Included in the artist’s major retrospective at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf – which opened just months after his death in May 2013, and starred the present work on its catalogue cover – ohne Titel (Untitled) (1996-97) is a sumptuous example of Gotthard Graubner’s Farbraumkörper (‘Colour space bodies’). These glowing explorations of light, volume and colour are painted on soft-edged canvases stuffed with textile, taking the legacies of Turner, Rothko and Caspar David Friedrich to a newly tactile realm. Applied in many layers – informed by the ‘coloured shadows’ technique of Veronese and Titian, as well as the scientific colour theories later explored by Goethe and Paul Klee – Untitled’s scarlets, crimsons and carmines percolate, saturate and melt into one another, shifting in temperature and tone. Without a frame and projecting into space, the work transcends optical depth, envisioning colour in three dimensions. Its vaporous, modulated hues breathe with living splendour, conjuring a rich, bodily experience of manifold red. Looming over two metres in height, Graubner’s colour-field invites the viewer into a contemplative zone that resounds with the spiritual power of his Romantic and Abstract Expressionist forebears.
Born in 1930 in Saxony, Graubner studied in the 1950s at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Here he began to paint what he called Farbräume (‘Colour spaces’): vast, diffuse planes of a single nuanced colour, whose blur and flow evoked the fog of Friedrich’s skies. ‘I was fascinated by their figural elements,’ said Graubner of Friedrich’s work, ‘but mainly in regard to the spiritual space they helped to create and into which the material, objective world was translated, as it were’ (G. Graubner, quoted in P. Iden, Fortunate To Be An Artist: Peter Iden Interviews, Leipzig 2008, p. 74). Around the same time, Mark Rothko – another great admirer of Friedrich – had begun to make similar use of hovering, weightless colour across the Atlantic, his works sharing in Graubner’s chromatic sense of the sublime.
Exploring ever more direct sensory experience, in the 1960s Graubner began to mount his canvases over pillows of soft textile, creating Farbkissen (‘Colour cushions’) similar to the present work; in 1968 he made his first Nebelraum (‘Fog space’), which allowed viewers to enter a gallery room with white fog, as if moving around within one of his canvases. In 1970, he stopped using these terms and began referring to all of his works as Farbraumkörper, collapsing distinctions of medium into the somatic triad of colour, space and body. Works like Untitled witness his move beyond the boundaries of conventional painting, allowing colour and light to unfold in spectacular, unhindered diversity.
In their search for purity and infinity, Graubner’s paintings also aligned with the ethos of the Zero movement, founded in Düsseldorf in 1957. His classmate Günther Uecker was a key member of Zero, and Graubner taught art alongside the group’s cofounder Heinz Mack for several years of the 1960s. These artists considered light a primary condition for healing in postwar Europe: ‘a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning’ (O. Piene, ‘The Development of the Group “Zero,”’ The Times Literary Supplement, 3 September 1964, pp. 812–13). While Graubner had no programmatic goal, his works conjure a meditative zone that seems to speak to a world of potential beyond our own. Serene, timeless and vivid, Untitled is born of a unique, transcendent devotion to life lived in colour.