The dates of these three works on paper, 1979 to November 1980, mark the end of a decisive watershed in the evolution of the work of painter Helmut Federle. That crucial change of direction dated back to 1977 when he began work on his extensive “Nullbilder” series, which was shown at Kunsthalle Basel in early 1979.(1) These were Federle’s first purely geometric-abstract paintings and also his first distinctly large-format works. Both aspects—geometric abstraction in muted, “impure” colors and often very sizable formats—were to become the main hallmarks of Federle’s much admired work in the next decades.
Before that Federle had primarily produced drawings, which had established his reputation. In 1976 he was represented at the legendary exhibition “Mentalität: Zeichnung” at Kunstmuseum Luzern with works on paper—abstract, freely imagined mountainscapes—some of which were aptly titled “Hommage à Ferdinand Hodler”.(2) The artists represented in the exhibition also included Martin Disler (five years younger than Federle); the two had a joint exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Solothurn that same year.(3) Subsequently the two friends’ works developed in very different directions. Disler became an internationally celebrated star of expressive painting in the early 1980s, while Federle’s paintings met with great acclaim in the new field of geometric abstraction.
There are two main strands to Federle’s works on paper. On the one hand there are not only the extensive cycles with quasi-systematic pictorial investigations, as in the various Black Series (1977 onward for two decades), which accompanied the development and progress of Federle’s geometric paintings, but also the much later, extended series, “Nachbarschaft der Farben”, executed in colored oil crayons on paper from 1994 to 1997.(4) On the other hand he still draws individual sheets that are not part of any systematic series; sheets that in some ways are more like notes and—on a deeper level, rarely explicitly—relate to his painterly work.
In two of the titles of drawings there are references to New York, where Federle mainly lived and worked from 1979 to 1983, and where he was also involved in various musical circles. These sheets, like the bulk of this strand of Federle’s drawings, have a striking, pathos-free openness. For all their exploratory qualities, they also seem to embody something akin to plans or maps. While the geometric subdivision of the picture ground in “Familienbaum 19. Aug. 1980, NYC” prefigures certain features that still characterize some of Federle’s later paintings, “Relation of All Possibilities. Cold Nov. NY” demonstrates Federle’s powerful, creative determination to achieve maximum concentration: an aim that runs through all his work, be it on canvas or paper. As is sometimes the case, the unpretentious medium of drawing casts a revealing light on the essence and motivation of his work as a whole.
(1) See Helmut M. Federle. Bilder 1977–78, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Basel 1979.
(2) See Mentalität: Zeichnung. Christian Ludwig, Attersee, Anton Bruhin, Martin Disler, Markus Dulk, Helmut Federle, Heiner Kielholz, Claude Sandoz, Hugo Suter, David Weiss, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Luzern 1976.
(3) See Helmut M. Federle, exh. cat., Museum der Stadt Solothurn 1976.
(4) See Helmut Federle. Black Series I + II und Nachbarschaft der Farben, ed. Beat Wismer, exh. cat., Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau; Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe; Kunstverein Braunschweig, Haus Salves Hoppe, Baden 1998.
Further works by Helmut Federle in the Baloise art collection:
Inv. no. 0545, Two Forms, 1982, Felt-tip pen and oil crayon on paper, 25.4 x 20.2 cm
Inv. no. 0546, Untitled, 1979, Pencil on paper, 20.9 x 29.5 cm
Inv. no. 0547, Symbol der Innerlichkeit, 1980, Pencil and ballpoint pen on paper, 21.6 x 27.5 cm
Inv. no. 0549, Zeichnung zu NO Bild, 1980, Pencil on paper, 19.7 x 27.2 cm
Inv. no. 0721, Nachbarschaft der Farben, 21. Juni 1996, 1996, Oil crayon on paper, 29.6 x 41.5 cm
Inv. no. 0722, Nachbarschaft der Farben, 31. Mai 1997, 1997, Oil crayon on paper, 29.6 x 41.5 cm
Inv. no. 0723, Nachbarschaft der Farben, 30. Mai 1997, 1997, Oil crayon on paper, 29.5 x 40.9 cm