Daniela Gregori Not Even a Decade

Not Even a Decade

Text for catalogue ‘drill’, 2000

Reflecting on Barbara Höller’s work during the last ten years, one is compelled to recognize that she has increasingly retreated from the indexical principle of painting, leaving no starting point for a graphology, a brushstroke for instance, no gesture belying temperament that could indicate the individuality of an artist, and thus no clue regarding anything like an autograph.


Although formally the artist’s creations have undergone fundamental change, two aspects of her work have remained the same and hence assure a certain unmistakability. One of these aspects is the question “What happens if…?”, the element of experimentation. The other is that of working according to set rules, an often strict principle of “creating order”.


In her exhibition =UND=, at the Blau-Gelbe Galerie in Vienna in 1994, and two years later in the presentation CMY Dual in the Portfolio space in Linz, the artist was still dealing with color and symmetry, and later with the number two. Here the colors were never pure or bright, they were mixed, dulled and impurified so that it was in the end difficult for the observer to name them: Dark black-blue would be a helpful definition, but this is nothing more than a comparison with personal perceptions and moods. Among the works produced during the artist’s stay in Rome, there is a series of pictures in a yellow that approaches the color of a palazzo in the evening light of the setting sun. The self-ground egg temperas employed were enriched using aluminum powder – actually it was powdered copper in the case of the yellow pictures – and dabbed on with the tip of a brush. With goodwill, one could here detect for the last time something resembling the ductus of a brush: What from a distance appeared to be a monochromatic surface revealed itself upon closer inspection to be a lively condensation of pigments, of small islands of color that gleamed and even glistened between seemingly transparent patches. Lines, corners, squares and combinations thereof set with knife-edge precision exposed the industrially produced poplar plywood painting surface, and these figures never remained alone. On the initially large-format panels, the figures were reflected, doubled and repeated, soon finding their corresponding forms in matching counterparts. The fact that these double pictures belong together and are nonetheless two pieces made it possible for the artist to make use of the gaps between the two panels as well as differing hanging heights. At first glance these works always seemed strict, reduced and well-ordered, but only rarely did the artist not exploit the opportunity to play all sorts of pranks on the viewer’s perception.

Leuchten 2, 1996, Dispersion und Gesso auf Pappelsperrholz, 174 x 220 cm

Barbara Höller has never really made it easy for anyone with her art, least of all for herself. In the work group that followed, shown for the first time at the Galerie der Stadt Wels in 1996, the artist probed her own psychological and physical limits. In this attempt to bring “order” into the picture, Höller worked on very large poplar plywood panels using a mathematical formula of her own design. Instead of egg tempera and metal powder, she this time used simple undercoating, which normally is only applied between the support and the color layer. The side-by-side coexistence of color and bare wood gave way to a layering of up to twenty-seven coats of white. Every application of paint, during which the artist with her broom-like brushes was reminiscent of a Zen Buddhist raking her little garden of stones, was followed by the removal of small rectangular pieces of masking material according to the system prescribed by the formula. A large piece of paper, for which the appellation score is much more fitting than the word sketch, served as her guide. It is probably no coincidence that this “meditative self-disciplining” occurred during a lengthy stay in Japan.

Farbbohrung 08, 1999, Dispersionen auf Hartfaserplatte, Bohrungen, 76 x 68 cm

A bird, which inadvertently strayed into the artist’s studio and left its corrosive traces on the majority of the delicate white paintings, sent the artist back to square one and unfortunately put an abrupt end to the whole project. Be that as it may, the paintings of the following Glow series were of a more washable construction. Below their radiant white surface layers, several coats of bright red paint were concealed that were only visible as a narrow gleaming edge following the removal of the masking material. After Barbara Höller first taught us, like the language of the Eskimos, layer by layer how multifarious white in all of its shadings can be, her interest then turned toward the antipode, depth. The language of the Pintupi aborigines has ten different expressions for the word “hole” in its repertoire, and Höller has also discovered a great variety of solutions.


One of the definitions given for drilling in a dictionary, and it is very fitting for Höller’s work, is “the working of holes into a solid mass for the purpose of investigating the nature of its material or that which finds itself under the surface.” And – as Friedrich Schlegel already remarked in his tenth lyceum fragment from 1797: “The board must be drilled where it is thickest.” What is meant here is that despite the initially assumed stringency of the artist’s work, her approach might also be a bit romantic or at least not fully opposed to a humorous “wink”.


Art is always an attempt to struggle against entropy – a physical law stating that in the course of time all matter transforms itself toward complete material uniformity. Barbara Höller takes this very literally. Entropy is splendidly embodied in the material, a sort of fiberboard consisting of fine-ground wood fibers pressed into a wood substitute, she has selected for her most recent works. In the group of works known as “material drillings”, the artists has devised rules, as she has in many other projects in recent years, according to which the panels are processed. While in the trained mathematician’s earlier works the foundation was provided by set formulas, the rules of the game are now much more open. This is all the same to the artist; for her it is a matter of solving problems set for herself and the material. “Drill as deeply as possible without exiting the other side of the board.” “Drill as flatly as possible and nonetheless produce differentiable depths.” In both cases the complete surface of the work is filled without regard for the outer limits. The fear of emptiness, the “horror vacui” of medieval illuminated manuscripts, meets the twentieth century’s “allover” principle. In another group of material drillings, holes that are positioned aesthetically, symmetrically, sparsely and very exactly are sealed with clear varnish or closed up again with paint.


The group of works referred to as “color drillings” operates according to a different set of rules: After an almost total abstinence from the use of color, Höller here coats the fiberboard panels with up to twenty layers of paint in a variety of colors. These twenty layers of order are then returned again to disorder by destroying them, in other words by drilling into them according to a system of rules and making them visible. The effect produced is reminiscent of the backs of mother-of-pearl buttons or the iridescence of soap bubbles. Instead of within the supporting material, as in the case of the material drillings, the experiment takes place on it. In the newest of the color drillings, the artist experimented for a long time with the final two layers. She wanted to achieve a particular luminosity on the picture surface that she had discovered in Viennese wall coatings from the Historicist era. The solution to the problem turned out to be the use of a silvery paint for the next to last coat. As is always the case with a wall that has been repainted, one is also curious about what is under the next layer. Barbara Höller teases this curiosity by only exposing a very little bit through the drilling. It may be comforting to know that she shares this curiosity with us.