‘I stumble over something and then I explore that. I push things so that I will stumble into something new. I push things to the point where I have no idea what’s going to happen’
(C. von Heyl, in An Landi ‘Charlene von Heyl: Unexpected Collisions’, in ARTNEWS, December 2013, http://www.artnews.com/2013/12/16/charline-von-heyl-unexpected-collisions/).
Confronting the viewer with bold enigmatic shapes and large, gestural brushstrokes set against floating masses of colour, Charline von Heyl’s Untitled (1/00), II is a stunning example of the artist’s continued investigation into the nature of abstraction. Swathes of crimson red, cobalt blue and vibrant yellow collide, merging foreground and background and consciously denying any form of figurative reading. Born in the German Rhineland, von Heyl attended art school in both Hamburg and Düsseldorf, studying with Jörg Immendorf and Fritz Schwengler. Experiencing the radical Cologne art scene of the 1980s first hand, von Heyl encountered Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen, whose influence is apparent in her work. Since moving to New York in the mid-1990s she has undertaken a continued investigation into the abstract image, receiving international acclaim, with a 2012 touring retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and Tate Liverpool.
Von Heyl’s pursuit of abstraction is driven by a desire to invent something that has not yet been seen, creating works that possess an autonomous reality. Her refusal to rely on the existing visual world not only characterises her approach to painting but is in many ways inextricably linked to her own personal life. Von Heyl’s lack of interest in representation is in part a result of her inability to recognise faces, a condition known as prosopagnosia. Indeed when asked to summon in her mind’s eye an image of her husband of 16 years, and her fellow studio partner in Marfa, the painter Christopher Wool, von Heyl is left blank.
Despite their seeming spontaneity, von Heyl’s canvases are in fact the result of an intensive painterly process where layered brushstrokes and powerful swathes of colour seem to clamour for space, creating unexpected collisions or moments of conflict. The dynamism of each of her works is maintained by the wide array of source material, from artist monographs to magazine clippings that fill her studio. When complete, the various collisions of organic and geometric forms appear to have reached a resolution, albeit one which wrestles any familiar frame of reference for the viewer, forcing them to engage with the painting on entirely new terms. This relationship between the viewer and the work is imperative for von Heyl. When asked at what point her paintings reach a conclusion, she simply states, ‘When I can neither add nor subtract anything …. And a painting being finished doesn’t mean that it is not open. It is, in fact, only finished when it is a different painting to different people – when it changes every time you look at it’ (C. von Heyl, in D. Solway Charlene von Heyl: In the Abstract’, W Magazine, August 19 2011, http://www.wmagazine.com/culture/art-and-design/2013/08/charline-von-heyl-abstract-artist/).