Abstractionist Tomma Abts lets her paintings paint themselves, and the results are intricate, challenging, and beautiful.
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When Tomma Abts won the Turner Prize in 2006, it was the first time in a decade that the award had gone to a painter, or to a woman—facts trumpeted by the press. Even more noteworthy, though less chitchatted about, was the fact that in an era of resurgent figuration, her work is entirely abstract. The Turner committee had come to have a reputation for favoring attention-grabbing art by scenester artists, but Abts and her work were anything but. All her canvases, then and now, are small (sticking rigidly to a 19 x 12 inch format), contemplative, and in colors that are anything but splashy. They seem like art from another age, maybe even the springtime of modernism, when Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian were launching art into the realm of pure color and form.
Abts professed an utter indifference to winning the prize, and in the eight years since, she has quietly gone about working in the same vein, painting at her own pace, letting nothing but her inner vision guide her brush. She doesn’t plan out a painting from the beginning, but simply lets it unfold. Fundamentally inner-directed, seemingly unconcerned with how her work is perceived, Abts might be thought of as a “process” artist—except that it would be pretentiously out of character for her to reify the concept of process. She just wants it to come out right. She has said that she doesn’t know how a painting will come out until it’s finished—a point she only knows she’s reached when the painting itself tells her. “I know once a painting is finished, but I never know how to get there, and with some paintings I don’t,” Abts told the Scottish painter Peter Doig in a 2004 interview.
Born in Kiel, Germany, in 1967, Abts moved to London in 1995, just as the YBA scene was taking off, but she mainly kept out of it, watching from the sidelines and pursuing her own path. From 1988 to 1995 she had studied at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, where she made 16mm films she called “structuralist” and painted on a large scale, in bright colors underlaid with grids. In London, her work changed; she has said, “Maybe when you go to a foreign country you need to find a new language for yourself. I don’t feel particularly at home anywhere with my paintings; I mean I don’t feel like a German painter or like a British painter.”
That statelessness goes beyond mere geography. Abts’ work doesn’t fit categories very well—it is flat, but somehow three-dimensional; abstract, yet illusionistic. Cool, controlled, and precise, it vibrates with mental and physical energy. While Abts’ paintings can fairly easily be related to the art of, say, Frantisek Kupka or the Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, they don’t consciously refer to any milestones of art history. One might be tempted to say they transcend time and place, but Abts rigorously refuses to talk transcendence. In her conversation with Doig, she described her paintings as “objects or things,” and unlike Kandinsky and other mystically inclined abstractionists, she does not locate her art in a perfect realm beyond the self. Her perfectionism is far more personal. Abts has been quite open about how her work derives directly from her own obsessive, self-critical thought process: “While painting I am constantly in the process of suggesting something, but then having to negotiate it or even take it back. I guess I am constantly trying to justify my decisions—I am aiming for some kind of perfection of this mind construct that really is irrational.”
For all the self-questioning and the meandering, intuitive compositional technique, Abts’ final products are bold statements. The lines march across the canvas in rows or formations, or burst from the center like the Big Bang. Abts is interested in the relationship between time and space in a painting, and consequently, her works are never static. Everything seems to move, and as your eye shifts from one region of color to another, an optical effect—perhaps an expression of the law of simultaneous contrast—takes hold that enhances the sense of motion. Her colors can be strange—bronze laid down next to olive green or dark orange—and they often fade or shade into each other. Abts introduces the third dimension into her paintings in two ways—either by illusionistic techniques such as foreshortening or by layering paint so that some parts of the composition are raised above others. Falling into Abts’ spaces, the viewer finds that foreground and background have switched with each other.
All of these achievements are on view at two current Abts shows, one at David Zwirner in New York, through October 25, and the other at the Aspen Art Museum, in Colorado, through October 26. The Aspen exhibition is titled “Mainly Drawings,” while Zwirner will be showing eight new paintings and a few colored-pencil drawings. While Abts’ paintings tend to be dense and richly colored from edge to edge, her drawings are full of negative space; the various shapes and color—sometimes striped lines, sometimes dots—spread across expanses of white more tentatively than the sizzling bolts of lightning in her paintings.
Abts titles her paintings as if she were naming children, out of a dictionary of first names intended for parents of new babies. This tender gesture seems slightly at variance with her cerebral attitude and Protestant-work-ethic vibe, but no doubt the process of creating them is akin to ushering a living being into the world. She has described her paintings as “quite physical and therefore ‘real’ and not an image of something else. The forms don’t stand for anything else, they don’t symbolize anything or describe anything outside of the painting. They represent themselves.”