Håkan Rehnberg

Olsson Gallery

In light of the general tendencies in art during the past few years, some events on the Swedish art scene must appear a bit odd. One can note, for example, that nearly everyone in the strong generation of artists born in the early ’50s, who have now reached an established position, works in the tradition of abstract painting. In this generation, whose esthetics have probably been colored in no small measure by opposition to the naive, often politically committed, figurative expressionism that dominated Swedish art in the ’70s, Håkan Rehnberg is one of those who have most consistently vindicated the possibilities of abstraction.

In the work Rehnberg has produced in recent years one can find signs of the hard-boiled matter-of-factness of a Donald Judd or a Robert Ryman as well as of the metaphysical painting of a Barnett Newman or a Brice Marden. The ascetic severity of these works doesn’t seem to have restricted Rehnberg to the cultivation of only one of these discrete lines; instead, “enlightened” analytical distance and “Romantic” inner necessity appear to coexist in his painting. He works with the formal precision one associates with late abstract painting at the same time as he breaks with a number of its formalistic dogmas. The three or more steel plates, of varying breadth, that compose most of the works are not, as the joined panels in an Ellsworth Kelly painting are, expressions of an inner logic; the color fields, with their razor-sharp edges, do not fill or completely coincide with the support but mirror other such fields in the work—as though they originated in a complex folding. An uncovered, narrow strip of steel along the upper edge of the surface releases the color, in a wax medium, still more fully from its support; it rests on the plate like an independent plane. Wall, plate, color: Rehnberg seems to present the painting as a flip-over pad of autonomous layers in which the planes move not only vertically but also, paradoxically, sideways. Yet in these suggested foldings and layerings the metal of the support can become flowing, painterly space, while the paint seems now impenetrable surface, now a breathing black hole; faced with the most successful works one would rather not use words such as surface and depth, presence and absence.

Rehnberg deliberately takes a risk in his effort to undo these oppositions when he tries to balance literalism against nostalgic Romanticism, philosophy against theology. By bestowing an aura of elevated seriousness on the works he excludes an important antidote to the seduction of metaphysics: irony. In the most severe, most didactic compositions this absence poses no problem, but in a relatively intuitive piece—Epiphany, 1984, for example—it risks becoming a defect. The tables are turned, and the painting seems transformed into a medium for the metaphysical longing of a Romantic self. The paradox, the “present absence” that to my mind is the fundamental raison d’être of this abstract painting, grows more remote.

In his attempts to name this paradox Rehnberg has explored some meanings of the Greek words ptyx (“plate,” “layer,” but also “fold”) and chōra (“place,” “spot,” “room,” but not “vacancy”). In these arguments he touches on Jacques Derrida’s unfolding of the word hymēn: metaphorically it means “the consummation of marriage,” literally it is a sign of the absence of consummation. At once presence and absence, “always intact as it is always ravished” (Derrida), hymēn is a parable of the deconstruction of the polar structure of “either/or.” Can Rehnberg’s painting best be characterized as “hymenal,” as “an operation which ‘at once’ brings about a fusion or confusion between opposites and stands between opposites”?

Lars Nittve

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Håkan Svensson.