Günter Umberg

How is color to be applied to a surface? Günter Umberg, an artist living in Cologne, has been asking that question for thirty years now. In the process he has concentrated on a single color, black, with occasional forays into others. Until about 1978, Umberg mixed his pigment with damar resin before applying it layer by layer to a wood panel, sanding each layer before applying the next. To achieve even greater depth, he then changed his painting method. Today he brushes the dry pigment directly into a moist layer of damar previously applied to the panel, often mixing other colors into the base layers. His paintings prove that black and black are not the same thing. The way the color is applied to the canvas is what makes the paintings, and what accounts for the differences among them.

Offered an exhibition at the Ludwig Museum, Umberg opted for a confrontation. From private collections in Cologne he selected individual works by other artists and presented them along with his own paintings. What do these works have in common? From an art-historical or arttheoretical point of view, nothing. And yet something unites them: Informed by experience and driven by the passion with which he devotes himself to the process of color application, Umberg examines this process and its results in the works of other artists. Andy Warhol’s Red Race Riot, 1963, for example, is a mechanical reproduction of photographs taken from the newspaper. But Warhol covered the entire surface with red paint—the traces of the brush are clearly visible. Suddenly this figurative painting becomes, by virtue of palpable brushstrokes, an abstract image that owes its intense effect to the particular application of paint. How would this image hold up, Umbcrg wondered, next to an abstract painting by Helmut Federle that exists solely in the effects of brushstrokes? In a traditional museum installation, these two paintings would never have the opportunity to meet. How does a body-print painting executed by Yves Klein in 1960 relate to the color impressions by Bernard Frize made in the ’80s? What happens when Robert Ryman’s white paintings meet the colorful, baroque compositions of Jessica Stockholder? And how about Rosemarie Trockel’s white cube, on which two gray hot plates arc mounted? How is color applied here?

There are many possible methods of color application, including soaking, which Umberg used in the early ’70s when he made fragile, opaque paintings by dipping packing-paper squares in asphalt varnish. Can these hold up to Sigmar Polke’s equally fragile-seeming grid painting or to Ingrid Calame’s green patches on transparent paper, the form of which the artist took from a stain found on the street? The confrontations continue: Oskar Kokoschka’s brushstrokes, unusually careless for the year 1918, and those of David Reed, juxtaposed with Ellsworth Kelly’s monochromatic Three Panels: Blue Yellow Red, 1966, which negates every thought of brushstrokes. Although Umberg proceeded in his selection with an eye to the problem of paint application, there is ultimately more at stake. It is about, as he put it, “the sensory impression which is the painting, does not convey anything, does not describe anything, and does not represent anything, except itself.” It is about the sensual presence of each individual work. That it directs our attention to this presence, which inheres in every artwork no matter how laden with content, is the merit of this unusual exhibition whose title is, fittingly, “Body of Painting.”

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.