Necessaria tantum. Minimalist art by Axel Becker between rationality and lyrical evocation

Patet ergo quod ex omnibus […] metallis potest fieri aurum et ex omnibus præter aurum potest fieri argentum […]. Nullum dubium est quod, si permitterentur in actione
Naturæ, ad tempus in aurum et argentum converterentur

("It is clear, therefore, that gold can be made of all [...] metals and that silver can be made of all metals, except of gold [...]. There is no doubt that if they are left to the action of Nature, at some point they would turn to gold and silver ")
Pseudo Thomas Aquinas, Tractatus de lapide philosophico

The exhibition of German artist Axel Becker (Elements) is focused on pure monochrome works in blue, black, burgundy, yellow, orange and pearl: the Cartesian 'clear and pronounced' basic mosaic elements of a broad artistic discourse.

Axel Becker is in love with evocation and synthesis: necessaria tantum, i.e. nothing more than necessary in his works, never beyond in his paintings. In fact, he directs his minimalist observation to a series of strict monochromes that are absolute in themselves (more or less large, rectangular or square), then assembled together or on which metals melt like 'holes' that secretly wink at Alberto Burri or like 'cuts' of Fontana's spatialist origin. These metal incrustations 'externally' reflect virtual light beams, affecting the monochromatic 'interior' of the painting: magmatic sediments that 'open' and 'unveil' 'the other' of the painting by means of significant glares that unite the uniform background of the canvas with the Nature that is luminous and deprived of a recognizable form (significantly, perhaps, an unreachable beyond). It seems as if these simple and 'poorly' minimalistic paintings contain a lifelong experience.

The artist resonates the echo of the pre-war 'classical' geometric abstraction (Mondrian) in his compositions which could be called quadrangular pieces-mosaic elements, on which he grafts the experience born on the ashes of the World War II ashes and the rescission of any safety (black monochrome painting), but without any implications of the French noir existentialism that reduced everything to the pure mechanism of existence. He goes his own way following the footsteps of the non-existentialist 'nothing', but reducing to zero the globalized consumerism against Nature from which again could start the way of  'redemption' and which is almost symbolized by the above-mentioned absolute and 'basic' monochromes rooted in the suprematist experiences of Kazimir Maljevič from the beginning of the twentieth century (an abstract art free of practical and aesthetic purposes, favouring a pure plastic sensitivity), the experiences that derived those of Yves Klein in 1950s.

In antique painting, the expression monochrome denoted a fresco or a painting painted only in different shades of the same colour, but by choosing 'the monochrome' (1956), hence the 'single', the 'absolute', Klein gave it a profoundly new and different meaning: he distanced himself from the phenomenon of spectacularity and contraposition. In other words, in the conception influenced by Japanese zen, the canvas was no longer the 'staging' of a drama, of a tension between unequal forces (such as colours and shapes). Thus, the monochrome "simply represents the blue itself, or the red itself, or [...] for example, the cosmic landscape of yellow [...]. I refuse to make a show of my painting. I refuse to oppose the elements." For Klein, 'the void' was a state similar to nirvana, without material influences, an area where one could come into direct contact with his or her own sensitivity in order to see reality 'beyond' its representation. In other words, Klein deprived the artistic form of all of its content: the paintings no longer had scenes, creating the “Areas of Intangible Artistic Sensibility".

Like Klein's works, Becker's monochromes relate to theoretical-artistic and philosophical-metaphysical contexts: the artwork seems to consist of combining them together, making us perceive and understand the abstract idea. It is not, therefore, a question of 'zeroing' the painting in the expectation of a new and undefined source of inspiration, but for the artist 'everything' is already contained in that 'void', just as in certain Eastern philosophies. Its monochromes represent the 'void' made of saturated and absolute colour but not of shapes and drawings, which contains everything as at the primordial dawn of the creation of the universe.

These monochromes represent the psychological dimension of a cosmic allusion that, however, does not end in itself. In Axel's works we do not in fact find a 'radical' or extreme, brilliant and sunny view at the monochrome, but the monochrome itself is seen by aggregations (by 'fragments' or 'pieces'), or as a background, precisely due to the overlying presence of metal incrustations, drifting continents that cool their magma and reintroduces an abstract-figurative visionary ('abstract - concrete' would probably said Lionello Venturi) strange to Klein, the visceral subjective and descriptive emotionality, typical of the Western world, brought back to us together with an intriguing technical skill.

Undoubtedly, in the foundations of these Becker's experiences are two main factors: minimalism and lyrical and symbolic evocation.

Minimalism - easy to remember - was an artistic movement born and developed in the United States at the beginning of the sixties. The term was first used by the English philosopher Richard Wollheim in the essay entitled Minimal Art. The minimalist works - and those of Becker as well - use a basic formal lexicon, are composed of only a few elements; formal matrices are geometry, strict execution, limited chromatism, substantial absence of decorations. More generally, minimalist painting is monochromatic, sometimes with grids and matrices of mathematical origin, but yet able to evoke a sense of sublime and deep inner states. This last meaning includes Becker's minimalism.

A point of reference is Frank Stella, one of the leading promoters of minimalist art, the author of famous Black Series or Black Paintings, paintings without frames consisting of parallel black stripes divided by thin white lines. However, these works, unlike Becker's, do not have allusive or symbolic reference to something, but they are presented to the observer as objects carrying a value simply because they are as they are.

On monochromatic canvas sometimes are deposited the mentioned metal drippings: the object or the natural sensation alluded by our artist are present and absent at the same time, and Minimalism thus reaches its maximum level. A Minimalism. However, that often takes over 'poetic' and, so to speak, almost 'neo-romanticist' accents, touching, but only briefly, lyrical abstraction, the abstraction lyrique whose birth was decided by Georges Mathieu in 1947. Thus, in a dynamic contrast to the rational 'norm' of a strict monochrome and 'geometrical' canvas (universal and timeless form that becomes the spatial element of its abstract art and a colour, a fundamental system that underlines the visible reality), the Abstract expressionism 'timidly' emerges above it: informal drippings ​​and gestural fusion of shining metals reveal irrational deep and primordial seas, unknown skies, distant universes and galaxies, 'foreign' territories (external, but also internal to my own 'I'). Above the pure reason stands the revenge of the Freud's and Nietzsche's irrationalism. The lyrical expressiveness thus distances Becker from the experiences of programmed art, analytical painting and conceptual painting. By transferring the purity of the colour on the canvas according to cold and rational schemes, he puts on the total zeroing the gesturality of matter in its original state before taking the form, aiming to find a new way to obtain an image of beauty painted by light on the painting surfaces.

The essence of these fundamental (water, air, fire, earth) and 'alchemical' elements is a flame that does not destroy, but melts, unifies, creates, vivifies: water as petrified in its natural flow, a consolidated magma 'eruption' solidified on the surface of the inner emotions and thoughts about Nature, the 'frozen' melting of metals that reminds of planets quilted with craters, moons, water drops, waterfalls, vibrations of liquids stopped and stuck in their dynamism, changing the liquid state into solid, conveying the emergence into the motionless dimension of eternal, melting together eternity and contingency.

Circles, drops and fragments as coins of solidified water of an ancient Mediterranean civilization that re-emerged in the archaeological dimension of ancient incrusted and corroded silver Greek tetradrachms projected into contemporary and future skies, where the anodyne rational geometry of monochromatic 'cold' squares welcomes the irrational 'contradiction' of luminous and twinkling irregular achromatic shapes resulting from a natural magmatic 'event '. Incandescent melted metals in dense masses in their synthetic silvery clarity reveal all the intriguing fascination of the Antiquity maintaining, in a rigorous and simplified essential modernity, the sense of the Greco-Roman cultural and existential metaphor.

Thus, that single apparently uniform colour in enlivened in myriad of vital impulses that lead to a peaceful reflection, veiled by a suffused lyricism in a close empathy between the author-alchemist (Becker) and the observer-spectator who gets involved in the work.

Therefore, there are two possible groups of works of our artist exhibited in Monreale.

The first is given by works each consisting of a series of monochromatic juxtaposed canvases, as if to form a puzzle or, even better, mega-pieces of an abstract and geometric mosaic in the manner of Mondrian's painting. Perhaps precisely because it is exhibited in Monreale, the 'homeland' of large mosaics shining with gold and colours (green, white, purple red and cobalt blue) of the twelfth century, the reference to the mosaic itself is by no means incidental. The elements assembled to form a design with quadrangular meshes, somewhat like a Harlequin's suit, which could even theoretically be interchanged, as in some of the ludo painting works. But the composition with its assonant colours 'captures' the essence of a special reality, as in the totem of Autumn, where the colour ranges bring back a memory of colours, from golden to red, to orange, to the moss-green of the undergrowth and deciduous trees, or in the totem of Winter, where the grey and silver tones of the foggy or snowy winter landscape prevail. The Nature we intuit and relive by evocation in our mind and in our hearts, reminding us of some of Gabriele D'Annunzio's poems, such as Autunno (Autumn)1, La neve (Snow)2, La serena fiesolana (Evening in Fiesole)3 or La pioggia nel pineto (Rain in the pinery)4. And then, in the second group, just the falling drops of a virtual rain that stands out against the dark cobalt blue colour of the night (Water drops), drops that can also be found in the various elements constituting a totem, and which, as in a sequence of frames, starting from the top, end up breaking down on the ground in the last "frame" below (The falling drops). Or a single drop, dense and luminous, against a red background that, falling from an invisible alembic, loses its original form due to gravity and spreads, dies and turns into a compact and sinuous anamorphic reality


[1] "Autumn, that in her eyes / and in the taciturn sea / mirror your red / gold / [...] I have never felt the sadness / so strong / that only you spread / [...] among the dead leaves! / [...] She was silent, closed in the black / tunic where pale flowers / were scattered, Autumn, like yours that / you gild / on the vain stalk [...] ".

2 "Come down with peace, / oh snow: and defend / the roots and offspring / that will still give / so much grass to the herds, / and bread to a man".

3 "[…] The tree [of the mulberry] [...] is silvered / with its bare branches [...] Oh evening, / praised be for your pearl face [...] Let my sweet evening song / be like the rain that knocks / tepid and fugitive [...] on the fields of wheat that yet is not ripe / and is not green, / and on the hay that is already harvested/ and changing its colour [...]. / Oh evening, / praised be for your pure and intact death, and for the wait that makes tremble / the first rising stars!"

4 "[…] I hear/ some other words / spoken by droplets and leaves / in the distance. / Listen. It rains / from scattered clouds. / Rain on the tamarisks / brackish and thirsty, / rain on the pines / scaly and bristling, / rain on the myrtle / divine [...]. Now you can hear all over the frond / rustles / the silver rain / that purifies [...] ".


that resembles an 'alive' and volatile mercury (Drops), a mercury that, along with the sulphur, in alchemy was considered a primordial element with which any other metal was formed, even silver and gold, containing in itself all the different aspects and quality of the matter.

And again, on the monochrome red canvas, the scattered drops may appear as of Wine in the glass, or, on the dark one a Puddle, which realistically resemble to water splashes made of 'thrown' liquid metal and then solidified, or 'frozen' drips of the Ice Age, of a petrified Waterfall or of an Icicle. Everything always revolves around water and metals, their heating and their fusion and evaporation and again around their cooling and their condensation and solidification: solve et coagula, alchemists have always aspired to it, to evolve and regenerate.

More complex compositional constructions in Snow ball in the air, where the silver metallic 'snow' ball (almost corroded and unreadable coin from the past) 'twirls' over a deep blue sky in the background, divided into four quadrangles, as if seen through a window with a white frame, which reminds us of some - although more informal and gestural - Interrupted Views, work of popular art by Mario Schifano. Lyrical and dreamlike 'impressions' that materialize on the starred night sky with a big moon with metallic reflections. In the Dance of the metals, on a uniform and anodyne black background, a silvery 'boiling' metal fluid shatters into streams and drops like oil in the water, like a galaxy exploded after the Big Bang, in a majestically centrifugal dynamic, which, astonished, calls in mind the greatness of the Cosmos, but projected and blocked in the pauperistic microcosmos of the canvas and of an almost organic matter captured under a microscope.

But Becker's works are not always pure natural sensation: in the 'triptych' composition of Hanging hearts, from the last white square at the bottom, overlaid with a perforated metal mesh, hangs on a chain a small surreal heart from postmodern and popular fairy-tale, which does not lack ironic accents. The Scream is a sort of modern reinterpretation, touching with its 'cold' key the Optical Art of the eighteenth-century Sturm und Drang which is at the basis of German Romanticism (but partially deprived of the sense of the Goethean sublimity and destructive force that destroys and annihilates) and the existential and all-encompassing scream of Munch. A metallic and silver drop is placed at the centre of an aura of acoustic 'waves' (composed of a black monochrome background of the canvas) that radiates between the hexagonal threads of a superimposed metal mesh. The colour is then shown in effigy of blacks, becoming itself an icon. An absolute and primary monochrome, which represents the absorption of the entire light spectrum, takes on all the enchantment of the sublime, without sinking into conceptual art forms. In other words, applying the Kantian concept of the aesthetics of the sublime expressed in his Critique of Judgment, we can confirm that at Becker there is no a dynamical sublime, suggesting amazement and dismay as a result of the awareness of our limits and our powerlessness, but a mathematical sublime, where a calm reflection on our dignity elevates us above the immensity and immeasurable grandeur of Nature itself.

And again, in the blue of the basic monochromy, stands out a metallic mesh cut in the form of rational and geometric right triangle, from which informal and 'irrational' drops hang or fall. A paradigmatic example of contaminatio or coincidentia oppositorum present in Becker's works and of which we have spoken, i.e., the dialectical and non-conflictual relationship between ratio and pathos insensatus, between instinct and reason, between mind and heart, typical of Germanic culture since the nineteenth century.

But perhaps the most emblematic works in this sense are My way, Brothers in arms and the Money for nothing series.

In the first of these paintings, on a purple background, various vertical elements stand out as if forming an interrupted line – road marking. However, they are not all perfectly aligned, as if to indicate not so much the 'road accidents' along the road, but rather the exit from the monotony of uniformity, from the mass, to confirm one's own personality, each different and coming out of stereotyped conventions. In the second painting, two circles or rings of metal intersect on a red background and their 'conjugal' conjunction indicates the senses of solidarity, camaraderie and collaboration, the spirit of communion and brotherhood along the 'battle' of life. Finally, the series dedicated to money is like a quiet reflection on the relativity of the value of money itself: copper and brass coins embedded in lead dripping, always on monochrome backgrounds of canvases, are blocked, made prisoners as if in the depth of abyss after the sinking of the ship that carried them; their tinkling no longer resounds, money does not 'run' anymore, it has become useless, it has no value, it has lost its falsely 'divine 'and omnipotent purpose.

Elements is the title of his exhibition. Elements of a whole, i.e., components, fundamental parts that constitute a whole through their aggregation, but also chemical elements of the Periodic Table, gaseous, liquid and solid (such as, according to increasing atomic number or number of protons, iron, copper, silver, tin, gold, mercury and lead, known since ancient times). With this term, therefore, we can understand both the different monochrome and serial 'mosaic elements' or 'pieces' that constitute various possible aggregations, as in a mechanistic DNA chain of life, and the various metallic 'elements' that impress vibrating 'soul' in a cold and inert matter, where the 'experimenter' Axel plays the role of a modern alchemist in search of 'his' philosopher's stone which transforms plain metals into gold and silver, that is, transforms materiality into spirit. Already according to Platonism, all Nature was held to be intimately populated by energies and arcane forces, sort of luminous Irrlichters from Goethean memory, hidden in the obscurity of matter and Mother Earth, and the task of the philosopher was to awake them again. The artist's task - it seems that Becker alludes to it – is to overcome the seemingly irreconcilable dualism between vivid spirit (the darting and informal metals) and amorphous matter (the abstractly geometric monochromes) reflected in the correspondence between the exterior 'workshop' and the interior 'laboratory ', giving rise to the possibility that all the metals present in the womb of the Earth can symbolically be destined to become silver and gold (perfection in all matter): thus the union between the false opposites heals the 'decomposition' of the 'logic' matter itself, imprinting in it that irrational quid and absurdum that tones it.

Axel's 'silver' metal, his melted tin in drops spread on the surface, puts this element in contact with its alchemical symbolism, which is the breath and thus, the breath of life.

As in the great transcendental allegory of the sacred and royal citadel of Monreale and its mosaics, precisely the Light is the thread that unravels the skein: the light reflected by those metallic drippings that constitute 'informal' or 'differently' formal 'presences', personalize and vivify, almost spiritualizing that matter governed by pure reason and by the eternal and unchangeable geometric, mathematical and physical laws, the laws of evolution and survival of Nature in the Universe.

Giampaolo Trotta