The narrative of abstraction in western painting is one of linear progression. We are taught that abstraction unfolded neatly: from Braque’s pixelated landscapes via Kandinsky’s colour explosions to Mondrian’s grids, we arrived at abstraction proper. But if total abstraction was achieved with Malevich’s Black Square in 1915, how then does painting continue along this linear trajectory more than 100 years later? For three Berlin-based contemporary artists Katharina Grosse, Bernard Frize, and Imi Knoebel, the answer lies in subverting progress itself. Detours brings together works by these artists to present an argument for divergent timelines.
Progress presupposes a past, present, and future, the relentless advancement of events. However, in the words of German artist Katharina Grosse “painting does not follow chronological succession; thus it has no beginning or end. There is no duration of contemplation that can be defined.” When we view a painting, every element of the artist’s process, every gesture, every hesitation exists in one cohesive moment. Grosse is celebrated for her in situ work where architecture and found objects are transformed into vibrant immersive paintings via her signature spray gun, but it is in her studio practice that the notion of painting as condensed time is most apparent. The semi-transparent sprayed gestures seen in Untitled allow for all working to remain visible as the ‘residue’ of the artist’s decisions and actions. Working across as many as forty canvases at once, Grosse will isolate one or two at different stages to document her process. Because we cannot identify when in the process a painting was ‘paused’, we are asked to imagine the work as a detour from the timeline of the original sequence.
Where Grosse’s canvases are a swirling record of the artist’s actions over time, Berlin based French painter Bernard Frize paints in an unambiguous linear sequence but surrenders action to his materials. Although still working with the traditional materials of brush and canvas, Frize aims to create a ‘small mechanism, an engine that runs by itself’ in order to explore the variations possible within the formal properties of colour and line. In this algorithmic mode, colours are allowed their own agency to bleed into each other, eschewing the painter’s authorial voice. For the 2015 series that included Suret, Frize mixed resin with thin acrylics before applying them simultaneously across the canvas. The resulting painting is paradoxical, both organic and synthetic.
Progression also drives the desire to produce something novel. In an interview with Imi Knoebel, the German artist recalls grappling with the stultifying pressure of the ‘Fetish of the New’. As a young artist at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Knoebel felt as if everything had been done before. “What’s left?” he asked. “If you want to do something, to stay alive, you have to think of something at least as radical.” He discovered that looking back to Malevich allowed him to navigate new avenues into the future, and in doing so carved out a distinctive mode of hybrid sculpture-painting. In the series Faces, different coloured strips of acrylic film are woven into grids. These both interfer with the medium-support relationship and investigate the possible variations available within a limited set of rules. As the viewer, we can’t help but recognise ourselves in this work; like the human face, each 75mm grid in Faces has the same basic structure – eyes, nose, mouth – but each is infinitely unique.