Constantly Blue Sky, Never a Cloud: On Rudolf De Crignis, 1948 - 2006
New York abstract painter Rudolf de Crignis died December 23 at Cabrini Hospice in Manhattan. He fell victim to a fast-acting brain tumor, inoperable and incurable, diagnosed just one month earlier. His friends and loved ones were shocked by the suddenness of his illness—and the swiftness of his death.
Born in Winterthur, Switzerland, in 1948, de Crignis was educated at the Form + Farbe School for Art and Media Design in Zurich and the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Germany. He started out as a video and performance artist. Later, he turned to painting, inspired by Blinky Palermo’s famous “To The People of New York City” series.
De Crignis’s works, notable for their rigor and beauty, were most recently shown in New York at Peter Blum Gallery in 2003. Typical of his method, the paintings included there weighed disciplined procedure and its literal end results against pure retinal viewing experience—immaterial and transcendental. Often square (roughly 30 by 30 inches or 6 by 60 inches), each piece at first appeared all blue or all gray with deeply color-saturated surfaces. But, in fact, these were the results of the artist layering thin oil washes in accumulation. The gray paintings were made without ever using the color gray. The blue paintings, predominantly ultramarine, were “tinted” with secondary hues, red or silver, for example, creating an illusory experience of color “aura.” Not surprisingly, comparisons to James Turrell light installations often came up in critical descriptions.
For all the self-imposed severity displayed in his work, Rudolf (or Ruedi as he was known) was a free thinker, generous in his opinions on other artists and their work. It was a pleasure to go with him to an exhibition because he would always come up with an unorthodox, counter-intuitive response to it. He made many friends in the art community, who valued him for his humor and keen good sense.
In his own self-definition, he preferred to state not what he was, but what he was not: not a “Swiss artist,” not a “monochrome painter,” etc.
I first met Rudolf in 1995 at the opening of a group exhibition at Pamela Auchincloss Gallery, and our friendship grew as a kind of long, protracted dialogue from there. He would call me on the phone about every two weeks, with a complete report on his recent activities. He traveled extensively, often with his partner Michael Paoletta, and these trips were recounted back to me in purely visual descriptive terms. I happened to take some notes during a phone conversation in January, 2005, when Rudolf had just returned from 15 days spent in Morocco. Looking at these now, I see that he began by telling me about the desert’s “constantly blue sky, never a cloud.” He went on to recount the nightime sensation of “cover, from one end to the other, of just stars.” He finished by saying that when he came back to America, he had brought with him a “feeling of scale. The color, the light—an incredible feeling of space.”
This ideal, that an intensity of personal experience could be brought into an abstract painting, was core to de Crignis’s project—and to the way he worked and lived. His compact studio, high above Manhattan’s garment district on West 39th street with its large north-facing windows, was turned into a vessel for the examination of pure daylight and its effects.
By the time of my first visit to Rudolf in the hospital, his brain was already addled by the tumor. Though he had lost his bearings, he recognized me. I tried to explain to him how special he was to me, how meaningful our friendship had been, but he cut me off short. “Let’s talk about painting,” he said. “What are you working on? Have you seen any exhibitions?”
Zinsser is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn.