‘For a painting is constructed like a house: each layer of colour applied, no matter how small, must be a force in support of the entire painted organism. The close scrutiny of every colour employed in a painting is part of the gymnastics and discipline of the spectator’s re-creative imagination.’1 Otto Freundlich, 1931
Is it possible that you have stumbled upon an intimate survey of German abstractionist Otto Freundlich in South London? Are these the constructed compositions he made in the shadow of the second World War?
Moving closer to inspect the surface of these pictures the situation reveals itself to be more complex. We find ourselves in the midst of a near-forensic investigation by Alex Lawler, one that gives form to a myriad of relationships and systems that are hidden in plain sight. Lawler has not only adopted a methodical approach to analyse and re-create Freundlich’s paintings as collages but in developing and exhibiting this body of work he explores the value systems and networks at play within the culture of contemporary art. Freundlich’s paintings speak of early modernism’s optimism toward the role of art in society, while the iconic works left unfinished when he was killed in a concentration camp in Lublin, Poland in 1943 are heavy with the weight of history. Lawler re-imagines these dynamic and historically loaded paintings in a way that prompts us to reflect upon interconnected narratives, both past and present.
In place of paint, Lawler has extracted shards of colour from artworks reproduced in the pages of the art world’s most iconic trade magazine, Artforum. As he explains, ‘Artforum is so famously about promotion and power dynamics, between galleries, collectors, critics and artists … but also on a formal level, it is a vast palette; eventually, every colour tone, every gradation, every mood from one colour to the next will appear in Artforum’.2 Volumes of print advertisements are sampled and abstracted from their original context, relinquishing their intended role of announcing, promoting and positioning an artist’s work within a market where currency is both intellectual and financial. They instead form components of a whole which balances aesthetic harmony with a critical, self-reflexive purpose.
If the viewer of contemporary art today increasingly plays a game of ‘spotting’ instead of looking – a game enacted as much at an art fair as by flicking through the pages of a magazine – then Lawler’s work can be seen as a playful disruption of this process.3 As viewers we are prompted to stop and ask: whose work are we looking for? The identity of the individual artist, as deciphered from the signifiers within their work, fragments and interconnects with a collective whole. Just as Freundlich described his paintings as forming a ‘community of colour’4, Lawler’s work draws our attention to networks and forms of representation the artist must negotiate and find a place within.
Is it possible to consider these pictures in isolation from Freundlich’s legacy as an artist and a historic figure? As a painter, sculptor, writer and activist responding to the turmoil of the early 20th century, Freundlich has been likened to his contemporaries, Kandinsky and Mondrian. He was a member of both the German post-revolutionary Novembergruppe in 1919, and later Abstraction–Création in the early 1930s. Inspired by compositions in stained glass, he developed a visual language that combined geometric elements and chromatic variations, filling his paintings with flat colours that he ordered with straight lines and curves. His compositions saw aesthetic tensions and power dynamics unfold across each canvas. Yona Fisher writes, ‘Freundlich refers to the inner necessity of the abstract art as the only right reaction to a world whose value system has changed. The artist, as an active witness of the moral and social crisis of his time, raises the question of art’s function’.5
Like Freundlich, Lawler‘s pictures are primed by a rigid, mathematical system. Ratios are calculated to play with the scale of the original works, while angles and colours carefully matched. The internal logic and the system of reproduction itself becomes a driving force, as Lawler observes: ‘Eventually you have to let the system run, and, in the end, the system will dictate’. Lawler is in constant negotiation with the parameters he has put in place, and the act of disruption is an alluring one to him. Subtle acts of sabotage reveal themselves in his own brush strokes that mingle among the collage, supporting the overall structure.
There is a sense of energy and movement in search of balance within these works, though Lawler’s queries extend beyond the frame. By drawing our attention to layered and interconnected relationships – between contemporary art and art history, the artist and the gallery, the work of art and the market – Lawler acts in a way as a journalist, uncovering and presenting to us the continually evolving story of art within the frame of politics, power dynamics and aesthetic relations.
1 Otto Freundlich, ‘The Artist and the Economic Crisis’
(‘Der Künstler und die Wirtschaftskrise’), 1931. Published in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Per-Oskar Leu: Crisis and Critique’, Triple Canopy, New York, 2012. Accessed 14 February 2016: https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/the_artist_and_the_economic_crisis
2 Discussion with the artist, 13 February 2016
3 See Robert Storr, ‘View from the Bridge’, frieze,
Issue 90, 2005
4 Genevieve Debien, Otto Freundlich (1878-1943) entre 1937 et 1943. Doctoral thesis, Universite Paris-Sorbonne, Paris, 2010. Accessed 14 February 2016: https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00531768/document
5 Yona Fisher, Hommage to Otto Freundlich on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Goldman-Schwartz Gallery, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1978. See also Joachim Heusinger von Waldegg, Catalogue raisonné des travaux de l’Artiste, Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn, Rheinland-Verlag, Cologne, 1978.
Elizabeth Stanton is Publications Manager at Raven Row, London, where recent publications include the artist monograph, Larry Johnson: On Location (Bruce Hainley ed.) and The Inoperative Community (curated by Dan Kidner). She moved to London from Sydney in 2010 to complete an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at Royal College of Art. From 2011 to 2014 she was Research Associate for Culture+Conflict UK. In 2014 she was also Programme Coordinator at The Showroom, London. As a writer, she has contributed to Art Monthly Australia, Art Collector, Das Superpaper and Runway magazine, and she was a critic in residence for the inaugural Art Month Sydney in 2010.
Alex Lawler (b. 1981, Milan, Italy) is a London-based Australian artist, who obtained his MFA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College in 2011, having previously studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna (with Professor Richard Dunn) and Sydney College of the Arts. Recent exhibitions include Was die Wange röthet, kann nicht übel seyn, at Kerstin Engholm Gallery, Vienna (2015); cut.paste.repeat at Verge, Sydney (2015); Balls at Nest, The Hague, Netherlands (2015); One way return at Peter von Kant, London (2014); Birds of Paradise at James Dorahy Project Space, Sydney (2013). Lawler is also co-founder of Bell Street Project Space in Vienna.