Erwin Pfrang by Carroll Dunham

BOMB 69 Fall 1999
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Erwin Pfrang, Lui nel sonno pure parlava “Amore mio, amore mio” (Oft spricht er im Traum “Mein Liebling, mein Liebling.”), 1997, ink on paper, 11¾ x 7 inches. All images courtesy Nolan/Eckman Gallery.

Erwin Pfrang must have an itch that he can only reach by drawing. He fiddles around in some toxic waste site of the mind, pulling pictures out of cavities where anything could lurk. His drawings are most of the things that drawing can be: diagrammatic, random, representational, abstract, self-expressive, impersonal—faintly tracing the shadow of a big idea. They spring from an indeterminate attitude to history, not that of an Outsider (he’s outside of that), but with no particular agenda beyond an acceptance of graphic dominion. They’ve been scratched in the sand by someone marooned in his own life.

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Erwin Pfrang, Amara tanto lo stambecco minoenne. Questa e la sacrosanta verita. (Sein ganze Liebe gilt dem jugendichen Steimback. Da is die reine Warheit), 1997, ink on paper, 19¾ x 14½ inches.

This work could only be made in the late 20th century, in a western culture, but it’s close to the hemorrhaging source of pictorial archetypes which must have been leaking into his awareness for a long time. In America this kind of project rarely avoids the tactics of anti-style, which can feel arch. Pfrang is German and he’s risking something completely different—too much opera. But his means undercut this and free him. His ambition is congruent with its materiality. These small focused things, rangy and numerous, penetrate deep on a narrow beam. It’s the work of a drawing animal, dirty-minded and direct, maybe a little desperate, knotted, spotted, clotted like the webs woven by spiders on acid.

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Erwin Pfrang, Untitled, 1 from a series of 19 drawings based on James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1989, ink on paper, 7x5 inches.

The endless dark mechanics of the unconscious rule, so his fascination with James Joyce is peculiar and note-worthy. The literature must be a relief package, assistance sent from afield to help him channel his visual aggression. The illustrational framework governs the mode of entry and return to the unrepresentable. With a writer like Joyce, the thread between image and text can hang loose or fray. Pfrang’s immersion in this dawn-of-the-modern material helps him operate both in and out of historical time. Multiple perspectives, Stone-Age intensity. The proverbial cave man couldn’t have drawn like this, but it’s touching to think that he might have understood the weird seriousness and endless flow of pictures.

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Erwin Pfrang, Signor Mattei, 1990, ink on paper, 28½ x 20¼ inches.

There’s something dense and fragrant in Pfrang’s work that sets it apart. When I’m not in front of it I don’t think much about it—there’s nothing to exactly “think” about. But when I see it again I’m right back inside, convinced, appreciating him drawing his life without quotation marks.

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David Scher Bomb 01

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Grondona 3 Body
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Originally published in

BOMB 69, Fall 1999

Featuring interviews with Errol Morris, Peggy Shaw, Laurie Anderson, Carlo Ginzburg, Raymond Pettibon, Judy Pfaff, Mellisa Marks, Edward Said, and Margaret Cezair-Thompson. 

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