Ernst Wilhelm Nay: Works from the 1960s, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany



Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Sinus, 1966
Oil on canvas, 162 x 150 cm
Private Collection

January 22 – April 26, 2009

Ernst Wilhelm Nay is one of the most renowned German postwar artists. His abstract paintings are to be found in nearly all important public and private collections with works from that era. Nay’s late work of the 1960s, dating mainly from the years after the artist’s participation in the Documenta III in 1964 to his death in 1968, is, however, less known and, therefore, still largely underrated. Presenting approximately 30 large-size paintings and 86 works on paper, the exhibition in the Schirn will focus on this late work for the first time, introducing an artist who, with his dynamically two-dimensional forms and clear colors transcending the pictorial space, makes an impression that is not historical at all but surprisingly up-to-date. The exhibition will also include a reconstruction of the spectacular Nay room at the documenta III of 1964, where three large-format works of the artist were hung from the ceiling, as an environment.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902 Berlin – 1968 Cologne) has ranked among the most acclaimed representatives of abstract painting in Germany since the mid-fifties at the latest. When Nay began to dedicate himself to painting he did so without formal tuition. After having presented himself to Karl Hofer with three paintings, he was accepted to his painting class at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, where he completed his studies as Hofer’s master-class student in 1928. In the course of the initiative “Degenerate Art,” the Nazis confiscated ten of Nay’s works in public collections in 1937. The artist was forbidden to show his works in exhibitions in Germany. From 1940 to 1946, Nay was put into action in World War II, but again and again found the opportunity to paint in utmost secrecy. After the war, Nay lived in Hofheim am Taunus until 1951. In 1951, Nay took up residence in Cologne with his second wife Elisabeth; the city was to remain the center of his life until his death. One of his most powerful work phases began with the Disc Pictures in 1954, which not only brought his breakthrough in Europe, where he participated in the first three documenta exhibitions and in the Venice Biennial, but also in the USA. In his Disc Pictures Nay left behind all angular forms. Relying on crystal-clear, bright colors, he composed large and small discs and their intermediate forms into an exciting choreography of colors. The work group Eye Pictures dating from 1963 and after, which culminating in the pieces for the documenta III of 1964, was followed by the last phase of the Elementary Pictures in 1965, which ended with Nay’s death in 1968.

The exhibition in the Schirn centers exclusively on Nay’s little-known late work mainly created in the years from the documenta III to his death. One of the reasons for the insufficient awareness of his late work is its history of reception. Nay’s participation in the Documenta III caused a debate that was triggered by the painter and art critic Hans Platschek who attacked Nay in a polemic article in the weekly Die Zeit on 4 September 1964. One key reproach focused on Nay’s prominent position at the documenta III, where the artist’s three large-size Eye Pictures were not only presented in a separate room, but also hanging from the ceiling in a spectacular manner. The outcome of this debate was definitely not only a strain for Nay personally, but also influenced the public perception of the Elementary Pictures he painted after the Documenta. Some important and influential friends and supporters of Nay’s work reacted positively to the works of this last phase and regarded them as an interesting further development of the artist’s lifelong approach. Other critics and especially private collectors, however, could not follow Nay on his new way. This explains why – compared to Nay’s considerably better known work groups from the 1950s and early 1960s – there are far fewer works of this phase to be found in museums and private collections. The Eye Pictures are characterized by the addition of horizontal elements and by the “crossing out” of discs respectively, which made the viewer think of eyes, though Nay had completely dedicated himself to pure abstraction since the beginnings of the 1950s.

While the Eye Pictures, including the documenta paintings also shown at the Schirn, were full of three-dimensional elements, radiating expressiveness and concrete association, the Elementary Pictures with their extensive graphic forms present themselves as both simple and complex at the same time. With the Elementary Pictures, Nay achieved the last, decisive stylistic change in his work from 1965 on. Vegetable and anthropomorphous forms alternate, being joined by spindles, chains, oval discs, colored bands, and curved patterns. The way of painting also changed, and Nay began to prefer washed colors he applied in very thin layers, which enhanced his works’ clarity. In addition, he had begun to rely on very cool and mixed colors in sometimes daring combinations such as lilac/lemon-yellow or blue-green/black/white. Flat ellipses, jagged edges, and the reduction to three primary or non-colors give rise to dynamic compositions rich in contrast, which seem to v isually extend beyond the pictures’ edges. Much in these paintings – their stretching out into their surroundings, their monumental two-dimensional nature – seems to anticipate the approach of the next generation’s Hard-edge painters. Nay, for his part, was influenced by Henri Matisse’s cut-outs.

In addition to the reconstruction of the documenta room and the Elementary Pictures of the artist’s late oeuvre, the Schirn will, as a third attraction, present a comprehensive selection from Nay’s altogether 2,500 pen, felt tip and ink drawings from his later years for the first time. Most of these mainly DIN-A4-sized drawings show linear structures in black. An endless stream of ideas seems to have welled from the artist’s imagination: some resemble drafts for his Elementary Pictures, many reveal numbers of names of colors along their margins. Viewed from a broader perspective, the drawings breathe a definite timelessness.