Tomma Abts/Tony Conrad

Galerie Daniel Buchholz

Two concurrent exhibitions at Galerie Daniel Buchholz recently offered an unusual contrast: Large-format paintings by the American artist Tony Conrad were hung in the gallery’s old space, while the new one housed small-format paintings by the London-based German artist Tomma Abts. At first glance, the contrast couldn’t be greater: Conrad’s pictures were created in 1973, Abts’s in 2006; the older paintings are the work of a filmmaker and musician, the new ones, of a dedicated painter; his paintings are enormous, hers are always the same modest format, 18 7⁄8 x 15 inches. Despite these differences, however, the two artists do have one thing in common. Both investigate the common underlying principle of their respective media, film and painting: the principle of illusion.

Film pretends to project ongoing action. In fact, the duration of the action is never accurately reflected; within a few minutes, the illusion can be created that events take place over days or even years. Warhol’s film Empire, 1964, attacked this illusion by abjuring it. Conrad took a different approach. In 1973, at Millenium Film Workshop in New York, he presented “World Premiere Exhibition of 20 New Movies,” in which he showed not twenty but twenty-three large-format (most 54 x 72") pictures that he called “Yellow Movies.” On large sheets of white, purple, or blue wrapping paper that took up almost an entire wall, Conrad painted black outlines of screens; the interior edge of the outlines is neat whereas the exterior is uneven. The inside space of each “screen” was painted with white, off-white, yellow, or brown house paint. In the text accompanying the exhibition, Conrad wrote, “The ‘Yellow Movies’ were a solution to the problem of how to produce films that could run for a lifetime”: The action of these “movies” is the gradual changing of their color as the pigments age. The Millennium exhibition lasted only one day; afterward the pictures were rolled up and stored in the artist’s studio for more than thirty years. At the gallery eight large and four smaller works from that series were shown together for the first time since 1973. They were created at a time when there was much interest in expanding the limits of cinema—or even destroying them. Today these pictures are, as Conrad himself says, “anti-monuments” to a lost epoch of formal exploration.

The illusive possibility of painting lies in the rendering of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. The goal of American abstract painters of the ’40s and ’50s, according to Clement Greenberg, was to free painting from such illusion; their painting was meant to be nothing more and nothing less than color on a surface: “Flatness” was the key word. Abts is an abstract painter, but a contemporary one, not a modernist. Her pictures are more than just painted surfaces where one can observe the creative process, the phases of production, and the emergence of the final painting through numerous layers; they are, rather, primarily pictures that create illusions of space.

Colorful interlaced wedges carve into the depths of the canvas; oscillating loops rise out of the pictorial plane, casting shadows; the numerous layers further create a relieflike surface. “When I am painting,” Abts has said, “it really excites me how something can look as if it sits on or in the surface, and how that illustration coincides with the material paint and the object painting.” Abts’s paintings deceive the eye with an intensity rare in the long history of abstract painting.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Jane Brodie.