Tomma Abts: Abstract Art with an Enigmatic Vision

Tomma Abts
Tomma Abts, Fimme, 2013. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Collection of Sascha S. Bauer. Courtesy of greengrassi, London. © Tomma Abts.

The abstract paintings of Tomma Abts are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in her first solo exhibition in the U.S. in ten years. Abts is a contemporary abstract painter who is known for her small-scale intricately composed geometric work.

On display are 32 of her works that showcase not only her distinctive style but also her artistic vision. Abts’ canvasses are 19.8 x 15 inches, but this portrait-size dimension does not limit the scope of her work. Even when working in such a confined area, she creates the illusion of space by adding layers of colors and textures, while also incorporating various geometric shapes such as angles, lines and circles. Her art doesn’t feel crowded on the canvas—there is a sense of space and movement to her work—an electric energy at play. Her paintings also seem to occasionally evoke but never quite represent anything in reality.

Because some of her paintings take a number of years to complete, there is almost an evolutionary process to her work as she builds upon forms and colors over a period of time. In numerous interviews, she has admitted that she never knows how a painting will turn out in the end. Her paintings seem to act as illustrations for various mathematical problems that she is trying to solve.

It is also interesting how Abts creates cryptic titles for her paintings. Abts titles the paintings by drawing on a book of first names from the Ostfriesland region of Germany where Abts’ family is originally from. The names are carefully selected only after the paintings are complete. The relationship of title to painting can be subtle; the names may have a sound that the artist finds matches the mood of the painting, or the written name may have a visual link to an element in the artwork.

Tomma Abts, Inte.
Tomma Abts, Inte, 2013. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Private collection, Cologne. Courtesy of greengrassi, London. © Tomma Abts.

At first glance her art can have an overwhelming effect on the senses, but when one takes a closer look, one will see a sense of order and structure to her work rather than chaos. The mysterious structures within her paintings seem to co-exist with a sense of harmony rather than battling each other for space and attention. When viewing her work, one cannot help but appreciate the painstaking detail of her paintings while also experiencing a sense of transcendence through her vibrant shapes and luminous use of colors.

Tomma Abts received the prestigious Turner Prize in 2006. Her art has been presented in major solo exhibitions internationally. She is also represented in many museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art institute of Chicago; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. Abts was born in 1967 in Kiel, Germany, and studied at Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. She currently lives and works in London.

Tomma Abts’ work will be on display through February 17 at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue). The museum is open daily from 10:30am to 5pm and on Thursday until 8pm. For more information, call 312-443-3600 or visit their website.


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Tom Wawzenek