LES DÉTOURS DE L'ABSTRACTION
“I came home with my paintbox after making a study, still dreaming and wrapped up in the work I had completed, when suddenly I saw an indescribably beautiful picture drenched with an inner glow. At first I hesitated, then I rushed toward this mysterious picture, of which I saw nothing but forms and colors, and whose content was incomprehensible. Immediately I found the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, leaning against the wall, standing on its side. The next day I attempted to get the same effect by daylight. I was only half-successful: even on its side I always recognized the objects, and the fine finish of dusk was missing. Now I knew for certain that the object harmed my paintings.”
This is how Kandinsky described his impression when the motifs, and even the primary motivations, of his painting were suddenly erased and made way for something else entirely, an arrangement of shapes and colors that gave him a glimpse of previously unsuspected possibilities. The exhibition Les Détours de l'abstraction freely echoes this slippage from representation to sensation. From then on it was about perceiving, looking closely, and other qualities, and if ‘detours’ are paths that lead from one point to another in sometimes unexpected ways, they often reveal surprises beyond expectations.
Indeed, questions of perception, erasure and activation are at the heart of the practice of Gaylen Gerber, one of whose lines of work consists of producing a neutral grey support which he then uses in various ways. Thus, when the artist was invited to work with the museum collection for the inaugural exhibition Eldorado in 2006, he produced (among other things) two immense Backdrops reproducing the dimensions of the walls of the rooms on the first floor to the nearest centimeter. Gigantic yet invisible, they were conceived as surfaces to be activated through showing the work of other artists. Echoing the Backdrops, the artworks created in collaboration with Michelle Grabner and B. Wurtz arose from a similar process. Having produced a single-format painting uniformly covered in grey, Gaylen Gerber invited them to intervene on the monochrome surface. In this way, Gaylen Gerber subverts the idea: the decisive issue is no longer simply what is seen but the context in which the artwork is perceived.
On a more formal level, somewhere between figuration and abstraction, the sculpture Against the Wall. Towards the Rear by Miguel Ângelo Rocha, is composed of a found object (a dissected stool) from which bursts an expanding abstract form. The initial element, which is still identifiable, seems literally to explode in the space through a play of lines that interweave in an aerial manner. Playing with this aptitude to give free rein to a form, On Kawara and Harald Klingelhöller are interested in the deconstruction of language and meaning. In On Kawara’s piece, the visitor hears a litany of dates, a veritable temporal parenthesis, the thread of which is lost after listening for a moment. In Harald Klingelhöller’s 38 Teile in Form von 19 Zeichen für Tisch und 25 Buchstaben der Worte ‘Einmal im Leben’, the letters become visual elements of a sculpture which is recomposed with each presentation.
Thus, forms appear... or re-emerge, as in the work of Raphaël Zarka. In his film Gibellina Vecchia, he breathes life back into Alberto Burri’s unfinished artwork titled the Grande Cretto, which pays homage to the victims of the village of Gibellina in Sicily which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1968. Zarka leads us through a monumental concrete maze reassembled by Alberto Burri on the ruins of former dwellings and evoking his 1960s cracked paintings in terms of form. Sharpening his gaze and ours, Zarka detects the language of modernity in ordinary-looking landscapes, as shown by his photographic series titled The Forms of Rest.
This singular swing of the pendulum, oscillating between the erasure and apparition of forms, is apparent in Imi Knoebel’s work, which refers to Malevich and others. Several historical figures thus hover over the exhibition, with certain artists referring to them in an obvious way, such as Nicolas Chardon and Heimo Zobernig who revisit the work of Malevich and Mondrian respectively and are both interested in the way forms are transformed into signs. Daniel Buren has, for his part, pushed the logic still further and produced, from the repeated motif of a striped fabric for awnings, a unique and immediately identifiable visual tool enabling him to highlight the particularities and qualities of a place along with previously unrevealed forms.
Blinky Palermo, who belongs to the same generation and was trained at the same school as Imi Knoebel, is particularly interested in this acknowledgement of surrounding space. Through subtle and vibrant coloured nuances his work reveals a romantic sensibility also found in Günther Förg’s paintings on lead which evolve in time and slowly tend towards erasure...
Although the work of Laurent Pariente also reacts to a given place, his practice comes more from transformation than revelation. When invited in 2008 to conceive a site-specific piece for the Grand Hall of the museum, he invented a random route that plunged the visitor into pure colour through different plays of transparence and superimposition. Rearranged for the first-floor spaces, the diaphanous coloured walls snake between the partitions like a long screen, of which one can perceive neither the beginning nor the end, forcing the visitor to cross a labyrinthine and disturbing space which implements the very components of abstraction: composition, colour, material and light.
In a way, the same elements can also be found in Claire Barclay’s work. Presented for the first time in 2009 in the west gallery on the first floor, Pale Heights is a cultivated combination of sculptural and material forms. Familiar materials (such as leather, copper and wool), that are evocative but without direct references, maintain a singular relationship with the space and confer a certain degree of abstraction on the artwork which is nevertheless narrative.
Abstract art is therefore historically linked to early 20th-century avant-garde notions and to the diverse theories of rupture (notably, but not uniquely, with figurative art) that are connected to it. We know that the time for big narratives is now over, but the fact remains that the history of abstraction continues to nourish very diverse contemporary aesthetic propositions.