Florian Pumhösl, Kanal Abschmilt VII (Canal Section VII), 2017, anticorrosive paint on galvanized sheet steel, 86 5/8 × 30 3/8 × 2".

Florian Pumhösl, Kanal Abschmilt VII (Canal Section VII), 2017, anticorrosive paint on galvanized sheet steel, 86 5/8 × 30 3/8 × 2".

Florian Pumhösl

Florian Pumhösl, Kanal Abschmilt VII (Canal Section VII), 2017, anticorrosive paint on galvanized sheet steel, 86 5/8 × 30 3/8 × 2".

Karl Marx argued in the Grundrisse (1857–58) that it is impossible to grasp the complexity of the world with an abstract concept. An idea is merely a starting point, which must be fleshed out through “the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete.” When applied to the aesthetic realm, this fundamentally anti-Platonic conception of abstraction runs counter to the idea that artists reach abstract forms via distillation, the process Theo van Doesburg famously illustrated with his 1917 abstraction of a cow. But if abstraction is a starting point and not a goal, the separation of the abstract and the figurative in art is a false dichotomy, because every artwork is a developed form of abstraction regardless of its style. This idea moreover enables us to reexamine art history not as a progress toward abstraction, but as a large pool of solutions for how to give concrete form to incomplete abstractions.

Florian Pumhösl explores this path toward the concrete via abstraction. In his works, usually produced in ensembles, he begins with a system of representation or instruction that aims to abstract the world—a method of mapping, an architectural drawing, an alphabet. Pumhösl analyzes this system as well as the results of its application, comprehends its visual genealogy and sociopolitical context, and uses it to generate concrete forms that are finally exhibited as artifacts, “rising from the abstract to the concrete.” A piece by Pumhösl is a physical actualization of a system in the form of an object. His recent exhibition “Kanal” (Canal) included seven pieces, titled Kanal Abschnitt (Canal Section) I through VII and all dated 2017. They are made from sheets of galvanized steel each measuring about seven-and-a-quarter by two-and-a-half feet, and painted in anticorrosive paint with an earthy red hue. Each piece is folded and pinched in an individual manner, and hangs on the wall as a unique relief.

The forms of these elegant reliefs were related, in the artist’s mind, to canal systems, perhaps to the one that regulates the water flow of Vienna. Pumhösl examined the structure of these systems and developed a general principle according to which his forms were in dialogue with those of real canals. His principle was related to other strategies of urban growth as well. For instance, Vienna’s canal and subway systems were intertwined in their early development. The history of the city’s modernization has been the history of how its systems to regulate flows of traffic, goods, people, capital, and water evolved. Indeed, urban planning is arguably an abstract system par excellence that aims to remodel an entire society and its built environment according to its conceptual framework. Thus, these seemingly austere reliefs are in effect conceptual portraits of the city’s modernity.

The material, the technique, and the paint used for these reliefs are normally used for roofing, meaning that their physical properties are derived from another system that controls the flow of water to keep building interiors dry. Rainwater from the city’s rooftops may eventually flow into the very canal network from which the forms of these pieces were derived. The formal and substantial aspects of the works are perfectly in sync with their historical conditions and conceptual structure, creating a picture with formidable complexity that is nevertheless wholly resolved. Extensive historical knowledge and the understanding of the logic behind the system of abstraction are concentrated in the concrete, sophisticated forms of the exhibited works. In the Grundrisse, Marx wrote that an abstract concept is valid only when it is “a rich totality of many determinations and relations.” This is an apt description of Pumhösl’s works.

––Yuki Higashino