Conversation  |  Director, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf

Dr. Marion Ackermann

In Conversation with
Stephanie Bailey
Düsseldorf, 27 June 2014
Dr. Marion Ackermann

Dr. Marion Ackermann has been the director of Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf since September 2009. The institution incorporates three spaces, including the wonderful Schmela Haus, a gallery Aldo Van Eyck designed for the renowned Düsseldorf gallerist Alfred Schmela. Completed in 1971, it is located on Mutter Ey Straße, named after Johanna Ey a baker located here who fed artists (including Otto Dix and Max Ernst) in the 1920s by accepting art as payment. The two other spaces comprise the institution's main locations, K20 and the K21. The former was established after the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia acquired 88 works by Paul Klee

in 1961, and mostly shows modern and postwar art from the 20th century. The latter was—until 1988—the seat of the Parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia and was added to the institution in early 2002 as a space for contemporary art.

It is at K20 that the exhibition Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian – The Infinite White Abyss (April 5 – July 6, 2014), is presented. A monumental show curated by Ackermann, alongside Isabelle Malz
 and assisted by Ansgar Lorenz, it explores the use of white in the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian.  Bringing together an extensive selection of works within a remarkable exhibition design by Thomas Stadler, the exhibition serves as a testament to Ackermann’s intellectual rigour and her own background. Ackermann studied art history, German and history in Kassel, Göttingen, Vienna and Munich, and wrote her PhD on the subject of autobiographical and theoretical texts by Kandinsky. She later taught at the Kunstakademie München, the Universities of Augsburg and Stuttgart, and the Fachhochschule für Fotodesign München.

How did the idea for Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian – The Infinite White Abyss come about?

Kandinsky, Malevich, MondrianThe Infinite White Abyss is the first exhibition to explore the theme of white fields in the work of these three avant-garde artists. At the start of the last century, the three artists each developed their own path to abstraction. It was the idea of “white” that attracted their attention. For each of the artists “white” – material and immaterial at the same time – had become a potent symbol for a future world. It was a “silence full of possibilities”, as Kandinsky wrote in 1911. Over the years, there has been vivid discussion about colour in the oeuvre of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian. At this very point it was time to have a closer look at the use of white, which played such an important role for the three artists and the understanding of their artistic and cultural legacy, both then and now.

Why is it important now to look at the use of white space in painting during this era?

How can we possibly understand the birth of abstract painting without knowledge of the period’s conceptions of terms such as matter and space, so central to the work of any artist? A key notion, long missing from cultural histories of this era, is that of the ether of space which was understood to bridge these two seemingly separate concepts—matter and space—and was at the heart of both scientific and occult understandings of the nature of reality in the early 20th century. By the time histories of abstract art were first being written in the 1930s and 1940s, however, the world of ether physics had been eclipsed by the popularization of Einstein and Relativity Theory, which had begun in 1919. Restoring Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich to their early 20th-century contexts is vital to the history of the development of each of their styles and to understand the significance of these avant-garde pioneers.

Why did you choose these three artists specifically?

Kandinsky’s, Mondrian’s and Malevich’s modes of artistic production are characterized by particular differences in form; however, in the case of all three artists, this is grounded in similar questions concerning contemporary science and occultism. Although they were operating in different locales, Russia, Germany, and Paris—for Kandinsky, the Netherlands; Paris for Mondrian; and Russia for Malevich—the information available to them on science and occultism, including Theosophy, was highly international. We wanted to present the remarkable artistic output of these artists and re-sensitise what the three artists have in common, which is so obvious to see and easy to overlook at the same time—the multifaceted examination of the color white.

How did you select the specific works by each artist?

For the exhibition, we assembled a selection of works by Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian from the second and third decade of the 20th century, when the use of “white” had the most evident significance within the artists’ painted and written oeuvres. In the chronology of our presentation each work refers to crucial aspects in the discussion of the white and can be understood as essential evidence commenting on the exhibition’s central questions. It goes without saying that for instance Malevich’s outstanding Suprematist work, White Planes in Dissolution (1917/18) is one of the very central pieces for our argumentation, thesis and synthesis at once—for Malevich, a work in which the “limitless space through the indefinite white points to the universe.” For him, the “appearance of white is not generated by the pure principle of color, unlike its vibrations. It expresses something else. It marks his transformation during this epoch. His idea of color ceases to be colorful. It melts into one color—white.”

This of course relates to the excellent exhibition design: could you talk about how you conceived the idea of producing three corridors that show the trajectory of each artist's practice in parallel? 

The exhibition design was of central relevance for us. Together with Berlin-based architect Thomas Stadler, we tried to create an exceptional room design that should satisfy the complex requirements of the works to be shown in a most egalitarian manner. In our open-plan room structure, articulated by freestanding walls, selected major works from the period 1911 to 1941 are presented in chronological order, tracing the preoccupation of the three artists with the colour white in three parallel lines of development. There is a separate wall for each image: thus, attention can focus entirely on the work and the differentiation of the white areas of colour, surface texture and material character, as well as on thematic relevance in the overall context of the composition. At the same time, when considering the design, the development process of the white surfaces in the work of each artist, as well as their particular handling of white, was taken into account. This makes it possible to compare the—at times—surprising concordances and analogies between the paintings of the three artists, as well as the crucial differences.

Viewing it is like stepping into the abyss Malevich talked about.  I wanted to think about how the exhibition design explores the notion of the void in itself. In many ways, it also reflects the notion of white space as articulated in the white cube setting of an art gallery or a museum exhibition room.

It was in 1919 when Kazimir Malevich articulated his famous words, which finally entered the history books as the “Suprematist Manifesto”. Its last paragraph reads: “I have broken the blue boundary of color limits, [...], I have beaten the lining of the colored sky, torn it away and in the sack that formed itself, I have put color and knotted it. Swim! The free white abyss, infinity, lies before you.” Malevich’s void is a construction where only the white noise of energy and dynamic rhythm all becomes perfectly quiet. In this context, his idea of absence can be seen as a most radical utopia. It was this very avant-garde spirit we aimed to take up in our exhibition design. References can be found in the examination of the light in Mondrian’s drawings but also in Kandinsky’s metaphor of the Russian steam bath where a man standing in the steam is neither close nor far, he is just somewhere. We had long discussions about the particular wall colour as we wanted to create a setting that would support the white used in the presented works. It took us a couple of tests with original works to finally identify the very shade of white, which suited most of the works.

The exhibition also includes a series of archive rooms which really put these works into context. How did you decide on the thematics of each room? 

While working on the exhibition it turned out that the contexts of the white in the work of all three artists were extremely complex. To reveal this complexity in the reference framework - the various cross-genre influences, and the fields of context and sources of inspiration forming the background against which the white areas in the work of the three artists are to be considered - we created four laboratories on the subjects of “occultism and science,” “color,” “film” and “architecture.” This expanded on historical sources along with theoretical and artistic discourses. The four laboratories represent certain aspects that were important in the context of Kandinsky’s, Malevich’s and Mondrian’s examination of “white”—often associated with the concept of the fourth dimension.

In terms of bringing this exhibition together, this was a real international effort, when considering the various collections and institutions around the world that contributed works. Logisitically speaking, could you talk about the way in which this show also represents a kind of inter-institutional collaboration? 

During the four years of preparation, we faced many challenges, which is all too understandable given the sensitivity and preciousness of the artworks. Moreover, these are highly sought after in international lending at a time when utopia—100 years since the rise of the avant-garde, and the centenary of World War I—has once again become topical. Bringing together this group of key works by Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian would not have been possible without the unique support of museums and collectors from all over the world who were convinced by our exhibition’s concept. Many colleagues accompanied the exhibition preparations with valuable information and were made available to us with advice and assistance. The generous commitment of the institutions and persons that finally made this project possible cannot be over stated.

What is the relevance of this exhibition today, when thinking about artistic trends and the way in which abstraction has evolved in the arts? In other words, what could the art history presented in The Infinite White Abyss tell us about how art has evolved with the times?

Almost 100 years ago, Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian demonstrated the significant impetus art could give to society. Art opens new perspectives on the world and therefore, ultimately, can identify new ways of shaping this world—provided it is willing to deal with current affairs beyond its actual sphere of influence. Concepts of utopia today are more relevant than ever, and so are the artistic legacies of Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. —[O]

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