The German artist Christiane Baumgartner has become famous for woodcuts in which she employs a system of carefully carved horizontal lines that taper and thicken in such a way that images coalesce: newspaper photographs, screenshots, frames of the artist’s own videos. Three European museums—the Centre de la Gravure et de l’Image imprimée (La Louvière, Belgium), the Museum Kunstpalast (Dusseldorf, Germany) and the Musée d’art et d’histoire (Geneva)—recently joined forces to put together a traveling retrospective1 and exhibition catalogue. With multiple essays at the front and an oeuvre catalogue of Baumgartner’s work at the back, it offers the first, much needed overview of this important artist.
The inclusion of the oeuvre catalogue performs a vital service, making readers aware of the breadth of Baumgartner’s practice—the drawings, videos and etchings in addition to the well-known woodcuts. In their essays the authors unite this diverse body of work under a single umbrella: the artist’s overarching concern with changing shades of resolution between representation and abstraction.
The five short essays (some perhaps too short) offer insight into distinct aspects of Baumgartner’s work: Christian Rümelin on structure, Catherine de Braekeleer on memory, Tobias Burg on lines, Thomas Oberender on abstraction and Helen Waters on movement. These essays are helpfully accompanied by large reproductions of many of the prints. (The thumbnail images in the oeuvre catalogue section are, in contrast, too small to convey very much.)
In his introductory essay, Christian Rümelin, who also acted as the book’s editor, concentrates on multiple levels of the work’s structure. He explains that, through surfaces and lines (and in earlier works, dots), Baumgartner has developed a whole structural system that depends on the viewer to resolve the image into an representational image. The subjects she chooses to represent—the airplane, the landscape, the explosion—all carry their own inherent structures, he notes. Competing and interacting with these is the structure of her representational strategy, the concatenation of horizontal lines. The interference that erupts between these sets of structures—moiré patterns for example—force the viewer to work hard to recognize the image, and working hard makes us think about the process of image recognition. Finally, having put in the effort to decipher the image, we are more conscious of what it is. We pay more attention to the airplane itself than we would if it were easy to recognize.
It is a pity Rümelin does not elaborate on the title “White Noise,”2 since the competition between signal and noise provides a useful conceptual handle for the way Baumgartner deals with images. She moves from coherent images to the abstract patterns of her lines, to a hybrid visual noise that ends up somewhere between representation and abstraction. Rümelin acknowledges that so-called faults are an important part of her approach, but it is tempting to go further and declare white noise or optical disturbance to be the highest structure determining the final work.
The other four essays are significantly shorter. Waters offers general remarks on Baumgartner’s concern with movement and the depiction of time, and makes a useful point about the generic quality of the pictures the artist chooses to start with: though photographic, her images convey types rather than identities; we are not asked to recognize a specific stretch of road or a specific explosion, but to read them as representations of movement in a general sense.
Braekeleer stresses the distinction between Baumgartner’s formal interest in borrowed images and the more typological use of such images by other artists. She remarks that, while movement and speed have long been a focus for Baumgartner, her subject matter has recently been growing increasingly abstract, moving from doubled silhouettes in the late 1990s to video stills with their characteristic horizontal scan lines to her recent, more immaterial representations of movement in the form of explosions or fireworks. (Braekeleer’s interpretation of these last as expressing the catastrophe of German history and the artist’s unconscious attempt to get in contact with this tragically destroyed past is open to question. Such personal and specific forms of memory would also stand in contrast to the generic quality observed by Waters.)
Burg devotes his essay to the artist’s use of lines. They vary in width, he writes, making them suggestive of electronic media. This allusion to electronically generated images rather than their imitation, in Burg’s view, distinguishes Baumgartner’s approach from that of other artists such as Tom Wesselmann or Richard Hamilton. The four aquatints, With and Without Thinking (2013), Burg sees as cloud formations in which the lines are neither part of the subject nor instruments to create the subject but have their own importance. In contrast to her woodcuts, the aquatint lines are disposed vertically with irregular spacing. Burg argues that in this arrangement the lines create the clouds (or the abstract forms, one might add), whereas in the woodcuts lines are merely a means of transmission. But he does not place the work in the context of the woodcut Storm at Sea—also 2013. Whether disposed vertically or horizontally, the lines in both representations (clouds? smoke?) are in a similar state of dissolution. Both represent Baumgartner’s increasing tendency toward abstraction.
In the final essay, Oberender describes her woodcuts and their optical distractions particularly well with his phrase “nervous spaces,” which he uses to indicate hidden places created by the artist that must be recreated by a viewer standing at the right distance to the image, thus unveiling reality within the visual world. This, he claims, turns Baumgartner’s prints into subjective images where the viewer’s participation is required to resolve the final image into a coherent whole (in contrast to high-resolution digital images, for example).
The last fifth of the book is devoted to the oeuvre catalogue compiled by Rümelin with the help of the artist. Though the small size of the images—up to 17 on one page—is not ideal and can make it difficult to follow some of the arguments in the essays, the information gathered is extremely useful. All Baumgartner’s works since 1990 are documented in chronological order, with information on title, technique, format, paper, printer, editor and edition size, and references exhibitions and publications listed in the bibliography.
This substantial study offers highly valuable insights into the work of an influential artist, and the oeuvre catalogue is likely to remain the primary reference for scholars, collectors and curators for many years to come.
- La Louvière 8 February–11 May 2014; Düsseldorf 19 September 2014–4 January 2015; Geneva 30 January–3 May 2015.
- “White noise” refers to the random presence of all frequencies simultaneously and to the absence of any coherent signal—radio static, for example, in which nothing recognizable can be heard.