Appearance and Reality. Paintings by Norbert Frensch
Appearance and Reality. Thoughts in Front of Paintings by Norbert Frensch
Two very large paintings by Norbert Frensch hang side-by-side on a wall at Museum DKM. Emerging from their glossy black surfaces are two forms, a somewhat more prominent convex shape and a somewhat less emphasized concave dip, highlighted to varying degrees by a graduated brightness. The convex shape, which appears closer, and the concave bear a relationship to one another and optically come to form the image of a thin, lightweight bowl that reflects light; in other words, a bowl made of metal. And that is precisely what is described. A small, aluminum bowl in a cardboard container stands in the artist’s studio: the painter’s model and object for studies with various lighting situations and from various angles. Yet the paintings offer more than just representations of the model; they are also an autonomous form of expression. Although the convex and concave stand in sharp relief to the complete, abysmal black flooding the entire picture plane, they also dissolve in the finest gradients. The upper edge of the convex and concave forms fuse together to form the virtual oval of the bowl’s edge, but one that is not completely articulated and is never completely visible.
The convex and concave elements are suspended in black like sound and echo. The paintings oscillate between evoked object and absolute form. “Norbert Frensch’s painting,” as Annette Reich observes, “exudes a magnetism that is difficult to escape. His paintings exist in the liminal zone between materiality and immateriality, appearance and disappearance, presence and absence. It is not a question of figurative or abstract modes of representation; the artist is much more concerned with a subtly-deployed distribution of light kept separate from material, form, and space. The real point of departure is transcended, perception elevated to become the real subject of the picture.”
Norbert Frensch (b. 1960 in Mainz, studied 1980/86 at the University of Fine Arts, Hamburg) has been painting his «black paintings» since 1992, depicting infinite variations of the same object in formats from 25 x 31 cm to 190 x 240 cm, from various perspectives and in variable light. The always-the-same becomes always-new. Perception combines the forms that the eye perceives with memories from what has been seen in the past, and with the psyche’s emotional values. The container is not visible in its entirety. The dissolution of edges to the left and right create a mystery enhanced by the fact that the contents of the vessel are never revealed. It can therefore be presumed that vessel is empty. But what does the void contain? Every vessel holds silence and meditation, is a container of magical power, a Grail. With these paintings of the bowl highlighted with light from total black, Frensch—unique in contemporary art—is a late descendant in a great tradition of chiaroscuro, the last caravaggesco. Meanwhile, the high-level abstraction in his painting also calls to mind the work of Georges de La Tour.
As Reich notes in a precise description of the artist’s production process, “Norbert Frensch paints his «black paintings», with oil and resin on canvas. First, he primes the canvas with a constructive painting procedure in several layers of white latex paint. After that comes a red undercoat using dispersion paint, a priming method comparable to that of medieval panels. From there Frensch develops the image, applying it in black and white oil paint with a paintbrush. This is to prevent the oil painting from sinking into the primer too quickly. […] Then the artist covers the entire canvas with a viscous, black paint mass consisting of oil paint and resin. This glaze is painted thickly at the upper edge of the picture and runs straight down, spreading evenly from top to bottom and across the entire area of the picture, due to its being positioned at an angle. The crucial factor in finishing the painting is the removal of the paint with a dry brush until the underpainting reappears and partially reveals the painting’s structure.”
Hanging on the wall across from the two «black paintings» is one of the so-called «grey paintings» that the artist has created since 2004 and «in which Frensch continues to represent spatial perceptual phenomena.” It consists of a two-part, 190 x 380 cm canvas. Regular, fine graduations from grey-black emerge as horizontal waves. The suggestion of dimensional, outward swing with a semicircular crest, of ebbing with a semicircular trough, is so strong that many viewers look to the painting’s left or right edge to ensure that the surging of the waves is in fact an illusion on the picture plane. The attentive observer will not fail to notice that the horizontal undulation is composed of narrow, vertical bands with a regular alternation of light and dark. Nor would they be able to overlook the fact that the change within the chiaroscuro is generated by a regular movement of the brush, the result of a back-and-forth hand gesture continuously extending from left to right. This is due to the fact that these «grey paintings» were not developed in the manner in which they are presented, but have been rotated 90° so that the apparently vertical bands, the structure-giving compositional elements, run horizontally. Cézanne also built his compositions on these kinds of bands containing gradations in color and/or tone, and in doing so managed to interweave the image space with the image area. André Lhote referred to these bands as «passages», connecting not only left to right, but also what is above and below them.
It is exactly this element of passages that Frensch utilizes in his «grey paintings», albeit with another, more rigid system. A visit to the artist’s studio in Frankfurt revealed, to our surprise, that the horizontal waves appear to change when the canvas is rotated 90° to the production position. Instead of waves formed by diametrically opposed semicircles, we see additional, juxtaposed, pipe-like forms, with convex semicircles appearing lined up with acute angles between them.
Reich notes that “as a title, Frensch chooses a sober combination of letters and numbers. The letters indicate cities in which the paintings were first exhibited or where they are about to be exhibited; H for Hamburg, for example, KL for Kaiserslautern or K for Cologne; then follows a continuous numeral and finally the year in which it was made. It is only when the paintings are exhibited for the first time that they are given their designation and signature.”
Norbert Frensch has been developing a new group of works based on his «gray paintings» since 2006. He covers the picture plane with a continuous gradient from dark to light in the middle, to dark below. It gives the impression of a broad, atmospheric space, a landscape space flooded with light. It was not lost on Annette Reich that these works by Norbert Frensch show an intrinsic affinity to the paintings of J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) and also recall Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea (1810).
Translation: Amy Patton
Annette Reich, “Von nächster Nähe zu unendlicher Ferne – Präsenz und Absenz in der Malerei von Norbert Frensch,” in Malerei / Painting – Schwarz und Grau / Black and Grey, catalogue for the exhibition at Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern, 12.05. –15.07.2007, Heidelberg 2007, cited: p. 11, 12–13, 18, 13, 19)