By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
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By Anna Merlan
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"Deny thy father," a battle cry as old as Shakespeare and a catalyst for gripping drama in countless literary classics, was Swiss artist Hermann Sigg's only alternative at age 14 when his father told him he'd have to stay home and run the family farm rather than pursue a career in art. "In his eyes, I was a traitor of the holy ground," Sigg says haltingly, much less comfortable in English than German. He's calling from his home near the hamlet of Oberhasli in the Zurich Unterland. "At this time, it was a disgrace for a farmer to have a son that was an artist." With only his mother's support, Sigg studied art in Zurich, but only for three months. His father made him return to the farm briefly, but Sigg broke out again, turning his back on his birthright once and for all, returning to Zurich to finish an art degree at the College of Commercial Art. He left Switzerland to study art in Paris, at the Académie André Lhote; afterward, he never looked back.
Sigg's father died without acknowledging the rightness of his son's decision, or his ultimate, international success as a painter and sculptor. Sigg doesn't like to speak of it, but in his midcareer and recent work, his choice of field and farmland motifs, though highly abstract, suggests a symbolic reconciliation. Sigg's home and studio are "a few hundred meters" from the family farm, which is maintained by his younger brother. Sigg walks the adjacent land every day before he begins to paint, a ritual that helps him develop his ideas and approach art-making with inner peace. "I walk in silence," he says, "to pray, to think about my work. My thinking and creating, imaginating [sic] ideas, work better for me when I make this walk. I cannot go in my studio without it. I would be empty like a battery that has worn out."
You could argue that Sigg, at 76, might be ready to wear out, exceeding his own life expectancy yet continuing to produce transcendent examples of abstract expressionism. His talent for distilling the landscapes of his homeland and India, Thailand, China, Nepal, and Cambodia into pure essence of form and color is captivating. Sigg's travels in Asia inspired most of the last decade of his work, which is currently on view at the Irving Arts Center through an arrangement with the Arts Council of Switzerland. He says Eastern philosophy, as well as the topography, made an indelible impression. "I created new work after seeing the symmetry of Asian architecture and also in Istanbul. I saw a lot of sunrises in the temples. It was a new beginning."
For the Irving exhibition, which debuted in New York City at the Westwood Gallery last October, dozens of Sigg's paintings, collages on paper, and found-object sculpture, created during the last 10 years, are displayed. Aerial visions of rivers derived from his travels are predominant in the series called "In the Middle Realm." His sculpture is architectural, reminiscent of Louise Nevelson's work, and made from found objects--industrial materials chosen for their pure, geometric lines. Most of the objects are table-top-sized and remotely figurative, with defined "spines" of space down the center to emphasize their bilateral symmetry. They're strangely silent, too, and sacred.
But it's the paintings that literally stop you in your tracks. Great, somber, powerful panels of color referencing Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. Sigg places a field of color dead center, often flanked by darker colors on either side. The artist wants the viewer to see what he sees and has situated the work's main elements within an open "doorway." His abstract rivers are sometimes hard-edged zigzags like lightning bolts, sometimes softly curved, drifting plumes like smoke. "I want to show the world in a peaceful state," Sigg says. "I want people to be silent, to be still in front of my paintings; to come to them with a kind of meditative thinking." Sigg is intent on sharing his own inner peace through his art. It's a hard-earned harmony, achieved over a lifetime of meditation and study, but born of a cruel conflict. Sigg's daily walk near his father's farm reminds him. His art is his consolation.