The Serpentine presented the work of Tomma Abts (b. 1967, Kiel, Germany) in the artist’s first solo exhibition in a UK public institution.
‘It is a completely open process, starting from a point of nothing, with no guaranteed outcome, every single time. I am not making process painting; the process is always directed at the final image, and the precise definition of it.’ –Tomma Abts
One of the most significant artists of her generation and the winner of the 2006 Turner Prize, Abts is known for her acrylic and oil paintings whose extraordinary magnetism belies their modest scale.
Abts’ methodical process and use of the 48cm x 38cm format have remained more or less constant for the past twenty years. Yet within these self-imposed parameters she finds endless possibilities for experimentation. This survey at the Serpentine included paintings and casts, mostly produced over the previous 10 years.
Beginning with no source material and no preconceived notion of the final composition, Abts is guided by a series of intuitive decisions that enable the internal logic of each work to gradually unfold. Shapes are defined, buried and rediscovered through a process of accrual, with each layer of paint moving the image closer to the final composition. Where areas of paint accumulate at differing speeds, rifts and seams appear, so that the final image bears the visible traces of the evolution of forms beneath the surface.
Abts plays an optical game of push and pull, maintaining a tension between surface materiality and pictorial illusion. Shadows and lighting effects occasionally suggest shallow illusory spaces, while an idiosyncratic colour palette helps to assert mood while also functioning as an integral structural component. Relationships between colour, form and ground appear as both established and in continual flux.
The process of gradual adjustment that Abts adopts in her paintings, of fine-tuning the balance of parts to whole, extends to her approach to installing an exhibition. Responding to the architecture of the gallery, Abts activated the negative spaces between works, while her recent experiments with shaped and two-part canvases incorporated the gallery wall directly into the composition.
The Serpentine exhibition also included new works that had not been shown before. It was co-organised with the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibition travelled in October 2018, and was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.