Madison Gallery
Jan 31, 2017 10:48PM

Light is permanent and yet always different. – (Dr.) Tayfun Belgin

By Peter Frank

Udo Nöger’s visual universe (and for a painter, visuality is entirety, so this means Nöger’s entire universe) is founded on a field of white. Like Eskimo peoples who have myriad different words for “snow,” Nöger knows, and continues to find, endless variations and derivations on the condition of whiteness. But his is not a minimalist exploration of almost-invisible changes; it is a constant enactment of the drama inherent in a realm of his own invention and constant discovery, one where color is not at issue, light itself is. The human eye adjusts, looking here not for spectral relationships – between blue and green, red and violet – but for tonal relationships or even starker contrasts, between presence and absence, surface and depth. Nöger’s white universe is as rich and complex as any rainbow universe, it just depends on different optical conditions.

Perhaps Nöger’s white compositions, painterly but subtly painted, ought to be compared more to sculpture than to painting. To marble, granite, or plaster sculpture, that is, objects hewn from materials whose coloristic qualities are suppressed, to the point of invisibility. To be sure, the ancients decked out even their most classic and austere statues in often-gaudy renditions of clothing, skin, etc. But all that survived the scouring of time was the stone itself, divested of its colorization. Nöger’s paintings, then, are as white as Michelangelo’s figures, not Praxiteles’. But that’s beside the point: what remains at the core of Western three-dimensional art is a tradition of sculpting in pure-white substances, and this artist working in (apparently) two dimensions emulates that purity – or, more accurately, neutrality – with a grace and fervor similar to Bernini’s or Brancusi’s. 

But, again, Nöger does not strive even to infer the third dimension; he only exploits its facture in the construction – the literal construction – of what are ultimately paintings, accretions of pigment meant to be viewed frontally. He paints and lets the paint affect the eye as it will, breathing in and out in an atmosphere of white. At the same time, there is a certain inference of depth in Nöger’s canvases. Portions of those canvases have been rendered translucent, allowing us a view through to the other side. Back there it’s a different breath of whiteness, deeper and quieter than the vivid, icy clouds that cling to the painting’s surface. But “surface” does not mean any sort of extruded picture plane on which brushstrokes accumulate sensually. Rather, everything seems to happen behind an even, featureless scrim, a delicate membrane that, our eyes tell us, has collected bursts of frigid light. Nöger’s white pigment seems to radiate an unearthly glow, its milkiness bespeaking something at once frozen, fluid, and ethereal, a vapor in the process of crystallizing.

Nöger achieves his peculiar, haunting, optically improbable effects not simply by limiting his palette to a relatively stringent array of whites, but by applying those white pigments to canvases which are then stacked, at least three at a time, to comprise a single painting. The strategic application of paraffin (i.e., processed mineral) oil provides the canvases, certainly the top ones, with their translucency. Cut-out areas, especially in the interleaved surfaces, further complicate the relationships between the canvases and the visual space, at once shallow and infinite, established between them. Nöger’s paintings are no mere pictures. Rather, even as they present themselves as wall-hung tableaux, their construction establishes them as places of a sort, containers for a dynamic that is limited in its formula but staggeringly varied in its effect.

Nöger, and many who have commented on his work, have stressed that the essence of his painting is light. After all, he limits his palette to white and subjects his compositions to a structural format and a method of applying substances that together modify how light passes through the disparate areas of pigmental accretion and absence. By doing so, Nöger achieves a radiance that escapes its shapes even as it highlights, even haloes, them. He has even called one of his recent series Lichtfluss, or “Lightflow.” (Tellingly, another series is called Gleiches, which translates as “Equivalents,” but can also mean, or at least infer the concept of, “Simultaneities” – pointing at the coincident, and thus combined, “events” occurring on and between the layers of each stacked painting.)

Nöger has spent much of his professional life far from the cloudy skies of his native west-central Germany, preferring the sun-filled atmospheres of Spain, Mallorca, Colorado, Hawaii, south Florida, and now southern California. Indeed, his work shares qualities of both perception and inventive workmanship with the Light-and-Space movement associated with the Golden State. But light is only where Nöger’s art begins; having engaged light and substance in such an elaborate, balletic, multi-tiered interplay, his art culminates in a kind of retinal theater – not an abstract trompe-l’oeil so much as an uncanny dissipation of landscape space, or some kind of space, into pure luminosity, as if Joseph Mallard William Turner were painting a snowstorm or staring into the sun itself.

Compared often to Lucio Fontana, Nöger’s approach – evident no less in his singly-layered works on paper than in his multi-tiered paintings – does not call attention to its materiality, as Fontana’s does, but to its immateriality. In this respect, he can be seen as Turner’s descendant, and Monet’s, and even Rothko’s. And with theirs, Nöger’s activation of the visual field with what seems monochromatic nuance bespeaks a kind of ecstasy of the void – not a descent into the pitch-black absence of color but an ascent into the delirious every-color cacophony of white. The evident impasto of Nöger’s painterly application brings a grounding materiality to what might otherwise seem mirage-like markings, hovering as they do behind a seemingly dematerialized screen. At the same time, his whiteness seems heavenly, a losing of self in the clouds, even a foretaste of the white light that supposedly brings our consciousness to its final apotheosis. But these are poetic postulates; enticing as they are, they pull us away from the immediate experience of the paintings even as they propose a bracing existentiality. Udo Nöger does not begrudge us our metaphors. But neither does he indulge them at the expense of vision itself. Evocative as they are, these hyper-paintings are not meant to be pictures of anything nor evocations of any states of being, but only visual stimuli – equivalents of themselves, nothing more, or less, than the ebb and flow of light through a variety of suspensions. They provoke metaphysical associations not because they should, but because they can. And, primarily, they provoke pure sensation, entirely for its own sake. These are paintings not about light, but of light.

                  Los Angeles                                                                                                                                                                                                               October 2016

Udo Nöger
Lightfields 10, 2014
Madison Gallery
Udo Nöger
Zerträumend, 2016
Madison Gallery
Madison Gallery