Hardness and Feeling:
“Ways of Seeing Abstraction” at the PalaisPopulaire

The current exhibition of works from the Deutsche Bank Collection rolls out the history of abstraction from the early 1960s to the present day. Compiled from different periods and art movements, the presentation shows how diverse, controversial, and political abstract art can be.
The urge “to ornament one's face and everything within reach,” writes Adolf Loos in 1908 in his pamphlet Ornament and Crime, “is the start of plastic art. It is the baby talk of painting.” Ornament, the Viennese architect and architecture critic postulated, is something for children and “primitive” peoples, such as the Papuans, but for modern man it is a sign of degeneration. But the pioneer of modern architecture and design had an antidote: “I have made the following observation and have announced it to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.” For Loos, as for many of his contemporaries, the abstract geometrically reduced is the expression of a higher level of human culture. To this day, many people still associate geometric abstraction with the avant-garde and the notion of progress, as well as with austerity, objectivity, emotionlessness, the feeling that abstraction has nothing to do with life.

The work of Berlin-based artist Claudia Wieser is inspired by the geometric art of modernism in the dawning 20th century. Like Loos, she is concerned with architecture, design, and interior decoration. But in her installation In the Round (2020/21), developed especially for the rotunda of the PalaisPopulaire, she gently but radically questions Loos’s purism and his brusque rejection of ornament and appreciation of decoration. Wieser’s huge floorboard, clad in tiles she glazed herself and extending almost to the ceiling of the upper floor; her mirror works; and the tile sculpture reminiscent of a bench, window, or gate turned upside down are abstractly reduced. Yet they are covered in geometric shapes—circles, triangles and rhombuses. It is a tile mix of shimmering lines, modern patterns, and color fields that correspond with each other almost musically, creating breaks and counterpoints and thus dynamizing the entire staircase.

Wieser celebrates decor, furnishings, and craftsmanship. However, her work could also be inspired by the spiritual abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky or Paul Klee. The walls of the rotunda are placarded with enlarged black-and-white prints, in which classical sculptures and architectural details of the original city palace meet modern geometries and a cropped portrait of the artist. Wieser suggests that history, art history, progress, even an artist’s biography do not take place in a straight and purposeful ay, but in a circular motion, whereby forms, ideas, motifs, and themes are repeatedly recomposed and reflected upon.

It is not by accident that Wieser’s installation introduces the most recent exhibition of works from the Deutsche Bank CollectionWays of Seeing Abstraction is the title of the show curated by Friedhelm Hütte, which sheds light on various currents in abstract art from 1959 to the present day on the basis of 168 works by 47 artists from fourteen countries. Hütte, who has been responsible for the Deutsche Bank Collection for many years and has played a decisive role in the selection of abstract works, took an associative, personal approach that was also inspired by the idea of sampling.

Thus, the exhibition repeatedly picks up on certain motifs and formal connections. Numerous works reference utopias and the failure of classical modernism. Often, it is a matter of breaking away from purely formal, geometric abstraction, whether through a link with gestural painting or imbuing the works with aspects of politics, history, and the artist’s biography. The exhibition makes it abundantly clear that abstraction is not sublime, “non-objective,” or neutral, but always closely connected to discourses around history, culture and identity. As a result, Ways of Seeing Abstraction conveys how different abstract strategies have evolved in the globalized and networked world.

At the beginning of the exhibition, one encounters important representatives of 1960s and 70s Concrete and Constructivist Art, including Günter Fruhtrunk and Erwin Heerich. It is no wonder that Fruhtrunk’s 1975 canvas Offenes Weiß (ET-II 75) is reminiscent of an Aldi bag, as the Munich-based artist was the person who designed it. To this day, the design overshadows the rest of his very bold work. Like most of the Constructivist and minimalist abstract artists of his generation, such as Georg Karl Pfahler or Ulrich Rückriem, who are also featured in the exhibition, Fruhtrunk not only designed logos, but also the interiors of schools, universities, office buildings, and even the foyer of the UN Security Council in New York as art in architecture. The abstract geometric art of this time searched for forms that were determined by science and mathematics, that did not represent or symbolize anything, but instead conveyed themselves directly through geometry, color, and surface, making order and transcendence tangible through perception.

But during this same period there were completely different non-objective movements. While concrete art is very factually oriented, artists such as Imi Knoebel, Blinky Palermo, and Charlotte Posenenske were interested in the social, revolutionary utopias associated with the Russian avant-garde and Constructivism. Palermo’s abstract works in Ways of Seeing Abstraction were created more in the spirit of Kazimir Malevich: uneven, handmade, humble in a spiritual way. Like him, Knoebel and Posenenske attempted to relate the pathos of early 20th-century non-objective modernism to themselves, or more precisely, to the everyday life of the hard-boiled, materialistic consumer society of the 1960s and 1970s. The path there led directly to the hardware store, to industrial, inexpensive materials. Knoebel, who is represented in this exhibition with very rarely shown “gestural” paintings from his late work, constructed his minimalist installations out of plywood.  Posenenske wanted to make her art objects available to a mass audience. Similar to Ikea products, they were meant to be rebuildable from readily available industrial goods. The artist herself saw her “Striped Pictures” created using tape on cardboard, such as horizontal/vertikal (1965), as precursors to her metal sculptures executed as of 1965—the beginning of a brief but to this day unique art revolt. Disillusioned, she gave up art in 1968, began studying sociology, and was active in social projects until her death in 1985.

The notion of a democratic do-it-yourself abstraction that can be implemented with the simplest of means, as well as a fascination with industrial materials, run through the entire exhibition. This idea can be found in a work made over half a century later: one might see a bit of Posenenske’s approach in the felt-tip pen sketches and folded paper works sprayed with fluorescent paint by British artist Rana Begum. But despite the industrial aesthetic, Begum is also concerned with very direct sensual and simultaneously transcendent experiences: She combines influences of Concrete Art, Op Art, and Constructivism with elements of Islamic ornamentation and architecture.

While the 2005 photogram by German painter Markus Amm almost poetically revives the experimental solarizations of the Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy in a do-it-yourself process, other works are cool and factually calculated. One such work is Gerhard Richter's Color Fields. 6 Arrangements of 1260 Colors (1974). Richter had already painted color sample cards in the 1960s; at the time, the paintings seemed like ironic Pop Art commentaries on color field painting. Then, almost a decade later, in his offset print, Richter systematically played through the primary colors yellow, blue, and red in various mixing ratios, leaving their arrangement to mathematical sequence. As he said himself, this was a reaction to the fact “that abstract art in those days was celebrated almost like a religion. The color field paintings were always meant to be polemic: an answer to this sectarian assumption that certain colors would work better next to others. It was a little bit against Josef Albers and Max Bill and Richard Lohse.” A similar serial-mechanical approach is also evidenced in Peter Roehr's punch card work Untitled (OB-57) from 1966, which dryly anticipates the advance of the computer into daily life and the digitized reality of the 21st century, while at the same time exuding the Zen aura of a minimal artwork.

The boundaries between transcendence, the soberly factual, and the political are very subtle in geometric abstraction. Ibn Tulun 98, a work by Bulgarian artist Adriana Czernin from 2018, may seem very close in formal terms to Edelweiss (Execution) V (2004) by Swiss artist Helmut Federle, who was influenced by the so-called neo-geo movement, but it has a completely different origin. Czernin alludes to one of the major works of Egyptian art history. Starting from the tableau with wooden ornaments from the minbar of the famous Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo from 1296, the artist developed a series of works that engage with various aspects of geometric construction. She sees the ornament as a metaphor for social fabric, for cultural, social, and personal entanglements. Additionally, her series addresses spiritual immersion in geometric orders and ornaments as well as the aspect of colonization. Hence abstract modernism has also made use of the geometries of Islamic art and architecture and absorbed them into its own canon.

Score for Sustained Blackness Set 1, the 2014 series by U.S. artist Jennie C. Jones, might also at first glance seem like a purely formal composition with layers of rectangles and lines. But Jones’s sound installations and works on paper explore the connections between “white” abstract modernism, Harlem Renaissance jazz, and avant-garde African American music—a chapter of cultural history that remains marginalized to this day. The most political work, however, hangs in the exhibition's second room, which is devoted to transitions from geometric to gestural and lyrical abstraction. Here we find positions that are actually “painterly,” from works by Georg Karl Pfahler from the 1950s, which are still rooted in Informel, to Katharina Grosse’s color experiments from the 1990s and miniature window paintings by Günther Förg created in 2004, to the watery organic abstractions of the current art stars Jorge Pardo and Kerstin Brätsch.

But one artistic position stands out from the gestural: the 2018 Linear Painting series by Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga looks at first glance like minimalist color field painting. But it actually deals with the color design used to influence behavior in public buildings such as schools, hospitals, offices, and psychiatric wards. Everyone knows these color fields in hallways, set off by a horizontal line. The color is always painted glossy in the lower area, can be washed off. In her geometric abstract wall installations, Kiwanga experiments with color tones and schemes that scientists developed and used in the early 20th century to enhance “mental hygiene” and balance in psychiatric institutions.

These medical color experiments took place at the same time as the avant-garde beginnings of non-objective painting, which likewise sought harmony and balance. For her series, Kiwanga also used color combinations concocted by Faber Birren, a color theorist who advised Monsanto, General Electric, Disney, and the U.S. military in the 1920s. Here, the utopias of modernism and the spiritual, social visions of Piet Mondrian and the Russian Constructivists were converted into means of control and surveillance. At the same time, Kiwanga alludes to the contrast between social repression in the United States after the war and the detached transcendence of Barnett Newman’s Color Field painting, Hard Edge painting, and Minimal Art. Kiwanga is definitely one of the most political artists in the exhibition. At the same time, she illustrates who is shaping the discourse in abstraction, which was once dominated by white men. Today, it is mainly women and artists from non-Western countries who are providing new formal and political impetus, critically examining the colonial legacy of modernism, and intrepidly taking entirely new paths.