The Tomma Abts show at the Serpentine Sackler marks another step forward in reputation for this German-born but British-resident painter, who has lived and worked in London since 1995, and who won the Turner Prize in 2006. Despite this notable success, Abts has remained somewhat under the radar here in London. This exhibition is her first solo at any UK public institution, though, as acknowledgements in the Serpentine Sackler catalogue demonstrate, her work is liked by an international spectrum of private collectors. Abts is not young – she was born in 1964. Her reputation has been one of slow but steady growth.
‘Tomma Abts work tells us that abstraction in art is no big deal’ – ELS
Looking around the walls, it is easy to see why this is so. The paintings – there are also some wall-reliefs reliefs based on them – are nearly all quite small. Abts usually works to just one format, 48 x 38 cm. Quite sparsely hung at regular intervals along the gallery’s white walls, you have to step up close to examine them. These are civilised, unassertive works that would fit very well into any kind of domestic setting. Even the hues are quiet. These are things that whisper to you, rather than shout at you. They would be completely lost in the hurly-burly of the Royal Academy’s current 250th-anniversary exhibition. In fact, it is not going too far to say that this is art that deliberately avoids having any kind of public presence.
Given the context – what’s on elsewhere in London – it is hard to avoid making a comparison with another painter who swam against the prevailing current: Howard Hodgkin’s late works, on view at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill. Hodgkin’s chosen formats were often just as small as those adopted by Abts. I was left wondering why her paintings consistently work well for me, while dinky little Hodgkin abstracts almost invariably don’t.
The information one gets about the kind of creative methods adopted by these two painters seem to indicate that their respective works, though very different in appearance, have evolved in rather similar ways. In both cases the process was, one is informed, open-ended. The artist did not begin by envisaging a specific, pre-planned result. What one now sees on the painted surface was a thing of slow growth, which gradually acquired a life of its own.
The difference, it seems to me, is that Abts’ small compositions look constructed, while Hodgkin’s small late paintings resist any interpretation of that kind. In his case, the message conveyed by the abstract swooshes and splotches is a constant assertion of the delicacy of the artist’s sensibility. In the end, you rebel, and think “Stop muttering to yourself – you’ve got to give me a bit more than this’.
The fact is that purely abstract art – art which refuses any hint of representation, which exists on being looked at without reference to the contingent world of things – is currently very much under challenge. This, after its victory, seemed, not so long ago, complete.
In recent memory, for example, criticism blanked out the political content of American Abstract Expressionism. The way in which it offered a completely different view of the world from Communist Socialist Realism – one in which the individual movements of the psyche challenged the collective will.
After this came a different kind of abstraction – the Minimalism which offered a critique of Pop Art. “Our willed banality,” the Minimalists asserted, “is intellectually superior to the vulgar banality of Pop.”
Abts does not make assertions of this kind. Her work tells us that abstraction in art is no big deal. It offers pleasure by asking us to take part in a delicate dance of colours and shapes. Each painting is a small world, independent in its own right. One sign of this, not I think noted in other commentaries I’ve seen about her work, is the frequent presence of a third dimension. The forms seem to dance, independent of the ground against which they have been placed. This is not Op Art, in any crudely specific sense, but it subtly shifts and moves as you look, then look again. That’s enough to keep you coming back.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2018