Since the late 1990s, the German artist Tomma Abts (born 1967, lives and works in London, winner of the Turner Prize 2006) has been painting small abstract pictures in acrylic and oils which adhere to a strict concept: all her paintings are vertical in format, the same size (38 x 48 cm) and show precisely rendered, often geometrical forms. Her paintings are the product of a long working process – Abts produces only a few works a year – and their formal composition makes no reference to anything seen, but instead emerges from multiple superimposed layers of colour.
For Tomma Abts each work is a research process: each phase in the work and each subjective decision is of importance. Thus Abts’ paintings involve several concealed pictures which in the course of the painting process are reworked in a way that is simultaneously destructive and constructive. The colours in Abts’ paintings are often subdued – as a result of the layering they take on puzzling, cool tonalities without appearing dark. The different colour sedimentations end at a certain point from which on Tomma Abts says the painting finds it own logic. Abts’ paintings are therefore never static compositions and despite the formal restrictions they never become a series, but are always highly individual works: “Each (picture) starts its own path, and I never know where it is going to go or what a painting will end up looking like.” (1) The traces of the painting’s history of making remain visible and enable the viewer to perceive movement and spatiality in the image. Each detail, each form, is treated as equivalent and tension and drama are built up within the image by the shimmering fore- and backgrounds, the negative and positive forms, the light and the shade. The abstract forms in the paintings can be vaguely reminiscent of ornaments, diagrams, tissue or cell structures, or seem to be related to psychedelic or graphic forms from Pop culture.
The enigmatic impact of the paintings is further heightened by the titles Abts gives her works. These include first names, such as for example Eerke, Obbe, Diddo, Thiale or Noeme, which could originate from a particular family or a particular geographical region. With these names Abts gives her paintings a portrait-like, intimate character. In her choice of titles, the artist makes a (phonetic) connection between the image and the name.
In the Oberlichtsaal of the Kunsthalle Basel Tomma Abts is showing 19 paintings and 8 large drawings. Unlike the dense acrylic and oil paintings, the drawings have delicate, finely drawn lines in coloured crayon and pencil on a white ground. The figures that emerge, at the same time underline the flatness of the drawing and create the impression of pictorial spatiality.
This exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel is Abts’ first large institutional show after her exhibition with Vincent Fecteau at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in 2004. In recent years, Tomma Abts has been represented, among others, in group exhibitions such as “Formalismus. Moderne Kunst heute” at the Kunstverein Hamburg in 2004, “2004 Carnegie International” at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, or “deutschemalereizweitausenddrei” at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 2003.
(1) Tomma Abts, Interview with John Slyce, in: Flash Art, October 2002, pp. 68-69.
Tomma Abts was nominated for the Turner Prize because of her solo exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland, and greengrassi, London.
A catalogue in German and English for the exhibition is published by Schwabe Verlag.
The exhibition is supported by Luma Foundation and Hilton Basel.