Imi Knoebel

Galerie Hans Strelow

For the Modernists, nonfigurative art was the inevitable goal of all future evolution in the arts. According to midcentury wisdom, one was either an abstractionist or dead. Then came the declaration of the end of Modernism, and objective artists, content painters, triumphed over the “contentless” artists. Now, roughly five years after the victory celebration of the figurative artists, art brokers are announcing the rebirth of nonobjective painting with “geometria nova” (new geometry), a style exemplified by the work of John Armleder, Helmut Federle, Matt Mullican, and Gerwald Rockenschaub. What does Imi Knoebel have to do with the recent success of nonobjective painting? Perhaps only this, that his work is attracting the interest of viewers fatigued by the merry-go-round of figurative painting, fascinating them with its interplay of planar and color field, of color as matter and space as object. Because of this precise experimental work, a number of cognoscenti of the German art world consider Knoebel an important “researcher” in the field of painting.

It is no easy task to translate into words the particular quality of the works exhibited here, which are collectively titled “Figur” (figure, or diagram, 1985) and simply numbered individually. These picture-objects on hard grounds of varying horizontal formats are consistently cool and glossy, and are clearly subdivided into sections whose demarcations are deliberately emphasized. They are concerned with the harmony, antipathy, and coexistence of various geometrical fields. On the horizontally divided surface of one painting, whose lower half is painted a bright orange and its upper half a brilliant white, two orange squares are introduced as autonomous elements that float at the upper edge of the painting. Their placement vis-à-vis the horizontal subdivision destabilizes the entire planar composition in a way that is not rationally definable, yet it leaves the viewer with an impression of the sublime serenity engendered by an intuitive order. Surface plane is experienced as the bodily appearance of color; space, as a network of fields; composition, as an intuitive arrangement concerned with the experience of tensions at work in the immaterial space beneath the smooth surface of things.

Knoebel’s pursuit of the materialization of an experience of immaterial space as a contemplative site is especially emphatic in one geometric “figure.” At the optical center of this piece is a vertical rectangle of anthracitic gray that extends upward from the lower edge of the painting through the blue-black ground. The delicate tones of the figure are related to two glistening, white, lopped-off rectangles at the left and right edges of the canvas. Even more than in Knoebel’s previously exhibited work one perceives this consciously structured planar surface/space as one of counterbalancing optical irritations. The material quality of color and the immaterial quality of its effects on the viewer, the repellent glossiness of the medium and the subjective experience of color as a body within a planar composition: these are the constants within Knoebel’s work. His is an artistic process that, ignoring the boundaries between painting and sculpture, plane and volume, traces the idea of space as an incorporeal, spiritual body. These splendid works are proof enough that this is still possible, a half century after the death of Kasimir Malevitch and a decade after the death of Knoebel’s friend Blinky Palermo.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.