New York

Tomma Abts

New Museum

If the compact, boxlike galleries of the new New Museum did no favors for the raggedy lo-fi sculptures in “Unmonumental,” the museum’s inaugural show, the ensuing exhibition—German painter Tomma Abt’s first solo outing in the United States—made clear the potential of the building’s small spaces. Hung low, the fourteen paintings on view worked with the architecture to draw the viewer into an emotional and intellectual engagement with a complex and enveloping space. For those who have previously seen Abts’s works only in reproduction, where they appear rather flat, encountering them in person makes for a revelation, as each composition pulls you into a three-dimensional, almost holographic environment that tends to produce full-throttle kinetic effects yet is held in check by the surface of the paint and—not least—the edges of the canvas itself.

Each of the paintings measures eighteen and seven-eighths by fifteen inches, dimensions the artist “settled into” almost a decade ago, according to the exhibition leaflet, and in which she has since made all her work. If the consistent sizing facilitates a kind of conversation among the works on view, the true significance of the size emerges as one stands in front of them: Not only are they portraitlike—as is also suggested by their titles having been taken from a dictionary of German first names—but even at the proximity necessary to engage with the details of the surface, one must perforce also attempt to take in each canvas as a whole.

This creates unexpected tensions: In Meko, 2006, for example, the eye is simultaneously drawn to and away from the origin of the rays in the top left corner, only to be caught up in tracing a jagged elliptical loop in the painting’s center, which introduces distortion and feedback into geometric simplicity. The characteristic underpainting—the visible evidence of Abts’s working process—further unsettles any simple interpretation, as lines extend the contours of the loop, quietly crisscrossing one another and cutting through the diagonal beams to create a new, complementary plane of ghost shapes and unexpected relationships.

Leaving traces of prior versions is a consistent strategy in these works, as is producing an uncanny wavering between two and three dimensions, but it is often hard to determine the means by which particular effects are achieved. In Mehm, 2005—one of the paintings that looks most sorry in reproduction but is exhilarating at first hand—the eye at first jumps from one plane to another but soon zigs and zags until it is caught in a kind of palimpsestic speed-reading, which eventually leads one to feel the density at the bottom of the painting opening up in a series of expanding dividers that force the eye into an upward motion not unlike the familiar heavenward push in a gothic cathedral. And yet, the physical and the optical again manifestly contradict one another; for instance, the darker brown sections that are perspectivally foremost are scraped back so deeply that the grain of the canvas emerges.

Abts once spoke of her work as being “an object but at the same time an image” and added, “The painting alternates between being an illusion and being a real thing.” While she seems justified in objecting to reductive attempts to shoehorn her work into the lineage of abstract art, her works do seem engaged, on some level, with the twentieth century’s great debate about the medium of painting. In creating sensations of depth and dimensionality while also refuting them, Abts’s painting transcends the dichotomy of illusionism and surface by allowing the contradictions between them to enrich and play off one another, producing an unusual, intellectually won yet emotionally charged perceptual experience.

Alexander Scrimgeour