By the middle of the twentieth century, abstraction seemed the incontestable future of painting. That has since proved ironic, as contemporary assessments of nonobjective art often sound like obituary notices. This putative demise implies abstract painters are now merely parodying an atrophied genre. Yet Tilman’s work entices us to move closer and look awry, to crouch along floor-stacked edges and follow the glint of corners suffused with color. No critical dismissal can subdue the evocative potential of this intimacy, towards which he has been drawing us for nearly a decade.
The simplicity of his work belies this daring ploy; there seems little to see, but yet so much to say about it. Abstract painters of the last few decades have felt an almost neurotic need to justify their practice, if not redeem the entire project of modernist abstraction. Tilman’s work suggests that the act of looking can itself be regenerative, regardless of the vagaries of taste. If the vitality of abstract painting is in latency---derailed by morbid euphemisms---perhaps all that is needed is to follow the ludic enticement and look anew. Tilman certainly invites us to do this assiduously. In doing so, he also makes us reassess the reductive tendencies in post-War painting, precisely through its unique phenomenological concerns. With an unequivocal assertion of authenticity, his work suggests that only abstract painting can bring us there.
Tilman’s own route to the current series of paintings—modular objects constructed from MDF board and plexi-glass---mirrors that of their ideational and expressive aims. Both are the result of a creative endurance, an ability to reconcile concerns that supposedly exist in tacit discord: hard-edge abstraction and sculptural work, Minimalism and photography, installation art and the autonomous artwork. Tilman has thrived on abutting precisely those issues that seem diametrically opposed, as painting itself has continuously assimilated materials and techniques, which at first seem like incursions. A productive reconciliation, Tilman’s additive approach unites all such concerns under a single premise: that a painting is a carrier of light, mediating our experience of it as a physical quality.
This singular focus is drawn from early experiments with photography in the late 1970s. Tilman originally explored the constituent elements of his current practice—light and color—through purely photographic means. But however analytical or self-reflexive in its use, photography implies working with an image made from light rather than setting an encounter with it. Photography’s formalist areas of competence thus seldom stray from expressive abstraction, as in the mechanical manipulation of the camera (a kind of literal referentiality). These limits of the abstract in photography served as an impetus to pare down to less technological means; a realization that a medium that is itself constituted by light may not be the best in which to work with it.
There is a significant historical parallel: the language of abstraction was itself spurred by the invention of photography, to which pictorial representation was in a sense bequeathed as a result. Yet photography’s supposed dominance of pictorialism in the early 20th century---the first ‘death of painting’----actually turned painting into a self-defining medium. Painters were free to pursue a radical shift from delineating the subject matter of a painting to working with its compositional object matter.
Negotiating the confines of this tradition, and turning away from photography, Tilman adopted light, and by implication color, as the basis of his formal language. It entailed not only returning to the root of non-representational art but also to one of the most fundamental aspects of all painting, from Masacio to Marden---yet a return freed of any meretricious or formulaic reenactment. The result is the basic phenotype of his current work: more painted object than discrete painting, each is constructed from angled, juxtaposed, stacked, or staggered panels of MDF, wood and plexi-glass. Covered on all sides with a monochromatic layer of oil lacquer, these built forms are laboriously handcrafted despite their fabricated appearance; Tilman makes no attempt to cover his tracks by beautifying them. Subjected to degrees of morphological change, the basic arrangement yields paintings set in relief or precariously stacked, called Reflectors; paintings leaned or arranged as floor pieces, which Tilman dubs ‘Transforms’; and the almost serial rectangular boxes in the ‘Volumes’ series.
In each set of forms, color is treated as an object with mass and extension. Light, in essence, paints the physical world; the colors of a painter’s palate are merely absorptive light governed by rules of subtraction. As this bare facticity governs Tilman’s work, common denominators of abstraction such as flatness, plasticity, and materiality become subservient to the interplay between translucence (plexi-glass) and opaqueness (wood). Yet Tilman also brings a formal and compositional intelligence to bear on the paintings, concerned as he is with the subjective timbre, value, and subtle placement of color.
His attention to the latter implicates the viewer in a process of discovery. Emphatic monochromatic surfaces are merely decoys: Tilman’s works are all-over paintings, protruding borders and activated edges radiating with color. "The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall," wrote Donald Judd." A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside it.” Working outside the confines of the traditional picture-support, Tilman takes Judd’s polemic to its logical endgame, dispensing with the picture plane as a mediating element. Shifting the usual axis of attention, the works three-dimensional sculptural volumes direct the eye away from the strict planar arrangement of monochromatic surfaces, undermining basic physical and aesthetic assumptions of looking at a painting.
This phenomenological confrontation—part of Tilman’s assimilation of Minimalist sculptural practice---is part of his work’s openness to contingency and context. Tilman’s attention to both becomes a primary concern in his site-specific, architectural arrangement of paintings, challenging conceptions of the autonomous artwork—the fetish object of modernism---with the ethos of installation art. Tilman’s serial works, for example, are serial appearance but not in effect, as the rhythmic qualities color and changing light give a unique quality to each of the repetitive forms. The paintings are thus objects in a state of perpetual change, subject to transformation by qualitative and quantitative variations of their spatial character, of their inhabited space.
In this sense, Tilman’s paintings ask to be looked at the way one actually approaches the shifting perception of the physical world. The viewer of invited to peer below, underneath, aside, and sometimes literally inside a painting. Tilman attracts that simple yet rewarding curiosity: the playful impulse to look inside a box or around a corner. An exploratory dimension is thus added to the act of looking, a physicality supplementing the unfolding of apperception traditionally associated with abstraction. To perceive becomes to participate. As Merleau Ponty suggested, “the perceiving mind is an incarnate mind.” Tilman’s work seems to cleverly ask apropos of abstract painting: “Where do you stand? What is your position?”
New York City
João Ribas is a writer, art critic, editor and curator whose writing appears in several international arts and culture publications.