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Michael Brötje


The analysis of the abstract work by Otto Piene shows that the painting, which at first glance seems purely aesthetic, primarily intended to produce a sense of pleasure, can potentially speak to the most profound, existential (in the Jaspersian sense of the term) essence of man. The analysis discusses the visual qualities which, on the one hand, apply to the plane of the painting, and, on the other, to the viewer who assumes a vertical position in front of the painting. The description of these qualities, which come into being in the experience of art grounded not in the soul [Seele] rather than the psyche, employs the concepts of tremendum and fascinosum; these two categories allow the author to express the dual nature of the human experience of the sacred.

keywords: Otto Piene, art theory, analysis of a work of art, hermeneutics, tremendum, fascinosum


To a quick glance, aiming only at a superficial knowledge of the work of art, Otto Piene’s Bronze and Gold III can present itself as a harmoniously balanced, live, beautiful, and therefore quite common matter work: simple geometrical forms, charming surface structures, warmly golden hue. It seems as if the work wanted to evoke good feelings, satiate the eye, and add to the sensitivity of touch – in short, as if it aimed at mediating an enhanced aesthetic experience. However, as soon as we start a real, subjective visual dialog with it, it will present itself quite differently, revealing with all it power a program of rules to order being. Already both “empty” vertical stripes on the left and right hand sides are irritating. In the context of the work’s “content” – granulated surfaced – they are redundant. If, however, the work includes also the stripes, then it puts itself in doubt as identical with that “content”, thus fulfilling for the spectator (who cannot and does not need to legitimize that fact intellectually) its destiny as a work of art. What kind of destiny is it? The vertical stripes articulate the height of the work’s surface, while the side (punctured) horizontal stripes at the top and the bottom indicate its width. Still, the vertical and the horizontal stripes cannot be arranged into any order or brought together, since they realize themselves only alternatively: the latter lead toward the inner square area whose surface is intensely granulated, while the former point to no granulation at all. Hence, within its square limits, the surface is never available through the visual data as a unity (simultaneously in its height and width). Although the surface has been reflected in all those data, it remains in respect to them an unavailable totality – having been assumed in advance by the identity of the homogeneous, outstretched background, still it defies “appropriation” by any independent order. This means that in the process of seeing the surface represents an instance that trans-gresses, transcends all the steps toward knowing the content. In this way, the surface becomes a visual synonym of the transcendent Absolute.

In the structure of the work both horizontal stripes have been recognized in functional terms as the introductory-primary realization hints – introductory because they represent the genetic passages between the limits of the work and its filling center, the dominant area of the inner square. The eye recognizes those genetic passages in the plastic protuberances, the punctures which first appear to be ordered rather freely, then to condense in the inner area. What is the meaning of those “punctures” for the spectator? In concrete terms of the reasonable there is none, but that is why – paradoxically – their meaning acquired in the process of seeing is even more complex. That is related to the specific conditions of perception: by incessant displacement, by the irregularity of distribution, by the changing, transitory blotting (equal to “shadowing” in the luminous medium of the golden hue), the eye receives an overall – despite the distinctness of each puncture – impression of “ungraspably” fluid, emerging and dissolving weaved structures which, as such, evade any realistic definition of their character. Consequently, those weaved structures can be approached in their unrestricted and non-contradictory alternation: a) in terms of the objective size of the work’s surface as textures made of potentially tangible and meaningless protuberances, seen at a close distance, b) as groups of identical “eminences” distributed on the surface of the background, when seen from high above, and c) as enormously distant groups of quasi-stellar points of matter, seen from afar. Thus, the weaved structures open for the spectator an imaginary space which virtually contains any possible form of being (from the tangible facts of here and now through the objects which – like trees at the plantation, cabins, rocks, people – have been distributed on the supporting surface similar to the Earth, and the free-floating, infinitely remote “worlds” in the outer space). If such detailed characterization of that space of imagination is for the consciousness ridiculous or absurd – because for consciousness the only “actual reality” are those plastic protuberances – in the visual experience of the I, the liberation toward the imaginary, toward “all that can be” which remains indifferent to any names, is what is essential, since only in such experience the intuitive-sensory subjective recognition of the surface as the transcendent Absolute becomes possible, and the Absolute is what encompasses all the plurality of being. (Also this change in calling the surface is absurd, not-to-be-grasped by consciousness!)

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