Letter From BERLINby David Rhodes
Ich Nicht (Not Me): Neue Werke
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin
May 23 - June 26, 2009
Zu Hilfe, zu Hilfe…
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin
May 23 – August 8, 2009
Here in Berlin, two timely exhibitions by Imi Knoebel present the artist’s long preoccupation with color and its material support. At the Deutsche Guggenheim, Ich Nicht (Not Me), works from 2005-2009, represents the artist’s emphatic answer to Barnett Newman’s question, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” Mostly large-scale and engaged with primary colors, the paintings’ assertive presence does undercut their potential for contemplation. Newman explained in 1969 that he wanted to make primary colors expressive and didactic; Knoebel’s color is certainly expressive and free of dogma: “Fishing Blue” (2008), “Fishing Red” (2007), and “Fishing Yellow” (2008) use blue, red and yellow, respectively, as the initial color, with variable stretches of red, yellow and blue scattered across the surface, alternating between randomness and order. “Fishing Pink,” from earlier this year and the most recent work in the show, proposes a wider range of hues, fresh and lyrical. A freestanding painting, “Ort, Blau, Gelb, Rot, Rot” (2008), a construction of screwed-together aluminum sheets, primed and painted with acrylic, is an intense enclosure of color, open on one side and connected across the floor. The outside surface is unpainted, leaving no doubt as to how the piece is made. The wall-based paintings are built the same way. At no point is there any sense of obfuscation; everything is a vehicle for the expressive potential of color.
Knoebel’s application of paint is entirely matter-of-fact, neither neutral nor expressive but simply getting the job done, inclusive of smears, drips, and daubs. Each color area is distinct but powerfully influences adjacent colors, and each colored surface can be arranged and interchanged at will. The components have the immediacy and mobility of collage, providing endless possibilities for combining and changing. As Lisa Liebmann remarked in her “Parkett” essay of 1992, “The way he exults in process and resists the finished thing” and produces “a structured disorder” channels childhood energy and experience from a time when textual language is yet in place.
It’s a Constructivist principle that Knoebel has been developing from the implications of Mondrian’s taped New York City paintings of the early 1940s. Malevich’s Supremacist paintings are her source, although Knoebel has no interest in a spiritual aestheticism; what you see is in fact pretty much what you get. We are left with painted objects that share our physical space while allowing the autonomous interaction of color. The overlapping aluminum bars of the “Fishing” series extend 13.8 centimeters. As the artist said in 1994, “I don’t want to arrive at anything but color… I bring color into all kinds of contexts. That keeps it open. There is no color I don’t work with. Thus there is no system behind it.”
Knoebel has spoken of searching for a particular green with Blinky Palermo, searching but failing. “We kept talking of the idea of this specific green, which actually only existed in our heads.” I can recount a friend’s visit to Knoebel’s studio where he saw paper painted in more shades and types of green than he had ever seen in his life. These were destined for use in Knoebel’s “Portraits.” And “Grace Kelly” (1989/2005), a series of small-scale works grouped together to form a large one are permutations of variously colored paper on Masonite, each a different mood, recalling Brice Marden’s more architectonic “Thira” paintings from the late 70s/early 80s. It has always been clear that Knoebel’s openness to color leads him to an ongoing exploration of ways of seeing, of possibilities, while in Marden’s case there is a desire to achieve a specific light or weight. “Ort-Rot Blau Blau Gelb,” with its reflective floor panel, creates a three-dimensional color space and brings to mind the use of water as a reflective plane in Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion.
This conjunction of emotion and architectural space appears to further a dialogue that Knoebel’s fellow Germans, Palermo and Gunter Forg, began with American abstraction, which includes Ellsworth Kelly as well as Newman and Marden. It amounts to a lot more than simple influence: Kelly’s use of glimpsed fragments of reality, realized as multi-panel paintings, have been an inspiration for Palermo’s use of fabric as well as his shaped paintings. But the poetics of Palermo’s color sequences and his wall paintings extended this. Similarly, Forg conducted a painterly enquiry into the modes of modernism that included the use of large-scale photographs and lead reliefs.
In the café area are two film pieces that remind viewers of the breadth of Knoebel’s oeuvre, Projection X (1972) (with Gerry Schum) and Projection X (remade) (2005). Both involve an “X” projected across an urban landscape from a moving car, at once absorbing the texture of street activity and building surfaces. This “X” doesn’t mark the spot, at all, but marks a continuous passage, the flux.
In contrast, “Raum 19,” an installation of accumulated fiberboard sheets and wooden frames which was first made in 1968 at the Kunstakademie, Dusseldorf, and is now featured at the Neue Nationalgalerie’s Zu Hilfe, Zu Hilfe… is ordered through stacking, on the ion of rooms; a situation more related in procedure to Joseph Beuys, who gave the young student Knoebel the license to find his own direction free of his teacher’s mythic, magical inclinations. The fiberboard, an industrial material and, in effect, a non-color, was a clearing of the ground upon which Knoebel based his entire subsequent output. After the sensuality of “Nicht Ich” comes a very austere engagement with the huge, glass-walled, open interior of this imposing Mies van der Rohe building. The windows have been occluded with a brushed, semi-opaque substance, reminiscent in facture of Gunter Forg’s paintings, especially so given Forg’s own long engagement with iconic modernist architecture. The building’s ground floor, where the Knoebel exhibits, is of such a size that scale becomes a difficult proposition for these isolated, room-like works. Since all of Knoebel’s work is both outwardly and inwardly directed, the effect here is a little compromised in the giant single space.
It is fitting that after the Museum of Modern Art’s Color Chart and the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden’s Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue - Positionen der Farbfeldmalerei (Positions in Color Field Painting), where Kelly and Knoebel were hung opposite each other, Knoebel’s past oeuvre should be given its present exposure. Young artists with a desire for increased expressivity and communication, on both sides of the Atlantic, are again interested in such a position, free of dogma and involved in daily life, as they are in the traditions of abstraction.