Imi Knoebelby John Yau
Mary Boone Gallery: January 8 – February 14, 2009
Is anyone surprised anymore when the culture mavens at the New York Times get it all wrong, again? This is how the Times reviewer opened a piece:
“The German artist Imi Knoebel studied with Joseph Beuys during the late 1960s, but his work owes even more to his classmate Blinky Palermo. (Mr. Knoebel’s painting cycle ‘24 Colors—for Blinky’ (1977), made the year of Palermo’s death, hangs at Dia: Beacon.) Mr. Palermo had a knack for distancing himself from the act of painting while espousing the mystical-sublime qualities of color. His influence is particularly strong in Mr. Knoebel’s recent abstractions.”
While Mr. Knoebel did study with Joseph Beuys, and his cycle was made for his close friend in the months following his death, the writer’s use of the word “classmate” is not only a tip-off, but also attributes far more to Palermo and Beuys than they deserve. Let’s start in 1974, three years after Knoebel graduated from the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf and work our way back. That was the year Knoebel traveled to the U.S. to visit Palermo, who had moved to New York in 1973, and together they made a road trip through America, seeing the Rothko Chapel in Houston and De Maria’s “Lightning Field” in New Mexico, among other things.
Knoebel and Palermo were very good friends, not just “classmates,” and the influence was mutual. They were incredibly sensitive to materials, did projection prints, and, most importantly, felt that they had to start over without being nostalgic for craft. This rethinking of the basics is also true of other German artists who emerged in the 1960s, including Gerhard Richter, Konrad Lueg, Katharina Sieverding, and Sigmar Polke, all of whom attended the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, but, in Polke’s case, didn’t all study with Beuys, as American critics and curators keep falsely reporting. It’s convenient to think that Beuys was the only teacher of consequence in Germany in the 1960s, but it just isn’t true.
While Knoebel publicly and generously acknowledges “color…was really his [Palermo’s] specialty,” “24 Colors – for Blinky” (1977) is a major, breakthrough piece unlike anything being done in America or Germany. In making twenty-four idiosyncratic geometric shapes, starting with heptagons, and painting each of them monochromatically, Knoebel bids a touching farewell to Palermo, as well as further defines the parameters of his lifelong preoccupation with the elemental (the construction and deconstruction of the relationship between color and support). Seven-sided, a heptagon has no history in art; it isn’t a triangle, square, rectangle, pentagon, octagon, parallelogram, or circle, all of which carry some meaning, and many of which Palermo used. At the same time, one can imagine that Knoebel began with a heptagon because many religions believe seven is an occult number. I think the former is far more important to Knoebel than the latter, but that he was pleased by the coincidence. He isn’t interested in the mystical qualities of color, but in its materialist and ineffable aspects.
Born Klaus Wolf Knoebel in 1940, the artist grew up near Dresden until 1950, when his family moved to Mainz. Before transferring to the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1964, he and his good friend Rainer Griese (1942-1974) studied art at the Darmstadt Werkkunstschule from 1962-64, where the Bauhaus-influenced curriculum emphasized the teachings of Johannes Itten, an abstract painter and color theorist, and LászlÓ Moholy-Nagy, who was interested in movement and light. In Darmstadt, Knoebel and Griese decided to call themselves “Imi”—the word they used to say good-bye to each other. Clearly, Knoebel’s interest in structure, color, light and non-expressiveness preceded his study with Beuys and friendship with Palermo. He had also adopted his pseudonym before Beuys conferred the name of an American Mafioso, Blinky Palermo, on his student, Peter Heisterkamp (1943-1977).
Knoebel occupies a singular position in postwar art. While his explorations of the interdependence of structure and color shares something with figures and movements as distinct as the Americans Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman, the Belgian painter Marthe Wéry, and the French painters associated with Support Surface, he is very much the sole navigator of his own, recognizable territory. Never reducing what he has done to a predictable, mannerist gesture—think of how much mileage Joseph Marioni (b. 1943), who tellingly calls himself “The Painter,” has managed to get out of quirky monochromes—Knoebel has barely gained attention in America except when considered in relationship to Palermo and Beuys. I don’t think this exhibition at Mary Boone will change people who have already made up their minds, but it should.
Knoebel’s works are imaginative hybrids that integrate features identified with painting and sculpture into a physically palpable, layered construction. Made of aluminum sections, stiff plastic sheets, and acrylic paint applied in a range of techniques from solid planes to thin, matter-of-factly brushed coats, the works evoke walls under construction and the lattice-like supports behind them. Knoebel’s palette includes primaries and secondaries and hothouse colors such as turquoise, pink, and lavender, as well as reddish-brown. I have the feeling that the artist has never seen a color that he couldn’t use. Sometimes he will lean the plastic sheets against the upper area of a work, as if it were waiting to be moved or installed. Large flat areas (or literal planes) are often notched, so that one can glimpse another color in the cutaway section. Everything is painted a different color.
In “Ich Nicht XII” (2006), the simplest of the large works on display, he abutted five rectangles above three larger ones with dominant yellows and a blue panel extending from behind. For no completely explainable reason, I was reminded of Van Gogh’s last painting, “Wheatfield with Crows” (1890). In Knoebel’s work, the yellow has all but overwhelmed the blue, which peeks through and cannot be driven away, no matter how much one might wish otherwise. I don’t think that this was Knoebel’s intention, but his very formal paintings do in some cases invite this kind of reading.
Knoebel works in all scales, ranging from pieces that are supposed to be worn, like a ribbon (all the proceeds go to a program that attends to needy children), to large works that would be terrific additions to a corporate lobby or the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. In his best large works, the artist is able to orchestrate a wide range of possibilities—from tonal shifts to sharp contrasts, and from monochrome to cacophonous groupings—into a single, complex piece. Moving before the work, with its cutaway notches, sets off a shifting of the layers and alignments, revealing more or less of what is beneath, which also changes the color relationship.
At once analytical and emotional, logical and intuitive, Knoebel’s large sumptuous works at Mary Boone’s cavernous Chelsea expanse are decidedly urban in feel; they evoke the varying, unpredictable intersections of geometries and wild arrays of color that make up any vital city, its collision of decorated windows, its hodgepodge of edifices, LED advertisements, and neon lights seen from a speeding taxi. The overlapping and layered planes combined with the visible lattice-like supports and leaning sheets recall the incessant, purposeful activity at a building site. The glimpses of half-hidden colors, and the elusive glow of the vertical supports, engage in a constant dance of expanse and edge.
For Knoebel, color is physical and radiant, solid and slippery, in-your face and barely noticed. Movement and change are an integral part of the viewer’s experience. Without the slightest bit of cynicism or parody, the artist has expanded upon the legacy of Mondrian and Malevich by adding something that is distinctly his own. In his thorough courting of chaos and order, without settling for either solution, Knoebel achieves a state of exuberance that strains to break free of the material support. This was his first solo exhibition at a New York gallery since 1991. I hope we don’t have to wait that long for the next one.