Modernist geometric abstraction insisted on art’s presentness, proscribing memory, illusion, allusion – anything that pointed beyond the frame. During the early 2000s, several artists emerged, among them Martin Boyce, Sergej Jensen, David Maljkovic and Katja Strunz, who saw ironic potential in turning this bias on its head, using formalism to retrospectively allude to the absolutist claims – of transcendence and finality – that modernist artists had made for it. Tomma Abts is among the most distinguished survivors of that generation, but she has never been an ironist. She proceeds as if earnest persistence could overcome the nostalgia to which her paintings seem condemned, and, failing that, elegiacally acquiesce to the obsolescence of the languages they draw on.
Abts’s paintings are puzzles, literally and metaphorically: literally because they might be examples of what W.H. Auden called art as a ‘contraption’ (he first approached a poem by asking, ‘How does it work?’). An Abts painting comes right ‘with a click like a closing box’ – as another great modernist, W.B. Yeats, described finishing a poem – resolving mechanism into image. But these are oddly purposeless illusions, picturing nothing but their own structures, their forms hermetically contingent on each other, committed to perpetual motion among themselves. Abts’s meticulous layering of hard-edged planes of colour fetishises her painstakingness, but the illusionism towards which it strives is self-concealing: the real time of painting gives way to the figurative time of an image’s retrospection, by sinking into the shallowest of pictorial spaces. This sleight of hand is what traditional painting has always used its imagery for; it only seems paradoxical here because it is so exclusively self-reflexive. Repeatedly, Abts bets everything on this spartan payoff. She is ultimately unlike the modernists she alludes to, who sought to supplant late-nineteenth-century aestheticism. For them, an emphasis on the artwork as a contraption was a vigorously realist alternative to a moribund formalism that had lost contact with life. Abts’s art has the pure aestheticism of the arcanely artisanal, the skill no one else has the patience to master. This is l’art pour l’art – like Fabergé eggs, or Flemish still lifes, but without the bonus of luscious fruit and flowers.
Exhibitions in London: From Frida Kahlo to Michael Jackson, the best art and museum shows to see this summer
German artist Tomma Abts won the Turner Prize in 2006, but this Serpentine show will be her first solo exhibition in a UK public institution. Her oil paintings have a Bridget Riley-esque hypnotic quality - the perfect show for breaking up a summertime stroll through Kensington Gardens.
June 7 - September 9, Serpentine Gallery
The strange, small paintings of Tomma Abts act like artistic stealth bombers. The German born, London based artist was nominated for the 2006 Turner Prize and over the years she’s become renowned as a quiet force in abstract painting. Her deceptively unassuming work has continued to exert its slow-burning power over an evermore appreciative international audience, even though there is nothing flashy or retina-sizzling about these peculiar little canvases. With their oddly indefinable palette and arrangements of circles, stripes, triangles and curves, they often seem more like the work of some long-forgotten Futurist or a 1930s Bauhaus member, rather than one of today’s most sought-after contemporary artists.
But don’t be taken in by their low profile demeanour, for as Abts’s most recent paintings currently on show at Greengrassi confirm, what appear to be straightforward relationships of form and colour are actually quite the opposite. Each work is built up from intricate overpaintings with previous traces left under the skin. The shapes emerge out of and retreat back into the picture plane with a perplexing lack of logic. Flashes of vivid colour and incongruous shadows play across their thick smothering layers; these intricate maskings, shadings and spatial games complicate the picture plane in mind-boggling ways.
Another paradox is that, while they might appear to have been elaborately pre-meditated, in fact their geometric compositions are created intuitively – albeit laboriously. “I have no preconceptions when I start, there are no drawings that I do before,” Abts states. “I don’t work out the composition beforehand... It can take a very long time to make everything work but I’m making it up as I go along: the whole mood, the colour scheme, everything can totally change.”
Although her paintings might carry echoes of Modernist art history, that’s not remotely the artist’s intention. “What I do is definitely not about finding references and mixing them together in a new way,” she says. “Every time I make a painting it is about starting with nothing and trying to invent something new.”
For her second collaboration with the master printers at the renowned Crown Point Press, Turner Prize-winner Tomma Abts translated the layered, abstract language of her paintings into printed form. The fruits of her crossover—four elegant etchings (all 2015)—are currently on view at Crown Point Press’s sunny San Francisco gallery space.
The German-born Abts relocated to London in 1995 during the rise of the Young British Artists (YBAs), and then was launched into the limelight with her 2006 Turner Prize win. Nonetheless, she has always maintained a low profile and kept a distance from the art scene. In her studio, the self-taught artist works painstakingly on her paintings, slowly building up their geometric, abstract surfaces, guided largely by intuition. A single composition can take her a year to complete. “They're such slow paintings to make that I think they might also be slow to look at…that people might not really notice what's going on,” she has said.
At Crown Point Press, her process was faster, though not fast. Abts let the shape and size of the plates that she used (the ground for her etchings) guide her compositional choices. This resulted in a set of op art-esque visions, grounded in variously arranged stripes and circles. In the Untitled (Big Circle), for example, the artist limited her palette to a bright, lively combination of red and white, recalling a circus tent or a target. Its surface is filled with a patchwork of dizzying vertical and angled horizontal stripes, which appear to jut off the page in places. A large circle, formed from concentric circles, dominates the composition’s lower left corner. Stare long enough, and it will start to move.
In the cooler toned Untitled (Gap), thin yellow stripes jog up a blue background, lifting up and away at its upper left corner. Four spring-green circles arrayed in a row hover above, while a horizontal white band (or gap, as the etching’s title indicates) chops the composition into two uneven pieces. Such works reflect Abts’s focus on materials, process, and form, resulting in what she has described as “something being…an image and at the same time an object.”
At once volatile and precise, Tomma Abts’s work keeps shifting beneath your feet. Echoing a wide range of precursors—from high Constructivism (Alexander Archipenko and Henryk Stażewski), to geometric abstraction’s flashier midcentury incarnations (Richard Anuszkiewicz, Victor Vasarely), to the eager swallowing-up of both by the “rad,” spray-paint-besmirched graphic design of the 1980s—the London-based artist’s neat, sharp, labor-intensive paintings unite a shallow if convincing illusory depth with a neurotic meticulousness to erect optical labyrinths that both tantalize and deceive. It’s as if Max Bill discovered the drop shadow and came to the party drunk on Op art: Try as you might, you can’t look away.
For all her obsessive fine-tuning and technical perfectionism, however, Abts leaves behind big, obvious clues pointing to her all-too-human hand: Among the paintings here—in her first exhibition in New York since 2008—the work Oke, 2013, for example, contains a major element that seems uncharacteristically dashed off. The composition features a palette of olive green, dark pink, and tan, and is structured around four semi-symmetrical curves. Faintly evoking floriated decorative motifs or fortissimo signs, these loops also recall dropped ribbons; Abts has added hyperillusionistic shadows that make the lines appear to lift off the canvas. Yet amid the mathematical exactitude of the work, two of the four curves stand apart. Slightly compressed and elongated, they look as if Abts had blithely sketched them out and then never refined their shape, a hint of imperfection that acts as a signal pointing directly to the body’s presence in its encounter with the canvas. But it also raises questions. Given Abts’s otherwise superhuman attention to detail, one wonders: Is this really a clue, or is it a false one? Is she showing her hand, or leading us on? Perhaps the appearance of unstudied improvisation is actually the real illusion, and what we perceive as gestural spontaneity is, in fact, a controlled choice, meticulously honed and governed by a conscious compositional directive. The question raised is not one of irony versus sincerity as it pertains to the gestural mark, but a much thornier one concerning perception’s entwinement with belief: Abts’s work, in its otherworldly perfectionism, eschews the rigidity of the “mechanical” in favor of the existential uncertainties of the virtual.
Currently on view at David Zwirner’s 519 19th Street Space in New York, Tomma Abts is presenting a body of new paintings and drawings, a new entry in her ongoing practice involving flux, change and construction over the course of the compositional process. Under formal analysis, Abts’s work is rooted in the history of 20th Century abstraction, colorful shapes and lines converging in a studious and well-executed canvas that exploits its own relations to its surrounding space as much as the picture plane itself, but upon closer inspection, the works on view here often offer a much deeper narrative.
Abts’s process is best described as “time-intensive,” beginning each canvas without a predetermined goal, and rather, arriving at the final work through a series of trial and error experiments. Lines and marks are covered over, altered or erased, often leaving behind trace evidence that holds together a cohesive, albeit occasionally flawed, history of the painting’s construction. In one work, an concealed layer of paint makes itself explicit through a thick line on the surface of the work, its presence felt just below the final piece. In another, colors are altered and shifted to create different layers of depth, occasionally failing to fit lockstep into the reasoning of Abts’s compositions.
As a result, the works take on a potent new role, illustrating not only Abts’s complex spatial politics, but the agency she affords the canvas itself in her work against it. Her process is not merely a method or realization of arriving at the final composition through a series of experiments, but rather, a gradual mapping out of the possibilities themselves. Her works present not only a series of constructivist experiments, but a willingness to engage with paint and canvas on their own terms, as well as with past iterations of her own creative impulses.
Interestingly, Abts often moves beyond the surface of her work, cutting off edges of her canvas, or in one case, separating a work so that it stands exhibited with a sliver of white wall between its two segments. In these incisions, Abts reintroduces a certain uncertainty as to the composition and process. The elements missing from the rectangular canvas may have held mistakes, or may have been a deliberate subtraction. In either case, the work’s logic must contend for itself, outside of the artist’s aesthetic choices.
In an era when so much new art is blandly referential, if not blatantly appropriated, it's refreshing to come across the intimate, abstract work of Tomma Abts, a German-born painter based in England. While many artists find inspiration for abstraction in nature, everyday objects, or even the human form, Abts is adamant that she mines only her subconscious in creating her sophisticated compositions of swirls and zigzags, circles and triangles. "It just wouldn't interest me, taking something and putting it on canvas," she says from her central London studio, with just a whiff of an accent. "It makes me happy to start with just a color or a shape."
Abts, who took home the Turner Prize in 2006 and has an exhibition of recent work opening at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf on July 16, applies acrylics and oils in layer upon stream-of-consciousness layer, a virtual William Faulkner or James Joyce for the gallery set. Her method is like that of a writer obsessively revising, and evidence of her many drafts is often visible. "It's all about clarifying, fine-tuning," she says. A creature of habit, she sticks to one canvas size 38 by 48 centimeters, or just under 15 by 19 inches – and positions it vertically, which lends it the flavor of a private portrait; these self-imposed restrictions give her the freedom to add constantly to what she calls her "canon of elements. Recently I've been doing a lot with stripes," she reports, noting that they provide a sense of movement and direction. "Not lines, but stipes. The stripes is huge."
So, it appears, is the audience for Abts's paintings. Her pieces, with price tags around $120,000, routinely sell out at Greengrassi in London and David Zwirner in New York. Critics seem equally smitten, raving, for example about the artist's 2008 solo show at the New Museum in Manhattan. But their occasional use of the word retro has irked her. "The only way they could explain [my paintings] was by quoting from the past," she says, "because they did not know what to make of them."
Cringing at the thought of being "didactic," Abts demurs from spelling out what she hopes viewers of her work will take away. But there are plenty of clues right on the surface: These paintings are about painting.
If the compact, boxlike galleries of the new New Museum did no favors for the raggedy lo-fi sculptures in “Unmonumental,” the museum’s inaugural show, the ensuing exhibition—German painter Tomma Abt’s first solo outing in the United States—made clear the potential of the building’s small spaces. Hung low, the fourteen paintings on view worked with the architecture to draw the viewer into an emotional and intellectual engagement with a complex and enveloping space. For those who have previously seen Abts’s works only in reproduction, where they appear rather flat, encountering them in person makes for a revelation, as each composition pulls you into a three-dimensional, almost holographic environment that tends to produce full-throttle kinetic effects yet is held in check by the surface of the paint and—not least—the edges of the canvas itself.
Each of the paintings measures eighteen and seven-eighths by fifteen inches, dimensions the artist “settled into” almost a decade ago, according to the exhibition leaflet, and in which she has since made all her work. If the consistent sizing facilitates a kind of conversation among the works on view, the true significance of the size emerges as one stands in front of them: Not only are they portraitlike—as is also suggested by their titles having been taken from a dictionary of German first names—but even at the proximity necessary to engage with the details of the surface, one must perforce also attempt to take in each canvas as a whole.
This creates unexpected tensions: In Meko, 2006, for example, the eye is simultaneously drawn to and away from the origin of the rays in the top left corner, only to be caught up in tracing a jagged elliptical loop in the painting’s center, which introduces distortion and feedback into geometric simplicity. The characteristic underpainting—the visible evidence of Abts’s working process—further unsettles any simple interpretation, as lines extend the contours of the loop, quietly crisscrossing one another and cutting through the diagonal beams to create a new, complementary plane of ghost shapes and unexpected relationships.
This was a year in which critics wondered whether the Turner Prize could keep up its annual quotient of shock value. It has become a crowd-pleaser, in the better sense, with plenty of razzmatazz to counteract the scary cathedral hush of high contemporary art. And it has been rewarded with huge popularity. But it could be said to be running out of ways to be controversial. Those questions about "is it art?" have thankfully been consigned to the dustbin of tired old arguments, yet this year's winner is by far the least controversial of the contenders.
On a well-balanced shortlist of four, the only real show-off piece was an interactive work by Phil Collins, "The Return of the Real," – hours of sometimes compelling videotape showing the so-say victims of so-called reality television. Along with this – the first "social process" work in the history of the prize – came sculptor Rebecca Warren and installation artist Mark Titcher. Each of the three runners up is awarded £5,000; the total £40,000 fund is supported by Gordon's Gin.
Tomma Abts' painterly work is eerily abstract, each small canvas exactly the same size, unshowy, finely worked. She builds up acrylic and oil paint by layering and over-painting into visual conundrums, a series of diagonals, rhomboids, swirls and anti-perspectives that play tricks with our perception. Sometimes the surface appears almost enameled, sometimes the build-up of paint leads to a three-dimensional effect of folds and distances, of relief maps, of interiors designs, of origami, of calligraphy that we cannot read.
A safe choice, on the whole, and the bookie's favourite. In fact, if there was controversy this year, it was more about the judging process than the candidates.
One of the panel of five, journalist Lynn Barber, broke ranks and published a frank account of her experiences, while an application under the Freedom of Information Act meant that e-mails and other private messages between the judges also reached the public print. The other predictable rumpus came from the Stuckists, a group of painters who routinely make noisy protest against the "Tate mafia" and its preference for conceptual art. Their spokesman this year held that the Turner Prize "has yet again managed the amazing achievement of finding the most vacuous work in British art."
Few people who studied the cool and fascinating work of Tomma Abts will agree. Next year, for the first time, the Turner Prize will be held in Liverpool, a city which is to be 2008's European Capital of Culture. Presumably, the Stuckists will go, too.
Success certainly can be meteoric in the world of contemporary art.
I only became aware of the German-born painter Tomma Abts when I saw her work in the British Art Show in Newcastle in the autumn of 2005.
Abts's art didn't look like anyone else's in the exhibition because for all its visual impact it was so low keyed, so uninterested in calling attention to itself. Since then she's had a solo show. in London, but it was only her nomination for this year's Turner Prize that really raised her profile.
Abts paints abstract designs on identically sized canvases measuring 19in by 15in mostly in dull palette of olive greens and beiges. Some of these paintings look like a square inch of a Cézanne or a Cubist Picasso – geometric lines that overlap to create a shallow relief-like space, but little or no depth. It is impossible to follow a line or understand the relationship of one line to another because planes share edges. Some paintings look a little like the pleats in a folding fan. Others are like dressmaker's patterns – flattened shapes that you feel could be folded or sewn together.
Abts never allows emotion or representation to come into her work. But for all her cool and control, these paintings are fascinating to look at.
Unusually in the contemporary art scene, she deals with formal problems, treating each picture as a problem to be solved. As I wrote in my review of the show, it is hard to think of another artist anywhere in the world today who is working like this.
She is a worthy winner of the Turner Prize, and also, as both a woman and a painter, a real rarity. The question – one that arises whenever the prize is given to a young artist – is whether she will develop in an interesting way.
Tomma Abts at Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch
Six small paintings by London-based German artist Tomma Abts are currently on view at Nourbakhsch. The size of the show is due as much to the amount of time Abts puts into each painting as it is to the rising demand for her work. But the economical installation and intelligent selection achieve a concentrated effectiveness. Each panel follows a strict yet unconventional logic that the artist determines during the painting process and lets develop into singular, impressively austere compositions. Though abstract, they often sustain a discreet illusionism, and Abts cunningly plays each side against the other. Working in shallow pictorial space, she suggests subtly three-dimensional folds and patterns that seem to lie just under or over the plane of the canvas. Her paintings conceal nothing: Underlying gestures and marks and are clearly visible on their surfaces. Thus viewers can see how, in the course of their development, the works become un-interchangeable “characters.” By titling her paintings with first names, Abts ironically personalizes them. At present in Berlin, the guests are Nomde, Zeyn, both 2003, and Lühr, Soko, Feihe, and Ehnt, all 2004.