Freestyle or The art of surfing the abstract wave by Catherine Macchi de Vilhena

Freestyle or The art of surfing the abstract wave

Tilman’s latest monochromes, whether one-off or in series, have an askew look to them; they would appear to have broken with geometric abstraction, with the purism of primary colours and with self-reference. While there is a hint of the shaped canvases of Ellsworth Kelly, in fact the syncopated silhouettes and acid tones of these Freeforms spontaneously evoke the dynamic lines and pure colours of the distorted American cartoon images of the mid-fifties.

In other recent works Tilman appears to have distanced himself from the tradition of constructivism and minimalism with which he is often associated. In 13.08 (Pink Champagne) (2008), although the rectangular structure is maintained, the bottom right-hand module of this light pink quadriptych sinks inwards towards the wall, creating a discontinuity reminiscent of the virtual circuit of a video game. The superposed elements of 14.08 (Urban Structure I) (2008) are reminiscent of a composition from the early days of neo-plasticism but the chromatic impurity of the white dispels any doubt. The irony peaks in Splice (2008): two hybrid monochromes precariously propped up one against the other have no wall support and no front view as such, as they are painted both front and back, one of them looking rather like a sandwich filled with slices of paint. Worth noting ’en passant’ is the title, which is derived from the film editing term ’to splice’. And what about the series Stacks that uses the same principle as Donald Judd in his works with the same title but inflicts on them sugary tones and a pleasurable sense of accumulation verging on disorder?

So yes, Tilman glides coolly over the shadow cast by modernism, drawing free forms, supposedly abstract but always reinvented. If he avoids the traps of formalism, it is because part of his work process, albeit fundamentally influenced by the non-objective avant-garde starting with De Stjil then Bauhaus, is anchored in real life. The artist stresses that his work is intuitive and that there is no mathematics involved; also that he uses images registered during city walks. The strong visual impact of ’a huge pink shape consisting of isolation panels mounted on the outside brick wall of a building under construction’ 1 was a motive force in the execution of this relaxed abstraction, which unashamedly runs through a whole range of pastel colours, including some sublime pinks…

This freestyle surfing of the non-objective also enables Tilman to introduce the experience of space into his painting by using structures that oscillate between sculpture and architecture, as in The House of Colors. Stemming from a reflection on floor objects, this unidentified modular object may be three-dimensional and have the feel of a hypothetical utopian construction but it is none the less a work of painting. Its size rules it out as a maquette but nor does it have the physical dimensions or indeed the functional purpose of architecture. Composed of multicoloured rectangular sections interlocked like a giant set of lego the work acts as a sort of observatory with multiple peepholes. The public is invited to experiment and look through this multi-angle viewfinder, not unlike the optical devices invented by painters down through the centuries, from the camera lucida to the camera obscura.

Tilman’s work is primarily about exploring the effect of light on forms and colours — visually, physically and psychologically. We should not forget that, quite apart from the fact that the artist comes from Munich and was influenced by the subtle half-tones of baroque painting, he started out in photography. In one of his catalogues entitled Look Awry (Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, 12 May – 25 June 2006), Tilman urged the public to look at his constructions ’awry’. Playing on the word’s double meaning this could also be understood as an injunction to look at the work ’askew’. The ’defects’ or lopsidedness in Tilman’s painting, with its slight dissonance of forms and colours tinged with humour but ultimately extremely elegant, clearly confer a human dimension on the work, transforming what is an art to look at into a space of experience.

Catherine Macchi de Vilhena

1 Tilman, Interview Tilman and Chris Ashley, May – June 2006.