously wanted seared into his viewers’ minds — lumps of messy entrails, soldiers with half of their faces blown off, one particularly macabre sketch of a rotting skull with a tuft of hair still attached. But two subtler prints really stuck with me. One was of a group of soldiers wearing gas masks, and the other depicted a line of soldiers crawling through the trenches carrying something — pails? extra helmets? — in their mouths. Both prints showed more or less able-bodied humans ceasing to act and appear like humans. In the latter print, especially, Dix gives the soldiers an animalistic quality: their expressions resemble those of ravenous dogs. These were obviously deeply personal works. Dix’s emotions about the war and its dehumanizing effects seem almost unmitigated by careful thought. I get the distinct sense he didn’t want there to be a remove between the experience and its representation. I really felt the artist as the more jagged his lines would become, like it was a sign of him editorializing. I saw a lot of that in his more refined work from after the war.
TAO: As a DJ and musician, and coming from a musical background, do you see sounds in Dix’s work? Do you find any elements of his style to be particularly musical?
JR: Some of his paintings, like one of a topless pregnant woman with her head turned away from the viewer, are eerily, disturbingly quiet. But there’s a quality to much of Dix’s work that reminds me of distortion, as if he fed too much signal onto the canvas and “blew out” his perspective, so to speak. His use of painted texture reminded me of how a guitarist or maybe a noise artist might use aural texture. I’m thinking specifically about his depictions of prostitutes here: their flesh feels almost overdriven. Dix doesn’t always make pretty art, but it’s visceral and arresting. I’ve described a lot of my favorite records the same way.
TAO: Lastly, as a DJ, could you recommend a few tracks which might complement a viewing of Otto Dix’s work?
JR: The record that immediately springs to mind is the newest 12” by Oni Ayhun, an experimental and quasi-anonymous techno artist rumored to be the Knife’s Olof Dreijer. The untitled A-side denies itself every conceivable melodic touch, opting instead for bouncing, unidentifiable percussion and jarring, bomb-like bursts of noise. There’s a lot of feeling on this record, but not much warmth/fuzziness. This one pairs best with “Der Krieg.”
TAO: Thank you, Jordan! I’ll try and get a copy of that Oni Ayhun before going to see the Dix exhibition again (as it definitely warrants a second visit).
JR: Of course, Lauren. Let’s do this again soon.
Jordan Rothlein is a staff writer for www.littlewhiteearbuds.com. His DJ work is compiled at http://jordanllc.wordpress.com/.