Foto: Thomas Bruns
Description of the picture: A vertical strip of water-diluted China ink, spread with a flat brush on a paper web measuring 180 cm in height and 150 cm in width. Directly next to this ink stripe is another one, as wide as the first one, tangential to it, in some places also slightly overlapping. Directly next to the second one again a strip of diluted brush ink, just as wide as the first and the second, touching the second strip, sometimes also slightly overlapping. And so on: eleven strips right next to each other, without any gaps. The vertical strips do not extend all the way across the available paper surface. Above and below, left and right, it remained in its original state, thus giving the group of vertically aligned strokes a frame of white paper, like a passe-partout. Always the same? Not too complex? It probably sounds like this when you try to describe this ink drawing only, or when you look at it while remaining at a distance. On closer inspection, however, the seemingly unchanging strips reveal a wide range of variations. Those that immediately catch the eye are horizontal zones of obscuration within each stroke. We recognise relatively quickly that the grey value of the ink track created with a brush varies individually. The variations become visible because they contrast with the wholeness of the large grey surface. Light – dark, horizontal – vertical, countable – not to be represented in numerical values, uniform – differentiated. There are other zones of slightly darker grey tones in this composition. They are vertically aligned and have been formed by superimposition wherever the verticals are not only tangential to each other but slightly overlap.
After the first observations from a distance and up close, a figurative association may form in our imagination: this portrait-format rectangle resembles a bird's-eye view of a freshly ploughed field that has then been smoothed with a harrow – perhaps. For the large-format and relatively homogeneously grey rectangle on white paper does not need the association to be visually attractive and at the same time somewhat enigmatic. The title of this drawing, created in 2016, indicates on the one hand what is seen, in other parts it remains cryptic for the uninitiated, but seems to follow a systematic approach: "Vertical (v m/vs 0/11)". One element (China ink), one handstroke (flat brush), one hand motion (vertical, without auxiliaries), repeated eleven times. A simple composition of flat, vertical elements. It could hardly be more minimal. When spoken out loud or read out, it sounds very monotonous. But if one moves from listening and reading to looking and considers the numerous details, what is seemingly monotonous in fact reveals itself to be individually varying handicraft, living diversity. For the eleven ink strokes were executed with a brush in the hand, without a stencil, freehand. The movements of the arm and hand were probably calm and steady; but only to a certain extent, because the arm and hand act in a natural, organic way, not like a machine.
The visible evidence bears witness to a simple and concentrated human action, a movement of arms and hands that we can follow step by step in our imagination: First, a paper web is fixed to a wall surface on all sides. Then a flat brush filled with diluted China ink slowly strokes the surface of the paper web from top to bottom. The brush is held and guided by the hand; the hand is guided by the arm. The paper absorbs the ink from the brush immediately. No trickles, no splashes, some friction perhaps between the hairs of the brush and the surface of the paper. The transmission of force by means of the drawing arm varies depending on how high it is raised, so that the downward movement of the brush is sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower. Sometimes it might stall for a moment. As soon as the movement slows down a little, a slightly larger amount of the diluted ink per unit area can leave the brush and soak the paper: a horizontally directed, slightly darker tone value in this area is the result. If the brushstrokes cover an area already soaked with ink, a darker tone value is also created. The resulting darker-toned inner area is bordered by sharp contours – in contrast to the darkening that results from variations in the speed of the respective hand movement. At the very bottom, at the end of each ink track, the brush falters again briefly before taking off. The result is a final horizontal darkening of the ink surface. This last darkening indicates where in this drawing is above and where below. So what you see, if you look closely, are the actual traces of the process of creation and the material used: a certain ink, a certain type of paper, a brush of a certain width. Nothing else is shown or represented.
Is that minimal? Absolutely, because here method, technique, material and composition were consciously reduced to a minimum of what seems possible. Reduction as a program. However, if that were all, it would probably be too little. Rather, the restriction of resources in the art of drawing, as Luise von Rohden explains, gives rise to a new wealth, the well-known phrase "less is more" applies. For the few picture elements and visual stimuli invite us to take a closer look, to devote our attention to even the smallest details, differences and variations. Even the famous insight of the American architect Louis Sullivan "form ever follows function" is presented here in a meaningful, almost ostentatious way, because every form, every detail of form in the drawing "Vertical" is the indication of a function: the movement of arm and hand, brush and ink on a surface of paper – no more, no less.
Precisely because they were created by hand, no two drawings are alike. In the same year Luise von Rohden produced a version of the described ink drawing in the same format, "Vertical (v m 0/11)", which is similar in all points to the one described, but also has a significantly individual character. The singularity of each work becomes clear when the two hang side by side. In the repetition of an action, opportunities for variation open up. To repeat something by hand actually means to vary it. For Luise von Rohden, it is important to perceive this consciously. What or who do we recognise in the variations? Good art, it is often said in general terms, sharpens the perceptive faculty of its viewers. What this means, how this assertion becomes a comprehensible sensation and experience, can be learned by looking at the two ink drawings. Luise von Rohden renounces everything artificial, narrative and expressive, ornament and figure, concentrating instead on simple hand motions with the ink brush, on the visual presence of the resources and tools used.
Luise von Rohden began drawing with ink and brush as a student in Halle in 2011. Initially she still used colour, then she limited herself to shades of grey. What fascinated her about ink was its materiality and transparency, the interaction with different types of paper. She intensified her studies of ink technique and decided to spend a guest semester at the Academy of Fine Arts in Tianjin, China, in 2013/14, where she took courses in traditional Chinese ink painting. In the first weeks, she familiarised herself with a brush position that was foreign to her and that allowed free brushwork, and copied the contours of flowers in the "flower-bird-insect class". Every day she observed and copied the stylistics of her teachers and the old masters and developed a feeling for the quality of line work. She remembers: "By copying, i.e. repainting, one looks at the pictures intensely and for a long period, in an attempt to understand how individual lines are painted, how the layers are formed, seeing the great variety in the brushwork." (2) She especially enjoyed the intensity of painting: "There was a lot of practice, constant repetition, failure, repetition of a single motif or even a fragment of a bamboo leaf, for example. (...) I love repetition, because it allows me to be attentive to the small variations!" After all, she has learned to appreciate traditional brushes, handmade in small family businesses, so that each one is unique. In the artists' supply shop, every brush was intensively discussed and tried out before it was purchased. Without the brushes from Tianjin, some of her drawings would not have been possible later. She has retained the brushwork she learned there, even though it has become blended with local habits over time and thus become something of her own.
She liked to visit small shops for books and artist's materials, which were narrow and dark and were filled to the ceiling with stacks of books, pictures and photocopies, and got to know the overwhelming stylistic range of this art form. She developed a special fondness for the works of Shi Tao (Zhū Rùojí, 1641-ca.1707) and Zhu Da (Bādà Shānrén, 1626-1705), two of the most famous representatives of the so-called individualistic school of painting during the early Qing Dynasty. Shi Tao's ink paintings, such as "10,000 Ugly Spots" (1685) or "Remembering the Thirty-Six Peaks of Mount Huang" (ca. 1705) appear astonishingly modern, because here, in a self-confident play with traditional procedures such as the "wet brush" and the "dry brush", the free use of ink and brush, which tends to appear abstract, is emphasised and celebrated. Shi Tao, who is also gifted in literature, wrote a famous treatise on ink painting and formulated his "All-in-one brushstroke guideline" in it. In philosophical depth, he saw in him the elementary and at the same time universal brushstroke from which all others emerge, and not only these, but the whole diversity of the world: "The all-in-one brush stroke is the origin of all that is given, the root of ten thousand apparitions." (3) This guideline is at once given and not given, can neither be learned nor enforced, but can only be received by the creators with respect and humility. For the traditions of traditional Chinese ink painting, the following passage became especially important: "The all-in-one brush stroke holds the ten thousand things at its heart. The picture receives the ink, the ink receives the brush, the brush receives the wrist, the wrist receives the heart." (4)
The impressions and experiences gathered in China should prove fruitful for their work in the long term. In contrast to European modernist artists, who were also inspired by the intellectual culture and art of Asia (we need only think of Vincent van Gogh, Emil Orlik, Alexej Jawlensky or Julius Bissier), Luise von Rohden does not orientate herself stylistically to certain models, but processes the suggestions structurally, on the material and action level. Her central intention to simplify all artistic means as consistently as possible led her to compositions that do not represent any objects, without "narrative" details. Instead, she concentrates on only one element of form: the line painted with a brush. While still in China, she began to develop pictures alongside her teaching, in each of which she isolated just one element, a brushstroke, and removed it from its representational context.
She also dispensed with colour for a long time. Today, she uses them again sparingly, but never as an expressive vehicle for inner, subjective states or for the invention of colourful constellations that model our experience of the external world. Radically elementary drawings like "Vertical" are probably among the most reduced compositions imaginable. Other compositions, which Luise von Rohden developed from the element of the ink line formed with the brush, have a more complex visual structure. Changes of direction such as horizontal, vertical or diagonal overlapping and "weaving" of wide ink lines on the one hand, parallel, narrow and partial overlapping of lines at their edges on the other, narrow gaps between lines, continuous changes in line width, tonal values etc. quickly lead to effects of optical illusion. Our image-processing brain thinks it has to perceive shadow gradients, small projections and recesses in the surface of the drawings, as in a bas-relief. In other cases, it assumes the surface is in motion like waves. This illusion of physicality and movement is acknowledged by our visual centre, always looking for variety, with increased attention and fascination, even creating the effect of desire. We look and ask involuntarily: Is that true? Is this real? Sure, the optical illusion is part of our subjective reality. If we take a closer look at the compositions, we also notice that they manage without focal points, without centres and peripheries. They are similarly complex or simply built everywhere on the surface. These are all-over patterns, grids and meshes, as they are known in textiles and design. But Minimal Art has also cultivated such repetitive, directionally neutral structures without a point of focus.
Elementary forms, serial arrangements, the work of art viewed as an object, no longer as an image, symbol, window view into imaginary or genuinely experienced worlds – these were the common denominators of all those artists who in the early 1960s in the USA turned against the dominance of Abstract Expressionism and characterised their works as "primary structures". Frank Stella, who with his Black Paintings was one of the forerunners of American Minimal Art, put it this way in an interview in 1964: "My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. Any painting is an object and anyone who gets involved in this finally has to face up to the objectness of whatever it is that he's doing. He is making a thing. All that should be for granted. All I want anyone to get out of my paintings is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any conclusion […] What you see is what you see.” (5) Artists such as Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris saw in the object-like, non-referential character of their works something new and a chance to reject the individualistic, existential, and pathetic gestures of the abstract expressionists. They calculated the disappearance of the unmistakeable individual gesture, the 'handwriting', from the works. In their perspective, works of art should have a factual presence without aura, similar to functional industrial products.
At first glance, Luise von Rohden's ink compositions seem to correspond to the programmatic of the elemental and objective, as propagated by the aforementioned representatives of Minimal Art. So she says about herself: "I discovered ink and a big flat brush for myself. Then pictures were created, from them others and so on – rather following the logic of the pictures. In the beginning, the pictures have been reduced more and more: How much does it take to be a picture, anyway?" She also repeatedly used musical terms to describe her pictures. In their compositions, the musical protagonists of Minimal Art isolated the basic elements of rhythm and melody and elevated them to the status of key protagonists: repetition and variation. However, such comparisons of form tend to refer to external aspects. The decisive difference is the subjective "handwriting", i.e. the intuitive transfer of subjective movement, whether of the arm or of the breath, into the elementary process of form, which in this respect cannot be planned, but "happens", flows, flows out, whereby the inner (emotions, moods) and the physical (muscle tension, breathing) are expressed naturally. Already in the written part of her diploma thesis she quoted thoughts along these lines from a conversation between the artists Urs Rausmüller and Robert Ryman:
"U. R.: It has to do with letting things happen without interfering with your abstract ideas, because they work completely differently. This is exactly what happens when Bob [Robert Ryman] works on his paintings. You have to let it run.
R. R.: ... allow it to happen. Not to make it happen..." (6)
She explains this today: "While the Minimalists create their works without human interference, i.e. without any individual handwriting, I am interested in radical reduction and repetition in my works, but precisely because they can make small disturbances and variations visible. ‘Letting things happen’, a more intuitive way of working, is an important part of my process – although not in grand gestures or in a very expressive way."
"Allowing it to happen", as if one were not the subject of an action, but its observer or integral part – this attitude also refers to an Asian spiritual tradition, known from the Daodejing of Lao Tse. A central directive in it, embodied in two Chinese characters: "Wu-wei", stands for "non-action" in the understanding of "letting nature take its course", "letting the Dao flow" and "abstaining from acting against nature".
Recognise an opportunity to reduce one's own options for action in the reduction of form. Neutralise your own will through repetitive action, but instead observe carefully what happens. Allowing what is individual to oneself to happen within it – involuntarily, as it is shown in the small variations and 'disturbances' of the quietly and constantly repeated action: This could be called the core of the artistic intention and thus also the key to understanding the works of Luise von Rohden. Connected with this is the recommendation to those looking at her drawings not to be satisfied with the obvious, the structures, patterns and optical illusions, but to sense the acting person behind them, to put themselves in their own position, to understand the position of the drawing arm, the gestures of her hand with the ink brush over the paper and the associated breathing in their own imagination. Hand motions, breaths and heartbeats, these are the elementary movements that count in Luise von Rohden's art, form a symbiotic connection, keep her art going in her innermost being.
(1) Shitao: Aufgezeichnete Worte des Mönchs Bittermelone zur Malerei, aus dem Chinesischen übersetzt und kommentiert von Marc Nürnberger, Mainz 2009, S. 24.
(2) Luise von Rohden in einer E-Mail an den Autor vom 1. April 2020. Auch die folgenden indirekten und direkten Zitate der Künstlerin sind dieser E-Mail entnommen.
(3) Shitao: Aufgezeichnete Worte des Mönchs Bittermelone zur Malerei, wie Anm. 1, S. 9.
(4) Ebenda, S. 24.
(5) Frank Stella im Gespräch mit Donald Judd und Bruce Glaser, ausgestrahlt als Teil einer Serie von Radioproduktionen über Kunst unter dem Titel „New Nihilism or New Art?“, produziert von Bruce Glaser, ausgestrahlt im Sender WBAI-FM, New York, im Februar 1964, in Auszügen ediert von Lucy R. Lippard und veröffentlicht unter dem Titel „Questions to Stella and Judd“ in ARTnews, September 1966, erneut publiziert unter dem Titel „ ‚What You See Is What You See’: Donald Judd and Frank Stella on the End of Painting“, in ARTnews, July 10, 2015, www.artnews.com/art-news/retrospective/what-you-see-is-what-you-see-donald-judd-and-frank-stella-on-the-end-of-painting-in-1966-4497/2/
(6) Luise von Rohden: Zwischen Klang und Zeichnung. Bricolage, schriftlicher Teil der Diplomarbeit, Halle Saale 2015 , S. 16.
in: Handzüge, Luise von Rohden, exhibition catalogue, Erfurter Kunstverein 2020, translation tolingo GmbH © Kai Uwe Schierz