Art historian Michael Fried once asked Frank Stella who he thought was the greatest living American. Stella’s answer was Ted Williams, a celebrated baseball player, because “his vision is so fast that he can see the stitching on the baseball as it comes over the plate.”1 Similarly, art critic Leo Steinberg once wrote of Kenneth Noland’s large stripe paintings that they “embody, beyond the subtlety of their color, principles of efficiency, speed, and machine-tooled precision.” He continued, “Noland’s pictures of the late sixties are the fastest I know.”2 For Steinberg as Stella, the quality of modernist painting was a function of the speed of its perception. This attribute would later become a hallmark of abstract painting, ascribing aesthetic value to the quickness of anti-illusionistic abstraction.
In contradistinction to both the speed of perception and to industrial or technological efficiency, Herbert Hinteregger maintains a painterly practice that can best be described as meticulous and laborious. Since the early 1990s, he has used the disposable Bic pen as his raw material to create abstract paintings. He disassembles and repurposes thousands of the mass-produced biros, using their ink as paint. The artworks adopt a certain sheen, not only from the quality of the sticky ink itself being used in a manner far beyond its intended design, but also conceptually, from the pop sensibility the paintings assume being made from cheap consumables. Yet, the process of creating the paintings is anything but machinated, instead requiring a considerable amount of techne.
The Bic version of the ballpoint pen was itself a technological marvel at the time of its invention in 1950s post-war Paris, and through its subsequent refinement.3 Created by Marcel Bich, the Bic Cristal as it is formally known, was designed to replace the fountain pen with a more convenient and reliable stylus by virtue of its built-in ink cartridge and leak and clog-proof design. Its 1mm sphere allowed the ink to flow freely and evenly, giving it a consistent application across an infinite line; or at least, a line as long as the disposable cartridge lasts: about a couple of kilometers. The Bic Cristal demonstrated the manufacturing industry’s ability to work not only at diminutive scale, but also with microscopic precision.
Nowadays, not only is the pen ubiquitous and disposable, but its value as a writing instrument has been eclipsed by the keyboard and the touchscreen. While the materials used by Hinteregger are intended to be expendable, his technique of appropriating them approaches a form of craftsmanship. His is a practice of deceleration that not only matches the ink’s viscosity, but also the pace of activity and thought required to make work in a fastidious way. Hinteregger has called his new exhibition Untitled (Flow), referring to the flow of ink, but also, as will be discussed, to the layout of the exhibition. Moreover, other connotations of the word flow can also be seen as relevant descriptors of Hinteregger’s practice.
Indeed, the flow of time might seem to stand still for the artist, who works methodically in his studio for days, weeks, and months at a time on a canvas. Under industrial fluorescent lighting in his basement studio, one can imagine a drip slowly forming at the end of a suspended ink tube, eventually stretching downward under its own weight, molasses-like, into a tiny collection phial.4 Meanwhile, the artist hovers over a canvas working a different droplet into its weave, spreading the darkened mass across the surface. The paint must be applied with the canvas lying flat on a table so that the ink can dry evenly. A painting can take up to a month to dry, and one can imagine the heavy ink odor permeating the studio as the solvents slowly evaporate.
The ink is applied in a single thick layer with a small brush to achieve an opacity and density that matches the intensity of a line produced by a pen. Hinteregger’s practice seems almost like an exercise undertaken at a microscopic level in order to achieve a result in a different order of magnitude – it takes thousands of pens’ worth of ink to cover a single medium-sized canvas. The colors of the paintings derive from the readily available colors of Bic pens, and a wide range of shades and opacities are created through the use of thinners and differing ground preparations. The surface of one of Hinteregger’s final paintings forms a dense, semi-gloss skin that also reminds the artist of a lake near his studio, as if concealing depths of darkness below. Ad Reinhardt’s paintings were created in the same methodical way, though these blend hints of color through their inky blackness. Hinteregger often thinks of his work as in dialogue with Reinhardt’s historical precedents.
Also much like the artists who worked with abstraction before him, Hinteregger often varies the composition of his canvases using tape to create stripes and grids. The variations are many, in part owing to the different types of primed and unprimed canvases and cloths used as supports, but the paintings always appear to be internally structured and systematic. They demonstrate a logic of composition that matches their methodical production. Yet, Hinteregger’s paintings do not seem to evidence the same speed as Stella’s or Noland’s as described above. Moreover, they are a veritable character foil for spontaneous action painting. Photographer Hans Namuth famously documented Jackson Pollock’s dynamic working method, which involved energetically dripping and splashing paint across his canvases on the floor. Shooting at a slow shutter speed with available light, Namuth generally captured the fast working artist as a blur. The photographer came to see this blur not as technical error, but instead as enhancing the pictures’ dynamism.5 And it is this compositional energy that has largely become recognized as the hallmark of Pollock’s work.
By comparison, Hinteregger’s artwork maintains almost a meditative quality to it, like an ancient art refined over hundreds of years, requiring the precision and material knowledge of a master craftsman. As the artist describes, after finishing a session in the studio and returning to the normal hustle and bustle of the outside world: “In the car, I always need a few minutes to re-understand the speed of the world outside. I always wait a few minutes before starting the engine and joining the traffic.”6 This state of working in a completely absorbed way opens up another meaning behind the idea of flow. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the state of being “in flow” as complete mental focus in one’s work (or play) such that the perception of time changes, either dilating or flying by.7 This state occurs when we are engaged in an activity in an “optimal way”, perfectly matching challenge and ability. Understanding the complex processes involved in the production of Hinteregger’s work helps to illustrate his belief in “painting as a form of thought”.8
If the artwork bears the traces of the artist’s thoughts, then his presentation of them encourages an equally pensive consideration. For the exhibition Untitled (Flow), Hinteregger has placed all of his paintings, over 70 differently sized canvases, together in a flat arrangement across two plinths. Like a river, the show flows and meanders from one canvas to the next. This horizontal orientation also further refutes the idea that painting acts as an illusionistic window onto the world, and instead emphasizes their objecthood. The viewer thus perceives them in the same prone state as Hinteregger created them.
Meanwhile, on a different axis of orientation, a final type of flow appears to take place in the exhibition space at Taxispalais. A large, vertical wall extends from the floor of the space to the ceiling and extends beyond its roof into the outdoor space above the basement hall. Thousands of empty pen casings, complete with their blue caps, are attached to the wall and evenly cover its white surface. The transparent polycarbonate shells are the remnants of Hinteregger’s ink harvesting and are here used to activate the space in a way that balances the horizontal composition. On the one hand, on a material level, the orientation of the wall is a play on the Bic Cristal design – the sheath has a hexagonal cross-section (copied from the pencil), to prevent it rolling off of surfaces. On the other, the immobility of this “all-over” installation takes on the appearance of a frozen waterfall.9 It is as if across two surface planes, the vertical and the horizontal, Hinteregger proposes to slow down, and even suspend, the flow of time.
1 Recounted in Rosalind Krauss, “The Im/pulse to See”, in: Hal Foster (ed.), Vision and Visuality, New York 1988, p. 51.
2 Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria”, in: Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, Oxford 1972, p. 80.
3 The ballpoint pen was originally invented by László Bíró in Hungary in the 1930s.
4 The tube of ink used to be flexible enough for the ink to be squeezed out, but since 2005 the tubes are rigid, meaning that Hinteregger has to let the ink drip out.
5 Pepe Karmel, “Pollock at Work: The Films and Photographs of Hans Namuth”, in: Jackson Pollock, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York 1999, p. 90.
6 Herbert Hinteregger in email conversation with the author, 10 March 2017.
7 See Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, London 1992, p. 72.
8 Section title from a lecture given by Hinteregger at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, 8 Jan 2015.
9 all over was the title of an exhibition at the Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz (2005) in which Hinteregger covered the walls of the gallery with over 16,000 pen sheaths, and is also a reference to the all-over composition of abstract paintings, in particular by Pollock.