New York

Helmut Federle

Peter Blum Gallery

Exhibited alone in the main gallery space, as though it were the last remaining icon in a church that had been stripped of its sectarian identity, Helmut Federle’s monumental Panthera Nigra (Black Panther), 1997, represents the summa of the painter’s decade-long effort to renew his idea of the spiritual in art. “The sociological aspect of art does not interest me. It is very overestimated,” Federle wrote, in a diary entry of September 22,1987. “What counts is an art-immanent quality, which I would like to see as formal-philosophical religious. Of course this definition is inexact and inadequate. At best it can be circumscribed by the ’classical’ definition of spirituality.”

The connection with Kandinsky is one that Federle himself made explicit, writing in the same diary (published in 1989 by Karl Kerber Verlag) that what the Russian painter said almost a century ago remains true today: “the task of the artist is not to master form but to adapt it to content.” For both Federle and Kandinsky, “abstract form” is a way of adapting to spiritual content, of achieving an “art-immanent quality.” The only difference is that the spiritual quality of abstract form has been “seriously trivialized and relativized by the cynical consciousness of consumer society.” So the problem for the artist is how to restore spiritual meaning to abstract form in a crudely secular society.

Federle does so in an ingenious way. The grand, somewhat rough canvas is painted over in rapid, uneven strokes that form a kind of crumbling grid. These impulsive strokes are thin enough to allow the irritating texture of the naked canvas to show through a bit, yet thick enough to obscure it, creating an effect of infinitely deep space. It becomes a sort of sublime abyss into which we might fall, should the safety net of the grid fail, as it threatens to do. On this atmospheric surface, which, like a veil, keeps us at a remove yet entices us with the promise of mystery, Federle paints, with more considered strokes, two large rectangles: one on the right edge of the canvas, the other in its approximate center. The rectangles, which in effect stand the horizontal canvas upright, are roughly the same size and painted in more or less the same way—although they are more opaque than the surrounding canvas, a diffuse, faint light shimmers through their darkness. But the distance between the two, and the way they hover in the void, makes them seem more different than alike, peculiarly antagonistic rather than twins. They balance one another, yet their asymmetry keeps them at odds.

The “art-immanent quality” to which Federle aspires seems to reside in a number of unresolved formal tensions: the tension between the rectangles themselves, between those shapes and the ground above which they float yet to which they belong, and between their size and orientation and those of the canvas. Tension also exists between the subtly modulated, grimly sensuous surface and the primitive geometry that emerges from yet resists it. The greatest tension, however, is between light and dark—the light that seems inherent in the dark, and the dark that somehow seems a “consequence” of the light. Whether seen up close or from far away, the painting remains intimate, intense, numinous. Like Blake’s tiger, Federle’s invisible night panther stalks and threatens the spectator with its unfathomlessness.

This sense of hidden presence lends an air of suspense to Federle’s painting, a mood of brooding anticipation. We are waiting for the epiphanic flash of revelation, and it is not clear it will come. Federle has painted the void, but it is peculiarly vital, charged with a turbulent energy: absence has become a land of presence. His black abstract painting not only has the authority of Malevich’s black square or Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, but it makes their ironic spiritual point completely clear: the paradoxical fact that the value of God is increased by his absence, and that one experiences the deity only by yearning for its presence. In short, Federle’s melancholy painting acknowledges the depth of the absence of the divine in the modern world—an absence that perhaps “explains” why, for many, it feels shallow, and hollow at the core.

Donald Kuspit