Hyperreal Architectural Paintings Examine Mies’s Legacy

Karin Kneffel meditates on the German architect with a series of detailed canvases at Gagosian Gallery this month.

When Mies van der Rohe was 42, he designed two unassuming red brick villas for a pair of friends in Krefeld, Germany. Mies was only on the cusp of his career when he built Haus Lange and Haus Esters (the Barcelona Pavilion came a year later), and despite their quiet intelligence, the homes never gained widespread acclaim. Instead, Haus Lange and Esters remained functional houses, and in the mid-60s, they were converted into a small contemporary art museum called Kunstmuseen Krefeld.


German painter Karin Kneffel became fascinated by the villas in 2009, when she staged a show of her work at the museum. She spent the next few years making paintings of the interiors, a series that debuted in September at Gagosian Gallery.

Kneffel, who is 53, is widely known in Europe for her hyperreal style, a technique she developed as one of Gerhard Richter’s students. Her paintings of Haus Lange and Esters show her at the top of her game–the pieces are startlingly realistic, and might be photographs but for their slightly incongruous subject matter. Incongruous, in that they are historically inaccurate: each painting contains details from different chronological points in the villas’ lifespans. For example, the pieces show the interiors decorated with oddly mundane furnishings that the Esters family chose after the homes were built–big comfy sofas and odd paintings, for example. But Kneffel inserted furniture made by Mies and Lilly Reich into the scenes, too, which are more in-tune with Mies’ ideas about living. She also blanketed the canvases with incredibly realistic raindrops, as though we’re viewing the homes from outside. They might look like photographs, but these canvases show us a quietly fictional version of the villas. Other paintings refer to Mies’ later work, in America, like the Seagram Building concealed behind hundreds of drops of rain. Gagosian’s curators call the series “a glimmering palimpsest of memory.”

Other paintings harp on the water droplet motif, showing glass windows covered in condensation. Kneffel shows the glass covered in finger-written slogans (including a quote from Mies), giving us a glimpse of what lies outside–an early-morning garden, or a dreary roofscape. They are beautiful and unsettling. “You recognize a lot of things in my paintings at first glance,” Kneffel said in an interview with Daniel Schreiber a few years back. “But what happens when the shifts become apparent? What’s going on? Where are we? Nothing is as it is.”

Kneffel, who studied philosophy before emerging as a painter, uses realism to examine her own memories and recollections. “Art is a lie in a certain sense,” she says. “And that is why it can tell the truth to the reality of everyday life without competing with it. The reality of painting is one reality, the reality of everyday life is another.”

The show is on view at Gagosian in New York until October 20th.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.