The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

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OCT 2010 Issue

LETTER FROM BERLIN: The Esprit of Gestures


On View
The Esprit of Gestures: Hans Hartung, Informel and Its Impact
July 30 – October 10, 2010

David Rhodes

Gesture has had a changing reception since Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism positioned it as a carrier of unmediated meaning at the middle of the 20th century. Once perceived as spontaneous, open and direct, gesture later became a sign of empty rhetoric: redundant, obsolete, and naïve. Looking further back, to the late paintings of Titian, whose pronounced brush marks and finger painting moved beyond accepted techniques of establishing an image, the painter’s relationship to surface and facture becomes something that is engaged in process and real time, not simply in looking and reflecting. This continued as one concern amongst many until mark making emerged as a partner in both the realization and perception of painting. The gesture has been around a long time in Western painting.

Art Informel consciously foregrounded gesture on its way to claiming an oppositional position to Geometric Abstraction, consequently elevating spontaneous acts of painting above composition and structure. Painting as verb and noun became almost inseparable. A cue was taken from the Surrealist emphasis on automatic drawing, allowing for accidents and spontaneity to override rationality. The aim of accessing and exposing the subconscious in an effort to renew visual language required new strategies. Art Informel artists Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu and Serge Poliakoff sought to eliminate what they believed to be outmoded pictorial and philosophical attitudes after the wartime destruction of Europe. What they sought was an art that was direct and unencumbered by connoisseurship or a controlling ideology.

That was then, but how does this look now? The Esprit of Gestures features the prints of Hans Hartung, which are presented with prints by other artists, both contemporaries of Hartung and artists working today, from the Kupferstichkabinett’s own collection. The exhibition was made possible by the donation earlier this year of 213 of Hartung’s printed works from the Foundation Hans Hartung and Anna-Eva Bergman, in Antibes, France. Hartung, born in Leipzig in 1904, lived in France from the 1930s until his death in 1989. Anna-Eva Bergman was an artist and Hartung’s wife, and her work and ideas were crucial to him. They were married twice, once in 1929 and then a second time in 1952 after a separation of more than ten years, having met by chance at a Julio Gonzales exhibition in Paris. From this moment on, Hartung said they were inseparable.

The prints represent an extraordinarily diverse oeuvre, striking in its independence from orthodoxy, surprisingly inventive and, not least, inspiring in its relevance to artists looking afresh at the possibilities of abstraction after several decades of naysayers and apologists. The dialogue that the exhibition establishes through the inclusion of works by Wols, Pierre Soulages, Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, Gabriele Basch, Katharina Hinsberg, Mark Sheinkman, Maria Lassnig, and Günther Förg, amongst others, while informative, would have benefited from some loans that might make Hartung’s connection to younger artists more apparent.


It is clear that, in his lithography, etching and woodcuts, Hartung explored the consequences of his “being in the moment” approach, applying discoveries as uncompromisingly as he did in his paintings. It is not always the case that an artist moves between mediums in this way: see the current Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York. Beautiful though it is, drawing for Richter is evidently a supplementary activity. In comparison, Hartung’s “H 1973-3,” a woodcut from 1973, which features an accumulation of linear, circular and rectangular groupings of marks over broader vertical bands, unmistakably informs a work like “T 1981-H27,” an acrylic on linen that was seen in the Museum Ludwig’s exhibition Hans Hartung – So beschwor ich den Blitz in 2004. These works succeed not only in looking back to Paul Klee, but also forward to Anselm Reyle’s production of the last few years. It is perhaps Hartung’s ability to remain visually independent and inventive whilst acknowledging the past that makes him both difficult and relevant for artists now.

“L 1973-7” (1973), a lithograph of stunning subtlety and straight ahead execution evokes the freshness of process found in traditional Chinese painting. Hartung’s flowing calligraphies and minimal baroque flourishes beside blocks of solid form, or simply in isolation, evince complexities comparable to Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombly, as well as David Reed’s deployment of the gesture.

Hartung’s reassessment continues with a forthcoming show at Cheim & Read in New York next month. An exhibition of late paintings here in Berlin at Galerie Fahnemann (it was Clemens Fahnemann who brokered the donation of prints from the Foundation Hans Hartung and Anna-Eva Bergman) last year looked like the show of a young painter: vital, fresh, instinctive and new. I saw many people passing the gallery in the evening doing a double take as they casually glanced inside, as if thinking: this is something special.


David Rhodes

David Rhodes is a New York-based artist and writer, originally from Manchester, UK.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

All Issues