PRINT January 2004

Katy Siegel on Tomma Abts

MODESTY AND IRONY HAVE LATELY PROVED POPULAR, if unfortunately tedious, replacements for now-deflated master narratives of painting. Tomma Abts’s independent, self-contained canvases eschew these alternatives; their appeal rests rather on intensity, a concentration of affect and accomplishment in a distracted age.

Raised and trained in Germany, Abts has worked in London since the mid-’90s, in part because it offers her independence from the dominant German painting tradition and the Berlin art scene. Her early work encompassed structuralist film and Color Field painting, but for the past several years she has been making smallish easel paintings, which she has exhibited in one-person shows in Europe, including two at greengrassi gallery in London, in 1999 and 2002 (her New York track record consists of one painting shown at the Wrong Gallery last year).

These recent works combine heavily worked surfaces, slightly off colors, and quasi-geometric images, a description that is, perhaps, less than riveting—but already we’ve run up against an interesting question: Can abstract painting have an image? Not imagery in the sense that Peter Halley’s ironic, referential work depicts “abstraction,” but imagery in the sense of a picture that seems separate from the material surface of the painting. In works such as Mennt, 2002, which featured in the artist’s one-woman show at greengrassi that year, heavily layered brushstrokes and underlying linear forms—the textural elements—do not obviously align with the visual design that we perceive. Abts treats the image as an object—not, à la Stella and Judd, as the physical painting per se, but as painted shapes that float above the surface, catching the light, or dip in and out of a ground that has its own, often independent topography.

This optical illusionism can be quite illogical; often the images throw shadows that aren’t where you’d want them to be for it all to make sense. Abts’s work calls attention to the relationship between literal physicality and illusionistic image, between process and product. The relationship is insistently neither literal nor reductive: She offers imagination, of a materialist rather than a surrealist sort. Abts creates a little world in which image and surface don’t match up, in which shadows appear where they shouldn’t, in which what looks like it’s below is really above.

This world is not static. Several of the canvases, such as Tedo, 2002, have a central focus or point from which a starburst of imagery explodes, the movement out from center reversing the usual direction of perspective in toward a vanishing point. The blades of these central compositions seem to rotate as well, and once you imagine the image rotating, you realize that certain of these “arms” are longer than others, and that if they began spinning, some of them would spill over the edge, or crumple against its boundaries.

While Abts’s paintings are difficult to date, these starburst paintings run the greatest risk of period reference, to psychedelia, but they never quite stray over the line. Ert, 2003, the best, most complicated and idiosyncratic of these central images, looks completely new and fresh. Its outward swirls refuse neat geometries and unified design; rather, different sections seem to move at different rates, as if the image were a circulating fan whose rotation interrupted and distorted glimpses of the scene behind it, a seemingly simple, rounded diamond shape.

Abts’s work embodies the life of a painting, its internal relations, and its finish as if there were plenty of room for new relations and solutions (which of course there is), as well as a very insistent personal sensibility. These paintings describe something rare and valuable in their complex relations between surface and image, between process and product, between her touch and our vision: the difference between the privateness of her experience and the publicness of ours, respected, not effaced, and held in tension.

Katy Siegel, a contributing editor of Artforum, teaches contemporary art history and criticism at Hunter College, CUNY. She is currently completing Art & Money, coauthored with Paul Mattick and forthcoming this spring from Thames & Hudson.