by David M. Roth
By all rights, Udo Nöger’s paintings should make you shiver. Their interlocking circles and totemic shapes — rendered in a near-monochrome color palette and set atop what appear to be ice flows, frigid waters and overcast skies – issue a chill. Yet looking at them I felt warmed, as if an unseen electrical current had animated the shapes and caused them to vibrate and give off heat. They hang in mid-air like fever-dream visions, palpably real, yet remote — like what I imagine the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton saw when he and his crew were trapped for months in polar ice, seeking an escape route to solid land while battling frostbite and snow blindness.
This gulf, between what’s given and what’s felt, is the product of an elaborate and original painting process, designed to concretize light and to disguise the means by which it’s captured and shaped. Nöger does this by placing three layers of fabric inside a frame. The bottom two layers contain cutout shapes, painted at the edges to highlight the cavities. The top layer, treated with mineral oil, acts as a translucent curtain. It reflects and refracts light, bouncing it toward the viewer and backward into the frame, illuminating the sub-surface plastic activity just enough to render it dimensional, but not so much as to reveal the precise location. Yet even when you do know, it’s hard to believe that the painted forms actually reside below the surface. Certain works, like Wiegend 1, in which four horizontal bands appear stacked atop one another, raise real doubts as to whether the illusion proffered, of shapes carved directly into the top layer, is real. (Here, I had to resist the temptation to run my finger over the surface to verify that it is not.)
Another feature: The mineral coating of the top layer is said to effect changes in color that shift according to the temperature of the light striking the surface. After spending a late-afternoon hour or so in the gallery, I detected no such shifts; but I suspect such changes might be visible if the gallery lights were doused and the ambient light streaming in through large bay windows was allowed strike the surfaces, unhindered. Whatever. The appeal of these works rests not with fugitive chromaticism, but with the visions they set forth.
In Difficulty of a Line, a nearly all-white painting, a faint vertical zip located at the center splits the difference between Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. It reads as a faltering beacon, a candle flickering in a snowstorm. Throughout the show persistent references to icy landscapes form the backdrop to the aforementioned circles and totems; it matters not whether the “horizon lines” are actually horizontal, or if they’re flipped vertically; each painting exerts a hypnotic pull, a concentrated energy field. The strongest are those that employ floating circles: Self, Gleiches Land 20, Gleichlos 46, and the Acima series of paintings (1-3). The looping, off-kilter character of the lines, coupled with the reductive grounds on which they appear, may remind you of Jonathan Lasker and Brice Marden – working as if under the influence of Zen. Which is why it’s worth noting that the circle, the dominant shape in these paintings, closely resembles the ensō, a gestural symbol used in Japanese calligraphy to denote enlightenment, strength, elegance and the void. Nöger, as it happens, hails from Germany, and for that reason he’s been linked, however tentatively, to Zero, a post-WWII movement founded in Düsseldorf by Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Günther Uecker. The loose-knit group also included, at various junctures, artists from France (Arman, Yves Kline, Daniel Spoerri); Italy (Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani); Japan’s Gutai group (Jiro Yoshihara, Shozo, Shimamoto, Kazuo and Atsuko Tanaka); and America (George Rickey). The thread connecting these artists was a desire to rebuild art from the ground-up; hence the name. Notably, it was the Zero artists who were among the first to recognize and explore light, and on that basis, the connection to Nöger holds. His incising of canvas also links him to Fontana, while the almost-monochrome palette puts him in dialog with other figures in the movement like Gotthard Graubner who made monochromatic canvases overlaid with shimmering veils of color.
Still, Nöger’s work never feels like an embellishment of the modernist monochrome, nor does it seem all that close to American Light and Space art, even though the ostensible subject is the same. Nor, does it seem to exemplify zombie formalism or any of the other empty exercises in perceptual spectacle that now populate art fairs. His paintings represent what feels like a serious spiritual quest, one that focuses attention and demands that we question what we see.