Tomma Abts

October 19, 2018–February 18, 2019

Following its critically-acclaimed debut at the Serpentine Galleries in London in 2018, Tomma Abts travelled to the Art Institute of Chicago. Surveying more than a decade of paintings and a small selection of bronze casts, the show has been curated by James Rondeau and Lekha Hileman Waitoller in Chicago, with Lizzie Carey-Thomas at the Serpentine.

Abts won the Turner Prize in 2006 and has since presented her work in major solo exhibitions at museums including the New Museum in New York (2008) and Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (2011). Her enigmatic work is guided by intuition: while Abts’s canvases have maintained the same format, with rare exceptions, for the past twenty years, the artist approaches each abstract composition without preconceived ideas. In paintings that often take years to complete, evolution is evidenced by ridges and uneven surfaces caused by the methodical overpainting and reworking of the image. Reviewing Abts’s New Museum exhibition for The New York Times, Ken Johnson observed, “The layered, textured paint shows that she doesn’t just translate an image that she sees complete in her mind’s eye. Rather she arrives at her compositions circuitously, through trial and error. The transcendental image emerges from a human, terrestrial process of searching and discovering. The cerebral is balanced by the sensual.” The artist’s considered approach also applies to the design of her exhibitions, in which the works are carefully sequenced and spaced in response to the surrounding architecture—a consideration that Johnson called “exhilarating.”

The artist also collaborated on the design of a major new monograph accompanying the show, with essays by Rondeau, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, art historian Kate Nesin, and Juliane Rebentisch, a Berlin-based professor of philosophy and aesthetics.

In 2006, Tomma Abts became the first female painter to win the prestigious Turner Prize organized by Tate Gallery in London. The award was based on recent exhibitions, including a major solo presentation at Kunsthalle Basel in 2005. The jury, composed of Lynn Barber, a writer for The Observer, Margot Heller, director of the South London Gallery, Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator at White Columns in New York, Andrew Renton, a writer and director of curating at Goldsmiths College at the time, and then Tate director Nicholas Serota, admired the rigor and consistency of Abts’s painting. Abts’s Turner Prize exhibition featured eleven abstract works evenly spaced around one room, and was designed to be viewed as an installation, rather than a series of individual paintings. As Barber reflected, "Her work has grown and grown on me with every viewing.  . . . Tomma Abts came through purely on the strength of her work. Her Turner Prize room is truly thrilling."

The Turner Prize is given annually to "a British artist," which includes non-nationals working in the UK and British artists working abroad. In 2006, Abts, who was born in Germany, had been living and working in London for twelve years. Covering the news of Abts’s award in The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins reported that Abts was a popular winner among the British art world; Higgins noted how Abts "uses no source material, but allows the form of the paintings to emerge as she applies layers of colour—a process that mingles disciplined severity with pure intuition. The results are entirely distinctive—some of the forms look as if they want to struggle into three dimensions; others coil, snakelike, across the canvas."

Watch a video interview with Abts filmed on the occasion of her Turner Prize award.

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