Ert, by Tomma Abts, 2003. 48cm x 38cm. Boros Collection, Berlin

Timing can be a bitch. One of the most poignant examples for me is the 2008 publication, Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton. The “sociologist of culture” (self-titled perhaps?) spent five years assembling her book about the red hot, way cool, smart set “art world”, coming off gleefully self-satisfied in her book’s promotional video as she claimed she interviewed 250 artists, gallery owners and industry tastemakers. But interest in her book was shortlived as the art world began its cataclysmic unraveling just months after her paean was released. Her book was the last gasp before the hottest art market in history of the world imploded.

Now that intro paragraph is definitely contemptuous and snarky, isn’t it? OK. Just a bit. I admit it. But my negativity isn’t just a case of unbecoming and unfounded Schadenfreude. I found the tone of Thorton’s book off-putting way back when I first tried to read it, long before the meltdown rendered this unduly worshipful version of the “art world” and its denizens so hopelessly outdated, badly timed and embarrassingly wrong.

But wait. There are a few passages that should be salvaged. One section in Thornton’s purple prose resonated in particular for me and is worth sharing here. In the chapter covering the race for the Turner prize in 2006, Thornton discusses the work of each of the finalists. One of them is Tomma Abts, a German born artist who now resides in England and who was the eventual winner that year. Note: Abts first major show in the United States was at the New Museum in New York in 2008. I found her small, intricate, geometric pieces deeply memorable, strong, haunting, and well done.

A selection of worthy quotes from Thornton’s interview with Abts:

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When I start a painting, I have no idea what it will look like…sometimes they take five years, sometimes two. Recently I completed one that I started ten years ago. I work on them in phases, with lots of breaks in between.

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My work hovers between illusion and object, and it reminds you of things. For example, I create a daylight effect of a feeling of movement. Some shapes even have shadows. I always work inside out. I know it’s finished when the work feels independent of me.

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Why, as an artist, would you want to explain yourself? Painting is so visual that it is very difficult to say things that don’t compromise it. For me, you care one hundred percent about what you do. You can’t say, “It’s okay like this but it could have been a different way.” You have a total vision of how things have to be —it has to be just right.

***
And this comment about Abts’ work from New Museum curator Laura Hoptman:

If Tomma had not arrived at this moment, we would have found a way to create her. It seems odd to talk about abstract painting in these terms, but I think of her work as a kind of activist art. We’re living in a hell of a time right now, and I see profundity in these small objects…Tomma falls into the tradition of the mystic painters like Barnett Newman, Piet Mondrian, or Wassily Kandinsky. She has cracked a nut that artists have been working on for eons—how to paint the inchoate. Her paintings have this “thing,” that feeling, this notion of the vastness of the universe and the internal….soul.

That last response to Tomma’s work by Hoptman is so wonderfully subjective and underlanguaged—with an almost awkward authenticity—that it just makes me so happy to read her words. More of that “thing”, that feeling. That’s what I’m looking for.

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