New York

Helmut Federle

Peter Blum Gallery

The surprise of Helmut Federle’s exhibition was not his exquisite geometrical abstractions but what surrounded them: an icon of the Feast of the Intercession of the Virgin made in Novgorod in the late 15th century, Ferdinand Hodler’s Die Bucht von Genf mit dem Mont Blanc vor Sonnenaufgang (The bay of Geneva with Mont Blanc before sunrise, 1918) and a 1932 Composition by Piet Mondrian. Federle, who titled the show “Basics on Composition,” clearly wanted to suggest a certain compositional continuity—a similarity in abstract intention—between his works and those he named as their ancestors. More than this is at stake, however: namely, a certain notion of spiritual art, more particularly, of the spiritual power of form as such. Federle’s composition—a vertical black bar centered between two horizontal black bars filling the entire frame set in a somewhat atmospheric, even murky yellowish field—has the same emotional effect as the similarly mixed atmospheric and geometrical compositions of the icon and the Hodler, and the purely geometrical composition of the Mondrian. The differences are nominal and local—circumstantial rather than essential—and Federle wants the essential, for only it can alter our consciousness.

Federle is successful both because of the contrast of the geometrical with the conventionally empirical—Sol LeWitt’s photographs of manhole covers and similar practical objects show that eternal geometry is conventionally empirical—and because each composition is in effect an unresolved tension of opposites, not only between the horizontal and the vertical, but between the clarity of the compositional construction and the atmospheric space on which it rests, or rather, in which it is embedded. The trick is to achieve an effect of constant oscillation between a variety of opposites, catalyzing as well as representing consciousness moving from empirical observation to transcendental self-awareness and back again. Indeed, just the way each of Federle’s compositions abstractly mirrors all the others, so consciousness is impelled by the composition to mirror itself without falling into a narcissistic trap. That is, there is no sense of anything personal involved; what is at stake is consciousness recognizing impersonally that it exists, as an absolute given. The esthetic reduction is to irreducible consciousness.

Federle’s grouping of works also suggests a kind of epigenesis of abstraction: each stage offers a greater, more exacting epiphany of the idea of abstraction as such and the essential consciousness—a consciousness that can recognize and deal with essences (in a Husserlian sense)—than the preceding one. Thus chronology matters less than realization (though it may be coordinate with it), and Federle makes a convincing case that his abstractions are more realized—more of the essence of abstract art and abstract consciousness—than the others. Nonetheless, the exhibition and its juxtapositions were haunted by a certain post-Modernist his-toricism which, though it did not undermine its spiritual point, demanded a new definition of the spiritual. Federle relies too much on a traditional, even Modernist sense of it. The very fact that the form of the spiritual is quotable and codifiable—whatever its transformative effect—suggests that its meaning has changed.

Even the tone of Federle’s compositions, which is blunter and more brooding and threatening, and more peculiarly irksome than that of the others, points to this shift. In Federle’s paintings, spirituality has become defensive for it has neither God (the icon), nature (Hodler), nor geometry (Mondrian) to fall back on, only its own faith in itself. Transcendence has become a haunting, dangerous atmosphere in Federle’s works, works that reveal both its raw power and its anxiety.

Donald Kuspit