Nina Pops, Book 10, 18.5.2007, Apartment, Belgrade — 2009

This painting by Serbian-German painter Nina Pops has been hanging on our wall for a month now. It was part of the November exhibition “Querschnitt” at Cologne’s Kulturbunker, for which I wrote an essay. It seems miraculous that the painting has made its way across the Atlantic to Woodland Hills, Utah.

On the back of the canvas the artist has written

“18.5.2007 18:10, CTAH, BEOGRAD — WOHNUNG BELGRAD –, BUCH 10”

N. Pops 2009

This means, I think, that she first sketched this design in her book 10 on the early evening of May 18, 2007 in her apartment in Belgrade. I’ve seen several of her books online. They’re fascinating as a record of ideas — and some of them eventually become paintings. Here, for instance, are some pages from her book #XVIII.

The painting that found its way to us can been seen with several other related paintings under the title “Forms” on the artist’s blog.

The black-and-white “forms” are graphic reminders (as opposed to reminders in graphite, a medium the artist also works in) that Nina Pops’ work is a continuation and elaboration of the work of the great Croatian painter Julije Knifer, whose black-and-white meanders can be found in many of the world’s fine museums (see my discussion here). With Zarko Radakovic, for instance, Nina Pops has created a book of collages composed of manuscript pages from Radakovic’s Knifer book and Pops’ elaborations on and over and around the texts. There are beautiful examples here and my thoughts on the collaboration here.

But back to the painting.

In the short days and long nights of winter, Pops’ yellow and red forms burn bright amidst the thick black forms and thin white lines.

I find my eye trying to recognize the forms. The red one, for instance, reminds me of the shape of the state of Utah. No, I think, the raised section to the upper left is too short and much too skinny and it’s not rectangular Wyoming snuggled in the gap but a narrow yellow rectangle with its own arm (leg?) stretching out to the right.

Then I think of the painting in terms of Paul Klee’s work, like this painting called “Clarification,” for instance:


And, as I’ve already said, I think of it in terms of Knifer’s work.

But why the comparisons? Trying to describe Pops’ large painting “The View” / Pogled, I kept looking for letters of the alphabet (since the painting is of a novel). Why can’t I just see the painting as it is? Why can’t I simply investigate how it works in and on me? A partial answer to that question is that we invariably compare new experiences to what we already know. But if we only do that, how can we experience something new? I’ll try, then, to just look at what is there.

The bright yellow band caps the painting and the same yellow repeats in a fatter and irregular shape below. Black bands dominate the bottom and right and thrust between the yellow forms. The irregular red form is the largest and most forceful shape and color.

I used the words “dominate” and “thrust” for the black forms. Why? Because they threaten me? Threaten me in the winter darkness? Will they feel the same in the summer light? They don’t, however, feel overwhelming. It’s a matter of size, I suppose. And perhaps even more because they are separated and impinged on by the white lines that wrap clear around the sides, breaking up the black into manageable sections, drawing it into question, emphasizing its colorful blackness.

The painting raises expectations of repeated forms — and there are no repeated forms. For instance, the top band suggests the possibility of a bottom strip, but the black form at the bottom is broken by the white line. The top white line makes me look at the bottom white line, which repeats the long horizontal gesture, but the bottom one is broken by the plunging vertical white line. No two forms are the same size, the same width (excluding the white lines, which are indeed all the same width, although they appear thinner and thicker depending on the context), the same shape.

When I look at the painting from the sides, there’s an interesting progression, one also evident on the front but not as starkly delineated because of the other things going on: left side, from the top — yellow / white / black / white /red / white / black; right side, from the top — yellow / white / black / white / black — or, excluding the dividing white lines: yellow / black / red / black and yellow / black / black. The top is entirely yellow, the bottom entirely black.

So what?

It’s just another way to see. It emphasizes, perhaps, the simplicity of what is going on. It is movement of another sort, structure of another sort.

Because of how my eyes work, there are moments at the crossings of the white lines when I can see a grey dot on the juncture.

The lines of the painting are crisp, straight, decisive. Absolute separation everywhere. More clarifying than Klee’s Clarification.

I’ll look at this painting in the years to come, each time with different eyes and in different light.

I’ll think of it in terms of Wittgenstein’s Traktatus Logico-Philosophicus — because of its logical structure and because it reminds me of its last sentence: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

I’ll think of it in many contexts, I’ll think about it warmly and coldly, but finally and always I’ll think of it in terms of Zarko’s fine exploration of seeing works of abstract art in a Klagenfurt exhibition  (part of our forthcoming “Repetitions”):

The exhibition could be taken in at a glance. There was little there to drive a real connoisseur of “exact art” to move “from painting to painting”; instead, the viewer was “required” always to place himself at the “vantage points” that allowed him to “embrace” all the individual works in a single (frozen) “look.” And even if there was no such “position,” one could quite easily imagine “a viewpoint such that” paintings “beyond one’s ken” could not only be imagined but also ordered and harmonized, whereas those who possessed that “insane urge to play” could also draw imaginary lines: “imaginary lines,” indicated in geometry by intermittent lines (_ _ _ _), could delineate the invisible remaining part of the rectangle of the room, and it was also possible, by means of imaginary lines (_ _ _ _), to draw the shape of those “subtle” and “secret” connections between individual paintings that, “standing” at a “vantage point” of the kind that I have just described, I, “strangely” (unable to explain to myself “why”), always observed three at a time, my gaze drifting from the first to the second, on to the third, and then back, encompassing quite clearly the space between the imaginary lines, which was always, of course, triangular. So that, at one point, by means of “imaginary lines,” “intermittent” and “curved,” like furrows in poor, rocky, calcareous soil, I connected the paintings Syntagma IV, 23 … 31 by Jeffrey Steele, Four Free Lines Crossing a Rectangle at Twelve Temporal Intervals by Gianni Colombo, and Twelve Vertical and Horizontal Progressions by Richard Paul Lohse. In the process of drawing the “furrows,” I saw a farmer too—it could have been my grandfather, Miloš Pantic—with sweaty armpits, breathless, bent-backed (like a camel), his sun-bleached shirt untucked: he drove skinny “cattle” before him: he shouted “shoo, ox, shoo!”; he bent to remove the dry branches that got tangled with his peasant shoes. And I heard the crushing of heavy stones under the plowshares. I saw the plowshares twist on the hard calcareous rock. A moment later I had problems: In an attempt to construct the next “triangle” I sought the paintings that would “exactly” fit my experiences and, especially, emotions (“experiences” were here crucial!). I searched, carried by the power of “linking intuition” (the ability to string together logically unconnected events that are still subversively contiguous and establish relationships of “kin” in which the “experiential subject” and “construction principle,” is both a “moving viewpoint” and a “premonitory instance”). I sought, driven by the “lust for spatial expansion” (a desire to establish a fulcrum in space, an act similar to opening a window or door or poking holes through the newspaper in the middle of reading and entering, by looking through the hole, into the “beyond of reading” and of the newspaper itself). I sought, driven by “productive horror of the void” (a state of body, and of mind, in which trembling spreads like a rising tempest, turning all the superabundance of life into a hollow vessel that the waves of trembling, shuddering, and horror sink at once, so that the vessel fills up, and the erstwhile exuberance of life, the erstwhile “void,” becomes an absolute swarm, a thick mass of light and dreaming, a hard and serene sky, and the sloughed off skin of the naked clap of seeing; the state lasts no more than a fraction of a second, an instant; it cannot be expressed; it must be described). I discovered a triangular conjunction. I started from the haphazardly “discovered” Blue-Red by Francois Morellet (I think that at the same time I felt the duration of spring, my own body as a phallus that old women danced about, becoming more and more clearly virgins with each round, while out there, in the Theaterplatz, the raindrops were like tiny bees that buzzed gently and let fall warm and balmy drops of sticky honey from their hot proboscises). I took my cue from Henrik Stazewski’s Structure of a Plane, where, I must say, the warmth of old age was such a primary and corporeal sensation that I turned into my own ancestor, going on to transform myself into my own offspring, so that all three of us—the ancestor, myself, and the offspring—closed the “circle of joy” in the midst of the idyll of field labor, in the ring of soft end-of-day chatter, and, metamorphosed into an old woman sitting on a bench beneath a walnut tree, we told each other fairy stories, the church bell from the steeple roused the waves of dusk, the crickets chirped, a dog barked, the warm smell of manure, lilacs, the only barber shop in the village is only a few houses away towards the crossroads, the chest heaves, I embraced the Trinity, I was Happy and Good, and Whole, and this state lasted a short while only, for I was suddenly yanked (a father and daughter entered the hall at that moment) to the Northern City, it was an exhibition space, cold as a cellar, empty, with marble walls hung with paintings by the same master, familiar and close to me (father, brother, and companion), I heard him call, I felt his head on my shoulder, I saw the Look of the incurably ill, I felt the Twitch of the skinny, shrunken hand and icy fingers of an Artist with no self, an Artist with no paintings of his own, an Artist without Paper and pencil, without Space, he changed Thoughts and Words, driving them, rolling, pushing, and kicking them, in meanders that interlock, yet never really touch, with no meaning, no beginning or end, forever Sketches, endless Labor, Creation and Destruction, and I opened, wide, my eyes, pushed them out until my gaze came to a halt, looked for a third painting, and that was the final act of my “triangulo-invent-activity.” And my gaze shot out “as a ball in a pinball machine.” It wandered, bouncing off the walls and paintings, which now turned into cold gravestones (uninscribed). Some paintings were metal partitions of an industrial-waste dump. Others were glass panes on skyscrapers. I couldn’t point my looks in any direction. I could give them no orientation. They moved “out of control.” I did not “experience.” The space expanded and contracted. “Desire” turned into “rage.” All “internal receptors” turned into a “system for the dissolution of systems.” I felt a physical horror vacui. In the exhibition hall containing the exhibition Exacta, From Constructivism to Systemic Art 1915-1985 I looked in vain for Julije Knifer’s painting Meander Tu-A-Bi-Ha-Da I/II 1977.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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