During the set-up of Rita Rohlfing’s HOFFENT_LICHT exhibition, we were all caught out in the cold: freezing temperatures and contact restrictions weighed equally heavily on our minds. In the bone-chilling days of February 2021, in the midst of the Covid-induced lockdown, the desolation outside the Gustav Lübcke Museum became increasingly palpable. Amazingly, some passers-by still ventured up the snow-covered, icy steps of the museum forecourt, attracted by the striking glass façade of the Studio space, which was being bathed in a warm-toned light on those wintry days. Despite the cold, people lingered in front of the museum, pressing their noses against the semi-transparent window panes to spy at what was going on behind them. The expectant looks and silent gatherings of the art-hungry public were understandable: above all, they made the artist and the museum team a little more optimistic, even though at that point any expectation of a quick exhibition opening and thus of an encounter with art was illusory. But there was hope in times of hopelessness, and there was a sense of closeness that countered our separation. The lockdown had assumed the aspect of perpetual winter, and the warnings that it could get even colder and worse lay like a layer of ice over life and art. But standstill was not turned into a principle. After a long year, people needed more than vaccines–they also needed hope. The motto of the construction team was: “Let’s do it”: let’s tackle, persevere, complete–always with an eye towards the exhibition’s self-imposed completion date, 21st February 2021. Because what was at stake here was the continuing hope for a light at the end of the tunnel, hope for a new time in which art may, or can show itself again. The world still needs plenty of light and colour today. In times like these, perhaps even a little more. It is no coincidence that the title of the show is HOFFENT_LICHT (a combination of the German words for hope and light). This neologism, conceived during the exhibition’s construction, evokes a range of conceptual associations.
Rita Rohlfing had the 170 m2 of the so-called Studio in the Gustav Lübcke Museum at her disposal for the exhibition HOFFENT_LICHT, which is part of the exhibition series Hellweg Konkret II. This space has been a popular venue for contemporary art for several years. However, Rita Rohlfing does not simply use the space for presentation; instead, she merges the living world, architecture, space and art into a well-conceived unity. Such a unique project has not been seen before in the museum in Hamm. After a thorough examination of the museum building designed by the two Danish architects Jørgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert, the architecture of the Studio, and the adjacent urban environment, the artist conceived and realised an exhibition with representative pieces from her key work groups. In addition, a large installation was created especially for the show, which is tremendously effective from both inside and out. Each of the selected works deserves sufficient space to make an impact on its own. Individually, the works take over the space divided into three coherent areas, as well as interrelating in many exciting ways.
Over the past three decades, Rita Rohlfing has created an enormous œuvre. Born in Bad Oeynhausen in 1964 and now living in Cologne, she studied painting at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Brunswick (1985-91) and at the School of Visual Art in New York (1994-95). During her stay in the USA, she cultivated a great interest in the art of the Abstract Expressionists. The artist works with great pleasure in experiment and has followed an irrepressible desire to try things out, transposing her traditionally surface-based pictorial art into three-dimensional space in well-considered, logical steps.
Her shaped canvases, still traditionally painted in oils and acrylics, are already essentially three-dimensional.1 In addition, instead of a classic rectangular shape articulating stillness and the static, she uses an asymmetrical border that suggests not only spatiality but also movement. To capture the light, the colour is never entirely monochrome or smoothly applied. As a result, the red that is characteristic of the shaped canvases radiates into the room unobtrusively and changeably rather than expressively. It flows, vibrates and breathes.
Two new works created for the exhibition represent the work group of untitled spaces, which captivate us initially with their exact severity. Aluminium and lacquer paint are used in this series. Although the flat aluminium used as a support is only three millimetres thick, the untitled spaces simulate an astonishing plasticity. Shapes are defined by acute and obtuse angles. Both the painted and separate edge areas, where the aluminium remains visible, are characterised by a delicate matt finish. The fine application and sanding of the glossy lacquer paint, which is repeated several times, enables the artist–as with her shaped canvases–to create a velvety, slightly porous surface structure that changes according to the incidence of light. As a passionate advocate of art that transcends genres and is also participatory, Rita Rohlfing always opens up new fields of experience for us via active participation in each of her artistic works, constantly maintaining her aspiration to irritate. Following every step and every change in distance on the viewer’s part, the untitled spaces jump around surprisingly, appearing flat one minute and three-dimensional the next, as well as seeming longer or shorter. The illusion is created that they are making some sort of stand against the real architecture of the wall. Accentuated by their fine edge of shadow, these works give the impression of floating in front of the pale-coloured wall. The work shown from this series, which extends across 250 cm, is particularly versatile and space-defining. As a result of the diagonal tapering sharply to the right, it cancels out the static, weighty quality of the space. Thus, the work develops a remarkable lightness on the wall and unfolds a dynamic into the room. “The artist needs only as much artistry as necessary to achieve his actual goal. If he has more, it’s better if we don’t know about it, because displaying this technical brilliance would only spoil his art,” said Marc Rothko, one of the key representatives of Abstract Expressionism, whose works, similar to Rohlfing’s untitled spaces, are variations on infinity and a sublime stillness.2 Although Rohlfing’s untitled spaces are anchored in the realm of colour painting due to their emotional chromatic impact and can be experienced sensually and physically, their emphasis on material and spatial effects means that they can be understood better as subtle corporeal objects. It is our own movement and a permanently changing perspective that clearly highlights the intuitive and confusing complexity of this ingeniously simple art.
Rita Rohlfing prefers to use modern, industrially produced materials such as chemical colour pigments, coloured lacquers, acrylic glass, stainless steel and aluminium. Aluminium, an element somewhere between industry and design, was used quite naturally by Constructivists such as Alexander Rodschenko and Vladimir Yevgrafovich Tatlin as early as the 1920s. The corrosion-resistant metal is quite expensive, but its lightness and great reflective power also make it extremely popular for artistic designs. Rita Rohlfing created the freestanding floor element The Wave (2001) from a bent sheet of aluminium. The experimental artist, whose technical knowledge and craftsmanship are exceptional, developed this work as a response to the fascinating question of the necessary thickness for a four-metre-long sheet of aluminium–folded over and touching at the ends–if it is to remain in such a stable constellation rather than snapping back. As in most of her works, a lot of manual, even heavy labour went into this object. From a great distance, when placed at the end of a long narrow space, the Wave is alluring because of its shape, which is greatly enhanced as we approach it. On the outside of the object, the material is exposed in its natural state. The inside of the Wave, which can only be explored by bending down, is painted completely in red and magenta. Interestingly, the intersection of the two colours, which are also close to each other on the colour wheel, occurred quite by chance. In her Cologne studio, the artist fixed the incidence of light hitting the object at one particular moment. The playful interaction of light, colour and material lends the mighty Wave an apparently casual weightlessness.
The four works Crystal Blue (2014), Immaterial Blue Space (2015), Immaterial White Space (2016) and Purple (2013) represent the series of color spaces. In each case, the colour is inside a rectangular wall-mounted object, 22 cm deep, which is made of frosted, evenly polished acrylic glass. The positioning of the interior elements, each painted in either bright red, blue, light grey or white, whose chromatic intensity is retracted by the frosted glass, cannot be determined upon viewing. What appears to be colourless when viewed from one position may turn into a pure experience of colour when viewed from another. A pink will suddenly join the blue, for example, although the pink is not actually there. The colour appears suddenly from nothing and then disappears again. “My work is about the dissolution of the material,” the artist explains.3 Her artistic potential–using simple art to make colour resemble an immaterial element floating in space–is perhaps even more striking in the color spaces. Here, colour seems lighter than air, like a breeze, depending on one’s point of view. Rita Rohlfing’s works are not exhibits to be hurried past. Every perspective and every new incidence of light opens up a new art. The artist is far from revealing the genesis of her works. For the viewer, the “how” remains a mystery. At this point, we should quote the well-known statement made by Georges Braque, one of the important pioneers of Cubism: “In art, one must be content with discovery and beware of explanations. In art, only one thing counts: that which cannot be explained.”4 Rita Rohlfing’s art excites us with its grandiose, deceptive manœuvres and evokes constantly changing visual stimuli. Our interest in the works is maintained with our incessant attempts to analyse and decipher them. On the one hand, they radiate calm and austerity; on the other, sheer vivacity and energy. Thus, in this ambivalence, they preserve the principle of mystery that is essential to art.
The sculpture Apparently (2008) also belongs in the context of the color spaces. Externally, it presents as the clear, geometric, self-contained construction of a towering sculptural triangle, consisting of two reflecting stainless steel walls and a plexiglass wall clamped exactly between them. Its interior is vague, suffused with an evanescent blue that gently pushes through the frosted glass wall into the surrounding space. As a result, what is closed seems to open up, so that a connection between inside and outside can be experienced. In addition, the contrast between the two metal surfaces of the sculpture and the unclarified space behind the glass pane draws the eye away from the surface into the interior, into the imagination. In this way, the artist succeeds in lending equal importance to the outer and the inner qualities of her sculpture. The external space and the closed space of the sculpture do not generate a contradiction, a division, but produce a unity. Walking around the object, we experience the way that the structures of the almost painterly seeming surfaces of the fine stainless steel, created by grinding, reflect the fluctuating chromatic spectrum of the surrounding space. In the exhibition, this sublime, silent form is oriented towards one corner of the Studio. The object at almost room-height thus receives the attention it deserves without oppressing any neighbouring works of smaller format. If we pay close attention, its triangular shape is reflected in the arrangement of the wall objects Purple and Crystal Blue hanging opposite, which also describes a triangle.
For the last few years, Rita Rohlfing has expanded her work to include photography. The three photographs newly created for the exhibition in Hamm, two of them in square format and one in portrait format, all bear the title: Homage to the Square (2021). It is obvious to think immediately of Josef Albers‘ huge series of pictures of the same name, which attracted international attention in the 20th century. However, Rohlfing’s photographic works have little in common with the squares in the constructivist’s hard-edge style. First of all, the works on show are captivating in their brilliance. Silvery, tiny, sublime squares that shimmer here and there in red and through grey to black, entice us into a constant back-and-forth movement as we are viewing them. What is photographed does not reveal itself in the photographs, no matter how we look at them. Seen from a distance, the images mounted on Aludibond resemble paintings presenting the illusion of a flowing movement, which the artist has elaborated sculpturally. A viscous, flowing stream, granted an incredible radiance and vitality by manifold reflections, seems to pour out before our eyes. We attempt to wander through the shimmering structure, to see figures and patterns in it, to catch the dancerly aspect, the rhythm in the flowing movement. In order to gain more insight, every observer who studies these works in depth will probably move closer to them, believing that he will be able to see more details from a shorter distance and so gain some clarity about the motifs. From a middle distance–about two metres–we assume that we have a material texture in front of our eyes. Here, we can clearly discern the raised character of the punched, tiny square pieces and their immense complexity, which becomes more and more blurred as we gradually approach them. Seen in close-up, the details appear extremely fuzzy and pixelated. The photographs shown also fascinate us with their irritating alternation between the concrete and the playful, and trigger the most diverse associations by turning away from any unambiguous motif. The artist wishes to obscure the actual subject in a cloak of silence. But if viewers use their acumen, in the exhibition context they will discover the origin of the photographic motif.
When Rita Rohlfing first entered the Studio, the space that had been designated for the presentation of her works, it was already clear to her that she wanted to realise a temporary installation in Hamm, in addition to her mobile artworks. She chose the Studio’s most expressive spatial component as the location for her new creation: the area supported by four white pillars and equipped with an L-shaped row of wide-opening windows, from which there is an extensive view of the outside space. Each site-specific installation represents a new challenge for the artist, as the situational conditions are always different. The artist, who was responsible for the conception of the work, made an intense study of the site’s architecture and the local and social environment. Again and again, she observed how the on-site realities were affected by the light at different times of day and in varying weather conditions. She recorded her impressions in an abundance of photographs as an important basis for the numerous sketches and colour concepts that she drew up subsequently in her Cologne studio. In the end, these were used to produce a transportable model as a template for the construction of the installation and the entire exhibition presentation.
Translucent films, mainly in red and pink as well as orange, yellow and violet, and partly overlapping, adhere to the strictly vertically structured, floor-to-ceiling windows. They have been measured precisely and applied perfectly flush so that they create a homogeneous unit with the glass. The effect of these window films, which Rita Rohlfing is using for the first time for the exhibition in Hamm, is to abolish the division between inside and outside. The glass front no longer functions as a strict demarcation, as an austere point of intersection; it becomes a pleasant and effective link between the exhibition space and the space surrounding the museum. Likewise, the transformation of the interior is accompanied by a transformation of the exterior. When looking outside, both the museum courtyard with its striking forest of columns and the busy life of the city are enveloped in a warm-coloured, diffuse light. The interior and exterior seem to enter into a gentle dialogue. The outside no longer conveys hustle and bustle–as it did before–but instead has had a kind of delicacy attached to it by the softened light. Unlike looking through a dividing pane of clear glass, here people, things and architecture are perceived through a pleasant filter. The different coloured window transparencies mean that the contours of the outside world are bathed, sfumato-like, in a delicate misty light, light-dark transitions blur into each other like smoke, the surroundings beneath the open sky oscillate in different hues. Constantly changing visual stimuli are created, further intensified by the silvery foil spread over the entire floor. This material, an industrial substance actually used in roofs for heat insulation, lies in long adjacent and criss-crossing strips. Due to its shiny surface, the foil on the floor continually creates reflections, which are increased immeasurably by the slightly raised quality of the thousands of tiny punched squares and partially heaped foils.
To experience all this, it is not enough to simply look at an installation. Visitors are not kept at a distance, but invited to enter the installation, to feel it, to allow themselves not only to drift, but also to pause and remain attentive. Their physical movement, which creates a constantly changing perception, is followed by an inner agitation that provokes thought and reflection, as well as the inevitable desire to explore further and fathom the incomprehensible. Childlike wonder is aroused, perhaps also something resembling a feeling of happiness. Through constant changes of perspective, we experience colour, light and virtual weightlessness in the space in which we find ourselves. Without touching anything, we feel “a warm stirring”, as the author Ulrike Schröder has aptly described this sensation, a pleasant mixture of intimacy and ethereal transparency.5 “By being part of the installation themselves, the viewers can see how the boundaries between the real and the unreal, and between the material and the immaterial world are disappearing more and more,” says the artist, who is a virtuoso at irritating her audience–but with sensitivity.6 In her temporary new creation she has not produced a total installation, whereby a place is rebuilt or renewed completely, but has intervened gently in the space and architecture and yet achieved a tremendous effect. The Studio space with its characteristic austerity is redefined, becoming a contemplative and at the same time magical setting.
When viewed from the outside, the glass façade–actually covered with differently coloured sheets of film–surprisingly appears in an almost uniformly pinkish-red light that radiates strikingly into the surrounding public space when it grows dark. During the day, e.g. in bright sunshine, the glass panes brilliantly reflect the alternation of light and shadow as well as the play of vegetation, the architecture of the museum courtyard, and the movement of passing vehicles and strolling passers-by. The outside space blends freely and easily into the strictly structured, colourfully radiant row of windows. They merge with a lightness suggesting that the surroundings and the museum building have grown together into a loose, animated unit. The brightly lit façade with the many variations reflected in it creates stimuli for every observer, even those who are not generally interested in art. People are given a sense of the museum as a natural setting, and one drawing close to them. They can look from the outside in and vice versa from the inside out. Their gazes are far from voyeuristic, due to the glass bathed in warm light; instead they appear interested, pleasantly curious. The further one moves away from the glass façade, even stepping across Bahnhofstraße to the opposite side of the broad street, the greater is the formal unity Rita Rohlfing achieves with the window installation and the museum’s architecture.
“There is nothing more concrete than a line, a colour, a plane,” in the words of Theo van Doesburg, one of the pioneers of Concrete Art.7 Although these elements can also be seen in Ritas Rohlfing’s work, the artist goes far beyond the concrete, nevertheless, and occupies an independent position within the constructive/concrete trend. Her works impress us with their fascinating interplay of quiet, rational severity and irritating effect, of clear material presence and immaterial and transcendent appearance. There is no doubt that Rita Rohlfing’s art reflects our times. Moving between being and appearance, the artist gently alludes to the social changes in our world, in which the boundaries between the virtual and the real have been all but abolished.8 The aesthetic abundance and artistic potential of Rohlfing’s works reflect the fact that we live in a world which has begun to falter. Life has become unimaginably complex and incomprehensible in so many ways. Although no work of art changes the world, Rita Rohlfing’s art obviously changes people’s ideas about it.
While the exhibition was being set up in February 2021, Rita Rohlfing had the idea of drawing attention to the site by means of another artwork in the outside space, in order to defy the long lockdown even more and to express the cultural and social significance of the Gustav Lübcke Museum. Together with Berlin-based author Ulrike Schröder, the artist conceived an outdoor installation entitled “Curiosity is the Entrance Ticket”, comprising different word and sentence fragments.9 On the one hand, the colourfully appealing word creations, each adhering to one of the front row of columns and easily legible from the street, are clearly understandable; on the other hand, they pose a number of riddles. “Each one stands alone, but they can also be connected to each other like a puzzle, and then something emerges,” says the author.10 By means of this witty and stimulating work, art communicates itself to everyone. It is stripped of the intimidating. And consequently, it loses its elitism.
1 Cf. Gabriele Uelsberg, Farbskulpturen, in: Rita Rohlfing ׀ exhib. cat. for the exhibition in the Städtische Galerie Villa Zanders, Bergisch Gladbach 15.01– 29.02.1999 and in the Kunstmuseum in der Alten Post, Mülheim/a.d. Ruhr 10.06–08.08.1999, Bramsche 1999, pp. 5-7.
2 Quotation from Marc Rothko, in: Robert Rosenblum, Die Moderne Malerei und die Tradition der Romantik. Von C.D. Friedrich zu Marc Rothko ׀ Munich 1981, p. 227.
3 This author’s conversation with Rita Rohlfing on February 9th, 2021.
4 Quotation from Georges Braque, in: Südwest Galerie (SWG) suedwestgalerie.de.
5 The neologism was created during a conversation between the artist and author Ulrike Schröder.
6 This author’s conversation with Rita Rohlfing on February 9th, 2021.
7 Quotation from Theo van Doesburg, in: Schweizer Malerei by Erika Billeter (ed.), Bern 1990, p. 226.
8 This author’s conversation with Rita Rohlfing on February 9th, 2021.
9 This author’s conversation with Rita Rohlfing on February 9th, 2021.
10 Interview by Dierk Hartleb, Westfälische Nachrichten, with author Ulrike Schröder on 18.02.2021.
übersetzt von: Lucinda Rennison, Berlin
in: Rita Rohlfing – HOFFENT_LICHT, Ausst.-Kat./exh. cat. Hamm, Gustav-Lübcke-Museum, Hamm 2021, S./p. 17- 49