Stephanie JT Russell
AN AMALGAM OF LIGHT
Space, Time, and the Paintings of Andreas Nottebohm
by Stephanie JT Russell
“They lived…with no ordinary opposites in their mind and brain. On the one hand to dwell in the very center of technological reality…yet to inhabit—if only in one’s dreams—that other world where death, metaphysics and the unanswerable questions of eternity must reside, was to suggest natures so divided that they could have been the most miserable and unbalanced of men if they did not contain in their huge contradictions some of the profound and accelerating opposites of the [20th] century itself.”
—Norman Mailer, describing the Apollo 11 crew on
the eve of the first manned moon flight, in his book "Of a Fire on the Moon."
“Space gives me the creeps.”
—Willem De Kooning
We are living in the most intensely felt climate of planetary crisis in history. Since Hiroshima, the collective psychology of global emergency has been the principal underpinning of all political life and by extension, of our human condition itself. It is an abstrusely held open secret: whether or not we concede it, we’ve become contaminated with fear. Hence Mr DeKooning’s appearance in this essay. After all, the cosmos has, arguably, long been a “creepy” thing to ponder. De Kooning’s pungent appraisal of space comes across as a plain-spoken, unqualified admonition of nature’s temporality, and of our own potential extinction.
Despite DeKooning’s incisive slant, it’s plain that the human psyche nonetheless remains hard-wired to assert its place within an explicit celestial design. Norman Mailer’s meditation on the soul of the astronaut, quoted here, is an eloquent reminder of our bifurcated relationship with space. Throughout Of A Fire On the Moon, Mailer consistently weighs in on the tension between humankind’s primal terror of the universe, and our relentless engrossment in its mystery. Even his breathtaking descriptions of Apollo 11’s rocket silo seethe with a guileless anxiety that recalls humanity’s naïve original query into the firmament.
Fearful or not, like Mailer’s astronauts, most of us adjust continually, if unconsciously, to the accelerating opposites that our new century embodies. Mailer’s reference to “that other world where death, metaphysics, and the unanswerable questions of eternity must reside” has always resided in the territory of arts, letters, and philosophy. Those questions were passionately expressed in the entangled dialogues of twentieth-century thinkers—from Wittgenstein and Lacan to, notably, Bertrand Russell, who remained a politically outspoken centenarian even when Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface. And countless post-Hiroshima visual artists, theatre-makers and filmmakers have flocked to the realm of science fiction and fact, as if the subject were custom-fitted to suit the modern age of interdisciplinary cross-pollination.
Among them is the painter Andreas Nottebohm, whose art between 1974 and 2003 depicted a lifelong intrigue with the numinous mystique of the cosmos. His early work evolved at the precise moment when the fantasy of space exploration became a concrete reality. Nottebohm’s outer space paintings investigated the timeless inquiry of our relationship with the universe, and through it, our changing experience of time. His lushly imagined environments freshly distilled the legacies of popular science fiction with potent glimmers of empirical substance. Little wonder that this period of Nottebohm’s work found a purposeful niche at NASA, where the historic speculation of outer space was harnessed towards the procurement of tangible, practicable experience.
Like many of his surrealist-informed contemporaries, Nottebohm’s earliest work in the 1960s depicted his perception of the fast-advancing fusion between human beings and technology. Eyes emerged from spiky alien ravines, faces grinned out from die-cut metal blocks, monolithic tanks froze threateningly beneath coldly strung flags. He drew, painted, and made prints. By 1968, Nottebohm had seized fervently onto the airbrush, and for three and a half decades it was his tool of choice. Plumbing his exquisite mastery of pigment-glazing and fine-nozzle rendering, Nottebohm produced an immense portfolio of lavishly conceived, formally resolved astral fantasias. Most of the paintings were laid onto a base of sheet aluminum, sanded to provide a dynamic textural field for the overlay of varnish-suspended acrylic color. Along the way, the artist produced a subset of remarkable, impossibly detailed miniatures, as fully realized in content and technique as his wall-sized pieces. Another group, a folio of powdery white-monochrome works on matte black paper, emits the gravitas of an ancient palimpsest from another galaxy.
This body of work portrays wildly envisioned, meticulously executed fabulist scenarios. Hot red worlds, cast upward in the frame, hover atop tangled fragments of finely rendered technical hardware. Black skies tug the eye into foreshortened distances swirling with translucent layers of generative power. Dissonant elements of nature and science collude in, and compete for, a dominant post in the human psyche and in space-time itself. These chimerical worlds appear to at once invent and destroy themselves in a shrewdly composed breakdown of rigid logic. Their pristine spheres, slender penumbra, and clustered broken machine chips suggest a confluence of organic, human evanescence and the built-in obsolescence of human-made objects.
Nottebohm ordered these evident confusions in a prolific chain of ravishing cosmic landscapes, at once charmingly familiar and dizzyingly remote. His fragile spheres do not illustrate figurative human presence in the universe. We witness the implication of a complete existential rupture. The pointed absence of creatures in these paintings refers to our expendability within the cosmos; but the hand of the artist, and by extension the eye of the viewer, suggests the necessary presence of human consciousness at work. These radiant hallucinations express a peculiar tension between the artist’s meticulous, near-obsessive technical control, and his conscious modeling of a universe on the brink of uncontrollable metastasis. Nottebohm strikes the tender, archaic balance between breathless reverence and vertiginous terror of the unknown. The viewer is faced with a choice: to vindicate the inference of a palpable apocalypse, or contest the implication of doom as purely sanguine apocrypha. Like a film ending with a cliffhanger, one’s final answer might best enjoin a highly personal, stubbornly illogical fusion of both options.
For over thirty years, Nottebohm dreamed a strange and lonely dream; but its unearthly prefecture is readily coherent to the viewer. Throughout every stage of his work, the artist consistently created location— an extravagant province of mind that insinuates a hidden plot, informed by rigorous, dynamic imagery. There’s a story, to be sure; but the fine sport of filling in the narrative details is left to the viewer’s caprice. And the viewer is the crucial protagonist whose imagination rounds out the open-ended story in each painting. Nottebohm’s restless compositions liberate the painted imagery from itself, while intensifying their narrative impact on the viewer. His pictorial milieu evokes the epic lyricism of cinematic music. Operatic and romantic, laden with the grist of unfinished librettos, these paintings entice the viewer to conceive a heroic narrative. Nottebohm’s astrophysical playground offers an elegant portal for personalized scripts starring the implicit yet unexpressed role of humanity. The post-industrial grail-seeker may well encounter a mirror of his confusions and certainties about our existence in the universe. Nottebohm’s painstakingly ordered cosmos trembles with the threat of its own implosive potential, with nary a promise of any grail in sight, but for the latent infinity lying within the viewer’s mind.
2004: A Shift in Space-Time: New Works from the Black Hole Studio
Nottebohm: I really believe the Marxist concept of dialectic empiricism that, whatever you think, you must also defend the opposite point of view. “What are all my options?” You have explore all the possibilities, throw everything into an analytical pot to find out what you’re doing. Be careful to ask, “Am I totally free of wishful thinking? Am I being self-serving?” You learn this by wanting to learn, and by doing so, to improve yourself. To be rigorously logical, self-critical and self-aware are some of the most essential ways to stand on your own two feet and know where you are.
Andreas Nottebohm makes his work with tough machines and mundane toolbox parts: compressors, drills, high-RPM air sanders, saws, screws, wires, metal plates and gas torches. His Black Hole Studio in Marin County resounds with the whirring, screeching mechanics of intense physical virility; from this forceful process, he extracts a sensibility of profound clarity, delicacy and transcendence.
Nottebohm’s most recent work is a radical departure from his thirty-year engagement with the fundaments of visual lyricism. The sanded metal plates that once supplied a ground for airbrushed imagery are now empty of all formal reference, their essence refined to a liberating nothingness. Gone are the rhythms of rigorously profiled narrative shapes. These days, Nottebohm’s tools are used to summon an insistent thrum of light across the naked layers of a distressed metal plane. Different sized disks are used like a variety of paintbrushes. He grinds into the surface of the plate, coaxing diffuse squalls of kinetic light from the surface. Layer by layer, the metal painting takes on the illusion of vast depth and evokes a sense of physical direction, as if countless spiraling horizons are forcing their way through light-years of cosmic disturbance and release. The finished painting seems a portal to the view of an electromagnetic storm, framed like a window on all sides yet lashing its way out of the plane and into the room in every direction. In a visceral, primordial sense, these paintings will simply not be contained. They are literally born of friction, in an ongoing dialectic between the physical, the philosophical, and science itself.
Nottebohm: These paintings don’t come to life without the viewer.
Nottebohm’s metal paintings provoke the nagging sensation that a tree falling in the woods indeed necessitates a witness to vindicate the splendor of its occurrence. Each witness animates the experience afresh, as if the work sits in perpetual wait for renewing intercourse with a viewer. It is the ecstatic potential of the ever-changing viewer in concert with the ever-changing work of art. Different, say, than walking into a room occupied by a Rembrandt portrait, where one can assume that the painting exists fine on its own; that you might in fact be interrupting some private reverie the painting is carrying on with itself, in the hushed absence of a viewer.
Why, then, as the artist states, is the viewer’s presence necessary? Relieved of all figurative context, Nottebohm’s furious tempos of light draw the viewer into urgent contact with his or her own body, as one moves back and forth, to and fro, swaying to manipulate the protean ripples that flash like molten sleet across every centimeter of the painting. The mind says “aluminum”; but the body says, glass, water, antediluvian ice. The viewer may experience a mildly pleasing frustration, a wish to penetrate the strata of illusory depths and enter a dimension beyond the painting’s physical surface. And some form of thought might occur: I can pierce this plane. I can dive into this vacuum of transparent awareness, where I might find my original, parallel self, emptied of context and existing only for this passage into light. This sublimely-felt physicality becomes a corporeal act of connection between the artist, the viewer, and the human machinery behind every mechanical instrument in Nottebohm’s studio.
Nottebohm: For me, no piece of visual art compares to music. Kiefer comes to mind, Tapies, Dali, and Bosch. Their paintings invoke the feeling of awe that is similar to what I find in music. In some paintings, the context is illuminating, but context almost destroys my own experience. I don’t need or want a context with Bach. My only interest is in immersing myself in a piece of music and letting it take me elsewhere—touching chords in myself that I didn’t even know existed. Without words, the experience is, finally, undisturbed and pure.
When you hear Casals touching the first note with his bow, you see this small man with his little stool, and it makes you cry. The experience of hearing something the first time—all the knowledge on earth may add to it, but cannot enhance the experience itself.
Nottebohm loves music, collects it ravenously, works to it, and references it often in discussing his art. For him, the musical connection to his process is beyond the rhetoric of rhythms per se. The actual experience is physical. There is a palpable interplay between Nottebohm’s metal paintings and certain musical works: the painting’s light easily adapts to sound, and it seems that sound adapts to the light in turn. Try looking at a Nottebohm while hearing Todd Rundgren’s Initiation, Bach’s cello concertos, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Gavin Bryers’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, or Ryhs Chatham’s Two Gongs. During a deep listening, while taking in the art, it can be hard to discern which form is creating which.
Perhaps the closest analogy between Nottebohm’s metal paintings and a specific musical form lies in the exhilarating sonic mutations induced by Lamont Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House environments. Young’s tonal generators emit turbulent multiple sound frequencies that aggregate into one unified drone. But move your head, your arm, your leg just a millimeter, and the frequencies shift dramatically. You are playing the frequencies with your body, and the frequencies are playing your body as well, as if it were another musical instrument that dropped in for an impromptu jam.
Similarly, Nottebohm’s majestic arpeggiates of light in motion are altered by the viewer’s own self-determined movement near and around the piece. As s/he moves, so does the light: its shimmering mutations interact with subtle vitality around the viewer’s body. One can literally dance with the light in these paintings, and thereby alter the character of that light itself. I often wonder what it would be like to experience the mutable light of a Nottebohm metal painting in context with the mutable frequencies of Young’s sonic generator. The viewer’s entire physical body would be thrust into a dimension that can only be defined as integrated meditation. As one moves across Nottebohm’s piece, gladly swallowed into its skittering spill of lucid visual music, the aural vibrations of Young’s febrile drone system would penetrate and sing as if they were composed for that peculiar rhythmic journey into light, at that particular moment.
In both cases, the artist attempts to palpably rectify our frustrated relationship with infinity. Nottebohm’s new work rekindles something of the innocent wonderment that gave birth to humanity’s original notions of its own existence beneath the canopy of space. The paintings portray a confluence of the macrocosm of infinite space in the universe and the microcosm of infinite consciousness within the psyche. Like a pre-Hellenic priest, the artist thoughtfully plumbs the enduring contradiction of being born in an incomprehensible universe and trying to make some sense of it.
The consciousness of early peoples was directly linked to their relationship with light and darkness. The phases of the day were irrefutable indicators of what needed to be done, and who we were in the acts of doing. One can respond to Nottebohm’s paintings as if each one embodied a distinct phase of the long day in human evolution. Each artwork is an amalgam of light, fusing every particle of lumen that strikes the surface, animating the viewer’s adjustment to the immense reality she creates just by being there. This visual alchemy lifts the viewer into the unknown, while mitigating any discomfort that may arise in facing and embracing what lies beyond our understanding—until the purpose of understanding becomes tertiary, unnecessary…as on a night when one looks up at the stars in wonder, without caring to know their names.