The Sensual Politics of Jochen Klein

ROME — At first, visiting Jochen Klein: After the Light at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO) made me feel lost. The exhibition features paintings by Klein with contributions by artists including Julie Ault, Thomas Eggerer, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ull Hohn, and Amelie Von Wulffen, from the time they knew Klein. It’s a varied group of artworks that seemingly struggles to form a cohesive message.  

Contextualizing Klein’s work is not easy. Over a relatively short time, Klein shifted from traditional painting, which he had learned at Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts, to the conceptual approach of the artist collective Group Material when he moved to New York in 1994. Two years later he relocated to London and began developing the dreamy paintings that became his signature style. He passed away due to AIDS-related complications in 1997 at the age of 30.

Visiting the show brought to mind a well-known photograph of the artist taken by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans in 1997 when the two were partners. In the picture, Klein is shown soaking in a bathtub with water up his neck. He looks pensive, lost in thought; with his eyes half-closed, he doesn’t meet the camera’s gaze. It’s an incredibly intimate picture, taken in a private moment that we are allowed a peek into. 

Jochen Klein, “Untitled” (1994), oil on canvas (courtesy Estate of Jochen Klein and Galerie Buchholz)

The ambivalence that permeates Tillmans’s portrait accurately conveys the feeling some critics had when approaching Klein’s work. His episodic departure and return to painting have been interpreted as inconsistent and contradictory. But, as artist Julie Ault notes in a text featured in the exhibition, Klein’s role as a painter and his experience within Group Material shouldn’t be read in opposition. The artist’s paintings of luxurious Bavarian palace interiors that he made in the early 1990s — one of which is the highlight of this exhibition — were early investigations of the same structures of power that Klein challenged with his site-specific installations, made in collaboration with artist Thomas Eggerer a few years later. 

The oneiric scenes of Klein’s later paintings, which he kept making until his sudden death, are a striking combination of political commentary and the sensuality of paint. Once I realized this, the other artworks in After the Light took up meaning, and everything eventually fell into place. In Klein’s work, the critical structure and the sheer pleasure of painting are inextricable.  

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Exhibition view of Jochen Klein, After The Light at MACRO, 2023 (photo by Melania Dalle Grave – DSL Studio)

Jochen Klein: After the Light continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO) (Via Nizza 138, Rome, Italy) through August 27. The exhibition was co-curated by Luca Lo Pinto and Wolfgang Tillmans.

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