20 January - 26 February 2011
Winfred Gaul. Die Linie
Curated by Angela Madesani
monday / saturday
10 am - 1 pm / 2 pm - 7 pm
Galleria Bianconi - Milano
The Rise of Winfred Gaul by Angela Madesani
The artistic and existential life of Winfred Gaul is one that accompanies the most complex seventy years in German history, and yet There is nothing canonical about his socially oriented research. His journey started out right in the years of the reconstruction, when he studied Literature and the History of Art at the University of Cologne, before moving on to the Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, where he studied with Willi Baumeister. Like many people of his age he moved away from figurative painting towards Informal Art, and his strong desire to bring something new into the German art scene of his day led him to become part of the Gruppe 53 in Düsseldorf Even though very independently, in the mid-1950s he became one of the leading exponents of the Abstraction Lyrique approach being introduced by the young critic Pierre Restany.
In 1953 came his great encounter with Claude Monet, at the Orangerie in Paris. He was fascinated by the artist’s obsession with capturing atmospheric changes, but also by his uncertain and inconstant nature, and by the way he always focused on research. Many years later, he also went to Giverny to rediscover Monet’s painting among the water lilies, and in the colours of his garden. “I feel stricken and desperate. Stricken because a canvas covered in blotches of colour moves me and touches me more than the real world he took from.”
Two constant aspects of his work, as Enrico Crispolti has pointed out a number of times, are sign and colour. “Line becomes colour and colour becomes pulsating space – and thus a function of time. […] I’m fascinated by the possibility of making a painting with a minimum of intervention. I’m fascinated by the idea that just a line, a blotch, a trace of colour would be enough to make a painting”.
Some of his works dating from the early 1970s, his Markierungen, are on show in the exhibition at Galleria Bianconi. This was the period of his analytical painting in which, as the title of the exhibition suggests, line played a dominant role. Here – and, we might add without risk of rebuttal, throughout his entire career – tension constitutes a sort of essence of phenomena, in the philosophical sense of the term. “The result of an analytical method of moving towards perfection, always attempting anew to say everything in a single line.”
Gaul’s is not monochromatic painting in the strictest sense of the term, even though for a certain period – which is the one we have here – it is a single base colour in his works. “‘Monochromy’ was not the intention, but the inevitable result of my conception”.
The Markierungen come from the time when he took up Analytical Painting, which was not a group – especially in Germany – and it was neither founded nor declared, but simply a series of exhibitions that revolved around the analysis of painting. In those years, Gaul made a series of paintings in which he used raw canvas, tracing out freehand parallel lines, either diagonal or perpendicular, at the sides. To do this he used charcoal, chalks of different colours and thicknesses, or very diluted acrylic colours. From this point of view, his observation on Matisse is revealing: “These drawings... are the result of an analytical method of moving towards perfection, always attempting anew to say everything in a single line.”
The choice of these materials – of raw Belgian linen canvas, chalks, and humble colours, and thus of minimal gestural expressiveness and tending towards the very essentials –reveals his Franciscan-like approach to work. Painting, which is the sole, authentic object of all his work, must be stripped of any useless frills, in order to be captured and proclaimed in all its austere humility.
The works on show here have been identified as those of his maturity by Gaul, who viewed his developments in painting as running parallel to the various ages in his life. These works take up his creative vision of colour, in the painting itself and in his attempt to return to the roots of European Constructivist and Rationalist Art.
Gaul is interested in art, and painting is his great love. As he has written and emphasised a number of times, painting is a demanding lover: “The decision to prefer painting over other forms of artistic expression is very personal, and has nothing to do with moving forwards or backwards, or with fashions and styles.” He was never interested in being part of movements, in the strictest sense, or making reference to one current or another. “Painting is the painter’s permanent reflection on the possibility of creating a painting. It is a way of working, which is of capital importance for me.” Right from the beginning, his conceptual consistency with regard to his artistic approach was always important. Yet his approach to painting was not one of reverence for some monstre sacré. So he soon abandoned his use of the paintbrush and classic oil colours. “I have no preference for any particular material, or for particular colours or strategies. All materials, all colours, and all strategies are of equal value, but they are not interchangeable.” And on this subject, he says: “Among ‘painting materials’, I include not just frames, canvases, colours and the instruments I use to spread the colour on the canvas, for I also add all the information the painter has when he is working, and which influence his decisions.”
In Gaul we find ourselves facing an anti-dogmatic personality, and one with a profound sense of doubt. His art does not offer answers and certainties, but rather introduces new questions. His approach was always experimental in nature. Gaul was an artist and an awkward character, who cannot simply be conveniently pigeonholed in currents or movements.
“Art without ambiguity is not art,” he maintained on a number of occasions. Over the years he attracted much criticism and was accused of being inconsistent. In actual fact, he worked hard against the concept of style. As we have seen, he worked not so much on authentic or supposed stylistic coherence as on experimenting with great discipline and dedication, completing each area of his studies with absolute method and precision, until they were quite exhausted, before going on to other things.
The position he adopted was open and inquisitive, always leaving room for interaction with various forms of art, even though he always remained exclusively a painter. Gaul worked in a serial manner, and was never interested in creating a “masterpiece”, but rather in working with methodical and total application to the studies he was tackling at each particular moment.
His is a reflection on artistic language, which is as topical today as it ever has been: “As I see it, there is no definitive definition of painting. At times I have brought into question and re-examined pre-established outcomes, and sometimes I have started from scratch, working from the opposite extreme of my previous research. [...] I’ve always been more interested in doing than in the actual result.”
But his reflections on language come into crisis when he tackles the issue head on, and begins to see its evident limitations: “It is in these qualities (when referring to painting and colour) that language is lacking. Language says ‘blue’ independently of whether it is a plum, car paint, or the colour of the sky. Language does not explain to us that, even though it is always the same, the blue of a plum has a way of appearing, and conveys a sensation that is entirely different from the blue of a car. Language has no equivalence for optical sensations.”
Winfred Gaul’s age made him part of the generation of German artists who helped turn the post-war reconstruction of Germany into a sort of legend. He always kept at a distance from these positions, for he did not think that a clean sweep, however energetic, could cancel everything that had happened.
Life does not allow for clean sweeps. Everything is part of history and memory, which constitute different thoughts of art, and not only. “From a field of colour to the trace of colour / from the definite to the ambiguous / from closed to open / from answer to question / from the end to the intentional.” It was a long journey, and on each occasion Gaul posed himself both problems and their opposites, knowing from the outset that he would never find a solution, and thus the truth. And perhaps it is precisely in this approach that the power of his work, which is still so relevant today, truly resides.
 In actual fact Winfred Gaul was born in 1928 under the Weimar Republic, a period that came to an end in 1933, when the Nazis came to power.
 Willi Baumeister, who died in 1955, was one of the founders of the Zen 49 group.
 From Winfred Gaul’s notebooks.
 W. Gaul, “Dialogo con Claude Monet”, 28.2.1989, in R.Peccolo (ed.), Winfred Gaul Con Amore, Livorno, Galleria Peccolo, 1992.
 W. Gaul in an interview with Klaus Honnef in flash art no. 54-55, 1975.
 W. Gaul, work notes.
 W. Gaul, Markierungen, 1974, Galleria del Milione, Milan, 1974 (in cooperation with Galleria Peccolo, Livorno).
 W.Gaul, Markierungen, Stufidre Arte Contemporanea, Turin, 1975.