Changes in Objects under Observation:
Helga Philipp, a Retrospective

Eugen Gomringer

In an Interview with Helga Okunev in 1991, Helga Philipp reminded us that, in the field of constructive-concrete art, the “responsibility for the quality of what happens“ in the triad artist-artwork-viewer had clearly shifted to the last of the three. Nonetheless, we cannot ascertain any sharply defined transition. lt is not insignificant that Philipp speaks of a dialogue between object and beholder and demands an answer, a reaction, to the assembled claims which constitute the form of the object. Although the reduction to a viewer who deliberately or involuntarily surrenders to a cleverly contrived system might not exclude social developments, it does primarily address the viewer‘s personal sensory organisation. An earlier moment in time when such dual communication occurred has since acquired legendary proportions. This was in 1933, when the emigrant Josef Albers first set foot on American soil to be greeted immediately with “open eyes!“ He was to apply this programmatic phrase time and time again, whenever the viewer was to be the guinea pig for his work and his experimental methods. However, a new society was to be addressed by a Concrete Art in search of harmony for quite a long time – Richard Paul Lohse, for example, related his modular and serial pieces to social processes – with the role of the artist also fixed and geared to more than just one dialogue.
However, it may weIl have been the objects under observation and the often apparatus-like arrangements – pre-empting the PC? – of Op Art which demanded an active ‘viewer‘ instead of the more passive ‘beholder‘, or at least placed the former in a position of responsibility: the ability to react (in whatever way) became the decisive factor. Despite the artist‘s retreat to his system, the drastic dimensions of which today may even extend to Japanese disobedience, differentiated methods nevertheless soon became recognizable and instead of signatures, constructive and material claims and redundant preferences became readable. However minimal an object might be, it was still tirelessly assigned to a certain author by experts and art lovers.

The intensity with which Helga Philipp has tried to interlink the relationship between picture and viewer ever since her exhibition in Graz in 1974, which provided Information about ten years‘ work on objects under observation, becomes visible as phases and to date it has not lost any of its energy and intuition. Her long statement – formulated already in 1963 – in the catalogue to the exhibition in Graz, presented in alternating short and long lines of genetic visuality, documents this attitude to the dialogue between picture and viewer. What is more, her lines from 1963 are a programme which she has repeatedly been able to put into practice. Programme items included “existence of the picture through the viewer. Existence of the viewer through the picture. Movement in space in the picture. Movement in space and that of the viewer through the picture. Movement of the picture through the viewer and space. Changes of the picture through changes in the light. Changes of the picture through changes in the viewer.“ One should return to this every time one views the work of Helga Philipp. She also made a similar statement in the above-mentioned short interview of 1991: “The dialogue between the object and its viewers continues to be my preoccupation. I hope that the latter will take over responsibility for the quality of what happens through their relationship, their movement, the readiness to change their perception and allow irritations of their underlying state.“
Although this continues to be her preoccupation, Helga Philipp does not fit in with that concept of wisdom by which Gottfried Benn defined the wise: development is something foreign to them. She is an artist and her objects under observation are subjected to transformation. The identity of her work prior to 1970 derives from a certain canon of forms, despite the variety of materials used and possibilities of destabilisation. Most of the objects under observation consist of systems with round forms. A hooped object brings in a relationship to reality, which more than ever vouches for the prevalent generic term of roundness. With a round circular form the viewer is easily made to circle, something which is at present the aim of object kinetics. As an individual form (plate-like), the round form is a circling in itself. Whoever spoke of cosmology back then interrupted the artist: movement in space.

The programme item “changes of the picture through changes in the light“ is a central theme in her work as a whole to date and should continue to be understood as such. For Helga Philipp, all the applied means serve to promote the various possibilities of seeing. She takes account of the movement of the viewer in front of the picture and of the viewer‘s changing standpoint. She offers optical three-dimensionality of composition, a structured surface and the variable light of what is given spatially. Dieter Bogner, in his preface to the 1991 catalogue, has meticulously pursued Helga Philipp‘s pictorial concept and elaborated the character of the pictures. The metallic cool sheen of the pictures arises through the contrast between the two opposing components of black graphite on the one hand and pulverised aluminium dust on the other. In this way a hard contrast of Iight and dark arises, which nevertheless allows gradations of the finest grey tones. lt is astonishing how much quality can be obtained in the process through changing light situations in a single picture, by combining the design of the picture with the changing standpoints of the viewer. Several pictures arise as a result of the encounter with a single picture. This dissolves the viewer‘s fixation on an almost a priori number of possibilities of encounter through perception, i.e. there is then an indeterminable number of actions. Here, it is very tempting to remind ourselves again of the master of the “open eyes“. lndeed, more than anyone else, Helga Philipp has the right qualifications to fit in with Albers‘ Vision of art, especially when he sees the measure of art in the proportional relation between effort and effect, but also where he establishes the biological content of art: “Visual formulation of our reaction to life“. lt is noticeable that Helga Philipp is one of those artists who no longer need the concept of ‘art‘ for the field of their concerns. Her activity is at any rate inherent in biological actions. However, those objects under observation which are being transformed should also be understood from the point of view of developments in their nature and conception. The Op Art objects of the 60s belong to a moment in art history. The pictorial types of the last decade are so formally reduced that they are suitable for the creation of spatial and temporal constellations in one way or another. For this it was not necessary to surpass geometrical forms. Rather, the development of the object under observation proceeded alongside the creation of constellations, the transformation of spatial ideas, in the direction of rows and layers, from which a simple repertoire of forms also emerged. The fact cannot be overlooked that what crystallised from the new type of Constructive-Concrete Art was the continuation of rows: rows in the individual picture, more significantly in strips, bands or steles, whereby the rows or strips continue beyond the edge of the picture and strive towards spatial architecture. As Friedrich Achleitner points out in one of the most recent catalogues, Helga Philipp discovered this artform of the never ending sentence or transitive natural processes as far back as the early 60s. This year in Vienna there was an appropriate realisation of it as the matching domino principle in given spatial conditions, which were not even particularly suitable. Achleitner: “From the outset, the theme ‘Evolution‘ with a loose relationship to ‘Pharmacy‘ and the ‘History of the Earth‘ could only be treated in an analog form by Helga Philipp, which is to say that she has avoided any representational symbolic or even illustrative forms. However, through its composite elements, their variation and combination, the artwork does permit analogies to natural laws of construction, although this should not be confused with the nature of art and its Iaws. Nevertheless, a significant part of the concept is a play on rules and coincidence, which may also be read as an analogy to the laws of nature.“
Perhaps it is in beginnings such as those provided so promisingly by Helga Philipp in the present development, that the re-evaluation of viewing types in relation to objects under observation is to be found. One thing is certain, namely that Helga Philipp has enriched the discussion of the difficulties of positive destabilisation with her own convincing results. “lt‘s possible to look away“, she once said. In her case that is definitely not true.