Andreas Nottebohm - by Robert McDonald
The recent paintings of Andreas Nottebohm honor the traditions of Western European visual arts yet move radically beyond those limitations. As their creation has released the artist from the restraints of convention-even from very recent convention-he, as their creator, releases viewers from the restraints that they have inherited, allowing them to participate in his fascinating innovations.
Nottebohm early in life recognized and accepted the calling to be an artist and hence obtained a full and thorough grounding in the techniques and disciplines of the visual arts. His early mastery of classical techniques, more characteristic of artists trained in Europe than in America, has enabled him to go far beyond their academic limits. Two bodies of works on paper completed within the past fifteen years (examples of which are reproduced here) evince Nottebohm's superb mastery of drawing and his early predilection for the aesthetic of surrealism, which was still current in Europe during the period of his training, most famously in the hallucinatory works of Salvador Dali and Pavel Tchelitchev.
Nineteenth-century explorations of non-European lands and peoples, whether motivated by power politics and strategic concerns, commercial interests, religious sectarianism or non-sectarian altruism, cultural and scientific inquisitiveness, or perhaps just the spirit of adventure, had loosened the predilection for a merely rational approach to be the way to know all things. Experiments with altered states of mind, especially among creative artists, further weakened the principle that human reason guided by logic was the way to transcend one's art to a higher plane. The outbreak of World War I energized the peripheral anti-scientific, anti-bourgeois Dada artists, whose serious playfulness, use of chance, automatism, and so forth-indeed, anything that they identified as absurd-was the soil that nourished Surrealism. Most absurd, of course from their perspective, was the "Great War" that Europeans inflicted upon themselves, at a cost of more than 50 million lives worldwide. As psychological focus increased, studies of the subconscious by Sigmund Freud and of the collective unconscious by Carl Jung often helped to support the aesthetic insights of this new approach to painting and sculpture. Nottebohm has continued the process to a new dimension never dreamed of by the surrealists or for that matter, by Jung or Freud.
Andreas Nottebohm was born October 13, 1944, near the end of World War II, another period of European internecine conflict and the beginning of the Cold War. Western and Eastern Powers, formerly united against the Berlin-Rome Axis and its allies, now confronted one another, ostensibly representing democratic capitalism in the West and autocratic communism in the East. Germany, which had become a united modern nation only in 1871, was again, in 1946-after only 75 years! -divided into administrative spheres of occupation as well as into two political entities.
The artist's place of birth, the small, medieval city of Eisenach, was included in the German Democratic Republic (that is East or Communist Germany?). His school, he recalls with pride, was located across the street from a house where the great baroque composer Johann-Sebastian Bach had lived. Not coincidentally, perhaps, music has had a significant presence in Nottebohm's works - all music. . . medieval, classical, romantic, minimal, jazz. It is also tempting to speculate that the artist owes some of his creative energy and versatility, as well as some of his engagement with the sublime, to the inspiration of the great composer.
After enduring a tedious sojourn in the port city of Hamburg in the 1950's, Nottebohm studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, in the German Federal Republic (that is, West Germany) from 1965 to 1969. His mentor there was Professor Mac Zimmerman, who was renowned for painting detailed figures in the vein of magic realism. In 1968 Nottebohm studied etching at the studio of J. Friedlander in Paris, France, and from 1971 to 1974, lithography in Salzburg, Austria. In 1974, he returned to Munich, and in 1978, he made his first journey to the United States for a solo exhibition at WASHART in Washington, D.C. sponsored by Vienna's Galerie Hilger and in 1981 he immigrated to the United States.
After his initial mastery of figuration, the artist's imagery focused on the abstract outer space of the universe and the parallel inner-space of the atom. This lent his vocabulary the endless forms and myriad colors that were soon to be given over to his unique "white light" that very subtly suggest a palette of infinite coloration. It as appropriate, then, that during the past two decades the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should have commissioned ten major works from him to represent "the fusion of technology and human aspiration that [is] the highest ideal of the American space program." [Richard Rapaport ext, page 2 of 3]. Among them are the series of stunning paintings commemorating the launch of the first space shuttle Columbia in 1981.
For these works, Nottebohm used contemporary materials: acrylic paints (that is, pigments or colors in a medium of clear plastic) on aluminum fields. Both are notably durable. The special virtues of acrylic paints are that they dry quickly, do not yellow with age, are easy to remove and thus easily facilitate conservation, when necessary. Although aluminum, his "canvas" of choice, is the most common metal in the earth's crust, scientist did not identify it until the early 19th century. Valued for its lightness and strength, it was only in the 20th century, especially World War II, that is became widely used in industry and only in recent decades that it has achieved its status a s fine art material. Two aesthetic virtues make aluminum sheets desirable for certain contemporary paintings: the absence of texture and the implication of the complete color spectrum as opposed to the tyranny of white as a field on which to paint, as is characteristic of fabric.
Using every technique at his command-including pouring and air brushing, as well as painting pigment with a brush-Nottebohm created suggestions of infinities that are as entrancing as the hallucinations of the author of the Book of Revelations are repellent. His mission appears to be nothing less than to reveal a Oneness of Being, or a Presence where all time is contemporaneous, where all forms are both organic and geometric, where all space is at once infinitesimal and infinite, where all colors are full palettes, where whatever is, is an eternal musical vibration and where art and science spring from the same creative impulse.
Among his meditations on the explorations of space, Nottebohm also created, in 1989, a portfolio of small, airbrushed white acrylic pigment drawings on black paper that he has named "A Brief History of My Time," dedicated to Stephen Hawking, in honor of the Cambridge University Professor of Mathematics who is regards widely as the most important theoretical physicist since Albert Einstein. Hawking, in his book, A Brief History of time from the Big Bang to Back Holes, has presented a deep knowledge of astrophysics and the nature of time and the universe in straightforward language easily accessible and understandable to the general public. Nottebohm's tight compositions of geometric forms demonstrate the same kind of control and compulsiveness frequently associated with the high-tech explorations of space (or for that matter, any other kind of scientific research) while at the same time evincing the freedom that is demanded by artistic imagination.
Another series of airbrushed white acrylic pigment drawings on black paper, dating from 1994-1995, further demonstrates the artist's truly exceptional control in realizing his vision as well as his openness to improvisation-the much the same way that an instrumentalist may improvise a musical score. Though small in physical scale, they are seemingly infinite as visual fields for study and interpretation- much as astronomers study and interpret the heavens. Viewers irresistibly seduced into these breathtakingly beautiful and complex environments are limited only by their own imagination as to what they will find.
Thirty-six diptychs of small, vertically oriented rectangles, each 12 x 9 1/2 inches, wherein the left field is minimally worked, waiting to be covered with handwritten poetry of American poets and writers (inspired by the painting on the right). To the right, in contrast, frenzied compositions present suggestions of demons or robots falling from the sky; crackling, irregular streaks of lightning; a distorted skull; a piece of landscape plunged vertically into a horizontal landscape; a form bringing mind to one of Bruce Conner's "Light Angels"; question marks falling from the sky; a Jansenist crucifix, or an upside down rocket launcher and landscape; a moon, a planet; a structure crashing through banks of clouds; tiered landscapes (bombed landscapes?).
Whatever the activities might be, the two sides are consistently balanced with both intellectual and emotional weight. Various markings may appear, especially the Greek letters sigma and omega, meaning the sum and the end; for example, in a ravishing tour de force (NP-3 KN-1224) that looks like layers of landscape with streaks of lightning this visual work of art not only looks but-synesthetically if one may say so-sounds like a great organ concerto, perhaps the presence of Bach. Throughout the collection, there is a range of moods: somber, celebratory, threatening, reverent. These works communicate intensely, intimately, and make marvelous aesthetic statements, not just about the human condition but also about the universal condition.
Nottebohm is a tall, slender man with handsome features, brown eyes and dark hair hanging to broad shoulders. The home that he shares with Tess, his exceptionally attractive spouse, is an ordinary Northern California structure (formerly a day school in Marin County), transformed into an endlessly exotic environment filled with works of art and crafts from throughout the world- and beyond. Mohan, the artist's assistant, characteristic of many cultured East Indians, is always gracious, patient, versatile and an accomplished craftsman.
Access to the studio is a decent, as if one were going to visit Pluto, the god of the Underworld- the realm of the subconscious. Here, this remarkable man transforms his upper body into that of a monster, rather like the Minotaur of antiquity: goggles cover his eyes to protect his vision and a mask covers his nose and mouth to protect his respiratory system. With his right hand he picks up a threatening industrial tool, a sander-grinder with which miracles are performed upon thick, flat, glistening aluminum sheets.
For his new works, Nottebohm has returned to the rectangular, wall-oriented aluminum sheets as fields for visual activity. He maintains a uniqueness of vision and resolute practice of craft. They are, however, more distant from the traditions of painting in his earlier works of the 1990's as he employs aluminum totally by itself and uses tools that he modified for his needs and industrial tools as opposed to brushes and paint for his newest works.
These works are monochromatic and non-referential, in contrast with his earlier flamboyantly colored works, but, like them, and merely touching the surface, they possess the classical desiderata of individuality, of both vertical and horizontal balance, of variation in major and minor incidents, of challenge and resolution, and of appropriate scale. Using a variety of tools and disk sander-grinders, the artist creates their visual activity, scratching and incising, drawing lines and making complex abstract patterns. Viewers seeing them for the first time frequently experience confusion since the casual viewer frequently devotes no more than the customary five seconds that scientists tell us is all the time that museum visitors dedicate to each work of art, as they surf through an institution's galleries. A longer dialogue with them, however, draws deep involvement from visitors as the works separate into a deep, almost infinite space as they advance into the realm of the viewers' space. They may be either "sculpture within a flat plane," as Richard Rapaport describes them, paintings in three dimensions, or works of art in as many dimensions as the mind can imagine or to which the viewer is open.
Dressed like a construction worker, and holding one of a selection of several industrial sander-grinder tools in his hand, the artist walks forward and backwards, conceptualizing and improvising his compositions as he draws, or paints, or sculpts with the tool. These are work of struggle, or combat, even. His movements lack any of the rough grace associated with that of the Abstract Expressionists, especially the quasi-dancing of Jackson Pollock as he flung pigment onto his canvases lying on his studio floor. Intermittently Nottebohm silences the beast he holds when he retreats to study the composition and plot his next move. During these periods, music, which has been in the background at low volume all along, soothingly fills the space-for example, a piano trio by 19th-century romantic, German composer Felix Mendelssohn.
Watching the artist engaged in creative activity is a taxing experience, perhaps like watching a master surgeon perform in an operating room. Isolation, for the viewer, though voluntary, becomes part of the experience. A more significant component is auditory, inasmuch as nothing protects the ears from the banshee-like shrieking of the sander-grinder. In addition, there is no communication with the artist, whose concentration is so intense as he studies the picture plane, that it is palpable.
Communication with these recent works may induce in the viewer a mystical freedom often associated with the physical sciences, especially astronomy, and with the discipline of religion, especially the tradition of American Transcendentalism. In a strange way, could it be that Nottebohm is inadvertently following the path of the Hudson River School of landscape painting? Properly illuminated, the mystery of these works may intrigue viewers sufficiently, not only to study the physical origins of this mystery, but also, through introspection as sentient/spiritual beings, to begin to understand as well as enjoy their attraction. These works fulfill the classic ambition of all true artists in all media: to instruct as well as please, And more, to take one to some exciting place where one has never before been.
Such a work is "KN-1696" (2003), 40 x 48 inches, a masterpiece of visual activity! It is so far beyond the realm of ordinary visual experience that again, trying to describe it is very like trying to describe music. It is a field of electrical charges. It is a shoal of silver fish. It is magical! It is alchemical! It moves! It sounds! It is irresistibly participatory: opening, opening to infinity! Small brass screws along the edges, however, stabilize the work for a moment, restraining it from immediately expanding indefinitely in the viewer's visual field and mind. With reference to this work, Nottebohm comments, "I think of fractals, mathematical equations that do not repeat themselves, transformed into images."
"KN-1688" (2003), 48 x 40, in contrast, evinces more control, more regularity. It is a lyrical work of art in which a viewer may find a peaceful ocean's tide or the gentle ripple of a field of swaying grass. Some gallery visitors seem to have a predilection for finding landscapes and seascapes in Nottebohm's works. They want the reassurance of recognizable images, even in works where the artist, specifically Nottebohm, has not intended them to be. Such viewers accept challenges. Unlike certain critics to whom "concept" reigns above the visual, they do not support the fashionable yet impoverished view of, "They're beautiful! How disgusting!"
Comments the artist, "For me it's already a problem to say anything more about the works than that they are. I think of them as visual statements rather than compositions. Making them is like starting a journey with no intention to come back. They're improvisatory like the way jazz goes back and forth. Viewers can select the instruments they want to hear. I like Rhys Chatham [contemporary New York classical composer and guitarist]. When he's not too aggressive, his music's great for working. It transports me to somewhere else! Making these works is very like jazz. If you make a mistake, then as Bonnard always commented, you just think, "It's the mistakes that make the painting!" Then you incorporate it as an important part of the soul of the painting. It's like life. You can't correct it. Those mistakes add tension and the joy of the unexpected. That's art!"
Robert McDonald, AICA
Director Emeritus, de Saisset Museum, Santa Clara University
Founding Director, The Art Museum of Santa Cruz County
Former Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
Former Chief Curator, Laguna Beach Museum of Art
Former Art Critic, Los Angeles Times, San Diego
Former Contributing Editor, Artweek
Occasional Publications-Chronicle Books (di Rosa Preserve); B&W; San Diego Union-Tribune; Images and Issues; The Advocate; Oxford University Press; Levi Strauss & Co; Visions Art Quarterly; Mills College Art Gallery
Awards-Commonwealth Club of California, Silver Medal for editing Robert Buelteman's The Unseen Peninsula; San Diego Press Club, Best Art Story Award 1992 for article about Christo