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Ritter Verlag, Galerie nächst St. Stephan, Vienna Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, 1988

April 25th 2021


This book arrived earlier today. I found it on ABE’s Books, the drug of choice for those who prize books over human contact these days; we are still in confinement even as Paris wakes up for spring. My suitcase waiting to travel again pulls against this rootedness, which has given me more time in these last twelve months to dig deeper, looking further afield for threads that connect my past to this present moment.

Here is a book on abstraction that chronicles an important exhibition in Vienna in the late ‘80s; from my desk today, it seems in hindsight so visionary. Placing Helmut Federle early on, among two generations of serious artists all of whom chose abstraction as their voice.

I was at that moment, deep inside the belly of the beast in New York, working with John Gibson Gallery, traveling through the world with this hat on. Of the five artists featured in this book and exhibition, six if you include Imi Knoebel, (who oddly chose not to be included). Since that moment decades ago, I have been lucky to be in the studio and get to know and work with four of these titans: Robert Ryman, Robert Mangold and Helmut Federle, also Imi Knoebel.

Left: Helmut Federle, Untitled, 1980, 206×360 cm / Right: Gerhard Richter, Farbtafel, Color-Chart, 1966, 75×50 cm

Robert Ryman’s studio and his house whom he shared with the still-great artist Merrill Wagner and their sons – were often places for a casual visit, dinner, whatever. Gibson gave Wagner an important show in 1986. Two years before this book appeared, and two years after the major 1st exhibition of Helmut Federle in NYC opened the John Gibson Gallery at 568 Broadway. This is all just a bit of context really. I have talked about it before.

Later I worked with Bob Mangold during the LISSON period in London. After that had the wonderful opportunity to meet and work with Knoebel at Ropac.

Right: Helmut Federle, The Great Wall, 1986, 275×185 cm / Left: Helmut Federle, Basics on Form II, 1986, 50×35 cm


We don’t know why a book arrives on a given day; but in reading a study of abstract painting during the week when Derek Chauvin has been thankfully convicted of second degree murder, I come to the conclusion that there is something here I must understand right now. An urgent inflection point; an attempt at coherence in a world where instability is rampant.

Donald Kuspit writes prophetically in his 1986 introduction, “In a sense, the effort is to risk chaos without seeming to ‘crack’ the system without abandoning it.” We read this today.

Left: Helmut Federle, Woman goes to Paris (East Side Series), 1982, 61×46 cm / Right: Helmut Federle, Gradnetz und Morphologie der Gegend II, 1985, 55×40 cm

“The asymmetry of the so-called New York Paintings (1980) calls attention to radical incompleteness as the implicit ‘theme’ of his works. By this I mean that there is an order that can never be realised, and that this never-to-be-realized-order – with the desperation implicit in it – is articulated through art, indeed, can only be discovered through art, which perversely, is its apotheosis.”

Helmut Federle, Geschwister Scholl, 1987, 275×175 cm

“There is an indelible desperation in Federle’s picture, which deceive one by using what have become the habitual terms of order and balance to articulate an impossible-to-order, impossible-to-balance. This insurmountable instability – its insurmountability itself –- is the ‘subject’ of his pictures.

In this precarious moment of sunshine and grief in a long third lockdown in Paris, watching the world at this cryptic distance and retreat, I seem to attract such a text about profound painting. As a reminder, not to look away, Helmut Federle is present here in such powerful rendering of such visceral instability I feel each hour of each day and night. I pretend everything is all right, just as you do I am sure. Keep in mind we are the lucky ones, I say to myself, the blackbird is singing outside my window. It is a moment to remember. “In Federle, no such balance is possible: balance is forever impossible.”

Left: Helmut Federle, 2 gelbe Vierecke, 1980, 40,5×51 cm / Right: Helmut Federle, Spirale am 9.12.82, 60,5×45,7 cm


Kuspit time travels through decades, “It is a narcissistic triumph to articulate non-balance without ‘going to pieces’ … the triumph of Federle’s art is that he uses cosmic geometry to articulate anxiety—to give it full voice, indeed, to almost make it into a siren song”

Helmut Federle, Okinava, 1986, 220×325 cm

Yes, this soothes my compulsion for turning its pages wondering why I read his works as a balm, a homeopathic remedy for not understanding why each day is so complicated. Unprepared I could discuss the works, the studio practice, future exhibitions, but here is the part of me perched up there in the corner looking down twitching because I can’t get comfortable anywhere.

Calling on the ghost of Malevich and discussing the others in this exhibition, Kuspit settles again with understated confidence… ”Federle offers a rigorous disequilibrium, which affords a primitive recognition of our own inner disequilibrium and reactivates our theoretical longing for equilibrium, restoring a primitive recognition of its inner necessity. These paintings do not guarantee it, but inaugurate a therapeutic process… Disequilibrium remains a fluid process rather than a crystalline aesthetic, which is why it can empathetically engage us.”