The possibilities that simple forms provide
On the cosmos of Elisa Alberti’s abstract painting
by Günther Oberhollenzer
Elisa Alberti is quoted as saying “my paintings convey a specific situation”. The Viennese artist with both German and Italian roots realises works in which simple geometrical shapes and gentle monochrome surfaces abound. Within a few years, Alberti has developed an individual and recognisable style of her own: a reduced, minimal repertoire of shapes combined with harmonious colours and curved, softly rounded forms. She stringently repeats elements from painting to painting in both acrylics and enamel paint on either canvas or wood; often large format pieces, but sometimes also smaller pieces, in series of works. Alberti also realises extensive spatial installations as a dialogue between two- and three-dimensionality in an experimental, well thought through manner.
Elisa Alberti uses clearly defined and intuitively implemented conglomerations of colours and shapes that she constantly varies and adapts. She applies complex, multi-layered sequences on each work’s surface. Brushstrokes are not visible, but the structure of the canvas itself shines through layers of paint (not the case on the smoother surface of a wooden panel though, where the forms looks even more coherent). This approach allows colourfully-nuanced shapes to stand apart as understated, intermediate tones. Nearly transparent layering and individual painted paths overlap gradually, creating subtle contrasts between lighter and darker shades. She mixes fresh paint for each work, making precise repetition of colours impossible. These works are of soft and understated colours, and yet more intense in their delicacy: light blue, a shade of ochre and sand glazed with white as if covered by a veil. Time and again, deep black, impure white and warm shades of grey appear. The artist paints flat curvy shapes that relate to each other; each painting also refers to previous or her next work. Variations and differences are crucial to how a motif comes about; how is it possible to realise a new composition through minimal variations and shifts such as changed shapes or highlights on a certain colour? That’s why Alberti’s groups of works might seem like a series, although each individual piece also stands for itself.
In addition to surfaces and layers, the materiality and volume of the paintings, their relationship to their surrounding space t is also significant. Most of these artworks focus on the painted surface and are realised by applying layer upon layer of paint, which provides them with three-dimensionality. In the small wooden pieces, the artist also applies paint to the sides so that the artwork appears to be more of an object; this is highlighted, in exhibitions, by presenting sets of paintings that enter into a dialogue with each other. Often, Alberti arranges her work into systematic wall or spatial installations. This results in compositions that take up space and spaces which present paintings. The painted walls where the arrangement of the paintings has been most precisely dictated and the painted objects in the space venture beyond the canvas’ or wood’s surface pointing out how each single painting is merely a glimpse of an artistic universe. The edges of the canvas are not where paintings end. Only a limited version of the unboundedly continuous nature of paintings can be represented because the human possibilities are limited.
Alberti has always realised both paintings and works-on-paper. Towards the beginning of her career, she also painted figuratively: organic plants-like shapes were combined with abstract elements. Over time, her paintings became increasingly minimalist and abstract, until all reference to recognisable things vanished. Her recent paintings are self-referential in that they refer to the gamut of possibilities that the medium provides without pointing to resemblances. The viewer sees neither a representation of nature nor symbolism, but an eclectic response to her other works. These abstract paintings are easily recognisable as part of a rigid notion of order which is only recognisable on an intellectual level. Meanings found in the work can be seen in compositional aspects of the painted surface, liberated from any relationship to the perceptual world; her work functions an autonomous articulation of painting, as a pictorial language consisting of pure shapes and colours. Alberti forgoes traditional painting as imitation, since she does not aspire to portray anything, nor to tell a story. When there is figuration or a comprehensible, graphic story, artists place said meaning in the foreground instead of highlighting the painting itself; but abstraction has to stand for itself. These paintings’ calm monochrome surfaces emit a contemplative, meditative aura. Yet Alberti does not aim for anything along those lines in her art. Her painting does not refer to things, nor are there metaphysical, spiritual allusions. On the contrary, the artist takes the visual reality of painting in and unto itself very seriously. There are no distractions in its self -reflective, absolute focus on the medium.
The specific geometrical order of colour surfaces and the aesthetic that it evokes reminds viewers of Concrete Art, a movement that attempted, after WW II, to allow art to make a fresh start. Constructive, Concrete artists reject figurative tendencies evident in Austrian Expressionism; they rather focussed on lines, surfaces and colour in their art, usually guided by geometry. Marc Adrian, Richard Kriesche and Helga Philipp accorded attention to the issue of the viewers’ role, prioritising how art is perceived, to various aspects of surfaces and textures. The Neo Geo movement (new geometry) also picked up on these ideas in the 1980s in works by, for example, Dora Maurer and Gerwald Rockenschaub. Neo-Geo artists provided a stark contrast to the quick, wild figurative painting of the Jungen Wilden; use of rigorously geometric shapes in colour fields to counter figurative trends. At the same time, their shared interest in new ways of creating compositions through geometry, in how space is experienced and perceived, lead to a variety of artistic strategies.
The influence of artist ancestors, of art history with all of its styles and isms are evident in these paintings, but even more significant are contemporary notions of art and communication with colleagues. Her approach is ideologically distinct from historical precedents, which may well be the case for many other artists of her generation as well.
“Classic Concrete Art in the first half of the 20th century was marked by artists striving to negate individual style to achieve a stringent visual logic, as many theoretical texts attest to. This then progressed, over time, to moving beyond inflexible principles” according to Alexandra Schantl. “Geometry in and unto itself is by now established as an approach to visual expression. It no longer prioritises the presentation of rational principles or demands rigid adherence to a specific style, but manifests itself in manifold approaches to a tradition without forcing those realising art to reinvent.” It is, indeed, instead of dogmatically visualising a rigorous, conceptual way of thinking, more a matter of successfully carrying out subjective and emotional means of creating art using elementary geometric forms.
As an art historian, one shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to find a category to put works like Alberti’s in. Even if she concentrates on a reduced, minimalist visual vocabulary consisting of basic geometrical fundamentals, Alberti does not fit into the confines of past art historical movements. Her imagery draws on an intuitive approach to painting instead of concepts and theories. She sensually plays with a recognisably individual palette of colours and aesthetically-pleasing surfaces, (fragmented) circles and squares, and carries this out in a very individual style which is contemporary, perhaps even timeless.
was born in 1976 in Brixen (South Tyrol). He studied history and art history in Innsbruck and Venice as well as culture management in Vienna. From 2006 – 2015, he was curator at the Essl Museum in Klosterneuburg near Vienna. He has been a member of Südtiroler Kulturbeirat (South Tyrol Art Council) and lecturer at the Department of Cultural Management and Gender Studies at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna since 2014. He has been the curator at the State Gallery of Lower Austria in Krems (which opened in 2019) since 2016. In 2014, his book Von der Liebe zur Kunst (From a love of art) was published by Limbus Verlag, Innsbruck.