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Imi Knoebel in the Deutsche Bank Collection
Markus Amm: You Cant Reinvent Modernism
Seriality and Color in Knoebels Work
An Interview with Parastou Forouhar
Interview Daniel Birnbaum
Ephemeral Moments: Eske Schlüters
Art Blogs for Beginners
Karola Krauss on Imi Knoebel


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On the Zero Point
Imi Knoebel in the Deutsche Bank Collection

With over 220 works from the Deutsche Bank Collection, ENDUROS at the Deutsche Guggenheim traces Imi Knoebel's work from the '60s to the present. Friedhelm Hütte, Global Head Art, Deutsche Bank, on Knoebel's importance for nonobjective art and the fascination Kazimir Malevich and the Russian avant-garde exert on the Dusseldorf-based artist.

A gleaming cruciform shape fills the night sky. At times razor sharp, at times shaky, the beams of light forming this cross are superimposed on the exteriors of houses and the silhouette of a church, and its glowing form refracts onto the street. Two rectangles are projected above treetops and facades, burning for a brief moment in the calm cityscape like searchlights marking gigantic geometric surfaces. In the 1960s and 1970s, Imi Knoebel realized these and other light projections, which constituted an unexpected, bold departure from traditional painting. The untitled black-and-white photographs that captured these actions, which the artist produced between 1968 and 1972, are among Knoebel's earliest works in the Deutsche Bank Collection. They document the direction he moved in with his experiments, away from the materiality of paint, panel, and ground, and toward everyday, real visual space. The escape route was literally shot free with light: Knoebel directed his projections into his studio or outside through a window, or he shot them in a Bonnie and Clyde-like manner from a swiftly moving car, this time with a light canon mounted on the roof.

The basic shapes that Knoebel projected in interior and exterior spaces until the mid-1970s-crosses, lines, and rectangles-were very simple, and he varied them continually, a methodology he has followed throughout his career and in various media: paintings, sculpture, photographs, and works on paper. Knoebel's use of and experimentation with these fundamental elements is a key aspect of the some 200 drawings, collages, and photographs from the Deutsche Bank Collection on view in the exhibition ICH NICHT / ENDUROS at the Deutsche Guggenheim, which surveys the spectrum of his work between 1968 and the present. No matter whether these forms appear in his paintings or sculptural work, on photographs or works on paper, they always refer to a visual vocabulary, which formed the basis of a new and complex artistic language at the beginning of the 20th century. It was a simple square that paved the way for modernism: Kazimir Malevich's Black Square on a White Ground. With this painting, which the artist showed for the first time in 1915 in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) at the exhibition 0.10, Malevich sought to achieve what he called a "zero point" in painting, where the work no longer had an imitative function, but rather would convey in his words to the viewer "the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing."

Knoebel and his friend Imi Giese greatly admired Malevich's art and writings, in particular, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism, (1927), which they studied prior to their enrollment in 1965 in Joseph Beuys's class at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The "Imis," as they came to be called, decided to apply to the academy after seeing a press photo of Beuys, which showed the artist's response to being punched following his performance Aktion at the riot-ridden Aachen Fluxus Festival in 1964. He raised his hand messianically, a gesture that confirmed Knoebel's belief that art has the same utopian, revolutionary impact on society as political movements. At this point, Beuys's art itself was less important to Giese and Knoebel than his spirit of agitation: as Knoebel said, "We needed someone who was searching like we were. We were searching for extremes."

Their search for extremes was manifested in a number of ways at that time. They stood out at the academy not only because they had their hair cut short in emulation of artists during the Russian Revolution, but also because they departed from the mostly figurative approach of Beuys's other students. Instead, they used the absolutely reduced, geometric formal vocabulary of the historic Russian avant-garde. Their studio was also fundamentally different from those of the other students; theirs became known as the legendary Room 19 or the "fiberboard room" because of their use of that material. As fellow student Johannes Stüttgen recalls: "Everything in it, the entire inventory, the fiberboards, the fiberboard cubes and squares, the roof battens, lumber, angles, and tools-everything was defined, calculated, reduced, minimal, pure, perfect, directed, measured, layered, accurate, rigid, clear, clean, professional."

This rigidity may have seemed strange in the hippie culture of the late 1960s and the academy's strongly politicized environment. But the institution's radical openness and Beuys's extension of the concept of art were very much in line with the two Imis antiauthoritarian attitude. In a 1982 interview with Stüttgen, Knoebel recollected: "We purified and cleansed ourselves and attempted to portray ourselves as clearly as possible. So there was little left over. It always led to there being nothing. Yet we had to connect this nothing to ourselves." For Knoebel, concentrating on the zero point was a prerequisite for "getting up so that we could walk at all. Basically, we had to create an empty room, you know. In order to be able to tread cleanly and walk."

While Malevich presented his black square floating in a white field as the equivalent of an immaterial, almost religious experience akin to an icon, Knoebel took a less mystical approach. On the contrary, for the brown boards, squares, and cubes that he layered and arranged in Room 19 to create a dialogue between "principles of painting and sculpture," he used fiberboard, a material that fascinated him, in his words, "simply because it was always treated so disgracefully . . . because it was so cheap and used everywhere, particularly after the war and in the sixties." While fiberboard is fundamentally a utilitarian, hardware-store product, Knoebel has ascribed to it such painterly qualities as "warmth" and "a wonderful color" and has continued using it throughout his career. For his collage series Mennige-Bilder (1992) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, he took a sheet of white paper, laid white cardboard stencils with different constellations of punched-out rectangles on it, and covered the whole surface in the radiant orange rust-protection paint known as Mennige. This work reflects Knoebel's interest in industrial modes of production and standardized mass products, yet it is not just about systematic methods or an attempt to de-emphasize signs of his authorship. Even in his monochrome, minimalist works, Knoebel leaves traces of a "signature": subtle gestural deviations, the flow of a brushstroke, and irregular applications of paint.

>From the very beginning Knoebel's willingess to leave signs of his hand in his work made it stand out from his Minimalist contemporaries. In his installation Raum 19 (Room 19, 1968) he was not striving for the cold perfection of the American Minimalists such as Donald Judd, who during the same period produced industrially manufactured steel boxes that emphasized the relationship between object, viewer, and space. Although Knoebel pursued similar aims, he acted more like a designer or craftsman by taking part in the construction of his works: "We planned and built our picture." While the various elements of Raum 19 are obviously built, together they constitute an abstract composition that gives material form to the concept of "nothing." With this work, Knoebel transformed the painterly non objectivity of Malevich's Black Square into a dialectic, three-dimensional experience.

This materiality is diametrically opposed to Knoebel's fleeting light experiments. To realize his Innenraumprojektionen (Interior Projections, 1974), he used retouching dye to draw on glass slides symmetrical line patterns. Knoebel made many variations on this line series, which he projected in his studio and often photographed. However, his method had certain limitations with a slew of unforeseeable reactions. Due to the light's random refraction on the different, nonplanar surfaces and objects in the studio, the lines sometimes thinned out, burst, and even collapsed. In photographs of these works, the light projection seems to merge with objects from the real world to create puzzling, semi-abstract images that suggest something vaguely recognizable. Is the photo blurred or underexposed? Are these images of architectural structures, perhaps the inside of a club, or an illuminated building photographed in a car driving past? Were the white lines actually photographed in the room, or were they exposed directly on the photo paper? This uncertainty is coupled with a different, liberating feeling: the shapes in these pictures start to glide, float, and flow, as though the laws of nature have suddenly been suspended. With his projections, Knoebel does not simply transform real space into boundless pictorial space. Out of the language of geometric abstraction, he develops a cosmos of new possibilities, which he also explored in his pencil drawings from 1972. With these, he took up the arbitrary, energy-charged rhythm of the light line and transferred it into gestural compositions with enervated lines. The rigid rectangles that were distorted due to the projection appear as rhomboid objects that are mounted on the wall like Weiße Konstellationen (White Constellations, 1974/85) or his Mennigebilder from the mid-seventies that reemerge in his later paper works.

The Mennige-Bilder also show a new development in Knoebel's oeuvre: in 1977, color made its way into his work, in part the legacy of his friend Blinky Palermo who died the same year. Although Knoebel did not categorize black and white as noncolor, he has asserted that he had "never painted a color previously." In 1974, he traveled through the United States with Palermo and visited the famous Rothko Chapel in Houston. He and Palermo went from paint store to paint store in Düsseldorf in search of the perfect green. For Knoebel, Palermo was a master of color, and he has carried on his legacy. In the year of Palermo's death, Knoebel dedicated 24 Farben für Blinky (24 Colors for Blinky) to his friend, which seemed to represent a surprising break with his work up to that time. This expansion of the range of his palette led to a true explosion of color: his large-format plywood objects gleam in bilious green, lemon yellow, or pink. And they are lacquered so that they shine seductively, like industrially produced sweets or Matchbox cars. But the most radical aspect of this piece was the combination of colored surfaces and free shapes that recall cubist forms as well as speech balloons from cartoons. Knoebel developed a special procedure to make this series: the "knife cut," for which he smeared paint on sheets, cut out shapes free-handedly, and then collages them on a cardboard surface. According to this method, which is both precise and intuitive, the shapes could be moved back and forth like modules and reconfigured into ever-new constellations. The Messerschnitte (Knife Cuts, (1979)) were not preliminary studies, but rather distinct works that demonstrate Knoebel's process of discovering the way forward to something new by questioning his work of the past: "I have always developed something new from the thing I'm currently working on without making drawings, and I still work this way today. Something new has always emerged from the work."

While doing so Knoebel repeatedly returns to certain aspects that allow him to constantly question and renew his art. Knoebel's oeuvre-and this can be seen clearly in the works on paper from the Deutsche Bank Collection-plays through all the possibilities of nonobjective art, in the process uniting such contrary qualities as massiveness and immateriality, system and chance, geometry and gesture. Taking prototypical Suprematist shapes as his point of departure, Knoebel in the course of four decades has developed his own vocabulary, thus triggering a dialectic chain reaction, which entirely in keeping with Malevich's ideas, continues the journey to infinity.

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On View
Abstraction and Empathy at the Deutsche Guggenheim / Imi Knoebel at the Deutsche Guggenheim / Deutsche Bank Art Space Showing Artistic Perspectives from Iran / Att Poomtangon: Portikus under water / Immigrant Artists at the 60 Wall Street Gallery
Phoebe Washburn at the Kestnergesellschaft / Artists Awarded at the Venice Biennale / Miwa Yanagi in the Japanese Pavilion / Deutsche Bank supports Yona Friedman’s Project for the Venice Biennale / Deutsche Bank Awards 2009 / Art in Private! / Villa Romana Prizewinners 2010
Imi Knoebel at the Deutsche Guggenheim
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