Joakim Borda-Pedreira

Painting as Total Art–Reflections on the Work of Susanne Kathlen Mader

In 1927 an exhibition opened in Oslo that heralded the arrival of the avant-garde movements from the continent to the insular Norwegian art scene. The title 8 Skandinaviske Kubister (8 Scandinavian Cubists) was less than accurate, as most of the participating artists were more influenced by the hardcore abstract aesthetics of De Stijl and Constructivism. Three of the Norwegian participants in the exhibition were females who had studied at the Académie Moderne, a private school of painting run by Fernand Léger. There Ragnhild Keyser, Charlotte Wankel and Ragnhild Kaarbø had been greatly influenced by the rigid teachings of Amédée Ozenfant, who formulated his ideas in a manifesto, as was the custom in avant-garde circles. Dissolving the bonds of representation, Purism in fact opposed to Cubism, which Ozenfant accused of having become a “decorative art of romantic ornamentalism”. The strictly flat geometrical compositions of this movement was in fact a precursor to later conceptual art, as it was formulated to “consist in the conception before anything else”.

In hindsight, the exhibition in Oslo did not establish a lasting movement or influence on Norwegian art. Norwegian society and the cultural elite of that time violently rejected such concrete and abstract art, and it would take yet a few decades before the final breakthrough of abstract art. If anything this simply proves that Norway in the 20ties was not far enough on the path of modernity. Indeed, the iconic film Gategutter (1944) shows Oslo as a city which still remains in the 19th century, with barefeet boys on streets of trampled soil. The great social theories of the 20th century remained to be implemented. As modernist art and aesthetics are closely connected to drastic social change, it must either be completely embraced or rejected. Here it might be worthwhile to point out that Germany and Italy chose the former, assimilating the notion of avant-garde within the reactionary ideology of fascism, while Great Britain resisted the influence of modernism as much as was possible. It is interesting to note also that among the Scandinavian artists to join the modernist avant-garde, a great number were women. They were, as Gladys C. Fabre writes, “the true pioneers of a synthetic abstraction that combined a formal modernism inspired by mechanical elements or manufactured objects with non-objective art.”

In my first encounter with the artist Susanne Kathlen Mader, I made the observation that her work had some of the graphic qualities we primarily connect with the Bauhaus school and the Russian Suprematists. Not only do Mader’s paintings exhibit a similar variation of regular and irregular forms, of massive geometrical shapes contrasted with dynamic and thin lines, but also there is something of the same optimism, a sense of urgency that only existed within pre-war modernism. Of course, being originally German and having lived in France for several years, Mader is well versed in the continental roots of Modernism. This “foreignness” may account for a lack of restraint and a clear obliviousness to the conflictive Norwegian relationship to abstract painting. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Mader does not excuse her work by entangling it with post-war conceptualism, such as the self-critical detachment and two-dimensional flatness that defines modernist painting according to Clement Greenberg.

Consistently in her work, Mader defies flatness and geometrical order by composing intuitively. I like to think of her method as a form of musical composition of movements that alternate between harmony and atonality. Her vast series of circular Rondo paintings, when shown together, seem in fact more indebted to the musical work of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), than the formalism of concrete painting. Schoenberg’s theory of free atonality was expressed as musical compositions where the notes work independently from each other and lack a tonal centre. Similarly, in Mader’s compositions the colours are not arranged in any hierarchical relation and the shapes are not arranged in a preconceived order that favours a focal point. On the contrary, it is only at a casual glance that they appear harmonious and proportioned. A closer contemplation reveals organic structures that binds together seemingly incongruous parts and make them believable. Squares that are irregular, circles that are not circular and straight lines that tremble are a few of the compositional forms appearing in Mader’s work.

If we may pin another, perhaps clearer, reference on Susanne Kathlen Mader that draws a genealogy of her work to that of the 20th century avant-garde, it would be that of the
Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943). His work did not confine itself to any medium, but stretched from painting and sculpture, to industrial design and choreography.
In his most famous work, a ballet for three performers called Triadisches Ballet (1922), effectively inspired by the music of Schoenberg, the human body is conceived as geometrical forms, which as we know since the Renaissance is an imperfect optical illusion only effective for rendering tri-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface. Apart from written descriptions, later precise reconstructions, which are readily available on YouTube, makes the connection to Mader’s work tangible: the ballet consists of a series of tableaux’ where the performers dance in front of bright monochrome backgrounds of yellow, pink and black – a colour scheme we recognise from many of Mader’s Rondo paintings, as well as other works. There is a parallel also in the contrast between sharp linearity and soft edged elements, which determine the ballet as well as the compositional method of Mader.

And like Schlemmer, Mader resists any divisions of genre. Her compositions may be identified as painting, but are equally sculptural and increasingly she has engaged in site specific wall installations that are intrinsically architectural. Transposing her intuitive method of composition directly onto a wall, she allows the work to evolve in dialogue with the architecture of the space. The constraints of walls and corners have a determined influence on the compositions and the artist arranges colour and shapes accordingly. A key element in each wall work is a sculptural device, which Mader places within the compositional scheme either as a balancing factor or as a dominant element. Made of painted metal, these sculptures re-enforce a connection to the industrial aesthetics of Bauhaus, while effectively undermining the modernist notion of painting as a flat arrangement of colour. Extending into the third dimension, Mader’s works become objects of irreducible category. It is neither possible nor productive to understand them as pure painting or sculpture. They are spatial installations that transcend the picture plane and merge with architecture.
In a seminal text, Miwon Kwon describes how the emergence of site specific art drew its strength from an idea that the space of art was not a blank space like a tabula rasa, but a real place where the art object was an experience in the here and now, rather than something that could be “viewed” by a given subject. Kwon quotes the artist Robert Barry, who explained that his art works had to be experienced in situ and were impossible to move without being destroyed. This is also true of Mader’s wall works. The metal object may be recyclable, and the artist in fact does use and re-use her metal wall sculptures in different installations, but the finished works are transient, highlighting the temporal being of each exhibition.

In recent works Mader has given larger emphasis to the tri-dimensional aspects of her wall works. The series of installations entitled Shahrázáds fortellinger, which are due to be exhibited in several instalments throughout the year of 2014, express a development towards less prominence of colour in favour of form. In a further departure from modernist ideals, Mader has set to explore geometric forms that are based in binary algorithms rather than the pure Euclidean geometry that was privileged by the modernist avant-garde. Circumventing established ways of “sculpture-making”, she has begun to produce her work through digital 3D-printing.

This new, yet increasingly accessible technology enables to create forms that would be highly complicated, even impossible in some cases, to cast in any traditional technique. Several artists are discovering that they are able to 3D-print forms that would be otherwise impossible, objects that traverse the borders between dimensional space as well as physical logic. Susanne Kathlen Mader, however, does not use this technology to collapse spatial integrity, but more to subtly subvert it. In her new work she shifts the focus of attention from the central picture plane towards the margins, corners and edges of the walls, further assimilating architectural space – thus questioning the reductionist notion that image and object belong to separate orders. Again, this lack of centre and hierarchical relationships of genre is illustrated by the concept of atonality. Ultimately it is an attempt to create a total art work, a Gesamtkunstwerk, that takes into account all forms of artistic expression.

It is still too early to foresee what direction this new body of work will take. It is the strength of such an explorative artistic method to allow chance developments and revisions, creating a certain movement and flux in the work itself that the more autonomous works – such as Mader’s Rondo paintings or other equally compact compositions – might exclude. Perhaps it can be likened to musical interpretation, where the musical score is coloured by each performance and interpreter in endless delicate variations, never sounding exactly the same.

Marisa Ferreira & Susanne Kathlen Mader at BOA

Exhibition text by Joakim Borda-Pedreira

Already in its earliest incarnations, the modernist avant-garde made equations between musical composition and abstract painting. It is plausible to suggest that it was within music that a conceptual language for the abstract composition was first developed. In her work, Susanne Kathlen Mader (b. 1964 in Germany) re-asserts this connection as she constructs unquestionably precise geometrical compositions that seem to almost balance on a nanoscopic scale.

That apparent strive for perfection is superficially akin to the utopian ambitions of such predecessors from De Stijl to the Bauhaus School and other subsequent movements of concrete art. They struggled to break away from the bonds of representation, a project that still seems less than fulfilled. Seen against this background, Susanne Kathlen Mader does not offer a continuation but rather a re-interpretation of an. Her works, whether painted on boards or directly on the wall, centre on the distribution of space, often even extending beyond the picture plane as she allows tri-dimensional elements protrude from the picture plane. Her compositions are superficially explorations of geometric forms, but on closer examination it is revealed that Mader actually undermines, rejects even, the stability of geometric law. She accomplishes perfect balance and exactitude with asymmetric forms and interrupted lines. Her compositional theory is not based on mathematics, but rather follows musical epistemology with its concepts of atonality, counterpoint and harmony.

Unlike concrete art, Mader’s works are never flat and two-dimensional; on the contrary she excels in creating depth and density with colour fields and lines, playing both with our perceptions and our expectations.

Marisa Ferreira (b. 1983 in Portugal), also works with colour and space, yet her use of geometry is entirely mathematical. In fact the artist makes use of highly sophisticated mathematical calculations to render the patterns and forms that constitute her ‘algorithmic’ work. As such it avoids art historical references and has little to do with either concrete or Op art. Ferreira has a scientific approach and rejects illusion as a trick, but rather relies on the effects of contrasting colour and mathematical variation.

Ferreira builds her compositions after careful research, constructing reliefs from painted wood blocks. Rather than creating an illusion of perception – in the mind of the beholder – her work forces the viewer to become conscious of his or her presence in the space, as the works never have a neutral point of view. Depending on the viewers’ position the work will change its pattern and colours, activating the space, altering the experience of it. Marisa Ferreira makes us aware of our own subjectivity, as two people viewing the same painting and at the same time can have a completely opposite experience – where one sees blue the other sees red. This social implication takes Ferreira’s works out of the purely scientific world and into the cultural sphere.

It is the diametrically opposed artistic methods between Susanne Kathlen Mader and Marisa Ferreira that make their encounter unexpectedly fruitful. Together they show us the urgency of geometric abstract art and the strength of their conceptual approach to painting. The exhibition at BOA may not be collaboration in the strictest sense, yet it proves that artistic encounters can enrich the individual practise as well as the exhibition visitor’s understanding.

Joakim Borda-Pedreira is a curator and critic based in Oslo and Tromsø. He is currently Head Curator at The Arts Festival of North Norway and Gallery Director of The Boiler Room, Oslo. Apart from contributing to a dozen international catalogues and artist monographs, he has published widely in Scandinavian magazines and newspapers, and was Art Editor of Plaza Magazine International from 2008-2011.

Fall into colour
On the art of Susanne Kathlen Mader

written by Johanne Nordby Wernø

Contemporary art is rife with references to the visual language of Modernism, but the level of commitment and consequence varies. For Susanne Kathlen Mader the relation is a profound one; she claims to «live with Modernism» like she lives with her own personal history. The latest series from Mader´s is one of large scale, confident wall installations. In works like Recinto and Piston (2010) geometrical forms give away a Constructivist influence; the frozen movement in the painted lines and curves, and the joints and levers of the sculptural elements, may hint to Futurism.
The vigorous use of colour, however, is just as much reminiscent of the 1980s – or of 2010. And for years it is colour that has been at the core of this artistic output. The colours in Mader's work do not carry any emotional or symbolic meaning, nor do the works have any relation to personal sentiments. Instead she investigates the reciprocal influence that colours, forms and space exert over one another – and over us, the audience, who experience them in a both visually and bodily way. Early theatre studies provided her with a fascination for the stage as it appears right before the actors’ moment of entry: how does the human presence break up the tension of the empty space? In her paintings from this period, the human figure still has a place; it was later expelled and would never return. It is colour that is Mader´s true protagonist.
At the same time her paintings moved towards the more simplified and abstract. Having played with impressionism and embraced expressionistic touches, her canvases now became gradually more severe, and thereby accomplished a new kind of charge: that of clean, geometric fields of colour. «To fall into colour is to run out of words», according to David Batchelor (1) ; in the Western history of art and culture, colour has been both suppressed and feared, but simultaneously it is strong and independent enough to elude a comprehensive verbal equivalent. When Mader’s fields and lines started «peeling off of the wall» and into the room as brightly coloured sculptures in painted wood around the late nineties, it might not have been a coincidence that several of them took the shapes precisely of abstracted letters (XL, 1999; PR, 2000-01).
As of this series, the third dimension had claimed the central place it still holds in Mader’s production today. In her new wall installations (2010), small, monochrome sculptural elements appear on top of site specific wall paintings. Like industrial components or tools for unknown purposes, the bright orange objects wittily comment on our urge to always want to spot a use value when encountering new things.

Johanne Nordby Wernø

(1) In «Chromophobia», Reaktion Books (London), 2000, p. 85


On Concrete Art in a Post-postmodern Era
written by Aage Langhelle

In 1920, when Kasimir Malevich painted Black Square on White, he invented a new artistic practice in which art would no longer be referential. In 1930 the term ”concrete art” is first used in connection with the art of the Dutch de Stijl movement, which doesn’t reproduce concrete objects directly from reality. The artwork’s primary aesthetical means are line, colour and geometrical form that produce rhythm and balance, dimension and space.

Some might certainly argue that no art can be found that is not concrete. Others, such as the American artist Joseph Kosuth, insist that even a thought can be art. I won’t follow up this topic - I only mention it to demonstrate a point: how relative definition of terms can be. But the definition of terms aside, it is first of all necessary to define one’s position in the art-world deliberately before creating art objects or taking part in this discursive artistic area.
Mader’s position refers to Constructivism, Concretism and Minimalism. The overriding goal of artists who worked in this tradition was to create immanent art. They took on God’s position and created objects that were meant to be as natural as nature itself. And any form of representation was categorically rejected.

The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in a way a landscape - not its picture is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals
Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitch, Partisan Review, 1939.

For me, Mader’s pictures are like sounds or sound ensembles, or like forms in a geometrical ”nature”. They don’t impart a symbolic or psychological content; they seek ways of communication with me directly as viewer. A personal encounter with colours in a spatially dynamic interaction. Additionally, I think of Mader’s artistic practice as being an examination of the existence of colour and its effect in space.

The ideological concept on which this artistic tradition is based was largely developed during the modernistic era. To a great extent, a modernistic/concrete piece of art became an evocation of modernity. A work of ”concrete art” created today could be regarded as a re-presentation of modernism. This, of course, dishonours the original intention of creating immanent art, because the very idea of an immanent art no longer has the same validity as it did during its early stages, after passing through the deconstruction of the authentic throughout the post-modern era.
Certainly, Mader’s art can be regarded as a meta-modernistic commentary – and whether this was her intention or not. For me, however, this aspect is not the most interesting – not after viewing countless ”post-modern” works in the art-scene at the end of the last century. Instead, the question araises as to whether or not we should now remove this theoretical corset and allow Mader’s work to speak its own language, and I ask this while modestly hoping that the authentic, immanent work hasn’t totally dissolved in the acid bath of post-modernism.

Aage Langhelle