Anja Werkl
The pleasure of experiment

Catalogue ‘Along the Line’
published 2016

Even today, it is quite apparent that the main currents of abstract painting as they developed in the early days – one emotionally oriented and emanating from Expressionism, the other intellectually or geometrically oriented and influenced by Cubism – still play a significant role in the reception of abstract painting. Thus expressive, gestural painting is routinely more associated with emotion, while geometry is traditionally affiliated with the intellect, although since the emergence of the postmodern discourse in the 1980s an increasing number of painters have endeavored to negate the steadfastness of such all-too-clear categorizations.[1]

Looking at Barbara Höller’s work, one is easily inclined to perceive a strengthening of the well-established modes of reception, and a retention of the modernist dualism, with its differentiation between feeling and understanding made on the basis of the painting’s formal characteristics. Höller’s works do, after all, move in the realm of geometric abstraction, and thus they could be unquestioningly perceived along traditional lines as intellectually oriented. And of course that is what they are: every one of Höller’s work series begins with a query delving into key issues of painting, which the artist then attempts to approach through a number of works. At the beginning of the 1990s work group farbbohrungen, for instance, stood the question of the figure-ground relationship. Here it was, however, not the painterly use of layers that was thematized by the grids of drillings made in monochromatically painted sheets of fiberboard: paradoxically, the picture surface itself became the ground for underlying layers of color revealed by shallowly drilled holes. Around the year 2000, in the series riss & dry and fill, the artist began to fill the holes with paint, focusing her aesthetic interest on the material behavior of acrylic and its drying process, which gave rise to cracks in the paint-filled depressions. The interest that Höller was already displaying in paint, the most important material in painting, would be manifested all the more in later works that play very overtly with the materiality of paint. In the series farbstoffe paint itself became the object. Rectangular lengths of “fabric” – consisting exclusively of dried acrylic paint – were draped over tables, wrapped on tubes and spread over pedestals, as in covers, where paint, as a representative of painting, was baldly cast in its existence as a plastic object, playing a role most vehemently contrary to its conventional use in the illusionism of the panel painting. The spirals, which appeared in 2007 and were created by concentrically winding strings of varyingly pigmented acrylic paint in to circular forms, also bear witness to this aesthetic exploration. Being displayed both as image-objects hung on the wall and as installation objects in the exhibition space, these works also give rise to thoughts on the ambiguity of paint as a vehicle of illusion and as the pure material of painting.

Fill 01, 2001, Acrylic in fiberboard, 70 x 70 cm

In the examples mentioned above, Barbara Höller’s connection to the analytic painting of the 1970s becomes readily apparent. The development of Conceptual Art, with the attendant rise in intellectualized art, called for a painting that would distance itself from reigning formalisms and would bring an end to the modernist concept of painting, which was indivisibly tied to notions of authenticity, alterity and autonomy.[2] Now the objective was to pursue painting for painting’s sake, whereby its basic components were put at the center of reflection: support, ground, paint, tools. Simultaneously, representation and gesture were queried, and the complete elimination of the artist from her[3] work was propagated in view of the poststructuralist reconsideration of the issue of authorship.[4] In Barbara Höller’s work one can also find connections to fundamental aspects of Minimal Art laid down in the 1960s, such as a reduction to basic forms, a taboo against the use of illusionistic devices, a penchant for serial repetition paired with a prohibition against hierarchies, an impersonalization of the object and an anonymization of production.[5] Hence the artist, who generally works in series, decided in the 1990s to use industrially produced medium-density fiberboard – in which wood is pressed into a neutral, homogeneous material. In later series like check, section and concurrent access she also began to use aluminum panels, which offer a similarly hard and smooth surface that stands in pointed opposition to the texture and elasticity of canvas, the conventional support of painting. The distanced stance taken in the choice of support corresponds to an overall attempt to anonymize the artistic hand in the treatment of the image-object’s surface, for example through the use of drills in the series farbbohrungen, wood, riss & dry, fill, prozess and prozesssysteme, and of syringes in oneliner and stream and breath. Similar observations hold true for the work groups glasslines and marks. In the former, Höller experiments with the process of glass melting and its form-changing effects, drawing straight lines on the glass surface with a paint pen and straightedge, and then leaving the final result up to the material dynamics of glass as it melts and hardens again. In the latter, the placement of objects on canvas gives rise to photogram-like images, which, although they are captured by the artist’s hand guiding a sprayer applying acrylic paint, nonetheless form a surface so homogeneous that it provides little information on her subject.

And yet one should not understand Barbara Höller’s work, despite its strong tendency toward the geometric-concrete and the analytic, as art that caves in without reservation to the demands of the intellect. This becomes most evident in the artist’s pleasure in experimentation. Within the individual work groups one can often perceive a great deal of fuzziness and playfulness in the realization of the underlying concept. In producing her works, Barbara Höller is usually pursuing a concept, or at times a query addressed to painting as the object of investigation, and thus she at first establishes the parameters under which the experimentation will be conducted. Nonetheless, chance plays a decisive role in the creation of the individual works, either through the uncontrollable characteristics of the material used or through the participation of other artists in situations intentionally left open. In the series farbbohrungen this becomes readily apparent: minor variances in the pressure applied to the drill and the angle at which it is positioned cause the different layers of color under the surface to be revealed irregularly as “sedimentary” samplings. Although the series riss & dry or section are professedly based on systematic approaches displayed in their use of grids and linear structures, the individual works originate from formal decisions made by the artist on the spur of the moment. The series oneliner evidences a playful approach in which Höller experiments with techniques of paint application, using a syringe to apply a string of acrylic paint to a ground that is in some cases colored, whereby the varied movements of the hand guiding the syringe produces variable and in the end uncontrollable nets of lines. Begun in 2011, the farbstapel series features stacked layers of acrylic paint. It is pointedly dedicated to inexactitude, which derives from the technique used in the objects’ creation. Circular, flat color discs of acrylic paint are stacked by the artist in a half-dry state into columns of varying height, which bind together into solid bodies as they dry. At times the drying process causes their forms to deviate strongly from the ideal dimensions of the original shape. Alongside contingency of the aforementioned sort, which derives from irregularities of material and the physical influence of the artist, some of Barbara Höller’s works also provide for the participation of others, giving rise to spirited play within a framework established by the artist. The paint clothes, folded pieces of “fabric” consisting exclusively of acrylic paint in which the front and back sides meld into an object-like whole, were, for instance, stacked in the Kunsthandlungen (meaning both art actions and art stores) into sculptures variable through the participation of their beholders, with each individual result being only one of many possibilities. In charts the lengths of the spaces to be left between the individual aluminum bars in the actual installation were left up to the curator. The works concurrent access, pearl angle and loopen, all of them created in 2015, address questions arising from the intersection of real, virtual and Euclidean space while presenting themselves as paintings changeable through the playful interaction of others.

2009, temporary tape and sound installation @ MUSA Vienna

In facilitating the involvement of others in her work, Barbara Höller integrates a form of participation that in no small part arose in the Happenings of the 1960s and today has continued primarily in interactively conceived works of digital art and in performances. Fundamental to this sort of participation is the idea that the beholder plays a crucial role in the creation of the artwork. From this standpoint, the emergence of reception-aesthetic approaches in the visual arts has decisively changed the role of the artist, who is no longer idealized as a genius engaged in the solitary creation of autonomous artworks, but is seen more as the shaper of experiences relating to the recipient.[6] In the aforementioned works Barbara Höller has also taken this path, which in the end leads from the closed artwork to the formalization and thematization of aesthetic process.

Alongside these aspects of her work – reflection on what is constitutive of painting, the significance of chance and play within the artistic process of creation, emphasis on the conception of art as a field of actions facilitating aesthetic experience – Barbara Höller’s analytic interest also centers on the fundamental concepts of human perception and orientation governing all of life: time and space. Reflections on them can already be traced in works dating from 1990s, such as rotation and jalousie. The former series conceptually explores the figure-ground problem in painting through the aging process of wood, while the latter addresses questions regarding the exchangeability of space and surrounding. In a subsequent work, the spatial installation mobile-interval, Höller explicitly reflects individual experiences of time by recording the temporal course of mobile telephone conversations captured while riding public transit and then translating them into wall-covering structures of lines, whose content is at the same time made available aurally to the beholder via headphones. Temporally and spatially determined principles are also central to the creation of the [zeit]spiralen. Each individual strip of one-meter length corresponds to ten seconds of paint application. These were then wound in a spiral around a central point, whereby the structure of gaps displayed by the circular objects in their final form allows conclusions to be drawn regarding the temporal progression of the production process. Spatiotemporal considerations also represent the point of departure for the works of the series prozess and prozesssysteme, in which patterns of color in the drilled holes structuring the surface manifest the temporality of the production process by evoking the impression of spatial volumes in the finished product. In the series stream and breath, compress and charts, in which the creation of the artwork is based on the idea of dividing a flat surface into small individual segments, painting is tilted out into real space through the use of aluminum bars. Exploring the illusionistic possibilities of the panel painting and querying Euclidean geometry’s regimentation of our conception of space, Höller’s newest works let perspectival spatial views – fragmentarily depicted by lines of varying width conveying spatial coordinates – become abstract images, which are arranged modularly and can be rotated around their axes. Here the artist draws attention to the relativity and subjectivity of spatial experience and to the numerous definitions of space, which make queryable every unambiguous mathematical definition. In concurrent access and pearl angle the overall view of the closely hung individual panels presents multiple views of a real space, which can be rearranged into new views by pivoting the individual panels. While in concurrent access illusionistic depth is produced by black lines set at certain angles to each other before a white, monochrome background (whereby the figure-ground relationship follows the scheme of conventional painting), pearl angle makes depth perception more difficult by using a shimmering silvery color in drawing its linear constructions. This seems to radicalize the paintings’ degree of abstraction. The works screening, loopen and looppool, which Höller exhibited together in 2015 at the Künstlerhaus, address possibilities for overlapping multiple perspectives and translating them into abstract forms in paintings. Here the artist focuses on overlapping virtual digital spaces, depictions of real spaces, and the actual exhibition space as the beholder experiences it. Using the color copper as a reference to the ubiquitous electronic conductor, the artist created a wall drawing over the entire length of the exhibition hall visualizing the simultaneous existence of multiple spaces: the real space in which the artist found herself, and a virtual space, whose coordinates were transmitted digitally in the course of an internet conversation. These overlaps are also the motif of the four-part loopen, in which spatial coordinates are cut into pieces of passe-partout board. Here, as in concurrent access, the individual elements can be rearranged into new spatial views and systems of lines. Finally, in looppool Höller plays the perspectival game of a coordinate system developing in endless virtual spatial overlaps, which find expression in forms appearing as flat surfaces.

2012, Edding on acryl on cotton, 30 x 30 cm

As the aforementioned works make evident, the relativity of the conventional systems of European time and space measurement play a major role in Barbara Höller’s work. Here she pursues experiences that have become increasingly commonplace through the permeation of everyday life by digital media: the conventional understanding of space and time has become queryable through the simultaneous availability of information in virtual networks.[7] An appraisal of the transformation of the understanding of time through history reveals it to be a variable, relational construction that cannot be consistently defined. Not only can one differentiate between cyclical, linear and simultaneous time systems: time is also seen from varied standpoints according to different scientific frames of reference – physics, philosophy, psychology, biology, cultural studies and sociology – whose contradictions make a comprehensive definition impossible. The constant, ideal conception of time as something objectively measurable and utilizable as a physical dimension stands in contrast to one that is relational, linked to experience and culturally specific, i.e. that of the humanities.[8] The differences in the understanding of space are similar, which on the one side is conceived in physics and mathematics as independent of perception and representation, and on the other side is regarded as the visual space of a perceiving subject and is thus understood as experiential space.[9] Of key significance in the consideration of space is the differentiation between absolute and relational space, i.e. between the notion of space as a container in which objects and humans occupy their fixed places, and that in which space and bodily objects are indivisibly interconnected. The latter view thinks of space in dynamic terms; i.e. it is enabling and changeable, whereby time also becomes an essential factor.[10] This sort of interconnection of space and time can also be appreciated in Höller’s works screening, loopen and looppool. Not only is the stasis of real space set in relationship to digital, moveable, temporary space: in loopen the action of the recipient is also marked by a temporal process in a work thematizing the entire changeability of space through variable constellations of the individual image panels.

Beyond all of the seriousness with which Barbara Höller formulates fundamental issues of present-day painting in her artworks, there is another element of artistic exploration that is also essential to her creativity: humor. In the drawings of the series kleinkariert the artist ties in with the art-historical significance of the square, which plays a key role in the abstract-geometric art of the 20th and 21st centuries and served as the ideal form of Constructivism, and whose widespread use extends from the De Stijl movement and Zurich Concrete Art to Minimal and Op Art.[11] In these works Höller rows squares together tightly, thus playing on the link to art history, which is important to the artist not only formally, but also intellectually. kleinkariert speaks of moving within narrow frames of reference, ironically thematizing the barriers that must be overcome in the struggle to stake out free fields of action.

Overall, one can make the following assertions regarding the explorations undertaken by Barbara Höller in her work: The impetus behind the ideas formulated by the artist, which precede the works and initiate their realization, derives from fundamental queries that she poses to painting and to art in general. Höller designs experimental setups that are materialized in artworks of an experimental nature in diverse work groups. Knowing the characteristics of the materials she uses, Höller, although she establishes the framework of the experiment at hand from the start, leaves the final formulation of the artwork up to a process that cannot be foreseen or influenced, and which through the use of various tools and materials often seems to take on a life of its own. The final results of her experimentation are decisively influenced not only by material behavior, but in some cases also by the recipients’ actions in the exhibition situation. Thus it is clear that the artist’s self-understanding is that of a shaper of situations comprising participative aspects of authorship. The reduction of form and color that can be recognized in the works serves to magnify the expression of Höller’s analytic approach. And yet she does not renounce a certain playfulness in the formulation of her artworks, which helps them achieve a fuzziness of aesthetic expressivity that avoids perception as final and universal answers to the queries posed. Barbara Höller’s works are thus experiments yielding approximate values that leave room for interpretation, being, after all, first and foremost aesthetic products. They are milestones in the search for answers, always revealing themselves to be provisional and allowing the goal to retreat into the distance.

[1]     As early examples one might name the artists Sean Scully and David Reed. While Scully began in the 1980s to give his strict geometric grids of color stripes more expressivity by using visible brushstrokes and softer, more organic edges, David Reed at more or less the same time developed his seemingly spontaneous approach using broad sweeps of the brush, which nonetheless were carefully planned and executed with methodical exactitude. Cf. LÜTZOW G. (2015), Auferstanden aus Ruinen. Interview mit Sean Scully, online [accessed 14 May 2016]. Cf. KRÖNER M., “Ich möchte die Zeit zurück in die abstrakte Malerei führen”, in Kunstforum International, vol. 225, 150–159.

[2]     Cf. KLINGER C. (2010), “Modern/Moderne/Modernismus”, in BARCK K. et al. (eds.), Ästhetische Grundbegriffe. Stuttgart-Weimar: J.B. Metzler. 121–67, 158.

[3]     In instances where a gender-specific formulation is necessary, the author uses a generic feminine throughout the entire text. It should be considered to comprise the masculine as well.

[4]     Cf. DAMUS M. (2000), Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert. Von der transzendierenden zur affirmativen Moderne, Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag. 343ff. Cf. MÜLLER G. (2002 [1970]), “After the Ultimate”, in COLPITT F., Abstract Art in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 61–67.

[5]     Cf. MARZONA D. (2006), Minimal Art, Cologne: Taschen Verlag. 6ff.

[6]     Cf. LEHMANN A. (2008), Kunst und Neue Medien. Ästhetische Paradigmen seit den sechziger Jahren, Tübingen-Basel: A. Francke Verlag.

[7]     Cf. ROBERTSON J., MCDANIEL C. (2013), Themes of Contemporary Art. Visual Art after 1980, New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press. 119ff.

[8]     Cf. KLEIN È. (1995), Die Zeit, Bergisch Gladbach: BLT.

[9]     Cf. OTT M. (2010), “Raum”, in BARCK K. et al. (eds.), Ästhetische Grundbegriffe, Stuttgart-Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler. 113–149, 134ff.

[10]   Cf. KAJETZKE L., SCHROER M. (2010), “Sozialer Raum: Verräumlichung”, in GÜNTZEL Stephan (ed.), Raum. Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch, Stuttgart-Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler. 192–203, 193.

[11]   LUDWIG-GLÜCK E. (2015), Nicht nur schwarze Quadrate, in Mundus Art Magazin 2/15, 12–15. (accessible online: