Abstraction and Virtuosity
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t …
by Michael Wörgötter
Virtuosity und abstraction are terms that seldom stand side by side in a text about art. Virtuosity stems from a world of concepts belonging to the pre-modern. It is an exclusive, not an integrative position, and ultimately, a phenomenon that is irreducible and not to be generalized. Viewed in this way, virtuosity is a kind of antipode of abstraction. That, and how the two can nevertheless be linked, is the surprising element in Franziska Maderthaner’s paintings of the previous years.
As an example, I would to start with her most recent work, the painting U.S. Archaeology. We see two dancing “torsi” of the former American Swing era. Maderthaner paints the vitality and cultural charisma of this period, interwoven into an ambience of placeless permeations and fusions. In every respect, the polymorphic worlds of color are highly vital and lift the dancing couple into a sphere of abstract force fields. It is a dance in multitudinous nuances of color and shades between light and dark.
Bodies blending into their surroundings move in an abstract world of promise and menace. In other words: this painting is a representation of today’s reality of existence.
And even though in this picture the two show off in the limelight, it seems as if the classical contradiction between abstraction and representation has never existed. It might be enough to say that good painting simply lies beyond the forced delimitations of terminology, but that would mean overlooking something essential. More on that later. But first a few associative notes on the potential to verbalize painting and abstraction.
The many –isms of the classical avantgarde (Cubism, Expressionism, Suprematism, Futurism) testify to the difficulty of finding an adequate language for these new forms of art. The painters of their time fought hard to establish painting as a language in itself. In my opinion, they developed their medium as a field of possibilities for new forms of communication beyond established conclusions. The guild of people writing about art, obviously, had trouble keeping up.
It is essentially easier to appoint a new label or a new style, than to describe something in detail that at its core is “transverbal”. Transverbal also implies that it is open to interpretation, variable, instable, provisional, temporary and whatever else one might like to ascribe to this family of terms. The desire to communicate beyond semantic and syntactical axioms here seems to be a constitutive longing of the modern age, and is at the same time an expression of its lostness in the new. Modernity means a permanent departure. Questions about possible arrivals are taboo. Hence, questioning the quality of art and life is eliminated from the now and postponed to a possible future. One sees what one is capable of recognizing. So, it was in good part verbal helplessness in regard to this new form of art that brought the concept of abstraction into the art arena. But the break with the cultural heritage that was perceived as a burden could in this way be symbolically carried out. It gave the “new”, generally speaking, a free ride. (So, from the beginning, abstraction was not a “pure” term. Perhaps it is precisely these impurities of terminology that constitute the art discourse and keep it alive and flourishing)
We could ask (when over a hundred years ago the magic word abstraction made the rounds in art circles) if the narrowing down of the term abstraction to a somewhat vague paraphrase concerning the achievements of reduction could really address everything in those days that the new brought forth. It would also have been possible to view abstraction as not just a question of more or less successful reduction, but to view abstraction as a question of mastering complexity. An advantage of this approach would have been that questions on the traceability of resolved complexities, that is, questions of what and how was abstracted, in each work of art that might be termed abstract could have been posed anew. At the same time, one would not have had to endlessly repeat that which had already been”properly” abstracted.
The thousandfold repetition of abstraction, as reduction of something that already has been reduced to the zero point,turns into a reproduced tautology. Seen from this perspective, the artworks in the period of time of their reproducibility were not an issue; the problem lay with the thousandfold replicated tautology. (Indeed, art, and also life itself, is a kind of laboratory of possible variations. And it could be unjust to call repetitions or near similarities tautologies.)
I suggest that Europe, as long as it still can, sell its vast collections of tautological art to America or the “East.” Thus would billions in under-the-table money disappear into the epigone hole of the Black Square & Co. and could rise again as a laundered, not to say abstract, phoenix with concrete “ashes”. This would create room in museums and collections, and provide money for contemporary art, reflection, or simply for world-shaping discoveries.
Back to history: We are in the early 20th century. In the debate over abstract painting, a mode of reaction set in very early that to this day seems to be content with simply determining vectors. One sees abstraction and asks: does it go in the direction of Rousseau and Freud, or move in the direction of Malevich, Loos and an early Wittgenstein etc. The public is called upon to grasp abstraction as a path of enlightenment in the unfathomed depths of pure originality, or in hitherto unprecedented heights of the purest purity.
By the way, this background explains the charm of Pop Art, which consists of keeping things easy. Duplicating and flattening rather than reaching heights or depths is the principle here. This corner also contains the greater part of today’s widely traded “abstracts” that Jerry Saltz mentions as zombie formalism or visual elevator music. (Recommended reading: www.monopol-magazin.de/blogs/der-kritiker-jerry-saltz-blog)
Malevich writes “In 1913 when I made the desperate attempt to free art of the ballast of things …It was not an empty square that I exhibited, but more the sensation of abstraction”.
Back then one could apparently think that abstraction was something not quite of this world.
The level of abstraction of today’s life reality has demolished the once held notion of abstraction. Abstraction can no longer be pinned down to a vertical axis of longing between the superelevated and the hidden, but appears real, as an everyday and extensive explosion of abstract effects and possibilities. If earlier abstraction was an idealized projection space for educated elites, now the majority perceives abstraction the same as image processing, globalized finance, biotechnology, nanotechnology, communication technology…up to and including private and most intimate network systems, as given and real.
In large parts of the art world, one still designates as abstract sedulous works which have distanced themselves from the representational point of view, right up to a complete absence of a concrete figurative reference. But what happens when this complete absence of a figurative reference, as is customary in global derivative trading, suddenly itself becomes active and creates realities?
If Malevich merely wanted to free things of their ballast, so in the meantime totally different “abstractionists” have succeeded in “freeing” even large parts of the real world from the ballast of things.
In a time when abstractions create realities, they have not only lost their former innocence, they have also become perpetrators themselves. Thus has abstraction become concrete. And Franziska Maderthaner, in her paintings, presents abstraction as a protagonist. To put it in a somewhat exaggerated way, in regard to the epochal transformation of things for which abstraction once stood, and what it means today, one could say: concrete painting is no longer abstract, but abstraction itself has become concrete.
Today’s figuration of abstraction cannot be represented solely with the means of abstract art. In terms of systems theory the question remains: which external position can abstraction take in order to be able to call itself into question as an object.
As a painter, Franziska Maderthaner comes from the representational. Like few others, she has managed to internalize or perfect its necessary techniques. Therefore she is capable of making even abstractions appear like representations and to capture them on canvas. The way she handles figuration and abstraction, so that one provides a space of reference for the other, is something I have never seen before. She says: “I think from a production point of view.” This entails thinking with the feedback of experiences, of practice. Practice transcends the moment. After practice comes pleasure, but only in rare cases does this lead to virtuosity.
In this regard, I would like to briefly call Jimi Hendrix to mind. A virtuoso who could not only play rhythm guitar and do solos at the same time, but also constantly experimented with the latest equipment for sound manipulation. (Here I should mention that he was never really accepted by his African- American contemporaries. They did not trust his virtuosity. One might say he was a Mozart in wolf ‘s clothing, so to speak). Hendrix did not let his tour sound technicians repair defective pickups, amplifiers, wah-wah pedals etc. He wanted to go on stage and not know exactly how everything would sound.
True virtuosity is displayed in how we handle improvisation. This is where the line between art and ambition is drawn. Artists that possess virtuosity reach into the core of their experiences and are happy to be seduced by surprises. They enjoy the complications that others prefer to avoid. This is thinking from a production point of view. Franziska Maderthaner’s virtuosity in painting, together with her conception of abstraction, spans an impressive range from the Old Masters to our present time, and goes well beyond it.