by Rosanna Albertini

Ewerdt Hilgemann: “I’m full of stories, they sit everywhere in my whole body.”

(From a conversation with Klaus Altevogt for metalligent, May 2017)

He had a solo exhibition at Royale Projects, Los Angeles CA, in 2017

It would be exciting to know how exactly each cell, each molecule, each organ reacts to stories and physical realities every time they grab our attention. They become a part of us whether we invite them or not. Here we have an artist born in Germany in 1938 who grew up among bombs and marching boots in the Ruhr area, and had the fortune of having grandparents in countryside, where for a while he enjoyed nature and the experiments on different materials in a cement factory where his grandfather was director of a laboratory. Strange objects fell from the sky. They ruined the hands of his best friend. Half of the house was destroyed. Ewerdt experienced a hostility conveyed by objects, but originated by humans. It takes a long time to find a personal answer to these kinds of absurdities.

I don’t know how he made up his mind. It’s a fact that, in 1982, Hilgemann made what Camus would declare the perfect absurd piece: The Rolling Cube. From Camus’ standpoint, it’s a compliment. Ten tons of Carrara white marble, a cube whose faces were polished by the artist for weeks, soft like a skin he caresses, gently, at the end of the work, is carried on a truck to the top of the mountain. And thrown down the ravine, to become again a broken splinter of the mountain. After the fall though, it is different from the other fragments of rocks throw down by the quarry workers: it had been sculpted. The whole action was filmed.

The caress: “The caress is the waiting for a pure time to come, time without a content. She is made with growing hunger, and more and more enticing promises, something that brings new perspectives on the things we cannot grasp.” (Emmanuel Levinas, Le temps et l’autre)

I was struck looking at the solitude of the artist and the rock during the physical transformation of the piece of marble. “I had to do it,” says the artist, and not for fame or money. He paid for the cube. In exchange, I would say, he became an anonymous field of existence. The cube had to be perfect, and meaningless. There is past in the men, as well as in the object’s material nature, but the object will not have the time to remember, it will be dead in a few minutes, leaving to the artist a beautiful ruin. Ugliness and pain of an inhuman history, its thickness, the smell of war, along with impenetrable political decisions, still heavy like a storm of memories, were persuaded for a very short time to get in touch with beauty. Like Marie Antoinette climbing the scaffold. It won’t last.

Maybe the present starts there for the artist, his own journey free from the weight of the past. Returning to himself, the artist is chained to Ewerdt as never before. He is finally in the present. “C’est un présent d’être et non de rêve.” It’s a living present, not of a dream. “The present has shredded the texture of the infinite existing; history is ignored; the present starts from right now.” (Emmanuel Levinas, Le temps et l’autre)

In the art that came after killing the cube, a sense of damage remains that Michelangelo, Bernini, even Camille Claudel, couldn’t conceive. After so many proofs of destructive power among humans, how could artworks remain untouched? Hilgemann sculptures succeed in being beautiful despite the distance and the separation the artist has organized between his hands and the shape that appears. He prepares a regular volume, connects a pump to the inside of the piece, and waits for the implosion of the form, while little by little the extraction, almost an abduction of the air, produces shrinking, moaning, strong noise at times, for the art body has to be born by himself.

In Europe the beginnings of conceptual experiences in the arts were quite different from American conceptualism. The finitude of the object must pay a price to a very diffused state of mind still disturbed by real ruins and graveyards facing the permanent, immutable natural splendor. There was need “to make violence to the present, forcing art (for instance) to reach levels that are beyond the concept of art. Vincenzo Agnetti. “ Intuition is conscious reality bumped in the dark.” 1970

And Hilgemann’s sculptures of today, with their unsteady balance, deformed as if they had been pinched by invisible inner demons, show their imperfect body with pride, they are so human one can only sympathize with them. Does your heap hurt? Are you strangely bent? Look at me, they say, my odd angles will never change. And I did it by myself. Like you, isn’t it? Yet, they also express care, and a secret determination of the artist to give at least a direction to their taking form. ‘Conceptually,’ I don’t know if it is the proper word, their luminous charm emanates from the artist’s caress, as “waiting for a pure time to come, time without a content.”

An already imploded sculpture at Royale Projects:

And the process of implosion of a new piece at the gallery, during the opening:  (details)

















Photos: Peter Kirby

“Only art can go someway toward making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of the matter – the retractions out of reach of rock and wood, of metal and fiber. … Without the arts, form would remain unmet and strangeness without speech in the silence of the stone.”  George Steiner


George Steiner, Real Presences, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1989;  Albert Camus, Le mythe de Sisyphe, Gallimard, Paris 1942; Concettuale in Italia 1965-1972, Galleria Milano, 1987; Ewerdt Hilgemann, Art Affairs, Amsterdam, 2015; Emmanuel Levinas, Le temps et l’autre, PUF, Paris 1983.

Emmanuel Levinas, 1906-1995. French philosopher born in Lithuania to Jewish parents. At home they spoke Yiddish as well as Russian. In 1928-29 he studied under Edmond Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He was the first to introduce their ideas into France. Levinas was a prisoner of war in a German camp, while his wife and daughter hid in a French convent. One of his early books, Le temps et l’autre, taught me nuances and defaults of our understanding, and the lack of reality of idealistic abstractions: time, being, existence merge into the fullness of life, and only the face-to-face with other humans allows them to exist. Levinas took his notes for this book when he was a prisoner. RA


Mid-Sixties: LES BILLER between Japan and California

by Rosanna Albertini


LES BILLER, Isabel , 1966 Oil on canvas. Full painting and detail. Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery C

LES BILLER, Isabel, 1966 Oil on canvas. Full painting and detail.
Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery

“Sensations and thoughts remind us  that “reality”, not only burdened by, but also truly made with all our projections, is the real object in question Luca Patella, (1964)

A natural  cultural environment: going into a patch-work meadow, with colored checks, we find olive and other trees that smell good and talk… Trees talk (… playful and serious) of all the human actions, relations and transformations. Besides, what else under the sky?” Luca Patella, (1970)

“Is it possible to define conceptual art? The very first moments of a new born tendency are like the movable crystals of a kaleidoscope.” Giulio Paolini, (1967)

LES BILLER, Diamond Garden, 1965, Acrylic, enamel, collage/paper Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery

LES BILLER, Diamond Garden, 1965, Acrylic, enamel, collage/paper
Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery

“I wish an anti-theatrical Art, the necessary condition to have Art living a life which is sincere … conceived for a micro, or a secret  society. An introverted, mysterious Art acting by evocations and not by immediate theorems, not coming directly from reason. I think of something like a vision, expressing a memory’s meaning, looking like a prophetic object.” Claudio Parmeggiani

LES BILLER, Heian Family, 1964-67, Oil enamel on masonite

LES BILLER, Heian Family, 1964-67, Oil enamel on masonite  Courtesy of the artists and Rosamund Felsen Gallery

“Each event, the way it’s distinguished, is a myth. Each action, the way one lives it, is magic. We create mythology when we tell stories, and give a new life to the magic structure of a space.” Paolo Scheggi  (1965?)

LES BILLER, Chinese Nature in Southern California, 1963 24" x 20" Oil Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery

LES BILLER, Chinese Nature in Southern California, 1963 24″ x 20″ Oil   Back of the painting
Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery

LES BILLER, Chinese Nature in Southern California, 1963 24" x 20"  Oil Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery

LES BILLER, Chinese Nature in Southern California, 1963 24″ x 20″ Oil   Front of the Painting

“Anxiety and urgency of ideas, research as ‘obligation,’ worries about evidence, define the grotesque destiny, the charming unpleasant-ness of our days art. Upside-down the muse, reversed the painting, endless transcription, time arbiter, they all  bring derision to the temporary nature (and splendor) of the image.” Giulio Paolini (1967?)

LES BILLER, Fuji, Shrine, Face in Cloud, 1967, 28" x 22"  Oil, enamel, pencil on wood Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery

LES BILLER, Fuji, Shrine, Face in Cloud, 1967, 28″ x 22″ Oil, enamel, pencil on masonite
Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery

“Only a conceptual balance can destabilize the present: an unsteady balance between past and future, between forgetfulness and discovery.”    Vincenzo Agnetti

The starting point in writing, painting, and many other human activities, is often a dark cloud hiding the brain. Mister Thinking is asleep, or pretends not to be there. Then Lady Intuition appears and bumps into the cloud of Thoughts. There is a path, no one knows where it goes. The human personality perhaps doesn’t have any role in this story, except being driven by emotions. Why I’ve placed a few lines written by early Italian conceptual artists next to Les Biller’s paintings I don’t really know, they were conceived in the same decade but this is a fact, not a reason. Making art was not, for them, living in their heads. Italians are not Americans. Away from reason and structured theories and rationalized spaces for living, away from industrial happiness. In the Nineteen Sixties.

My conceptual people did not fear a tentative navigation over a vague, unclear stream of un-decisions: human actions floating in a large, magic space of sensibility; a reality built by our projections, often out of focus, dissolved in nuances, dreams, alterations, disappearances. That’s also in Les Biller’s art.

Nor do I want to imprison his American art in an Italian conceptual cage because I’m in my native water with Paolini, Agnetti, Scheggi, Parmeggiani, Patella, Ferrari. But, Les Biller’s art made me find their words today. In the Sixties I was lost in philosophical labyrinths, kissing boyfriends in secret corners, not yet restored, of the Thirteenth century convent that had been transformed into the humanities’ home called Università Statale di Milano. I was fantasizing about the plague, for centuries cured in the same rooms of our classes, when the convent was a hospital. I missed then all the wonderful artists who were there, in the same city or nearby, a parallel universe for me. Yet, now that I read them and hold their art inside me I see that now is the right time, I ‘m a tree of the same forest.

Italian thoughts around Les Biller’s paintings are soft companions offering a glass of wine to their American friend, sharing struggle and doubts. They don’t ask. There is nothing to ask for, only life that becomes art. Isabel’s diamonds spread the sparks of life of a baby girl who did not make it. The painter father asks the bushes to tell his heart, the small figurine fades, while colors sing her laude, forever.

“Once upon a time there was … the common place.

The violence’s noise … is a guarantee.

The wisdom’s sound … is a risk.

The opposite could also be true, it depends on your musical education.” (Vincenzo Ferrari)

Not so frequent to meet an artist with family, many children. These paintings, made in a time of transitions, journeys between countries and memories and painting modes, seem to me generated by a secret inner space, the only one from which a new human adventure for an artist can begin. Les Biller lived in Japan for three years with his family, back to Los Angeles accepted a job at UCLA, was a teacher of Figure Drawing with Richard Dibenkorn and Lynn Foulks. “For each painting I could start a new journey, I only have to go through…” Les says. And it’s a luminous journey; images are not allowed to be still, or organized around one single perspective. They move along with the artist’s mind. A diamond opens its facets to become a garden in dawn and sunset, always pervaded by pink light.

As in Samuel Beckett (the short stories written in the late 50s and 60s) things move and get in the artist’s path. They have the beauty of landscapes altered by unconscious turmoils, the eyes editing cuts and angles with humor, and multiplied questions. What to do with flatness? Painted pages. In another beginning, Les has been a writer. But images prevailed. An odd body of transformations brought him to merge Chinese nature with California palm trees, only one jungle growing in his mind, as if time had overcome the resistance, the inertia of images asking to be separately recognized, identified. No way. Here we have the real presence of mental operations. On the living texture —the real canvas of Les Biller paintings— if images seem still, it depends on the distance, but they like better to float, as light as a flying albatross, free from the ground, they never really stop. His mind works like an illusionist: “He is a boy and suddenly an old man,” (Beckett) he is a boy enchanted by the oriental furnitures of grandmother’s house and not much later a father in Japan climbing mountains, absorbing fog and colors. Les Biller’s visions will change in the 70s, but let’s be here with him for a while, taking in with our eyes these few, evocative paintings, “prophetic objects,” and let’s embrace the courage of a dreamer.

Quotes of Vincenzo Agnetti, Vincenzo Ferrari, Giulio Paolini, Paolo Scheggi, Claudio Parmeggiani, Luca Patella, come from the small, precious catalogue of the exhibition CONCETTUALE IN ITALIA 1965-1972, published by GALLERIA MILANO in 1987.