Like going the wrong way on a one way street, the paintings of Tomma Abts zigzag, make sharp turns, and seem to double on themselves, all on two dimensional canvases. Their angularity has been likened to origami and their twists and turns seem to express high torque.
Abts practices what some critics refer to as geometric abstraction (think of Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie), opposing it to expressive abstraction in the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, for example. At heart, geometric abstraction is an optimistic style, its belief in rationality buoyed by painters' efforts to create a truly international visual language. As so often happens, these two competing schools have much more in common than their squabbling suggests.
Her paintings are all the same size: 48 cm x 36 cm (a 4 to 3 ratio). Their surfaces are painted, scraped, embellished, and polished and, although it is difficult to see in reproductions, there is an animated quality to them that may make the viewer think of Pop Art. The way the artist manipulates the lines as she puts them on canvas tricky, in the way that an Escher is tricky. Her method has evoked unusual attempts at description: Andrian Searle, writing in The Guardian, compared an Abts painting to driving the wrong way down a one way street. The way She gives them titles that have no recognizable meaning to outsiders; perhaps given how long she labors over each one they are names, as in old friends.
Sometimes the lines in an Abts painting appear to be raised above the canvas in a third dimension. The greeand yllow lines that zigzag downward in Inte look like lightening or fractured light rays. Another painting, Oke, could be music made visible,the looping curves staves weaving in and out of one another and overlapping as instruments do but words rarely can. You get to decide whether pink an d mauve or olive and spring green best represent the treble or the bass clef.
An exhibition of paintings by Tomma Abts is now at the Serpentine Gallery in London and will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago in October.
1. Tomma Abts - Inte, 2013, private collection, Cologne.
2. Tomma Abts - Oke, 2013, David Zwirner Gallery, NYC.
3. Tomma Abts - Taade, 2003, Art History Archive.