New York

Ludwig Sander

Rosa Esman Gallery

Ludwig Sander is a minor abstract painter, not without interest and charm but without any sense of what is fundamentally at stake in abstract painting. What I mean by “minor” is, he offers a secondary elaboration of a primary mode, showing its serviceability but not adding anything decisive to it. As such, Sander shows little awareness of the ideological heritage of his style. To make this point in a mundane way, I’m not convinced that Pompeii X, 1963, has anything to do with the complexity of Pompeii, but I am convinced by the picture’s formal subtlety. Sander’s greatest strength lies in his economy of means. He makes a few colors—here blue and red—work together effortlessly, perhaps too effortlessly in the end. Nonetheless, the precariousness of the way the big red rectangle is balanced above the small red square and the blue area is admirable.

But Sander’s most interesting “technical” achievement is his handling of interior edges, creating an effect of incomplete, awkward, if insufficiently unsettling disjunction. The break between the color planes—some of which vary slightly in tone, others in hue—has a certain air of inevitability to it. This vaguely discomforting sense of ill fit between planes, this sense of incommensurateness, gives the paintings their presence. Sometimes, as in an untitled 1952 oil on paper, the discrepant space between the planes opens onto a dull gray. This intrusive colorlessness, or weakened color, in the background becomes decisive for the work, and precludes its becoming just another shifting scene of planes. The moment of space it provides maintains the depthlessness of the more obviously rendered surface planes.

It is this odd space that makes flatness an issue, problematizes it, something that once seemed all-important in abstract painting. Perhaps it is enough that Sander lets us know that the problem still lives, crystallized in his works, where it is not only an end in itself, but signals one of the ideological points that this kind of formalism once made: if an abstract painting were to have any edge, it had to be self-contradictory—ingeniously incoherent. It is ingenuity that we honor in Sander—the ingenuity that keeps an idea alive, not the genius that gave birth to it. It should be noted that the idea of flatness as the be-all and end-all of abstraction represents its decadence. Sander demonstrates the decadence of the determined specialist, which is both his strength and weakness.

Donald Kuspit