Art Tomma Abts

The Serpentine Galleries present a series of dazzling paintings that keep your eyes in a state of perpetual motion.

Each time I encounter Tomma Abts abstract paintings my mind can’t help itself in trying to see representations in them. I see an aerial view of a busy road junction in her painting ‘Sebo’, bars of a show jumping fence in ‘Feke’ or Mikado pick-up sticks in ‘Unno’.

Other viewers may see different images in the paintings but there is a sheer delight in discovering representations in the 25 works presented at this charming exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler in London.

The images that can be seen in the works are a surprise for Abts as well as she begins each painting with no preconceived notion of the final image consisting of a dazzling interplay of straight, diagonal and curved lines. Sometimes the lines catch highlights, fade away or have a shadow which lifts them up from the surface making the paintings three dimensional. The lines break the forms into complex shapes that are filled with a palette of expressive vibrant or introspective subdued colours. What is extraordinary and phenomenal is that the clear lines in the works are never created with any tools as everything is painted by hand.

Over the last 20 years Abts mainly works on the same size canvas measuring 48 by 38 centimeter. At the press view of the exhibition I ask her why she works on such a modest scale. “When I settled on the format it really felt right for the work I was doing because it’s quite intimate and everything is within my arm’s reach”, she explains. “There was no reason for me to change it really. Also, it gives me a lot of freedom to work on each one individually because I don’t have to think about the format anymore”.

After the press view I sat down with the curator of the show, Lizzie Carey-Thomas, to discuss Abts’s craftsmanship, the mood the paintings evoke and the lengths she goes for her art.

Where do you place Tomma Abts’s work in the genre of geometric, abstract art in relationship to works by Piet Mondrian, Brice Marden or Sarah Morris?
Lizzie Carey-Thomas: That’s a big question. Superficially, yes, Tomma’s paintings are abstract and formally geometric, but I think her works are doing something quite different. The final image is the culmination of a methodical and rigorous process, that begins with no preconceived idea where the painting will end up. The composition goes through many radical shifts before it reaches a point of resolution. That point is to some extent revealed when you look at the final image, you can see hints at the various stages of its construction. You’re aware of the evolution of the forms beneath the surface through the rifts, the seams and the ridges that appear. It is impossible to completely divorce the final composition from the material construction. I think it is an intense negotiation between the mind, hand and material. It’s about that relationship.

The paintings are hung quite low on the walls of the gallery so the viewer has to lean over. Is that because you wanted so show that the works are all painted by hand?
When installing an exhibition, the artist always thinks carefully about the architecture of the space, hanging works low so that they establish a relationship to the floor. It also encourages an intimate relationship between the viewer and the painting. You can see the traces of other directions the paintings could have taken. You can see the revisions, adjustments, changes and decisions taken and reversed or altered. For me that brings a real humanity to the paintings. The hand painted lines have a physicality to them. They become both images and objects.

Although the paintings don’t represent anything they do make you feel something, don’t they?
They do. Each painting has a different mood or vibe about them. It’s very hard to articulate that but it’s absolutely present in the work. It’s to do with the composition and the way your eye moves around it and the particular tonal palette. For me, that is what is so extraordinary and individual about each work.

You say it is hard to articulate the mood of the paintings, but could you select one work in the show and try to describe what you feel when you look at the painting?
When I look at ‘Tedo’ from 2002 there’s a real dynamism to this painting. The colours are odd but it’s an extraordinary, very vibrant painting. You think that your eyes would be drawing to the vanishing point at the centre of the composition but they’re kept in a state of perpetual motion. The process of engaging with the painting is not at all passive.

As you closely collaborated with Tomma on this exhibition could you talk about the lengths she goes for her art?
When you look at the paintings you might think they are relatively easy to paint as they are modest in scale but it is actually a very physically demanding process. As Tomma doesn’t tape the lines she needs to hold her hand extremely steadily. Each painting is the consolidation of many previous iterations of the composition and there are no short cuts that can be taken. In committing to the same format and working parameters she has found incredible freedom. With each painting she may start out not knowing where she will go but she has the faith that those parameters will lead her somewhere.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers.
Tomma Abts, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (7 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Works from top to bottom: Feke (2013), Weie (2017), Lüür (2015), Unno (2017), Tedo (2002).