Anselm Reyle, Untitled, 2004, mixed media on canvas, 7' 5 1/4“ × 10' 10 3/4”.

Anselm Reyle, Untitled, 2004, mixed media on canvas, 7' 5 1/4“ × 10' 10 3/4”.

Anselm Reyle

Contemporary Fine Arts Galerie (CFA)

Anselm Reyle, Untitled, 2004, mixed media on canvas, 7' 5 1/4“ × 10' 10 3/4”.

This was Anselm Reyle’s first solo show since his announcement in early 2014 that, for the time being, he would neither make nor exhibit new work. True to this resolution, the exhibition did not feature new pieces: On view was a single series that the artist regards as complete as of this self-imposed hiatus—the definitive date in the show’s prosaic title, “Streifenbilder/Stripe Paintings, 2003–2013,” indicating as much.

The exhibition was a look back of sorts, then, and another first for Reyle: He had never presented a solo show entirely dedicated to one ensemble and the stages of its evolution. A fitting exercise for an artist who has decided to take time to reflect and take stock: Reyle is reviewing his work and thinking about where to take it going forward; he felt he needed to disentangle himself from the market and its constant pressure to produce. He may not be sure what he will do, but, as he told an interviewer for Die Welt in February 2014, “I don’t suppose that I will have nothing to do with art”; he confirmed that sentiment when I spoke to him recently.

Reyle’s “Stripe Paintings” are made up of vertical bands of color—a clichéd format, which was always part of what made it interesting to him. An icon of geometric abstraction, the striped canvas has a long history as a central scene of competitive artistic radicalism; so many painters have used it to outdo one another that the avant-garde impulse that once sustained it is gone—it has effectively become a repertoire piece. That is the point Reyle homes in on, as the show illustrated with ten exemplary works, all Untitled. Early specimens such as an expansive wide-format piece from 2004 savor the dissonances unleashed by deliberately disparate combinations of colors while making them look surprisingly good. Reyle subsequently displays the diverse nuances implicit in this basic setup, by no means shunning the classic devices of his art: He experiments with increasingly subtle pastel shades of his basic colors—see, for example, the rose and lilac hues in a work from 2007. But he also steadily expands his palette of materials; the pictures I have mentioned feature strips of foil affixed to the canvas in apparently negligent fashion (although the resulting creases are very much intentional, lending the surface a gestural edge). The works that follow exploit these factors to ever-stronger effect, arraying materials and paints in increasingly complex constellations: from foils and colored mirrors to layers of heavy impasto and roughcast applied with various spackling techniques (several of them deployed in a darkish small-format work from 2007) and even straw mixed into the paint. The narrow-band stripe paintings Reyle started making in 2005 ratchet up the combinatorial variety yet another notch. The best example in the exhibition was a canvas from that year whose dominant orange red reveals, upon closer inspection, a stunningly polyphonic concert of hues; a generally light-colored work dated from 2012 unfolds numerous shades of gray and white with pastel nuances around a handful of salient colors.

By tracing the series’ evolution over time, the exhibition highlighted the fact that Reyle’s project was always a double one: What started as an exploration of a cliché of abstraction became tinged by irony (and self-irony)—Reyle worked with the stripe painting, but he never unreservedly embraced it. Yet by laying bare a pictorial format drained of its historic substance, he also made it available for new investment; intense and soberly serious, his compositions keep surprising us with novel chromatic consonances. The “Stripe Paintings” represent at once a determined flirt with a cliché and its opposite—deliberate facture and intangible harmony of color.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.