New York

Helmut Federle

Peter Blum

At the heart of each of the five paintings Helmut Federle showed at Peter Blum is an irregular pentagon, a flat geometry brighter than the rest of the picture, if not always by much. That void is not bare canvas—it shows pigment—but it might almost have gone unpainted, since it has become itself partly by omission: It is defined by the paint around it, applied in overlapping layers of wide straight bands radiating outward over the surface in progressively darker rings. In The Danish Prince; Vilhelm Hammershøi (all works 2009) and occasionally elsewhere, faint pencil lines mark the pentagon’s edges. More often, though, this shape seems near accidental, the space left at the intersection of pictorial vectors going about their own ends.

The interior of each pentagon is still, its tonality even, but outside it the paint is thin enough to reveal underlying strata, those directional bands laid over each other in sequence. The works depend on this visible layering, which is intricate enough to make them almost busy in places, yet their mood remains muted. This is partly because of their color, a charcoal-like range of grays and watery blacks, with patches of weak, greenish or brownish yellows or tans; partly also because of their gaunt surface texture, which generally lets the weave of the canvas come through. In Federle’s hands, multiple layering leads not to physical density but to transparency—a dim, spectral glow suffuses the dilute oils and acrylics, and while the picture plane is always flat, barely a patch of it is solid and opaque. Tonal variations, drip- or blotchlike marks, mottlings of light and dark, bespeak a more complex process than the appearance of straight, regular brushstrokes at first leads one to imagine. Realizing that work done in light gray remains visible under work done in near black—which seems to this nonpainter like quite a trick—I gave up trying to figure out the making of the works and consigned it to mystery.

That mystery in the working easily transfers over into effect: Absorbed in decoding the story the paint tells, we move as through a maze from dark to light, eventually arriving at the pentagon, as at a stained-glass window in an unlit church. The tension between regular geometry and indecipherable marking, between logic and eccentricity (carried through in Federle’s installation of the paintings, in spacing that seemed both odd and right and turned out to be based on the Fibonacci sequence), becomes a balance and then perhaps a metaphysics. There are echoes here of the early impulses of modernist abstraction, including Kandinsky’s embrace of the spiritual and Mondrian’s interest in theosophy. A century later, though, Federle’s form of spirituality is visually cloudier, more twilight, more tenuous and vague—and when he titles a painting Requiem for My Cat, he once again balances emotions, making a small furry loss a stand-in for the great theme of mortality.

David Frankel