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Kati Vilim: Illusory Spaces
By Raphy Sarkissian

Thus Albers did the work of a phenomenologist,
in the sense Wittgenstein as well as Merleau-Ponty understood it

Hubert Damisch

Seeming to be weightless so as to float off into the ether, planar surfaces intercept and overlap, at once asserting the flatness of the canvas and transfiguring abstraction into il- lusions of solid bodies that are all but impassive: they pos- sess crystalline facets that interact, pulsate, soar, cast shadows, assert their opacity, reveal modes of translucence, assume volume, announce heft, give rise to the sentience of spatiality and exhibit chromatic interactions.

They define geometric palettes suspended within pictorial spaces, tacitly nodding to Josef Albers’ unwavering commit- ment to the investigation of the interaction of colours. This unmistakably recognizable signature style that Kati Vilim has inventively formulated through planar forms remains in a startling dialogue not only with the abstract lexicon of modern and contemporary practitioners of Hard-edge painting, but with the history of art at one of its most the- oretical levels.

As a summation of polygons that constitute a multicolored architectonic form, Forces Hidden in the Assembly (2017) elo- quently unfolds the quintessence of visual perception and its representation. Through its optical and tactile modalities of form, this painting of Vilim embodies several of the in- cisive concepts of the Austrian art historian Aloïs Riegl, a founding member of the Vienna School of formal analysis during the late nineteenth century. In his investigation of “form” and “surface,” Riegl differentiates the optical and tactile phenomena of visuality by posing the fundamental question, “How do we obtain any impression of natural things external to ourselves?” “Through our senses,” replies Riegl by explaining, “The sense of sight, or optical sense, plays the leading role in this process. But the optical sense alone does not suffice to provide us with a true sense of form. The sense of sight is unable to penetrate objects; it apprehends in a given thing merely the one surface that hap- pens to be turned toward the viewer.”2

Having connected the concept of visual perception to surfaces, Riegl discerns the optical sense from the tactile: “That is to say, the eye perceives not a three-dimensional form but a two-dimensional surface; it sees height and width but not depth. To convince ourselves of the actuality of depth, we must call on another sense, the sense of touch, or tactile sense.”3 With an arrangement of planar forms in shades of green, dark grey, cobalt blue, pink and purple, the nonrepresentational, polyhedral form of Vilim imparts a compelling sense of pictorial illusion through the flatness of its geometric sectors. Though conveying a primarily optical phenomenon by means of linear and planar forms that are rendered through the medium of oil on canvas, Forces Hidden in the Assembly resonates Riegl’s conclusion: “The optical sense merely reveals the existence of an object; the tactile sense presents its form.”4


If we assume that the visual field of the viewer confronting Vilim’s painting is a primarily optical one since it consists of intangible colouration, Riegl’s discourse of “depth” and “tactility” transpires within the realm of the painting’s wondrous counter-abstraction. This painting of Vilim thus comes across as simultaneously autonomous and tied to the planar construction of illusionistic spaces, what Hubert Damisch refers to as “the new technique of marquetry” invented by Filippo Brunelleschi and codified by Leon Battista Alberti, a technique that indeed harks back to antiquity and the inception of trompe l’oeil. As the practice of the perspectivists was a systematic “interaction of planes.” Forces Hidden in the Assembly recalls André Chastel’s explanation of the origin of perspective: “Following the Ancients who had happily made the most of the technique in their ‘Greek’ works, for example, people now discovered or rediscovered that through an amusing illusory effect, which is at the very origin of trompe-l’oeil, an interplay of articulated surfaces summons up depth.”5


While entirely removed from the representation of architecture that Renaissance perspective would champion, this unrivalled painting of Vilim assembles an autonomous form of illusion at one of its highest states, conjuring the Hard-edge syntax of Al Held’s 1982 Piero’s Piazza, presently held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Through its title and illusion of space constructed by means of architectonic forms, the mesmerizing painting of Held brings to mind not only the superb Città Ideale of Urbino, but also Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ (circa 1468-70)—yet another exceptional perspectival painting at the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, Italy. Despite its remarkably self-contained aesthetics and detachment from the external world, Forces Hidden in the Assembly of Vilim remains distinctly connected to the essence of linear and planar forms of Renaissance perspective, concurrently demonstrating the flatness of the painting’s surface and advocating pure opticality on the threshold of perspectival illusion. As we gaze at Forces Hidden in the Assembly, the painting reveals the appearance of a triangular sheet of glass at the upper section of its pictorial space, wondrously insisting upon its illusion through its very abstraction.

By means of its relatively restrained palette and compositional elements, Proximity (2015) registers as a chromatic sonata comprising variations of nested polygons revealing elegant sets and subsets through which planar forms appear to recede in tints of cobalt blue, while projecting outward from the picture surface through partly perspectival forms rendered in shades of cadmium red. Here, the modalities of colour and geometry of Vilim notably evoke Riegl’s insights of visual perception and pictorial representation through such binaries as figure/ground, surface/depth, and opticality/tactility.


Having restructured the codified, modernist definition of abstraction through geometric forms that at once construct and suspend the illusion of pictorial spaces, the paintings of Vilim retain a hermetic sense of auto-reflexivity: they exalt the reality of flatness of the picture surface while astoundingly exhibiting illusions of volume, depth and shading through craftily arranged geometric manifestations of chromatic interaction.


In the exhibition catalogue of The Geometric Unconscious: A Century of Abstraction, an etching by Jack Tworkov, titled L.F.-S.F.-E #4 (1979), is illustrated on the verso of a page spread, while the oil painting by Vilim, titled CMY Cubes (2007), is illustrated on the recto.6 Although both of these highly intriguing geometric abstractions employ permutations of quadrilateral forms to generate figures and grounds upon flat surfaces, Tworkov’s etching seems to insist on tactility and flatness in relation to Vilim’s painting, where squares and parallelograms generate an optical illusion of three-dimensional space. Such a dialectic between the tactile and optical properties of vision, as well as visual representation that is conditioned by the materiality of color, not only runs parallel to the pivotal theories of Riegl but also prompts several of the pictorial issues addressed by Damisch in his essay “On the Move,” written on the occasion of the exhibition Inventing Abstraction 1910—1925: How A Radical Idea Changed Modern Art that was held at the Museum of Modern Art a decade ago. Referring to Alberti, Damisch writes, “Unlike the mathematician, he argued, the painter had the role of making visible, and to do this needed ‘fleshier Minerva’ (una più grassa Minerva, a phrase borrowed from Cicero). That is, the painter had to make these terms—points, lines, and planes—as fine as they could or should be while nevertheless allowing them to the minimum of consistency that would permit them to reach the threshold of visibility in painting.”7 


Vilim’s unwavering commitment to geometric abstraction’s inexhaustible possibilities of overlapping the terms “abstraction” and “illusion” is evidenced in such engrossing paintings as Proximity, Forces Hidden in the Assembly, Moderate Drifters (all dated 2015), Temporary Case (2017) and Confluence of Themes (2017). Despite their abstraction, a given architectonic and sculptural figure often appears against a background in a shade of blue or grey, conjuring up the sky and hence a highly abstracted concept of the landscape. In a recent series that includes Daily Suggestions, Overstory and Beta of the Meta, all dated 2021, Vilim has shifted the composition from its centrality to an all-over distribution of overlapping geometric figures. Here, architectonic and sculptural forms inundate the pictorial space, as if the conventional phenomenon of a landscape, or perhaps the countryside, has now become transformed to an overpowering urban setting that is frozen in time in a broad spectrum of bright hues. 


Hence these two suites of paintings by Vilim invite us to reflect not only upon the possibilities of abstraction in relation to illusion, but upon the countryside in relation to the cityscape as well. Otium and negotium, the Roman concepts that respectively addressed the countryside and city life, bring to mind the concerns of such Greek and Roman thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dicaearchus, Seneca and Cicero. Comparable interests in wellness and the countryside, as opposed to the delirium of the city, would become central to the urban planning and architecture of Rem Koolhaas, recalling the recent exhibition titled Countryside, The Future, held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. As Vilim continues exploring surface, space, light, shadow, volume, depth, opticality, tactility and perspective through line and color, rendering illusion and abstraction reciprocal, her paintings unfold before our eyes as paradigms of modernist formalism and as conceptual theatres of the landscape—evoking at once spaces that are real and ideal, tangible and illusory.

Raphy Sarkissian is an independent scholar and art advisor, whose connoisseurship and democratic interest in “prominent” and “marginal” contemporary art span beyond two decades. Sarkissian has written on the works of numerous contemporary artists, including Sean Scully and Liliane Tomasko. He holds a Master of Arts from New York University and has furthered his studies at Columbia University and the Graduate Center in New York.


1. Hubert Damisch, “The Theoretical Eye,” trans. Anthony Auerbach, Journal of Art Historiography, no. 5 (December 2011), p. 8. Original publication: Hubert Damisch, “L’œil théoricien” in Josef Albers (Tourcoing: Musée des Beaux Arts, 1988), pp. 11–17, in the catalogue of the exhibition curated by Evelyne-Dorothée Allemand, held at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Tourcoing, January 30 to April 3, 1988.

2. Aloïs Riegl, Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, trans. Jacqueline E. Jung (New York: Zone Books, 2004), p. 395.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., pp. 395-96.

5. Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting (1972), trans. Janet Lloyd (California: Stanford University Press: 2002), p. 123.  

6. The Geometric Unconscious: A Century of Abstraction, ed. Jorge Daniel Veneciano (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), pp. 54-55. Published on the occasion of the exhibition with the same title held at the Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska—Lincoln, Nebraska, October 5, 2012 to January 20, 2013.

7. Damisch, “On the Move,” in Inventing Abstraction 1910—1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art, ed. Leah Dickerman (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2012), p. 72. Published on the occasion of exhibition with the same title held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 23, 2012 to April 15, 2013.

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