Norwegian Sight 1997 is a large black-grey abstract painting by the Swiss artist Helmut Federle. The painting has a simple geometric composition that is dominated by a large T-shaped form positioned slightly left of the centre. The vertical element of the shape runs the full height of the canvas and the horizontal part reaches the full width of the composition, with its upper edge meeting the very top margin of the support. Flanked by an adjoining black vertical rectangle on the left and a black square on the right, the T-shape and its two connected geometric forms have been applied in flat, linear brushstrokes so that a repeating pattern of small, uneven squares is visible across the entire surface of the work. Its support is unprimed and small areas of raw canvas have been left visible. When juxtaposed with the prevailing black-grey colouration of the painting, the light cream hue of the exposed linen canvas creates a luminous shimmer within an otherwise dark composition.
This work was made by Federle in 1997 in his Vienna studio by applying household emulsion paint that had been thinned with water directly to unprimed canvas using a combination of wet and dry paintbrushes. On application the paint immediately bled into the fibres of the fabric in places, creating an effect closer to staining than to conventional brush strokes. This method also had the effect of producing a very matt paint surface through which the texture of the canvas could be seen clearly. It is likely that the T-shaped form was created by segregating areas of the composition using masking tape. (See Tom Learner, Tate Conservation Report, June 2000, Tate Conservation File.)
Federle made his first group of monochromatic paintings in 1977 and Norwegian Sight can be seen as a continuation of the artist’s ongoing preoccupation with the use of black. In 2009 Federle explained that his choice to use a palette dominated by white, black and grey was not a formal or compositional device, but rather a response to a spiritual need to experience colour in his paintings in a specific way: ‘In the period in Basel, from when I left art school until ’79, my paintings were all, more or less, grey, white, and black. I think that I didn’t want to enter into the world of color. The color scheme grey, white, black is not anti-color but just a different way of feeling color, a psychic way that served my inner tremblings, my inner energy’ (Federle in Federle, Yau and Martin 2009, accessed 12 August 2015).
In 2002 the curator and director of Tate Nicholas Serota discussed Federle’s sensitivity to the subtle vicissitudes of natural light, specifically the spectral quality of the light in the northern hemisphere at nightfall, which he argues the artist captures in this painting: ‘The light in Norwegian Sight has the shimmering quality of light at dusk. This is the moment in the day when light is most sensitive to changes in the intensity and colour of the sun’s illumination. In northern latitudes, and given the title we may assume a northern aspect, a progressive darkening of the sky occurs very slowly leaving vestigial images hovering before the eye and in the mind’ (Serota 2002, p.85). Federle spent time teaching in Norway in the early 1990s, during which period he may have been exposed to these qualities of light.
Serota goes on to describe the manner in which the complex, multi-layered construction of Norwegian Sight slowly reveals itself to the viewer in three distinct perceptual stages. Initially, he argues, the viewer apprehends the linear compositional forms – the ‘lintel’ and ‘post’ – but as he or she steps forward ‘the forms dissolve and structure predominates: horizontal and vertical sweeps of paint, saturated black marks which appear in some parts liquid and flowing into the canvas, in others dry and dragged across the fibres of the linen’. Finally, Serota suggests that when standing directly in front of the work the viewer can detect ‘a smoky film of white’, a certain mysterious light that seems to come off the surface of the painting as well as emanating from within (Serota 2002, p.85).
Federle himself has also identified a characteristic perceptual ‘slowness’ and ‘depth’ to his paintings, comparing the process of viewing his works to that of observing the life-cycle of a plant bud which is always in a state of ‘germination’ or at ‘the beginning of something new’. The paintings generate a ‘vegetative effect’, he argued in a 1995 interview, with every stage of perception implying the anticipation of other states and each painting being subject to ‘an overriding schematic principle of growth and decay’ (Federle in Helmut Federle XLVII Biennale Venedig, Baden 1997, p.32).
Norwegian Sight was first exhibited in 1997 as part of Federle’s exhibition representing Switzerland in the forty-seventh Venice Biennale and was shown again in the 2002 exhibition Helmut Federle at the Musée de Beaux-Arts de Nantes, France.
John Yau, ‘Untitled’, in Helmut Federle: Panthera Nigra, exhibition catalogue, Peter Blum Gallery, New York 1998, unpaginated.
Nicholas Serota, ‘Au-dela du Langage’, trans. by Nicholas Serota, in Helmut Federle, exhibition catalogue, Musée de Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes 2002, pp.84–6, reproduced pp.85–6.
Helmut Federle, John Yau and Chris Martin, ‘Helmut Federle in Conversation with John Yau and Chris Martin’, Brooklyn Rail, 5 November 2009, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2009/11/art/helmut-federle-in-conversation-with-john-yau-and-chris-martin, accessed 12 August 2015.
Supported by Christie’s.