Ludger Gerdes

Art is autonomous. This statement is a cardinal definition of Modern art, and as theorem and challenge it dictates the discourse of the fine arts. The discussion of art’s autonomy excludes functionality. Ludger Gerdes, in his artistic and theoretical work, focuses on the widely diverging concepts of autonomy. In his text “Autonomie, Formalismus und moderne Kunst” (Autonomy, formalism, and Modern art) published in 1990, Gerdes asks what the “specific characteristic” of art might be: “. . .the strict, radically autonomous artwork is aloof from content. . . .A rigorously autonomous art concentrates on that which appears as having color in space, on FORMS.” Gerdes’ works can, of course, also have content, but they are not dominated by it. Thus, he emphasizes formal relationships. These “radically abstract formal works,” which he develops theoretically and as paintings, are models “that make a peculiar experience possible, one that transcends the experience of sensory, formal peculiarities—yet is based on what is formulated sensorily.”

Gerdes’ texts offer insight not only into the paintings themselves but also into the process of viewing them. His paintings are abstract; the colors and the various interlocking forms create a network of spatial levels that cannot be disentangled. These orders—or relationship structures—elude any memory of previously known spatial systems; he rejects any copying of front/back, under/over, up/down. This principle was once called “constructed openness.” In some of Gerdes’ paintings, a portion of the forms is painted to resemble the sky; but if we follow this extrapictorial reference and look for any further evidence of indications of inside/outside or near/far, the search is futile. Any attempt to find extrapictorial elements—and this includes content—is undermined, since any such efforts would prevent the various “spaces” from becoming effective. Indeed, these pictures seem to be spatial models constituted solely by the formation of relationships. In the openness of these spaces, Gerdes’ text establishes empty, “free spaces. . .that the mind can now enter and fill on its own. . . .” Instead of compelling the audience to mull over something that the artwork has already said, Gerdes tries to create free thought-space for his viewers: thought-space to be filled with reflections on the—already defined—concept of autonomy.

If we accept Gerdes’ free spaces, there emerges a distance from the paintings so that they point beyond themselves, until the individual painting, as a visual event, actually becomes a mere inducement, behind which the “model value” vanishes. The radicality of the autonomous painting-relationships causes any meaning to be canceled by viewing itself. As evidence of an autonomy concept, parallel to his theoretical approach, Gerdes’ paintings claim the entire loss of the event-character immanent in a picture. Is this the end of painting, due to its own autonomy?

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.