View of “Imi Knoebel,” 2015. From left: Bild 31.01.2014; Bild 09.12.2014. From the series “Bild,” 2013–.

View of “Imi Knoebel,” 2015. From left: Bild 31.01.2014; Bild 09.12.2014. From the series “Bild,” 2013–.

Imi Knoebel

View of “Imi Knoebel,” 2015. From left: Bild 31.01.2014; Bild 09.12.2014. From the series “Bild,” 2013–.

Imi Knoebel has been worrying away at the problem of abstraction for decades. His 1968 painting Schwarzes Kreuz (Black Cross) paid witty, wonky homage to Malevich’s Black Square of 1915, still a touchstone for the German artist, who, surprisingly, has only just recently had his first London solo exhibition. As if to remind Londoners of what they’ve missed, the show included new additions to his “Kite” series of 1971: white-painted quadrilateral works hung near the top of a small, high-ceilinged gallery, jagged floating shards that, depending on the light and the viewer’s position, became almost invisible at points. Knoebel takes pleasure in playing with the rules and histories of abstraction—in turning pure form into the barest suggestion of a literal object and interrogating the different ways in which the monochrome can be put to work.

A larger gallery contained a number of paintings made of slotted, slatted sheets of aluminum and mirror glass. In stark contrast to the primary colors or neutral tones Knoebel and his avant-garde predecessors have typically used, his palette in these works was a little more off-key, with various shades of egg-yolk yellow, pastel green, matte black, and pearly pink. Ort-Rosa, 2013, painted a bright bubble-gum pink, extended outward, perpendicular to the wall, to form an additional corner in the room, muddling distinctions between painting, sculpture, and architecture. In these works, the individual brushstrokes on the metal panels remain visible, reminding us at every turn, with every stroke, that we are looking at handcrafted paintings, not industrial objects.

Each painting from the “Bild” series, 2013–, was mounted onto a series of shiny rectangular metal bars that held it an inch or two away from the wall. Seen from the side, the struts looked like miniature Donald Judd wall stacks: insistently physical, material things. The bars push the paintings into the viewer’s space, asserting their status in the world as things to be reckoned with. Instead of being fixed, the individual painted panels of Knoebel’s works slot into wide grooves so as to tilt slightly. They appear only provisionally propped in place, susceptible to being removed and supplanted. Often the paintings consist of two or three separate panels, some of which are biomorphic and rounded, others geometric, fixed together as if by hinges. A slight gap may suggest the precariousness of a join, while cutout sections reveal the wall behind. These vibrant Arp-like articulations recall Knoebel’s own collage works, with their knife-cut forms grouped together and painted in bright primary colors. System 4, 2013, a three-panel tangerine-colored painting running the length of the wall in a series of mismatched ziggurats, brought to mind Frank Stella’s shaped canvases or, closer to home, the colorful geometric monochromes of Knoebel’s friend Blinky Palermo. It’s easy to find precursors and peers for Knoebel’s work (Ellsworth Kelly, for one), but his interest is not so much in continuing earlier traditions as in reworking abstraction from a contemporary position—returning to and borrowing from it in order to make its forms anew.

Knoebel produced his first major work, Raum 19, in 1968, while still a student of Joseph Beuys. He took an empty room and filled it with stacks of painting stretchers and disassembled picture frames, piled up as though waiting to be used, or perhaps already done with and dismantled. Other versions of this room, packed with potential paintings and new beginnings, have followed over the years, becoming an enduring motif across Knoebel’s career. His interrogation of abstraction appears less a grandiose reinvention (as if such a thing were even possible) than a kind of stocktaking. His paintings—like his rooms—are holding environments, experimental grounds for abstraction whose limits and possibilities he continues to test.

Jo Applin