Susanne Kathlen Mader (* 1964 in Walsrode, Germany) has studied painting and graphics at University of Arts, Braunschweig, Germany, and holds a diploma and master of Fine Arts. In 1992, after her studies she moved to Grenoble, France. Coming from an expressionist figurative Nordic tradition her work becomes gradually freer and leaned towards abstract landscape subjects, influenced by the play of light and colours in the Southern climate. Colours and forms became the main protagonists in her research. A new phase started when Mader moved to Norway in 1998 where her art evolved towards geometric abstraction. At the same time she enlarged her field of work by three-dimensional technics and engaged herself in large-scale commission art projects in public spaces. In the later years she picked up again free drawing/ painting tying up to her expressionist past. Whatever technic or expression Mader uses, for her it is all about colour, form and space, balance and effectiveness.

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

Joakim Borda-Pedreira

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”. 1

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.” 2

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. 3

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. 4 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.

  1. Amédée Ozenfant & Charles-Edouard Jeannaret, “Purist Manifesto”, in Alex Danchev (ed.), 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists 2011.  

  2. Fabre, Gladys C., Electromagnetic: Modern Art in Northern Europe 1918–1931, 2013. p. 47. 

  3. Greenberg, Clement, “Modernistiskt måleri”, in Sven-Olov Wallenstein (ed.), Konsten och Konstbegreppet, 1996, p. 29.  

  4. Kwon, Miwon, ”One Place After Another. Notes on Site Specificity”, October 80, 1997.