The first major retrospective of the visual artist revealed the strict processes, rules and systems behind her work
It was during a game of tennis, goes the tale, that visual artist Channa Horwitz (1932-2013) was interrupted by her idea. A notation system based on grids that could depict time, rhythm and movement with minimised aesthetics; a personalised score that would allow the artist to escape not only the back-and-forth of the afternoon’s leisures, but the previously figurative confines of her practice. This is the only story I’ve heard around Horwitz’s relatively unknown output. I wonder if the white-sprayed lines of the court, the horizon of the net, and grid of strings within the oval of her racket fell into alignment at that moment, sending her back to the hotel room to begin work on her first gridded series. The patterns of her subsequent work certainly remind us of the repetition of forms in everyday life: windows, tabletops, wall outlines.
This exhibition at KW Institute in Berlin is Horwitz’s first serious retrospective. It begins with early architectural collages like Mr. and Mrs. McGuilicutty’s House (1964): naive floor plans whose cut-out forms she would extract as polygons to begin her abstract practice proper. The artist wanted to reduce and reduce – the Window Blinds studies, in black pen, pare back the visual to “the least number of choices” that could then be arranged into hundreds of configurations. Here, the studies are brought to three-dimensional space, with a jalousie mechanically, disconcertingly, clicking up and down.
Horwitz said that this simplification of material, delivered via the tiny squares of graph paper that would become her medium, represented freedom. But her process is presented as developing with the kind of strict consistency that comes from a focused approach paired with daily discipline at the drawing board. Some may quip that a rational, rules-based practice is not what one would expect from a West Coast painter with privileged pastimes; in fact, free time and rigour are exactly what the formation of her new language required, as she steadily produced grids upon grids, lines upon lines.
The curation is clear, bold, and regimented, like the work itself, arranged according to the standard sounding names of Horwitz’s series: Language, Rhythms, Structures, Sonakinatography. This latter represents an idea for inter-disciplinarity before the term – notations designed to be interpreted for dance, sound or spatial installation. A metronome ticks on the floor, its beats to a bar keeping the tempo of my viewing of a photographic study of shadows around a cube, which recalls the photo grids of Sol LeWitt.
As told by the exhibition’s title, the number 8 became a key figure of Horwitz’s process, defining the form of matrices or the multiples of series. Many early computers from the period she was working in operated with an 8-bit system, but her charts from the 1970s to the 2000s are all recorded laboriously on paper; their small figures, though uniform, the product of a human hand.
If Horwitz’s hand-drawn grids, translating time into scores and potentially scores into sound, share much with those of Minimalist Hanne Darboven, the strokes of the large-format works in the main hall speak to Jorinde Voigt’s current paintings, which also stir movement from layers of geometry. As the gallery opens up appropriately into a spacious square within a square, we encounter the fine superimposed lines of the 8 Expanded variations, where the sides of shapes overlap with varying density, and overarching flows emerge. The contemplative curves and gradients of Indian modernist Nasreen Mohamedi are also summoned here by Horwitz’s measured philosophy.
Systems aesthetics rules, but by the 1980s the incorporation of multicolour adds the optical effects of Moiré and the rainbow-coding of slim pyramidal diagrams (Sonakinotography Compositions), lest we tire of a monochrome regime. While each notation is specific to Horwitz, in the rhythms and planes of these later works it doesn’t matter so much if you understand the principles: the visual abstractions construct a space beyond their concepts.
Counting in Eight, Moving in Colour ran at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, from 15 March to 25 May 2015