Window to the universe

Beate Reifenscheid
Koblenz, Germany, 2019.
In Oscilating Territory, published by Editora Barléu,  2019.

The view from a window means not only the opening up of one’s own outlook to a far widerprospect, but also implies the ability of those who actively seek out this view to open themselves up from the inward to the outward, to something completely other. What opens up within them then presents a chance for what is inside to harmonize with what is outside, or to experience it as a heightening of limitation on the one hand (interior) and boundlessness on the other (exterior). Literature and art history are full of these moments of reflexion, which culminated above all in the Romantic period when people started to understand the window and the view it offered as synonymous with the soul. The constraints of indoors dissolved in the prospect of a landscape beyond the window, which in a painting opened up to beholders a surface on which to project their own longing.

One of the most impressive examples is provided by Caspar David Friedrich in his Carolineby the Window (1822), in which he formulates the confinement of his own studio with a partial view of the world outside, although here few subjects are shown, and these merely hinted at: the top of a sailing ship’s mast, and a bright sky. His wife Caroline, here seen with her back to us, blocks part of the possible view, so that the sky does indeed become the actual subject of the exterior projection. Significant in this connexion are ‘…the stark contrasts of dark and light coupled with incredibly nuanced gradations of color; the almost obsessively careful draftsmanship and naturalistic detail; and, of course, the inescapable, overwhelming sense that this picture, for all its realism, is trying very hard to tell us something about the spiritual, rather than the visible world.’1

In the subsequent period too, the window is also addressed as a subject that leads out of confinement, making wide open spaces visible. ‘As the art historian Erwin Panofsky writes, what we have in the picture is a ‘consolidation of the world outside’. The intention is for beholders to perceive the picture on the wall as an open window (‘fenestra aperta’) that allows a view into another world. They are no longer looking at the picture, but so to speak through it, so that the material nature of the painting, and its two-dimensional nature, are forgotten. Through the organization of their pictures, the painters of the Renaissance declared Alberti’s window metaphor to be the paradigm of Western visual art.’2

While it was still closely bound up in the nineteenth century with visible reality, this idea ofthe window in the picture underwent a fundamental change at the start of the twentieth, in particular through Robert Delaunay’s window pictures, Paul Klee’s watercolours – painted on From Vormärz to Prussian Dominance his trip to Tunisia and signifying a pervasion by colour – and finally Henri Matisse´s ‘Portefenêtre à Collioure’ of 1914 or Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fresh Widow’ of 1921, but after 1945 the window seemed to have less significance. It had long since ceased to be a symbol of the inward versus the outward world, nor was it, as in the Romantic age, a synonym of an opening-up to a religious and spiritual experience, but nevertheless it retained its force as a passage between the different planes of space-perception.

José Bechara, on very different planes and with no less varied technical means, centres his attention on the idea of challenging anew the perception of time and space and taking it to boundaries unfamiliar in art. He began almost twenty years ago with paintings in which, on the surface, he was concerned with abstract painterly textures. Like the exponents of Concrete Art and Arte Povera, he has incorporated new materials into his painting. In particular since starting to use iron oxides, he has obtained a surface texture which over time and under the influence of environmental processes turns into a trail of rust. As a result of continued oxidation, this develops a different colour saturation. As with corten-steel sculptures, an individual patina forms on the surface of the picture, which allows for, and incorporates, processes of change in the picture itself. In his pictorial works, José Bechara formulates a dense structure of areas, grids and lines which, in their interplay with the painted sections, do not so much concretize the pictorial space as make it seem permeable and ambiguous at the same time. His painting always revolves centrally around this difference between concrete and non-concrete space as provoked by the interplay between, on the one hand, straight lines which, as in the architectural context, are able to create perspective relationships, and, on the other, broad pictorial planes that conjure up space solely through their colours and their immanent depths of focus. The scaffolding of lines and planes mutually determine each other in a way which is at the same time both contradictory and mutually reinforcing. Lines suggest per se a spatial echeloning, in particular in their density and frequency, as we see in Bechara’s painting from time to time, being ‘inscribed’ as a close-meshed network over or into the composition. There is an interaction of spatial patterns and fuzzinesses in the painterly structure of his compositions which reads like a search for answers in an age characterized by urban life in cold cities in which the living spaces are ever more closely constrained, while intermediate spaces obscure the view to the wider world. This liberating view out into the world outside has become impossible, and Bechara likes to emphasize the urban situation by sprinklings of elements from the world of transport – such as when he incorporates elements of tarpaulins or their seams and makes no attempt to hide them. The beholder will only notice them for moments at a time, when they come across as an allusion to fire the imagination, before getting lost once more in the tangle of lines. Time and again, however, this is framed or backed by an indifferent colour-continuum, which seems to know or name no limits. In just a few gradations, brown, ochre, yellow and turquoise tones subtly iridesce, in their turn modelling the spectrum of rusting steel.

The intensity with which José Bechara occupies himself with the penetration of space becomes especially clear in his sculptural installations. With his cubes and cuboids, he develops the lines and formulates simple geometrical forms, which by dint of their lean linear connections come across as a drawing in space; they ascend airily to vertiginous heights, or extend casually outwards. The silvery aluminium adapts to the colour of the surrounding space, sometimes completely absorbing it, or else it dazzlingly reflects the bright sunlight. With his open cubes, Bechara stages space as a modular system, and here too allows different levels of perception, as in his painting. Permeability is, here too, Bechara’s real guiding spirit.

This became even more decisive when in 2015 he began to work with glass. It is a logicalcontinuation of what was already becoming apparent in his painting and sculptural installations. However, glass puts up a quite different sort of resistance and cannot be integrated into something that it itself does not allow. In contrast to paintings, which per se allow scope for interpretation on the part of the beholder, pure glass resists such approaches. As a hard surface, sometimes reflective and sometimes totally transparent, it depicts only what it itself represents. It enters into a symbiotic relationship with space, and assimilates to the point of unrecognizability, especially when – as with Bechara – it is not being used as a window. The glass surfaces become, in his work, a pure echeloning of space, almost invisible, but yet a real resistance. Bechara stages the glass panels as though they were pictures and layers them like the works of François Morellet, which are not subject to any strict geometry, whose logic he always knew how to playfully subvert. But even the glass works of Gerhard Richter seem to provide a projection surface of their own, which Bechara reflectively quotes while giving them a totally different accent. Gerhard Richter exhibited his first work in glass as long ago as 1964 (Four Panes of Glass, 1964), thus taking up the window motif once more, albeit indirectly. However, brought into a diagonal position by means of hinges, the four window panes resist the function of being seen through, and thus the whole construction comes across more as an open sculpture. The act of looking through is never really successful, and even if the beholder gets this far, he or she immediately comes up against the wall boundaries and inexorably against reflections that impede transparency. Time and again Richter deliberately factors in these irritations, and even more so in those of his paintings which feature windows.

‘Richter seems to want nothing less than to mark the end point of painting with thosepaintings made of glass – and as a result goes yet a step further than with his Shadow Windows.’ Richter, it is said, eliminates the conflict 3 between reality and illusion which painting has for centuries obscured.4 He logically formulates the end of illusion in the early ‘Grey Pictures’ of the 1970s, and returns to this theme once more in the 2013 glass work ‘7 Panes (House of Cards)’, currently on show in the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, in which the crystal-clear panes are leant against each other. Lability and stability are in mutual balance, forming a visible divide between the museum space and that formed by the seven panes themselves – a space within a space, a house within a house. And yet the transparency of the glass is at the same time both boundary and boundlessness.

José Bechara likewise uses these planes of perception and demonstrates to the beholder the possibility of spatial experiences with the glass works in a manner as detached as it is rational. However, his approach is more painterly than Richter’s, in particular when he incorporates light sources and milky glassine paper, or indeed sculptures. Bechara layers and shapes the spatial planes and transfers his painting into the rationality of material experience. While Richter largely suppresses emotion, Bechara retains emotions that can be triggered in the beholder by colours, light and spatial depth. He transfers the space of earthly reality into the cosmic sphere, when in his installation ‘Angelos’ (shown in the Fluxo Bruto exhibition in the MAM in 2017) he gets three marble globes to apparently hover, and once again introduces the glass panes in front of and between them. The heaviness of the marble globes and glass panes is palpable, and yet as it were negated by the floating in space. Once again the reflections provoked on the surfaces of the glass play with the obfuscation of the space in which beholders find themselves, for the numerous reflections are, so to speak, incorporated into the continuum of reality and reflections, into spatial layerings and planes which beholders perceive and seek to appropriate by assigning categories to them. The marble spheres inexorably recall the planets, and their floating in space suggests the motions of the celestial bodies in the infinity of the universe. In this work, José Bechara circles around ideas of spatial dimensions which seem to dissolve into boundlessness in space. It is the idea of the cosmos as the space of absolute boundlessness, as the dissolution of all forms of boundaries and limitations. For many this has a spiritual dimension, if they believe in divine intervention, and is at the same time a physical reality. Bechara here once again takes up the glass panes as a reminder of the window that opens up the view to another world. Unlike the Romantics, he does not suggest a world expectantly oriented to the spiritual (and thus conceived as a surface for the projection of longings), but as a real actuality. He does not pretend to present anything that beholders cannot reproduce for themselves, but nonetheless in his work the aesthetic quality and the poetic force of his installations and paintings are dominant. This is due not only to the factual space and the rationality of the materials, but also to the poetic force of his pictures, which he creates in space and time, thus firing the imagination of the beholder. The window motif serves him as a transit space between the here-and-now and the imagined spaces, although this seems important to him purely as a reference. To the reality of given facts, Bechara adds the imaginative power of the beholding self, whose interweaving fantasy and reason create a symbiosis of real and surreal life. For Bechara, his entire activity remains a reverberation of rational insights and connection with reality, and is carried out in the service of his search for the ultimate view of a space-continuum that allows more to be thought than the human brain can imagine. The permeable pictorial and spatial structures offer beholders their own paths, in their thoughts and feelings, towards creating a relationship with these, and to measure them against the universe. In the dominance of spatial entanglements, Bechara’s works provide manageable thought and experience models which for their part unfold the entire force of a poetic mise-en-scène and painterly pervasion. Glass becomes for him the citation of the traditional window motif, although he does not, primarily, separate interior from exterior, but rather creates transit routes of perception. Interior and exterior are for him not diametrically opposed, but designate gradual differences in the great continuum of time and space. In more than one sense Bechara thus reflects the here-and-now, and transports this at the same time to the reality of a universal space where everything is infinitely mutually pervasive, and whose limits do not get in the way of our own perception and penetration of it, in spite of the actuality of the real present. Ultimately all of his works revolve around this concept of an unbounded space.

1 From Vormärz to Prussian Dominance 1 (1815–1866), edited by Prof. Jonathan Sperber,

2 Daniel Schierke,

3 Armin Zweite, ‘Sehen, Reflektieren, Erscheinen. Anmerkungen zum Werk von Gerhard Richter’, in:Kunstsammlungen Nordrhein-Westfalen (publ.), Gerhard Richter, p. 67.

4 Cf. Robert Storr, ‘Gerhard Richter, Malerei’, in: Robert Storr (ed.), Gerhard Richter, Malerei, pp. 47ff. See alsoPia Wojtys, Gerhard Richters Fensterbilder. Eine Untersuchung des Sehens von Kunstwerken, AVM Edition, Munich 2014.