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An Other Reality

by Amy H. Winter

Course of the Rivers III
The Course of the Rivers III (2010) 69 x 46 inches


What we call nature... is a poem hidden behind a wonderful secret writing; if we could decipher the puzzle, we should recognize in it the odyssey of the human spirit, which in astonishing delusion flees from itself while seeking itself.

- Ernst Cassirer 1





H.A. Sigg’s art is a poetic art—spare, concentrated, acutely observant and intellectual in its search for an other reality than that of everyday life. Paring nature and matter down to their essences, Sigg developed an abstract language for landscape, the primary subject of his career. In separate painting series he explored given sets of structures that rotate and interchange signs of the natural elements—earth, air, water, and fire; and a fifth element, once metaphysically called the aether but actually the phenomenological effects of color and light.2

Beginning in the late 1960s, and continuing in ongoing, open-ended series, Sigg’s abstract handling of form, light and color stood in for the aesthetics of nature itself (subsequently developing into abstract signs of nature, culture, and the self). Sigg’s early abstractions are equivalents to the sky’s gradations of light and color, clouds and mists hanging over mountains and horizons. These effects of light and color, called atmospheric perspective and observable in the far distance in nature and in illusionistic landscapes, reveal Sigg’s careful observation and transcription of subtle events of the natural world.

But there are no mountains, and there are no clouds or overlapping near-, middle- or far-distances in Sigg’s landscapes, no mathematical perspective to fix or focus our gaze. Instead, at first sight, there is a beautiful minimal image, a hallmark of modern abstract painting that stresses and experiments with the flatness of the picture plane to create a new ethos of “painting for painting’s sake.” Favoring beauty of form and color over realism of any sort, it formulates a new concept of space in painting, a new perspective, both literally and figuratively.

H.A. Sigg in his studio

This ethos—articulated in the l960s in the “Formalist” essays of the American art critic Clement Greenberg, and later in post-war “Color Field” art—became the dominant, mode-of-choice painting style for many decades.3 Aspects of Siggs’ work are related to aspects of the work of the Abstract Expressionists, championed by Greenberg, such as the calligraphy of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline. This is also true in relation to the ‘gestural’ nature of their work, coined “action painting” by American art critic Harold Rosenberg, who emphasized the experiential quality and process of making a picture.4

In Sigg’s paintings, calligraphy and gesture are captured, distilled, and quieted, changing the terms of encounter with the object from contemplative to meditative, and adding the new term of the sign.5 In works like The Course of the River V (1985), uninterrupted cursive lines, as if seen from above and straight ahead at once, wind through and float on a field of modulated brown tones. These are surrogates for the river and the land. This gesture is just one step away from the sign for the river that changes course and appearance, here a flowing gesture, later a rapidly and repeatedly executed character. Both are similar to Asian calligraphy, practiced day by day to perfect the artist’s control and expression. But whereas the character is fluid in this series, like a river it will take on different forms, contexts, and roles in other series.

Sigg’s art has also been likened to the “Lyrical Abstraction” and the Color Field painting of Rothko, Motherwell, and Newman; and the “Art Informel,” “Abstraction Lyrique,” and “Tachisme” of post-war European painters like Tapié, Soulages and others, in which the gesture, the hand, the touch and individual style of “marking” the canvas are expressed intuitively.6 The lineage of this practice can be traced back to the long-standing European “belle peinture” tradition—beautiful paint handling, elegant brush strokes and a lively paint surface. Sigg has brought together various facets of all these associations and gone one step further. His work is both cerebral and intuitive in its fusion of visual art and language, use of series and sets, and involvement with non-Western art and culture, all of which are related to contemporary and post-modern art. Somehow it seems more akin to the music of, for instance, Morton Feldman, “characterized by notational innovations that... create rhythms that seem to be free and floating; pitch shadings that seem softly unfocused; a generally quiet and slowly evolving music; recurring asymmetric patterns... .”7

Notably, Sigg’s structures are largely symmetrical although at times asymmetry also appears. He is much more straightforward than the Americans about his inspiration in nature (as we can see in many of his titles) and in Asian art and culture. In virtually all of his series he more thoroughly investigates the possibilities of abstract landscape and the aesthetics and philosophy of the East, testing boundaries with interplays of language and image, symbol and sign, physics and metaphysics, while intimately experimenting with color, light, space, and optical and tactile qualities.

In Sea and Sky II (1979), as in other works of this structure, Sigg fuses the realms of earth, air and water in an ethereal, somewhat mystical, image, created by nuanced brushwork, color, and light. Soft blue and grey zones are rendered atmospherically. Downy white bands and lines, analogous with clouds and mists, stretch across the image’s horizontal axis, implying their continuation beyond the space of the canvas and emphasizing the object’s surface. At the same time, the zones move up and down the picture plane’s vertical axis in registers that seem to continue and expand beyond the image’s top and bottom edges. There is movement in all directions: on the surface of the image and in the depth of the atmospheric color that absorbs and reflects light. The image, no longer a “picture” in the traditional sense of the word, has a delicacy, simplicity, and peacefulness about it that encompasses and embraces every direction and dimension.

In this series, a sense of the “sublime” emerges, a hallmark of the German Romantic movement and a theme that has occupied Northern painters for centuries—from Friedrich’s lonely sweeping vistas of sky and sea or seas of clouds encircling vast Alpine peaks, to the crashing waves of Nolde’s North Sea in the vivid blaze of a setting sun. No less so in the Northern light of the Nordic Luminists, Munch the outsider, but even so, like them, correlating the power of light and color to inner emotional or spiritual states.8

Like the art of those painters, Sigg’s art radiates an inner light that transcends the light and boundaries of the natural world, even though it is distinctly different in form and content. Narrative, drama, and literal representation of nature are absent, reduced, both literally and figuratively, to only a few elements. The theme of the “sublime” and a rejection of literalism were also espoused by the New York painters—particularly Newman and Rothko, who spoke about their work in terms of the “tragic and the timeless,” relating it to the terror and ecstasy of the sublime. Sigg, both an observer and a thinker, crossed the boundary of the symbolic order into the world of the sign.

Born in 1924, Sigg must have found an early training ground in symbolism’s expressive color, content, and form—from Matisse to Kirchner’s Bridge, from the Blue Rider paintings of Kandinsky and Klee to their semiotic inventions of form and color at the Bauhaus. In the years following World War II, Sigg studied in the Paris studio of André Lhote. Lhote was a member of the Section d’Or (The Golden Section)—a collective of painters, sculptors and critics associated with Cubism and Orphism—and a respected teacher and theorist.9 Notably, Lhote had written a treatise on landscape painting in 1939.10

From the start, Sigg focused on the themes of land, sea, and sky. But in 1968, after an unusual arrangement with Swiss Air in payment for his art, he flew to China, India, and Southeast Asia, and viewed the Asian subcontinent from the plane’s cockpit. This experience changed his perspective, shifting it from a terrestrial to an aerial view and altering his interior vision as well. Views of rivers and cultivated fields seen from above at times recall the themes and devices, if not the traditional representations and idioms, of classical Chinese and Japanese landscape scrolls: the omniscient eye looks down through clouds upon a scene below that shows a diminutive figure, almost imperceptible, the artist-scholar or the poet merged with the landscape, on a path leading to a mountain retreat, to contemplate nature, practice calligraphy, write poetry, and cultivate enlightenment.

H.A. Sigg working on Mural, University of Zurich

Sigg’s images in this series are global views of gold, green, rust, and red patchworks. River Meanders III (1976/84) Sometimes they morph into shimmering aqueous mosaics, molecular-looking and reminiscent of the refraction of light underwater. Mural, University of Zurich (1981) In The Green River in the Ripening Fields (1976) we gaze down upon the artist’s shorthand for rotated fields. Like reflected sunlight, the empty white spaces of the canvas break through the edges of the irregular rhythmic pattern of tinted shapes of color. Rivers meandering or winding, snakelike, along the picture’s surface are signs of art and memory, symbols of life’s flow and flux.

In The Course of the River V (1985) and other works of that series, the sinuous image of the river becomes a calligraphic sign. Seen as if from a distance, it is a signifier of the past; or the future, the path that winds ahead. Brought up close to the bottom edge or on the surface of the picture plane, it may signify the present or presence. In the Land of the River V (1993) Always there is a suggestion of the space outside of and beyond the edge of the frame.

On the ground in Asia in the first and in subsequent journeys, Sigg’s attention was drawn to architectural elements and artifacts of monuments he visited—temples and sites—in Cambodia, China, India. Simultaneously, he began developing the motifs of the glyph and the cipher, like inscriptions seen on plaques and dedications.

A new architectonic structure arose, initiating a new theme for his paintings—the theme of the door. The view through the door, an alternative to the traditional interior-exterior trope of the “window” in painting, is also a powerful symbol. Stripped of its reality by Sigg, the door became a sign that functioned on multiple levels of form and meaning. Beyond the teasing question of what lies inside, behind or beyond this passageway Meditative XIX (2008), sometimes a form between the ‘doors’—the “middle realm” in his titles—evokes an altar or a stele with a secret visual code. Mystery (2003); In the Middle Realm XX (1999) At other times, forms situated between panels, like curtains opening onto a stage, reveal a form that recalls an artifact, distinctly Asian in quality. Untitled I (1989) Simultaneously compressed and expanding, the doors or panels push inward and away from the center, advancing or retreating with warm or cool hues as if in an other, mobile dimension. Within the Red III (2004)

Fire, now more than the heat of the sun, appears in characters made with angular black strokes—a variation on the sign of the river—a lightning bolt that reverses the tonal polarity of nature’s own calligraphy. Sometimes it is a lone gesture unanchored on a field of color. In the Middle Realm XVI (1997/98) Sometimes it is contained within a cartouche or plaque. Under the Sign of the River III (1990/91) Sometimes it adds other characters, developing a pseudo-calligraphy of further significance—the ineffable code of the artist. Magic of the Signs II (2008) Nature was its beginning but not its end.

As noted by the modern art theorist Wolfgang Paalen:

…the symbolic value of the sign…does not depend upon its possibility of being identified with any concrete reality. For even the sign—an intermediate abstraction between the image and the letter—does not necessarily refer to existing objects. The sign operates as a visual symbol...11

Sigg’s work ventured into the field of form as visual symbol, beyond concrete referents or words,12 developing a vocabulary of elementary forms as abstract surrogates for things he saw in his journeys. Monumental forms—temple doors, pillars, altars—are reduced to simple shapes–the rectangle, the square, the cylinder13—operate on the surface of the picture plane, and lose their lithic mass but gain iconic weight and singularity.

Face to face with these icons, we are drawn in by the color—blue somehow the most mesmerizing—often ranging through hues of brown, black, purple, and green. Elsewhere, red, orange and yellow strike a major chord, accented by the sign The Sign III (2000); Small Sign II (2007) or by not-too-precise dividing lines. This recalls Asian scrolls, or the spatial exercises of Newman’s Stations of the Cross, but takes the edge off the latter’s canvases, to render an emotive and sensual imbrication of formal elements that warps or otherwise modifies given sets of geometries at will. Magic of the Signs II (2008); Meditative II (2004); Encounter IV (2010)

These are meditative images that thrive on the resonance of color’s magnetism and emanation. Mass dissolves under the pressure of light’s distillation and condensation, the center holds but expands, loses its angles to exceed the boundaries of the frame, creates an un-square version of Mondrian’s neo-Platonic designs, and opens up an energy in which we are implicated by the undivided totality of nature. The only weight is the encounter at the doors of perception, a line over which we are invited to step. Symbols are signs, referents feelings and vestigial inscriptions of consciousness. Green Room (2004)

Sigg’s attraction to the East is not coincidental. His evocative landscapes of the mind and spirit were born of longing—an “astonishing delusion that flees from itself while seeking itself”; a journey rooted in the encompassing power of nature, free-falling into an other sort of time and space. The call of Asia is unmistakable, with its mysterious caves and temples that open onto Taoism’s mystical vision of the unity of nature, the secrets of the I Ching, Buddhism’s quest for simplicity and essence, the eight-fold path that strips the ego of desire to find a perfect balance in Nirvana, the heavens above heavens, the embrace of complements. Symbols of ideas present in glyphs are simultaneously visual and lexical, with resonant equilibrium and vibrant serenity.

Imagine you are an artist, like Sigg, who grew up in the High Alps, dominated by nature, searching for a way to express your mixture of awe, revelation, epiphany in the face of the extraordinary. It’s no wonder Sigg wished to fly, to look down upon the earth from a point higher than the iconic Jungfrau itself. He was predisposed to that vantage point from the start. And yet, as an abstract painter, he abandoned all reference to literal reality and created structures that might be likened to the abstractions of Hindu religious belief and practice, for instance, in Angkor Wat.

From above, Angkor Wat’s plan, a “yantra,” could be creatively extrapolated to a modern or contemporary icon. Yantra, the Sanskrit word for ‘instrument’:

… can stand for symbols, processes… that have structure and organization. One usage popular in the west is as symbols or geometric figures. In Eastern mysticism such symbols are used to balance or focus the mind on spiritual concepts…for instance, a symbol which 'holds' the essence of a concept, or helps the mind to 'fasten' onto a particular idea.14

A yantra depicts “both macrocosmic and microcosmic forces acting together—the movement towards and away from the center—‘control’ and ‘liberation’ within the one device. It is sometimes believed to be a mystical or astronomical diagram (usually a symbol, often inscribed on an amulet).”15 Not to imply that this was Sigg’s method or something about which he was thinking. The structures, the scaffolding of his paintings, the primary forms with which he develops his art—the ‘river’, the ‘door,’ the ‘plaque’—do not bear any visual resemblance to these Hindu geometries.

In the most minimal way, Sigg’s rectangular ‘doors’ emphasize the vertical axis of the painting. But are the doors opening, or partly open; closing, or partly closed? Are we standing outside looking in or inside looking out? Green Room (2004) Forms mirror and overlap in ambivalent figure and ground relationships and invert expectations about the behavior of color and orientation of the natural order.

Viewing In the Middle Realm IX (1994/95), a midnight blue shaft hangs from the top of the image, projecting then receding as we focus on a small dark ‘door’ within its frame. A feathery white band at the bottom contains a shadowed encasement in and on which another shaft sits, mirroring the one above in reverse. While abruptly cut off at the edge, it also suggests that it is the beginning of a new shaft, like the reiterating frames of photographic negatives. Continuing beyond the edge, it suggests a circular return—perhaps the eternal return about which philosophers speak—while also doubling as an epigraphic plaque inscribed with—or here empty of—signs of nature, culture, or memory. The painter has become a scribe, writing his own language in form and color.

At other times our eye is redirected to the horizontal axis. Downy white lines drift on textured fields of blue, anchored below by a brown plaque inscribed with the sign of the river, equating with earth’s gravity yet paradoxically weightless. Under the Sign of the River III (1990/91) The painter leads us along a path of visual experience in synchrony with his own experience and personal code. What is striking, however, is the empathy of Sigg’s work with the concept of the yantra, arrived at in his own way—from the “movement towards and away from the center,” to the nesting of signs inscribed inside slate-like plaques or tablets, to the image that ‘holds’ the essence of a concept and helps the mind to ‘fasten’ onto a particular idea, to the inner light that illuminates the image.

Beyond the elegant simplicity of Sigg’s canvases lies a world of significance. His paintings can be taken at face value for their design and sheer beauty. They can be enjoyed for their inventive and seemingly endless permutations of chosen structures and themes. We can delve deeper and puzzle out their semantic, syntactic and semiotic rotations of content and form. Or we can join the artist in contemplation of an other, more satisfying, reality, and like Cassirer ponder “the dynamic of the enigmatic, ever elusive, concept of totality—a state without boundaries or frames—that comprises all [the] knowledge, expression, and insight that always elicits admiration and wonder.”16


1 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim (Yale Univ. Press, 1970) II, 8-9.

2 In classical Western physics, aether was “the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere.” Alchemy, natural philosophy, and very early modern physics saw aether as the fifth element or “quintessence” and the luminiferous aether as the medium through which light propagates. Subsequently light was likened to two macroscopic metaphors – particles (atoms) on the one hand, and waves on the other, giving rise to the “wave-particle” theory. Although visible only on a microscopic level, all are related to electro-magnetic light, radiation, and color. From the 5th to the 7th century, Indian Buddhists viewed light as an atomic entity equivalent to energy. Thus both scientifically and metaphorically, visible light has powerful energies of movement, heat and color, and properties of absorption and reflection, used to great effect by artists, whether intentionally or intuitively.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light.

3 John O'Brian, Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. 4 vols. (University of Chicago Press, 1986, 1993).

4Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters" in Tradition of the New (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994) 23-39, originally in Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952: 22.

5 Of all the New York artists, it was Adolph Gottlieb who seems to have most shared Sigg’s interest in the rapport between language and image. Gottlieb’s pictographic work is just a step away from an investigation of the sign. In Paris and other capitals, Klee, Miró, and many other artists interested in alternatives to European painting traditions were also aware of Ferdinand de Saussure—“the father of 20th century linguistics”—and his theory of semiotics—or the functioning of signs. Saussure taught at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris from ca. 1895 to ca. 1905 and at the University of Geneva thereafter. Sigg knew something about Saussure’s ideas. (Author’s conversation with Daniel Sigg, Sigg’s son, June 28, 2012).

6 Tapié’s treatise Un art autre (1952), discusses this philosophy and practice. Michel Tapié Un art autre: où il s'agit de nouveaux dévidages du réel (Paris, Gabriel-Giraud et fils, 1952); translated in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

7 Vertical Thoughts: Morton Feldman and the Visual Arts (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2010).

8 Robert Rosenbaum Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: From Friedrich to Rothko (London: Thames & Hudson, 1975). A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910, (Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst, c. 2006). Kirk Varnedoe, Scandinavian Chiaroscuro: Northern Light, Nordic Art at the Turn of the Century (Yale Univ. Press, 2011). Patricia G. Berman, Luminous Modernism (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 2011).

9 “The Orphists were rooted in Cubism but moved toward a pure lyrical abstraction, seeing painting as the bringing together of a sensation of pure colors. More concerned with the expression and significance of sensation, this movement began with recognizable subjects but was rapidly absorbed by increasingly abstract structures. Orphism aimed to dispense with recognizable subject matter and to rely on form and color to communicate meaning. The movement also aimed to express the ideals of Simultanism: the existence of an infinitude of interrelated states of being.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphism_(art)

10 André Lhote, Treatise on Landscape (Paris: Editions Floury, 1939).

11 Wolfgang Paalen, The New Image,” DYN (Mexico: 1942): 9; reprinted in Form and Sense (NY: Wittenborn, 1945).

12 Ernst Gombrich, Visual Metaphors of Value in Art,” in Meditations on a Hobby Horse (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1963).

13 This recalls Cézanne’s invention of the cylinder, the sphere and the cube for a new geometrical representation of the third dimension and puts Sigg in line with the tradition of Cubism as well. His studies in Paris with André Lhote are a decisive connection with Cubism. We might to some extent think of Sigg’s work as “post-Cubist” where edge and line merge, and where edge and color create space and mood his work might be thought of as “post-Orphist.”

14 http://sacredsites.com/asia/cambodia/angkorwat.html.

15 Ibid.

16 Cassirer as above-quoted in Gertz, Valsiner, Breaux, Semiotic Rotations: Modes of Meanings in Cultural Worlds (IAP, 2007) 113: “as he describes the relation of myth to language.”

I am indebted to the work of the scholars of Sigg’s art that gave me access to the artist’s career, but particularly to the insights of Margaret Mathews-Berenson, whose thinking struck a chord with mine.



Berenson, Margaret, and Hermann Alfred Sigg. H.A. Sigg: new paintings and collages: March 24 - May 7, 2005. New York: Kouros Gallery, 2005.

Billeter, Fritz. H. A. Sigg: Monographie. Bern: Benteli, 1998.

Donohoe, Victoria. "Swiss Artist Uses Land as His Muse." The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12 2002.

Frank, Peter. “H. A. Sigg, Albert Contreras.” LA Weekly, January 26 - February 1, 2001.

"H.A. Sigg's Online Gallery." H.A. Sigg / Classic Modernist. unpg., n.d. Web. April 2012. http://hasigg.com/portfolio.htm.

Helber, Annabelle Masser. "Abstract Rebel." Dallas Observer, September 28 - October 4 2000.

Marger, Mary Ann. "One Artist, a Century of Influences." St. Petersburg Times, April 29 2001.

Naves, Mario, and Hermann Alfred Sigg. H.A. Sigg: recent works, December 2-30, 2010. New York: Kouros Gallery, 2010.

Panettta, Gary A. "His Passion Gives Creations Soul." Peoria Journal Star, February 13 2000.

Sigg, Hermann Alfred, and Eduard Hüttinger. Hermann Alfred Sigg: Bilder und Zeichnungen aus Südostasien = Hermann Alfred Sigg : paintings and drawings from South-East-Asia. Zürich: Orell Füssli, 1976.

Sigg, Hermann Alfred, and Robert M. Murdock. H.A. Sigg: recent work. New York: Margaret Mathews-Berenson Fine Arts, 2000.

Smith, Roberta, "Aerial Perspectives–Imagination, Reality and Abstraction." The New York Times, Aug. 1 1997.

Tynes, Teri. “Reviews South East: Clemson.” Art Papers Magazine, May/June 2002.

Wasserman, Burton. "New Works by Sigg Now Here." Art Matters, April 2002.

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