My first cooperation with Herbert Hinteregger occurred in 1997 on the occasion of an exhibition in the Salle de Bal of the French Cultural Institute in Vienna. In the context of the Fête de la Musique the exhibition Still explored visual translations of music and its distribution products. For this exhibition Herbert Hinteregger conceptualized a limited vinyl edition under the title matt winch rmx – can’t play, produced by the Viennese record label sabotage. Closer inspection revealed the art of sabotage: The record, pressed without grooves, was unable to produce sound in the conventional way. Its reflective black vinyl surface, divested of its original function, was evocative of a water surface, an abstracted seascape.
It is this object that from the current perspective builds an interesting bridge to the paintings that have characterized Hinteregger’s artistic work since the early 1990s. The principal characteristic of the paintings has become the use of ball pen ink, which the artist extracts in a slow ritualistic process in which the commercial writing instruments are made to leak their contents. The time-intensive procedure of color extraction corresponds immediately with the painting process itself: Each individually extracted drop of color corresponds to a certain number of brush strokes, which jointly merge into a painting. The spectrum of the visual language used by Hinteregger ranges from monochrome paintings and vertical, horizontal, or diagonal stripes to grid and circular formations applied to various surfaces including colored canvas, loden cloth, wood panels, mirrors, and tulle to paintings made by means of ball pen ink drenched sponges. Only in recent years, fine sand mixed with binding agents has been added as a painting material.
At first glance, one seems to discover in Hinteregger’s works a contemporary continuation of non-representational Modernism: relationships with the Concrete Art of the 1930s and the preceding Russian Suprematism of the 1910s, with the De-Stijl and Bauhaus esthetic of the 1920s, and the Concept and Minimal Art of the 1960s close to constructive-concrete art. A closer look, however, shows the specificity and independence of Hinteregger’s painting and reveals many distinctions in terms of art historical lineage.
One of the most important differences lies in the already mentioned, unusual selection and extraction of materials. Ballpoint pens and sand are reasonable, easy to obtain and are quite unspectacular as materials. While ballpoint pens are industrially mass-produced articles, sand on the other hand is a natural material which depending on its origin can span a broad range of textures from coarse to fine in addition to showing very diverse nuances of color. In his works Hinteregger combines nature and artificiality as equal elements. Following Theo van Doesburg’s Manifesto of Concrete Art of 1930 this inclusion of nature into art would be unthinkable:
“Concrete and not abstract painting, because we have finished with the period of research and speculative experience.
In their search for purity artists were obliged to abstract from natural forms in which the plastic elements were hidden, in order to eliminate natural forms and to replace them with artistic forms.
Today the idea of artistic form is as obsolete as the idea of natural form.
We establish the period of pure painting by constructing spiritual form.
Creative spirit becomes concrete. Concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a color, a surface.”1
Van Doesburg postulated the elimination of natural forms and would have also opposed the inclusion of a natural material such as sand that is distant to art and associated with external reality. At the same time, he postulated the construction of a spiritual form. His dictum is reflected in Hinteregger’s conceptual approach, which explores the act of painting as much as painting per se on the basis of fundamental questions. What is painting able to achieve? What can it endure? At what point are its limits defined? Which contexts lead to which reading? How – and this is perhaps the most essential consideration in Hinteregger’s work – does the self locate itself in the process of painting, in particular if it includes experimental practices, which ultimately compromise even the existence of the painting itself? The Winterbild of 2012 for example was exposed by the artist for the entire winter of that year to wind, weather, and snow. Only in spring did the painting, marked by traces of weathering processes, reappear completely. A year later, during a three-month studio scholarship at the Egon Schiele Art Center in Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, Hinteregger painted two ball pen paintings on canvas. One of them he cast into the Vltava River and observed it floating downriver for some time, until he lost sight of it. It is experiments and processes like these, which move Hinteregger’s painting forward, formally and in terms of content, and provide it with a distinguishing existential depth. Essential here is also the process of deceleration involved in the various stages of work: Not only does the extraction of ball pen ink take a lot of time, the application of multiple layers of grounding and the meticulous color application are extremely time-intensive. And when finally the elaborately produced paintings are handed over to external influences that change them or can even lead to their destruction and loss, then ritual, chance, existence, and time coalesce and inscribe themselves into the paintings.
This artistic attitude and conceptual approach is reminiscent of examples of Japanese culture and art. In the tea ceremony for example the everyday act of preparing tea is honored by raising awareness for each single gesture, each individual ritual step. The master of ceremonies pours hot water onto the leaves several times; the guest rotates and admires the individually and traditionally hand-crafted cups, enjoying in a predefined succession the tea and the additionally served sweets. Every moment is celebrated with attention. Hinteregger, who has never been to Japan, is in his work process closer to this Eastern culture than to the accelerated Western world characterized as it is by a competitive hunt for attention. His paintings are tranquil in a positive sense; they concentrate on the process of painting, on the temporal duration of each activity and in particular, on thinking about making art. This devotion to the existential, metaphysical, to the infinite and minimal can also be found in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photography. In his Seascapes he inverts the fundamental photographic foundation not holding on to a short moment, but trying to make visible the permanent and that, which surpasses time. In his photographs the water surface is still and calm, sky and sea seem to merge. Sugimoto placed a series of these photographs mounted in plexiglass boxes in the exterior area outside of the Benesse House in the island town of Naoshima to be exposed directly to the natural influences of light and temperature. When he found that over a long time period of exposure to the elements they did not show significant deterioration, he mounted one of the photographs directly onto a rocky cliff face.
This kind of exploration of physical, conceptual, and spiritual limits unites Herbert Hinteregger with artists like Hiroshi Sugimoto, and finds a concrete echo in his paintings. For example Untitled (blue U) (2007) shows a distorted color structure on a mirror that served as the image ground. In the moment of color application the surface was still intact; because the paint was applied outside and at a cold temperature, it had within seconds shrunk and formed a “painting” that was in effect influenced by the weather. Even the most artificial element in Hinteregger’s paintings – the extracted ball pen ink – experiences a connection to nature: Hinteregger paints all his pictures lying down. In this form and with the viewer looking onto them, the shining surface of the ball pen ink is reminiscent of a seascape. The artist affirms this comparison with the words: “The water surface of a dark alpine moor lake of my youth and the idea of cutting out a piece from this surface, maybe a four-sided one, and to put it up on the wall is what inspired the earliest pictures.”2 As the grooveless vinyl with its reflecting surface the paintings, too, integrate the viewer’s mirror image. For Hinteregger the perception process around the shimmering color surfaces is “a kind of abstract impressionism that is not a depiction but materializes right inside the painting.”3
A further characteristic in Hinteregger’s work is the specific presentation of his works. The artist has developed an impressive range of possibilities in recent years. The current exhibition at Taxispalais combines works of fifteen years, which are all presented on a white, approximately fifteen centimeter high platform. The platform is guided by the grid-like glass ceiling structure, but slightly shifted and separated in two parts. An abundance of paintings is – dense and multifarious like a salon-style hanging – spread on the platform. Visitors stroll with a downward view through the picture fields and experience here and there a reflective mooring in the painting. Only those who direct the view upward again, will recognize the wall installation of empty ball pen barrels, this reference to the use of the material as a whole.
The reference of his presentation to each exhibition context is an integral element of Hinteregger’s work. This could be particularly well experienced with his installation at the art fair Artissima in Turin 2013 titled Eye Level of My Art Dealer. The artist mounted a wooden slat painted white at his gallerist’s eye level giving the impression as though it belonged integrally to the existing space. A selection of paintings was presented above and below this separating line with one work traversing it. The context of the art market and the eye level taken was visually presented with a degree of irony.
For the exhibition at the RLB Kunstbrücke gallery in Innsbruck in 2014, the artist started from the idea of conceiving the entire wall as one picture. He designed an approximately 6 x 6 meter frame that was painted with ball pen ink and thereby defined an actual “exhibition surface.” He placed a white gridded painting in the right lower area of the frame; an early picture, which was part of his graduation piece at the Art Academy in Vienna and was painted with primer. Also in the Kunsthalle Krems in 2016 the artist conceptualized his own exhibition area by producing a large white frame leaning towards the wall installation of ball pen barrels which ultimately became the “space” for a stripe painting of blue ball pen ink.
In an earlier presentation at Taxispalais in 2012, Hinteregger picked up the context of museum group shows. He conceived a kind of floating platform which in the museum context is known as a spacer panel for the paintings that are presented on the wall. Hinteregger integrated not only a readymade in the form of a lattice window into his presentation which he had found in the courtyard of his Viennese studio house, but also a striped painting that was horizontally inserted into the floor platform. The topic of the group show as a specific form of exhibiting and the definition of one’s own space in relation to the other participants of the exhibition were thus included in the installative presentation of the paintings.
Herbert Hinteregger’s paintings and installations are manifestations of an art that proves itself as a form of thought. The exploration of artistic possibilities and the experimentation with the limits of the medium characterize his work. The precise technical treatment of painting and the manual extraction of his artistic material are important characteristics, which provide a great memorability of his work for about twenty years. In doing so the artist isn’t concerned about being buffeted by the winds as was partially the case in a conversation with me during a walk together on the occasion of his opening in Innsbruck. After all, he expects his paintings to be subject to the winds, too.
1 Theo van Doesburg, “Comments on the Basis of Concrete Painting”, in: Art concret 1, Paris 1930, p. 2.
2 Herbert Hinteregger, unpublished manuscript for a hearing at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich 2015, p. 3.