Karl Martin Holzhäuser
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Yossi Milo Gallery

Karl-Martin Holzhäuser:





Yossi Milo Gallery is pleased to announce the premiere U.S. solo exhibition of photographic works by German artist Karl Martin Holzhäuser (b. 1944). Lichtmalerei opens on Thursday, January 17, with a reception for the artist from 6:00-8:00pm, and will close on Saturday, February 23. The show will feature Holzhäuser's vintage "light paintings" ("Lichtmalerei") from the 1980s and early 1990s, a period in which the artist was a chief practitioner of Concrete Photography.

Holzhäuser's "paintings with light" align themselves with the tenets of Concrete Photography as nonobjective pictorial worlds, devoid of any intentional reference to figuration or reality. Wielding "the light rake" ("Lichtrakel"), a light-emitting tool of his own fabrication, the artist exposes sensitized chromogenic photographic papers to light bands of varying color and width, building abstractions from a predetermined series of gestures. Holzhäuser works in total darkness without the benefit of seeing what has been exposed until after the picture is developed, making visible the gridded patterns or organic shapes mapped or memorized by the artist in advance.

"For me", the artist has stated, "photography is the creative use of light, period." Investigations into the interplay between tools and technique, chance and control, ground him in the strong tradition of experimentation within the history of German photography, exemplified first by the Bauhaus in the 1920s and conveyed into the twenty-first century by artists such as Marco Breuer. At the same time, with his photographic equipment he confronts formal concerns of a painter, such as gesture, mark-making and the methodical layering of color.

Works by Holzhäuser have been exhibited at the Vasarely Muzeum, Budapest, Hungary; Museum Modern Art, Hi.infeld, Germany; Herforder Kunstverein, Herford, Germany; Kunstverein Speyer, Speyer, Germany; Galeria OKNO 2, Stubice, Poland and Djanogly Art Gallery, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK, among others. Holzhäuser's works are represented in the permanent collections of the Museum fOr Kunst und Geschichte, Fribourg; Fotografische Sammlung der Stadt Leinfelden, Leinfelden-Echterdingen; Marburger Kunstverein, Marburg; Artothek des Bielefelder Kunstvereins, Neumarkt; and DZ-Bank, Frankfurt. The artist currently lives and works in Bielefeld

Gerhard Glüher

Karl-Martin Holzhäuser:

Light as a Material

(Condensed translation, from the German, by Helge Jan Schmodde)




Excerpts from a speech by Professor Gerhard Glueher at the opening of an exhibition My way of approaching Karl Martin Holzhaeuser's distinct artistic originality consists in simply watching what he does in his studio. He is a photographer, but one might also say that he is not: Although his "output" and its genesis are interrelated, the ultimate result no longer reveals the technical means by which it has been produced. This may be true of all works of nonrepresentational art because they, too, never or hardly ever display the presence of their creator by a trace of his physical hand, but often this presence manifests itself at least in their emotionality. Precisely on that score Holzhaeuser's work both connects with and decidedly departs from the genre of Concrete Art. By mentioning an artist's "physical hand" I meant to lead up to an aspect of crucial importance to my subject, namely work from, by and through the hand. In the present context this may come as a surprise, since photographers are visual people. (Some of them are even regarded as visionaries–good for them in terms of public relations! As to Holzhaeuser, he is definitely not PR-minded; I have known him for many years, indeed decades, as a quiet artist who prefers a solid circle of like-minded friends. Accordingly, I'd describe his life and work to date as increasingly intensive and intellectually sophisticated, himself as a genial man who values a philosophical stance.)


But back to "work by the hand" and from there on to "handicraft"! The history of art records that the whole species of photography and its practitioners have always had a strong economic relationship with the crafts; and also that the movement launched by Alfred Lichtwark, significantly called "arts and crafts", showed great interest in the then new profession right away. With such individual and institutional protagonists as Bruno Paul and Henry van de Velde, the German Werkbund and the Weimar Bauhaus, the arts and crafts movement also inspired the way in which the subject of design is being taught to this day. By now, many different methods and approaches have emerged from this movement, and quite a number of artists owe their renown to their originally artisanal training.


From these observations it is only a short leap to the city of Bielefeld, home of the institution at which Holzhaeuser began teaching in 1970: It was a college of arts and crafts, soon to be upgraded to a university of applied sciences where he was appointed a tenured professor in 1975. His own teachers included celebrities like Kilian Breier and Oskar Holweck (himself a student of Boris Kleint's); yet another famous educator who belongs to his mental and spiritual heritage is Johannes Itten.


Holzhaeuser's works: For ages, many people in academia, including myself, as well as art historians and critics have been trying to attach an adequate label to them. The smallest common denominator we have found was Lichtmalerei ("painting with light"). More recently, however, the artist himself has arrived at an even drier designation–a term as dry as the digits and numbers by which he now defines the individual groups of his works, namely Licht-Bilder ("light-pictures").


When I prepared these words, I went back to the book Einfuehrung in die informationstheoretische Aesthetik ("Introduction to the Aesthetics of Information Theory") by Max Bense, the leading authority on structuralism and the philosophy of "generative photography." There I found a sentence that encapsulates what I was struggling with, a presentation and explanation of Holzhaeuser's work more vivid than his terminology and numerical titles are. Bense says, "Poetry occurs when unrelated words come together for the first time." Writing in the late 1960s he meant the "Concrete Poetry" of those days, but in two respects his sentence also applies to what we see here: Holzhaeuser's terminology links erstwhile unrelated words for the first time, as both Lichtmalerei and Licht-Bilder are composed of originally unrelated words (literally, "light" + "painting" and "light" + "pictures"); and a second surprising "coming together for the first time" is that of his hand with light as a material.


The poetry in Holzhaeuser's works reaches its perfect form when the unexpected happens, when the hand outwits the light or the light outwits the hand. It is the beauty of the empty space, actually the absence of light, that manifests itself in the otherwise completely exposed area of sensitized paper in the darkroom. Pablo Picasso once said, "Nothing else is as difficult as the line." Applying this statement to Holzhaeuser's mode of working, we might say, "Nothing else is as difficult as the void." Our artist must cope with the immaterial whenever he uses an insubstantial means to paint invisible signs onto a blank surface. (At this point a comparison between his intense and meditative darkroom work and the ink drawings of Zen Buddhists might fit in nicely, but it will have to wait for another occasion.)


Long since, Holzhaeuser has emancipated himself from the structuralist dogmatism fundamental to cybernetic aesthetics and ethics. Max Bense, for example, always paired "order" and "disorder", alleging the existence of a "repertoire" of "elements" that had to be transferred to "aesthetic conditions". In his terms, a picture is brought about by putting in order or arranging "elements that are material, discrete, and determinable in a finite quantity." He sees artistic production as "a creation from the repertoire, not from the void." At Bense's time, his mathematical aesthetics was perfectly legitimate as a radically new view, but its rational exclusiveness fails to acknowledge the undeniable human component that can give rise to chaos, to playfulness, even to the poetry of the void. Especially the large-format black-and-white pictures Holzhaeuser made after 2002 again have a numerical concept, a calculated framework, a blueprint devised prior to his actual work with light.


Planning a picture is an analytical process, bringing it into existence is a synthetic one which consists in inscribing a white plain with appearances, in our case with traces, in a way that will finally present itself to the eye as a structure or an entirety. The artist starts out with nothing but the white sheet to be covered by what is as yet merely a mental image of his future picture.


With regard to photograms Lázló Moholy-Nagy stressed as early as in 1928 the importance of "a never failing instinct for the appearances of light, its being active when it is there and being passive when it is absent, the extremely subtle spread of its radiation." And Oskar Holweck's textbook Sehen ("Seeing") treats the interface between shape and void as a potential difficulty of artistic production. The teacher considered this as a problem to be warned of, but his former student made exactly this issue his principal subject, and he deals with it brilliantly. As we know that Holzhaeuser is a jazz trumpeter, I would like to point out that he has something in common with the American saxophonist John Coltrane who once said that instead of the expected music he wanted to play unexpected and improbable notes because only they could lend significance and thrill to a piece.


Holzhaeuser's artefacts are the result of aesthetic considerations and calculations that precede the physical process. If occasionally the term "gestural" has been used to describe the way he operates, this really applies only in a metaphorical sense, interpreting his pictures and his productive process as indicative of something else, namely the essence of his work: the plan, the structure, the concept, the quasi-musical score underlying the visible object.


In another respect I am impressed by an astonishing and heretofore unnoticed similarity with the manner of Paul Cézanne who spoke of "materializations" when, in the process of painting, he proceeded "onto his subject." Just as Cézanne entered his picture almost bodily, Holzhaeuser stands literally above his sheet in the darkroom. Cézanne dotted his canvas with points of color but left parts of it empty. The discrete marks of his brush constitute mosaic fragments of the painting's imagined totality. Before the physical work commences the picture is finished. Its realization is no more than a transformation of the artist's idea about translating his concepts into the language of canvas, color, and brush.


As a matter of fact, neither were Cézanne's pictures nor are those of Holzhaeuser's pure implementations of theories of art or perception. On the contrary, they are highly sensuous-aesthetic viewing experiences. Holzhaeuser's linear movements of his "light-brush" execute black-and-white or colored concepts that form a visible structure. His works have a grammar, they are visualizations of strategies, mental forms, organizational plans, and the laws partly of human thinking, partly of nature.


In this context my first association is "generative grammar", surely the closest linguistic-mathematical concept from which the pictorial procedures of generative photography can be deduced. Occasionally Holzhaeuser still refers back to these historical roots, but more interesting I find connections with the physiological examinations and phenomenalistic observations of 19th-century philosophers such as Wilhelm Ostwald and Henri Bergson, and, on the other hand, with current mathematical simulations associated with chaos theory and its visual analogies.


Modern art and natural science both deal with invisible as well as observable phenomena which, despite all calculation and probability, give evidence of remaining uncertainty, risks, and inexplicable interferences with the potential for bringing down a whole system or theory. Isn't there a strong resemblance between these aspects and the white spots on Cézanne's naked canvas ?


Precisely this unpredictability, represented by white spots on a pure surface, engenders the credibility and the human component which lie behind the apparent coolness of the pictures. Bearing in mind that Holzhaeuser uses an apparatus so perfected that he can convert even the most complex creative program into luminous impulses, one might conclude that one day he will be able to automatize the entire process by inventing a completely computer-aided "light-brush". After all, historical precedents exist: In 1922, when László Moholy-Nagy ordered three pictures from an enamel factory, he merely specified the coordinates of their shapes; and in 1964 Georg Nees built an admittedly primitive computer-controlled apparatus for generating drawings. But I am certain that Holzhaeuser will never go that far, because his "light-brush" is actually a quasi-musical instrument rather than an apparatus. His pictures visualize scores written by himself. The instrument is a mechanical one, the person playing it does so with his body.


Now we've come full circle, back to "mind and hand", the symbiosis of two systems whose respective qualities lend an engaging note of unforeseeability and liveliness to perfectly planned works. Just as a musical score requires rendition, Holzhaeuser's pictures are performances of his "light-scores". It took a long time for them to come about, and correspondingly they demand a careful and slow reading. These decelerated pictures will reward the time we spend looking at them manifoldly with perception and knowledge, including knowledge of ourselves.


If Holzhaeuser has succeeded in bequeathing his way of thinking and working to his students, his "school" must have gained wide currency since his years as a teacher–not in the pedantic sense of a "style", but as an inspiration with regard to immaterial pictures, an idea capable of animating new and surprising art! I would like to close by quoting the Austrian chansonnier André Heller who once said, "True pictures are in the head, and if they are not there, they are nowhere."


Translated and adapted for excerption by Helge-Jan Schmodde



Gerhard Glüher

Karl Martin Holzhäuser's Structured Light

(Condensed translation, from the German, by Helge Jan Schmodde)




As an artist, Karl Martin Holzhäuser (or KMH for short) is firmly rooted in "classic" modernism: His spaciously colored formats are nonrepresentational, without external references, and devoid of (overt) emotion. These pictures, committed to a great heritage and at the same time further developing it, call for knowledgeable viewers. During the late 1960s, Holzhäuser (born in 1944) began to come into his own. At that time, painters like Max Bill, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Elsworth Kelly reached the hight of their fame. In their work, the tenets of the German painter and Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers (who had emigrated to the United States in 1933) came to fruition: the rejection of all art based on self-expression and emotion in favor of art exclusively based on intellectual calculation. Significantly, one of Holzhäuser's former art college professors, Oskar Holweck, also was a descendant of the Bauhaus school, and he imparted its philosophy to his students. KMH, however, did not become a painter: He produces his pictures by photographic means.


In contrast to the field of painting, the photographic scene of the late 1960s was definitely not marked by innovation, let alone abstraction; "new realism" and social criticism prevailed. KMH aimed at precisely the opposite: a new kind of strictly nonrepresentational photography. He was aware of both the pertinent avant-garde achievements of the 1920s and 1930s and Otto Steinert's concept of "autonomous photographic creation", but obviously the pictorial results of these schools did not quite live up to their claim of total autonomy (in the last analysis, techniques like the "photogram" or long-term exposure remained related to physical objects).


This did not satisfy a young generation of German avant-gardists. They set out to overcome even the remotest reproduction of real objects, and to create genuinely invented photographic pictures, pure visual messages. Their first protagonist was Gottfried Jäger, a professor at the then Bielefeld Art College (now University of Applied Sciences) and a personal friend of Holzhäuser's who soon joined up with Jäger on the academy's faculty and was appointed a tenured professor there in 1975. In 1968 the new direction gave itself the name Generative Fotografie. (The term has meanwhile been paraphrased elsewhere, as in "generative art", but it must be said that its birthright belongs to Gottfried Jäger and KMH.)


Holzhäuser had begun to explore abstract photography in 1967 by conducting research on the image-creating modalities of optical systems. Concurrently with these experiments (he called them Mechano-Optical Analyses) and also shortly thereafter, he tested the photographic effects of transparent paint applied to illuminated sheets of glass. Before long, however, he created the style that has become his hallmark, namely, "painting with light" (in German, Lichtmalerei): He exposes photographic paper in a darkroom to the colored light of self-devised lamp-like tools. (There are art critics and exhibition curators who, instead of accepting Holzhäuser's own coinage as a quasi-lexical term, prefer to position him within a general frame of reference such as "autonomous" or "conceptual" photography, and he is quite at ease with these classifications, too. A particularly imaginative attempt to capture both the essence and the emergence of his work has been to describe it as a visualization of ideas by "concrete gestures".)


Almost all of Holzhäuser's recent and present work consists of sequences with (by definition) distinct beginnings and endings; this unquestionably spells structure, generative grammar. From an initial stage of spontaneous "painting" KMH advanced to aesthetically premeditated and systematically conceived sets of pictures: At least since the early 1990s he has been drafting (sometimes solely in his mind, but usually on paper) pictorial "scores" which he then memorizes before he enacts them ("blindfolded") in his darkroom. In other words, his pictures exist before they become manifest (intuitive or inadvertent divergences notwithstanding). And the term "score" alludes to the fact that KMH uses his tool not as an apparatus, but rather like a musical instrument (by the way, he is an accomplished trumpet player).


As to the titles of his pictures, they come in two versions neither of which is suggestive of any "contents". Their sober combination of numbers, periods ("full stops"), commas, and slash marks discloses, in one version, the chronology of an ongoing creative process by indicating, to some degree like On Kawara's "Date Paintings", when a set of pictures was made (the time of its inception is shown by a calendar date, with the individual parts of each sequence numbered in ascending order). A second version refers to the specific tools KMH has been using when "painting with light".


All in all: By applying his ingenious "light brush" to the realization of an original idea, Karl Martin Holzhäuser creates art for discerning viewers.



Björn Egging

Subjective Rationality On Karl Martin Holzhäuser's pictorial worlds.

In: Karl Martin Holzhäuser
Lichtmalerei 2002|2003|2004
Catalogue: Exhibition Licht-Bilder
Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 2004


"My current work has got little to do with photography in the customary sense." [1]


These words by Karl Martin Holzhäuser, a professor of photography at the Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences, clarify that he deliberately continues to refrain from dealing with the two key features of conventional photographic picture generation, namely, the reproduction of the external physical world with the aid of a camera. His paintings with light are done without an optical apparatus or a concrete motif. His pictures, usually large and square-shaped, display colored or grayish stripes of varying width and length, structures of fine lines and solid bars that fill the whole format or are arranged in balanced compositions. They do not reproduce the visible world; they are literally "photo-graphs", painted with light [2]. That doesn't mean that they don't depict anything. Their underlying concept, the notion of a picture as an autonomous work of art in its own right, has been established in painting at least since the days of the avant-garde, and was introduced into the field of photography in successive stages of generating objectless images. This particular development began with Alvin Langdon Coburn's and Paul Strand's first abstract experiments, was continued by Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, and Christian Schad with their photograms, and extends into so-called subjective or generative photography [3].


Holzhäuser's technical procedure, essentially the same in all of his recent and present work, is both simple and elaborate: Operating in total darkness, he moves a "light-brush" (a lamp inside a narrow oblong box with variable openings in the bottom) along horizontal and vertical rails over sensitized paper, thus exposing it directly, without an interfering lens. Small parallel slides in the bottom of this "brush" enable the artist to control the quantity of light emerging from his device: As long as all the slides are shut, no lamplight is being emitted; when several slides are opened simultaneously, separate parts of the sensitized paper become exposed at one go, whereby the individual slots determine the width of the resulting stripes or bars. With regard to the slides and the intensity of light and colors, the "painter" starts out from a plan, but another important aspect, the speed of the moving "light-brush", is usually governed by intuition during the actual exercise. At any rate, Holzhäuser does not get to see the outcome before the development is completed (and even later if color is involved and the pictures have to be processed in a laboratory). Now and then the result turns out to be somewhat other than expected, but he accepts exactly that as part of the charm of his artistic method.


He does invite "calculated chance", but the programmatic and conceptual parts of his work are, of course, rooted in the creative techniques of generative photography. And although, over several decades, the influence of Max Bense's normative aesthetics (a subject matter Holzhäuser cherished while studying at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts) has continuously given way to increasing spontaneity, the present artist still specifies the exact sequence of what he wants to do in a kind of musical score. After all, he is going to work in the dark, and he wants to minimize the imponderables that might interfere with his intentions. On the other hand, there is the persistent importance of the manual gesture: "It's not only a program that guides me; momentary feelings also matter a lot." [4] This discrepancy between a strictly calculated program and its manual execution has often been regarded as Holzhäuser's hallmark [5]. Let us now consider the creative results of his method.


"My pictures don't show anything apart from themselves." [6]


At first sight, Holzhäuser's paintings with light impress by their precision suggesting a technical approach. Their structures of lines and planes, fine halftones and sometimes corporeal shapes hardly reveal that they are only partly machine-made, that they have been created in a darkroom by means of a hand-held device. On closer inspection, however, their singularity becomes apparent, and since there are no negatives to make prints off, each of them is unique. Their constructivist composition reminds one of works by Walter Dexel or Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, and they display some of the meticulous craftsmanship of the great avant-gardists where a stripe is not completely straight or a shade of gray gets slightly dispersed on account of a touch too much light. Many planar sections manifest, unlike the smooth surfaces of comparable op-art pieces, a velvety materialness that evokes a three-dimensional effect and positions these pictures in the vicinity of color-field painting, an art movement that has exerted a certain influence on Holzhäuser. However, his artistic paragons are Rupprecht Geiger, Gotthard Graubner, James Turrell, and above all Mark Rothko. In their work he finds "color structures that express thoughts" (of a viewer's as well as of the artist's).


A comparison of Holzhäuser's current production with the mechano-optical research he conducted in the early 1970s yields resemblances: Then, he employed photographic means in order to convert distinct color fields into blurred images whose contours were only vaguely reminiscent of their original materialness. Presently, one might say, he realizes the same idea in the opposite direction: Now abstract structures transcend themselves by evoking impressions of spatiality and figurativeness although they don't really "represent" anything. In fact, the artist is exploring the historical basics of painting such as the line, the plane, colors, and contrast.


With regard to certain creative phases, Holzhäuser finds a kindred spirit at work in none other than Gerhard Richter. Indeed, both of them continuously scrutinize the syntax of their specific modes of artistic expression: Gerhard Richter has examined the challenges of photography from a painter's point of view, and conversely one might say that Holzhäuser's paintings with light use photographic means in dealing with a painter's problems [7]. "The only things I care about are those that bring something new into this world." [8] One may wonder whether Holzhäuser's filigreed all over patterns are meant to remind us of close-up zooms of objects like the facades of modern buildings, of microscopic botanical or electronic structures; and should it be entirely beside the point to associate his constructivist pieces with, for instance, informational bar graphs? Apparently, the artist takes such figurations in stride, but they are not intended. At any rate, we are brought face-to-face with the visualization of material that is usually invisible to the human eye or has not the least counterpart in physical reality. For example, in 1991 Holzhäuser did one of his "paintings" by intuitively moving his "light-brush" to the music of Mozart's Divertimento No. 3 in B flat major [9]. The result looks somewhat like a sonogram, an image produced by ultrasound; it is purely graphic, it does not originate in anything tangible, and therefore it lacks any representative function. Far from setting out to imitate scientific procedures for visualizing something, Holzhäuser chose music as a stimulus for his artistic endeavour to achieve a visual analogue to an acoustic model. In point of fact, he is accustomed to practicing this kind of personal expression as a jazzman playing the trumpet; he knows that, while a piece can be based on a score, inspired music requires not only technical brilliance, but also improvisation.


Relying on a comparatively limited gestural repertoire, Holzhäuser nevertheless aims at deriving as many variations as possible from the application of his individual method of photographic picture generation with its established and well-defined norms. One might even say he is trying to discover a metaphysical constant underneath the level of rationality. His paintings with light share a transcendent feature with many works of informel; in this respect he is quite close to, for example, Pierre Soulages. In the last analysis Holzhäuser's paintings with light, although they may induce a viewer to recall pictures stored in his mind, present themselves as autonomous and self-contained pictorial worlds without any intentional reference to the sphere of reality. Their impact results from the interaction of all factors involved in their production, namely, photographic technique, subjective control, and an element of chance. These works do not deny their roots in information theory and normative aesthetics, but they apply these concepts so undogmatically that phrases like "scientification of aesthetics" or "quantifiability of art" become entirely irrelevant. By freely handling his photographic means, Karl Martin Holzhäuser creates pictures that, even if they elicit manifold associations, have brought "something new into this world".


(Translated by Helge Jan Schmodde)


[1] A remark made by Holzhäuser during a dialogue with the author on May 18, 2004 in Bielefeld.
[2] Lexikon der Kunst, vol. 5, Munich 1996, p 578.
[3] Cf Jutta Hülsewig-Johnen: "The question of the reality and specific nature of a photographic picture becomes a radical one when photography itself abstains from fulfilling its earliest assignment, the reproduction of the outside world, and no longer accepts as its goal the representation of a motif; exactly this refusal is the point of a productive photography." In: "Bildautonomie. Fotos aus neuen Welten", in: Das Foto als autonomes Bild. Experimentelle Gestaltung 1839-1989, edited by Jutta Hülsewig-Johnen, Gottfried Jäger, and J. A. Schmoll gen. Eisenwerth, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bielefeld and Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste, Stuttgart 1989, p 13. On the development of abstract (or, more precisely, abstracting) photography most recently: Die Kunst der abstrakten Fotografie, edited by Gottfried Jäger, Stuttgart 2002; Abstrakte Fotografie, edited by Thomas Kellein and Angela Lampe, exhibition catalogue, Ostfildern-Ruit 2000.
[4] See footnote [1].
[5] Cf, for example, Jörg Boström, in: Lichtmalerei. Neue Arbeiten, exhibition catalogue, Bielefeld 1990, p 14: "What lends excitement and unmistakable individuality to his work is precisely the combination of subjective handwriting, photochemical process, and mathematically planned procedure."
[6] See footnote [1].
[7] According to Jörg Boström, Holzhäuser "is both an analyst and a constructivist in that he disassembles the possibilities of photography in order to make use of its constituent parts in his compositions". Jörg Boström, "Fotobilder aus erster Hand", in: Konkrete Gesten, exhibition catalogue, Daniel-Pöppelmann-Haus, Herford, Bielefeld 1995, p 34.
[8] See footnote [1].
[9] This work is displayed in: Mit der Absicht des Schöpfers hat es höchstens zufällig etwas zu tun, edited by Jörg Boström and Karsten Moll, exhibition catalogue, Daniel-Pöppelmann-Haus, Herford, Bielefeld 1991, pp 29-31.

Pictures Painted with Light

A dialogue between Jutta Hülsewig-Johnen and Karl Martin Holzhäuser



Jutta Hülsewig-Johnen: It all began with a conventional apprenticeship at the shop of a photographer. Did you intend to become one yourself?


Karl Martin Holzhäuser: Not at all. Nevertheless, what I might call "my way into culture" actually began with that apprenticeship in Berlin, at the Atelier Steinkopf in the Dahlem Gallery which is one of the museums owned by the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, a foundation under public law. That shop was exclusively in charge of photographic reproductions for the foundation's museums with their numerous collections of paintings, sculptures, antiquities and the like. Well then, I acquired a craft there; but I also had a chance to dive deeply into art and culture. It was a perfect combination: I had always wanted to work in those fields; but although this was in keeping with the general leanings of my middle-class family (my father belonged to the time-honored guild of master builders, my mother was an enthusiastic theater-goer), they felt that first I ought to train for a proper bread-and-butter job. Thus a photographer's apprenticeship in a museum was a nice compromise, and I really enjoyed working there.


JHJ: That was from 1962 to 1965. Then you went straight on to academia. You studied at Darmstadt, Saarbrücken, and Hamburg; quite an unusual selection.


KMH: My foremost choice was Darmstadt because Kilian Breier taught there. He had been a long-time assistant of Otto Steinert, one of the great German photographers of the first half of the twentieth century (who is, of course, primarily remembered in association with the term subjective photography). Breier taught photographics, an experimental approach to photography, and this appealed to me because I wanted to get beyond merely reproductive camera work. But Breier would not admit me to his class unless I first took a basic course with his own teacher, Oskar Holweck, who taught normative foundations for artistic production in Saarbrücken. That course was about constructing pictures by taking a fresh look at reality in the light of strict, mathematically controlled systems. This was no longer reproduction, it was invention of pictures. You still started out from an object, but you subjected it to abstraction by arithmetic or geometric systems; what finally mattered was no longer the object but the principle of picture production according to abstract mathematical rules. This led, again governed by a defined pattern, to a series of arrangements of certain basic geometric shapes. That process resulted in what you might call "mathematical" rather than photographic pictures. At any rate, the idea was no longer to reproduce something that existed in front of the camera, but to create "new" pictures that were predetermined by a system of rules.


JHJ: After that course with Holweck you were in shape for Breier?


KMH: Yes; now Breier, meanwhile in Hamburg, admitted me to his art class. I studied visual communication, but I also ardently attended Max Bense's course on normative aesthetics, as well as Bazon Brock's lectures. It was quite a thrill to go to both of them, particularly because they disagreed on most issues, often simply as a matter of principle. For myself, however, Bense was more important. To this day, my work has been strongly influenced by his theory of generative aesthetics which says that aesthetic phenomena can be reduced to a system of mathematical rules that underlie and structure these phenomena.


JHJ: In 1969, having finished your studies, you got your first job in Nuremberg, but soon you went on to Bielefeld. In addition, while still in Hamburg, you had already begun your first major creation, an exercise you named mechano-optical research. Were you at that time already aware of the Bielefeld group of generative photographers who had had their first exhibition in 1968?


KMH: As to that first job of mine: It did not really amount to an embarkment on a career; actually, it was merely a detour on my way to Bielefeld. A Nuremberg employer, aspiring to establish a highly creative publicity department, had signed up a number of young experimental photographers straight from their universities or colleges. His stamina, however, did not match his ambition; the whole project broke down within six weeks. I left Nuremberg to become an art director at the Vogels�nger Studios in Örlinghausen-Helpup near Bielefeld. A little later, I was offered a sideline position as a lecturer at the Bielefeld Werkkunstschule ...


JHJ: ... which was to become, in 1971, the Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences. Since 1975, you have been a Professor of Photography at this University, where you, together with Gottfried Jäger, established a meanwhile quite renowned center for research on photography and the media.


KMH: Gottfried and I met soon after I had come to Bielefeld; it was at an exhibition center in Cologne where several universities presented themselves. We connected right there, and soon we did not only cooperate successfully but also had become close friends (which we still are). It had been Gottfried who had recommended me to the Werkkunstschule, and of course I knew, back in 1968, of his groundbreaking exhibition of Generative Photography (which, by the way, happened to be the last major event at the Bielefeld Kunsthaus before it was pulled down and the Kunsthalle opened its gates).


JHJ: I see common ground between that 1968 exhibition of works by Gottfried Jäger, Hein Gravenhorst, Kilian Breier, and (from Belgium) Pierre Cordier, and, on the other hand, your own endeavors at that time. All of you had progressed from photographic reproductions of real objects to pictures generated otherwise (namely, objectlessly). Essentially, they were the same thing, your early mechano-optical research and generative photography: pictures created without a motif preexisting in reality, produced exclusively according to a set of strict mathematical rules. Now, since you are clearly younger than the "founding fathers" of this movement: Are you their second generation?


KMH: Considering the inspiring and congenial cooperation particularly between Gottfried and myself (mutual criticism notwithstanding), I wonder whether it is appropriate to speak of consecutive generations. Kilian Breier, my former teacher, has also become a good friend. Gottfried and I have launched many projects and exhibitions together, often in cooperation with Kilian and others. In any case: From the start I felt at home with Bielefeld's generative photographers. They understood and they accepted me. We were in the same boat ...


JHJ: ... and, as you said a moment ago: All of this applied not only to your work at the university, but equally to your creativity as an artist. In 1978 the Kunsthalle saw a performance (the Spielstrategie) produced jointly by Holzhäuser, Jäger, and Walter Steffens, a musician and composer. In 1995 the group Animato (Holzhäuser, Jäger, and Andreas Dress in cooperation with Till Jonas, Peter Serocka, and others) presented a cinematic paraphrase of a painting from the collection of the Bielefeld Kunsthalle, LászléN Moholy-Nagy's important 1923 Komposition K XVII; your film, governed by a computer program, at first stretched, mirrored, twisted, and effectively deconstructed the picture, then reassembled its components. And, to recall just one more project you did together with Jäger: In 1999, your Color Code, a concert with video animation based on texts by Vilém Vlusser, was performed in a number of places. But let's return to you as a soloist (to borrow a term from the realm of music, a field you are very close to and often refer to in your work): Your mechano-optical research was followed by several smaller groups of productions such as Paintings on Glass in 1979 and Landscapes in 1982, before you invented or discovered, in 1983, what you call painting with light. That has been your personal domain ever since, and that's what our entire current exhibition is about. Tell me: What do you find so fascinating about the style and technique of "painting with light" that you have been practicing it for meanwhile more than two decades? Is it that in creating these pictures you deliberately confine yourself to employing only the two fundamental prerequisites of photography, namely light and sensitized paper, and nothing else?


KMH: Yes, exactly. As I said before, I never wanted to go into photography in the sense of using a camera to produce pictures of given objects. For me, photography is the creative use of light, period. In other words, my Paintings with Light, "luminograms" or drawings with light, originate in rock-bottom.


JHJ: Early pieces from this group of your works show curved lines suggesting motion; that enables the viewer to imagine the sweep of a hand moving the light of a lamp across sensitized paper which preserves the trace of this gesture. These pictures look quite spontaneous and immediate. Your later works including the most recent ones are marked by a stricter, more static structure: We see parallel lines of vertical stripes varying in width, color, shade, and intensity, which results in a rhythm that effectively balances the structural stringency. Here you work, as I have read, with a device for moving a "light-brush" across the paper. Please elaborate on this process.


KMH: Well, I devised, built, and began to use the basic form of this technically rather simple equipment quite a while ago, but over the years I have been able to add considerable refinements. Essentially, my "light-brush" is a lamp inside a narrow oblong box which spans sensitized paper like an horizontally and vertically adjustable bridge. In its bottom there are holes that can be opened or shut, partly or entirely, by slides, and the number of slides involved determines the width of the stripes you get in the picture. My next step consisted in producing special strips of colored filter paper for insertion into the box. (By the way, the color of the filter has to be complementary to the color you ultimately want to see.) In short, Paintings with Light come into being while I move my "light-brush" across sensitized paper. Obviously, this has to be done in total darkness; therefore, I see the outcome of this procedure only afterwards, on the developed paper...


JHJ: ... which means that during the actual creative process you work, in a way, blindfoldedly. Do you determine the sequence of stripes right then and there, or do you have a fixed concept on your mind before you switch your studio or laboratory lights off?


KMH: Rather the latter. I always start out with a defined purpose by writing down numerically formulated intentions with regard to the moves of the slides, and then I proceed accordingly.


JHJ: So you have something like a musical score: a numerical structure describing the idea of a picture that exists as an arithmetic model before it assumes material reality. Your concept somehow makes me think of, for example, Max Bense's views about information theory, yet at the same time it transcends them. But let me go back to what I said about the structural strictness of your most recent pictures: Your freehand movement of the "light-brush" introduces an element of spontaneity or even arbitrariness countervailing the rigor of your numerically formulated intentions almost to the point of revoking them.


KMH: Yes, spontaneity comes into play because, although I know what I want to achieve, the movement of the hand is not entirely determined in advance, the gestural part of the process remains impulsive. The intensity of a color or shades of grey and black depend on the speed with which I move the "light-brush", and this leads to a rhythmic succession of light and dark sections within each stripe. I start out with a certain intention, but en route I can't completely control what is going on: It lies literally in the dark. The next thing I see is the developed paper, the completed picture which can't be altered retroactively. Incidentally, this is physically hard work. Sometimes I spend several hours in a row in my darkroom in order to complete a picture. Everything has to happen in total darkness because the sensitized paper lies right there on the table. A single inadvertent beam of light would spoil the whole effort. Unlike a painter who can now and then pause to examine what he has done so far, I must memorize a score and follow it through. Sometimes, however, I find one or the other aspect of the outcome a little amazing.


JHJ: So the score isn't the final word. The result is also decided by, so to speak, your individual interpretation, the way your hand moves during the actual production. One might almost call this photo tachism or photo informel, don't you agree?


KMH: It probably goes in that direction; yes, it's a little like that.


JHJ: There is a certain contrast between the way you see and do things today and your initial orientation towards information theory and normative aesthetics. Will you keep moving in a more subjective direction? Are the spontaneous, individualized, unformalized traits in your work going to gain further ground? You have already accomplished a synthesis of standardization and individuality, precision and spontaneity, calculation and gesture ... It seems to me that you have progressed beyond the adherence to strictly defined rules or, at any rate, that such rules are now taking second place to a free virtuosity in dealing with photographic means. Can it be that some day you will leave even those means behind and go into painting?


KMH: For the time being I am still very busy exploring the possibilities of the fundamental photographic process, especially as I feel increasingly free in handling it, in reducing its material and technical aspects to a minimum in order to create a picture purely from light. Probably this urge "back to the roots" also explains my present predilection for black and white, the inspiring association with the original and fundamental photographic process; I am working right at the basis. The process itself is the origin of the picture. Nothing but light touching paper: That is painting with light in its purest form. Maybe some day I'll really become a painter in the traditional sense of the word. It is possibly significant that the darker parts of my present black-and-white "paintings" often assume a peculiar velvety materialness and a strikingly graphic note. Perhaps the borderline turns out to be fluid, somewhere very far underneath ...


(Translated by Helge Jan Schmodde)

Helge Jan Schmodde

Paintings from the Darkroom


March 2001


At an earlier age Karl Martin Holzhaeuser (or KMH for short) was able to describe both his artistic and his professional line in one word: photography. Today, this term definitely still applies to the subject he teaches at the design school of an art college in Bielefeld, Germany, but it might mislead as far as his present work as an artist is concerned - - - unless one remembers the original definition of "photography" that dates back to 1839 (emphasis added): the art or process of producing images on a sensitized surface by the action of radiant energy and especially light. Significantly, this definition does not mention a prime requisite we associate with photography, namely a camera, and precisely in this respect KMH has returned to the roots. His work constitutes a new genre in the field of cameraless photography.


KMH brings his pictures into being in his darkroom where he exposes photographic paper to the light of self-devised lamplike tools directly by his hand - a process he calls "Painting with Light" (in German, Lichtmalerei). These paintings do not depict or interpret any visible reality; they record ingenious, artistically and mathematically controlled variations of the impact of white or colored light on photographic paper. Like all paintings, each painting with light is, by virtue of its genesis, a unique work of art. The decisive difference between the two types of pictures lies in the time available for their physical production: KMH must complete his manual work within seconds. Therefore, the intended images have to be premeditated to an unusually high degree.


In his current exhibition catalogue KMH presents paintings with light of the third generation, a synthesis of two earlier stages: Initially, in the 1980s, his sequences bore strong marks of spontaneous action, lateron to be banned for the sake of strict adherence to programs governing the mothion of the "lightbrush" as wll as shapes, colors, and the numbers of pieces per set. Now we see these two approaches reconciled in paintings that combine the stringency of premeditated instructions with elements of calculated chance and the individuality of the artist's hand.


Biographical note: In 1962, then 18 years of age, Karl Martin Holzhaeuser became an apprentice of Walther Steinkopf, a renowned photographer in Berlin. Another early mentor was Florian Michael Neusuess who initiated him into cameraless photography. Subsequently he studied at the art colleges in Darmstadt, Saarbruecken, and Hamburg; among his academic teachers were Oskar Holweck, Kilian Breier, and Max Bense. KMH first came into his own in 1967 by conducting Mechano-Optical Analyses (experiments with the image-creating modalities of optical systems), and he was one of the protagonists of Generative Photography, a kind of grammar for producing visual messages by a purely rational combination of mechanical devices and techno-optical methods. Since 1970 KMH has been teaching Photographic Art and Design in Bielefeld where he holds a professorship.


Helge Jan Schmodde

Gerhard Glüher

Calligrams in Light

In:Karl Martin Holzhäuser-Lichtmalerei
Edition Marzona



Karl Martin Holzhaeuser's works of "Lichtmalerei" (Painting with Light) inaugurate an entirely new phase in a creative process that began during the 1960s. These works represent both a peak in Holzhaeuser's artistic production and the conceptual basis for the development of a virtually infinite number of potential images never before envisaged. If every work of art is the result of its creator's awareness of the expressive potential of his or her time, then the substratum from which the "Lichtmalerei" derives at least the confidence of its coloration can be identified in certain works of Morris Louis and Mark Rothko. Moreover, Holzhaeuser is rooted in the group that initiated the "Generative Fotografie" (Generative Photography) in the mid-1960s.


When this group established itself with the aim of creating a grammar for generating pictures by photographic means, its members relied almost exclusively on the use of mechanical devices and on the application of techno-optical methods. Once the principles and the educational program for this particular generative process had been clarified, however, its expressive vocabulary and the esthetic fascination of its first impressive results eventually began to wear out - in a way, the "Generative Fotogratie" shared the fate of inspiring scientific hypotheses: As soon as they have been verified, they turn into mere tools for further research.


This, incidentally, also held true of Holzhaeuser's early "Mechano-optische Untersuchungen" (Mechano-Optical Analyses): They, too, were rational experiments with the imege-prodocing modalities of optical systems. But it would be a mistake to interpret Holzhaeuser's "Lichtmalerei" of the late 1980s as being a consequent result or even an application of his earlier pictorial grammar.


On the contrary, a sharp break occurred after his "Aufglasmalereien" (Paintings on Glass) of 1979, a series of pictures based on the mathematical principle of permlltation. With these paintings on glass, Holzhaeuser reached a state of utmost rationality, and his almost disquieting emotional aloofness from his work seemed about to become overwhelming. Then, the break: In 1982 Holzhaeuser presents a large-size sequence of five piotures simply called "Landschaft 1-5" (Landscape 1-5). This title was not chosen at random for an arbitrary set of "generatively" produced piotures: "Landscape 1-5" actually confronts us with a visual metaphor for the emergence of an imaginary tectonic fold.


Compared with Holzhaeuser's provious works, this one displays three entirely new features: There is a definitive relationship between its individual symbolic parts; it is possible to attach desorigtive terms - give a name - to this configuration; and (in my view even more important) "Landscape 1-S" contans a strong element of outright poetic narration This Landscape sequences was Holzhaeuser's first production that might be seen as a visualization of events outside his photooptical world of color. It is precisely this, however tbet, distinguishes it sharply from his present "Lichtmalerei", which returns to creating integrated closed systems of images that are liable to undergo mutation but remain unrelated to any external reality.


"Landscape 1-5" has a fixed direction in which to be read (from the left to the right), and its individual pictures tell the artist's story about the emergence of his archaic landscape: Part 1 shows a narrow band of an icy blue spreading over a plane of deep black and soon changing over to black again. Only a fine white line running parallel with the foot of the pictures lends support to the eye. This line connects the individual pictures with one another and serves as a key to understanding the sequence.


While in the second picture this line is being overlapped almost entirely by a broadly-based triangular shape, it ultimately asserts itself in the last picture where the base of the triangle has become very narrow. In pictures 3 and 4 an initially obtuseangled triangle emerges from the blue of the foreground. The triangle's tonality neighbors (on?) that of the ground space, and its base remains related to this tonality throughout the sequence. From the second to the fifth picture, the triangle linearly grows in height while its base narrows. Within the triangle, this ascent is acoompanied by a chord of yellow and red complementing the cyanic blue of the gronnd space. The density and the intensity of the colors move towards the "hot" range of the spectrum as the triangle becomes increasingly acute-angled.


Both of these developments culminate in the fifth and last picture: A red-hot beacon stands out in relentlessly radiant clarity against the cold darkness. This "Landscape", to be sure, was still created with the means of "Generative Fotagrafie", namely a camera mounted on an optical bench, white paper, colored light, and variations of focal convergence. A year later, Holzhaeuser presented another two sequences of five pictures each, called "Landschaft 1-5, III" (a "II" never came up) and "Landschaft und Erkenntnis" (Landscape and Peroeption), the latter together with a running commentary of five passages.


While "Landschaft 1-5" suggested the emergence of a form, taking shape in a struggle against the suction of darkness, "Landschaft1-5, III" shows traces of diffraated colors gradually vanishing in a white ground, susceptible to even wider interpretation than the deep black of the preceding sequence. Considering the term "Landscape" in the title, this sequence suggests the panoramic effect gained by levelly rotating a motion-pioture camera, or the impression one gets when looking down from a fast-moving aircraft: reality on the ground recedes and is reduced to colored phantoms.


Whereas the artist leaves us pretty much on our own in contemplating "Landscape 1-5, III", the sequence "Landschaft und Erkenntnis" unmistakably focusses our interpretative attention on the element of progressing time.


The constants in this sequence are a diagonal line rising in an acute angle from left to right that marks the bottom of the colored are as, and the colors as such, while the intensity and the radiation of the colors are treated as variables. As the white area spreads, the colors fade, so that the last of the five pictures, except for the pale hue of a barely discernible grey line, is plainly white. We do not, however, perceive this white as being a mere void: It seems to be a substance extended over the colors. This sequence, by way of the complexity with regard to what is happening both within its individual pictures and successively between and throughout its five parts, prefigures many aspects that were to be defined more precisely,~although in a more abstract way, by Holzhaeuser's present "Lichtmalerei".


It is mainly the space-establishing properties of the Paintings with Light that defy understanding by a casual glance. In this connection, however, the term "space" does not designate the customary impression of perspective photographs: Since these pictures hsve been created without a camera, they evidence, instead of the usual foreground and background, an indefinable depth behind or underneath the coating. This depth seems to cause a suation which is, however, balanced by a counteractive pull exerted by the foroeful, though in many pictures diaphanous, colors chosen. This antagonism results in the impression of a peculiar floating of shapos and colors, an effect accentuated not only by the absence of a conventional background but even more by the way the shapos are interrelated, superimposing and penetrating one another. The seeming depths surface where they change into planes, as in the pictures with orthogonally arranged shapes. Physically, we are looking at nothing more than sheets of sensitive photographic paper that have been exposed to colored light. But the fascinating power of these pictures stands its ground against our knowledge of how they have been produced. Thus, the gestural mark of the craftsman's performance (not without good reason does Holzhaeuser call these works "paintings") immediately dissolves as soon as we permit ourselves to become receptive to the interaction of immaterialness and spatiality. More essential than the physical craftsmanship expressed in these "Calligrams in Light" is the fact that they ultimately originate (not in a human hand applying material substance to a surface by means of a physical tool, but) in the energy of colored radiation.


Despite all the fragility of the shapes and images created by the motion of the hand that directs the "light brush", they convey an intense sense of dynamism. In their horizontal course, traces of light accelerate to a dashing wipe. The spectator's eyes are being carried along irresistibly by a continuous driving, floating, salling and rotating of colored veils.


Although the Paintings with Light ultimately originate in the energy of colored radiation, rather than the application of material substance to a surface by means of a phy-sical tool, it remains true that the light brush is being directed by the artist's hand and, indeed, entire physique which in turn expresses spontaneous emotional reflexes. Beyond any figurative contents, therefore, the true theme of these pictures is Holzhaeuser's psychic and physical sensitivity.


The mental image of the individual composition must have been completed the moment he sets the light brush in motion for the few seconds during which the picture has to be painted. Whi]e any prolonged interruption of the process would, of course, result in a solid black, brief intentional, as well as instinctive, retardations enhance the dramatic effect of this photographic version of action painting.


Compared with the spatiality, the dynamism and the gestnral aspect of the Paintings with Light, their coloration displays a systematic and controlled approach. Here, Holzhaeuser evidently draws on experience gained during his "generative" period. The individual colors are obtained by the use of filters whose tints must be complementary to the intended colors because the sensitized paper is being exposed directly, without any intermediary steps. The mechanical part of the technique consists of cutting pieces of filter foil to the width of the intended color stripes, applying translucent coats of the respective colors to the foils, and gluing them onto the predesignated sections of the light brush.


The color ultimately shown on the paper is determineA, on the one hand, by the tint and density of the coating, and, on the other, by the speed of moving the light brush during the exposure. Although Holzhaeuser conducts meticulous test series in order to define the filter colors, chance influences remain, particolarly during the exposure and the subsequent chemical process.


Since his first experiments in this area, the artist has pursued mainly three directions of coloration, namely (1) combinations of the three primary optical colors blue, green ~nd red, (2) monochromatic light/dark graduations created by successive exposures (as against the simultaneous use of several filters for the multicolored paintings), and (3) color chords either comprising the entire spectrum or composed of colors complementary to one another.


For all the freedom of choice Holzhaeuser permits himself with regard to the gestural shaping of forms, his coloration always remains analytically premeditated, demonstrating that this former student of Oskar Holweck truly masters Johannes {tten's theory of chromatios.


Over the years, Rarl Martin Holzhaeuser has advanced from producing "signs" (as resultants of his "generative" approach) to making pictures that express, by means of his use of a light brush, a personal handwriting; from subjecting himself to the lucid but stringent causality of the optical laws of representation, he has proceeded to create an original new genre capable of becoming a species of its own within the wide field of cameraless photography.


(Translated from Gerhard Glueher's essay "Ralligramme des Lichts" in "Karl Martin Holzhaeuser - Lichtmalerei", published by Edition Marzona, Duesseldorf/Bielefeld, 1990)