Thomas Hartmann, Ohne Titel (Bibliothek) (Untitled [Library]), 2013, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 70 7/8".

Thomas Hartmann, Ohne Titel (Bibliothek) (Untitled [Library]), 2013, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 70 7/8".

Thomas Hartmann

Thomas Hartmann, Ohne Titel (Bibliothek) (Untitled [Library]), 2013, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 70 7/8".

For more than three decades, Thomas Hartmann has explored the materiality of oil paint and repeatedly shown how it can attenuate tensions between interior and exterior, massive and minute, visible and legible. Like many postwar German painters—from Anselm Kiefer to David Schnell—Hartmann pursues this investigation at the border of figuration and abstraction. Crystallizing his unique achievement, the seven large oils exhibited recently in Vienna concern the ubiquity and increasing homogeneity of storage in contemporary life. The canvases suggest shelves, hard drives, folders, books, crates. Even the edges of the paintings seem to measure and order their contents, structuring Hartmann’s preoccupation with the ways in which units of storage lend themselves to abstraction. These paintings do not simply represent anxiety about storage: They analyze it.

As any one of the new paintings exemplifies, the system of storage, with its assembly in units, looks much the same no matter how diverse its contents may be—material or virtual, recent or ancient. Take Ohne Titel (Hafen) (Untitled [Harbor]) (all works cited, 2013) a canvas filled with rows of bright quadrangular units. Bracketing, as Hartmann does, the second half of the title for a moment, we see how ambiguity of scale disrupts perspective. While even, sharp brushwork produces the effect of volumetric masses arranged in distant space, loose textual squiggles almost beg to be read like handwritten titles. Oscillating between the scale of shipping containers and that of cassette tapes, Hartmann’s “Hafen”—industrial “harbor” or personal “haven”—organizes a bird’s-eye view and a close-up vantage point on the same slanted grid. While they concern memory and recollection, these new paintings also decisively exclude the human figure. It would seem that the very systems constructed as sites for the storage and retrieval of content, information, and possessions culminate in unpeopled disorder. As the parenthetical library in Ohne Titel (Bibliothek) suggests, Hartmann’s paintings do not celebrate the modernist pathos of the collector à la Walter Benjamin. Instead, the textless spines of books jut up like antennae in a cityscape, figures of defunct connectivity. Without a subtitle to provide perspective, Ohne Titel heaps together empty boxes that might equally be refrigerators or computer monitors. Despite Hartmann’s pointed use of crayon and pastel colors, this concatenation of storage units takes on an apocalyptic sheen.

As one viewed Hartmann’s paintings, it was impossible to forget the concurrent presentation by Graulicht, the Viennese design team of August Kocherscheidt and Rupert Zallmann. Aptly named Cementipede, 2014, their fantastic “seating-sculpture” illuminated and haunted Hartmann’s show by unfurling through the length of its front room. Cementipede’s crawl renders concrete—that staple material of the quadrangular architectural unit—sinuous. Produced by applying the pressure of different human bodies to a thin layer of damp concrete suspended atop malleable foam, it provides through absence a physical record of presence, and here was a disturbingly cozy foil to Hartmann’s storage-scapes. By contrast, the loosely painted dissolving chair in Hartmann’s uninhabited yet claustrophobic study Ohne Titel (Höhere Ordnung) (Untitled [Creating a Higher Order]) supports only a sort of ghostly weight. Covered with, or rather consisting of, crumpled papers, it hardly invites one to take a seat. The shelved books are mute, their bindings broken. The “higher order” proposed by Hartmann’s painting reveals the disorder inhabiting such ostensibly organized spaces. His anxious analysis of the unitization of life and the world discloses an absent mind through an absent body.

After settling down in a unit of Cementipede to reflect, I found an underlying touch of humor stashed away in the show. At the entrance to the gallery’s library, Hartmann’s small oil Stuhl auf Mann, Mann auf Fahrrad (Chair on Man, Man on Bike) provided another image of the inverted human: His landscape a white blur, this man pedals distinctly away, bike basket empty, with a seatless chair stowed, legs up, over his head.

Caroline Lillian Schopp