“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
A Horizon Set in Zones of Interplay
On Edith Spira’s Painting, Photography and Book-Object Art
By Brigitte Borchhardt- Birbaumer
Stripes of coloured pigment that, despite the oily paint medium, appear to range from fine-grained to rough. Their horizontal orientation is a signal that this is a landscape though Edith Spira has painted it as an abstract structure, in layers which are erased, sanded down, have had new paint applied to them. Sometimes this is a long and demanding process. Red, green, but also midnight black, dark lilac and white worlds are created. It is not only with green that there are all the intermediate shades – from yellowy-green through olive to lichen green. The turn away from a specific concrete view in nature towards processual painting in new groups of works—usually with a planar structure which not only follows horizontal arrangement—creates a “landscape effect” on the canvas. Spira cannot be called a landscape painter in the sense used to refer to the genre as it was in the early academies and only became a gratifying task for the avant-garde in the 19th century through the agency of a William Turner, a Claude Monet or a Paul Signac. Moving into the twentieth century, compositions became increasingly abstract but were never non-representational.
A retrospective survey of the phases of non-representational painting and its achievements also entails consideration of the paramount twentieth century issues but whereas the French and Russian stimulus served to provide an almost international dissemination, expansion outside the Western world was, above all, due to the hype round abstract expressionism and its successors in US America. After landscape painting had been almost completely exiled from mainstream art concerns because of the dominance of conceptual, minimal and performative art, all that was left as a way of acting in, and interacting with, landscape, was land art. However, with the advent of the age of mass media and digital technologies there was a reassessment of core values and a counter-position to dematerialisation was partially occupied by artists with coloured paints. This is how (in Austria) Edith Spira and Martha Jungwirth succeeded in making landscape painting into burning issue territory for young artists after 2000 and before the “Neuen Wilden”.
In common with Gerhard Richter—though nevertheless very different—photography has had a great deal to say in Spira’s art work in the decades after the 1970s during which painting had been declared dead. Her atlas of illustrations is stored on the computer and the images to which she has recourse were photographed by her, in nature. Despite being very different, the photographs are concerned with the same kind of phenomena as her paintings: thus she captures with the camera structures in peaceful landscapes. Her preference is for fields, strips, hills but also rivers, river banks and coastlines and, in addition (and consistently) the walls of houses with signs of deterioration, in cities such as Venice. In Vienna the work was even carried out in a logical sequence progressing from one district to another. It is never about the melancholy effect of ruins though. Only a few are ever printed on soft paper and grouped with the oil pictures.
The Horizon as the Subject
Spira’s landscape effects are devoid of the heroic even when her favourite landscape in reality is—no coincidence—the desert because these, together with sea views from the beach, contain minimal interference. The Danube delta has also offered her a wealth of exciting subjects, very wide flat expanses where, despite being more differentiated than the coast, the horizons between land and water flatten the depth of field and shrink distances. The world folds up in front of your eyes becoming a coloured surface. The desire for a far horizon might also be thought of as potentially political as well as a term that might be applied to a person’s educational aspirations or encountered in philosophy. However, Spira has turned from a way of working related to the realism as handed down to her by her teachers, Fritz Martinz and Adolf Frohner. From 1960 on, both of them politically distanced themselves from accusations of “socialist realism” (as prescribed by communist decree), countering with a Vienna-based critical realism that combined fundamental theories of realism, such as the paradoxical qualities of an aesthetics of ugliness, with their processing of wartime experiences.
In the middle of her course of study Spira emigrated to Norway for personal reasons. There, during her first years in the north (Drammen, Dönna), she was artistically isolated, fully occupied with two small children, a new language and coping with the death of her father in Vienna. She began to experiment with a single colour, grey watercolour, and had already been working abstractly. She ascribes the turn to the abstract (instead of to the social impetus of the critical realists) to a certain introspection as well as to echoes of her teacher, Oswald Oberhuber, and two of her fellow students, Franz Vana and Rainer Wölzl. She integrated her involvement with the work of Antoni Tapies and Paul Klee. In addition, she had already engaged in a number of structural experiments in Vienna. Furthermore, having arrived in Trondheim, her third home in Norway, she encountered a modernist abstract tradition in the art scene. The change of location also led her out of the city into a landscape with long summer days and long dark nights. The intervening years have seen her oscillating between homes on an island close to Oslo and Vienna accompanied, up to the present, by constant changes in her way of painting because of her continuing commitment to the process itself as one of the main points at issue as, indeed, is the case with contemporary painting in general.
Whoever knows the painter would also include subjective factors. For Edith Spira the horizon is a nomadic line in the desert, personally experienced travel impressions from the Sahara as viewed from that “ship of the desert”, the camel. Oases surface in titles like fata morganas and, repeatedly, the word “mirage” though it is rare for specific place names such as Marrakesh, Libyan Desert, Seewinkel, Illmitz—the Seewinkel region around Lake Neusiedl is one of the artist’s most frequent excursion destinations when in Vienna—or Weinviertel and Paros, a repeated island vacation destination, partly because of its layers of coloured earths, to make an appearance. To see as far as the horizon, though not unequivocally, encapsulates the series with staged coloured “curtains” in red and ochre. These have nothing to do with the coloured runs of the Actionists even if they coincidentally produce similar effects to the colour sensations of Hermann Nitsch’s pourings over the canvas or, even more so, Markus Prachensky’s action in 1959 at the Theater am Fleischmarkt.
The comparable performative note is more likely to be found in the necessity of walking in the land- art designed landscape of Robert Smithson or Richard Long. Considering the painting process not only as gestural calligraphy but also as an impulse to wander, is similar to how Per Kirkeby regarded the influences of the Fluxus movement on himself: as “well-intentioned didactic exercises”. This is because of the important “floating between two stools” that is present; something of a landscape that is non-dialectic and therefore resists being assigned to a single category. Spira seeks out her horizons just like the qualified geologist Kirkeby, with expeditionary experience in the Arctic and an almost scientific appreciation of structures. These she captures with the camera not only while travelling but in daily life too. Furthermore, there are exciting literary inspirations from related phenomena in overviews that cover the whole cultural history of walking, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust being one.
Aeroplanes and Carpets
The artist treats the canvas as a landscape she looks down on – just as her drawings are a form of cartography created on a tabletop. The position—as self-evident as it appears—no longer generates the customary simulacrum with a central perspective (from outside) but, rather, an image that corresponds to the largely unnoticed view of the ground whilst walking or standing on it. Thus the perspective undergoes a change in relation to the central perspective utopia of the “world landscape” in which Pieter Brueghel allowed his Icarus to tumble. Here, it is less a case of the importance of the achievements of early modern and Baroque painters and more about the personal experience of repeated flights across the heavens and, in particular, the structures of the fields, lakes and woods seen from above that have become part of Spira’s (and generally current) expanded notions of landscape. The visible horizon lies between heaven and earth, water and sky, though sometimes, from an aeroplane, we can see something more in a special evening light, viz the earth’s shadow. And then the horizon looks terrifyingly like the edge of the world. This viewpoint and the impression it leaves is new for art history and, after the period of abstract painting, this new view-from-above to the-ends- of-the-world objectively re-opened, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the genre that had previously been almost completely eclipsed and usually regarded as old hat: that of landscape painting.
The geometrically ordered fields seen from above are serial subjects for the artist along with the horizons and wrong turnings of her paper works and often structured as ink nets. The former she calls “gardens”, just as the designs on oriental carpets are. Here, too, the view of the landscape is mostly from above, though Persian ornament does permit a leap that presents a side view of things, something which the Western vanishing-point perspective in its one dimensionality avoids. Where the structure is entirely stripy (not only a dominant horizon) then the picture title is often a “Dialogue”, calling to mind ploughed furrows or old, wooden-slat jalousies painted white or green. Additional edging gives the artist yet other motifs (Arabic inspired poetic forms, perhaps also haikus, another form of poetry) which she concretely “inscribes” as did the poets of the Viennese Group did with their geometrically patterned typescripts. From a psychological point of view, this “encapsulation” might be considered the opposite of a wide horizon, i.e. a self-imposed restrictive order, a limiting measure. But with everything floating in interstitial realms, it could also be unspecified and differently read.
A further subject group appears to be over-painted small-scale structures. Here, phenomena like holes in plaster or scratches on the surface of a wall, sometimes as dots or colour stains distributed throughout the composition. Spira’s wall photographs can be hung with these usually large-scale oil paintings in a dialogue and this applies to the other subjects too. So it would be easy to make the camera’s interplay visible but perhaps also banal. This is because divergence is not the subject matter but the desire to use another medium to express and suggest similarities – it is neither a dialectic nor a synthesis, more an incidental roaming.
There is, therefore, a whole range of series that unfold as oils on canvas—some large scale—and on paper and, in parallel with photography, also the reworking of old books or the catalogues of other artists, usually those made of special paper that resembles absorbent cardboard or watercolour paper. Sometimes the artist is motivated to erase the images and contents, to cross them out in pencil. An example is provided by those originally from the small island library from 1938 and 1945. This case there is certainly one politically motivated deletion combined with the erasure of the words and their translation by coloured fields. At times, though, half a sentence is left standing in order to generate new associations. Some pages are apparently enhanced by the use of gold paint or machined sewing thread, a highly emotional intervention fitting with the darkly romantic Novalis. For the author this gave rise to a number of “night pieces”—in two senses of the term—made by overpainting the printed word with dark blue and purple inks.
Lingering in the zone of (zone of?) interplay is thus the central aspect which may have formal or substantive triggers and be located between artistic genres and ultimately even be political or existential. Returning to painting linked by an openness situated between abstraction and figuration indicates a post-modern position. Yet even at the time—in New York exile— Piet Mondrian referred with irony to his exalted beginnings, of transitioning from sea horizons to the mystical mental world of the non-representational with his Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942) that had been painted in his skyscraper studio with a view of street ravines full of colourful cars and jazz. Under Stalin, Kasimir Malewitsch was forced to reintroduce his obliterated horizons as real landscapes with farmers’ families and retrace his path back from his cosmically-conceived non-representational world, regressing from black and white on white back to colour. Nevertheless he did not converge with the realistic socialist aesthetics that had been demanded of him, so the turn away from the unlimited freedom of a black sun was in vain. Black suns appear in a number of Spira’s landscapes, they shine through mist-obscured structures as if being seen through a desert sandstorm or from a ship in the fog.
For Julia Kristeva the black sun is a symbol of depression and melancholy and also refers back to art, linked to coming to terms with losses during war and the Shoah. Here, she considers the repudiation of representation as a whole to be—comparable in symbolism to Gérard de Nerval 1853—a logical explanation for “mourning”. Nevertheless, a connection between Spira’s work and that of the German master of the genre, Anselm Kiefer, only exists in the special case of the material employed for surface effects in paintings.
Gesture and Colour
A further theory regarding the artist’s approach is the movement of the hand, the brush, though not only as subjective notation but, more precisely, as a wandering and anticipatory desire for the gesture as was described by Jen-Luc Nancy after Sigmund Freud. Fittingly, Spira titled many of her combination ink and watercolour works on paper Wrong Directions, also blind alleys, wanderings. In Spira’s work the gesture almost always remains contained within a restful, poetic manner of writing, a performative need, not the result of a visibly aggressive physical emotion. Furthermore, colour fields in red, black and ochre have existed since cave painting began – abstract, geometrical and contextually impossible to interpret in the caves of Lascaux. Perhaps they describe real spaces but equally it might be shamanistic cosmology. In any case they are pictures of the world and remained so till the downward gaze of the Aboriginal Australian’s pictures. This, in turn, and as a result of the exposure to Art Brut in the 1970s, expanded the Eurocentric gaze. Many US American abstract expressionists have incorporated this impulse—especially from their experiences in the far east—into the development of Western art.
The initial opening up to abstraction is present as early as Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner whose work, during their own lifetimes, was received with shock and dismay. This is particularly true of Caspar David Friedrich’s sketches in oil and William Turner’s seascapes—thinking here of the many oil sketches and watercolours too—which are reduced to empty expanses, horizons, mistiness. All of this is pivotal for the generation of classical modernism and was taken further, and consummated, in Mark Rothko’s vibrating and floating colour field paintings with whose painterly metaphysics Spira is far more in tune than with Barnett Newman’s exalted colour field paintings or the actionist and male expressiveness of Jackson Pollock’s surface of the canvas peregrinations. Over the last decade it has become of paramount importance to her to observe developments in Per Kirkeby’s paintings. He was a painter who not only displayed the correspondences to what is mentioned above but was also active in Northern Europe till 2018. It is no coincidence that Robert Fleck considers Kirkeby the most significant and original innovator in landscape painting in recent decades.
Similar to Cy Twombly, Per Kirkeby worked the surface of the canvas as if it was a blackboard, with delicately soft chalky lines situated between writing and scratching. He developed special floe-like forms into which a snake, a camel or vignette-like architecture is inserted. Spira, like Kirkeby, is interested in geology and also cartography. The difference in their investigations, however, lies in their emphasis on the horizon. For the painter from Copenhagen the verticals of the few compact colour fields is employed, particularly when he is working on large canvases and not on dark tempered hardboard. Male verticals and female horizontals, as in prehistoric times? Hardly, because both of them repeatedly diverge from this hoary old schema.
The creation of colour harmonies in green, ochre or blue, the involvement of the ground and the overpainting of other people’s pictures—some of which were banal compositions acquired at flea markets—show similarities and interests in common even though Kirkeby, like Twombly, is of an older generation. In Spira’s case, colour, together with the interplay between horizontal lines and the confusing proliferations of some of the “blind alleyways”, are usually accorded too little attention as active participants compared to the formal and substantive aspects of the work. Just on their own, the ochres shading into red and the nuances of yellow and white, very quickly situate us in the middle immense deserts, while the frequently used shades of green, the symbolic colour of nature, is the typical base tone associated with cool expanses of meadows, forests but also marshlands. The forest, an ostensibly typical subject for German Romantics, is ignored, by-passed by Spira leaving only a few single trees.
These series live from differences as much as from the repetition of their small number of subjects, from sharp and blurred structures, from fields of colour that now and then exhibit intentionally wide borders which are susceptible to fraying. The colours can be organised from white by using contrasts with red. Besides the wall effect, there are also recollections of times of the day and night. The use of black and purple suggests viewer associations with strongly atmospheric, impressionistic night views.
In the watercolour and mixed media sketches the dynamic procession of lines and splotches suggests a tenuous connection to Martha Jungwirth’s work though the latter employs a more pronounced physical momentum so as to set her subjects in turbulent motion. However, among the many landscapes from Greece, Java or even Burgenland (Austria) there are a few similar zones of interplays (zones of?) interplay(s) to be found.
In recent decades, landscape painting cannot be said to have occupied a place in mainstream painting even when, from the 1980s and 1990s, Austrian artists such as Herbert Brandl with his “mountain portraits”, even called themselves landscape painters. Seen in this light, Anselm Kiefer, after 1970, might well be considered an important landscape innovator. Even if Spira regards the way he works with materials—integrating branches, poppies, thistles or straw—as highly aesthetic, she has little to do with his myths and symbols despite cultural and historical similarities of approach in the “leaden” immediate post-war years. An intentionally understated neutrality of motif prohibits any tendency towards the sublimity that Kiefer’s inscription of particular poetic and historic texts further emphasises. Even his ironic fracturing of some gestures is not commensurate with Spira’s intentions.
There are, however, viewers of her large-scale landscapes who find much in them in the sense of Leonardo da Vinci’s description of discovering inspiration for paintings in scratched walls, in puddles and whirlpools. Fantasy and specific preferences slip in here. In an archaeologist’s imagination simple motifs and abstract blotches become entire battles – historical images projected into abstract structures. That is when the emotional traces in a brushstroke, which may occasionally carry in it the rage of the nth overpainting, supplants the predominant poetry of the prevailing mood.
What’s more, the sensuality of the colour, the material marsh, is transferable from the painter’s palpably pleasurable way of working to the individual disposition of the viewer: a picture of the sea may become an image to see. Edith Spira’s pictorial inventiveness is easier to grasp with a knowledge of her practice of carrying the camera with her at all times just as Edward Munch, the painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit, Pop Art, Hyperrealism, Richter and many other have done too. Today, to see beyond the limitations of the medium means having encountered and overcome the fears that arose in the nineteenth century that painting would be supplanted by photography and to regard the exchange between them as a mutually positive enhancement.
Spira has observed Hiroshi Sugimoto in his decades long occupation with recording—moving images and photography—all the oceans of the world with almost scientific meticulousness: every season, day and night, dawn and dusk. His interest is with the horizon too, together with an idealistic tranquillity that is as important to him as the romantic quest for the eternal was for Friedrich. Today, the unimaginable is contained in the filmic tracking of the air and water scenes that both Sugimoto and Spira include in their research with the camera.
This has been an enduring love of Spira’s over decades and it fits with her approach of repeated and renewed examinations of a line. But at the point where a black and white and silver shimmering begins, her painting turns to a tangle of materials and the layering of pigments. That distances it from the intangible. This personal handwriting, an enduring temporal structure, contains the paradox of the static memory of a wall which has long since been repainted or even demolished. Or perhaps it is just a landscape?
Translation Tim Sharp
Robert Fleck, Landschaftsmalerei, in: Die Ablösung vom 20. Jahrhundert. Malerei der Gegenwart, Vienna 2013, 29.
Per Kirkeby, in: Ausstellungskatalog Über Malerei. Begegnung mit der Geschichte. 300 Jahre Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien, Vienna, 1992, 41/42.
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust. A History of Walking, London 2001.
Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Jena-Luc Nancy, Die Lust an der Zeichnung, Vienna 2011, 59.
Robert Fleck, Eine neue Landschaftsmalerei, in: Florian Steininger, Exhibition catalogue Per Kirkeby Kunsthalle Krems Nov. 2018 – February 2019, Vienna 2018, 146 ff.