At first glance, Imi Knoebel’s statement - ‘I don’t want to enter into [an] abstraction, into true non-representationalism’ – is difficult to reconcile with the works on show at White Cube Bermondsey. The series of paintings and sculptures that populate the galleries are not only explicitly formal in their construction, but the implied influence of the geometrical abstractions of artists such as Mondrian and Malevich first and foremost locate Knoebel within this frame of reference. Certainly the artist’s fifty-year span of production has maintained an ongoing investigation into the vestiges of painterly and architectural Modernism, however on closer inspection this long overdue exhibition (the first ever in London) makes clear Knoebel’s relevance to contemporary modes of image production, perspective and display.
The exhibition brings together new and existing works, all on aluminium, as well as a specially-produced series of works in the gallery’s ‘9 x 9 x 9’ space. In the North Galleries rectilinear shapes, saturated with colour, intrude and force their way into more irrational, curvilinear forms; awkward fields of colour that float outwards from the wall. In spite of their positioning on the horizon of the spectator’s vision, these painted abstractions suggest vertical viewpoints on to islands, skyscrapers, or bodies of water, all pictured from above. What appears as a faceless geography via the impression of an aerial perspective is re-configured on the gallery wall as a series of assembled fragments.
This confrontation with different viewing perspectives is apparent in the other works in the gallery. We are invited to step into a baby-pink coloured corner-piece: a gallery within a gallery where the only objects within it are the spectators themselves. Similarly in ‘Amor Intellectualis Tafel DCCCLVI’ (2006/2013), Knoebel uses mirrored glass to create an extended field of vision within two contained frames: through reflection, the cold architecture of the gallery becomes the work’s content.
The exhibition’s highlight, however, is a series of white, painted ‘Kites’. Whereas the aforementioned wall pieces intimate a view from above, these beautifully subtle works invite the spectator to look up. Positioned towards the gallery’s roof, Knoebel subverts the elevated status afforded to the self-referential art object within the white cube space and instead physically elevates these ‘kites’ to a position up above.
In Hito Steyerl’s text, ‘In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective’, she comments how our contemporary situation is characterised by a prevailing condition of groundlessness, for ‘if there is no stable ground available for our social lives and philosophical aspirations, the consequence must be a permanent, or at least intermittent state of free fall for subjects and objects alike’. Knoebel’s work may come from a distinctly Modernist vernacular of form and colour, however his positioning of the viewer in the midst of these binary perspectives – vertical and horizontal – resonates with a contemporary condition of multiple viewpoints, image reproductions and constructed environments. If, as Steyerl suggests, we are stuck in a state of free fall, then the introspective nature of Knoebel’s installation offers some stability.