Imi Knoebel

As its name implies, the Henry Moore Institute is dedicated to the display and study of sculpture. All the more intriguing, therefore, to find it staging an exhibition of work by Imi Knoebel. Despite the fact that it extends so often into three dimensions, Knoebel’s work—like that of Blinky Palermo, his fellow student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf—is implacably that of a painter. Under the title “Primary Structures: 1966/2006,” this thoughtful, concentrated show places works from the beginning of Knoebel’s career alongside a group of very recent pieces, including two panel paintings and a plywood sandwich piece. In several cases, the new work is a remake, reformulation, or extension of something from the ’60s or early ’70s, making it evident that Knoebel continues to draw strength from his roots in that period.

The largest of these new works is Raum 19 III, 1968/2006, the third version of an ongoing sequence of installations begun while Knoebel was still a student. The central idea of the work—that it would encompass in its various elements the full lexicon of forms that he was ever likely to need in his career as a painter—remains intact, though the intervening years have seen an expansion of the repertoire. What began as a seventy-seven-piece work now comprises more than two hundred parts, which spill out from the institute’s overfilled rear space into the adjacent gallery. Sharing this larger space is Batterie, 2005, a vast rectangular structure whose surface panels, painted a pale fluorescent lemon yellow, cast a faint warming glow onto the walls and ceiling.

Even the works designated as sculpture—for example,Weiße Skulptur 4-teilig (White Sculpture 4-Part), 1967—direct one’s thinking back to two dimensions. Four white panels, each with a different curvature, stand next to one another, about three feet high. Suggestive of movement and flow, they are lines of force, perhaps, or contours, rendered solid the more clearly to implicate the surrounding architecture in the guiding of our responses to the shapes, colors, and surface detail of what it contains. There is as much consciousness of bodily disposition, though, in the irregular heptagon Siebeneck (Heptagon), 1975/2006, the brush marks on its green surface charting the repeated reorientation of painterly gesture that was necessary in order to cover it as efficiently as possible.

If the exhibition has a spiritual father it is Malevich, whose provocations concerning color and form in space animate a sequence of works here. Weiße Konstellation 2-teilig (White Constellation 2-part), 1975/2006, comprises two quadrilateral white wooden panels mounted side by side and at the same diagonal angle on the wall. One panel is a regular rectangle, while the other tapers slightly toward its upper edge, as if the same rectangular shape were receding somewhat into the space beyond the wall. This nod to Malevich’s White on White, 1918, is echoed in a neighboring work, Projektion, 1968/2006, though perhaps in this latter instance with Knoebel’s tongue more firmly in his cheek. The original was a slide projector casting a rectangle of light onto the wall in front of it, whereas the remake uses a DVD player to achieve a similar effect. Sternenhimmel (Starry Sky), 1974/2006, comprises fifty-four individually framed images from an atlas of the night sky into each of which a single extra star has been added with a spot of white paint: painting space, painting in space, and painting as the structuring of space.

Michael Archer