Günter Umberg

Between the two doors the visitor passes when heading toward Günter Umberg’s exhibition, the viewer glimpses the Ierusalimskaia Virgin, a Russian icon from the 15th century. The placement of this object links two exhibitions that have been conceived and presented separately. Since comparisons between the icon and Umberg’s eight black surfaces inevitably crop up, he is also declaring their relationship to be a calculated enrichment of each other.

Rooted entirely in the tradition of the abstract, Umberg boils painting down to its absolute minimum. The picture is present not as a reference, but as material. Up to 40 layers of loose pigment are applied to a sticky surface, to wood or aluminum. They are comprised of dust that absorbs light and reflects nothing, that permits no perception of space outside the material, pictorial plane. Even the exhibition space knuckles under to these pictures, for Umberg has installed asymmetrical, radiant-white walls here as a room inside the gallery.

The icons claim a completely separate room. It makes no difference what context these small pictures are displayed in. The space they require is faith. Comparable to abstract painting, icons neither copy nor refer. But instead of asserting an autonomy, they are construed as pure embodiments of the substance of (Christian) faith; they are, as historical pictures, part and parcel of a greater context. They were not removed from this religious framework and placed in an art context until the 20th century, when painting in general was completely detached from its larger—social and religious—referents.

The items displayed in these two exhibitions seem to have exchanged their respective meanings. Remote from religious faith and Russian culture, the icons are now viewed as pictures, in terms of their colors and their archival value. In contrast, Umberg’s paintings evoke an almost sacred mood, a sense of silence and awe. He compels us to gaze on and on at his pitch-black rectangles—an act that used to be demanded by icons as devotional objects. However, since nothing is to be seen, we enter the realm of pure thought, which, unlike the religious spaces opened by the icons, is not bound by any limits. This realm offers no signposts in terms of color, spatial notions (beyond the pictures), or volume. Umberg installs spaces, gaps in perception, which lead the viewers beyond their own site-specific and cultural conditions of perception.

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.