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Imi Knoebel

May 28, 2021–May 21, 2023, Dia Beacon


Imi Knoebel’s work of the 1960s and ’70s grapples with questions of presentation and installation, as well as a preoccupation with form. Focused on eliciting an abstract, generic condition in art, Knoebel reduces his work to explorations of form, material, surface, and space. Rejecting the use of metaphor and allusion in art, Knoebel focuses on a pragmatic investigation of the formal properties and protocols of the exhibition space, as well as structures for the installation and viewing of his work. In turn, each installation of his work is responsive to its surroundings.

In the mid-1970s, Knoebel began working with abstract shapes layered with a type of paint typically used for industrial anticorrosion purposes. The ten-part series Mennigebilder (1976) features some of his earliest production in this vein, pairing abstract form and utilitarian use of lead pigment. Eschewing familiar geometric shapes and a sequential or formulaic approach to color, Knoebel instead chooses to use complex forms and specific-but-unconventional colors. Shown only once before in Cologne, West Germany, in 1981, the series then entered Dia’s collection in 1982 and has never before been exhibited in the United States. This presentation, in one of Dia Beacon’s large central galleries, follows important restoration work on the series and also includes additional work by the artist.

Imi Knoebel is made possible by significant support from Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne. Generous support provided by Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, and Salzburg, and White Cube.

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Klaus Wolf Knoebel adopted the pseudonym “Imi” while enrolled in Joseph Beuys’s course at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie between 1964 and 1971. In contrast with his professor, whose quasi-mythological persona was a fixture in West German media at the time, Knoebel purposefully developed a nonspecific artistic identity. He shared the pseudonym “Imi” with his friend and fellow Beuys student Rainer Giese and, to date, has given only one interview. At the same time, Knoebel embraced minimal, self-evident forms that reject symbolic or metaphoric meaning. The artist’s discovery of the Russian avant-gardist Kazimir Malevich’s abstract paintings, which illustrate the principle of cosmic infinity through arrangements of geometric forms, led to an early development of two- and three-dimensional works that explore painting’s architectural and sculptural qualities. Applying unmixed colors to readymade panels, Knoebel sees painting as a practice involving matter and space as well as the traditional considerations of color and line.

Early on, Knoebel developed an interest in implicating site, social experience, and the structures and conventions of art’s display in abstraction’s production of meaning. These concerns are the focus, for example, of Raum 19 (Room 19, 1968), a work on long-term view at Dia Beacon. This alterable installation of stretchers and volumetric Masonite forms is scaled to the specific measurements of Knoebel and Giese’s studio at the Düsseldorf academy. 250.000 Zeichnungen (250,000 Drawings, 1968–75) continues this line of inquiry by making the artwork’s presentation contingent on its method of storage. The installation consists of 6 custom-built, double-doored cabinets containing 912 boxes that hold 250,000 graphite drawings executed between 1968 and 1975, each consisting of juxtapositions of 2 straight lines on letter-sized paper. When the cabinets were first shown at Dia in 1987, visitors to the exhibition could, in theory, view the drawings by asking a gallery attendant to unlock and open the cabinets’ drawers. (As remembered by the curator Katharina Schmidt, however, none did.1)

Knoebel’s series of Mennigebilder (Red Lead Pictures, 1976/2017), which he developed by combining overlapping, irregularly shaped wood panels, marks a key juncture in the introduction of color to his practice. Like the artist’s earliest works—the Linienbilder (Line Pictures, 1966–68), simple line drawings on white paper, and Projektionen (Projections, 1970– ), created by photographing rods of light emanating from a projector—the Red Lead Pictures were originally achromatic. After first showing the series at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, in 1976, Knoebel revised the Red Lead Pictures by adding pigment made from minium, a lead oxide typically used to protect metals against corrosion. Minium, as Knoebel described it, provided “pre-color, protective color, non-color, under-color, color before color”; in other words, a material whose chromatic interest was an incidental result of its chemistry.2 Knoebel’s shift away from the warm readymade color of Masonite to applied color on wood panels was partly informed by his friendship with his former classmate Blinky Palermo, whom Knoebel has referred to as “the master of colors” and who inspired him to begin experimenting with mineral pigments including red, black, and brown iron oxides; zinc white; and gold leaf.3

After Palermo’s death in 1977, Knoebel continued to develop a systematic approach to the application of color—first with green, the “most essential, the truest, the most natural” and “most existential” color, as Knoebel once described it.4 He then exclusively used primary colors in the irregularly shaped canvases that make up the series Rot Gelb Blau I–VI (Red Yellow Blue I–VI, 1978–79), all of which are on view in Beacon. These works make notable use of shapes derived from irregular heptagons. Such forms appealed to Knoebel because unlike rectangles, pentagons, or hexagons they cannot fit into any geometric system. Red Yellow Blue thus thematizes the contrast between systematic color—the result of Palermo’s enduring influence on Knoebel’s work—and unsystematic form.

1 Imi Knobel, quoted in Johannes Stüttgen, “Signals of the Non-Objective World: The Early Stations of Imi Knoebel’s Artistic Work until ‘24 Farben – für Blinky’ 1977 (With References to Friedrich Schiller),” in Imi Knoebel: 9 von 24 Farben – für Blinky (Weimar, 2005), p. 19.

2 Knoebel, quoted in ibid, p. 20.

3 Knoebel, quoted in ibid., p. 75.

4 Katharina Schmidt, “The Greifweg Studio,” in Imi Knoebel (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 1987), p. 13.

Imi Knoebel was born in Dessau, Germany, in 1940. He was a Meisterschüler (master student) of Joseph Beuys at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1964 to 1971. His first exhibition, IMI + IMI, with fellow student Imi Giese, was held in Copenhagen in 1968. His work has since been included in such seminal exhibitions as Public Eye: Kinetik, Konstruktivismus, Environments, Kunsthaus Hamburg (1968), Prospect 71: , Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (1971), and Documenta (1972, 1977, 1982, and 1987). In 1987 Knoebel oversaw an installation of his work, as well as that of Beuys and Blinky Palermo, for the inaugural exhibitions at Dia Art Foundation’s galleries on West 22nd Street in New York. A 1996–97 retrospective of Knoebel’s work traveled throughout Europe, including such venues as Haus der Kunst, Munich; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Spain. Two related exhibitions of Knoebel’s work were held in 2009 at the Neue Nationalgalerie and Deutsche Guggenheim, both Berlin. In 2011 he was commissioned to create six monumental stained-glass windows for the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Reims, France, and in 2016 he received the Ordre des arts et des lettres from the French Minister of Culture. Knoebel’s environmental installation Raum 19 (Room 19, 1968) is on long-term view at Dia Beacon. He lives in Düsseldorf.

  1. Rot Gelb Blau I (Red Yellow Blue I), 1978–79
    Acrylic on plywood 
  1. Rot Gelb Blau II (Red Yellow Blue II), 1978–79 
    Acrylic on plywood
  1. Rot Gelb Blau III (Red Yellow Blue III), 1978–79
    Acrylic on plywood 
  1. Rot Gelb Blau IV (Red Yellow Blue IV), 1978–79
    Acrylic on plywood
  1. Rot Gelb Blau V (Red Yellow Blue V), 1978–79
    Acrylic on plywood
  1. Rot Gelb Blau VI (Red Yellow Blue VI), 1978–79
    Acrylic on plywood
  1. 250.000 Zeichnungen (250,000 Drawings), 1968–75
    6 cabinets with 250,000 pencil-on-paper drawings in 912 custom, loose-leaf binders 
  1. Mennigeskulptur D3 (Red Lead Sculpture D3), 1976/2017
    Iron-oxide paint on wood, 6 parts
  1. Mennigebild A4 (Red Lead Picture A4), 1976/2017
    Iron-oxide paint on wood
  1. Mennigebild A3 (Red Lead Picture A3), 1976/2017
    Ivory black paint on wood
  1. Mennigebild A1 (Red Lead Picture A1), 1976/2017
    Iron-oxide paint on wood 
  1. Mennigebild B5 (Red Lead Picture B5), 1976/2017
    Iron-oxide paint on wood
  1. Mennigeskulptur C7 (Red Lead Sculpture C7), 1976/2017
    Iron-oxide paint on wood, 6 parts
  1. Mennigebild C4 (Red Lead Picture C4), 1976/2017
    Iron-oxide paint on wood
  1. Mennigebild D2-2 (Red Lead Picture D2-2), 1976/2017
    Gold leaf on wood
  1. Mennigebild A2 (für Palermo) (Red Lead Picture A2 [for Palermo]), 1976/2017
    Acrylic on wood
  1. Mennigebild D1 (Red Lead Picture D1), 1976/2017
    Zinc white paint on wood 

All works Dia Art Foundation


Imi Knoebel

Imi Knoebel was born in Dessau, Germany, in 1940. He lives and works in Düsseldorf.

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