Hans Hartung, T1983-E20, 1983, Acrylic on canvas, 55 7/8 x 70 7/8 inches
Hans Hartung was born in 1904 in Leipzig Germany; he died in 1989 in Antibes in the south of France.
I recently had the pleasure of a studio visit by friend and peer David Ebony. Besides giving advice about my work, he suggested a few shows and artists to see, including Hans Hartung whom I had not heard of. His show “Hans Hartung, a Constant Storm,” was just up at Perrotin Gallery in New York’s Lower East Side through February 2018. I’m sorry if you missed it.
My first thought in the gallery was – this guy is around my age, living here in NYC with me. The first painting you encounter feels like it’s from the 80s, which makes sense considering how “in” the 80s are right now. (Maybe the most unique and creative of the decades I’ve lived through.) And it is from the 80s, but I was surprised to discover that Hartung was a German guy born in wartime Germany who died in the 80s, because his work is so relevant to now. Although the deeper I went into the show the more I felt his European mid-century sensibility. Polke, Kiefer, Kippenberger and Ritcher – I saw aspects of each of these artists. I’ve entered deeply into the work of each of them in recent years, trying my best to be like them and, thankfully, failing every time.
But with Hartung it felt different. He did what I am currently trying to do. This is a strange feeling to have. I was envious and inspired at the same time; he has painted in exactly the aesthetic that I aspire to (right now anyway). He has managed to make paint the element and the moment of inspiration, captured like a camera captures light — a moment frozen in time. He was able to make paintings that transcend the “painting” and become windows into spiritual realms and infinite voids. I want my own work to be like a trip, where the epiphany is always just out of reach or on the tip of one’s tongue. Hans Hartung is allowing me to float effortlessly in that moment with utter contentment.
The painting above titled T1983-E20 is the perfect middle way between abstraction and representation. It is not clear whether the blue is engulfing the black or the black is slowly emerging from the blue. It sucks the viewer in – eerie, intimidating, and beautiful, fearsome and commanding respect, breathing, pulsing and creaking. Neither good nor evil; it just is.
To me, this isn’t pure abstraction (existing free of reference from the visual world). Have you ever watched photographic paper develop in a darkroom tray? It’s truly magic. T1983-E20 could be likened to this chemical process. It is sublime and alchemical but its presence is physical so you have to believe what you see. T1983-E20 is not abstraction, it’s micro representation. Or it’s an “inscape,” depicting a state of being.
Hans Hartung, T1985-H10, 1985, acrylic on canvas 44 7/8” x 57 1/2 inches
Hans used a variety of mediums. The work above was made with acrylic paint and a spray gun. Acrylic for me feels modern and almost futuristic especially in the way Hans used it (in spray form), which is popular in painting today. The surface is slick like plastic and has a kind of strange three dimensionality to it. Color gradients fade, rain, and shine rather than starting and stopping like a line or blending, scumbling and glazing like oil paint on a brush. The surface feels organic, otherworldly and somehow artificial at the same time. Moving closer to the painting’s surface one feels like a God hovering over lunar, cosmic deserts.
I think of Hartung’s work like a camera. The canvas is the film; his paint is the light falling and being captured by chemical reactions. These paintings capture the act of creation and are, for me, monuments or evidence of the sublime.
Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists were also trying to access the sublime. Hartung, however, feels relevant whereas the American Abstract Expressionists are firmly in the past. Though, in his lifetime, Hans was overshadowed by the Americans.
It is almost impossible to look at just one of Hartung’s paintings in isolation. The way I think of it, he has made one painting in his life, composed of many different canvases. I relate because I feel my work should be viewed from a similarly zoomed out vantage point.
Hans Hartung, T1962-L48, 1962, Vinylique on canvas, 39 1/2 x 63 3/4 inches
Hartung worked like a scientist, exploring light and shade through mark making. He used many different tools such as twigs, vacuum cleaners, sticks and cat hairs. As the son and grandson of physicians, Hartung was exposed to a scientific upbringing and almost from the beginning was painting abstractly. At fifteen he was painting gestural paintings twenty years before Pollock. He went on to study philosophy at Leipzig University. The titles of his work add to their scientific character. Radically, they’re named – or rather, labeled – with only the year and series number, which asserts their abstraction. Hartung refused to give his works figurative titles in order to allow the imagination to run free. One can imagine that Hartung would have had an archive of each image labeled clearly by date and number in order to be able to scan back through years of paintings and, no doubt, thousands of sketches and experiments. We can see in T1962-L48 Hans has scratched into the paint to expose the under layers. I can’t help but think of the large Hadron collider in Switzerland and the images taken from the atoms being smashed into one another in order to reveal the secrets of the universe.
Image from the Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra of different particles being smashed into one another to recreate the conditions before the big bang.
Hans Hartung, L-14B-1974, 1974, Lithograph on BFK Reve Paper, 41 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches
In trawling through images of Hartung’s works online after the exhibition, I came across this lithograph, which shook me to my core. I was riveted. Its geometry and composition, limited pallet, repetition, and mirroring of shape push all my buttons. This image is an apparent anomaly in his practice. It seems not to be directly associated with his other work, other than the middle black gestures. But it does reflect his interest in photography. What is the shape on the right hand side? The black and white coloring and its photonegative quality remind me of a slide of a Brancusi or Egyptian sculpture. It seems that it has been pushed off the screen by its reflections on the left. The black gesture in the center mirrors the shape but is simplified and stripped down to what feels like Hartung’s quick, organic, and almost trance-like gestures. It is perfectly aligned with the alien human godhead shape before us. One more step to the left, and we are flooded by this darkroom red in which another strange gesture mirrors its neighboring forms. It is articulate and defined by its marks, which suggest the chemicals used in the process of developing a photo or lithograph. Hartung probably used some kind of squeegee tool to produce this mark in one fluid gesture, which must have taken a just seconds. This piece feels like a meditation and examination on mark making. It is related to Hartung’s visual index of paintings that allows him to refer back what’s come before, like a dictionary or cookbook, in that moment of creative flux. This lithograph feels like a key or a map stripped down for the viewer to gain greater access to this great artist.
Tom Levy, With and Without You, 2017, Oil on canvas, 36 x 60 inches
Tom Levy was born 1987 In the United Kingdom, gradated with degrees from Goldsmiths University of London and the New York Academy of Art. He lived in Cyprus for two years, now he lives and works in New York city, goes on the occasional bike ride.