Helmut Federle

Galerie Nächst St. Stephan

Among the neo-Constructivists in the “Geometria Nova” show at the Kunstverein Munich last spring—the Swiss artists Helmut Federle and John M. Armleder, the American Matt Mullican, and the Austrian Gerwald Rockenschaub—Federle, the oldest of the quartet, is closest to the spirit of geometric abstraction. Federle’s art is based less on the concrete rationalist branch of the Zurich School than on Suprematism, whose visual tension is built on the interaction of constructivist imagery and emotional content. Through this respectful proximity and emotional earnestness Federle’s work differs from Armleder’s ironic eclecticism as well as Rockenschaub’s esthétique de changement, or art that fluctuates between triviality and pretensions of elitism.

At the Nächst St. Stephan Gallery Federle showed large-format black-and-yellow and black-and-white paintings that are disconcertingly ambivalent in effect. Compositionally, they succeed through a controlled use of pictorial ten sion and order. In contrast, the vertical and horizontal coordinates of Federle’s signages are plotted such that the painting shifts from a state of rational scrutiny to one of the subjective and the emotional, and back again. Rectangular fields and bars, and the layered glazes of colors that seem to pul sate beneath the surface, cohere into what are apperceived as constellations of fear and oppression-into a spiritual experience, indeed, one that transcends the sacred. This coupling of esthetic appearance and psychic expression into a state of constant fluctuation gives the picture the character of an occurrence, the proximity of which involves the viewer. At the same time, however, we are implicated in the aura of a secret, called forth through the multiple meanings of the imagery. Not only are abs tract plane, color, figure, and ground often reciprocal, abstraction and symbols are too. These geometric forms play off letters of the alphabet, as in Two I Undecided, 1985, or Drei Formen, zwei durchkreuzt (Three forms, two crossed out, 1985), for which Federle used his own initials. Without approaching the (unrea lizable) utopias of Piet Mondrian or Kasimir Malevich, or Barnett Newman’s and Mark Rothko’s claims of the sublime—all of which Federle admires—his pictures open a universe whose emotional quality is perceptible but not exactly definable. If the visible and invisible, emotion and reflection, the material, the spiritual, and the personal are unified in them, then it is not as a state of ascertainable harmony, but rather as a constant approximation. Through this Federle conjures up the vision of a totality and at the same time its impossibility, a vision one senses as a moment of longing.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.