Late last year, Imi Knoebel was given his first historical exhibition outside of continental Europe, at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, England. This small gallery, located several hours from London, was a fitting venue for showcasing the work of an artist whose 40-year career has been given little attention beyond the borders of his native Germany, and whose works demand a subtle and intimate context. Organized by curator Penelope Curtis, "Imi Knoebel Primary Structures 1966/2006" included eleven pieces in all, spanning from Knoebel's first student projects up to and including his most recent works.
Although Curtis supplied the institutional impetus for this unusual grouping of works, a conceptual scheme for the show had already been suggested by a series of objects that Knoebel began producing in 2005 that revisited - and in some instances even reworked - elements of his earliest formal experiments. Emblematic of this dialogue was a 2006 version of Knoebel's "Raum 19", a work that was originally inspired by, and created in, the eponymous studio space that Knoebel occupied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. This is the third "Raum 19" that Knoebel has authored: the first was exhibited in 1968 in Düsseldorf and is now permanently installed at Dia: Beacon in New York; a second version was produced for an exhibit at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt and was subsequently sold to the museum there.
Composed of over 250 distinct planar and geometric elements constructed from hardboard and wood, the present incarnation of "Raum 19" emerged as a kind of expansion and intensification of the 77 components that comprised the initial 1968 iteration. Since its inception, Knoebel has stipulated that each installation of the work be arranged in accordance with the restrictions imposed by the given exhibition space, and for the installation at the Henry Moore Institute, "Raum 19" filled one of three gallery spaces in its entirety and even spilled out into the space of a second. Compared to the other more open and scattered presentations of earlier versions at Dia and Darmstadt respectively, the current example nearly crammed the exhibition space from floor to ceiling and wall to wall with many of the familiar "Raum 19" elements, including large geometric volumes and wooden painting stretchers of variable sizes. The display itself confronted viewers at the entrance to the space with a phalanx of large hardboard cubes that left little room for visitors to access the dense arrangement of stretchers and slabs that lay behind. Only by walking to the far side of the gallery was it possible to see a cross section of the assembled pieces that were both collected in the middle of the space and propped against the surrounding walls.
The inability to physically enter the piece's composition of forms meant that viewers were unable to experience the work either bodily through perambulation, or visually as a coherent image of parts. Appealing neither to pure cognitive representation nor to a bodily sensorium, the textures and thicknesses of "Raum 19"'s constitutive elements instead seemed to suggest how physical depth and legibility are sacrificed in the production of aesthetic objects through literally enacting the process under which matter, weight, and the occupation of space are sublimated in order for objects to be established as visual phenomena.
Knoebel's preoccupation with art as a discrete material production (as opposed to a mere object of contemplation) ran through the various works in the show, offering a theoretical connection between otherwise disparate pieces in a variety of media. For example, "Projektion" from 1968, reissued in 2002, produced a simple white rectangle of light on the gallery wall, and viewers passing in front of the display created momentary silhouettes within the "framed" image that became shrewd performances of the fleetingness and contingency of the act of beholding. On the opposing wall, Knoebel's "Linienbild 24" of 1968-one of a series of line paintings that represent Knoebel's first artistic experiments as a student in Düsseldorf -echoed the projection's definition of space within the two-dimensional parameters of painting. Not to be confused with the aesthetic reductions of contemporaneous American practitioners like Sol LeWitt, the black vertical lines of Knoebel's "Linienbild" read less as serialized extensions of the two-dimensional field than as explicit exercises aimed at concretizing the pictorial as such, routing it back into the obdurateness of the material support.
The "Linienbild" offered the first instance of what would become an ongoing dialogue in Knoebel's work between an attention to materials and craft that grew out of his early training at the Werkkunstschule Darmstadt on the one hand, and his close relationship to painters like Blinky Palermo and Jörg Immendorff through Joseph Beuys' classes at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf on the other. The relationship with Palermo is writ large in "Siebeneck" (1975/2006) - a green heptagon that marked Knoebel's first foray into colored abstraction - as Palermo reportedly took Knoebel shopping to find the perfect color green for this piece. Although the present example was reconstructed, the initial 1975 date remains, as do other earlier dates in the show (a formula repeated in the title of the exhibition itself) that mark the conceptual origin of a remade or reformulated work. These dates become crucial to the pieces, speaking to the almost monadic process of Knoebel's development, in which the introduction of a material, or in this case, color, is understood as a motivating force for the work and an end in itself.
Color has since become an important feature of Knoebel's work, evidenced in the most recent pieces in the show, all of which also incorporate aluminum in their construction. In the massive work "Batterie" from 2005, Knoebel assembled a large aluminum base that supports a five-sided cube covered with over 20 hand-painted phosphorescent yellow/green panels. Though I was not fortunate enough to witness the effect, the piece is designed to store light in the panels throughout the day and then glows atop the aluminum base in nighttime conditions. Two other aluminum paintings, "Tafel CMXXIV" and "Red, Red" (both from 2006), each displayed painted metal slabs housed in large aluminum frames that both supported and gave depth to individual panels. In the case of "Red, Red", two panels were stacked one in front of the other, creating a layering effect of colored surfaces that resonated with one of Knoebel's plywood "Sandwich" paintings (in this case "Sandwich 13" from 2003) on display in an adjacent gallery. What connected these pieces above all else is the distinctive paint handling, which becomes visible upon close inspection of the individual surfaces. Knoebel's uniquely smooth swipes of paint imbue color with a material presence of its own, transforming paint itself into yet another constructed surface.
Ultimately, the show delivered an argument for the significance of a matter-based conception of the artwork that read like a counter-history of the 1960s, where the production of materially-specific objects squared off against the more canonical legacies of linguistic- and performance-based practices. The pieces assembled for this show make it devastatingly clear that the underlying terms supporting those now academically-endowed histories of dematerialization - and the distance that â€™60s art supposedly gained from the dogged ideologies of modernism - relied almost exclusively on the language of aesthetics and its concomitant vocabulary of experiential phenomena. No wonder, then, that Knoebel's abstract works would fail to resonate with the trajectory of American Minimalism and its obsession with the itinerant body, or with Conceptualism's privileging of language over materiality.
Suggested by the protean structure of "Raum 19" itself, Knoebel's model is one of building, not of negation, the terms of which are ontological and therefore distinctly non-aesthetic. Knoebel eschews that 60s allure of addressing his objects to some sentient body or cunning observer, and works instead to produce systems that announce simultaneously the inability, and inherent possibility, of producing new configurations of place. In the end, it is "Raum 19"'s flexibility, its open-ended temporality, which defines the elliptical logic of this show, and may also point to a different potentiality for art as a political force. "Raum 19"'s intransigence - its refusal to address itself to an imaginary public or become a finished, idealized image of aesthetic reflection - speaks to a kind of autonomous social life of the object made manifest in each extant version of this work. Instead of providing a totality, or a critique of that totality, Knoebel presents us with a world in flux, a static object that acknowledges its own unfinishedness. Nothing could be timelier.
Imi Knoebel, "Primary Structures 1966/2006", Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, September 24 - December 16, 2006.