An excerpt from Irene von Neuendorff’s essay “A Happy Sisyphus” (2014)
“A lot has been written about the central element of Peter Dreher’s oeuvre, the series Day by Day Good Day. The title for this group of works was taken from the sixth example of the koan collection Biyan Lu or The Emerald Cliff Record. Many art historians and art mediators read asceticism and withdrawal from the world into the painter’s work and actions, interpreting them in the light of Zen Buddhism, even though the subject of their interpretation has expressly pointed out time and again that he is not a Buddhist, nor is he a believer in any religious sense. The mere number of more than 5,200 pictures of empty water glasses and the duration of the series – the year 2014 marks its fortieth anniversary – are amazing and fascinating. What moves the non-painter is that fact that a painter does not have to change the motif to avoid ennui and to create diversion. While the astonishing illusionism of the subject is fascinating, the artist’s voluntary restriction emanates an almost intense modesty. The idea of an artist being a genius with the ingenious intention of making genius inventions in order to stand out from the crowd still feeds the cliché. Let’s be honest – don’t we all still think that ‘art is just a skill’?
We all know conceptual art, we know provocation in art, and we also know art that is deliberately clumsy, almost childishly naïve, almost brandishing its coarseness. These tendencies have shaken our concept of art and forced us to re-think and re-position. However, it was never questioned that variation of subject and theme were crucial. Hence a decision such as Peter Dreher’s seems to be a great sacrifice. The painter himself states, “for me, the deliberate restriction to the same motif is not a sacrifice, neither is it based on the idea of creating a particularly crazy concept to increase my recognisability or to distinguish myself from my colleagues. I chose what is deemed to be a restriction in order to focus all my energy on what is really important and crucial for me: painting.”
Consequently, painting for him is not a means to an end, aimed at reproducing reality or an interpretation of reality or reacting to it in a kind of relation between artist and world. Painting is the purpose itself. Our visible reality is the cause for painting, or the catalyst, with the subject being of minor importance. Despite its minor significance, the decision for the empty glass was not a random one. Peter Dreher was so fascinated by the matter of the object that he was tempted to paint something that, strictly speaking, was not visible, but still an object – to be seen only by the reflection of light.
Peter Dreher’s work demonstrates what Aristotle described as praxis – performing an activity for its own sake. The ancient Greek philosopher distinguished praxis from so-called poiesis or poetic activity that, as opposed to praxis, serves a purpose and is aimed at a goal. As this goal can be achieved, the activity can be considered complete. Peter Dreher’s painting is praxis in the sense that his goal is performing the activity itself. His series is not aimed at a certain number. He plans to continue painting the glass as long as he enjoys doing it. His opus is the process leading to an indefinite goal. In this process, forty years have materialized.
How can an artist bear to do the same thing over and over again? What protects him from boredom and tedium? In this regard, Peter Dreher seems to be a ‘happy Sisyphus’ - a phrased coined by French philosopher and writer Albert Camus to designate Man. According to existentialism, Man is aware of the finiteness and futility of his existence that he accepts in freedom. We might jump to the conclusion that a person who does the same thing more than 5,000 times must suffer from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the philosopher views this choice quite differently. For him, freedom manifests itself in the house of self-realisation. The rock Sisyphus has to push up the mountain, time and again, is his own very task and thus cannot be viewed as a fate that is lacking freedom or a fateful punishment sent by a higher entity. Man himself is the master of his days. He chose how to spend his time and can live up to his choice, thus becoming a happy man, not a punished one.