Everything is in Flux

By Michael Amy
Reviewer – Art in America, March 2008

Everything is in flux. More than almost anywhere else, change is conspicuous in nature. 

Monet, who sought to seize the quality of light falling upon a motif at a precise moment of the day, understood this. Another artist who was unusually sensitive to the continuous transformations in nature was Cézanne, who offered us a magisterially edited record of the many changes he witnessed over the time it took him to build a picture. Photography –which was made public the year before Monet was born- was able to seize the moment in a way that undoubtedly inspired the great Impressionist master. Significantly, photography -then believed to offer the most accurate possible record of reality- had a liberating effect upon modernist painters like Monet and Cézanne, who, finally freed from the task of having to offer a compelling evocation of the outside world, began introducing increasingly abstract values into their pictures. 

Reinhard Ziegler trained as a photographer in the mid 1970’s, when the medium was undergoing one of its many revolutions with the growing acceptance of color in fine art photography. Photography is central to Ziegler’s thinking and experience. Thus, it is unsurprising to see this artist first use the camera to record the vitality of nature and then transform the resulting photographs by applying color onto them in light of his heightened feelings about the landscapes of Texas.

Ziegler’s approach to his subject is unusual. In our busy 21st century, fewer and fewer among us find the time to contemplate nature, or anything for that matter, with the prolonged intensity of say Monet or Cézanne. Today, most of us drive by or fly over landscape at speeds Cézanne would not have imagined possible. Ziegler knows that the way we experience landscape has changed markedly, in step with developments in the way we move ourselves across space. He recognizes the beauty of these new ways of seeing and seeks to parallel these in his work. 

Reinhard Ziegler has been taking black and white photographs from moving vehicles for over 25 years. His images tap into our collective memories of staring out of car windows on family trips. During one week last year, Ziegler spent approximately six hours a day -charred by the sun and whipped by the wind, but with virtually a 360 degree unobstructed view- in the back of a pickup track driven by a friend, shooting landscapes at Big Bend and Marfa in black and white with a 35 mm camera. (Ziegler used a different camera to shoot color photographs that would serve as non-binding reference points when he proceeded to draw over the black and white photographs). Next, Ziegler produced monumental silver gelatin prints from the negatives he had selected and drew on top of these with pastel applied onto his fingertips, thereby gradually masking the entire surface of each photograph. 

The blurred view as an aesthetic ideal in painting suggesting movement and consequently vitality can be traced back to the Futurist movement formed almost exactly one century ago –Ziegler, an avid museumgoer, knows his painting. Its connection to photography is strongest however in the oil paintings of Gerhard Richter, whose methodical approach, wet facture, cool sensibility and medium are very different from Ziegler’s. Ziegler’s interpretation of landscape is pantheistic and his touch oftentimes more spontaneous. In the work of both artists, the photograph serves as a point of departure, a model, a source. 

What matters most for Reinhard Ziegler, is the way in which the countless marks on the surface coalesce to recreate a landscape as experienced through his own sensibility. Ziegler likens his handling of pastel to sculpting in two dimensions, as he seeks to articulate the weight and salience of his subject with the colors and tones at the tips of his fingers. Like Monet, he aims for a dense surface that achieves an integrity of its own, almost becoming autonomous of what is being depicted. As in Cézanne, the strokes flip back and forth between signifying forms in nature and reverting back to being mere abstract signs. Everything is in flux.

The strokes flip back and forth between the real and the ideal. Witness Along in Silence, a rocky landscape viewed three-quarters from above and filling the entire width and almost the entire height of this composition. The large scale of the image alludes to the scope of the Texan landscape. This work pays playful homage to the series Sols et terrains by Jean Dubuffet. Remnants and discoveries is more Cézannesque, with its looser handling of the medium, forms allowed to open up along their periphery, and parts projecting towards us -in an inversion of Renaissance one-point-perspective- as in a bas-relief. The rocks and trees perched on this cliff shimmer in the heat of the sun.

In Rare moments of equilibrium, red rock -as densely striated as steak- curves from the left into the distant right across the center of this almost square composition, like a great scar rising from the earth and reminding us of the vulnerability of our wonderful planet, so chockfull of life in some areas and so barren in others. Through his landscapes, Reinhard Ziegler manages to evoke a wide gamut of feeling ranging from warm lyricism to an expression of awe before the Sublime.