Buhlmann, Britta E. “Silent Places”, no ugly mathematics, 2007.
Landscape Drawings by Bettina Blohm
Halcottsville, July 2005:
The hills are covered by woods. The scent of flowers, herbs and grass drifts across from the meadows.
Bettina Blohm is inspired by nature. She travels in order to draw: to Cape Cod, Provincetown, Yaddo, or the Catskills - always with a sketchbook and pencils on her. You can feel that she savors this kind of work, and it is not surprising to hear from the artist that happiness to her means sitting out in nature, drawing. The results are images and portraits—of the landscape as well as of the artist herself.
If you are not familiar with the places Bettina Blohm has chosen, if you have not seen or experienced them yourself, you might not be able to recognize a certain landscape in the drawings. But you will see that they are created by the same artist and also that these different places have something in common: an openness and vastness, a relaxed sobriety, providing space for a vivid, intensive expression. This description fits the artist as well, which is why her work seems so authentic. It is very personal and reflects her surroundings as an experience. These drawings are the expression of an inner perception and thus beautifully prove Paul Klee's much-cited quote: "Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible".
I am starting to explore the area, in order to look into the distance from one of the surrounding hills. On my way, I am accompanied by birds singing and the ripple of one of the many mountain lakes.
Without becoming attached to details or trying to evoke a photographic memory, Bettina Blohm succeeds in capturing the specific atmosphere of a situation. A delicate oscillating blue line evokes the memory of softly modulated hilltops on the horizon; areas hatched in lush green let you feel the abundantly covered summer meadows (figs. 5, 6, and 12). Some of the drawings are so light that you want to hold on to them with your eyes so they do not dissolve like a mirage. One of these was created in 2005 in Provincetown (fig. 7), a place at the very end of Cape Cod, which Bettina Blohm loves particularly for its wonderful light. In her interpretation, the sketch seems to consist only of light. Slightly above the center (at the level of the golden section), a green line develops from the left toward the middle, broadening and narrowing with an irregular rhythm. It stops suddenly and continues in an even, slightly sloping yellow line. At the point where it starts to bend downwards slightly, it is touched by a thin, barely visible dark blue horizontal line that goes all the way to the right side of the picture. Three colored lines, simple pencil traces: first in motion and condensed, then simplified and finally completely straightened. Reduced to the maximum, and yet you can very clearly see a bright and open, breathing landscape.
Bettina Blohm recalls the many famous painters that have lived here, where the headland is so narrow that the sky and the ocean fill up the entire field of view: Milton Avery, Hans Hoffman, who ran a school here, and Edward Hopper in the neighboring village Truro.
"The tide is so strong; it influences every part of life. On the bay side, a fascinating life develops when the beach stretches far out during low tide. The little crabs crawl out of their mud holes and run busily back and forth. Birds, fish, everyone shows up to eat. Within a few hours, the water returns and the show is over. Each time the light changes, most of the time the wind picks up when the tide comes in. This coming and going has held a great fascination for me. The vastness and the eternal change. … When you are drawing there is hardly anything you can hold on to. Only the line between the sky and the water. And dunes that are shifted to and fro by the wind like frozen waves. What remains is the light, the sky, the water."
The drawing reflects Bettina Blohm's immediate engagement with the subject and the idea that she connects with this landscape. Her spontaneity can be felt as well as the depth of her feelings for the particular rhythm of this landscape, which is still, yet at the same time, in motion. The forcefulness of the drawing stems from its tight phrasing, the quality of her resolution, and the functional utility of her lines.
Two drawings from 2004 are likewise composed with sparse means (figs. 3 and 5). They reflect Bettina Blohm’s impressions of a landscape near Saratoga Springs, about three and a half hours north of New York City. “Yaddo,” the title of both, is a park with houses of different size that were originally privately owned. They were donated in order to provide artists, writers, and composers with the possibility to work in tranquility. The concept adds up, and therefore it is the energetic silence that characterizes this place and its surroundings, which is expressed foremost in the drawings. Delicate lines in motion describe a contour and stand next to zestfully bent ones, which lend generosity and a dynamic. Small hatched islands of color suggest vegetation and are placed next to blocks of solid colors, some of them washed, others defined by resolute lines that evoke meadows or hilltops.
Bettina Blohm proves here how well she manages surface, proportion, and space without ever resorting to an immediate narrative level. Max Liebermann, who had a distinctive influence on so-called German Impressionism on the brink of the twentieth century, said that "drawing means to omit." In this spirit, the notations that have been created by Bettina Blohm, with their reduced spontaneous characteristics, stand for differentiated, transforming structures. Their aesthetics trigger our imagination and recall vivid luminescent landscapes.
The clear blue sky and the panorama of mountains and hills are regularly intersected by poles and overland lines. They divide the sky above the settlements like the streets and paths that structure the ground. Wooden houses painted in white or colors recall the paintings of Hopper.
In contrast to Edward Hopper, who drew in order to substantiate his conceptions step by step and realize them later in his paintings, Bettina Blohm treats her drawings as an independent artistic medium. They are neither preliminary layouts nor work records or ascertainment of works like those occasionally produced by Jasper Johns or Ed Ruscha after the completion of a work. Blohm's drawings exist independently and on an equal footing with her paintings. For many years, the landscape has also served as a motif for paintings; however, due to the medium, they are much more defined and corrected through technique and reflection. In contrast to Hopper, Bettina Blohm dispenses in her drawings with details that could narrow the view onto the landscape and its meaning too close to a specific interpretation. Her landscapes are details of and insight into her intensive perception, reflecting the artist's personality.
The beauty of the lake with clouds of mist dancing on it can hardly be described. Silence finds an expression, a lively, constantly changing countenance. The surface is as smooth as glass. Algae are stretching from the abyss. Here and there, small islands of grass are forming with flowers shining out of them. The lake breathes dignity.
"Drawing is about setting signs … that can be understood across the times" There is no doubt that the Mayans, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians have often built their temples in places with a particular vibrancy to which we still succumb to today. There seems to be a consensus on beauty of landscape across all centuries that is reflected in countless images in all media. Cinema and advertising are using these images, which correspond to our longing.
However, Bettina Blohm's interest does not lie in the reproduction of surroundings that are perceived as particularly beautiful, or to faithfully reproduce, but to capture the structural situation. For instance, she perceives mountains and their reflection in water as a dialogue between solid and moving matter. Her approach is analytical. That lucidity and beauty find their expression in such a way (possibly by chance) is one of the appealing side effects of her work.
Bettina Blohm conceives the format and aesthetic of her color pencil drawings deliberately according to a classical canon. She responds to her topic with its history by using an established medium. The mixing of materials, the fusion of drawing, painting, and printing, is out of the question for her, since that would draw the attention away from the actual theme of the image to the framework of its production. In her work, she proves that every consistent formulation can rely on the simplest option without losing quality.
Sheets like “Yaddo” (figs. 3 and 4) or “Cape Cod” (fig. 6) show so much respect toward the peculiarity, liveliness, and vibrancy of the subject that the artist actually seems to avoid too many personal comments to prevent overloading the peace and the dignity of the place. And this underlines her strength: She opens up to the experience and finds an expression for her perception that allows the spectator to find space for his own memories and sensations.
Britta E. Buhlmann
Cohen, David. “The Dualist”, Schleswig-Holsteinische Museen Schloß Gottorf, Katalog, 2005
Cape Cod (2004), the sole oil painting in this exhibition, could almost serve as a manifesto for Bettina Blohm’s dualism. It depicts what is literally the most elemental and primordial of dichotomies, one that started millions of years before there were people around to perceive it: the intersection of land and sea. In her depiction of them – at once fluent and awkward, reductive and convincing – the young hills, as the Psalmist puts it, “skip like rams” from the eroding waves lashing persistently at the beach. As if to underscore a sense of opposition, the hills are red and orange to the blue and mauve of the water. The yellow of the sand lends unity to the scene, stressing the interrelationship of different kinds of undulation in the geological process.
The Black Dust series of charcoal drawings on paper represents the artist at her most schematic, taking her to the brink of serialism from which she is saved by her spatially ambiguous pentimenti. Her repeating cup forms visually unite wave and hill into a distilled, iconic phenomenon. But in the colored pencil studies that are made directly in the landscape a different sensibility emerges. In these lyrically inventive works, diverse speeds and temperatures seem determined by what is sensed and seen.
Blohm is a German painter who has taken to America like a fish to water. A native of Hamburg, an alumna of the Munich Academy, she doesn’t paint with even so much as a German accent. Her avatars, at first glance, are Milton Avery and Alex Katz: like theirs, her art is distilled and universalizing while making specific sense of a particular locale. Schema arises from observation. The Cape features in late Avery and early Katz in the 1950s, their period of overlap. Blohm’s first, great love (the Cape is a new discovery) are the Catskill mountains immortalized by earlier luminaries of American art, the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole and Asher Durand for instance. Of course, Blohm’s modernist take on this landscape is in marked contrast to the glazed finesse of these eminent Victorians. Rather than pressing the landscape into the service of a higher romantic symbolism she finds her values within the motif. Elements are isolated within her pared-down modernist language, with a given color and gesture fixing them to the blank page.
Blohm can be said to allow the motif to do its own work of symbol formation. Perhaps like Ezra Pound she reckons that symbols quickly exhaust their references, while signs renew theirs. Alighting with freshness and alacrity on the telling and the compelling, she is a maker of signs. The opposite of logos – streamlined reductions ready for repetition and unquestioning consumption – Blohm’s signs both signify and question the things they denote. A 1996 drawing gives us two dozen pine trees at the foot of a steep mountain. Some of the trees – the bigger, foreground ones – are loose, mushy scribbles. The more distant, by contrast, are neat arrows. And yet, they don’t seem to say “tree” in different languages: there’s a democracy of legibility among these trees, from each according to its ability to each according to its need.
Hatching truly shows the Dualist at work: it is at once markmaking at its most descriptive and its most aloof. The hatch fills the page to convey the all-overness of landscape, the way it saturates the field of vision; and at the same time, its automatism draws attention to the sheet as an expressive surface. Able both to relate to perceived nature and stand alone in abstract and expressive isolation from the motif, her green hatching, quickly dispatched and meditatively considered, is at once scribble and scrub.
What reads as a riverscape from 2004 is, in contradictory terms, a slice of all-overness. There are stacked stripes of densely rubbed color for sand, river and distant hills, in yellow, blue, grays, green, purple, but this geological layer cake is then left in the limbo of a white page. It at once signals expansive distance and compresses the vista into a localized sign of itself. In another drawing from 2004, there are abbreviated horizontal forms in blue, brown, purple that imply water and distant hills. In this instance, negative space is brought into dynamic operation, as the white page pummeling the bottom of each form implies further hills. The surrounding whiteness thereby emphasizes opposing connotations for these forms: autonomy and contingency.
Writing in 1966 of Alex Katz, Frank O’Hara discovered that in his work from landscape the artist “found a liason between the personal and the general, the intriguing dialogue without which one is left with either formalism or expressionism.” For the dualist Bettina Blohm, landscape also provides a space for dialogue. The drawings made sur le motif by this abstract painter entail both sophistication and naivite. She brings with, from the studio, the finely honed tools of distillation and essence, but partially discards these when her senses are hit by the deluge of data. The result, oxymoronically, is a raw refinement.
David Cohen is art critic for the New York Sun, editor and publisher of artcritical.com and gallery director at the New York Studio School.
Goodman, Jonathan. “A Brave New World” Publikation Topografie, 2009
Bettina Blohm: A Brave New World
Bettina Blohm is a German-born and –educated painter who has spent the past 25 years in New York City, whose long association with Abstract Expressionism has been, in some ways, a starting point for her brilliantly colored, brilliantly handled paintings. Unlike much of contemporary art, which emphasizes the conceptual even when it occurs within the language of abstraction, Blohm’s works remind us that there is an emotional component in painting. Indeed, the feelings in her art are hidden just below the surface, which models an independent view of the advances in painting so many of us have experienced in recent time. If the artist seems devoted to traditional practice, she is also bound to a creativity that insists upon the current realms of abstraction, and even there, we find an autonomy and boldness that stems in part from her determination to remain her own person. Indeed, much of her art has ties to nature, albeit a nature mediated by an engaged use of paint on canvas. In consequence of Blohm’s interest in a broad variety of natural phenomena, along with her commitment to a language that is essentially nonobjective in nature, we find that she straddles verisimilitude and the abstract in canvases that convey her seriousness of purpose, along with a sensuousness not easily found in today’s art world.
Much of the best in today’s art is found in its refusal to be bound by convention. In painting we find languages that bridge non-objectivity and the real with an ease of purpose not possible even twenty years ago. The real struggle, in Modernist terms, is not only to make it new but also to keep it new—that is, to remain unsatisfied by one’s achievement and keep the past from devouring the present. Blohm’s goal has also been related to the successful amalgamation of contrasting (if not opposed) styles that are traditionally considered separate; she relies on color to achieve a harmony not only of hue but also of purpose, in ways that appear utterly new. The putative simplicity of Blohm’s art is in fact never simplistic; her paintings usually make use of a color or a curving line, and these can suddenly remind us that what we had thought was entirely abstract now seems a gesture based upon actual appearances, usually of bucolic origin. Despite the fact that Blohm’s studio is located in the heart of a densely urban New York, she nonetheless makes contact with the lyricism of greenery she finds in less populated parts of America or of Germany, when she returns to her native country.
One can experience Blohm’s double affiliation between abstraction and realism, tradition and contemporaneity, in the remarkable painting After Altdorfer (2007). Renaissance artist Albrecht Altdorfer’s original painting, entitled St. George and the Dragon (1510), exists in the Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich; in this small work, one experiences a forest that nearly covers the composition, with St. George on a white horse looking at the slain dragon from above. In that part of the painting, on the lower right, one sees mountains through an opening of the trees, with a clear sky above. It is a magnificent painting, which Blohm reprises by painting in a large (54 inches square) format of green upon green; the relative lightness of the greens she uses nonetheless relies on the darkness of the forest in the painting she quotes. In the lower right of the painting, she has painted a white diamond shape, which in its placement imitates the placement if not the forms of Altdorfer’s work. While it follows its distinctive origins, After Altdorfer is not only a homage but also an entirely new painting, modernized but also following tradition; it extends our knowledge of a great historical artist by developing an original treatment of his work.
American Ghost (2008) responds to the time the artist spent drawing on Ibiza while preparing for an exhibition. The artist says of her experience there, “The landscape of the island gave me a feeling of rape, of having been tortured for the sake of development. The twisted trees seemed to me like ghosts of a tragic history.” In the painting we see a black cross dominating the yellow and green rectangles and squares it lies over; this cross reminds us of a person with his arms outstretched. At once a tree and a shade from the past, the picture conjures up mystery, even horror in what Blohm calls “an image signifying the collective memory of a place or culture.” At the same time, she is referring to America’s obsession with piety, so the cross represents many things, both human and abstract. Most of Blohm’s art turns on the contextualization of dualities: First Light (2005) reduces daylight and nighttime to white and black, slightly curving stripes, respectively. Holding the stripes from collapsing in the black abyss beneath them is a curving white line touched with red; it goes across the width of the canvas. Here the work can function either as an engaging, enjoyable abstraction, or it can be read as a schematic interpretation of light meeting darkness. Both views are correct.
Ibiza (2008) continues Blohm’s exploration of that island. Here the twisted trees are white, often outlined in red, against a black ground. The bare bones of the branches look like a kind of skeleton found in nature; the grim background must refer to Blohm’s experience of the island’s landscape. At the same time, however, it is a beautiful painting. Here, one of the elements that make the artist large is her willingness to be deliberately beautiful in abstract terms. Indeed, when seen without the viewer’s knowing what Blohm is referring to, the expressionist element in the work takes over. Another painting, entitled Coloring (2005), is a three-foot-square composition devoted to orange on black. The top part, a bit more than half the composition, consists of streaming orange lines on a diagonal, beneath which are small gestures of a similar if slightly darker color. Here Blohm demonstrates her love of pure abstraction in a work that is not without a certain expansive wildness, despite its relatively small size. The contrast of the orange on black results in an effect of mystery, even one of danger. It is precisely this mysterious appearance that holds the viewer, who gazes at what looks like powerful, impersonal energies. Blohm thus asserts the language of color in her independent approach to art; being mysterious is part of her remarkable purpose, which approaches stylistic abandon.
Jonathan Goodman is a poet and art writer who lives in New York. He has written reviews and articles for such publications as Art in America and Sculpture, as well as for the internet site ArtCritical.com. He is currently teaching at two New York schools: Pratt Institute and the Parsons School of Design.
Hanten, Sasa. “Dank und Kohle””, Publikation no ugly mathematics, 2007
I am grateful
… to all those people who insisted on making this book. I am grateful to those who gave support and insight. I am grateful to the way in which this book evolved during the last months, which made me understand and learn many things. As with a good recipe, everybody contributed the best ingredients, according to their profession. Everyone made suggestions from their field and discussed them with the others: from the selection of the works and the essays to questions of paper, format, and typography. We discussed, rejected, newly devised, and, step by step, the picture became clearer. It was a wonderful experience. All participants worked together smoothly, with concentration and a relaxed professionalism. For the museums I would like to mention Dr. Britta E. Buhlmann and Dr. Heinz Höfchen in Kaiserslautern and Katja Micus on Ibiza, the writer Rosemary Mahony, for the German to English translations, Henriette Buëgger and Patrick James Grabolle, the English proofreading Michael Goodman, for the English to German translations and the proofreading Joan Catherine Ritter, the photographer David Janecek, the publisher Gerhard Theewen, and for the graphic design Marco Lietz.
And finally, I am grateful to Bettina Blohm. Every single step has helped me understand her work better.
The series of about 40 charcoal drawings that were created while on a scholarship at Yaddo in 2004 emphasize the analytical side of Bettina Blohm's work.
The visual language of the drawings is marked by waves, spikes, and arches and is even more reduced than in the colored pencil drawings. Often, a sheet contains only a single shape that is repeated, creating a rhythm. Like a cartographer who develops pictures whose conventions enable us to navigate, Bettina Blohm challenges our ability to abstract while dissecting the vision and reducing it to its most basic shapes.
These drawings, in contrast to the colored pencil drawings and the etchings, are worked out in full planes, an approach otherwise applied only to her paintings. Fields of deep black or different shades of gray are structured through the clear lines of grid, pike, or wave formations.
Composers often take advantage of the fact that the frequencies of sounds are closely related to the human heartbeat. Likewise, Bettina Blohm resorts in her signs - individually and in their sequence to shapes familiar from nature.
The topographic abbreviations that are rearranged into patterns and the designed, partially blurred spaces do not represent reality but depict the analysis of our relation to this reality. As with music, it is not the knowledge of the frequency that determines our perception, but the impact of its skillful application.
The confident command of the medium allows the transcription of the perceived reality never to be stiff or academic but always sensual and so vivid the charcoal drawings appear to be full of color. Colorful in the sense that one can hardly imagine a piece of art created only in black to be so complex. It seems that reflection and system do not harm her work but support its effect.
Fingerprints and traces of hand wiping refer to the process of creation and are for the artist a reassurance of her humanity. Repetition and variation, clarity and sensuality, are means and content alike. She recognizes the danger of a virtuoso aesthetic becoming an end in itself implied in the use of charcoal due to its softness and flexibility.
This knowledge opens up other aspects of Bettina Blohm's work: Suddenly, it is not surprising that she pursues most of her studies in New York City in a studio without any references to her motifs. The charcoal drawings from Yaddo were also perhaps particularly so created in the studio and not in front of a motif. Bettina Blohm's work is not based on sketches or photos. She uses her mind to transport the meaning of what she has seen back to the studio. What she puts on paper corresponds to the results of her analysis.
The determined line and the masterly use of the chosen medium, relating to the format and beyond that to the series, are evidence of how precisely she is able to transform her insight attained through perception into the finished drawing.
But there will always remain some mystery as to why her work is so compelling. And that is precisely where art begins when the discourse ends.
I am grateful for the insight gained from this collaboration, especially for realizing that it cannot all be understood.
Höfchen, Heinz. “Bettina Blohms Radierungen”, no ugly mathematics, 2007
Etchings by Bettina Blohm
Since spring 2005, Bettina Blohm has been working on the latest addition to her oeuvre beside her paintings and drawings, a series of etchings. Although still manageable in volume, the development of her print work demonstrates an inner logic that seems to open up new possibilities in the context of her oeuvre.
Bettina Blohm creates and prints her etchings at the Manhattan Graphics Center, a print workshop on Washington Street close to her studio in New York. There, she was taught the technical basis of the different printing methods by Fred Mershimer and Vijay Kumar. She points out that besides the fascination of the actual production process, the etching and the complexity of the printing have provided her with a new awareness of graphic means.
The first etchings "transcribe inventions from the series of landscape drawings" and show motifs from the wealth of experience she has acquired drawing landscapes in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City. Specific to the five plates of the Catskill series is the placement of big black shapes that are inspired by constructivist elements in the foreground and middle ground of the landscape, which add a counterpoint in the composition to the scales of gray in the linear mesh of meadows, bushes, and woods. The contrast of firm and smooth graphic moments, consistently linear, creates the austere attraction of the work, transferred into a landscape with its own particular harmonic beauty. Of course, it is striking that these landscapes are deserted, as are the respective drawings. This is what sets Bettina Blohm apart from the intrinsically related landscape drawings of, for example, Karl Bohrmann, where the humans serve as indispensable decoration referring back to the Romantic tradition.
In 2006, ten new plates were created that are all called "Lines." In them, Bettina Blohm both experiments with technique and clearly widens her repertoire by transforming the surrounding nature. The landscapes become more and more abstract and formally revolutionized. While the drawings of the artist were and still are strongly determined by linear components, the line now has become a manifesto in its own right. Everything else is subordinate; it plays the leading role and is allowed to emancipate itself from the depiction of reality. The line now expresses the idea of a landscape.
The "Lines" have been developed in two different formats: three square plates and seven in an elongated landscape format that results in a double square. In the square sheets, which negate the classical landscape format, the lines of the interior are light and wavy, nearly automatic in their relaxed manner. In "Lines VIII," they create the backdrop to a series of pebble-like shapes that run diagonally through the picture creating an association to a riverbed with pebbles and with it to a famous etching by John Cage. Other lines are placed in front of a darkened background like in "Lines IX," where two meandering lines cross. There are all kinds of possible memories of other motifs recalled here maybe even to the form finding in the American tradition of Adolph Gottlieb, who is citing Indian patterns but foremost, the artist seems to want to formally liberate the line.
Among the "Line" etchings in the landscape format, it is the various unique proofs of "Lines VI" that strike you first. They operate with the cartographic motif of the topographic line, also called isohypsis or contour line, which is used in maps to visualize altitudes of a landscape on one-dimensional paper. To achieve this, all points at the same height are connected in regular intervals by a curve. The topographic lines in "Lines VI" create hilltops protruding from three sides into the picture. The imagination creates an impression and a feeling of a landscape out of the abstract lines, maybe recalling the Catskills in the observer's mind.
The "Escape Lines," a series of five etchings that were created in the winter 2006–2007, show a considerably freer treatment of the line than before. It is possible that the artist is implying an "escape" out of the landscape, no longer wanting to be bound by reality. The "Escape Lines" are bundles of lines or, in the case of sheet 5, a tuft of lines that in contrast to all previous attachment to space are searching for their rhythm on the plate completely on their own. These works are primarily defined by one big sign created from single lines. You could call them star, curve, sinuous line, but naming them seems superfluous since they appear to express thoughts about paths that may or may not be taken.
The latest print work, the aquatint series "Von oben nach unten" (From top to bottom), returns to consolidated linear structures. The first sheet surprises with a cohesive aquatint plane inscribed with downward facing lines which remind of a white line woodcut. In contrast, the second sheet uses the background as an even film for broad black curving lines which run from top to bottom like the implied edge of a mountain ridge.
With this aquatint, Bettina Blohm has come very close to her development of space in the Catskill series from 2005. In the meantime, however, her perception of landscape has become increasingly abstract, and she has added another form of expression to her artistic work.
Lütgens, Annelie. Aktives Sehen. Zu den Zeichnungen von Bettina Blohm
„Die Landschaft ist per se der ungegenständlichste Gegenstand der Kunst.“(1)
Bettina Blohm zeichnet Landschaften vor Ort. Reduziert und zeichenhaft, sind ihre Motive doch gerade noch zu erkennen. Die abstrahierten Formen ordnen sich zum Raum mit Bäumen, Hügeln, Rasenlinien. Die Künstlerin notiert, woran ihr Blick hängen bleibt, sehr direkt, abgekürzt und dennoch konkret. Die Orte, die sie wahrnimmt, hinterlassen bisweilen wenig mehr als minimale Spuren von Farbstift auf dem Papier. Souverän beherrscht Blohm die Kunst des Weglassens. Es braucht nur eine Linie, ein wenig Schraffur, und wir sehen einen Horizont, eine Lichtung, ein Gebüsch. Auf diese Weise entsteht nicht allein ein Notat visueller subjektiver Eindrücke, sondern in dieser Annäherung auch die Verdichtung zu einem Gebilde, welches das Vielschichtige, Chaotische, Überwältigende und Ungreifbare der Natur in ein Bild umformt, das wir Landschaft nennen.
Blohm lebt je zur Hälfte des Jahres in Berlin und New York. In Berlin haben es ihr Friedhöfe angetan, jene Orte der Stille in der Stadt, die aktiv durchwandert und kontemplativ betrachtet werden wollen. Sie bieten sich dem Blick der Künstlerin als Fragmente gestalteter Natur dar und stehen beispielhaft für das, was Landschaft im urbanen Raum sein kann: Das große Bild in kleiner Form.(2)
Ein Berliner Friedhof und die Wälder, Seen und Wasserfälle der nordamerikanischen Catskills, wo Künstler im 19. Jahrhundert das Erhabene suchten,(3) können unterschiedlicher nicht sein. An diesen Gegensätzen, nimmt der Stift der Zeichnerin Maß. Das romantisch Erhabene als Motiv interessiert die Zeichnerin dabei weniger als die Verbindung von Sehen, Denken und Zeichnen(4), also die Imagination als intellektuelles Vergnügen. Damit steht sie in jener zeichnerischen Tradition, die weniger einen topografischen Ort vedutenhaft festzuhalten trachtet, sondern vielmehr den spontanen Eindruck wiedergeben will, eine flüchtige, durch Licht, Wind und Wolken ständig sich verändernde Situation.(5) So kann Landschaft sich für Stimmung und Atmosphäre öffnen(6) und ihr Bild durch die Ein-Bild-ungskraft des Betrachters sich vollenden. Die Imagination braucht das weiße Blatt, die Leerstelle(7) zwischen den Linien oder schraffierten Flächen. Bei diesem zeichnerischen Verfahren, das Blohm meisterhaft beherrscht, ergibt sich nicht zuletzt auch eine Deutungsoffenheit, die es uns Betrachtern nicht immer leicht macht, denn auf die sinnliche Wahrnehmung von Landschaft antwortet die Künstlerin mit einer radikalen Reduzierung. Was wir am Ende auf dem Papier sehen, ist Landschaft als Bild.
Bettina Blohm reagiert auf ihre Erfahrung vor Ort mit Erfindung von zeichnerischen Abkürzungen, und hier ist sie überraschenderweise Piet Mondrian nahe, der in seinen Skizzenbüchern von 1912 seine Eindrücke von Strand, Dünen und Meer mit einer immer stärkeren Formreduzierung auf das Papier brachte. Doch anders als die systematische Abstraktion der frühen Moderne, erfindet Blohm in jedem Blatt neue Formen der Abstraktion, so dass wir uns immer wieder in das Abenteuer des aktiven, denkenden Sehens einlassen und die visuellen Abbreviaturen zur imaginären Landschaft ergänzen müssen - etwa die leere untere Hälfte eines Blattes zur Meeresoberfläche, die obere hellblau und grau schraffierte zum Himmel und die kräftigen blau und grauen Linien dazwischen als Horizont. Dieses Beispiel ist vergleichsweise einfach, weil hier vertraute visuelle Eindrücke aus der Erinnerung aufgerufen und mit formalen Übereinkünften der modernen Kunst abgeglichen werden können. Im frühen 19.Jahrhundert war das noch anders, als Carl Blechen 1829 einen Strich auf ein winziges Stück Leinwand malte, betitelt Blauvioletten Wolkenstrich oder Hügellandschaft mit zwei Bergrücken(8) - ein programmatisches und kühnes Beispiel dafür, dass „die Landschaft mittels der Einbildungskraft (entsteht) „und nicht als Ergebnis einer perfekten Illusion.“(9) Im frühen 21.Jahrhundert sind manche Zeichnungen Blohms aus den Catskills dafür eine gute Übung: Der graue Stift umreisst eine Wolkenform, gibt ihr am oberen Teil einen grauen Hintergrund und begrenzt ihren unteren Rand mittig mit einem Feld von Schraffuren in fünf verschiedenen Farben von Blau über Violett zu Weinrot. Es sind solche nicht auf den ersten Blick lesbaren Zeichen, in denen sich Bettina Blohms Radikalität zeigt: Immer ist ein Gesehenes der Anlass für ihre reduzierte, subjektive Sichtweise, nur wird es nicht erzählt, schon gar nicht illustriert. Vielmehr macht sie uns klar, dass ihre Aufzeichnung der Extrakt ihrer persönlichen Wahrnehmung einer Landschaft ist und dass niemand anhand einer Zeichnung sieht, was sie gesehen hat, sondern dass wir diesen Extrakt in unserem eigenen Fluss von Assoziationen und Wahrnehmungen von Landschaft auflösen müssen, um unsere persönliche Imagination zu befördern.
(1)Werner Busch, Abbild, Erscheinung, Erfindung. Landschaftsgrafik und Ungegenständlichkeit, in: Werner Busch, Oliver Jehle (Hrsg.), Vermessen. Landschaft und Ungegenständlichkeit. Zürich, Berlin 2007, S. 97.
(2) François Jullien, Das große Bild hat keine Form. Aus dem Französischen von Markus Sedlaczek, München 2005.
(3) Die Catskills spielten eine wichtige Rolle im Werk des us-amerikanischen Malers Thomas Cole (1801-1848). Vgl. Ausst.-Kat. Neue Welt. Die Erfindung der amerikanischen Malerei. Bucerius Kunstform, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 2008, S. 117-120. Sie sind darüber hinaus Schauplatz von J. F. Coopers im ersten Drittel des 19. Jh. veröffentlichten Romanzyklus Lederstrumpf.
(4) Vgl. Ausst.-Kat. Seeing – Thinking – Drawing. Zeichnung und Graphik von Bettina Blohm, Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen Schloß Gottorf 2005.
(5) Vgl. Monika Wagner, Die Erfindung der Natur. Anmerkungen zu Zeichnungen von John Constable, in: Stefan Kummer, Georg Satzinger (Hrsg.), Studien zur Künstlerzeichnung. Klaus Schwager zum 65. Geburtstag, Stuttgart 1990, S. 280-291.
(6) Vgl. Gernot Böhme, Atmosphärisches in der Naturerfahrung, in: Ders., Atmopshäre. Essays zur neuen Ästhetik, Frankfurt am Main 1995, S. 66-84.
(7) Dazu Reinhard Wegner, Die unvollendete Landschaft, in: Markus Bertsch, Reinhard Wegner (Hrsg.), Landschaft am „Scheidepunkt“. Evolution einer Gattung in Kunsttheorie, Kunstschaffen und Literatur um 1800, Göttingen 2010, S. 437-450.
(8) Abb. In: Raphael Rosenberg, Max Hollein (Hrsg.), Turner, Hugo, Moreau. Entdeckung der Abstraktion, Ausst.-Kat. Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, München 2007, S. 115.
(9) Wegner S. 438.
Mahoney, Rosemary. “Blohm in Amerika”, Publikation no ugly mathematics, 2007
Blohm in Amerika
I have no gift for the visual arts. Give me a brush, a pencil, or a bit of charcoal and the best I can muster is a slightly traumatized looking stick figure. You’d be better off giving the pencil to an ape. In addition I might as well confess it my grasp of art theory, art history, art criticism is shamefully vague, not to say non existent. For these reasons I was a bit baffled when Bettina Blohm invited me to write this introduction. I was baffled; I was also honored. Presently I hope you’ll understand why.
met Bettina Blohm in March of 2004 when we were both month-long residents at Yaddo, the venerated artists’ retreat located at the edge of Saratoga Springs in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York. I went there in the hope of beginning a new book. Bettina went there, I’m sure, for a change of scenery that would spur new work. Upon my arrival at Yaddo on that first day of March my heart positively sank at the sight of the place. The 400 acre compound was like something out of Rip Van Winkle all deep spooky woods and creepy little hills and hollows and massive white pines with branches that hissed and drooped and dangled like Spanish moss. It was a landscape for which I have a primal not to say pathological distaste. Realizing that I had willfully arranged to take up residence in this forested closet for an entire month, I was filled with panic and remorse. Unloading my car I heard myself muttering, “Christ, I might as well have sent myself to prison!”
Forests and mountains have always struck me as hermetic and morbid. I suppose I developed this claustrophobic dread growing up in Massachusetts in a relatively wooded area at the foot of the Blue Hills. As a child it seemed to me that unsavory events were always taking place in our woods and hills, that the local police were always finding dead bodies in the local ravines or bank robbers hiding in the shadowy undergrowth or fugitives making a run for it up a secluded hilly path. I am certain that in my child’s mind these events were greatly multiplied and exaggerated, nevertheless I have never enjoyed sitting on a piney hillside, or walking in a lightless forest, or finding myself plunged into some Appalachian valley. It’s the lack of horizon and distance and depth that I have never enjoyed. I have never enjoyed the fact that in such places I can’t see who on earth might be creeping up on me. I have always vastly preferred open spaces; the desert and the sea with their huge uplifting skies, their long views, their feeling of freedom and promise and easy movement.
Toward the end of that first day at Yaddo I met Bettina Blohm as she was unpacking her car and, though I never mentioned this to her, within two or three days I came to envy her. She was, for one, graceful and tall. (I am clumsy and rather short.) She was genial. (I am, at heart, a hopeless misanthrope.) She had been given a big and bright and airy studio. (I had been given a dark little garret office once occupied by Sylvia Plath, not the most auspicious or comforting of rooms given how things unfolded for poor tortured Sylvia.) Further, Bettina seemed to have great freedom to her days. While I was stuck all day in the little study trying to create images with the limited medium of the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet and a “view” of nothing but one snow-laden branch of an enormous pine tree, Bettina was setting off every afternoon in a rented car to explore the vast environs of the Catskills. For hours she would disappear and when she returned, portfolio tucked under her arm, she always had the contented look of a person who has just unearthed some crucial piece of information. I envied her.
At Yaddo’s communal dinner table, nightly occupied by seventeen artists of various disciplines, Bettina was a lucid and unpretentious conversationalist with a wide smile, a ringing big laugh, and an endearing ability to direct the laugh at herself. After dinner some of us would gather to play Scrabble. This being the United States, we naturally played in English. Bettina, native of Germany, proved to be annoyingly good at the game. (The day I am capable of playing Scrabble in German with even pitiable proficiency is the day I will be capable of leaping over the moon with Pope Ratzinger balanced on my head.) Sometimes instead of Scrabble we played ping-pong. To my amazement, Bettina had the scathing serve of a Chinese ping-pong professional and, between plays, a worrisome little habit of brandishing her paddle like a dagger. And all this she carried out with that utterly candid smile ever on her face, that easy laugh and lissome grace. In a month of trying I never once beat Bettina Blohm in ping-pong. I never will beat her in ping-pong. (I would venture to guess that you never could beat her either.)
There came a day, finally, when I had an opportunity to see the work Bettina was doing at Yaddo, charcoal sketches and pencil drawings of the Catskill landscape, and then, of course, far more than her height, her freedom, and her punishing ping-pong paddle, what I came to envy most about her was her artistic gift. I saw the drawings and was struck by how representative they were of the local reality, yet how transforming. They expressed all that was indigenous and naturally ingenious about the area, all that I in my blinkered paranoia had missed. Though minimal, some, the drawings were uncannily clear. They were emotive, intimate, and intelligent. They had depth and movement. They were living. With apparent ease Bettina Blohm had penetrated and made transparent a landscape that I had thought impenetrable and opaque. Looking at her work I was able, for the first time, to begin to appreciate the very woods and hills I had always hated. The drawings told me things I hadn’t known, and I wondered at how she was able to express her responses so affectingly with only the bold strokes, tender lines, and deft shadings of a colored pencil or stick of charcoal. I wondered at how keenly she was able to see. I wondered at her work in the truest sense--with awe, surprise, even puzzlement.
A year or so after the residence at Yaddo, Bettina and I and several other artists spent a week in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the very tip of the Cape Cod peninsula. Provincetown was my kind of place; the open sea, the delightful treelessness of the long beachscape, the manageable dunes and undulating grasses. As a child, I had spent summers here. It was a place I loved and thought I knew. One day I went for a walk on the beach and, quite by accident, I came upon Bettina sitting on a rock in the grassy marsh. Coming up behind her, I looked over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of what was on the sketch pad in her lap: a few fundamental lines of color, vital, unfettered, personal as the lines on an electrocardiogram. It was, I saw instantly, the marsh grasses in the foreground, a short wall of dunes, and a clouded sky. It was the scene we were both looking at transferred to paper in a way that was simple but somehow truer than true. It was an intimation, a suggestion of the place. It was more than just beautiful and accurate, it was a visionary translation. Just as at Yaddo, when I saw this drawing I had the feeling of being let in on a secret.
While we were at Yaddo, Bettina and I had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with the American sculptors Harry Leigh and Victoria Palermo. One day I told them that great art often makes me strangely sad. Harry smiled in recognition and said, “Yes. When looking at a masterpiece we’re moved deeply because it makes us suddenly aware of our own unrealized greatness and potential.” Not long ago on a visit to Bettina’s studio in Manhattan I felt with force the truth of Harry’s words. Looking at her etchings and drawings it struck me that the best of her work always provokes the same physical response in me: involuntarily my face goes a little slack, my eyes widen, my mouth opens slightly, and then a complex mix of melancholy, envy, regret, frustration, and excitement comes over me. It is not an unpleasant feeling--quite the opposite. It’s a thrilling kind of catharsis. It’s that moment of self-reflection that the best art inspires. At one point that day in her studio Bettina showed me a drawing with a bold tree in the foreground. After a minute she set it down, picked up another entirely different picture, and said a bit apologetically, as if fearing I might be bored, “Well, this is the same tree, obviously.”
I looked at her to see if she was joking. It did not look a thing like the same tree. “It’s not obvious to me!” I said.
Bettina laughed. “Well, OK. It’s the same tree but a different me looking at it.”
I had to ask her then the inevitable question, the question the benighted, starry-eyed lay person always has to ask the master: “How do you do this?” Bettina shrugged in her modest way and said, “It’s just a moment of inspiration that goes to the hand.”
Before I left Bettina’s studio that day I flipped through a stack of forty or so of her small pencil drawings, mostly images of the Provincetown landscape. For me, flipping through those pictures was like sifting through a box of precious gemstones. I wanted to take the pictures home so that I could look at them in private and not have to fight back tears or hide my envy. I wanted to keep them so that I could look at them again and again. They say that envy is a negative emotion, a deadly sin. In this case I disagree. I look at Bettina’s work and regret that I could not possibly create something like this. I envy her her gift, yet her gift also moves in me the desire to create something I know that I can create.
It’s just a moment of inspiration that goes to the hand. Well, yes, it goes to the hand. And then, for those of us fortunate enough to see Bettina Blohm’s work, it goes to the heart.
Wei, Lilly. Paint, She Said
Bettina Blohm is not a multidisciplinary artist. She is a painter who believes that the medium she cherishes—accompanied by drawing and printmaking—remains rich enough, expansive enough, and challenging enough to warrant her dedication. It has been an unwavering, three-decade commitment that might have seemed curious at first, out of synch with a generation that had largely stopped painting. Painting, however, was what engaged Blohm, in particular works of European and American modernism, and it continues to do so. She remains intrigued by modernist concepts and its pictorial lexicon, discovering fresh veins of relevance and meaning in them.
Upon graduating in 1984 from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Blohm came to New York, then the center of the art world and a magnet for young artists, lured by its contagious energy and a confidence and candor that was still youthful—some said brash or vulgar—unlike that of Europe. Being here provided the distance she needed to better see and appreciate the world she had left, one underpinned by attitudes and philosophies that were more receptive to aesthetic ambiguities and “grey zones,” by a long and complex history. In New York (which she embraced enthusiastically, later becoming a US citizen), the emphasis was on the present tense, on immediacy and directness. It is from this duality at the core of her being that the major themes of her artmaking emanates, precipitated by the differences between the two cultures.
These days, she divides her time between New York and Berlin. Spring and fall are spent in the latter where she draws while the former is reserved for painting. Extraordinarily sensitive to location and the studio space she works in, it is a regimen that has benefitted the evolution of her work. Balancing oppositions—which she does with great finesse—she plays figuration against the abstract, line against color, flatness against depth, structure against gesture, mechanical precision against the slippages of the human hand, the spare against sumptuousness, formality against feeling, intimacy against immensity, the straightforward against the elliptical, and so on, to construct tautly elegant works that shift tantalizingly between them, reverberating with possibilities.
She started out as a painter of landscapes—and a fine one—but then moved on to creations that alternated between representation and abstraction. In the last six or seven years, the work has become wholly non-objective although it is still connected to the world, its rhythms and sensations translated into an abstract syntax. The new paintings she showed me, most from 2015 with a few earlier works, have a different feel, more “relaxed, expansive, like the largeness of the country,” she said. Yet in looking at some early, very lovely drawings of trees, their underlying formal organization is not dissimilar to the structures of her current production, a bridge that links the natural world of her beginnings to the current abstractions.
Blohm has a way with red, yellow and blue across a spectrum of tonalities, enriched by other hues that may or may not be readily visible, more sensed than seen. All oil painted on linen and of ample dimensions, some attract instant attention, such as the irresistible Red like Radiance, 2015 (page 11). Four grey-green wedges dominate the foreground. These schematic straight-line triangles swell into a curve on one side that suggests the organic, the corporeal, and frequently appear in this body of work, a shape she finds to be generous and adaptable. Acting as a screen of sorts, albeit an open one, it first arrests the gaze then leads it into the pictorial space where smaller, similar bright red shapes, relatives of Matisse’s cut-outs, are choreographed into an irregular semblance of a grid, the ground a deep sanguine red, the red-on-red contrast bracing. What’s perceptually intriguing is the way the eye can almost hold these two opposing systems—maybe three if the ground is considered—in its gaze at once, unlike the famous rabbit/duck dichotomy in which the image can only be parsed as a rabbit or a duck, not both simultaneously. As foreground, middle ground and background vibrate against each other (Blohm says she builds up the painting altogether), the push and pull, echoing Hans Hofmann, creates a syncopated movement that animates the surface.
Or take the golden, painterly Easter Parade, 2015 (page 13). Like its title that refers to a beloved rite of spring, it is upbeat, festive. Comprised of small vertical yellow units that range from sun-struck to mustard, broken up by cooler pale hues here and there, they suggest a non-uniform urban façade, the rectangles of different measurements creating, once again, an essential dissonance that further enlivens the field. The forms are set next to each other and where they meet, an impressionistic “edge” is formed rather than a hard and fast line, the grid apparent but not fixed, not defined. And Blohm’s characteristic wedges, here etched in red and blue, are placed across the horizontal registers at intuitively cadenced intervals, echoing Mondrian’s Boogie-Woogie paintings as well as works by Paul Klee and Mary Heilmann, among others, absorbed and transformed.
In The Unanswered Question, 2015 (page 15), the foreground is occupied by the same shapes but turned into a discontinuous, asymmetric grid that stretches across the surface from edge to edge, sketched in off-white. Reversing the order, the quartet of open wedge shapes is now placed behind, in the middle ground. But it is so darkly colored that it is difficult to see against an indigo field, the hues of which are close in tone, its modulations almost imperceptible, taxing the eye, challenging it to work harder. Summoning up skyscapes and the cosmos in which the Cartesian confronts the sublime, indigo is a color that Blohm has worked with for years, enamoured of its “translucent airiness” as it moves from dark to light, of its stained glass effect when it becomes “more light than matter.”
The Background is the Memory of the Foreground, 2015 (page 17) is another standout. Its permutations of the wedge shape bloom in an array of pastel pigments that have the fragility of watercolor, of a Klee. The mood is more muted, its minor key coloration delicate. The ground, however, adds lushness, complexity, depth. It might be called grey but that would not acknowledge all the shades that went into it, picked up and encapsulated by the pockets of color floated on its surface. (The artist calls the hue “mud” because it is earthy, an indescribable nuanced shade that’s a mix of red, yellow and blue.) Subtly inflected, the painting tacks back and forth between line and color, surface and space, the carefully composed brushwork offering its own rewards, complementing the images, framed by a ground that has equal billing with it, one inseparable from the other.
Memory Palace, 2015 (page 19) differs from the works discussed above in that it is a fairly straightforward grid, although somewhat misaligned in places, with tremulous, disrupted edges, to remind us, if we needed reminding, that it is made by hand. Its units—five up, six across—are painted different shades of blue, the low light suggesting dusk and an ambience of pensiveness. Within each of them is an ovoid shape, varying slightly in look, made from a single, swift gesture, its point attached to the upper right corner. There are 30 of them, in blues that contrast with the blues that surround them. Thinly outlined in a chalky, dimmed white, the hues are elusive, impossible to hold steadily in the eye, the surface quietly, compellingly undulant, its progressions “atonal,” almost heard. A combination of the formal and the organic, the ovals could also read as a semblance of a face, a teardrop, a balloon, the whole like a page torn from a calendar, each oval a diary entry of sorts, inscribed upon time.
What these increasingly assured, increasingly dense works are ultimately about is painting itself. But that in turn is a tribute to the act of making, humanity’s supreme gift to itself, translating the ephemerality of existence into something for the moment that is less contingent, less conditional.
Painting has a long history, she said.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator and critic.