Interview with Tomma Abts, champion of abstraction

Abts’ small, deeply layered canvases exert a quiet power


The strange, small abstract paintings of German-born, London-based artist Tomma Abts have exerted their slow-burning power over an increasingly appreciative international audience. Abts is a quiet force in abstract painting: there is nothing flashy or retina-sizzling about these peculiar little canvases with their oddly indefinable colours and arrangements of circles, lines, triangles and curves—they seem like the work of some long-forgotten Futurist or a Bauhaus follower of the 1930s. But on closer scrutiny it becomes apparent that what appear to be straightforward arrangements of form and colour are anything but: each work is built up out of intricate overpaintings with previous traces left under the skin and with the shapes emerging out of and retreating back into the picture plane in often perplexing ways. Flashes of vivid colour and incongruous shadows play across and among their thick smothering layers and it soon becomes apparent that, despite their seeming modesty, Abts’ paintings are a force to be reckoned with.

The Art Newspaper: Do you make any preliminary studies for your paintings or do you begin directly on the canvas?

Tomma Abts: I have no preconceptions when I start, there are no preliminary drawings that I do before. I might do something very basic like dividing the surface into two colour fields or I might know that I’m going to start with circles instead of lines but there’s really not much more of a plan than that. I don’t work out the composition beforehand because the whole process is about finding that form—it’s not there from the beginning, I’m making it up as I go along.

TAN: Your paintings have been described as “events” or “durational” pieces and a long process is certainly evident in the way the paint surface is built up in complex layers.

TA: You can see the process of making the painting in the layers, but I don’t make these traces in order for you to see them as the history of making the painting—they’re there because that’s how I work. Sometimes I wish that they weren’t so evident but it takes very long to make everything work and so the way they are built up does express a layer of time, I guess.

TAN: How do you know when you’ve finished a painting?

TA: When I’ve finished a painting something happens that is difficult for me to describe. Before that the paintings just seem to be an arbitrary composition of geometric shapes, but then suddenly the relationships between all the elements on the canvas start to work: it all connects and becomes alive and suddenly it has a mood or an atmosphere, it’s not just shapes but it makes you feel something.

TAN: Do you work on one painting at a time or several simultaneously?

TA: I work on a lot of them at the same time. Some of them develop over a number of years, while others are completed more quickly. I may have 30 or 40 different paintings that I’m working on but I rotate them and I focus on a small group before a show. Because I work on them at the same time they are all interrelated: I might do something on one painting and then think, oh, I should try something similar on that other one.

TAN: Your palette is very distinctive: you use colours which are strangely off-kilter and difficult to describe: muted, drab even, but with touches of brilliance.

TA: The paintings start out with very bright colours because I set things up quickly with acrylic layers that are in very bright colours and then they get dimmed down more and more through all the layering and washes. Its really quite intuitive and the colours can change a lot throughout the process: a painting that is now white with red could have been beige and green before. The whole mood, the whole colour scheme, everything can totally change.

TAN: And they all are made from a mixture of acrylic and oil?

TA: The acrylic layers are basically very washed out and you hardly ever see them in the end, they usually get buried by the overpainting in oils. But in some paintings there are still openings down to the first layers and I like it when the paintings have these bits of breathing space.

TAN: Your paintings always have very strange names: Thiale, Ebe, Moeder—where do they come from?

TA: I choose them from a dictionary of first names. I didn’t want to make up titles for the paintings so it was great to find a source. I select a particular name for a particular painting and I choose it by the mood, sound or by shapes in the painting—it’s definitely not random.

TAN: All that you’ve told me confirms that although you may use geometric shapes in your paintings they are by no means cold essays in geometric abstraction.

TA: When people first saw these paintings they thought I was referencing certain parts of Modernist art history but I never really thought of that. What I do is definitely not about finding references and mixing them together in a new way. Every time I make a painting it’s about starting with nothing and trying to invent something new. I always develop a painting as an entity, I have to go through this whole new discovery process every time I make a painting so for me they feel like individual, singular pieces.

TAN: You have such a particular style and way of working—what are its origins? Have you always made paintings?

TA: Actually I didn’t study fine art, I studied mixed media. At some point I knew that I wanted to make paintings but I didn’t feel that I needed to study that particularly—I just did it for myself. It was a very open course and you could do what you wanted and so I made experimental films and when I started making paintings they were directly related to my films: they were these series of large, grid-based paintings that were about sequences and didn’t look anything like the work I make now. Then I changed my practice completely but I think the sense of movement in my current paintings might still come from what I did before.