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K.R.H. Sonderborg – a Portrait

by Bettina Ruhrberg

K.R.H. Sonderborg
Berlin 1987
Photo: Manfred Hamm

"I think the location is not unimportant for painting. The powerful current, the sea, the harbor with its mechanical structures, the ships one sees here, large and passing by almost noiselessly, dots appearing and disappearing on the water's mirrored surface, are the daily impressions that keep turning up in my paintings. Apart from this, I'm interested in everything that conquers space. It's only one small step from ships to planes to jet aircraft and rockets – high speed, and style."

Kurt Rudolf Hoffmann, born in Sonderborg, Denmark in 1923, officially adopted the city's name in 1951 to avoid being identified as a German artist following the war; these were the apt words he used to describe his work's frame of reference, which, despite certain things it has in common with the works of other proponents of the Art Informel movement, is nonetheless entirely unique. It is always the perception of outside reality that sets Sonderborg's creative process in motion, traces of which remain visible in his painting.

At the beginning of his artistic career, the technoid constructions of Hamburg's harbor or main train station appear on the canvas as cagelike grids of overlapping lineaments and calligraphic signatures. Later, other impressions of the big city arise, triggered by lengthy sojourns in Paris, London, or New York. As an eighteen year-old, Sonderborg was arrested by the Gestapo and interred for his anglophile style of life in Hamburg's subcultural milieu; railroad bridges, staircases, and grating continue to inspire the artist to this day, as well as everything mechanically rhythmical, including acoustic impressions.

Untitled, 1977
©Walter Bischoff Galerie,
Stuttgart and Berlin

His father was a jazz musician and painter, hence jazz played a central role, along with environmental sounds. Another catalyst for image finding are newspaper clips discovered by chance and deriving from politically controversial or violent contexts: the Electric Chair, weapons, and, throughout the eighties, scenes of German terrorist groups. With this method of working, Sonderborg not only refutes the thesis that informal painting is a notation or projection of purely subjective perception, but also its alleged distance to reality and its lack of political potential.

Untitled, 1977
©Walter Bischoff Galerie,
Stuttgart and Berlin

The final form a painting takes is often preceded by long phases of searching in which the artist waits for his respective surrounding to have an effect on him; then, he records this, either in a spontaneous, yet highly concentrated act of dynamic movement or in contemplative drawing. The results are primarily black and white compositions, some of which contain energetic red shapes. "For me, making a painting has always been a matter of life and death," as Sonderborg himself describes the painting process. Another time, he stated: "profound peace and high velocity are the polarities my life operates within: rapid action and a passive reception for what is still to be discovered – movement and peace merge in the painting process to create instinct."

7.VI.56 17.03.-17.41, 1956
©Walter Bischoff Galerie, Stuttgart und Berlin

Ever since the early fifties and his first sojourns in Paris, where he came into contact with the French Tachism movement and American action painting, Sonderborg has been increasing the dynamics of his compositions by employing the diagonal. The space represented now seems to slip away, giving rise to associations with flying, rockets, and explosions – Otto Hahn once spoke of Sonderborg's sense of vertigo. Form is shown in a state of high-speed becoming. This is a feature that connects Sonderborg to the American action painters far more than to his European colleagues from the informal field. Remnants of gesticulations remain in the paintings. The spontaneous application of paint in wide sweeps of the brush, spots, and sprays leaves behind glazed traces; the artist often lays the canvas on the floor and uses quickly-drying egg tempera instead of oil paint to avoid running. The paint is spread around the surface using spatulas, squeegees, pieces of iron and steel, windshield wipers, and razor blades. Traces of wiping, smears, and scratches enliven the painting's rhythm, rendering visible the time implicit in the painting.

Untitled, 1975
©Walter Bischoff Galerie, Stuttgart and Berlin

The structural form of Sonderborg's paintings is the result of a confident combination of the conscious and unconscious, physical and mental, inner and outer perception. The tense pictorial surface, with its deliberately placed fields of drawn action on the one hand and the large empty surfaces on the other evokes associations to "life's endlessness, emptiness, primal power, and flow," testifying to Sonderborg's proximity to the world of Zen thought.

Bettina Ruhrberg is an art historian. Her article was published in "Kunst des Informel", Wienand Verlag, 1997.

Translation: Andrea Scrima