I often ask myself if it is possible to paint floating. Can the dynamics of flying, the rhythm of wing-strokes, powerless movement of bodies becoming weightless in space, or falling of an object towards a distant point be depicted? Can the tension of the last minute before reaching the ground, the momentary state of weightlessness be captivated? To what extent can the sensation of lightness be felt, for example when the human body stretches on the sheet of water, when a bird swims with graceful yet violent moves, striving against invisible forces in the sky. Can the motion of forces and counter-forces, the duality of tension and stillness, the dynamism of the contraction and relaxation of muscles, the insolvable conflict of gravitation and weightlessness be made visible? Is it possible to paint the moment when Icarus’ wax wings started to melt?
Flying is rising and being uplifted, and as such a wide-ranging metaphor. In his book, The non-objective world, Kasimir Malevich describes getting freed from objective contents as ascending, taking off, flying. “Ascending to the level of non-objectiveness of art is hard and full of misery… yet still blissful. Ordinary gets farther and farther from us… contours of the material world sink deeper and deeper below us…” Material world gets farther and farther, the “doppelganger of reality” becomes obscure and finally – as Malevich puts it – nothing remains but the “wasteland,” the infinite emptiness, the “sensation of cleanness,” the unlimited space that is everything and nothing at the same time. Empty sky might be a wasteland, looking at which we lose our points of orientation and our sense of direction. In the Malevichian sense being freed from the material world is nothing else but flying and floating in this wasteland, in the infinite emptiness.
István Nádler’s painting is floating geometry. This popped in my mind when I first saw the In a white space (1979) series in his studio. Last rays of the December sunlight gently lit the surface of the picture, which seemed as if it modeled luminous phenomena as well. In the clear white background geometric shapes are floating, drifting: as if they were birds, fragile paper planes, easily folded structures. Forms are broken up by stretched diagonals that surround ethereal color fields; as if we saw beams of light refracted by an imaginary prism. The picture surface is the ethereal play of refractions of light. The invisible white light refracts into colors, the folded emptiness turns into form and space; into floating color, floating form and floating space. In the pieces of the series the forms seem to be closer at times and more distant at others. This way the image fields can be considered to be phases of movements and pictures of stages, phases of a chain of ideas, a flowchart depicting the creation of the form. Reading the pictures together, a complex structure of conformities, parallels, and logical connections is revealed, with the dialectics of opening depths and planar geometric shapes. Capillary layers cover each other. Everything seems fragile and ephemeral, and yet solid as a crystal. All these create a peculiar contradiction. It is similar to my attitude because I can only consider even Nádler’s most geometric compositions as gesture paintings. The imaginary shifts and alterations of floating and flying shapes seem to recall the movements of the wide brush sliding along the surface. It is not inaptly called by Nádler’s monograph writer, Lóránd Hegyi as “emotional geometry.” Intensity of diagonals and color contrasts conceal the rigid, industrial character of hard edge geometry and serial art. This might be the poetry of Nádler’s geometry.
I still do not know why I consider Nádler’s pierced and bending shapes as gracefully floating ones. However, my impression is strengthened by one of the chief works painted in the late seventies, the Sandbird (1977). The title itself is a one-word poem that verbally refers to both floating and desert-like emptiness. The sandbird might be the windstorm in the desert: ethereal, finely translucent. It is the image of the world taking off from the land. Maybe it is the fight of the ancient elements, of air and earth. In this sense the sandbird might be the opposite of firebird. Moreover, floating might be seen as the delicate equipoise arising from the fight of reconcilable opposites. Even though Nádler has been interested in the world’s inner structures and larger connections and the questions of esotericism from the beginning, I still believe that it would be risky trying to find a symbol or allegory in Sandbird. Sandbird is called sand because it is made of sand. The illusion of floating is created by the minute differences of the light surface and the sand sprinkled on it. This is a peculiar contradiction because despite its fineness, sand is a heavy material. When Gustave Courbet mixed sand in the surface of his realist paintings, he made the earth more solid, heavier, and even more earthlike. The same is true in the case of the cracked earth crusts and sand surfaces of Alberto Burri and Antoní Tàpies. In Nádler’s case sand refers to the weight and to getting set free from it in the same time. The image base can be seen beneath the facile body of the Sandbird. The body itself flies in the white surface like a paper plane. The counterpoint of the lightness is the black triangle: it might be a breach to nowhere, maybe a surface lost in the shadows, being hidden, or maybe a compositional element emphasizing the diagonal tilting that opens up the constellation towards illusionary depths, in a way it creates space.
Nádler seems to unfold Kasimir Malevich’s white square on white background, which also is tilted diagonally, and floats in the square shaped white image field. Nádler unfolds, unwraps, explains, but also deconstructs at the same time. “I did not exhibit a »blank square« but the sense of objectlessness” – Malevich explained to whom confronted the “sense of cleanness” with the “nothing” outside of it. Nádler seems to objectify the sense of objectlessness when he “folds” it into an imaginary bird. The shape floats in the intellectual space between meaning and meaninglessness. Éva Forgács words it precisely when she writes that “the entire painting of Nádler focuses on the base question of this field of art, the dilemma of Icaros: can the intellect break free from the material? Can man draw off from senses without denying them, and if yes how and to what extent? How do spirituality and materiality relate to each other: to what extent is Nádler’s white bird spirit-like and earth-like?
The flying shapes also refer to the drawing-away from geometry, not only from the body. In the late seventies Nádler gradually moved away from hard edge painting. The floating shapes almost literally depict this withdrawing process. In a way they prepare the works the central elements and motifs of which would be the liberated pictorial gesture. Paradoxically, the farther Nádler gets from geometric form creation the more geometry becomes the subject and theme of his painting. His recurring “grand motif” is Malevich’s “yellow parallelogram.” The parallelogram – as it has been pointed out by other interpreters of Nádler – seems to be an abstract variant of the previous “grand motif” of the oeuvre, the Nike of Samothrace. The two figures have the motif of flying in common. The winged figure of Nike is just taking off of the ground. Malevich’s “yellow parallelogram” seems to fly towards, dissolve and vanish in the snow-white nothing. The edge of the gradually fading shape becomes one with the base of the picture, entering into not the third but the fourth dimension. The radiant yellow parallelogram is probably a shortening square moved into space, or maybe a flat surface that moved away from the image field, as it is suggested by a title variant of the Malevich piece, according to which the motif is a Yellow Plane in Dissolution (1917). Malevich demolishes and dissolves geometry. Nádler, however, recalls, recreates, and repeats Malevich’s gesture as a kind of meditation practice, artistic ritual, and by this he questions both the great traditions of Eastern European constructivism and the relationship of the material and immaterial, and of geometry and informel. The almost mythical motif of constructivism occurs faintly as a memory, distant recollection in the paintings, floating between the painterly surfaces and layers. It is transparent at times, other times heavy and body-like. The form practically becomes Nádler’s artistic signature: he recalls the stretched diagonals of the earlier compositions, but now they rather resemble a robust continent than a fragile bird. Sometimes the parallelogram is reduced to a triangle; it becomes a mountain, a pyramid turned upside-down, a basic geometric form filled with both sacral and erotic notions, the returning motif of a well-known yet unknown landscape.
Nádler’s painting is floating geometry – once again it comes to my mind. Nádler makes geometry move, displaces and tilts it over, in a way he radicalizes the Malevichian gesture. The contours of the shifted forms fade, dissolve, loosen, but their geometric character remains untouched. The movement it not only spatial, it also happens in time. Nádler varies the forms and by this he stretches them out in time. The titles of the paintings frequently refer to the place or time of creation. In this sense the pictures are snapshots of form creation, and this way they might be considered to be elements of a larger process. Nádler once mentioned to me that his painting was not only divided according to series and cycles but it also could be interpreted as a long journey from the dark surfaces towards the lighter ones and back. The white bird on white background in this sense is the endpoint of the lightening. The black gesture vortex painted on black is the endpoint of the darkening. The parallelogram extending between dimensions seems as if it modeled the movements between the poles. It is the visual image of a tense equipoise.
The change in the relationship of the hard and soft edges, the geometry and informel is parallel with the transitions from light to dark shades. This exhibition presents such a change: the way Nádler moved from the lean form creation of hard edge towards the geometry loosened into informel at the turn of the seventies and eighties. In his recent cycle Nádler made a similar change: this time geometrical formation pushed the free gestures aside. He returned to hard edge, however, his recent pieces are as expressive as the pieces of the taschiste series. The most recent Nádler paintings close a period of more than 30 years, the starting point of which is the pieces presented here. Thus the show is more than a historical overview and the exhibiting of an early period of an already canonized painter because it is put into the context of Nádler’s most recent series and change. It gets in the context of the Nádler paintings that can also be compared to the tendencies of contemporary new abstraction.
Moreover, in connection with this parallel we might not only question the traditions of Eastern European constructivism but also the contemporary state of abstraction, and the way the relationship of gesture and form shifts into one direction or another in Nádler’s universe. Nádler not only paints the contours of the chosen shapes but also draws the outlines of abstract painting in general. Dieter Honisch indicated that Nádler did not paint pictures but rather painted painting itself as an unfinished, endless process. The paintings float as phase images of this long process, similarly to Malevich’s parallelogram that floats between space and void, the visible and invisible.
Can the weight of weightlessness be painted? – I return to the In a white space and the Sandbid paintings. Floating might not relate to the position of the shapes but to the changing position of abstract painting, drifting among different historical, philosophical, and social contexts. Nádler paints, repaints and by this recreates the basic motifs of abstraction. In this sense his painting can be interpreted as the story of returns and variations. The pieces and the motifs get into newer and newer contexts and get reinterpreted in the light of the individual cycles and the whole oeuvre. The Nádler paintings displayed here that are reinterpreted and being reinterpreted can be observed in the context of this endless painting process. The pieces not only thematize return but invite it: the ethereally floating picture surfaces need to be looked at again and again, the different painterly effects need to be observed from different viewpoints. The lengthy examination not only evokes Malevich’s parallelogram but also the imaginary transitions of the oeuvre of Nádler.
photography: Miklós Sulyok