There’s something subversively figurative about Thomas Ritter’s abstract paintings. You might trace it to the German artist’s lectures on figurative drawing at the University of Hanover — but, frankly, if he had something to say, he’d write a book.
No, 49-year-old Ritter — who lives and works in relative seclusion and failing health in Messenkamp, near Hanover and Vaestergodland, Sweden — tells no particular stories on his canvases. He refuses even to name them, lest they suggest meaning he did not intend to communicate. Rather, he projects a feeling that starts with something he sees in nature, endures ruthless reduction, elucidates color and space, and settles over a surface of up to 20 layers of different colors of acrylic paint.
“He takes a lot of time to prepare his surfaces,” says Christian Hohmann, director of The Hart Gallery, which opens a month-long show of Ritter’s recent paintings May 6 at its El Paseo location in Palm Desert. “He cuts into them so you can see layers underneath — to create interesting backgrounds rather than paint on an empty canvas. In the end, he works them over with oil.”
This phase, painting the abstractions, takes the longest — mostly because oil takes much longer to dry than acrylic. And it’s here that figures seem to appear — and typically continue to the edge of the canvas, as if it were cut from someplace in nature and hung for visual magnificence. “He has a centered composition that is attached to one side of the canvas,” Hohmann says. “Something always continues.
“You can only do great abstract paintings if you know how to paint figurative,” he adds. “Abstract comes from reducing.”
Ritter took his inspiration from Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), founder of Neoplasticism, known for its straight black intersecting lines that create rectangular planes, which he filled with a primary color (red, blue, or yellow) or a “noncolor” (white, gray, or black). Mondrian believed that the further away you go from nature, the closer you feel to its essence.
In his book Natural Reality and Abstract Reality: An Essay in Trialogue Form/1919-1920, Mondrian suggested the reductive minimalism of his work expresses a collective social ideal — that his style’s “universality” defies individuality and, when applied to human life, would lead to a new brand of socialist utopia.
Ritter’s paintings reflect similar simplicity and intensity with color — composition reduced to the absolute necessary, the essence. “He looks at the color schemes that happen in nature, reduces them, and then heightens them to something that touches you without you even knowing why,” Hohmann says.
Incidentally, Ritter personifies the reductive qualities he exudes through his art. He spends most of his time in Sweden, where he has no telephone. Even his remodeled barn studio in Germany is deep in the countryside; he enjoys a simple life with his artist wife, Eva-Susann Karsthoff, and their children and horses.
Perhaps the countryside inspires his deeply layered backgrounds and highly textured abstractions, which dry in interesting formations you’d expect from gesso. “For him, it’s about balance of color, composition, and brushstrokes,” Hohmann says.
For our part, we may interpret the forms as either generic or specific concepts or abstractions. This is, after all, abstract art. It’s up to us to interpret — and even name — his work.
The Hart Gallery, 73-111 El Paseo, Palm Desert; 346-4243