Rainer Metzger

Barbara Höller’s Art and Her Logic of Support

Katalogtext ‘drill’, 2001


When Emile Zola, who as Impressionism’s programmatic voice was one of the nineteenth century’s most influential art commentators, was especially impressed by an artwork, he would say: “The picture drills a hole in the wall.” Although he let out such emphatic pronouncements with a much lower frequency than today’s critics do in their enthusiasm, praise and admiration, these holes were sufficiently widespread that they get on one’s nerves in the anthologies where his sporadically published texts now appear one after the other. By the fifth hole at the latest, drilled by Manet, Pissarro or Zola’s childhood friend Cézanne, the metaphor has become tiresome. Literature, we learn, should not use the same verbal imagery too often.

          Being denied the use of metaphor, the visual arts have it easier in this respect. Drilling holes, when elevated to a strategy through its very frequency, becomes a sign of artistic originality and authenticity. In the last two years Barbara Höller has dedicated herself to just such an unmistakable endeavor. “Color drillings” and “material drillings” were the result, and in the course of these penetrations into subcutaneous layers a great number of holes were produced, sometimes randomly, sometimes following a pattern and sometimes following an allover principle. The complementarity of both procedures, the initial color drillings and the subsequent material drillings into the work itself, is articulated by the artist in titles that for the most part are purely statements of fact. It is worth making use of another metaphor to further approach this complementarity, inasmuch as a color that can be drilled into is not only optically but also materially present. Let us advance into the conceptual terrain of mining.

          Viewed from this perspective, the color drillings show a similarity to subsurface mining. From the surface of the picture, which is built up of innumerable uniformly applied monochromatic layers of paint, a sort of shaft is bored, a millimeter-thin penetration that can never be so exact that it does not expose multiple layers of color. A shimmering spectacle of color, a psychedelic in miniature, is thus exposed, revealing that the picture is built up of heterogeneous layers of material, which correspondingly are different layers of color. This subsurface mining shows the sedimentation that has occurred. By contrast, the material drillings penetrate into a homogeneous material. The material in question is fine-grade fiberboard, an artificial, highly entropic mishmash of waste that has been pressed into a wood substitute. These panels are subjected to something akin to surface mining. The surface is worked down and material is removed until not a single square centimeter of the original face remains in place. A rugged overlapping jumble of negative cylinders is left over, veritably the physical makeup of the material, an up and down of sameness. With this sort of drilling, attention centers not on the sediment, but on that which has been removed.

          The consistency with which both procedures relate to one another is most certainly clear-cut: in one the surface is investigated, in the other the underground. All in all it is readily apparent that both procedures belong together with the objects of investigation upon which they are applied.


Deck 04, 1997, Mischtechnik auf Holzfaserplatten und Bohrungen 47 x 32 x 45 cm

Within the stringent logic of this investigation into what a picture materially consists of, Barbara Höller’s work stands, literally, in a Postmodernist tradition. She began – and the continuity to Barbara Höller’s position is readily apparent at first glance – with Minimal. This tradition is especially emphasized in the parallel between the two types of drilling.

          Clement Greenberg, Modernism’s foremost apologist, left art with a legacy that was completely involuntary. His masterful narrative of the genus painting, whose nature in the course of its development more and more brings itself to recognizability through the reflection of its own materiality, had, as is often related, a magic word: flatness, to which the paintings come so to say by themselves, because their support is two-dimensional. The Modernist picture was thus flat and abstract and pure, and in this pure condition also fully used to its capacity. Thus in “Modernist Painting” Greenberg formulated his captivatingly simple definition using the following words: “It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the support that remained most fundamental in the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism.”

          However, the definition was all too simple, and Greenberg himself was forced to recognize this. In 1961, the very year in which his text was published, Frank Stella appeared on the scene. The “Shaped Canvasses” that marked his strategy also marked the problem: They were unquestionably flat, and yet they were more similar to reliefs in the polygonality with which they presented themselves in space. In terms of their flatness they were exemplary Modernist painting, but as wall pieces they had an element of the plastic. Stella placed his finger in the wound of Greenberg’s formulation cited above regarding the “ineluctable flatness of the support.” The master had, if not overlooked, then at least given very little attention to this second point, support. Pictures and paintings distinguished themselves through, if anything, their flatness, but they also had support. They were flat because their support was flat, but this support was also a thing, an object, a stubbornly unavoidable phenomenon in its own right. The support is flat because it has a planar surface, but it is by no means a two-dimensional plane.

          Stella was the initial figure to bring forth the Postmodernist dementi regarding Greenberg and his theses. Art proved itself to be more diverse than the criticism that sought to conceptualize it. On the other hand, it was Greenberg’s cogent commentary that had unintentionally played the midwife for Minimal, Conceptual, Body and Performance art. Greenberg gave up in 1969. In the almost three decades remaining in his life, he did not publish a single further text.


wood 1999, Faserplatte, bebohrt, Öl, 102 x 102 cm
Surface, Underground

What Greenberg meant by “support” is readily understood. Greenberg thought up a concept for naming that upon which “flatness” presents itself. Of course this thought is a paradox. The support of flatness cannot be flat itself: As a real phenomenon it must exist within reality’s three-dimensionality. Like every other masterful narrative, Greenberg’s also constructs itself around an ideal. If any art of the sixties attempted to approach this ideal, then it was Pop art, with its principle of layered images, which were applied to the canvas by means of silkscreen printing, with the printing apparatus fittingly carrying the name “flatbed”. Here the flat surface of the support is in fact separate from the flatness of the images processed using the techniques of mass media. Greenberg did not allow himself any chance to incorporate artists such as Rauschenberg or Warhol in his theory: They were not abstract.

          Abstraction is no longer really a criterion within the period in which Barbara Höller has been producing art. Moreover, the integral togetherness of surface and underground explored in the color and material drillings offers the possibility of a current aesthetic of materials. “Flatness of the support”: No better formulation can be invented to name the field to which her investigations apply. It is precisely in the depth dimension, bordering on the infinitesimal, of the color drillings that surface is created and yet that surface is always put in question. Conversely, the rugged surface of the material drillings, which always represents the point of departure from which depth, indeterminate due to its complete homogeneity, is penetrated into, shows what underground is.

          Barbara Höller’s art revolves around an aesthetic of support. Material is not explored because it is esoteric, as with Beuys, or revolting, as with Dieter Roth, or referential, as in the serialization of Minimalism. Material is available because its supporting function has been put on standby. This is not very spectacular, but it is uncompromising. Since Greenberg’s departure, there has been a polyglot response to his differentiation of types of art: The answer of artists like Bruce Nauman, whose oeuvre has undergone a diversity of transformations, is exemplary. There is also a contemporary answer that takes Greenberg’s differentiation literally. From Lawrence Wiener to Donald Judd, many artists have thus radically put a change of their positions into question. Barbara Höller doubtlessly belongs among the monomaniacs. But it is by no means a foregone conclusion that this renunciation of the spectacular is also a renunciation of the interesting.


Rainer Metzger ist ein deutscher Kunsthistoriker, Autor, Kurator und Kritiker. Er lehrt seit 2004 Kunstgeschichte an der Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Karlsruhe.