Jan Voss

For over thirty years the German-born, Paris-based artist Jan Voss has been producing a remarkably even body of work with an uncompromising yet unassuming presence. The originality of Voss’ approach to artmaking can be traced to his disciplined organization of automatic gestures and intelligent, self-assured refinement of collage techniques. In trying to achieve spatial integrity, Voss has mastered a bravura technique of accumulating forms—the wooden pieces in his sculptures and reliefs or the patches of color and hieroglyphic scribbles in his paintings and drawings—in decentralized compositions.

Voss’ recent exhibition confirmed that he is a stubborn individualist who views the canvas as an arbitrary field of inward expression while treating it with uniform intensity and formal rigor. The eleven paintings shown here recalled his earlier works while also reflecting the art of the ’40s and ’50s, a significant point of reference in Voss’ formative development. There is, in fact, something puzzling about the way Voss continues to paint expressive abstractions that celebrate painting as an autonomous activity removed from any political context, as if he has chosen to live in a temporal vacuum. In this respect, he might be said to follow in the footsteps of his exiled compatriots Wols and Karl Hartung, artists who confronted their national identities while living abroad during the postwar period, but opted to embrace universality rather than deal with the particularities of the German aesthetic tradition. Unlike Wols and Hartung, however, Voss doesn’t seem to probe a troubled imagination.

The combination of formal equilibrium and a kind of controlled automatism defines works like L’enigme resolue (The solved enigma, 1997), a large painting reminiscent of late-’40s abstractions by de Kooning in which figurative allusions are camouflaged by planes of interlocking geometric shapes. Voss, however, replaces the visceral aspect of de Kooning’s work with a finished, diagrammatic quality. At the same time, L'enigme resolue’s rhythmic use of line evokes the calligraphic style of paintings and drawings by Cy Twombly. Like Twombly’s, Voss’ “writings,” which are executed with a screwdriver, maintain a formal elegance while remaining psychologically charged.

On les a fixes au sol (They have been fixed on the ground, 1997) exemplifies another distinctive painting style, one in which flattened images—populated by cartoonlike characters and formed of overlapping, brightly colored planes—uniformly fill a compressed space. In this evocative work, which is enigmatic without being obscure, Voss has once again organized the canvas in a compartmentalized fashion. It is as though this painting echoes the rationalist maxim that once guided Wols: “He who draws while he is awake has knowledge of a thousand things which elude him who draws only in his sleep.”

Marek Bartelik