Painting with a divining rod l Ludwig Seyfarth
Thoughts on the Art of Heiner Blumenthal
There were times in painting when the representational function was reduced more and more in order to avoid associations with anything external to the work. The most prominent advocator of this notion, the American art critic Clement Greenberg, propagated a painting that ensured its own means using a sort of Kantian self-criticism. For Greenberg, an art dependent on something outside itself seemed immature, comparable to Kant’s man, whois unable to think independently.
Greenberg wrote his programmatic pamphlet “Modernist Painting” in 1960, a time when many artists were beginning to systematically call into question the predominance of painting and also the autonomy of the other artistic media. Among these artists was Franz Erhard Walther, under whom Heiner Blumenthal studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg. “Works may exist in bodies, spaces, paintings and also in language. But the extent of their reality does not depend on theirmateriality,” is one of Walther’s maxims, which stands diametrically opposed to Greenberg’s dictum of medial self-reference.
At first glance, Heiner Blumenthal’s large-format paintings might appear to be a continuation of the color field painting Greenberg so esteemed. But they much more strongly adhere to F.E. Walther’s notions of art, even though he never expressed them in the medium of painting.
Blumenthal’s paintings mostly show fragile formations laid out in black, consisting of narrow lines or broader surface forms, for the most part on a ground that has been left untreated. Sometimes color accents are added, in blue, green or red, whereby however, the intrinsic value almost recedes again behind the silhouette-like contrast between light and dark.
Often it is possible to make out parts that have been painted over. Even when the composition ultimately seems spare and reduced, an arduous working process underlies these paintings. The final positioning of the various form elements is the result of a continually correcting procedure, of a groping, or feeling approach.
Or does Blumenthal trace the hidden flows of energy, like a painter with a divining rod? After all, is the compositional process not determined by the artist’s will? Do “higher beings” rule here, like those who “command” Sigmar Polke’s painting process? Certainly not. The commanding tone would not fit Blumenthal’s searching gesture at all. Each painting at once indicates the contingency of diverse other possibilities that could also have been realized.
“Why does something happen rather than nothing at all?” This is a question the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard might put to Blumenthal’s paintings. Something happens, something has already happened there, and something happens with us as viewers. For these are paintings we perceive not only with the eye, but also with the entire body; paintings we, as viewers, must “intuit” in a similar way as the artist, who has created them.
If a figure had been portrayed here, the reproduction of a human body, or a recognizable spatial ambience, we would speak of it as being “life-sized”. The painting surface, into which we might immerse ourselves with our whole bodies, is also a space, however. The actual “work” not only consists of the painted canvas, but also of the room or space, in which the viewer perceives it.
We might almost designate this reference to space as “sculptural”, even though the painting as such appears flat: a picture space that has been established using perspective has not even been hinted at. The compositional structure has been balanced in two-dimensional forms on the surface. However, sensations of weight and lightness, of stability and fragility are awakened as with an abstract sculpture, such as that of Anthony Caro, for example. At the same time, there is ambivalence between the horizontal and the vertical (as a matter of fact, Blumenthal begins the work on canvas first on the floor, before choosing a certain view to put on a wedged stretcher and hang on the wall).
Thus, the paintings have something architectonic about them. In an inspiring interpretation of an early work by Rembrandt showing the painter before his easel,1Michael Glasmeier suggests that the “non-objectiveness”, seen from the level of the material and not idealistically interpreted, has been directly taken from the entirely real, objective surrounding of the studio: the framing cross of the easel, the geometric rectangle of the canvas, the slats, hinges and handles of a wooden door, as seen at the right in Rembrandt’s painting, behind the easel. Do painters “construct” their paintings in accordance with the rooms they are made in?
Such an interpretation may not so easily be applied to Blumenthal’s drawings in ink. The manner in which these far smaller formats were composed have nothing architectonic, nothing constructed about them. Sometimes there are diagonal tensions that connect the larger surface forms. Once something gets to the surface of the paper, it may not be undone anymore. Often several layers of ink lie above one another and the ground may only be seen in a very few places, the rest being black, which reminds us of the paintings of Clyfford Still. Paradoxically, these drawings seem “more painterly” than the paintings, which in turn, almost seem like large drawings, due to their fragile lines.
With the works executed in ink, there is no time for a slow, searching act of painting/drawing itself, which must be carried out in the manner of the sure hand of a calligrapher, even if, due to the overlayering of several levels, an extended process may result. Blumenthal’s paintings are basically “slow” pictures, whereas his ink drawings also contain moments of velocity.
Photography can also be a quick medium. With Heiner Blumenthal, this is not the case. The pictures, all of them in black-and-white, show stuffed animals, entrances to houses at night, a shoe lying on its side directly before the camera or a hand holding a white glove. The hand does not seem as if it were from a live person, but rather appears to belong to a doll. Blumenthal photographs things that do not move. What he has captured in stillness, is above all, the often seemingly mysterious play of light and shadow that sometimes results in silhouettes, similar to those on his paintings and drawings. But this does not in any way mean that the photographs serve as models for the paintings, which would then, so to speak, be abstractions of them. Rather, beyond the tangible object 1In the catalogue, “Lieber Maler, male mir...”. Radikaler Realismus nach Picabia, Centre Pompidou, Paris / Kunsthalle Vienna / Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt 2002. motifs, Blumenthal seems to intuitin a similar manner something lying behind the canvas that he appears to bring out on the surface of his paintings.
If we attempt to describe Blumenthal’s working manner, which has scarcely changed for more than twenty years with regard to its formal logic, perhaps a fitting formulationwould be: The objective is not to look for an answer that would settle a question. It is rather always about an attempt to search out a new level, where the supposed solution becomes a question again, a problem again. Thus, his art, which has seemingly withdrawn from all hectic everyday life, nevertheless, expresses feeling about life in a time that is no longer characterized by machines operating linearly, but rather by their being reflexive, constantly retrievable, erasable and changeable.
Text for Heiner Blumenthal l Stephan Baumkötter
Lines and surfaces, like racks in flat space. These are constructions, whose purpose lies in themselves alone. But with the exacting necessityof architectural plans. The paintings immediately become part of the room and the wallthey hang on. In a way, as if they had always been there, or as if they had been made for the room.
They behave like silhouettes or shadows in the room. They have no system and no order underlying them. There are no preliminary models, no studies. Rather,they are themselves studies for possibilities of paintings. This fact of being possible, of balancing out, always remains inherent to them, even when they have been completed as paintings.
The painted lines, spots, runs, edges, the bleeding of the paint, binding agents and painting means come about slowly, abruptly, over highly differing periods of time. Corrections, places that had first been taped, and places that have been painted over are visible. The colors slowly emerge from the lines. Earlier on, these were always very restrained, but in the meantime they are clearer and in terms of color, more defined as individual surfaces. The lines and surfaces end at the edge of the painting, or extend beyond it.
The edge becomes the painting border only after it has been stretched over the frame.
The surfaces hang in the rack or extend the lines to the painting’s edge.
The complete origin of the painting and all of its material are visible. Everything is immediate and direct. What is not visible is the trace of the painter. No self-expression. No expressivity.
It is rather a mechanics of feeling. The paintings are about control and loss of control.
Ultimately the paintings look as though precisely this one could only look like this.
As though it is a necessity. And as though as a contradiction of itself, it still bears all its inherent possibilities.
The painting is a possible and necessary design at the same time.