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The Museum as Marketing Temple - Mike Bouchet & Paul McCarthy at the Portikus, Frankfurt
Walk the Line - A visual journey at the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - Washed Geometry: Rebecca Michaelis's Undogmatic Color Field Painting
Shared Visions - The Rise of the Johannesburg Art Scene
Dark Metamorphoses - Victor Man Is Artist of the Year 2014
The Question: Who or What Should We Keep an Eye on in 2014?
"I want my art to put people on edge" - An Interview with Clare Bottomley
No Escape - Idan Hayosh´s Suggestive Threat Scenarios
Let´s talk: Ingrid Pfeiffer & Bernhard Martin on Philip Guston
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners - Longing: The Photographic Works of Nicolas Balcazar
MACHT KUNST - The Prizewinners: Sonja Rentsch´s Imagination Space for the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

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MACHT KUNST—The Prizewinners
Washed Geometry:
Rebecca Michaelis’s Undogmatic Color Field Painting


Rebecca Michaelis’s ornamental paintings and murals are like a cross between the modernist legacy and everyday 21st-century décor. Now, the abstract work of the “MACHT KUNST” winner is on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle.


Other people get excited about pop stars. But not so Rebecca Michaelis: she was already a fan of the Russian avant-garde as a teenager. When she and her mother traveled from Potsdam to East Berlin to visit exhibitions of Kasimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko, her mother couldn’t make heads or tails of Constructivism and Suprematism, whereas Michaelis herself was deeply impressed by the abstract works. Only recently, while unpacking a box, she happened upon notes recording her impressions of the time in detail. Today, she herself is an abstract artist; she named her son Casimir. Decades separate her earliest encounters with form, color, and geometry and her current work.

 Now, it’s as though all these influences and experiences were channeling into the paintings, murals, and sculptures currently exhibited in the Studio of the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle: childhood memories, the modernist GDR design of the 1970s that she grew up with, the rhythms of the big city. Or, on the other hand, the brilliantly pigmented hues and ornaments of the mandalas she saw for the first time in Nepal. There has always been a deep understanding of abstraction in her work—the notion of a pure non-objective painting supported by form and color alone.

When Michaelis, who studied with Bernd Koberling and subsequently with Frank Badur, talks about how she turned away from gesture to dedicate herself to pure color field painting, you can hear the passion in her decision. “Color field painting is held in very high regard at Hunter College in New York, where I studied art. I was lucky enough to take part in a class given by the painter Sanford Wurmfeld, who has been exploring the phenomenology of color and color theory since the 1960s. For me, this was an important continuation, because of course Koberling is a total specialist in color. He teaches it in a more mystical and intuitive way. Color field painting also searches out the transcendental and ‘sublime,’ but in this case there is a strong theoretical level to it, one that’s almost scientific.”

At first glance, her own drawing and painting series recall fabrics and pattern samples in which the canon of abstraction is played out in an array of compositions and nuances. The Berlin art historian Marcus Becker termed the decorative ornaments in Michaelis’s paintings and color spaces “familiar patterns.” And they do indeed convey the sense that one has seen them somewhere before. A closer look reveals traces and layers testifying to the thought processes behind the painting. Beneath the apparently finished surface, one discerns the outlines of stencils, the points where compasses have been used, layers of color that have been washed away and sanded down—all of which speak of the image’s development throughout a working process.

Michaelis plays the contrasts of color and material off one another similarly to the way in which she incorporates stark contrasts into her working process. Precisely measured forms and compass-drawn circles hit up against chance and intuition; the pattern breaks off or develops gaps, or the points of connection don’t match up. There are many steps to her working process, including the washing out of lines and forms, which then blur or pale and dissolve into drips, streaks, and color gradations that can’t be predicted. In this way, warm organic grounds arise from symmetric, grid-like structures. “In the studio, I take my works to the bathroom and wash them down,” Michaelis explains laconically; it’s a technique she discovered through a “painting accident” that she wanted to correct. The painting did not wash out as planned, but took on completely unexpected, random effects in which the graphic, flat, “hard” forms broke down and became diaphanous.  

When these various different levels are taken into consideration, Michaelis’s painting shows parallels to digital imaging programs, in which an image is constructed from several superimposed levels. This also becomes clear in her blue color space in the Studio of the KunstHalle, with its circular overlays: “I leave the pencil drawings that everything is based on. They make up a kind of structure between the wall paint and the layers of color I apply to it that can be recognized. A kind of accretion of space comes about through the superimposition of drawing and layers of paint. The pencil drawing identifies the work as something explicitly handmade, while the working process is rendered visible and legible—otherwise it would be more of a design work for me.”  

The exhibition at the KunstHalle is an important step in the artist’s career; she is no longer an unknown in Berlin’s art scene. Michaelis has won numerous grants and exhibited in project spaces and institutions such as the NBK. She has cooperated with small galleries and sold work to collectors. Throughout, however, she has always been forced to work as a nurse to make ends meet. The fact that she is showing now at the KunstHalle has a lot to do with chance: when she brought Kasimir to the daycare center one winter morning, she saw something orange shining out from the snow in front of the chocolate store on Ackerstrasse—it was the "MACHT KUNST” flyer and its call for submissions. She stowed it away in her bag, gave it some thought, talked to other artists about it. When she saw the long line of artists waiting outside the KunstHalle and extending all the way to the Staatsoper on Bebelplatz, she almost turned around to go home. But then a friend further up the line pulled her in and Michaelis was among the first 345 artists whose work was exhibited in the KunstHalle.

Even if it was a chain of accidents that led to her participation in the “MACHT KUNST” exhibition—the jury prize was awarded based on the quality of Michaelis’s work. While her art is based in color field and hard edge painting, it also reflects the surfaces and ornaments of the 21st century, which is characterized by the abstract formal language of modernism. The titles of her paintings come across as literary shorthand harboring the names of Hindu deities and Ikea furniture alike: Dalatangi, Vembas, Unnar. The triumph of a pure non-objective art consisting only of form and color speaks of a longing for utopia, transcendence, and the absolute. Since the 1950s, the formal language of abstraction has also, however, been closely connected to the mass reproduction of decorative patterns that have flooded the world’s markets and given a “modern” design look to building facades and offices. In an undogmatic manner, Rebecca Michaelis’s art draws from both utopia and everyday life. Anyone who takes a closer look at her work—behind the décor of her “familiar patterns” and into the depth of the layers they are made of—garners a glimpse of these former utopias.

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf




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