Mathematics of the Soul.
Helga Philipp’s Concrete Ambivalence
and Her Relation to “New Geometry”

Brigitte Borchhardt-Birbaumer

Helga Philipp is considered the pioneer of post –1945 Concrete Art and Op Art in Austria. She linked international Kinetic theories with their origins, which date back to the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna in the twenties and thirties. Philipp herself taught at the ­academy as of 1965. Her correspondence with the “Wiener Gruppe” was also marked by an interest in cybernetics and computer art, as well as the information theory of Max Bense. Her library bears testament to this today. The artist, who was also very well informed on theoretical discussions, collected all the important international periodicals and catalogs, including literature on America’s Minimal and Concept Art scenes beginning with John Cage and ranging to far eastern Zen philosophy.

Although the concrete scene of the sixties and seventies still followed the logos and utopia of a second enlightenment with its new aesthetic, Helga Philipp’s artistic series show a preference for duality in unity and other dialog concepts.

She doesn’t only stand for a new type of artist, which is still relevant today and has less to do with the Zeitgeist’s “feminine aesthetic” of Kiki Kogelnik, who also initially concerned herself with Constructivist concepts at the Galerie nächst St. Stephan. Philipp stood for the dissolution of gender borders. Issues such as space perception revolutionized by the participation of the beholder and playful, seemingly objectivizing combinations also brought her close to subjects relating to the structure and form themes of the first Vienna School in art history and the important figures that emerged from it such as Werner Hofmann or Dieter Bogner. Hofmann integrated Philipp in his “Kinetika” exhibition at the Museum of the 20th Century in 1967. It was Hofmann who in 1976 dissolved the long-upheld separation between geometrical and informal abstraction that had been propagated in Austria with his text, “Ars combinatoria.” The rational exclusivism of the Concrete Movement evolved into the insight that every highest degree of order also bears the highest degree of confusion within it as Post or Trans-modern theories developed, and also claimed that geometry has cosmological origins. The belief in computers was followed by a recourse to nature and the innovations of the artist. This could be seen in Philipp’s decision to move away from anonymous silk screens to a visible painter’s stroke. She explored this change of surface stimuli with varying shades of gray further with additional leaping and stair effects and went on to the themes of image objects and relief effects in subtle layered graphics.

It isn’t a coincidence that many of the proponents of the “New Geometry” tendency founded in Vienna in the 80s were members of Herbert Tasquils’ class, for whom Helga Philipp taught as an assistant. These artists include Gerwald Rockenschaub, Heimo Zobernig, Herwig Kempinger, Brigitte Kowanz, Andrea Sodomka and Hans Kupelwieser. But the rediscovery of the Constructivist tradition in Austria and its international context also influenced younger artists such as Esther Stocker, Sabina Hörtner or Inés Lombardi. This is a case of re-linking of art with science established today and a visual lust for the not at all overly cool world of geometrical shapes. Reformers such as Philipp stood silently against pure market strategies and for a democratic image of the artist. It is therefore even more important to finally make her work better known at an international level.