Industrial koans: Imi Knoebel at White Cube Bermondsey

Thursday, August 13, 2015
Industrial koans: Imi Knoebel at White Cube Bermondsey

The formal pleasures of the paintings of Imi Knoebel are such that it is very hard to bring anything else to the critical table. In the catalogue, critic Michael Archer invokes Malevich. But the Russian painter’s venerable black squares belong to another age than Knoebel’s highly-engineered visual koans. With their interlocking planes of acrylic-coated aluminium, most of the works here at White Cube are replete unto themselves.

Industrial koans: Imi Knoebel at White Cube Bermondsey

The formal pleasures of the paintings of Imi Knoebel are such that it is very hard to bring anything else to the critical table. In the catalogue, critic Michael Archer invokes Malevich. But the Russian painter’s venerable black squares belong to another age than Knoebel’s highly-engineered visual koans. With their interlocking planes of acrylic-coated aluminium, most of the works here at White Cube are replete unto themselves. 

They are abstract without a hint of expression, minimal with a side order of irony, sculptural yet as flat as can be. They hover almost two inches away from the walls on heavy duty metal stretchers. The resulting shadow-outlines seem to seal in the composition. So you are merely left with one or two non-representational shapes, one or two flat planes of colour, and a relationship between the two, which is all the subject of the work.

They are also large and unwieldy with forms that remind you of eggs, doughnuts, snakes, and, yes, black squares. In many cases, these works are simply called ‘Image’ followed by a compositional date. Bild 28.01.2014 shows a yellow puddle spreading over a black trapezoid. The shapes are irregular, as if cut out with a primitive computer art application; the lines aren’t quite straight; the curves aren’t quite fluid; but there is a seamless join between the two elements. It’s this millimetre-tight precision, along with the solidity of aluminium risers, which holds together the full range of this artist’s awkward visual propositions.

Imi Knoebel. Bild 28.01.2014. 2014. Acrylic and aluminium. 68 7/16 x 90 9/16 x 1 3/4 in. (173.8 x 230 x 4.5 cm) © the artist. Photo © Ivo Faber. Courtesy White Cube

Knoebler is German and it is tempting to ascribe some vorsprung durch technik to his first show in London. He is certainly not what you might expect from a contemporary of a neo-expressionist like Anselm Kiefer. Nor does he deliver what you might expect from a former student of shaman and showman Joseph Beuys. If you wanted to put Knoebel in a box, you might label it surrealism and point to the offbeat collage-like forms of German-French painter Hans Arp. But that would still take an imaginative leap; Knoebel is too clinical to sit with any of these points of comparison.

You can still see the brush strokes, but these appear applied without much feeling in order to get the surfaces covered at speed. Bild 28.01.2014 has neither painterly soul nor minimalist cool and this goes for the whole show. And yet, along with the eight additional works in White Cube’s North Gallery, it does have presence. These are collectable statement pieces which could just as well quote composer John Cage: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it”.

Imi Knoebel. Bild 31.01.2014. 2014. Acrylic and aluminium. 64 5/8 x 63 3/8 x 1 3/4 in. (164.2 x 161 x 4.5 cm) © the artist. Photo © Ivo Faber. Courtesy White Cube

The biggest statement here is MOLANI from 2001, an epic grid which measures 3 by 4.5m. Black panels anchor it, while off-white dominates the centre. Top left is a candy grid-within-a-grid. While bold red struts peek from behind. This is almost too much layering; it’s certainly rich; but thanks to a landscape format and 4:3 aspect ratio we can read this as we might any other painting. Or is it a sculpture? Once again we are drawn to the work’s infrastructure; MOLANI sits more than 10cm off the wall, due to another of Knoebel’s aluminium skeletons.

Imi Knoebel. Molani. 2001. Acrylic and aluminium. 120 1/16 x 179 15/16 x 4 1/4 in. (305 x 457 x 10.8 cm) © the artist. Photo © Ivo Faber. Courtesy White Cube

You can get a good look at one of these on nearby piece Ort Rosa. This pink painting appears to be folded away from the wall to form an L-shape around a sheet of aluminium on the floor. In this we see a reflection of the rose-coloured acrylic which is at odds with the steely fabrication of the room-like form of this piece. It attracts and repels. It is soft and yet impermeable. It becomes yet another feat of workmanship in which opposing elements are bolted together in order to brook no disagreement. This is quite a violent show.

Imi Knoebel. Ort-Rosa. 2013. Acrylic and aluminium. 79 1/8 x 103 15/16 x 59 1/16 in. (201 x 264 x 150 cm) © the artist. Photo © Ivo Faber. Courtesy White Cube

The final paradox in Knoebel’s display here in Bermondsey is a room in which seven trapezoid clouds appear to float around just below the high ceiling of White Cube Bermondsey’s 9x9x9 space. But they only appear to float. These white forms are more sheets of painted aluminium, once again they sit two inches off the wall. As weightless as they may seem, we have seen the fixtures and fittings; we have total confidence that none of will fall. This is a dream made possible by a technicality, a heaven arranged with a drill and a lathe.

More information about the exhibition is here.

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Image of the Day

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

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