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by Robert M. Murdock

He looked lovingly into the flowing water; into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on the mirror; sky blue reflected in them. The river looked at him with a thousand eyes green, white, crystal, sky blue. How he loved this river; how it enchanted him, how grateful he was to it!

- Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha (1922)

For most Americans, including art historians and curators, Swiss art is defined by its historical figures such as the late nineteenth-century painter Ferdinand Hodler; the twentieth-century masters Paul Klee and Alberto Giacometti, and by the postwar tendency of geometric abstraction and Concrete Art as practiced by Max Bill, Richard Paul Lohse and others. On the less rational side, we recall the birth of the Dada movement in Zurich,1916, and the manic kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely in the 1960s and 70s.

To discover the work of Hermann Alfred Sigg, a contemporary Swiss artist who creates abstract landscapes in a lyrical, painterly style, often infused with transcendent or spiritual overtones, is both unexpected and inconsistent with any national image.This catalogue represents the first comprehensive sur­vey of his paintings and sculpture for the American audience.

The view of the artist's studio reproduced on the cover of this catalogue gives an indication of the focus, structure and consistency of Sigg's work. On the wall are two of his paintings -- a vertical composition of constricted interior space in which a "river;" contained by vertical bands, becomes a calligraphic sign; and an expansive, panoramic field of color, like an aerial view, with an abstracted river meandering across its surface. Arranged on pedestals is a group of sculp­tures columnar; freestanding elements visually related to the vertical canvases, yet suggestive of human figures or architectural details.

The source of Sigg's interest in landscape may be traced to his early years spent on the family farm in Oberhasli, Switzerland, near Zurich, where he was close to the land and could always look down over the fields. With his decision to become an artist Sigg forfeited his inheritance of the property, but he still lives in that area, within sight of the fields his family once owned. He begins each day with an hour's walk with his dog in the nearby countryside, as he prepares to work in his studio.

After studying at the School of Applied Art, Zurich with, among others, former Bauhaus master and color theorist Johannes ltten, Sigg, like many art students before and after World War II, went to Paris, where he attended the Academie Andre Lhote in 1947. Lhote (1885- 1962), a member of the Cubist circle early in the century, was a noted writer on art and teacher during the 1940s and 50s. In Paris, Sigg became enamored with French art and culture, and admired the Post-Impressionists, especially Bonnard. While the influence of Bonnard was most apparent in Sigg's figurative paintings of the 1950s, the palette and color fields in his later abstract landscapes still occasionally evoke Bonnard's work.

Sigg's development of aerial landscape imagery began in 1968 with travel to Southeast Asia, as an "artist in residence in the sky" for Swissair, which had previously purchased several of his paintings. From the singular vantage point of the cockpit, Sigg made sketches from which he developed the abstractions of terraced fields and rivers characteristic of his work from the 1970s. On the ground, the artist visited temple sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and made draw­ings of the sculpture; he also became a passionate collector of Southeast Asian and Khmer sculpture. As a result of his travels, which also included India and Thailand, Sigg began to explore interior architectural space as well as the infinite space of the aerial landscape in his new paintings. Other study trips to Italy, Greece, the Middle East Nepal, China, and to Guatemala, Mexico and the American West provided further inspiration.

Most of the paintings included here are from the recent series In the Middle Realm (lm Reich der Mittel), which com­bine a dark interior space and a feeling of compression, with abstract gestures suggesting water or the course of rivers. Since his Southeast Asia trip, the river has become increasingly abstract and distilled, like shorthand or calligraphy. For Sigg, the river is a "mysterious force" with a spirit of its own. In this series, the river becomes a metaphor for passage through life and the human search for the inner self and enlightenment. In articulating his river imagery, the artist dicov­ered Hermann Hesse's novel, Siddhartha which became an important influence. Throughout the novel, Siddhartha encounters the river as a changing yet constant, regenerating force, something to listen to and learn from, like life itself.

Sigg's paintings are meditative, even mystical.They seem to position the viewer in an indeterminate space, as if peer­ing through the darkness of a cave or narrow chamber into the night sky Works from the series In the Middle Realm painted in deep reds and blues with vigorously brushed areas of color and rough edges around the shapes, often recall some of Mark Rothko's atmospheric compositions of soft-edged rectangles. In Sign of the River III (Im Zeichen des Flusses), 1990-91,as in many of Rothko's paintings, the composition is hierarchical, with horizontal rectangular shapes arranged within a vertical format. Anchoring the composition is a rectangle containing a rapid cursive mark, like a Zen gesture, symbolizing the meandering river: Sigg often composes his paintings by arranging pieces of torn paper directly on the canvas in shapes and configurations that recall some of Paul Klee's paintings.

Rothko and Robert Motherwell are foremost among the American painters whose work Sigg admires. Like these artists, Sigg works on a large scale, drawing the viewer into the expansive field of color and abstract space. But unlike Motherwell's Elegies, for example, Sigg never uses pure black, but mixes colors to create the illusion of blackness. In addition, Sigg prefers acrylic to oil, which gives his paintings a chalky, fresco-like appearance.

"When I returned from China [in 1993]," Sigg noted, "I found it difficult to paint so I tried to make my ideas in sculpture." Constructed from various cast-off materials found in his studio, including wood, strips of copper, and mold­ed styrofoam or plastic containers used in packing, the sculptures are frontal and totemic. In their self-contained formal structure, they recall Cubist collage and sculpture as well as the black freestanding columns, boxes and "walls" of Louise Nevelson. The sculpture may be read as anthropomorphic, with playful references to human or robotic figures; or architectural in form, like altarpieces.The surfaces are uniformly painted a deep burgundy rather than a true black, in a manner consistent with his use of "black" in the paintings on canvas. In composition, they are similar to many of his paintings, with strong vertical elements and spaces between them. While the sculpture is in an earlier stage of development than his painting, there exists a clear dialogue between these two aspects of Sigg's work, one informing the other. After making the first sculptures in 1994, he returned to painting to begin his In the Middle Realm series.

The works included in this exhibition and catalogue can only begin to suggest the depth and richness in the art of H.A. Sigg. What emerges is the transcendent power of his paintings and the sense that he is, above all, an abstract painter, one who distills the essence of landscape and interior space in his work. Presenting his exhibition in New York, a city that historically has embraced new art and artists from Europe, and where Abstract Expressionism developed and flourished, seems particularly appropriate.


Robert Murdock began his career as a curator of early 20th-century and contemporary art at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Upon earning his master's degree in art history from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 1965, Murdock was the first intern to be named to the Ford Foundation museum curatorial training program at the Walker Art Center. He learned the museum business under the tutelage of director Martin Friedman.

After his two-year internship at the Walker, Murdock worked as curator at Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., where he organized numerous exhibitions from 1967 to 1970. He was hired as the first curator of contemporary art at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. There his exhibitions included the first one-person museum show by postminimal artist Richard Tuttle, along with "Jess: Translations Salvages Paste-Ups" and "Berlin/Hanover: The 1920s" and "Poets of the Cities: New York and San Francisco, 1950-1965." He also won a National Endowment for the Arts research grant in 1973 to study Constructivist collections and the work of contemporary artists in Europe.

After working in Dallas from 1970 to 1978, Murdock was director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan. There he planned and supervised the museum's move into a renovated building in 1981 and curated the first show in the new digs, "Pioneers: Early 20th-Century Art for Midwestern Museums." He also spent time managing the museum's board of directors and fundraising. With a chance to be a chief curator full time, Murdock returned to the Walker Art Center in 1983. For two years, he organized several shows, including the blockbuster retrospective of Dutch Conceptualist Jan Dibbets. Before he left the Walker in 1985, Murdock also wrote essays for gallery guides used for the exhibition series, "Viewpoints." 

Murdock founded the I.B.M. Gallery of Science and Art in New York, where he served as director and consultant from 1985 to 1994. He was an independent curator at several galleries and a contributor to Art in America, Review and Drawing magazines until his death in 2009.

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