For any first-time viewers of Tomma Abts’s work, this exhibition confirmed the age-old distinction between seeing reproductions and seeing paintings in person. The vibrant swirl and fairground colours in Tys (2010) – reproduced on the exhibition guide and poster – looked flat on paper, but the inflections in tones and the texture of the brushwork resonate on canvas, generating a surprising first impression.
Tys has the most clearly defined pattern among the ten canvases on display, made between 2003 and 2010. Perhaps this painting’s appeal lies in its warped symmetry. Horizontal lines recede at an angle into the distance behind a pinwheel of conical shapes, which appear to circulate around a diminishing perspective in the centre of the canvas. These oppositions – horizontal and conical, receding and circulating – create an oscillation, which in turn compels the viewer to inspect the painting’s details from afar and up close. Such visual nuances can be experienced only in a direct encounter with the canvas.
The vanishing point haunts several paintings, which all follow Abts’s strict rule of measuring 48×38 cm and are made with oil and acrylic. In Feye (2006), a series of lines radiate from the centre, only to be interrupted by an angular mark, like a lightning bolt or crack across the canvas. Similarly in Feio (2007), a red and white striped target-like circle begins to spiral away, only to be pierced by three sharp blue-green triangular lines, which pick at the curvature from awkward angles and appear to stop the spiralling course, if not unhook its rhythm. These illusions of movement prevent the works from becoming static, unresponsive images or indeed repetitive. Instead what is produced is a constantly shifting, roving picture, which commands the eye the way a musical harmony successfully catches the ear and demands to be heard.
However compact in size, the paintings hung confidently in the cavernous main gallery of the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, where Abts has been teaching as a professor of painting since summer 2010. A smaller space overlooking this gallery featured 17 works on paper, which date back to 1997 and were exhibited with her paintings for the first time here. According to the Kunsthalle website, the artist created the drawings ‘alongside her paintings in order to work out the lines, shapes and spatial relationships within her delicate compositions’ – although Abts has stated that she uses no preparatory material. The paintings themselves offer insights into their creation, revealed not least by the many layers of paint that still remain visible on each canvas. The works on paper were presented as finished pieces, and several do feel more than merely secondary to her painting. Ohne Titel (Untitled, 2008) – a white square created in the middle of a blank sheet of paper by an enclosure of brightly coloured indeterminate shapes executed in pencil and watercolour – contains a simplicity as appealing as that in any of the canvases.
However minimal, the show did not diminish Abts’s fine-tuned ability as a painter, who has obviously found a balance between methodology of craft and continued intuition while proving the potential of an unswerving method against disparate practices that try too hard to be stylistic. Given the congeniality of her paintings, one does feel that this exhibition could have been complemented with more insights into her particular combination of craft and intuition.
First published in Issue 3