New York

Herbert Zangs, Plus-Minus, 1953, paint on cardboard, 55 1⁄2 × 51 1⁄8". From the series “Whitenings,” 1952–54.

Herbert Zangs, Plus-Minus, 1953, paint on cardboard, 55 1⁄2 × 51 1⁄8". From the series “Whitenings,” 1952–54.

Herbert Zangs

Blain|Southern | New York

The late German artist Herbert Zangs (1924–2003)—who worked primarily with cardboard, staples, wood, and white paint in the years following World War II—generated a sorely underrecognized oeuvre that’s as blissfully meditative as it is dense with painterly innovation. “Plus Minus” at Blain|Southern—the first New York exhibition of Zangs’s work in fifty years—unearthed yet another example of the white monochrome’s presence during the early 1950s. When Robert Rauschenberg was showing his 1951 White Paintings to audiences both dubious and offended and Robert Ryman was observing the modernist canon at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as a security guard, Zangs began his own exploration of achromia in a context removed from that of his American peers. (Zangs’s decision to paint abstractly was partially inspired by a visit to Jackson Pollock’s first Paris exhibition in 1952.) In one of the most celebrated chapters of Melville’s Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael rhapsodizes about the titular hue’s universal, culture-transcending significance: “No man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance [white] calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.” That sentiment seems to have been as relevant in the twentieth century as it was in the nineteenth.

Zangs called his monochromes “Whitenings,” 1952–54, to emphasize the process via which he produced them. Instead of starting with a pristine blank canvas, Zangs would blanch his primarily brown and frequently scavenged support materials. Take Foldings, 1953, for which he partly coated meticulously scored cardboard with thinned masonry paint, allowing the underlying texture to peek through. (One cannot hide material reality through whitening.) He soon began to employ mathematical operators—the signs for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and equivalence, for example, procedures that he called “the great formula of miraculous, unexplainable life”—cut out of cardboard or wood, which he stapled to his works’ surfaces in a kind of Constructivist collage. Unlike Jasper Johns’s use of letters and numbers, Zangs’s work with mathematical symbols seems relatively unconcerned with the semiotic and focuses instead on the signs’ formal qualities. Without numerical values, these operations do no work at all—they are empty formulas unburdened by integers yet full of potential. In the era of the Marshall Plan, the eschewal of the harsh quantitative realities of rationing, inflation, and World War II’s astronomical death toll amounts to the achievement of a measure of transcendence. Plus-Minus, 1953, the show’s namesake, features the math symbols along with the cardboard rectangles Zangs sliced them out of. United by a patina of white paint that emphasizes the work’s sculptural topography, positive and negative spaces exist in balanced harmony. Collages, ca. 1970, makes nearly symmetrical use of the same signs—incised this time out of light wood and industrially stapled to a large, tarnished plank. Ever productive, the “great formula” continued to inspire.

“Plus Minus” also included experiments with black that Zangs carried out in the 1970s and ’80s, though these works lacked some of the gestural beauty of his “Whitenings.” Objects, ca. 1978—a river of industrial black felt à la Robert Morris, clipped and crimped by wooden wedges that resemble giant clothespins suspended from the gallery wall—stood out because of its vast size and extreme tactility. Across decades, Zangs remained preoccupied with the alchemical process of transforming base materials into metaphysical meditations. I believe Zangs would have been appreciated by his American counterparts because, as Ishmael mused, “subtlety appeals to subtlety.”