Seriality and Color in Knoebel’s Work
From the austere black and white Line Paintings of the late sixties to his responses to Barnett Newman's question "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue"-Jörg Heiser on Imi Knoebel's use of the series form and his celebration of color.
“We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.”David Foster Wallace
Seriality and color—a good point of departure for Imi Knoebel’s work, and for writing about it. For the "formal" is not empty. Seriality is industry, and pleasure (repetition and drive). Color is perception, and also pleasure (a desired occurrence and a flash). But how do seriality and color interact? Knoebel knows very well, and you can tell immediately when you view his work.
"I wanted to be a 'form designer' at most, along the lines of, 'Ugliness doesn’t sell well!' At the time, I had gotten hold of this book by the American who designed Lucky Strike," remarked Knoebel in 1993 in a conversation with Johannes Stüttgen, looking back at his first steps before he began studying art. His design studies did not pan out, and so he pursued art with Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf. But the idea of design, that something has to be shaped in a succinct, appropriate way so that it can be produced in series, stuck with Knoebel. Or as the book by Raymond Loewy is titled: Never Leave Well Enough Alone (1951). Design as a good joke that can be told again and again. Additional factors in Knoebel’s development—as anti-joke and anti-functionality—were rigidity, clarity, and resolve stemming from the sphere of Suprematism, and in particular from Kazimir Malevich. So far, so good.
But what did that mean for the relationship between seriality and color in Imi Knoebel’s work? So far, not a clue. According to Stüttgen, the young Wolf Knoebel, who came with Rainer Giese from Darmstadt to study under Beuys in Düsseldorf (whereupon the two started calling themselves "Imi & Imi"), said in reference to his early years in the shadow of Malevich’s Black Square, "We couldn’t make anything. Thank heavens abstract art arrived." Is that really true? Stüttgen asked. Yes, said Knoebel with a laugh. They were liberated from ability, from brainless talent, bête comme un peintre. What a stroke of luck! Instead of first having to unlearn painting in order to create something improbable and inspiring, they didn’t have to learn it to begin with! Naturally, this can make you quickly drift into the immaterial: "Of course, I was nuts at the time! [...] With this Russian thing I dematerialized myself, took off, wanted to float."
Those who at this point have started up the big rattling resentment machine—we always knew these abstract impostors were incompetent—need to be put right. Because at this point, between 1964 and 1966, Knoebel was only getting started. The artist did not fiddle around aimlessly, but attempted to invent ability. (This approach was, by the way, in keeping with the idea of punk, which was also in Düsseldorf: not being able to do anything, but releasing energy for new ability that had been untapped so far.) Yes, there was modernism and geometric abstraction; but there was also Knoebel’s specific way of dealing with non-specific standardization.
At that time, starting in 1964 and particularly between 1966 and 1968, this approach was concretely manifested in Knoebel’s Linienbildern (Line Paintings). Why does someone sit down year for year and meticulously draw parallel vertical lines—black on white, white on black— on upright-format canvas? The first answer: to get to the bottom of extreme boredom, which in the form of an endlessly repeated norm—lines drawn with a ruler—leads one to the point of desperation. At the same time it is an attempt to turn this monotonous boredom into excitement. Imi Knoebel was not completely divorced from his age. Up until the 1960s, "composition" painting and sculpture dominated, whether classical (central perspective, balanced weightings, etc.) or modern (distorted, broken, shifted to the diagonal). This tendency was contradicted by another principle which was applied in architecture, music, and not least the assembly lines and administrative process of industrial society: the principle of mathematical sequence. Harmony appears as monotony (always the same distance between the elements, distance always falling or rising with the same potency, etc.). With Knoebel, the lines are disconnected from the panel painting, yet at the same time they mark it as a detail of a potentially endless pattern. The artist’s continual manual production underlines this potential for the infinite. The goal of endlessness is thwarted only by Knoebel’s failure to become a line-drawing machine. In this respect, his method differs from that of Daniel Buren in France, who since 1966 with Peintures aux formes variables stretched material from shop marquees, which were already printed with stripes, onto stretcher frames. Buren dissolved their edges by overpainting them with irregular white shapes. Thus, whereas Buren designates series with a gesture, Knoebel serializes the gesture itself.
Knoebel’s work fanned out further starting in 1968, on the one hand with his famous Raum 19 (Room 19), and on the other with his first Innenprojektionen (Interior Projections; 1968–1970). The latter are black-and white photographs of geometric light projections in a dark, closed-off room. Whereas the light event, which appears as a kind of incorporeal spectral photograph, is dissociated as much as possible, in Raum 19 the mute presence of the serialized and modulated material is brought to bear. The location of the first realization is also the title of the work, room 19 at the Art Academy, which was assigned to the two Imis for their own use. The point of departure is the enormous fiberboard sheets, which normally are used as insulating or construction material. Although the material is looked down on as cheap, it does create a structure. It is "a board that you can just get under your arm … and that fits in the tram". With a little carpentry, the flat boards can quickly be transformed into a voluminous object. Apart from the boards, there are cubes, semi-oval boxes, and trapezoids, as well as stretcher frames and stretcher frame fragments. They are stacked, arranged, heaped on top of one another, or hung on the wall. The work can be installed differently each time, is modular, with only the components remaining the same. Rather than being a composition in the traditional sense, spaces of presentation and storage are overlain on one another: gallery, studio, warehouse.
Knoebel was not completely divorced from his age with this work either. Charlotte Posenenske, as one example, viewed her Vierkantrohre (Four-Edged Pipe; 1967) as modular and able to be installed again and again. Or, in another respect, parallels can be drawn between Knoebel’s work and the performance Site by Robert Morris and Carolee Schneemann in 1964. On a stage, Morris tinkers with four white fiberboard sheets in standard size (i.e., which one person is just able to carry) leaning on one another, with Schneeman appearing behind the third sheet, posing as the main figure of Manet’s Olympia (1865).
Whereas in the latter case the reference to painting is made in a theatrical, didactic way, in Knoebel’s installation it is merely hinted at by means of the stretcher frame. With Raum 19, you could shift the fiberboard sheets till the cows came home but Olympia would not appear. What would very likely appear instead is something which can be called a "pleasure series," to borrow an expression from Klaus Theweleit. And it can be discerned precisely where Knoebel avoids more obvious kinds of libidinously charged dealings with standardized forms, like those found in Pop Art.
First, let’s have a look at the term itself. "Pleasure series" denotes the affective appropriation and occupation of technically produced "cool" series of brands and pop products. The—adolescent—self attaches itself to specific combinations of signs reproduced through the use of media in order to shun the supervision of parents, teachers, and other professional interpreters (e.g., teenagers with their stickers, brand insignias). At the same time, to a certain degree the self puts itself in the charge of designers and marketing strategists. This strategy represents an attempt to play off the old authority of the social institution against the new authority of commercial goods. Andy Warhol’s silkscreen-reproduced Marylins and Coca Cola Bottles, or Ed Ruscha’s gas stations and billboards which one races past as though in a road movie, are eloquent examples of such an affective occupation of standardized things. While Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer could see only infatuation and alienation in technically reproduced cultural assets, and Walter Benjamin only the loss of the aura, Knoebel adopts a counterstrategy. An aura is created not by qualitative creation, but through quantitative usage. Naturally, this approach has also become passé to the extent that it has been anticipated by advertising strategists and calculated into industrial production.
In a sense, the minimalist tendencies of the 1960s coinciding with Pop Art were already a reaction to these pleasure series, though not a simple negation. Pop fetishism is riddled with icons (e.g., clearly recognizable faces, logos). But at the same time the libidinous charge shifts even more clearly to the specific combination of seriality and color—perhaps most obviously in Donald Judd’s strikingly colored object series, painted cadmium red or covered with shimmering metallic colors.
Knoebel initially admitted only the black, white, and brown of the fiberboard. Despite this seeming asceticism, however, these early works are pleasure series in two respects. If, as Johannes Stüttgen avers, "Joseph Beuys’s teaching activity itself was art," one question is how his students reacted to it. Whereas other Beuys students, including Norbert Tadeusz, struggled in an oedipal way with their overpowering, charismatic teacher, Imi Knoebel and Imi Giese reacted with "studentship as art. And this was necessary: "… those were corrections where he really ripped into you," said Knoebel about Beuys in 1982. Against this background, the Linienbilder and Raum 19 represent—in the sense of a specific combination of standardized signs as discussed above—a strategy of cool withdrawal. Not in the sense of evasion or eating humble pie, though. If you draw lines all day long, you become immune. Raum 19 enables free derivation of pleasure from this cool immunization: the endlessly modular usage of the materials is suddenly juxtaposed with the primacy of unique, shamanic creation, which was also noticeable in Beuys’s work despite everything.
At the same time, however, there is a libidinous investment in the serial activity itself, regardless of the institutional constellation. This process culminated in 1975. Since 1968, Knoebel had used a ruler to draw 3 to 250 lines on 250,000 DIN A4 sheets, with varying distances between the lines. Employing his mathematical system, it would have taken Knoebel, by his own calculation, three hundred years to complete them at a steady work pace. Subsequently, he broke off the process and presented the quarter-million drawings as a fragment. These drawings were then locked away in bundles in six large steel cabinets. He put these dark monoliths, equidistant from one another, in the large stairwell of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, like a line of guards. These six cabinets (which are still a series) could be viewed as monuments to the unsuccessful completion of the pleasure series; after all, the sequence of sheets is incomplete and has been removed from view. And it is precisely this aspect that embodies the principle of pleasure: the unredeemable, the withdrawn. So in this sense, the work is successful after all.
The catalog for the Düsseldorf exhibition in 1975 is a masterpiece of serial reduction celebrating this success. The cover is white, with only a "W Knoebel" in the middle in sans-serif type. The W stands for Knoebel’s first name, Wolf, but it is also an upside-down M, which in turn contains the two I’s in "Imi." In addition, it calls to mind Volkswagen advertising—the Golf went on the market in 1974—due to the typeface ("and runs and runs and runs and runs and runs"): another pleasureoriented endless series produced mechanically. Written on the spine is "Düsseldorf 1975"; on the inside front cover there is minimal information on the location and length of the exhibition, but no mention of the name of the artist; on the outside back cover there is equally terse publishing information. In between there is nothing but blank versos alternating with rectos containing a 54-part work series entitled Sternenhimmel (Starry Sky; 1974). The conceptual focus of the pictures of stars, which were brought together into one large picture in the exhibition, is that one star was added to each photo, but this information is not supplied in the catalog. The star motif makes the refusal to communicate sexy; it does not reflect obtuse mental sloth, but is mysteriouslyseductive due to the cosmic, unending series of stars. It is minimal techno, so to speak, long before it existed, digital in the analog age.
Black and white as 0 and 1.
It was only in 1977, after Blinky Palermo’s early death, that Knoebel (following a few forerunners beginning in 1975, particularly the Mennige paintings) started using the full spectrum of colors to commemorate his friend. 24 Farben – Für Blinky (24 Colors – For Blinky) was the title of the show at the Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Cologne. There is yet another series: colored pencils, watercolors, wool socks, ink cartridges, and many other things come in 24 standard colors. It is said we can see two million colors. The fact that the 21 paintings plus one sculpture are all polygons is not a coincidence. This amorphousness points to the fact that color cannot be explained by series. The sculpture, titled Amerikanische Wand (American Wall), consists of three staggered polygons, in gradated allusion to the primary colors blue, red, and yellow.
Which leads us to Barnett Newman’s famous question posed in the form of a series of monumental paintings: Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (1966–1970). Who’s afraid of the primary colors, of the undiffused explosion of red, yellow, and blue? Knoebel’s answer is Ich nicht (Not Me), a series of paintings from 2006. It is an answer that Knoebel started to formulate in 1978, at the latest. At that time, it was the artist’s purist return to Piet Mondrian—primary color and right angles—which he simultaneously countered un-puristically with knife cuts (instead of with scissors cuts, as in Henri Matisse’s late work), dividing the rectangle into fragments again (Rot Gelb Blau [Red Yellow Blue], 1978/ 79).
Newman was concerned with the experience of the sublime, with immersion in color as an experience of epiphany, which is the reason for the monumental dimensions. In Knoebel’s work, however, the sublime is canceled out; the monumental appears at best as the modular,
the potentially moveable (e.g., in Genter Raum [Ghent Room] from 1980, in which the principle of Raum 19 and Knoebel’s color-and-cut process of the late 1970s come together). Instead of the sublime, there is joyful sobriety (Pure Freude, or "Pure Joy," is the name of Carmen Knoebel and Harry Rag’s record label).
So is color an aspect of seriality in Knoebel’s work? No. In the celebration of color, joie de vivre culminates in a fear of death. The pleasure series cannot negate this culmination point; on the contrary, it circles around it. In this point, according to the interpretation of Slavoj Žižek, the Freudian death drive is not a desire to die, but on the contrary an endless, "immortal" repetition. It revolves around this ungraspable, not really serializable experience of color; namely, experience of pleasure and life. This is almost literally the case in Knoebel’s series titled Grace Kelly (1989–1995), in which pieces of frame and the monochrome center of the works constitute virtually endless color field variations: the icon Grace Kelly in the abstract repetition of pure unfathomability, beyond life and death.
Perhaps the American writer David Foster Wallace dealt with precisely this question in his last, unfinished book The Pale King—unfinished because he took his life in 2008. Here endless circling reflects the idea of radical boredom in the sense that no stimulating activity, no pleasure series can help the characters overcome the void; the "heroes" of Wallace’s book are tax collectors. Although Knoebel’s work seems far removed from Wallace’s existentialism and in his work boredom is sublimated in the stimulating seriality of artistic production, there is no denying that it is as though Wallace thought about Knoebel’s artistic work when he wrote the following about his book project: "Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color."