In more than four decades, Helmut Federle (b. Solothurn, 1944; lives in Vienna and Camaiore) has created an oeuvre that balances geometric construction with painterly gesture. Federle started carving out his distinctive position in painting in the 1970s, bringing a postmodern sensibility to a reflection on the abstract painterly tradition in American art after the war. Yet unlike some of his colleagues, he did not primarily focus on the juncture in the evolution of Western postwar societies at which abstraction became the ascendant aesthetic. Rather, his interest in abstraction is a genuine fascination, which he pursues by steering a course between gestural painting and rigorous geometric construction.
Federle’s paintings in large formats and his drawings attest to his ongoing engagement with geometric forms and how to achieve a state of equilibrium between them on the pictorial surface. In 1982, the Kunstmuseum Basel’s decision to purchase the painting Asian Sign (1980) for its collection—the composition is based on the shape of a swastika—met with impassioned opposition and prompted a fierce debate. A solo exhibition of the artist’s work was mounted in 1985; Asian Sign was included in the Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart’s permanent presentation.
Since then, numerous museums and private collections, including the Tate Modern, London, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, have acquired works by Federle; in 1997, he represented Switzerland at the Venice Biennale. Yet discussions of his art have tended to eschew the issues at stake in the Basel controversy. Three and a half decades later, the exhibition Helmut Federle. 19 E. 21st St., Six Large Paintings revisits the episode, presenting six paintings created between 1980 and 2005 and a number of works on paper from the collection of the Kupferstichkabinett (Department of Prints and Drawings) as well as historic non-European ceramics from the artist’s own collection. This juxtaposition underscores Federle’s conviction that abstraction is much more than the absence of representation: it is a personal continuum that extends across time and transcends boundaries of culture.