In all the glitter and glitz of last December's Art Basel Miami Beach festival, one moment of gold still stands out. It shone in the paintings of the German artist Stefan Kürten. Kürten paints scenes of both American and German urban settings that he suffuses with a glow by applying that auratic sheen around and through buildings, gardens, and even skies. They give his art a sense of having been burnished by time and memory, but also make them into modern day equivalents of religious icons.
Kürten is one of what is by now a sizable group of artists, of whom perhaps Enoc Perez is the most well-known, whose favorite subject matter seems to be mid-century modern architecture and environments. While Perez and others focus on the monuments of that era (or their provincial cousins), Kürten is lately more interested in the everyday. With the strongest recent paintings shown at New York art dealer Alexander and Bonin’s booth at Art Basel Miami (and a few with San Francisco dealer Todd Hosfelt), he tried to evoke the houses he saw when studying in Indiana, as well as the elementary school he attended.
It is the way Kürten paints these scenes that combines a sense of nostalgia with a sense that you are discovering either an Eden of lush plantings or houses that convey a sense of innocence. In what he describes as a process much like weaving, he builds his images up out of tiny little segments and dots he applies with the smallest brushes he can find. This neo-pointillism then comes together through his use of colors that provide a depth you don’t find the in the late 19th century pioneers of the method. Moreover, these are not dots but mere dashes and tiny lines. Kürten is building up his architecture out of the blocks of which paint consists.
My favorite images were those that connected with my own memories of living in Los Angeles, but also those that reminded me of growing up and going to school in Europe. This is essentially Baby Boomer painting, a sense Kürten amplifies by giving them titles lifted from songs by the likes of Morrisey. When you dive past the rocks and ferns in the foreground of "Site," over the pool, and through the invisible glass into the living room posing itself for Julius Schulman (Kürten works largely from photographs), you find yourself in the realm many once dreamt of inhabiting, both as children and then again when, as adults, we resurrected our parents visions and outfitted them our own aspirations and furnishings.
There is also a beauty to this work that stands in contrast to the roughness and social criticism that was the mainstay of so much of what is produced today. After wandering past these cries of outrage and purposeful challenges to my sense of aesthetic rightness at Art Basel, I felt almost guilty falling in love with these purely gorgeous paintings. I believe, however, that good art and architecture work first of all by being good: by following both their internal rules and their purpose, however they or we in collaboration with the artist who constructs them, in a not just competent, but amazing manner. Then the question of why, beyond function or criticism, arises. Why is this work of art or architecture here, doing what it does, in a manner seduced us? We are in love, now what? In Stefan Kürten’s case, the "what" is an embrace that is both endlessly familiar and hallucinatory.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.