Sunday 27 January 2019

Tomma Abts: How Thick are the Ribbons, and How Long?

May I recognize whatever appeareth as being mine own thought forms,
May I know them to be apparitions in the Intermediate State
– The Bardo Thodol, or ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’

Buddhist sand mandalas are painstakingly created by several day’s effort, the monks blowing and scraping multi-coloured piles into intricate designs, which themselves are elaborate two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional spaces. The process is slow, careful and meditative. 

When completed, a ceremonial destruction takes place- the mandala is swiped away, the lines of sand unravelled as meaningless swirls of colour which are then gathered and ritually scattered- symbolising the ephemeral nature of the material world and our earthly pretensions.

Tomma Abts begins her paintings without any preparatory drawings, cartoons or sketches. After an initial acrylic colour wash begins a long process of route-finding in oil. Often many layers of heavily worked and discarded compositions are hidden away, should she decide to obliterate the surface and begin again, or to take a different path.

 Abts’ paintings are indelibly bound up with an idea of what constitutes ‘rightness’, correctness- with the caveat that this can change at a moment’s notice, as such ideas are, essentially, determined by and subject to the vagaries of the mind. Within that sandbox, many models are built-up only to be pulled-down.   


For anyone who’s never ‘seen’ an Abts, the reproductions included here are less than helpful. 

What’s lost and gained between painted object and camera/repro can be a frustrating aspect of talking and thinking about works one has never actually encountered. Everything from texture and physicality to colour and contrast can sometimes be strangely exaggerated, depth and detail that isn’t really there can be convincingly suggested, while in other works everything is de-saturated, flattened and homogenized, like pressed-flowers. 

In reproduction, Tomma Abts’ paintings can initially seem like slickly facile, clinical abstractions. Print and digital contexts tend to render them with their own inert flatness and sheen, when in fact they are intensely worked, stubbornly matte surfaces, compelling precisely because they come so near yet fall just so far from being such glossy, unblemished renderings. Everything that might cause the eye to slip from them in photographs is perversely what gives them their visual traction as physical things- a certain highly pitched tension between ‘image’ and ‘stuff’. 

It’s partly this tension – between what they are and what they are (not entirely) trying to be, or might seem- which makes them so beguiling. 

The hidden excavations of their facture are so subtle, so dependent on close, intimate and active inspection, that the camera misses them all but completely ('bad' photos help- as is often the case with painting- at least in terms of getting an idea of what they are actually like).


Just as important are the folds at the corners, or the individual qualities of each transition between art and not-art that occurs at the canvas’ edges, transitions between accreted paint and exposed or stained fabric which are mirrored within the front face of the painting (the paintings are begun as light acrylic washes before being worked-out and worked-up in oil, often leaving fissures of the original ‘dry’ weave exposed, or ridges and facets of old, now lost, compositions); or even the thinness of their stretcher bars and the small drop-shadows which they throw on the wall, again with a reflexive relationship to the hermetic 3-D modelling of their ribbons and planes (though I wouldn’t want to stress a Frank Stella-ish correspondence between stretcher and painting too much- Abts’ structures are meandering, shifting with the seasons of the mind, to be swiped aside if needs be).

Similarly, their scale and slightness could almost be that of shop-bought canvases, and there’s a similar tension between skill, sophistication, craft and amateurism (Abts works on them held in the crook of her arm, or flat on a worktable, and in any case one imagines the condition of their making as a sitting-on-the-floor type activity, absorbed and concentrated, rather than standing at an easel. It’s perhaps their scale more than their aesthetics alone that have frequently brought comparisons with East German wallpaper, a sense of ‘domestic’ rather than studio space. This along with the relatively small scale give them a greater warmth than might be expected).


We know the kind of things they are, the kind of image- it’s been around as long as digital rendering, the stuff of self-generating screensavers, desktop wallpapers. Or further back, to the film titles of Maurice Binder or Saul Bass, or John Whitney’s early computer animation, or further again, to the very early abstract animation of Hans Richter or Oskar Fischinger.

What these examples have in common, or rather what they’ve gotten us used to, is the idea of abstract shapes as dynamic, modelled ‘characters’ within 3-D environments, abstract ‘stuff’ behaving as if under the laws (or some form of the laws) of physics- gravity, light, speed, drag, torque. 

Where Abts differs is in the application of specifically ‘painterly’ realism/illusionism.

Abstraction in painting falls roughly into two main groups- the gestural and the hard-edge. Generally, and in their high modernist phases, these avoided any kind of explicit illusionism: depth, luminosity etc., if they were there, were very much seen as properties inherent to the work rather than effects to be generated or pursued in themselves (there might be luminosity, but no light source, depth but no perspective, and so on).

 There are of course exceptions and Abts, to an extent, revisits some of the surrealist illusionistic-abstraction of people like Yves Tanguy, or especially early (or late) Picabia- yet it’s inaccurate to say she’s a surrealist, just as Tanguy is also more accurately a kind of surreal landscape painter (Abts’ commitment to the portrait format neutralizes attempts to see them as any kind of abstracted landscape, they are environments of the mind if anything), while Picabia’s early abstracts also construct a more ‘sculptural’ environment, occasionally populated by figures. Nor does she chase Op-Art as an end in itself – the trompe-l'œil illusionism is high-functioning, much more so than in most ostensibly abstract art, and never merely optically suggestive or fugitive, as it might be in Riley, or Stella or le Witt etc., never simply provisionally indicated but more accurately calculated (usually by careful colour decisions).

Their very particular sense of lighting sets them apart from suprematism, vorticism, their sobriety apart from futurism- though they could’ve grown out of these movements, and do appear somehow purposefully dated (they could, almost, have been something cooked up by Picabia’s restless pictorial interrogation/dalliance).   

Nor is she even very much like the ‘abstract illusionists’ she’s sometimes compared to. ‘Abstract Illusionism’ (a term coined by Barbara Rose in the mid 70’s) refers to a certain kind of abstraction that admitted things like modelling and pictorial space back in the door- sometimes leaning more ‘hard edge’ (Al Held’s abstracted shape landscapes/spaces/objects, which can seem pretty cheesy today) sometimes more gestural (in the work of James Harvard and Michael B Gallagher, and arguably Laura Owens more recently, where gestural marks are given illusionistic weight or float above the surface). It’s more famous as a language subsequently appropriated by commercial design, particularly as 3-D rendering software became more readily available, with all kinds of visual media incorporating various kinds of shadowed swooshes and arbitrary planes.

With Abts the abstract shapes and ‘characters’ are almost literally things- but what kind of things? Not the sculptural forms or spaces of Held, nor the modelled gestures of Harvard, but something in between: they’re always only very slightly three-dimensional objects, related to things like ribbons, paper, things only thinly existing out-with two dimensions (as indeed painting is an artform which takes much of its diverse effects and meanings from being only more or less slightly-three-dimensional). They’re abstract shapes, given a greater sense of physics via colours and lines made to interact in such as way as to pop out and squirm.   

They zero-in on illusionism’s ways and means, to an extent, before self-cancelling the illusion. Abts has spoken before about them as being totally self-referential, self-identifying, that they exist completely and totally as themselves in each one’s specific character and set of autonomous rules or conditions, with no reference to an outside world or to a tradition, and with no intentional metaphorical or symbolic significance. And it’s often said that this sort of solipsistic approach ends up as a kind of ‘realism’, a kind of frankness about the essential nature of painting by excluding extracurricular things like represented images and meanings, that it approaches the condition of pure thought (or a pure ‘painting’ thought). And yet, here are the shadows, the overlaps, the artificial light and minimal/ambiguous suggestion of depth, the negotiations of flatness and facture- as if these things, these small illusions, allusions and pretensions are also somehow essential to painting. 

Abstract as they are it’s also hard not to see them as more or less realistic depictions of some actual phenomena- though its next to impossible to say just what kind of phenomena.

It’s an itchy sort of art, the kind you get from giving thought a shadow.  


In order to unravel some of these problems of relative ‘realism’, it might be helpful (and/or perverse) to bring in Heinrich Wolfflin.

Wolfflin is probably unfashionable these days, but interesting (and influential, he taught people like Panofsky).

In his Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art, Wolfflin introduced five pairs of oppositional principles in order to distinguish what he saw as the broad shift between classicism and the baroque:

1.    Linear vs. Painterly (drawing and contour vs. light effects and modelling) 
2.    Plane vs. Recession (ordering the picture parallel to the picture plane vs. emphasizing and engaging the spectator in recessional depth)
3.    Closed-form vs. Open-form (self-contained compositions vs. the suggestion of continuous motion or action beyond the frame, ‘iconic’ vs. feigned ‘accidental/incidental’)
4.    Multiplicity vs. Unity (each form considered distinctly in itself vs. the unified field of elements experienced as a totality, an overall impression)
5.    Absolute Clarity vs. Relative Clarity (mathematical, rational and intensive understanding of forms vs. empirical, perceptual rendering of appearances)

In Wolfflin’s linear ‘classical’ objects are perceived by their ‘tangible character, in outline and surfaces’, while the painterly ‘baroque’ abandons tangible design ‘by way of surrendering itself to mere visual appearance’. The dichotomy between linear and painterly effectively establishes the conditions of the remaining principles. In each there is a distinction between reality grasped and represented in its clear, almost mathematical form and in its constituent parts on the one hand, and in reality seen, perceived and represented in its fleeting, yet limitless, dynamic appearance on the other. If the lofty classical exists in some artificially lit, airless bell-jar, frozen in some kind of abstracted idealized eternity, then the baroque embraces the fugitive, the dynamic, the disorderly play of light, time and motion, the muck of the world. Whichever position seems more ‘real’, more like the world as it is and as we understand it or as we would wish it, is as much to do with individual artistic approaches as it has to do with the prevailing philosophical positions of a given time. 

Which all makes good sense when moving from the 16th to 17th centuries, but which becomes more problematic when applied as general principles to art since modernism. Is Rothko more classical than Pollock? Is Abts more classical or baroque than either of them, and in what proportion? And in what ways? (Suffice to say that she hovers between an artificial classicism, primitivism even, of ‘light’- the ‘shadows’ are rudimentary, the pictures don’t really admit the play of reflected light, but are more like roman still-lives, the gradients on early-renaissance drapery, or early digital modelling programs- and a baroque sense of unfolding, dynamic motion in her potentially infinitely repeating compositions, for example. And yet the light and the motion are generated through painterly colour rather than linear form per se...). 

It’s not necessary (perhaps it’s harmful) to designate a painter as being classical or baroque in such a facetiously simplistic manner, particularly since it has been at least a century since ‘realism’ has been chased as an end in itself- but I would argue that Wolfflin’s principles really do offer a practical and illuminating (not to say helpful) means of engaging in pictorial questions and in thinking about what a work’s relative position on realism (and so, its position on art and life) might be. 

Wolfflin’s distinctions, rich and stimulating, have yet to be genuinely factored into the study of modern and post-modern art. They are important distinctions because they help explain a given picture’s conception of either more or less of the following: the nature of the material world, the nature of our mental or perceptual understanding of the material world, the nature of realism, the nature of painting’s negotiation of the world as realism (or not), the essential nature of painting as an art form, whether painting that is more like painting or painting that is more like the world is more essentially ‘painting’ (and whether painting should be ‘essentially’ painting), which kind of painting is more like the world, which kind of painting is more like painting, which kind of painting is therefore more ‘real’ unto itself, how an interior life of the mind might best be represented, how the world might be ‘known’, how the world might remain ‘unknowable’- and ultimately that any or all of these approaches, given due attention, development and exploration, are valid approaches to painting and to the world at large. 

And perhaps such distinctions form questions which might also (for our present purposes) illuminate a close study of Abts’ paintings. 


The classical/baroque distinction asks whether the world is to be understood mathematically, timelessly, rationally, or is it to be experienced sensually, fugitively, empirically.

Of course, most good art, rather than opting for one or the other, finds its forms and meanings in the negotiation of the two. And perhaps it’s art criticism’s job to give due consideration to these negotiations and proportions, as much to negotiations of form and content. 

Certainly digital imagery has very distinctive ways and means of dealing with these divergent modes of reality-perception. In some ways classical in construction- built on mathematics, linear ‘wire-frame’ models, distinct compositional elements, grids etc.- and yet baroque in appearance- simulating motion, blur, light, depth and so on (and again, it’s a strange hybrid of distinct ‘elements’ patched together in the semblance of a ‘baroque’ totality). In a way, digital imagery is a kind of hyper-classicism camouflaged behind a hyper-baroque illusion.

 When digital illusions fail (particularly in bad CGI), it’s usually due to an imbalance of classical/baroque elements producing a kind of visual anxiety: either too crisp or too fluid, the illusion breaks down should the image be too crystal-clear, or too smoothed-out (especially in moving images, where the computer struggles to totally match the very particular recipe of fluidity/non-fluidity, clarity and non-clarity which we are so used to (and on top of that again, CGI is usually trying to match the world as we experience it when run together as a series of 25 still images per second, rather than as we naturally ‘see’ it, often going so far as to include the second-hand illusionism of faked lens flares, camera shakes and other extra-optical phenomena...). 

Perhaps Abts could also be thought of in these hybrid terms. If we take Wolfflin’s 5 principles, her paintings seem somewhat weighted towards the classical; they are ostensibly linear, with rudimentary ‘light’ signifiers and modelling; they mostly follow the picture plane horizontally or vertically or, if they don’t, they create only a shallow depth (the radiating fans are exceptions, but even then it’s a depth that’s easily crumpled); they are, in a way, absolutely clear, rather than relatively clear; they arrive at their own internal rationale of forms rather than render the general appearance of some external phenomena.

And yet: her compositions are absolutely open, with the suggestion of infinite expansion beyond the frame (even if we cannot guess how that expansion might look or work), rather than classically closed, self-contained forms; and further, across the paintings are pictures which consist of distinct forms which are often in turn inextricable from the totality of the whole, each shape’s self-identity running out as it switches from front to back, from positive to negative, from object to shape and back again. They defy classicism’s essential graspability, understanding. 

Part of the meaning and significance of Abts chimerical works, then, might be this nudging of classicism in a perceptually unstable, anxious direction: the sense we are zoomed-in on a small part of a whole- but how small, and what kind of whole?

She makes the rational and mathematical fugitive, baffling, flighty.

For Abts, the self-identity of each form, and each painting, matters (each is given a name from a directory of German Christian names). Not only that, but each one’s difference from anything, really, that’s gone before. Each picture represents a unique painting thought- a unique gesture of imagination towards the world. 

They are emphatically the result of a process- arrived at, not pre-meditated so much as ‘meditated’. The condition of their making is painting-thought; they narrow the gap between thought and thing, literally and materially registering the process of thought. We can watch Abts change her mind, or allow it to be changed, by and through and within the action of painting. 

In a way they also therefore interrogate the notion of ‘expression’ within abstraction so often taken for granted or negated altogether. They might only ‘express’ themselves, but that becomes its own kind of strength, as they each clearly have their own speed, register, mood, poker-faced as they are.

They create their own sequence of problems and solutions. They are a series of solutions to problems raised by those solutions themselves. 

It’s still an elusive art. Resistant. Every time it looks as if it might settle in a certain way it swerves. Every interpretation defied is a bullet dodged.

Which is not to say they are critically unaccountable- there are more and less interesting or successful ones- but that under their own terms they succeed in successfully avoiding anything like the kind of easy, pat appeals to ‘significance’ or content, or contemporary relevance, that critical discourse might try to write into them.

The trick, and trying task, of criticism that wants to say something about Abts other than ‘good paintings’ is to find new ways of writing about finding new ways of finding worth in a painting.

Particualry when she also limits their hardly varying scale, or the handling, or the ‘language’- they are hard to write about as they seem to risk homogeneity while (almost) inexplicably avoiding it. They also look as if they’ll invite visual metaphor and association- then make one feel guilty and maybe a little stupid for thinking it. Interpretation often feels like entering attempts at a forgotten password or login, followed by a tutting Windows XP 'du-dun'.

The fact that they are quite clearly not supposed to refer to anything means I feel quite justified in seeing anything I like in them. To a degree. Or at least, I feel they encourage (tolerate?) some measure of free-form projection. 

Sometimes I think of what goes on inside CD players. Conversions between forms or translations between languages. They can look like harpsichord strings and hammers, but with a platinum prism sheen, or looms and threads, crazy paper engines. Crinkled party-bag paintings, origami paintings, wrapping-paper paintings. Adrian Searle called them ‘fans in the hands of animated Andalucians’, speaking of lost forms of communication, fluttering semaphore. Or less than elegant hotel carpets, crusty and faded. Bus-seat upholstery. Lampshades. Or none of these things.

They present a linguistic challenge- trying to speak or write about what they conjure up is part of the joy of them.

They function partly on the principle that human consciousnesses are able to consider things in and of themselves and as things upon which to extrapolate and project, things upon which to consider. The ‘two-things-at-once’ tension/sensibility, which is the driver of all art and metaphor, all poetry. And if poetry does it in 'comparative', methaphoric literature, painting does it in matter on surfaces either more or less illusionistic. 


In looking at Abts you have to ask stupid questions. What is casting the light in this netherworld? How big are the things? How thick are the ribbons, and how long?

Shapes are given light and space- but what kind of light, and what space? What are the shapes made of? Paint, yes, but what are they really made of?

This, and their confounding specificity, is what is haunting and hypnotising about them.

The deeper you look in, the more individually nestled paintings emerge, smaller and smaller, unfurling flags of utter confusion.

They are somewhat like the experience of reading when tired, and realizing that you’ve not taken in the slightest iota of the last few pages’ contents. (You might also get the feeling of ‘why am I still reading/looking at this?’, but you’ll leave the lamp on anyway. In fact, the colours have a kind of de-saturated lightbulb or halogen light, hazy and potentially unhealthy, strobing and humming. Abts has described herself how a seemingly ‘bright’ red on the picture is really a dullish brown on her palette).  

There is an insomniac quality, thought running on low battery, recirculating the remaining energy, looping an over-tired consciousness. 


Try drawing an Abts from memory.


I would have outsmarted them or, at a minimum,
flicked their coins back like sharp-edged playing
cards or swung the rosary beads like a Filipino Balisong
had I not vomited spaghetti alphabet all over the spring-time
grass and fake-white silk and girlhood; disgusted
at the injustice of being small and atheist and inarticulate.

                                                              -Communion Afternoon, Caoilinn Hughes

 There is perhaps an un-gendering that happens across the paintings- the Christian-name titles are neutral, and the works themselves seem to neutralize the gender signifiers that might be thrown at them. The pretty paper and ribbons are almost weaponized, made sharp or entangling, baffling, the forms as much as ‘meanings’ wriggle free, or fly off with the ease of a hummingbird, or a butterfly, or a dazzle ship.

In a sense it’s an un-gendering of feminine images of delicate things (and laborious ‘pastimes’)- rendering them by turns more pointed or solid, or more fluid, constantly outsmarting whatever language or ideas might be applied to them- with the obvious caveat that my saying all this is also outsmarted, flicked back at me like sharp-edged playing cards...

In some ways Abts recalls the work of Christina Ramberg (a painter associated with the Chicago Imagists of the 60’s-70’s). Ramberg’s abstracted paintings of the push and pull of ‘feminizing’/classicizing structures – plaits, coils, braids, wired underwear and corsets- re-appropriate, with alternating fascination and disparagement, the very notions of ‘re-composition’ that such structures and devices are used to achieve (usually male-defined models of beauty, sexuality or power). Along with their slightly early/mid-modern feel, their reflexive play with notions of constriction and reshaping, prettifying and armouring can’t help but recall Abts’ play with soft and sharp, unfolding and defensively interwoven, interlocking forms. 

At the touch of an idea they tend to roll up like ferns


In a way there is something close to delirium in them, like childhood illnesses staring at embossed wallpaper. Or moments of distracted absorption generally- staring at the ceiling, staring at the carpet. Picking at woodchip walls and wicker chairs. Sunbeams through blinds. Getting lost in curtains. The mind entering itself, or H.G. Welles’ Mind at the End of Its Tether.

Indeed the logical utopian endgame is to exist as beings of thought alone, as Welles (quite disturbingly) put it-

a way of living in which understanding will be the supreme interest in life, and beauty a mere smile of approval. So it is at any rate in the Dreamland to which my particular Happy Turning takes me. There shines a world ‘beyond good and evil’, and there, in a universe completely conscious of itself, Being achieves its end. (The Happy Turning)

It’s uncertain just what kind of shape Welles might have seen for this world. But it does seem to suggest (as with Buddhist teaching) that it would to some extent transcend the purely material, or even the moral. It’s bracingly un-berthed. Abts paintings, at least, appear to be universes completely conscious of themselves.

Closer to Abts paintings is perhaps a poem by William Carlos Williams, On Gay Wallpaper:

The green-blue ground
is ruled with silver lines
to say the sun is shining

And on this moral sea
of grass or dreams lie flowers
or baskets of desires

Heaven knows what they are
between cerulean shapes
laid regularly round

Mat roses and tridentate
leaves of gold
threes, threes and threes

Three roses and three stems
the basket floating
standing in the horns of blue

Repeating to the ceiling
to the windows
where the day

Blows in
the scalloped curtains to
the sound of rain

I think the key to the poem, and to Abts’ paintings, is the juncture where the wallpaper meets the window, the outside world (which is paradoxically hung like a picture of rainy daylight in the context of the abstracted, wallpapered room), the point where the paintings meet the wall, their own edges, the real world.

The window (with its light, air, water) is the dramatic climax of the poem, its release- just as Abts paintings come alive when walked around, walked up to, seen through doorways, lit by windows, seen on walls as things. Looked at by people.
Perhaps when people see wallpaper in her paintings it is less the shapes or aesthetics and more wallpaper’s negotiation of pattern/world; the way it gets broken up by furniture and shadows, interrupted by doorways; the way it sits as a thinly embossed surface; the way it’s part of the room yet also somehow an alternative to the room.
In the wallpaper, Williams sees the pattern of the world- threes, threes and threes, ruled lines, repeating- yet the world of the wallpaper/art exists at some oblique angle to our own, reflecting and abstracting its structures. It is possible to enter it to a degree, but only in patches within frames: it stops at the window, comes up short, the infinity of ruled lines reach the ceiling, the window ledge, and stop. The abstracted eternity meets the transitory phenomenological environment. The sound of the rain breaks the silence of the silent wallpaper world- the two remain related yet irreconcilable.

For Williams as for Abts, even decorative, ostensibly meaningless surfaces open up a point of departure and enrapture, a secondary universe which is ultimately the universe of the mind. 


Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending nor beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
As the images unwind
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind...

-       - The Windmills of Your Mind, Alan and Marilyn Bergman