Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Augen (Eyes), 1963, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 × 63". From the series “Augenbilder” (Eye Paintings), 1963–64.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Augen (Eyes), 1963, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 × 63". From the series “Augenbilder” (Eye Paintings), 1963–64.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay

Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Augen (Eyes), 1963, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 × 63". From the series “Augenbilder” (Eye Paintings), 1963–64.

Although he was born in Berlin, I’ve never thought of Ernst Wilhelm Nay as a particularly German painter. For Nay himself, though, being German was something hard to escape. German artists in the postwar decades had to contend with suspicion, if not antipathy, on the international stage. Considering this, Nay did quite well, although his success was possibly helped by the fact that his later paintings corresponded well with the American Abstract Expressionism of his generation. The exhibition “Nay 1964” offered a closer look into one specific series from Nay’s late work: his so-called “Augenbilder” (Eye Paintings), 1963–64. Eight of them were on display, including two that were included in Nay’s presentation at the third Documenta, in 1964, which contributed to his brief international success in the years before his death in 1968.

In this show there was one work that does link Nay to a German style of painting—say, that of Georg Baselitz—with its sovereign and somewhat angry brushwork: the dark Augen (Eyes), 1963, in which roughly a dozen ocular forms appear in a frenzy. Some little blue spots shine through the predominantly black, white, and gray. In the other paintings, color and atmosphere were lighter and there was more of a feeling of a balanced compositional whole. Even though the works look dynamic and vivid, they don’t convey the feeling of a subjective touch. They are more like spatial color explorations that use circular forms as a basic module. They seem the work of a painter who is, above all, fascinated by perception and does not want to appear himself in the work. In each painting one or several eyes were present; only in two cases does this create the impression of an actual face: in Die Nacht (The Night), 1963, and, less obviously, in Astral, 1964. In the other works the eyes acted as independent forms. Primary colors were favored, together with black and white, giving the show a certain clarity and consistency.

Still, surrounded by so many eyes, one had the feeling of being watched. Should they be read symbolically—as evil eyes, surreal windows to eroticism, or spiritually all-seeing? The eight paintings offered quite different possibilities but no specific answers. In most of them an almond shape surrounds the circle forms, confirming the appearance of an eye. They act as energetic fields of color, with fragments of figuration rather than defining some descriptive form. Meteor, 1964, includes, among others, a striped eye above one that swirls like the eye of a storm. In Blaufeuer (Blue Fire), a dripping eye appears; in Äquinoktien (Equinoxes), 1964, an unfinished eye neighbors another with a propeller-like extension.

Nay’s paintings are monumental and carefully orchestrated, but they also contain accidental elements, such as drips and sprays or the implicit figuration that pops up amid the abstract forms. One detects an affinity with the formal simplicity and clarity of the late work of Matisse. In that sense, the work escapes the gravity of being German. One could wonder, though, if that is entirely a good thing. Nay’s abstract works are well considered, but some feel rather innocuous; they sometimes lack a subjective edge, a sense of urgency, though the most biting paintings in the show, Augen and Silberstern (Silver Star), 1964, do bear witness to the artist’s creative struggle. Nay had high hopes for abstract painting as a universal language. His rhetoric on the topic can, in retrospect, sound quite exaggerated, but his paintings are not; they are solid and down-to-earth.

Jurriaan Benschop