Wolfgang Becker on Josef Mispelbaum By Wolfgang Becker

Josef Mispelbaum, Die Ablehnung- The Refusal, drawing on paper


The 67 year-old man lives alone in a cramped house In a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany. He works in a narrow kitchen – continually, obsessively. The earliest works I know are pencil drawings from 1974 inspired by Franz Kafka´s “The Metamorphosis”. He had started to draw figures with double entendre then.

He had left the Dusseldorf Academy at that time and benefited from traveling scholarships and prizes. Though he met many people and saw all kinds of experimental artworks he did not turn away from pencil drawing on paper – to this day: thick and thin, soft and hard pencils on sheets of 40 by 30 or 70 by 60 cm – if exhibition spaces demanded bigger sizes he would work on rolls of package paper up to 280 by 120 cm using mixed media to fix the graphite.

None of the pieces is a preparatory drawing or sketch, all of them are finished in a double sense, all of them are framed by four pencil lines which follow the borders of the paper defining the space of the physical and spiritual action. Under the bottom line we find the signature right and a title left. These drawings are to be framed, hung on the wall and looked at like paintings.

Josef Mispelbaum, Der Welt trotzen – Brave the world, drawing on paper


I was impressed by the titles and started to collect them. Did these words create the images, did they pop up during the work or did he invent them afterwards? Some relate to the catholic education of the Rhinelander: “Crucifixion”, “At The Tomb”, “The Weeping Women”. Many of them refer to his manifold hospitalizations and explain how he has experienced life as a sequence of states of weakness and endangerment. “The Pain”, “Helplessness”, “Anxiety On Three Legs”, “Under Pressure”, “Prohibition”, “Patient of Psychiatry”, “Nurse”, “Quarantine Man”, “Body Search”, “Humiliation”, “Quick Prayer”, “Supervisory Body”, “The Goodbye (Little Jack)” and in 2011, after a long hospitalization: “The Depression Leaves The Body” and “Country Summer With Erection”. One comes to understand that a conscience mastered by fear, drugs and medical treatment over a long period of time will create extraordinary artistic work.

Opposed to those egocentric titles are others which open up to the world: “World-Wandering”, “World With Hooks (No Loops)”, “Braving The World” – and others which speak of the earth: “Earth-Portray (Mourning)”, “Earth-Depression”, “Earth Burden”, “Earth Chaining (Capitulation)”, “Earth Rider”, “Earth Eagle”, “Earth Clinic”, “The Renovation of the Earth”.

There is nothing to signify between the Ego (“Haenschen klein” – “Little Jack”) and the conceivable “Mother Earth”. The stage of this global theatre, which he depicts, is as empty as Samuel Beckett’s, in which Estragon and Wladimir wait endlessly for Godot. It is framed and limited, and Mispelbaum is not afraid of leaving it empty as if it were a Euclidian geometric construction into which swaying lines, elliptic hooks, and even small anthropomorphic figurines intrude.

Josef Mispelbaum, Erd-Depression für ADC – Earth Depression for ADC (That Is Abraham David Christian), drawing on paper


In recent years he tries to enlarge the stage with props that include shadows: he cuts one drawing into pieces with scissors and knives and pastes the parts onto another drawing to create thick collages. Following an old silhouette tradition he has developed an astonishing craft in “cutting” pencil lines and gluing them on top of others. In the latest pieces (“Country Summer With Erection”) he happily joins scraps of paper and textiles to heighten the three-dimensional effect.

The graphite seems to sparkle in some of the drawings. It has been rubbed into the paper with great energy, and sometimes the pencil tears a hole. Mispelbaum is not the improvising draftsman who leads his pen graciously over the immaculate white surface, his line is a solid statement, repeated and confirmed, defining a final geometrical form and its ornamental variations.

Josef Mispelbaum, Die Depression verlaesst den Körper – The Depression Leaves the Body


These ornamental variations which playfully surround the geometrical bases (straight lines, rectangles, circles) often become floral or anthropomorphic figures. In “Earth-Chaining (Capitulation)” the dominant circle appears as the abdomen of a man who is marked by abbreviated head, arms, legs and a limp phallus. In “earth charge” the sphere is loaded on the shoulders of an “Atlas”.

Sometimes what Mispelbaum calls “Little Jack” appears, a figurine, a dwarf. In “The Goodbye”, a collage more than a drawing, the hooded dwarf tries to rush away from a aggressively dominant “fir tree” – and in so doing approaches a “wolf” – suggesting the interpretation: the artist leaves the hospital and foresees new dangers.

In “School of Democracy” the pencil has driven through the paper again. The hole is where the action culminates – in the figurines throwing stones. There the utmost energy was invested, and the artist voluntarily risked damage to the drawing by tearing the sheet. Mispelbaum dives into the esthetics of ugliness, and the sculptures he has started to conceive betray an anarchism which we call ART BRUT.

Ugliness is chaos, order is beauty. The hermit in his kitchen draws and cuts, rubs and pastes a World which is a perfect circle (he uses a saucer to draw it) and inserts the dwarf “Haenschen klein”, a nervous figurine struggling in various emotions to find his place on mother earth.


Photo Credits: “Hermann Hosef Mispelbaum: Drawings, Abraham David Christian: Sculptures”, September 10 through October 23, 2011, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen – Abtei Aachen-Kornelimuenster, Germany:
Writing Credits: Wolfgang Becker is the Former Founding Director of the Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen, Germany. Becker has curated important solo exhibitions of Roy Lichtenstein, Duane Hanson, Luciano Fabro, A. R. Penck, Georg Baselitz, On Kawara, Imi Knoebel, Katharina Fritsch, Frédéric Bruly-Bouabré, Chéri Samba, Richard Tuttle, Nan Goldin, Christian Boltanski, Keith Haring and others. A distinguished critic and writer, Becker became a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in Paris in 1990.

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