Imi Knoebel

IMI KNOEBEL’S ART is about beginnings. Those same points where many modern artists discovered an absolute reduction, a zero degree of artmaking, are, for Knoebel, points of departure. His near-ascetic disposition toward the materials of his craft set him apart from his fellow students in Joseph Beuys’s class at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he studied from 1964 to 1971. It was there that Knoebel met Blinky Palermo, whose experiments with color and unusual pictorial supports would have an important impact on Knoebel’s own development. Working in Room 19, an annexed studio next to Beuys’s classroom, Knoebel and Palermo (along with Imi Giese, Jörg Immendorff, and later Katharina Sieverding) sought refuge from the ever-expanding coterie of Beuys acolytes. Knoebel recalls that for the most part each had his or her own métier: “I was the constructor, and Palermo was the painter.” After Palermo’s untimely passing in 1977, the constructor was faced with the question of how to remember and preserve the talents of his departed friend.

Within a few months of Palermo’s death, Knoebel began working on a group of monochrome panels that marked the artist’s first foray into color. The result was 24 Farben—für Blinky (24 Colors—for Blinky), 1977, a suite of twenty-two shaped paintings (one of which is a three-part construction, hence the twenty-four colors) that Knoebel exhibited at Galerie Heiner Friedrich in October that same year. After the show in Cologne, the work was acquired by the Dia Art Foundation, where it fell into ruin until recently, when Knoebel restored it at his studio in Düsseldorf. This past spring, 24 Farben was installed by the artist at Dia:Beacon, where it will remain on view for the foreseeable future in its first North American exhibition.

The installation takes up four walls along Dia:Beacon’s immense central corridor, which is (not by coincidence) adjacent to the space given to Palermo’s To the People of New York City, 1976–77, the ambitious group of metal paintings that the artist was working on at the time of his death. It is difficult not to see traces of Palermo’s colorism in 24 Farben’s incredible range of bright and dark pigments—some glossy, some matte—which run the gamut from intense candied blues and orange-reds, to gentle pastels, to subdued near-neutrals and brash almost-blacks. There is no mistaking Knoebel’s hand, however, as the monochrome was a format that Palermo rarely attempted. Following his typically systematic and rigorous process, Knoebel pitted the aesthetic neutrality of wood against the absorptive terrain of color in an exuberant deconstruction of the latent pictorialism of so many postwar monochromes. None of the shapes is repeated, and each retains its own identity through a renunciation of any standard geometric format, while the variously rounded and sharp-angled contours limit or expand the coloristic effects of the surfaces. The perimeters of each support are left untreated and emphatically visible, helping establish a fundamental connection not only among the panels, but also between shaped support and colored surface, and between the physicality of the work and the exhibition environment.

At least two distinct angles are required to grasp each painting. Looking at them from the front, one is immersed in the monochromatic saturation of the surface, but the thickness of each piece, its inescapable presence as an object distinct from the wall, invites an oblique glance. This indirect view reveals an almost uniform half-inch strip of white underpainting running around the contours of each work, which calls attention to the grain of the untreated wooden support, the texture of which is echoed in the intricate whorls of Knoebel’s brushwork. Depending on their color and shape, some panels appear to float or project off the wall, while others feel more anchored to it. The sole multipart object is an offbeat take on the primary-color triptych in a Floridian light cyan, a loud bright pink, and a tawny shade straight out of late-1970s interior design. It is also the only piece that sits directly on the wooden floor of the gallery, and its panels are the only ones visibly painted on both sides. Located at the end of the installation, it attests to Knoebel’s process as a perpetual gesture toward future possibilities, leaving open the potential for continued variation.

To commemorate the new installation of 24 Farben, the American artist Helen Mirra was asked to rearrange Knoebel’s seminal Raum 19 (Room 19), 1968, his sole work permanently on display at Dia:Beacon. Raum 19 comprises seventy-seven components made from wood and Masonite, including painting stretchers, both assembled and in pieces; large constructions of stretchers with untreated Masonite attached as picture planes; and larger cubic volumes and curved blocks that resemble sections of an arched window or door frame. The work is notable for Knoebel’s efforts to construct a formal vocabulary based around the most elemental materials and techniques of both sculpture and painting. Yet what mattered most to the artist was creating the possibility for the piece to be imagined differently, for its parts to articulate a unique relationship to an unforeseen space—in other words, to never settle into one static image. Mirra took the history of Raum 19’s previous arrangements into consideration while shuffling the cards to emphasize this inherent mutability. The result is an incredibly open presentation that encourages the peripatetic activity similarly engendered by 24 Farben. Some of the Masonite-covered frames are hung, while others are stacked against a wall. The individual typologies are mostly grouped together, including some of the larger Masonite constructions, the dimensions of which were derived from the eponymous room in which the work was made.

Knoebel’s art speaks to the ways in which forms are born out of specific contexts or from specific needs, but as Raum 19’s endless capacity for transformation suggests, those same forms ultimately outlive the moments of their emergence. This was a rare insight on the part of a young artist in 1968, when many of Knoebel’s colleagues were far more concerned with the roiling present than with some still-distant future. Along with 24 Farben, Raum 19 demonstrates Knoebel’s desire to bring the elements of both painting and sculpture under the sway of materiality and to highlight the presentational (as opposed to representational) functions of the artwork. Neither elegiac nor mournful, Knoebel’s two multipart works would be unthinkable without Palermo and the studio space they shared, but the question for Knoebel is always how to delay that memory beyond the fl eeting present. In its orientation toward future arrangements and its embrace of new formal experiments, Knoebel’s work mines the deeply political relevance of the untimely, of building for anticipation rather than for immediate use. It is a kind of hopefulness that the longevity of these works seems to support; and hope, as Balzac once wrote, “is memory that desires.”

Colin Lang is an art historian based in Northampton, Massachusetts.