Ulrich Erben
12 Bilder für einen Raum | 12 Paintings for One Space

Mar 8th – Apr 5th, 2024
Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf

Copyright the artist; Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf; Photo Tino Kukulies, Düsseldorf

The light does not remain light, nor does the dark remain dark
On Ulrich Erben’s art of transformation


Irène Némirovsky’s novel Deux opens with a luminous probing of the depths of darkness and light. In an abandoned ballroom, a young couple reunites amidst the aftermath of war. Emotions swirl, “ambiguous and confused,” through a night that consumes them, until they draw the curtains aside to find themselves thrust into the morning light. “They hoped that the bright light of day,” Némirovsky writes, “would restore them to their senses.” Ulrich Erben’s painted pairings, made a century later, suggest that this hope is a deceptive one. Does the radiance of light truly revive the faculties, or does the glare of white overwhelm them instead? Could it not be that darkness, black with its infinite pull, offers a much better refuge, far more protection?

12 Paintings for One Space, Erben’s latest exhibition at Sies + Höke, is a radical contemplation of the two zero points of all painting: black and white, the dark and the light. The artist’s deliberate exclusion of twilight – those shades of grey that are at once so comforting and so deceptive – compels us as viewers to become part of this black and white spatial installation ourselves.

Erben’s paintings show an early embrace of white, which he approached with a mixture of curiosity, rigour, and tenderness. For years he probed the chromacity of brightness, creating subtle works on canvas in a range of white tones that, for all their two-dimensionality, have tremendous physical presence. He then conquered colour, savoured crisp primary tones and the subtleties of their transitions, the gradual melting-away of reds and blues, the sharp edges marking the start of an entirely new, entirely different pigment. The result is paintings with an unmistakable dynamism: a constant oscillation between calculation and emotion, an undulating quality that immediately grips the viewer. In recent years it has been the gradual fading and reappearance, the twilight and dawn of hues, that has given his paintings a new, quiet charm.

With 12 Paintings for One Space, the artist, who was born in 1940, takes another radical step. He abandons the realm of vivid colours to revisit his probing of the universe of light – but also for new expeditions into the realm of darkness. Erben’s intention: to harness all the possibilities and impossibilities of light in a windowless space.

There are six black and six white canvases, all sharing the same dimensions: 100 centimetres high and 80 centimetres wide. Each colour field is imbued with movement, guided by sometimes barely perceptible vertical and horizontal centrelines from which the light or dark expanses radiate or converge. There is a sudden sense of space, of three-dimensionality, only to be dissolved by the surface beyond. As a result, each work is unique, with a distinctly subdued mood, yet all are linked by their consistent scale and pictorial structure; they are like related celestial bodies, silently and perpetually orbiting each other.

Upon entering the room, the first thing that catches the eye is a pair of paintings that dominate the opposite wall: one black and one white, each asserting its unique character in direct juxtaposition. Shift the gaze to the left or right, however, and pairs of light and dark paintings wander into view. Our eyes are challenged to refine their powers of discernment, to perceive the subtleties that distinguish these duos – but also blur them together. “Light and dark,” notes Erben, “are held in a precise balance.”

Ulrich Erben’s art has always been a school for seeing. It teaches viewers to notice how they themselves are looking and to understand the mechanisms of their own perception. Rarely has this been more vividly demonstrated than in these 12 Paintings for One Space.

Like an optical illusion, where one picture level or another keeps coming into focus, concentrating on the flowing surfaces of the canvases leads them to seemingly merge in one moment and highlight their differences in the next. From one perspective, the eye feels plunged into the darkness of black; from another it clings to the centre line like a distant horizon, behind which the sun seems to rise. And so, our gaze is constantly thrown back and forth in this confined space, shuffled from left to right and back again, as if in a hall of mirrors. In fact, the whole room seems to be in motion, continually propelled by our gaze.

Copyright the artist; Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf; Photo Tino Kukulies, Düsseldorf
Copyright the artist; Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf; Photo Tino Kukulies, Düsseldorf
Copyright the artist; Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf; Photo Tino Kukulies, Düsseldorf

The white and black of Erben’s canvases speak to their tendency towards infinity. What is light seems to fade with time, while darkness becomes brighter, marking the exact transformation the artist enacts on our retinas. The horizontal centreline that runs through his paintings often evokes landscape – or could it be a horizon? Is this where the sky merges with the sea? But just as we begin to entertain such thoughts, Erben pulls us back to a space of abstraction. For him, the line is both a snare and a lifeline. After all, it is this delicate shimmering of the gaze between representational associations and abstract constructions, the balancing of various visual movements – those that come from memory and those born of the present – that form the fundamental constant of Erben’s singular position within post-war German painting.

As calculated as the new space at Sies + Höke’s seems, there is also an element of playfulness: Erben is perhaps subtly alluding to his personal life—specifically his decades-long creative partnership and marriage to the writer Ingrid Bachér, a relationship explored in depth in the profound volume Allein und zu zweit (Alone and Together). It is in this interplay of the two halves of Yin and Yang, of black and white, in the dance where one leads and then the other, where one has space for themselves and then the other, that we find what may well be the formula for a successful life as a couple. On canvas and in life. Similarly, in Némirovsky’s Deux, it is precisely this profound exploration of light and darkness that ultimately leads to a life beyond mere shades of grey.

Central to Erben’s spatial composition is the fact that, in addition to the pairs of paintings, there are twelve closely related canvases. Twelve has mathematical significance as a “sublime” number because the sum of its parts is perfect—in other words, sometimes numbers can inspire linguistic beauty. And yet the twelve canvases, also sublimely auratic, are at the same time a reference by the sage Ulrich Erben to a sculpture of the wise god Chronos carrying a dodecahedron on his shoulders. The twelve-sided volume recalls Albrecht Dürer’s famous Melencolia I. And as in the Dürer engraving, each surface is rendered in a different shade of light or dark, since light can never illuminate them all at once.

Twelve apostles, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, twelve Greek gods, twelve-tone music—Ulrich Erben is, of course, well versed in all these mythological, religious and musical associations. His colours are always the colours of memory. And if we tune our ears and open our eyes, we can hear echoes of all of it in his room of twelve paintings – a space that draws light from the dark depths of history to the bright glare of our present.

Text: Florian Illies

About Ulrich Erben

Ulrich Erben (*1940) is a master of reduction. His works are characterized by his virtuoso use of colour and light.

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