‘In the beginning was the nail, which seemed to me to be the ideal object with which to model light and shadow - to make time visible. I incorporated it into my painting, and it forged a link between the works and the space around them. It protruded as a tactile feeler from the flat surface, much like a sundial. A language of light and shadow emerged from the cumulative diversity’
‘As a farm boy, I always had great fun in driving the harrow or the seed planter with the horses straight toward the horizon without the furrows ever going off into curves’
Executed between 1969 and 1974, Diagonale Teilung voeneinander weg (Diagonal Division) is a work of striking geometric power from Günther Uecker’s definitive series of nail paintings. Hammered into the canvas with bristling rhythmic precision, the nails fan outwards from the surface with regimental austerity, flanked across the canvas in a single diagonal strip. Optically spellbinding and seductive in its coarse tactility, the work bears witness to the artist’s consummate mastery of his signature medium, initiated in 1957 and developed through his involvement with the Zero Group between 1961 and 1966. Starting from a theoretical blank slate, the Zero artists proposed to create art anew as a pure and liberated zone of primary existence, offering fresh opportunities for intellectual and spiritual communication. Like many of his contemporaries, Uecker was concerned with the poetic power of motion and vibration, concepts that are eloquently expressed in the vast, undulating surface of the present work. ‘In the beginning was the nail’, Uecker explained, ‘which seemed to me to be the ideal object with which to model light and shadow – to make time visible. I incorporated it into my painting, and it forged a link between the works and the space around them. It protruded as a tactile feeler from the flat surface, much like a sundial’ (G. Uecker, 1961, quoted in Günther Uecker: Twenty Chapters, exh. cat., Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2006, p. 72). In the work's billowing crests and hollows, Uecker creates rich patterns of light and shade, giving form to the invisible forces of duration and movement.
Uecker’s nail paintings owe their conceptual foundation to the earlier and lesser known ‘Unism’ movement inaugurated by Polish artist Wladislaw Strzeminski: a pupil of Kazimir Malevich who insisted on the dismantling of all pictorial hierarchies, along with the rejection of the old structural dualism of figure and ground. Following his subscription to the Zero Group in 1961, Uecker was exposed to the optical experiments of Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, who sought to imbue their works with a new sense of dynamic reverberation. ‘It was from the start an open domain of possibilities, and we speculated with the visionary form of purity, beauty, and stillness’, the artist explained. ‘These things moved us greatly. This was perhaps also a very silent and at the same time very loud protest against Expressionism, against an expression-oriented society’ (G. Uecker, quoted in D. Honisch, Uecker, New York 1983, p. 14). Uecker’s recourse to the humble nail may be understood in relation to his rural upbringing in the Baltic island of Wustrow: ‘as a farm boy’, he recalls, ‘I always had great fun in driving the harrow or the seed planter with the horses straight toward the horizon without the furrows ever going off into curves; as a child by the Baltic I always sat by the water, and there I saw sky and water, earth and fire – they used to burn off the fields for the sheep to get rid of the dry grass’ (G. Uecker, quoted in R. Wedewer, Atelier 3, Günther Uecker, Leverkusen 1980, p. 19). Like grooves in the soil, ripples in the ocean, flames in the distance or clouds in the sky, Uecker’s singular strip of nails is infused with the elemental rhythms of nature, pulsating with primordial power.