Daniel Birnbaum on Vivian Suter
I HAVE NO IDEA what Mick Jagger tries to communicate in “Jumpin ‘Jack Flash,” but I’ve always loved the explosive opening line: “I was born in a crossfire hurricane. And in front of Vivian Suter’s raw canvases at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, the words suddenly take on their full meaning. These works were born in storms. Rain, wind and muddy water are factors as important as the intentionality and skill of the artist.
The dampness, mold and dirt of the artist’s flooded studio and the surrounding jungle are as important as the pigments, oils and acrylics applied to the untreated canvases. The plant and animal life of the rainforest has left its mark. Monsoons, mudslides and tropical storms constitute the conditions for the possibility of art. Crossfire hurricanes too.
Presented on the high walls of the Palacio de Velázquez, the floor and simple wooden structures, Suter’s works entirely occupy the large gallery space and immerse the viewer in color. Some of them are installed close to each other on a hanging mechanism very similar to those that appear in the photographs of his studio. Rather than as individual webs, we could think of them as layers or sediments.
Can we say that Suter is a “landscape painter”? Perhaps, but the landscape is not something outside the canvas. The subject is not represented passively but rather plays an active role in the art; he agency as co-producer of the paintings. The immersive and active role of the natural environment becomes clear in a recent conversation between Suter and artist RH Quaytman. Suter does works with, not the landscape, she explains: “It’s all around me, and I can’t see much further; it is closed, but outside.
“And I have the impression that they themselves are real landscapes, ”Quaytman adds, describing the paintings themselves.
“Yes, exactly, these are geographic things,” says Suter.
Immersion is a concept one normally associates with electronic media art and installations, not painting. But Suter’s method has little to do with producing flat surfaces to be installed on the well-lit walls of a white cube. His works are not comfortable in the realm of purity produced by the exclusionary mechanisms of our institutions; rather, they are produced by dynamic forces that radically transcend the architectures in which they are created and displayed. They belong outside, and when they are installed in a museum like the Reina Sofía, one has the impression that it is only a temporary arrangement, that in the long run they will return to the natural cycles. that made them possible. Are Suter’s works ecological? Yes, but it’s not about ecology. They are ecology.
Are Suter’s works ecological? Yes, but it’s not about ecology. They are ecology.
I have already written in these pages about what I called the Holy Trinity of painting, a seamless loop encompassing the eye, hand and canvas. This restricted and humanistic circle is not the one to which Suter’s paintings belong. They are at home in a larger economy, involving the changing weather, land and vegetation, rainforest insects and animals, sunlight and semi-darkness. The lake and the nearby volcanoes are also important.
Would I have claimed all of this if I hadn’t known certain things about the artist and his whereabouts? I vividly remember my surprise and enthusiasm when, without any preparation, I encountered its radiant colors in a wooden structure in a park in Athens and, later, in a modest glass pavilion of the Kurt -Schumacher-Straße in Kassel. It was in 2017, at Documenta 14. I remember in these pages praising the red and pale blue curvilinear patterns bathed in the sun. I called the paintings modest but jubilant. Did they manifest the psychological energies of their creator as well as the cosmic powers, as I had thought?
Clearly, I was already under the influence of Rosalind Nashashibi’s intimate and deeply empathetic film. Viviane’s garden (2017), a portrait of Suter and his mother, the collagist Elisabeth Wild, when I underlined how Suter’s canvases are woven into an experiential mesh in which the works of art and the subjectivity of the viewer are organically intertwined to each other and with the rich textures of everyday life. In the case of Suter and Wild, these everyday textures – their voices, their furniture, the art on their walls, and the food on their table – give off that most alluring form of sensual pleasure. Everything is so beautiful.
After a successful but brief career as a young painter in Basel, where she had lived since the age of twelve, Suter disappeared from the art world. She fled Switzerland and embarked on a long journey through California and Central America. She settled in a former coffee plantation in Panajachel, Guatemala, near the volcanic lake Atitlán.
His life is mysterious. I don’t know if she left as a protest, as a conceptualist act, or because of some other necessity. What is certain is that she never left art. In her new environment, she continued to paint and her abstract forms began to engage in a deep and prolonged dialogue with nature.
In 2014, curator Adam Szymczyk organized an exhibition with Suter at the Kunsthalle Basel. Since then, his works have been regularly exhibited in institutions around the world. In an essay on Suter’s three decades of absence from the art world, Szymczyk emphasizes the decisive importance of two catastrophic storms, Stan and Agatha, which in 2005 and 2010, respectively, caused huge floods and landslides across Guatemala. Many of Suter’s works have been destroyed. From then on, it integrates the effects of the natural environment in which it works; his gestural brushstrokes were accompanied by traces beyond his control. She describes this moment in a way that reminds me of Duchamp’s account of the cracks that destroyed his most important work, The bride stripped naked by her bachelors, 1915-1923, and deciding that random processes can contribute to art:
Suter: And then my studio was flooded, as was my mother’s house; almost everything was flooded.
RH Quaytman: But that didn’t stop you, you decided to show these paintings soaked in mud.
Suter: Yes. But it took a while to see this as possible. At first my whole workshop was soaked in wet mud and the paintings were also covered in mud. But a week later I went back and the mud had dried up. I looked for a while at the paintings which had mud but not entirely. The painting below was still visible at the top, and I started to see them differently and liked the way they looked now.
Designed by the artist herself in response to the architecture of Reina Sofía’s Palacio de Velázquez, the exhibition represents what the museum calls an ecosystem. On the left side of the palace, it features paintings four decades old spared by natural forces. Most of these early works on paper combine contemporary forms of abstraction with visual vocabularies reminiscent of prehistoric works. I enjoyed seeing them but I must conclude that on their own, the show would not have been worth it. The mudslides added another dimension. Suter’s late style, that produced by storms, is what made her an important artist.
In his conversation with Quaytman, it is about Hilma af Klint, another artist whose work reached her audience very late. At a recent conference, writer Jennifer Higgie described today’s growing enthusiasm for af Klint as reflecting “a collective thirst to inhabit and understand the planet”. The same is true, I think, with Suter. Like af Klint, his version of abstraction is an attempt to stage not an otherworldly realm but spheres of vibrant and immanent life.
Similar ambitions can be found in some of the loudest theoretical approaches of today, notably in those new forms of ecology which attempt to rid our thought of the obsession with the historically overestimated relationship between a perceiving subject and an object. known. Instead, it is often said, we should study the equally exciting relationships in the world between human and non-human forms of action. Perhaps Timothy Morton’s ecology is one example. We are entangled beings in symbiosis with other beings, he argues in Be ecological (2018). I would have liked to waltz into Suter’s exhibition in Madrid and quote the last sentences of his book: “You breathe air. . . evolution takes place silently in the background. Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead. . . . You do not have to to be ecological. Because you are ecological.”
Collaborating Editor Daniel Birnbaum is Artistic Director of Acute Art in London and Professor of Philosophy at Städelschule Drankfurt. His novel Dr. B., published last year by Gallimard, will appear in English translation this spring (HarperCollins).