Ulrich Erben
Festlegung des Unbegrenzten | Defining the Infinite

In recent years, my works have become brighter, lighter, more transparent. Their shades are barely perceptible, but present. Defining the Infinite is what I call the heading of this group of works.

Ulrich Erben

Born in Düsseldorf in 1940, Ulrich Erben is one of the great postwar painters in Germany. Having grown up on the Lower Rhine and in Rome, the vastness of the landscape became the starting point for his art. Yet Erben does not paint from nature; his paintings are in the tradition of concrete art, geometric abstraction, and color field painting.

In the new works that comprise his first exhibition at Sies + Höke, the paradoxical combination of emotion and calculation is particularly evident. Here, the image becomes a floating dialogue field of colors and forms—what Josef Albers described as “independence and interdependence”: monochrome and multicolor, framing and endlessness, precision and mystery all become one. Erben’s art emanates something that is likely due to his connection to Italy: beauty and harmony. As non-representational and clearly composed as his images may be, in the end it is always the landscape that shines through his windows. Erben’s paintings are compositions of nature and light—and thus nothing less than the essence of painting itself.

In 2019, Ulrich Erben showed works from his cycle "Defining the Infinite" in the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop. The catalogue of the same name was published to accompany the exhibition. The exhibition at Sies + Höke shows new works from the cycle, in which Ulrich Erben explores the nature of light in greater depth.

Colour and Horizont

By introducing the horizontal in abstract paintings at a very early stage, Ulrich Erben also allowed it to transcend abstraction. Almost inevitably, a horizontal creates the impression of a height of view and spatial tiete, of horizon. That is why it is rarely found in abstract art. One cannot imagine, for example, the linear zips that run vertically through a painting by Barnett Newman, not horizontally. "Landscape" was something that many artistic purists of the 1960s condemned. Imi Knoebel, for example, reports on his time at the Düsseldorf Academy: he and Imi Giese were so strict and "egocentric" that they condemned their fellow student Palermo as "the landscape painter".

Even Piet Mondrian's compositions of horizontal and vertical lines still show their landscape origin, the relation between gravity and vastness, the structuring of the picture surface as rhythm of space. When the painter Theo van Doesburg criticised this reference to nature, Mondrian countered: "The eye of man is not independent of his body. Seeing is by nature bound to our normal position. " [5]

The viewer brings a spatial and natural reference to every pictorial surface through his physical reference to gravity and the height of his eyes. Even in the most non-figurative pictures one can feel the force of gravity, an up and down. Many American colour field painters contrast their large-scale paintings, which reach almost to the ground, with the body of the viewer. Ellsworth Kelly created object-like pictures, which usually consist of several upright monochrome panels. His first picture of this kind, Train Landscape (1952/53), however, consists of three horizontal panels - yellow, green and light green - and thus inevitably associates a landscape impression. Mark Rothko also created predominantly upright paintings as a counterpart to the viewer's body. But where the horizontal predominates, in some large horizontal formats or in late paintings with emphasized horizontal division, the paintings easily evoke a memory of Caspar David Friedrich's landscape painting Mönch am Meer - a reference already emphasized by the American art historian Robert Rosenblum. [6]

For more than four decades now, the horizontal has appeared in some of Ulrich Erben's paintings - not very often, but time and again. And each time it embodies vastness, infinity and space: a line that limits nothing, encloses nothing and offers the gaze no centre and no vanishing point. This horizontal is always a concrete line and also the edge of a coloured field, actually two fields that meet in this contact zone, this "passage". No surface, no colour is reliable in Erben's paintings. One forms on the other and gains its intensity from the changing contexts. The colours, the proportions, the boundaries appear, retain something fleeting despite all precision, open up to something else and condense into momentary visual possibilities. Because of this non-fixability, because of this ever new crescendo and this constant deviation, everything you see remains unexpected and fresh - like discoveries you just made.

[6] Robert Rosenblum, Modern painting and the northern romantic tradition: From Friedrich to Rothko, New York 1975.

[5] Theo van Doesburg, Schilderkunst. Van kompositie tot contra-kompositie, in: De Stijl 7, 1926/27, S. 17-28. Piet Mondrian, Le Home - La Rue- La Cité, in: Vouloir 25, 1927

Source of text: Franz, Erich, Gegenwart des Erlebens – Farbe und Horizont; in: Ulrich Erben - Jenseits der Linie; Hg. Kunstverein Lippstadt e.V., Lippstadt 2014

Installation view, Ulrich Erben, K20 New presentation of the collection 2020, Kunstsammlung NRW, K20, Düsseldorf

Copyright K20, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf; Photo Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf

Movement Light Tranquillity

At Ulrich Erben, the colours never retain the fixed identity of a surface. Their sensual power arises from their non-fixed appearance, from which they develop an immaterial lightness. Colours here are not only optical colour values, but also colour matter, colour associations, colour sensations, application of a special pastosity on a special substrate and with special movements. Erben's paintings are encounters of manifold sensual processes. The protruding form also recedes and dissolves spatially, and the background also reappears in front. One senses a moving equality of the individual, uniqueness, the instinctive and the non-theoretical, the "condensation of sensations" (Matisse)! [11]

[...] The colours, the proportions, the boundaries appear, open and condense. From the transitions, the passages, unpredictable sensory experiences arise that cannot be captured, images, spaces, light, memories, ,presence of experience". And yet everything remains still, despite all these unfettered movements. Silence becomes more and more dominant, it becomes less and less something to look at.

[11] Henri Matisse: Notizen eines Malers, 1908

Source of text: Franz, Erich, Gegenwart des Erlebens – Farbe und Horizont; in: Ulrich Erben - Bewegung Licht Stille; Hg. Kunstverein Lippstadt e.V., Lippstadt 2014

The Repitition of the Room in Itself

Images of art are increasingly being reproduced, quoted and recycled. It is as if one wanted to outwit transience through constantly repeatable presence. But I am fascinated by the the uniqueness of a picture, its creation and the no longer changeable, including its vulnerability and transitoriness - the very event of an original. Not a single picture is repeatable, not exchangeable with another one, often magic as an appearance. You have to experience it yourself, it cannot be replaced by anything. Every picture, that breathes on its own, contains in itself time and concentrated being. For me, the value also lies in vital, non-permanent material that cannot be renewed, the richness of colours that age with time.

Ulrich Erben

Der Stille Raum / The Silent Room, 2005

Ulrich Erben has applied four huge mirrors to the wall surfaces opposite the four front windows, as well as another mirror at a right angle to them. The artist established a correspondence between wall surfaces in his work „Raum ohne Fenster ohne Tür" (Room without Windows Without Door) with the application of painted paper, then in "Der andere Raum" (The Other Room) where the walls themselves were painted. Here, in "Der stille Raum" (The silent room), it takes place without any apparent reference to painting. The silence refers to the silence of the seemingly absent painting. However, in the same way that silence does not mean the complete absence of sound, here the devices of painting are sublimely present. The rough texture on the walls and pillars is applied in a calculated manner. It is diluted ink, with which Ulrich Erben stains the surfaces - there is no other way of putting it – stains as opposed to paints. With this he constitutes an unfinished and raw state of the given architecture, standing in a pointed contrast to the perfection of the mirrored surfaces, that one would not expect to find in a raw construction. The mirrors duplicate the phenomenon of the real space. Through its inaccessibility the space becomes a simple visual manifestation of itself and is assimilated to the quality of the mirror image. This opens us to an intellectual game with different levels of reality, leading to ostensive ideas on sight, imagination and knowledge, ambivalently questioning the naive idea of a clear concept of reality. Appearance and reality connect to become a third nameless category.

Source of text: Max Kobbert, The Silent Room, in: Ulrich Erben: Der Stille Raum - The Silent Room, Stiftung DKM, Duisburg 2005

With the daily abundance of pictures that rush at us, it is the architecture, geometry, the merging of colors and above all the light that makes everything visible that interests me.

Ulrich Erben