When all has been done, by Kristian Romare

“I have brought painting to its logical
conclusion and am putting three
paintings on display:
a red one, a blue one and a yellow one,
with the following assertion:
all has been done.
These are the primary colors.
Every surface is a surface and nothing
further is to be represented.
Each surface is spread to the edges with
one single color.

(Aleksandr Rodchenko)

Monochrome painting is usually referred back to Kasimir Malevich and his White Square on White. But if we were to look for an early outrider of Tilman’s new body of work, the three-canvas constellation Triptych of Smooth Paints by Aleksandr Rodchenko from 1921 would immediately come to mind. Rodchenko has given his own commentary on it, quoted above. It is true that Rodchenko in his assertion still dwells within essentialism connected to the primary colors. But in his ’triptych’ - if triptych it should be called - he has stepped out of the painting as a closed icon and deals with colored surfaces as physical objects put in relation to each other.

All has been done. In his Transforms, compositions constructed from individual physical parts, Tilman offers us a choice of panels. The surface of each panel is spread to the edges with one single color in smooth paint. He invites us to enter the world of colors and to put together our own composition from a chosen set of panels. According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, composition: a literary or musical work, an artistic arrangement of parts of a picture. I believe we should understand his offer as a metaphor or as an intellectual experiment for the sake of clarification rather than as a do-it-yourself proposition. When all has been done, this is how it works.

It all looks convincingly simple. But when it comes to art, there are always layers and always a road to the point where the artist offers us the presence and the simplicity of his work. When I try to trace the path covered in Tilman’s production, I come upon an amazing circumstance. Ten years ago, he was at the threshold of what he is doing today. He worked with a few simple fields of luminous and vibrating colors. One step further and he would have been here.

What was behind those works belonging to the short period in 1989 - 1990? Maybe they represented a conclusion drawn from the artistic landscape which opened up when he moved to New York and came close to phenomena within the second and third chapters of 20th century western abstract art. Abstract expressionism, Rothko’s disembodied chromatic sensations, minimalism, field painting, postmodern strategies etc. It is hard to say. At one early point, he had turned from photography to painting in order to get to grips with those elements that photography builds on: light, time and space. That might also have been part of the picture.

In any case, ten years ago Tilman turned on his heel and made a wide detour in his exploration. He went back to a space where vertical stripes, sometimes white and sometimes black, are criss-crossed by streams of transparent paint and of microelements. The paintings do not include simulacra but they appeal to the preconceived notions of our intimate knowledge of nature in the way the colors and forms produce thickets of dusk and glades of light. Seen from today’s station on the road they appear as a hesitation, a second thought about what step to take next.

Pondering on this deferment, I remember a correspondence between two of the key figures from the first chapter of European abstract art. When I was a young art critic, it told me something about the genesis of abstract art, that nothing comes from nothing and that the course followed is not always straight. I quote from memory.

Theo van Doesburg had found out that he could transfer his abstractions into closed, colored rectangles. He wrote enthusiastically to his friend Mondrian that this was the future and that he had to join him. You are probably right, Mondrian replied. But I am for the moment here in Scheveningen, painting and observing the movement of the waves coming in from the sea. I am not yet ready to take that step.

The irony was that Mondrian was far ahead of Doesburg on the way towards neoplasticism and De Stijl, which they founded together in those years during World War I. His plus-and-minus paintings represent a detour, which would lead forward.

I would say that the long way round which Tilman followed in the nineties - of course the detour is my arbitrary explanation after the event - meant a deeper involvement in the notions of time and movement. Günter Fruhtrunk, his teacher at the art academy in Munich, represents his link to the early chapters of abstract art. Fruhtrunk commuted between Munich and a Paris where he had been the friend of Hans Arp and belonged to the circles around the Galerie Denise René. He was in fact a rigorous theorist. In a lecture to his students he condensed his thoughts about time and movement.

"Consciousness is construction. Let us deal with construction according to time, according to the identity of time and experience. We value quality higher than quantity. Time will often prove to be qualitative, which means it is described in the first person. We will always be aware of that; and a painter or a musician, every creative individual, knows the fact that he himself is time; he does not explain time; in reality he includes himself as time in his description of an experience. Time is an experience in the first person of a non-material movement. An experience of a passing movement. It is not about a passing experience, but it is about pure experience of a passing-by, an immediate passing over and an immediate coming. An immediate past as a continuum stays, and that is also its content, because content there is."

If postmodernism within visual art means anything to me and not just a general relativisation and an attitude of anything goes, it means deconstruction. In taking modernism to pieces, it very much puts the tradition of abstract art under fire. But deconstruction took place also within the continuation of this tradition, a descent from high-flown notions to a spirit of analysis and delimitation. It is in this context that I perceive Tilman’s dealing with colors, light and time as a movement. He has renounced the dramaturgy of high tensions and interactions between prismatic colors. He uses low-key, somewhat odd or commonplace tints, which - though they are filled with light - produce an extremely intimate interaction when they are brought close to each other. The optical/symbolic function of colors redefining colors in a musical interplay is kept down. Each color more or less keeps its own identity. We are close to color as an object. This impression is of course enhanced by the fact that, in most cases, each color has its own panel and in that sense is an object.

Working with new materials was a circumstance that contributed to new solutions. First Tilman changed from acrylic on nettle cloth to acrylic with pigments and polyurethane on cotton and then to oil lacquer on panels of MDF-board. His exhibition in 1997 at the Petra Bungert Gallery in New York constitutes a new and significant step towards his work today. Bands of light and strings of bright colors intersect those paintings. When looked into as pieces of pictorial space, they appear to be about transparency and movement. But they are to be perceived as one-color entities, in that sense as monochromes. The main movement from one point to another, the immediate past staying as a continuum, occurs not so much between the pictorial elements within the canvases as between the canvases, between for instance a bright and a dark canvas or a red and a blue one. Tilman wanted the viewer to look upon them as a whole, as installations interacting with space. The interaction between them as well as the interaction between them and the space is the content.

Time as movement, as a passing-by, is still very present in his work. It is manifested in the panels Tilman terms Constellations. Small, brightly colored squares at the border of the panel function as the tenons of the carpenter. They fit together with the tenons of another piece. The separate panels/works are visually kept together. Time as a continuum passes through them. Similarly, we may also get a clearer understanding of what Tilman demonstrates with the offer to let us put together a composition from different color panels. Time is hidden in a very concrete sense in these compositions. The panels do not share the simultaneity of a canvas. They have moved together, edge to edge.

Reflecting upon aspects of Tilman’s work which did not immediately attract me, I have come to value his low-key, down-to-earth continuation of a personal, highly spiritual adventure concerned with color’s potential transcendence to pure light. Moving towards the future, there are promises and protean proems. This is the place where Tilman is now: one of the possible places to take abstract art at this point in time and in this part of the world. When all has been done.

Kristian Romare
in: Tilman - Transforms & Constellations
catalogue, 48 pages, 16 color reproductions
ISBN 92-990006-0-3 D 2000-9114-1
published by the artist & CCNOA, Brussels (B) 2000