Klaus Friedeberger – Paintings & Works on Paper 1992-2015 is at Delahunty Fine Art, 21 Bruton Street, London W1, 17th May – 11 June 2016. http://www.delahuntyfineart.com/exhibition/klaus-friedeberger-paintings-works-on-paper-1992-2015/
Friedeberger’s Black Space.
How many artists today would willingly embark on a path so seemingly solitary as that followed by Klaus Friedeberger? Now in his ninth decade he continues to paint with little regard for the usual support network – the periodic exhibitions and moments of critical attention – often seen as vital to sustaining an artist’s career.
That it should have taken so long for this work to become even partially visible (with a selection of paintings from the last two decades currently on display at Delahunty Gallery) is due both to personal choice and life history. After arriving in the UK from Berlin in 1939, his life became that of a peripatetic exile, first interned in this country and then transported as an alien to Australia, where his art education continued erratically, initially under the guidance of fellow European refugees and then through exposure to the work of Nolan, Boyd and the ‘Angry Penguins’.
But by the mid 1960s, when he was again settled in London, he had not only turned away from prevailing currents in British and American art – Pop art, colour field, minimalism – but decided to pursue a patient and decades-long private enquiry into the structural dynamics of abstract form rendered in black and white paint. It was the act of an outsider more philosophically attuned to existentialist practice, as well as to Tachist painting and the writing of Samuel Beckett.
Yet such self-sufficiency can bring its own reward, a kind of freedom to explore and experiment without external distraction or any weight of expectation. And what finally emerges in the best late flowering examples of his work, as he wrestles thickly painted forms from the void in his black spaces, is a visually arresting mixture of tensile strength and compacted energy. While the work harks back to the paint handling of some of the European Tachists – in particular to de Stael and Soulages (a near contemporary of Friedeberger’s) – it nevertheless finds its own way between rawness and rigour, a balance he similarly identifies in the work of Sean Scully.
Modulated in warm and cool greys, the earlier pieces shown here – ‘Light Spatial 1992’ and the untitled sequence from 1997 – lack the drama of the most recent paintings with their intense black fields and shots of brilliant metallic paint. With a narrow tonal range, his gestural forms can seem inert – their movement is slowed down somewhat by the dense application and constant reworking, and the residual shapes tend to sink into rather than float free of the surface.
Only in ‘Clump 1997’ does the hovering form succeed in fully breaking free, mutely suspended in an empty expanse of pale grey. Illuminated from the top left and casting a soft shadow below, this nervous cluster of brush marks, suggestive of a meteorite or a crushed ball of paper (and rendered as though the paint had collapsed in on itself) exercises a powerfully ambiguous presence. Although his abstract language is resistant to ‘reading’, this existential still life is perhaps the closest his work comes to metaphor: are we witness to an unfolding or an aftermath? To something or nothing?
Friedeberger has often been drawn back to Italian and Spanish painters – to Giotto, Caravaggio and Goya – and uses reproductions of their work hung upside down in the studio so as to empty them of subject matter and to better understand the complex interplay of light and shadow in a dark, often black, field. He has also – since visiting the Prado in 2002 – found renewed inspiration by looking at Spanish still life painting and in particular at Cotan’s work. It is evidently there in the hard light and austere arrangement (as though one of Cotan’s cardoons were forged in steel and copper) of ‘Dark Still Life with Copper’ 2007-8, and also in the tight placement of abutting forms within a square format of the new ‘Black Space’ paintings, where the best of them have the energy of a coiled spring.
Finally, in ‘Black space 21’, 2014, the swiftly articulated diagonally curved strokes brushed in thinner metallic hues of silver and gold generate a pulse of energy that leaps across the void, lighting up the dark firmament. Friedeberger’s approach to painting can be viewed as a sustained act of endurance, a struggle against futility that recalls Beckett’s famous words in ‘The Unnamable’: ‘… you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’. But as he continues to progress, the work of resistance takes on an increasingly affirmative quality.