New York

Imi Knoebel

To many, the black monochrome is the quintessential Modernist pictorial gesture. It is the theoretical, material, and formal culmination of our unrequited desire for truth in painting. If the sepia tones of Analytic Cubism signaled the beginning of the end, the finale manifested itself in Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915. It has been Imi Knoebel’s practice to concern himself with the fallout created by the notion of the “last painting.” His four “Schlachtbilder” (Battle paintings, all works 1991)—black rectangular paintings constructed from wood and faced with Masonite—are numbered from one to four, as if to distinguish these similar works from one another. In point of fact, however, the numerical titles are descriptive: Battle No. 1 is made on one panel, while Battles No. 2, 3, and 4, are comprised of two, three, and four vertical panels respectively.

These foreboding works play with and within the field of the battle painting genre. Their large scale pays homage to the grand European tradition of the history painting, while their richly coated bituminous surfaces have taken an actual physical “beating.” The “Schlachtbilder” are scarred from having been cut, slashed, jackhammered, and buzz-sawed by an arsenal of power tools. Here Knoebel challenges the notion of an endgame painting by lashing its body with his own.

Knoebel’s paintings are not about the implements themselves, but their role as a physical extension of the human body. While much of his previous work has referenced the body either pictorially or through the proportions and measure of architecture (those works that relate to the height of doors or assimilate the proportions and size of home furnishings, i.e., a dresser or cabinet), in these paintings one senses the human presence viscerally and psychologically.

There are many precedents for these works. The slits in Lucio Fontana’s “Concetti spaziali” (Spatial concepts) the supposed violent acts of aggression associated with German and American Abstract Expressionism, and more recently the Vienna action paintings, are all recalled within Knoebel’s surfaces. However, his paintings are not clinical like Fontana’s slit canvases, but are the record of incisions produced by the weight of an entire body lashing into a rigid, resistant Masonite surface. Here, the clean slate of the reductivist black painting, a tabula rasa, is refilled with significance. Upon its surface are the imprints of labor and the tension of battle. While reductivist paintings traditionally assert their physicality in a room, these works rely on tactile rather than perceptual mechanisms to convey their meaning.

Perhaps the best way to consider these works is to take out one’s earplugs and imagine the ambience of Knoebel’s studio while creating these “battles.” Here lies a key to Knoebel’s work. His sensibility is perhaps best encapsulated in a 45-r.p.m. record that was inserted in a catalogue from his 1985 survey in Otterloo. It is an audio recording of a sledgehammer repeatedly and methodically crashing into steel. Each bang resonates, in rhythmic succession, replaying the ultimate modus operandi of any pictorial practice: labor and work. Here, the conventional battles that have animated Modern painting—between form and content, line and plane, drawing and color—are remanifested. The paintings are the mute recordings of the forceful and deliberate activity of painting. Knoebel’s “Schlachtbilder” deflate the idealist balloon of the Modernist monochrome by puncturing it with a chisel.

Kirby Gookin