Raum 19 (Room 19), 1968, is a key work in Imi Knoebel's oeuvre, prescient of his mature aesthetic and practice. Created while he was still a Meister-student under Joseph Beuys, it took its title from the place of its execution, the number of his studio in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.1 All seventy-seven parts— stretchers, planar elements, stereometric and rectangular volumes—are fabricated from wood and fiberboard, which has been used "raw," in an untreated state; the pristine condition of these simple geometric components gives the impression that they await future deployment. A commonplace building material then rarely used for the making of artworks, Masonite soon became one of Knoebel's preferred materials on account of its quotidian serviceability and ready availability. This humble ordinariness, together with the straightforward carpentry techniques it presupposes, signals his belief that the artist's practice is as banal and pragmatic as that of a farm laborer, an urban worker, or an architect. Notwithstanding his abiding reverence for Kasimir Malevich and Beuys, he claims that an artist's role today has little to do with that of a visionary creator inspired by mystical beliefs.
Also prophetic of much of Knoebel's later work is the way these ineluctably nonobjective forms elide the realm of painting with those of sculpture and architecture. But not only does Raum 19 dispense with illusion in favor of corporeal presence, it also restricts metaphoric and referential content. From the stretchers and stretcher parts to the picture frames, from the variously scaled planar surfaces, in the guise of both individual "canvases" and sections of mural-sized compositions, to the bland, simple sculptural volumes, it arrays the constituents and components of a painterly practice reduced to its rudimentary essentials: form, material, surface, space, support. Given its embrace of both the plastic and the tectonic, Raum 19 may also serve as an ideal model for a creative revisioning of the world, but Knoebel's works never create a metastructure of reality: "[They] take part in this world as things," Christoph Schenker argues. Moreover, in seeking to function as "instruments of the pure experience of 'image,' excluded from the realm of language," they remain, he contends, "at the very limits of communicability."2
The polymorphous elements of Raum 19 can be variously assembled depending on the context, that is, depending on the gallery space and the artist's impulses. Since no fixed set of relationships binds the components, the work can expand to an environmental scale or may be densely compacted so that it appears as if in storage, as was the case when Knoebel exhibited it at Dia's exhibition facility in New York City, in 1987, alongside a range of other works. Given that the ensemble is permutable, and that its particular configuration, dimensions, and internal relations are dependent on the artist's decisions in situ, form becomes an event—sometimes chaotic, sometimes ordered; sometimes impenetrable, sometimes lucid; sometimes austere, sometimes abundant; sometimes confined, sometimes boundless. Though unique, every event remains contingent. Since any single installation is only ever one among innumerable possible compositions in this open system, emphasis shifts to notions of presentation per se, to staging as an abstract condition.
Knoebel's precocious preoccupation with questions of installation betrays a considerable debt to Beuys. Not only were the older artist's performances—his "actions"—undertaken in relation to the specifics of a situation, but his larger sculptural works, such as Arena—dove sarei arrivato se fossi stato intelligente! (Arena—where would I have got if I had been intelligent!), 1970–72, were also adapted to the context in which they were to be shown. Arena . . . could be tightly compacted into three densely layered stacks, as in his retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1979, or hung in a panoramic sweep so that every panel was visible, testimony to the breadth and character of his performance work— its very subject—over some fifteen years. When compressed, Arena . . . became for Beuys a battery, a repository of potential energy, and hence a prime instrument in the social revolution he hoped his art would ultimately effect.
Knoebel in large part eschewed Beuys's ideology, with the important proviso that he adhered to his mentor's guiding belief in the regenerative function of creativity. Thus, although from the outset of his career he variously explored the notion of a state of storage, a condition in which the work of art is not revealed but held at the ready, works such as Raum 19, in contrast to Beuys's Fonds, or batteries, carry no metaphysical meaning beyond a recuperative reflection on strategies of disposition as vehicles for constructing an aesthetic totality—as opposed to the sociopolitical totality that Beuys sought to engage. For Knoebel this focus on a creative revisioning of the spatiomaterial world required a stubbornly pragmatic investigation of the formal properties, syntax, and protocols that determined its identity. Several years later he explored this problematic further in a companion piece, Genter Raum (Ghent Room), 1980. Comprising more than 450 elements, its hallmark is not the greatly enhanced scale but the addition of color, which, manifest in all its fullness and unpredictability, assumes the form of monochrome panels in brilliant enameled and reflective acidic hues. In installation, once again a subjective response to a set of given conditions, Genter Raum is based on color as event. While it, too, may be presented as if in a stored state, in potentia, its expansive tectonic and territorial capacity on occasion enables it (as in 1991 when exhibited at the Kunstmuseum Winterthur) to incorporate within its frame certain historical works from the permanent collection of the museum in which it has been placed on temporary view.3
Shortly after devising Raum 19, Knoebel began a series of drawings that were kept in boxed portfolios housed in specially designed cabinets. When put on public view, the six cabinets that constitute Untitled (1973–75) can be opened under supervision to make a selection of their contents available to viewers. Realizing that this vast project was potentially limitless, the artist curtailed it at the point when he had filled more than 900 portfolios with a quarter of a million pencil drawings, each a typewriter-format sheet of paper limned with thin vertical rules varying in number and spacing. This combination of a monumental scale (and concomitant ambition) with a willingness to maintain the work in what might be deemed a truncated state bears a close relation to works by several of Knoebel's contemporaries, notably Hanne Darboven, for whom the book as "stored time" serves as an important structural modality, and Franz Erhard Walther, who typically presents his "demonstration materials" in a "stored state."4
Purging his frugal ascetic materials of vestigial metaphoric or allusory meanings, Knoebel sought to focus on the originary forms and bases of painting, and on its relation to sculpture and to architecture, by means of installations conceived as an aesthetic totality. His work consequently assumes an abstract, generic condition: it seeks to become a universal statement. At odds with contemporary formalist theories propounded by Clement Greenberg and his followers in the United States in the 1960s, Knoebel was profoundly shaped by a formative encounter with Malevich's book The Non-Objective World (1926), and by his landmark painting Black Square (1915), which became a touchstone for the young German painter.5 Seeking "the zero of form," Malevich created an art that is as far from the reductive as it is from the doctrinaire.6 Although Knoebel's work is by contrast unequivocally secular, he derived from the Russian mystic a notion of art that is essentially utopian, that is, of an art that in assuming a tabula rasa as its point of departure resists language and the discursive. Friedrich Schiller's philosophical poem "The Veiled Image at Sais," which Knoebel reprinted in 1991 as the preface to one of his catalogues, provides further elucidation of this aesthetic.7 Schiller posits an ideal Truth that in its purest form is unattainable, or, better, that is revealed only to those who at mortal risk lift its veil. At issue, however, is less the protagonist's efforts to transgress the prohibition on lifting the veil than the aspiration toward Absolute Truth, incarnate as a hieratic shrouded image. According to Schiller, what is not disclosed, what remains pure possibility—what is, in short, utopic—takes emblematic visual form. That this iconic image resists verbal communication and comprehension is manifest in the poem's refusal to elaborate on it, indeed to do more than demonstrate its fatal effect on those who seek complete disclosure, who relentlessly privilege the finality of the definitively fixed and absolute.
Inspired by his lodestar Malevich, shaped by his mentor Beuys, Knoebel inserted a structured profusion at the very heart of Raum 19, his protean, pioneering statement. Suspended between amorphous and crystalline principles, this insistently reticent work has been reassembled anew at Dia:Beacon. In some future incarnation elsewhere in the building it may become an enveloping spatialized entity that will treat the gallery as a volumetric support; for the moment, it responds to its assigned location in the museum as warehousing, as a conventional storage site. The irony of this ploy is not lost on the artist.
1. From 1965 Imi Knoebel shared this studio with Imi Giese. For a short time Jörg Immendorf and Blinky Palermo also used it. The two Imis only gave up the studio when Beuys's own atelier, next door at number 20, became impossibly overcrowded owing to the master's controversial policy of accepting every student who applied to join his class. This open policy became the pretext for Beuys's eventual dismissal from the Kunstakademie in 1972, the year after Knoebel graduated. See Johannes Stüttgen's interview with Knoebel, "'Der Ganze Riemen': Imi & Imi 1964–1969," 1982, reprinted in Imi Knoebel (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 1987), pp. 26–32. Raum 19 is sometimes known by an alternative title, Hartfaser Raum (Fiberboard Room), derived from its materials.
2. Christoph Schenker, "Imi Knoebel: The Limits of Communicability," Flash Art, 24, no. 161 (November/December 1991), p. 107.
3. See ibid., pp. 103–07.
4. See Rudolph Bumiller, "Working with Success—Working with Unsuccess," Parkett, no. 32 (1992), pp. 38–43.
5. Marianne Brouwer's text "For Imi and Carmen" well captures the significance of Black Square for Knoebel: "It is a painting against metaphysics. . . . In its substance, matter and mass, the black square that isn't a [perfect] square, absorbs like a black hole all language, all 'worldviews.' . . . It absorbs and renders silent but it does not kill. I mean it does not kill speech or existence by denying a representational world. For by its counterpart: radiation, the white, nothingness, it suddenly opens to us, like an explosion of the eye, the existence of another logic, in which everything, paradoxically, lives and lives therein. . . . Because the painting is so precise, and because it isn't the rendering of the thought of the square (not a geometrical abstraction), it is a reality, [it is] a world seen . . . not a mathematical, idealist, immaterial painting of perfection." In Imi Knoebel (Otterlo: Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, 1985), n.p.
6. See Kasimir Malevich, "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism," 1916, reprinted in John E. Bowlt, ed., Russian Art of the Avant Garde: Theory and Criticism, 1902–1934 (New York: Viking, 1976), p. 128.
7. Friedrich Schiller, "The Veiled Image at Sais," 1795, in Imi Knoebel: Acht Portraits (Berlin, Galerie Fahnemann, 1991), n.p. Knoebel has only permitted a single interview with him to be published; see note 1.