Katja Strunz, untitled, 2010, wood, lacquer, paint, steel, 90 1/2 x 56 1/3 x 9 3/4". From “Abstrakt,” Galerie Michael Haas.

Katja Strunz, untitled, 2010, wood, lacquer, paint, steel, 90 1/2 x 56 1/3 x 9 3/4". From “Abstrakt,” Galerie Michael Haas.


Katja Strunz, untitled, 2010, wood, lacquer, paint, steel, 90 1/2 x 56 1/3 x 9 3/4". From “Abstrakt,” Galerie Michael Haas.

Abstract painting, Bridget Riley wrote in 1983, “is still relatively in its infancy. If Mondrian was the Giotto of Abstract Painting, the High Renaissance is still to come.” Riley was one of the participants in the group show “Abstrakt,” on display in two Berlin galleries and curated by Michael Haas, Nicole Hackert, and Bruno Brunnet. The exhibition offered a broad spectrum of abstract works from Europe, the earliest made by Hans Arp in 1932, the most recent by Anselm Reyle, Frank Nitsche, and Eberhard Havekost and dated this year; almost half of the thirty-eight participating artists are German.

What, recently, is the definition of abstract?, one wondered, seeing works of very different artists together. Luckily, the show didn’t present abstraction as a singular style, reducing it to something it may once have been according to certain modernist -isms but isn’t any longer. Instead, it offered multiple visual manifestations: minimal geometry (Ulrich Erben, Günter Fruhtrunk), earthy materialism (Antoni Tàpies, Jordi Alcaraz), strong visual color rhythms (Victor Vasarely, Ernst Wilhelm Nay), and more informal and lyrical modes (Albert Oehlen, Paul Rebeyrolle). Moreover, there are less visible factors affecting the way those approaches are understood and “read.” Forms that look alike may have different meanings at different times and in different contexts. In other words, abstract is a term that, in the early twenty-first century, continually requires further specification, since it has been occupied by many different meanings. We always need to ask, What kind of abstraction are we talking about? What attitude is behind the form we are looking at?

At Galerie Michael Haas, an organic bronze by Arp, Untitled, 1960, looked playful in contrast with Riley’s geometrical painting Through, 1988. Where the works meet is in their shared dynamism, their evocation of movement. At Contemporary Fine Arts, Arp’s Pflanzengriffel (Pistil), 1959, looked classic and distinguished next to Sarah Lucas’s MAMMERYLOOLOO, 2012, in which breast forms bubble out of a toilet bowl. In Reyle’s Untitled, 2013, shiny foil is folded and covered with drippings of purple and fluorescent green. Next to it, two of Vasarely’s optical paintings felt remarkably fresh. In Reyle’s case, the flashy-trashy appearance seemed to be commenting on consumer aesthetics, rather than representing an identification with it. Havekost as well seems to reenact certain abstract gestures without necessarily believing in them. By contrast, Katja Strunz connects in an affirmative way with her Constructivist predecessors, while incorporating found materials that show traces of time.

The show’s value was not in the discovery or definition of a certain contemporary abstraction, but in drawing lines of development and finding interesting interactions. Through a play of correspondences and contrasts, the concept of abstract has broadened until it almost evaporated. In some works, for instance those by Günther Förg, there is already a latent or fragmentary figuration. This is a reminder that most figurative painting nowadays is informed by the lessons of modern abstraction. Abstraction and figuration are no longer in opposition. In that sense, Riley might be right, and the High Renaissance of abstraction is still to come—not as a visual language that will gain dominance as a style, but as a way of seeing and understanding, learned from the pioneering abstract works of the past century.

Jurriaan Benschop