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The Inner Light or the Expression of Color

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Key takeaways

1. The exhibition brings together six artists from different backgrounds, highlighting the ongoing significance of light and color in contemporary art

2. Featuring works by Miriam Cahn, Helen Frankenthaler, Leiko Ikemura, Martha Jungwirth, Michael Müller, and Maximilian Rödel

Galerie du Monde presents the group exhibition The Inner Light and the Expression of Color curated by Philipp Bollmann, on view from 14 September to 28 October 2023. The exhibition places six artists of different generations and origins in dialogue — Miriam Cahn, Helen Frankenthaler, Leiko Ikemura, Martha Jungwirth, Michael Müller, and Maximilian Rödel.

A highlight of the exhibition is Helen Frankenthaler’s masterpiece Off White Square (1973) — one of the largest paintings Frankenthaler ever made, and its exhibition debut in Asia. This monumental painting exemplifies the highly expressive body of work that Frankenthaler produced during her transition from gestural abstraction to color field painting, featuring the expanses of pure color and her signature use of diluted paint.

"Off White Square shows her at the top of her game, pouring, painting, and drawing with complete confidence. She surely had a hot hand, trusted her instincts, and went for broke." – Dr. Douglas Dreishpoon, Director of the Catalogue Raisonné project at the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.

Curatorial Statement by Philipp Bollmann

A complete history of Western art could be told about the representation of light in painting and its significance. Starting with the story of creation, light plays a central role in Christian visual culture and thought. Artists at all times have thematized light or made their works shine through a variety of methods, and attributable to different motivations. While medieval painting knew neither light sources nor realistic shadows and its light was primarily an expression of the sacred, light became a dramaturgical element in Baroque art. In the wake of the Enlightenment, secular thinking spread, which led to the symbolism of light developing into a moral category — away from the idea of a divine presence.

In the mid-19th century, the British painter William Turner revolutionized painting by dissolving representational forms into light and color, thus not only anticipating Impressionism but also preparing the ground for abstraction. The art of the 20th century represents a radical break in many areas, but light remained essential and had an even greater influence on artistic production, becoming a theme in itself for many artists.

The exhibition The Inner Light or the Expression of Color places six artists of different generations and origins in a dialogue that on the one hand celebrates the radiance of color, and on the other hand aims to point out how immanent the glow and light still are for contemporary art. While light in painting can rather be characterized as a bright-dark contrast, luminescence describes an atmosphere evoked by color accents. To link these two related but nevertheless different aspects, the exhibition title suggests the term "inner light". The title also aims to recall Mark Rothko, who used this term to describe the effect of his abstract paintings.

But whereas for Rothko the distinction between abstraction and figuration was still ideologically motivated, the exhibited works indicate that this separation seems to make little sense today. Art is about finding form. Artists find form through composition. Composition arises through formal structure or through contrasts. Contrasts are created through color. In this, Miriam Cahn's work — which could be described as representational — does not differ from that of Martha Jungwirth, Michael Müller, Maximilian Rödel or Helen Frankenthaler.

The works by Leiko Ikemura, however, occupy a special position in the exhibition, as they are sculptures made of glass. The transparency of the glass and its ability to refract light make the works literally shine from within themselves. The colored light that radiates from the works into their surroundings leaves the material boundaries of the sculptures and expands them to a dimension of immateriality. They are surrounded by an auratic glow that could be described as dignified.

Miriam Cahn achieves something similar with the means of painting. Her painting Schauen (Look) (2015), which is featured in the exhibition, portrays a human-like being in shades of red, appearing ghostly against a monochrome yellow background. The strong red contours of the figure repeatedly dissolve into whitepink sections that blur softly with the background. The partially very thin application of paint also gives the yellow of the primer the opportunity to shine through the figure. This creates a colorful light figure that — in connection with the artist's ability to visualize emotions — meets us as a complex psychological being.

The lucid use of color is also one of Maximilian Rödel's techniques to lend his paintings a luminosity. On the pictorial surface, which are predominantly located in the color spectrum of magenta and violet, clouds and shadows in delicate countercoloring and an indistinguishable alternation of slightly divergent color temperatures appear in floating progressions. On the one hand, his works are color and sensory spaces that are unmistakably linked to exemplars of color field painting, but on the other hand they are also representations of the unrepresentable, as the title of the series reveals: Prehistoric Sunset. Thus, the works refer to an indeterminate prehistoric time, which we can only access by means of our thoughts.

A particular highlight of this exhibition is the painting Off White Square (1973) by the American painter Helen Frankenthaler, who played a key role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to color field painting in the 1950s. With the "soak-stain technique" she developed and also applied in the exhibited work, she expanded the possibilities of abstraction. By no longer using oil paint thickly and opaquely, but thinning it with turpentine, Frankenthaler allowed the paint to be poured onto the unprimed canvas lying on the floor, where it dispersed — subjecting itself to chance. The colors that flowed into each other in this way mixed on the canvas, darkening or brightening each other and creating new hues. Frankenthaler's paintings are characterized by the fact that they always evoke associations with landscapes. However, it is not nature that she intends to depict. Her paintings bear witness to the endeavor to offer an abstract projection surface that embodies an idea of landscape, which in turn can only be experienced as such through light and shadow.

It is this intermediate area between the recognizable and the abstract that also interests Martha Jungwirth. Her work Ohne Titel (Tulpenstrauß) (Untitled (Bouquet of Tulips)) (2022) is from the series "Witches' Flight", which — as can be clearly discerned in the exhibited work — refers to Francisco de Goya's painting Witches' Flight (1797/1798). Goya paints three witch-like creatures floating in the air, carrying a man up in their arms. The flying group is brightly illuminated by a light source outside the picture. Jungwirth leaves the allconsuming black of the night untreated. Her background remains an undone beige-brown cardboard. In the center of the picture, where the illuminated scene takes place, luminous colors pour out in Martha Jungwirth's work, which she contrasts with some scattered splashes of dark violet. However, the luminosity in the center, the undefined background and the similarity of the ring composition are enough to connect the two works.

The energy process derived directly from the physical, which characterizes Jungwirth's painting style, is also encountered in Michael Müller's work William went swimming at the river Nile, but he lost his nose (2021-2023). His exhibited work of gestural painting is purely committed to color and light. The artist creates the luminosity of the painting through a very complex color construction. Underlying layers of paint determine the final effect of appearance. The light pink-purple coloring in the left-hand center of the painting owes this effect to the delicate cream-colored undercoatings underneath. The opposite of this is the petrollike paintwork on the right side of the picture, whose luminosity is absorbed by a dark undertone. In the interplay of these different color structures, the painting creates an enormous effect of depth. The work can be interpreted as a reflection on the effects of color and light in the medium of painting.