New York

Helmut Federle

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Helmut Federle makes paintings that eloquently exemplify the new subjective abstraction. His work, which continues and transforms the “metaphysical” tradition of early Modernist abstract painting, competes with the new objectivist abstract painting—for example, Peter Halley's work—for the heritage and power of abstraction. Where Federle demonstrates that abstraction is still alive and can connote the spiritual, Halley suggests that such an alternative is dead in a world that itself has become abstract. Today abstraction is stuck on the horns of this dilemma, a polarization from which there seems to be no escape.

The talismanic Innerlight (HRI), 1985, makes the subjective point succinctly. This small work, painted in a single night of crisis, shows geometry vaporized into light, or light dominating and dissolving geometry. In the other, much larger paintings, geometry and light are fused with varying degrees of subtlety, neither truly dominating the other. Although at first glance the geometry does tend to come across more emphatically in most of the works, there are exceptions. In Okinava and Untitled (No Bild) (Untitled [no painting]), both 1986, the underlying light shines through the thinly brushed charcoal bars and their odd green ground with a wonderful murkiness; and in two black-and-white paintings, Two I Undecided, 1985, and Unruhiges Bild mit einseitigem Gewicht (Unbalanced picture weighted to one side, 1986) the figure/ground relationships overshadow the geometry of the excruciatingly off-balance compositions. Unruhiges Bild is a fresh, brilliant integration of Modernist expressionistic and geometric modes, in which the absoluteness of the white suggests a purified light more solid than the black geometry that rests on it. It is perhaps the masterpiece among the ten paintings in this two-gallery show, achieving subjective resonance not through atmospheric touch, as in most of the other works, but through the use of the traditional expressionistic contrast of black and white to articulate a geometric emblem of disequilibrium rich with subjective implications. This disequilibrium seems momentary and easily corrected, but it is in fact irrevocable. What it suggests is that this particular dynamic has come to a dead end here—that the Modernist ambition to generate a new kind of harmony after its discovery of various kinds of disharmonies must resign itself to a vigorously asserted disequilibrium. Disequilibrium, Federle suggests, is profounder than equilibrium; what may look like occult harmony is in fact stabilized disharmony.

Plato, in The Republic, described geometry as the path of pure ideation that has as its goal the intuition of absolute ideas. Both geometry and the ideas exist in the light of the “Good.” Federle has created a new kind of Neoplatonic painting, in which we discover ourselves at varying distances from the light of the Good but always within reach of the grace of geometry, and thus full of striving mind despite the suffering of being alienated from light. His works are neither orthodoxly geometric nor orthodoxly expressionistic but an unorthodox hybrid of the two, which he has invested with mystical light. The repressed grid that is the motor of these paintings is fueled by the repressed light of the Good. Federle's work shows us how painting can still serve inner necessity. To connect it to Minimalism is to banalize it by dismissing its neometaphysical, subjective, aspirational core and neutralize it into yet another exercise in style.

Donald Kuspit