Imi Knoebel

Imi Knoebel comes from Joseph Beuys’ Düsseldorf school, which was significant in shaping the radical mood of the art of the late ’60s; an atmosphere of rebellion and of utopian aspiration is still present in his work. Knoebel’s sculptures are always concerned with painting and his paintings with sculpture, a point strikingly made in two installations here—Hartfaser Raum (Hard-fiber space), 1968, and Genter Raum (Ghent space), 1980. Hartfaser Raum is a kind of warehouse of artistic ideas; it gradually came into being as a collection of forms and of potential supports for color and form. The presence of stretcher framesand fragments of stretcher frames makes several further elements of the piece, frames mounted with fiberboard, look like materialized canvases; these “paintings” appear as pure sculpture, inviting reflection on illusionistic painting and the dream of transforming a two-dimensional surface into an imaginary space. Precisely because Knoebel’s “canvases” are hard, they call to mind Lucio Fontana’s nonchalant solution—a breakthrough to the third dimension by the precisely placed cut; ice-cold, but con amore.

To his questioning of the authority of the two-dimensional picture Knoebel juxtaposes actual spatial entities, sculptures based on the simplest forms—the cube, rectangle, and arc. He has presented these elements, 77 of which are included in Hartfaser Raum, in different configurations on several occasions elsewhere; each presentation not only gets its character from the space in question but also creates a productive tension among the separate elements, the changing arrangements a counterpoint to the geometrical forms. The changes demonstrate how in this kind of installation the environment forms a complex negative sculpture whose irregularity further emphasizes the objects’ precision.

This fluctuation between order and disorder also dominates Genter Raum, but here the addition of color significantly reinforces the ambivalence of the painting/sculpture dichotomy in the installation. The basic elements are flat rectangular boards; hung in groups above and beside each other, they function as “panel paintings.” Although the finish of these red, orange, gray, white,and black monochromatic blocks suggests a spray technique, on closer observation it is possible to make out a brush stroke. In art syntax, then, these panels indicate “Painting,” and in their understated high-tech look they drive the monochromatic mode of that art form to the limit, formulating an identity between painting and support. They are juxtaposed with a series of stacks of boards and of plywood sheets, painted, on the floor, and at times sawn in irregular shapes; some of the boards are aligned, some project, some are recessed. These stacks have a sculptural character in the space.

The assertions and counter-assertions in both works propose dialectical discourses—on painting as opposed to sculpture, on definite as opposed to potential or amorphous form. These propositions invite precise observation of the details of the works, and in this perceptual process it becomes clear that Knoebel’s pieces are involved not with the Minimalist or conceptual esthetic they evoke, but with the kind of objectification of “pure feeling” familiar from Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematism. The work’s origin lies not in a calculated system but in the labor process through which Knoebel constructs his pieces. For Knoebel labor is a process of intuitive concentration through which the maximum objectivity can be sought; each piece becomes a kind of meditation (though without religious undertones). The artist’s conceptual severity, informed by intuition, objectifies that “pure feeling” that crystallizes out of the dichotomy of assertion and counter-assertion; expression is reined in.

An openness in Knoebel’s work suggests not an unrelatedness but a commitment to tradition. Thus his beautiful idea of incorporating paintings from the museum’s permanent collection in his installations does not suggest arrogance, and if Fernand Léger’s still life from 1927 here seems so effective in Genter Raum this is surely not just because of the splendid yellow in each piece. The juxtaposition does not harm Knoebel’s work.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.