Blain|Southern New York is pleased to announce Plus Minus, an exhibition of work by Herbert Zangs (1924 - 2003 Krefeld, Germany), the first in New York for fifty years. The exhibition features key works from the 1950s and 1970s, including his monochromatic “Whitenings” paintings, object-collages and works that demonstrate his frequent use of mathematical signs.
Herbert Zangs’ first “Whitenings” date from the 1950s, a time of new beginnings in the German art scene. During his studies at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (under Otto Pankok) he had become friends with fellow students Joseph Beuys and the writer Günter Grass. His use of monochrome and the serial nature of his work both anticipate the Zero movement, which emphasized art about the material itself, not the artist’s hand.
Zangs began working with found materials and objects in the early 1950s, using corrugated cardboard, paper, wood and jute to create collages which often featured white paint applied onto their surfaces.
Staples were also an important structural material for the artist. We can see this in Collages (1975), a work for which he stapled cut-out mathematical symbols onto a wooden ground. The incorporation of mathematical symbols “x”, “+”, “–“and “=”, first appeared in the early 1950s and remained a key aspect of his practice.
Plus Minus is organised in collaboration with Emmy de Martelaere.
Herbert Zangs: “Brutal, palpable, creative”
Emmy de Martelaere discusses Zangs’ life, work and practice with Antoon Melissen.
Experimentation: Zangs, Paris and Pollock
The desire to experiment and explore was at the heart of Herbert Zangs’ artistry. In 1951, Zangs met Dina Vierny in Düsseldorf, muse and model of the sculptor Aristide Maillol. Vierny invited Zangs to Paris, which led to his first contacts in the city. In Paris, Zangs was always out and about, meeting artists and gallery owners and mingling with the cultural elite of the day.
In March 1952, he visited Jackson Pollock’s first French solo exhibition, also in Paris. Pollock’s radical break with academic painting was of major significance to Zangs. And Pollock was one of the most authentic individuals of the time, which must have had a great appeal.
Herbert Zangs himself also experimented with a technique inspired by Pollock’s drippings. In 1956, at the “Frühjahrssalon” (Spring Salon) of the Frankfurt Zimmergalerie Franck, Zangs exhibited one of his monochrome-white relief-paintings for the very first time. These works, created by pouring hot liquids on supports, were indisputably influenced by Pollock and the French Informel, but nevertheless typically “Zangs” in execution and atmosphere.
Postwar Germany: ground Zero
When Herbert Zangs enrolled as a first-year student at the Düsseldorf State Art Academy in the fall of 1945, teachers and students were still among the remnants of an unfinished past, in a literal and figurative sense. The academy, mostly destroyed by bombing during the last months of the war, lacked basic facilities, materials and a young and visionary teaching corps that was familiar with international developments in the arts.
German cultural life of the immediate post-war years was deeply affected by an overwhelming sense of loss. Art works were evacuated from museums or had disappeared, so we could say that important reference points, the pre-war avant-gardes, had vanished from sight.
Being a young art student after years of cultural deprivation meant experiencing the first confrontations with abstraction, pronounced positions of supporters and opponents and perhaps most of all, the awareness of an “old” and a “new” art, caused by the ceasure of the war. Zangs hungered for freedom, change and new experiences. And yet, his work has always mirrored his academic start, the lessons learned at the Düsseldorf art academy. Zangs had a very strong sense of composition, and that has remained a recurring element throughout the years. Well-considered is the right word. Hardly anything was coincidental with Zangs.
Everyday objects: “the residue of our daily lives”
It takes great courage to change course as radically as Zangs did, during the first years of the 1950s: to be educated as a figurative painter and develop highly unique, abstract themes such as the “Plus-Minus” and the “Knüpfungen” (Knottings)––also typical “Zangsian” inventions. Especially as he chose to work with everyday materials at the very same time, to create objects and collage-objects.
His interest in the everyday, in objects and the lure of new materials, goes back to his youth. In these early years, Zangs developed a keen eye for the aesthetics of the worthless and neglected, for the residue of our daily lives one could say. Zangs has always been a frantic collector. And those who have experienced scarcity, as during the war years, are frugal and resourceful.
Zangs was particularly interested in the formal properties of his materials and objects; in their material-immanent qualities and not in their literal context. This “dematerialization” was a core element of Zangs’ artistic conception, to denounce the literal in favor of the expressiveness of that which no longer had a functional context. Zangs’ notion of dematerialization did not stand on its own. The desire for a new approach to material aspects of the artwork seemed a logical, radical follow-up to the growing post-war interest in the monochrome, the desire to silence, emptiness and space.
Monochrome: the virginity of white
There is an anecdote from Zangs’ years as a war pilot, flying over Norway and Finland. Scandinavia had enchanted him, the virginal snow that covered fields, cities and villages––this in contrast to the grayish German Rhineland of the war years. Zangs was admitted into hospital after his plane crashed due to a mechanical failure. They found him only three days later, covered in snow.
The moment Zangs woke up in hospital he was once again enchanted by the white landscape he could see through the window, that was the first thing he saw after opening his eyes. This sense of rebirth, of “renaissance” and the virginity of the white, touched him deeply and had an important influence on his work. “When I take an object and paint it white,” he told me, “I make it new, I make it fresh.”
Zangs regarded the monochrome as liberating. We spoke on numerous occasions about the meaning of white, and a recurring topic was that an artwork should never force the viewer into a preconceived concept; it should not be understood as a straitjacket, dictated by the artist’s heart and mind. White offered freedom; it enabled an uncontrolled perception without the burden of personal histories.
Unframed: life, art and performance
For Zangs, more than with any other artist in my opinion, work and life were intrinsically connected. The 1970s were very interesting in that respect, in particular his performances of which we have photographic testimonies. It is remarkable that many of these performances were carried out without an audience, and it is a true miracle that the resulting photographs have survived the years.
In Zangs’ archive I have even found photographs of a performance carried out in my own Paris apartment, in my absence and without my knowledge. Once again, Zangs proves: the difference between life and art, between a wall piece, a performance or an installation and the world at large was regarded as artificial and undesirable.
In a 1997 interview, Zangs says: “Canvas = a work without a frame = developing forward, limitless.” Zangs wanted an artwork to live, to breathe. This notion of limitlessness was important to Zangs; that’s also why he regarded frames as artificial constructs, severing the work from its origin, from the world––and ultimately from life.
Herbert Zangs: “Brutal, palpable, creative” was published in 2019 by Blain|Southern.