Tomma Abts


The first time I saw a painting by Tomma Abts was at Art Basel Miami in either 2009 or 2010, and the pieces drew me in from a hundred feet away. Surrounded by pure white walls and the chaos of thousands of other pieces, three modestly-sized paintings seemed to jump out and sit back at the same time. The times when you see and feel the raw power of a painting, when a painting electrifies the air around it, those are the rarest times.

This experience sticks with me because it was so unexpected, and there turned out to be a depth of work behind it. Tomma Abts has been making abstractions with seemingly endless variation while maintaining a signature style, and that's difficult to accomplish. The most fascinating aspect of her work as a whole is that each painting is a near-total deviation from the previous instead of the typical incremental iterations characteristic of most contemporary abstraction.

The surfaces display several layers of paint, with ridges from previous changes or entirely different compositions under the final layers. This is different from most hard-edged abstraction whereby the composition is more or less finalized before the masking tape goes down. At first, that idea doesn't seem like a big deal, but the history within the layers becomes part of a loose, investigative, evolving process when it's a part of the early stages of development. The mind-blowing part of Abts' process is that she doesn't use tape at all.

The compositions themselves vacillate between echoes of op-art and current space-bending abstraction. The patterning and repeated lines borrow heavily from people like Bridget Riley, but the combination of that with the interplay of overlapping shapes and forms leads somewhere unexpected. Seeing them without dimensions noted, you may imagine these as over life-size, museum-scale works, but they're not. They're about the size of your rib cage--always 48 x 38 cm.

Some of the pieces create familiar associations at the back of your mind--patterns from graphic design, icons, clocks, shields, crosses, records, and so on. I don't think of them as completely referential, but they aren't free of recognizable imagery either. What makes them so fun to look at is the back-and-forth play that they encourage. You go from seeing surface to depth, from image to non-image, from pure power to beauty.

Have a look through the gallery below.