Rupert Walser: Text zur Austellung 2006
Drawings in the Subjunctive Mood
Drawing is classically defined as a linear art. Delineating forms, a drawing is a symbol representing a given reality - a symbol with a more or less clearly defined significance. Thus it is not surprising that in cultural history drawings came to be regarded as a symbol of rationalism, whose governing principle corresponded to the Cartesian ideal of "clare et distincte".
Our century has witnessed not only growing doubts with regard to Cartesianism, but also the dissolution of traditional art genres and categories. Baumkoetter's drawings are a good example of works of art which transcend the boundaries staked out by conventional classifications. As they are not really based on linear structures, they do not conform to the classical definition of a drawing. They do not offer the eye a spatial focal point, much less do they give an impression of a potential three-dimensional and tangible body. In some of his works pencil lines appear alongside the dominant pastel traces, but they remain modestly in the background, never determining the nature of the drawings. Stefan Baumkoetter's drawings do not depict anything, nor do they awaken associations with any external references. They are what they are - no more and no less.
The fact that Baumkoetter's drawings are divorced from linearity, does not mean that they automatically and unequivocally fall into another category of art. At a first and superficial glance they appear to be reminiscent of water-colour paintings - an impression which is heightened by the filter-effect of the protective glass. But upon closer inspection you realize that colours - the classic antipodes of lines - do not play a dominant role in them either. Let us now try a more technical approach. Although it is frequently difficult to recognize, Baumkoetter's drawings are lastly the result of traditional drawing techniques (the conventional sweep of the hand). Baumkoetter does not use other materials or utensils such as water or brushes etc.. Let us thus continue to call these works "drawings", which, after all, is the definition the author himself proposes.
We can be sure that in these comparatively recent works (the earliest dating from the mid 90s) Stefan Baumkoetter was mainly concerned not with triggering off a discussion on genres and categories in art, but with the issue of visibility and its significance - which is also the common denominator of his drawings and his paintings. Nevertheless, pondering the question of classifications in art is not mere hair-splitting. For the experience of recognizing the limits of thinking in categories, i.e. the inadequacy of verbal speech in connection with Baumkoetter's drawings, decisively characterizes these creations. It also means that this type of drawing is no longer related to the written word and that thus any verbal approach to these works must convey their distinctiveness.
The artist expresses this realization by not giving his drawings names. And although "untitled" works are the rule rather than the exception in contemporary art, the lack of titles seems to be particularly apt and appropriate in view of the extreme non-conceptuality of Baumkoetter's drawings.
But it is not only the inadequacy of the spoken or written word which one comes up against when trying to describe Stephan Baumkoetter's drawings. One is also daunted by the absence of anything which one could put into words. For what makes it so difficult to describe these drawings is the fact that the viewer invariably perceives them as an ephemeral "apparition": they embody the opposite of solidity or immutability, conveying instead an impression of transitoriness and evanescence. It is impossible to isolate any individual element. And an element which you cannot single out, does not become tangible and thus describable but remains merely "circumscribable". In other words it is inadmissible to speak of "elements" in the classic sense in connection with Baumkoetter's drawings.
Additionally, there is the varying visual character of the individual drawings, which, even in the course of an analytical examination, may at best be combined into open groups. Concentrating on the altogether sparse structuring, you can make out at least three different groups. Whereas some drawings display only a small number of tracings and even border on figurativeness, others are characterized by numerous spots and smudges which sometimes condense into patches more or less evenly distributed over the rectangular sheet of drawing paper. In yet another group of works several traces are again discernible, but large spaces in the centre of the sheet remain empty. (Other possibilities of an heuristic grouping - based, for example, on technical details or on the hues of the pastels - are imaginable.)
Taking into consideration the composition of the indivÌdual drawings, it becomes evident that Baumkoetter's highly economical and reticent tracings are coupled with a purposeful emptiness, which draws its visual productivity from the relation between the unworked (i.e. empty) spaces and the (sometimes only hinted at) pastel applications. In this connection, the difference between a painting and a drawing is that in a drawing these empty spaces need not be specifically created. A painter has to create this productive vagueness by applying paint also to those spaces which are to appear empty, whereas in a drawing it is inherent in the innocence of the blank white paper. Keenly aware of this special feature of the medium of the drawing Stephan Baumkoetter makes the most of the fact that every trace on the paper also redefines the background surface; the water-colours by Paul CÈzanne, by the way, are a striking example of such an approach adopted in early modern art.
A creative approach of this kind obviously involves the risk of failure, since in a drawing, unlike in painting, there is no opportunity for corrections. Thus not every one of Baumkoetter's attempts is successful. Selection, i.e. deciding which drawing qualifies as a work of art, is therefore very much a part of the artistic process.
Even if you carefully study the individual drawings, it is hard to formulate what their structures actually reveal. Sometimes fingerprints are discernible, but they are seldom easy to decipher; for in other parts of the same drawing - where they were presumably created in the same manner - they tend to blend with the slightly darker or faintly-hued nebulous spots. As the intensity of these seemingly immaterial traces also varies, the beholder frequently "suspects" even the white (i.e. empty ) spaces on the paper of having been worked on. In other words one can only speak of a continuous transition between visibility and a vanishing into invisibility.
The same is true of the coloured sections of his drawings, in as far as they actually display different colour gradations. Frequently the nebulous concentrations - perceived as being darker than the white paper - feature different colours (for example red and blue or green and grey), which merge with each other, or, more accurately, melt into the white background of the paper. Drawings which one can readily describe as "orange" or "green" are rare; in fact, speaking of colours in connection with Baumkoetter's drawings is misleading; for any colours appearing alongside the shades of gray of the pencil lines are merely hinted at.
Let us for a momemt interrupt our contemplation of Baumkoetter's drawings, to try to localize the artist's approach more precisely in relation to the obervations already made. Taking colour as a criterion, the basic difference between Baumkoetter's drawings and CÈzanne's water-colours becomes evident. The latter are based on a purely colorist approach, whereas Baumkoetter's works are concerned primarily with the visual depiction of light. In connection with this comparison, we can refer to the following ideal type theory: positions emphasizing the aspect of colour normally reflect the possibilities of painting, whereas approaches concentrating on the luminosity of colour represent a reflection on visibility. The latter undoubtedly applies to Baumkoetter's works.
Let us compare Baumkoetter's works with those of a contemporary artist for a change. In his tinted drawings Gotthard Graubner also plays with light. But in his case luminosity originates exclusively out of colour. Besides, the nebulous spots in Graubner's works form dense concentrations and overlap, whereas in Baumkoetter's drawings they result out of the interplay of empty spaces and the scanty pencilled lines and pastel traces.
How difficult it is to make comparisons in the field of drawings has already been intimated. The theme "light" and the related question of visibility have rarely been investigated systematically by art historians. An attempt to do so (which is not feasible within the scope of this commentary) would have to include a study of the works not only of Baumkoetter but also of artists such as Antonio Calderara, Giorgio Morandi, Rudolf de Crignis, IngÛlfur Arnarsson, Bruno Erdmann, Raimund Girke and Gerhard Wittner.
Summing up the observations concerning colour made in connection with Baumkoetter's drawings, one can say that the sparingly applied traces of pencil and pastel are relics of a process of disappearing or appearing.
An analysis of Baumkoetter's works on the basis of possible spatial aspects yields similar observations. Since in non-figurative works criteria are distilled out of a comparison of elements of the same type but of varying size, a perspective and spatial approach to some drawings would appear to be the obvious choice of procedure. But the large open or empty spaces, as well as the frequently misty nature of the smudged traces do not permit the beholder to perceive a stable spatial structure spanning the entire sheet. He is left with a vague impression of fragmentary spatial structures which are particularly conspicuous where pencil and pastel traces meet. The ephemeral spatial realms Baumkoetter creates are realms of vision - spaces through which only the eye can travel.
In other words, Baumkoetter's drawings possess a constitutional openness; they are in the process of emerging. Never do they appear to be truly completed; they always retain a visual development potential. Whereas verbal stories are based on a linear time sequence which is developed chronologically, the temporal directions in Baumkoetter's works are varied and variable. Having this quality in common, both Baumkoetter's drawings as well as his paintings elude memory. His works "are" not, they "are coming into being". This may be true of many good works of art, but the already mentioned experiencing of visual evanescence is not merely one of many characteristics, but the decisive characteristic of Baumkoetter's works. His drawings exist only in their momentary visibility.
In this sense Baumkoetter's drawings are spaces where what is visible becomes invisible and vice versa; it is impossible to say in which direction this process is progressing. What at first glance appears to be a mode of reduction, on closer inspection turns out to be a visual development. Thus we are justified in speaking of "drawings in the subjunctive mode" - normally a nonsensical description which, however, is singularly apt in this context and particularly in view of the traditional definition of this genre.
The remarks and comments made so far must be seen as the result of a patient and, above all, active behaviour on the part of the viewer. They presuppose a profound immersion in the work and a private and almost intimate relationship between the recipient and the drawings, which is, of course, diametrically opposed to the common, superficial "consumption" of art. Baumkoetter's drawings do not clamour for attention. On the contrary. They are retiring and unobtrusive. Only if the viewer looks at them closely and without haste can they fully develop their quiet potential. This calm and casual nonchalance is underlined by the fact that the artist does not bother to conceal the origin of the sheets of paper. They have been carelessly ripped off an old-fashioned sketch pad (measuring 24x17 centimetres) with a spiral binding. The ragged upper edge refers eloquently to both the creative process as well as to the origins of the material, i.e. mass-production, which in turn hints at many further works to come.
Baumkoetter says that his drawings have a diary-like character. What they have in common with a conventional diary and its contents is the individuality of each page; a singular, non-repeatable significance culled from a multitude of unpremeditable and unplanable possibilities which are captured spontaneously . Unlike a diary, neither the entire collection of drawings, nor even a single group of drawings displays a chronological continuity which would link the individual works to form an obvious and logical sequence. Accordingly, the dates inscribed on the back of each drawing refer only to the year of creation.
One must not make the mistake of seeing Baumkoetter's drawings as examples of artistic self-expression. Traces which seem to point towards a process of creation, in the next moment dissolve before one's startled gaze. Any attempt to reconstruct an artistic action remains a tenuous vision that the beholder can elaborate on at will, but without ever attaining the least degree of certainty as to the validity of his imaginings. On the other hand, the artist - retreating behind his creations - is perceivable only as a vague intimation. The drawings appear to emerge and take shape of their own volition. Due to this very quality they embody a subjunctive mode, i.e.the "possibility" of the existence of the visible and the invisible. There is no question that such contents "may be" significant in a non-aesthetic context as well. What "will be" - that is a different question.