View of “Vivian Suter,” 2021–22, Palacio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

View of “Vivian Suter,” 2021–22, Palacio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

Vivian Suter

View of “Vivian Suter,” 2021–22, Palacio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

I HAVE NO CLUE what Mick Jagger is trying to communicate in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” but I always liked the explosive opening line: “I was born in a cross-fire hurricane.” And in front of Vivian Suter’s rough canvases at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, the lyrics suddenly make sense. These works were born in thunderstorms. Rain, wind, and muddy waters are factors as important as the intentionality and craftmanship of the artist.

The moisture, the mold, and the dirt of the artist’s flooded studio and the surrounding jungle are as important as the pigments, oils, and acrylics applied to the untreated canvases. The plant and animal life of the rain forest has left marks. Monsoons, mudslides, and tropical storms constitute the art’s conditions of possibility. Cross-fire hurricanes, too.

Presented on the Palacio de Velázquez’s high walls, the floor, and simple wooden structures, Suter’s works take over the large gallery space entirely and immerse the viewer in color. Some of them are installed in close proximity to one another on a hanging mechanism very similar to those that appear in photographs of her studio. Rather than as individual canvases, we might think of them as layers or sediments.

View of “Vivian Suter,” 2021–22, Palacio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

Can one say that Suter is a “landscape painter”? Perhaps, but the landscape is not something external to the canvas. The subject matter is not passively depicted but instead plays an active part in the art; it has agency as a coproducer of the paintings. The immersive and active role of the natural environment becomes clear in a recent conversation between Suter and the artist R. H. Quaytman. Suter makes works with, not of, the landscape, she explains: “It’s all around me, and I don’t see much further; it is enclosed, but outside.”

“And I feel like they themselves are actual landscapes,” Quaytman adds, describing the canvases themselves.

“Yes, exactly, they are geographical things,” says Suter.

Immersion is a concept one would normally associate with installations and electronic-media art, not with painting. But Suter’s method has little to do with the production of flat surfaces to be installed on the well-lit walls of a white cube. Her works are not at home in the realm of purity produced through our institutions’ machineries of exclusion; they are produced, rather, by dynamic forces that radically transcend the architectures in which they are created and displayed. They belong outside, and when they are installed in a museum like the Reina Sofía, one gets the sense that this is only a temporary arrangement, that in the long run they will return to the natural cycles that made them possible. Are Suter’s works ecological? Yes, but they are not about ecology. They are ecology.

Are Suter’s works ecological? Yes, but they are not about ecology. They are ecology.

I have written before in these pages on what I’ve called painting’s Holy Trinity—a perfect loop encompassing the eye, the hand, and the canvas. This limited, humanist circle is not where Suter’s paintings belong. They are at home in a larger economy, one involving the changing weather, the earth and the vegetation, the insects and the animals in the rain forest, the sunlight and the gloaming. The lake and the nearby volcanoes are of relevance too.

Would I have claimed any of this if I hadn’t known a few things about the artist and her whereabouts? I vividly recall my surprise and enthusiasm when, totally unprepared, I encountered her radiant colors in a wooden structure in an Athens park and, later, in a modest glass pavilion on Kurt-Schumacher-Straße in Kassel. That was in 2017, at Documenta 14. I remember in these pages praising the curvilinear red-and-pale-blue patterns suffused by the sun. I called the paintings unassuming yet jubilant. Did they manifest their maker’s psychological energies as well as cosmic powers, as I had thought?

Clearly, I was already under the influence of Rosalind Nashashibi’s intimate and profoundly empathetic film Vivian’s Garden (2017), a portrait of Suter and her mother, the collagist Elisabeth Wild, when I pointed out how Suter’s canvases weave themselves into an experiential mesh in which works of art and viewers’ subjectivity intertwine organically with one another and with the rich textures of daily life. In Suter’s and Wild’s case, those everyday textures—their voices, their furniture, the art on their walls and the food on their table—exude that most seductive form of sensuous pleasure. It’s all so beautiful.

Rosalind Nashashibi, Vivian’s Garden (detail), 2017, 16 mm, color, sound, 29 minutes 50 seconds.

After a successful but brief career as a young painter in Basel, where she had lived from the age of twelve, Suter disappeared from the art world. She escaped Switzerland and embarked on a long journey through California and Central America. She set up her home on a former coffee plantation in Panajachel, Guatemala, close to the volcanic Lake Atitlán.

Her life is mysterious. Whether she departed in protest, as a Conceptualist act, or out of some other necessity is not clear to me. What is certain is that she never left art. In her new environment, she continued to paint, and her abstract forms began to engage in a deep and lengthy dialogue with nature.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, ca. 1980, mixed media on paper, 81 7⁄8 × 110 1⁄4".

In 2014, curator Adam Szymczyk staged an exhibition with Suter at the Kunsthalle Basel. Since then, her works have been shown regularly at institutions around the globe. In an essay on Suter’s three decades of absence from the art world, Szymczyk emphasizes the decisive significance of two catastrophic storms, Stan and Agatha, which in 2005 and 2010, respectively, caused enormous floods and landslides across Guatemala. Many of Suter’s works were destroyed. From this point on, she incorporated the effects of the natural environment in which she worked; her gestural brushstrokes were accompanied by traces that were outside her control. She describes this moment in ways that remind me of Duchamp’s account of seeing the cracks that destroyed his most important work, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 1915–23, and deciding that chance processes can contribute to art:

Suter: And then my studio was flooded, as was my mother’s house; almost everything flooded.
R. H. Quaytman: But that didn’t stop you—you decided to show those paintings drenched in the mud.
Suter: Yes. But it took a while to see that as possible. At first my whole studio was drenched in wet mud and the paintings caked in mud, too. But a week later, I went back, and the mud had dried. I looked for a while at the paintings that had mud on them but not entirely. The painting underneath was still visible at the top, and I began to see them differently and liked how they now appeared.

Conceived by the artist herself as a response to the architecture of the Reina Sofía’s Palacio de Velázquez, the exhibition represents what the museum calls an ecosystem. On the left side of the palace, she presents four decades-old paintings untouched by natural forces. Most of these early works on paper combine contemporary forms of abstraction with visual vocabularies reminiscent of prehistoric work. I liked seeing them but must conclude that they alone would not have made the show worthwhile. The mudslides added another dimension. Suter’s late style, the one produced by storms, is what has made her into a significant artist.

Vivian Suter, Untitled, date unknown, mixed media on paper, 99 5⁄8 × 55 1⁄8".

In her conversation with Quaytman, there is talk of Hilma af Klint, another artist whose work reached its audience very late. At a recent conference, writer Jennifer Higgie described today’s growing enthusiasm for af Klint as reflecting “a collective hunger for inhabiting and understanding the planet.” The same is true, I think, for Suter. Like af Klint’s, her version of abstraction is an attempt to enact not some otherworldly realm but spheres of vibrant, immanent life.

Similar ambitions may be found in some of today’s most vociferous theoretical approaches, not least in those new forms of ecology that attempt to rid our thinking of the obsession with the historically overemphasized relationship between a perceiving subject and a known object. Instead, the argument often goes, we should investigate the equally exciting relationships in the world between human and nonhuman forms of agency. Timothy Morton’s ecology may be a case in point. We are beings symbiotically entangled with other beings, he argues in Being Ecological (2018). I would have loved to waltz through Suter’s Madrid exhibition and quote the last sentences of his book: “You are breathing air . . . evolution is silently unfolding in the background. Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead. . . . You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.”

Contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum is the artistic director of Acute Art in London and a professor of philosophy at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. His novel Dr. B., published last year by Gallimard, will appear in english translation this spring (HarperCollins).