Untitled, painted in 1987, exhibits the hallmarks not just of Rudolf Stingel’s early fascination with abstraction and the sensuality of surface, but also the conceptual processes which have remained central to his practice. A signature example of the artist’s work during the 1980s, Untitled is primarily concerned with understanding the surface of a painting as a terrain waiting to be explored by both the artist and the viewer. The layered application of paint creates rhythmic undulations, dimples and blemishes, which betray an intense appreciation of subtlety and craft. This work also demonstrates an active engagement with the legacy of colour-feld painting, the
work of Robert Ryman and the achievements of Piero Manzoni’s Achromes, all of whom pushed the boundaries of what monochromatic surfaces could teach us about art as a material object and as an idea.
The critic Roberta Smith has noted that at the core of Stingel’s practice lie three essential questions: ‘what are paintings, who makes them, and how?’ (R. Smith, ‘The Threads That Tie a Show Together’, The New York Times, 20 August 2013). Central to Stingel’s work, especially to his early abstracts, is the artist’s disassembling of the components which make up a painting, a strategy which enables him to invite the viewer to contemplate the structure of a painting, and the processes that give rise to it. Much like a poet, Stingel is able to discern the modular aspects of his subject, comprehend their relationships to each other, and then re-arrange the entire ensemble to create an entirely unexpected fusion. In the words of Michelle Grabner, Stingel ‘simply chooses not to accept the tautological definitions of the language’ (M. Grabner, ‘Rudolf Stingel’, Frieze, April 2007, no. 106). The vocabulary and grammar, the very syntax of painting, becomes malleable in Stingel’s hands – the potential of the painted surface is liberated from the confines of representation or illusionism. It is for this reason that Stingel’s works so often develop associations and dialogues with wallpaper, floors and furnishings, most notably evinced in his magnificent transformation of the Palazzo Grassi, Venice in 2013.
The topographical picture plane presented to us by Stingel is one whose boundaries are ever receding into the distance; the horizon is both ever-present and unreachable. Across the surface of Untitled, in the subtle gestures, fleeting traces and ethereal touches, a sumptuously contemplative aesthetic is conjured up. Its beauty encompasses all the material, historical, sensual and intellectual appeals of painting.