Georg Karl Pfahler Retrospective At Maria Stenfors


Exhibition devoted to Georg Karl Pfahler, the German representative of ‘Hard-Edge Painting’ – a style popularised by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella

Six large paintings make up this small but focused exhibition of the work of artist Georg Karl Pfahler. The works on show date from between 1964 and 1981, a period during which Pfahler was known as the only German representative of ‘Hard-Edge Painting’ – an approach that had its origins in late 50s California, and became widespread in the 1960s, popularised by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella.

Pfahler’s canvases are divided up into simple interlocked geometric shapes, flatly painted with solid colour. In several of the works this process of breaking up the surface with planes of colour appears to follow some set of rules. We can see recurring forms and a seemingly shared technique of construction – with frames that clasp around rectangular elements, which are further broken up into triangles, chamfered, or have their corners ‘polished’ into tight curves. Equiluminant colours are used either to dissolve spatial boundaries (as in Warschau-Zyklus Nr. 1BB), make them hum quietly (as in Espan Nr. 69/b), or quiver painfully (as in DA – OBG). In this, there is a spectrum of ‘hard-edgedness’ within the artist’s work. Not only are colours often used to interrupt the gestalt simplicity, rather than enhancing it, but the way the paint is put on is, furthermore, not always so sharp or flat. Sometimes we can see smudges that merge the paint across a border, left-over construction lines showing through, the occasional drip, an intense speck of misplaced paint, or the overlap of thinly applied glazes. So the dense blank surfaces are carefully built up in a painterly process occasionally revealed in a thin ‘brushy’ edge. 

The paintings operate, then, at two scales: the ‘zoomed-out’ scale of bold, crisp construction, intended to have a concrete power – where paint is uniform and flat, without materiality; and the ‘zoomed-in’ scale of minute defects, flecks, drips, and ‘brushy’ marks, where the paint reveals its material quality, its thickness and texture. All the ingredients are there for a tense, vibrating play between the paintings’ two levels… or so it would seem.

Somehow the spark of life has eluded these creations. The geometric forms seem flaccid when combined, the painterly details just too slight, and the overall effect somehow hollow. The work never takes off. All that remains is the bald fact that it is there – some paint on a canvas. But perhaps (one is left wondering) this lack of fulfilment was Pfahler’s intention all along: a perverse and frustrating exercise in a kind of coitus interruptus? You decide…Words Laurence Lumley © 2011 ArtLyst

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