Artist’s books, catalogue design, and graphic design all form core aspects of the artistic practice of Heimo Zobernig (Mauthen, AT, 1958—Vienna, AT). The graphic conception and realization of his work is not limited to his own books and catalogues; it also encompasses posters, invitation cards, record covers, and similar items. They provide an expanded publication context for Zobernig’s interest in the relationship between form and function, in the ways that art is presented, and in exhibition displays. They reveal an intense preoccupation with typography, language, classification systems, and theories of color. Standardizations in this field (e. g., the DIN A4 format or the CMYK color model) are made artistically productive, while current design rules are questioned in a thoroughly playful manner.
Heimo Zobernig’s precise use of color is one of his most defining design tools. His graphic concepts for publications and other printed matter are often based on the four colors of the CMYK color model (cyan, magenta, yellow, and key, i.e., black), which is the technical prerequisite for four-color printing. Zobernig explores the possibilities offered by these four basic colors in an analytical, yet humorously subversive manner. His interest in strictly defined color systems combined with acts to undermine that very strictness is also characteristic of his paintings, sculptures, and video works. From the mid-1980s onward, Zobernig began painting abstract works, though here, too, he limited himself to a color spectrum that he had defined in advance, and he also played with the interrelations of colors, forms, and geometric variation. In 1995, together with the writer Ferdinand Schmatz, he published the artist’s book Farbenlehre (Color theory), which juxtaposes historical texts and diagrams that are derived from them in order to develop a “color theory from color theories.” Zobernig and Schmatz demonstrate how, in their words, no [single, universally applicable] color theory “can exist on its own, but only as one among various different color theories.”
Repetitions, references, allusions, and (self-)quotations are core aspects of Zobernig’s work, such as when site-specific installations are shown again at later exhibitions in altered spatial settings. In his catalogues and artist’s books, in particular, he draws on what has already been published. Zobernig appropriates designs of his own and of others, creating a network of references and exchanges with fellow artists, who quote him in turn. This began with his early exhibition catalogues, which were already designed as artists’ books and can be read as a series in terms of their format (which was still small-scale), their scope, and the basic ideas for their covers. This approach sometimes led to veritable reference loops, such as when Zobernig’s design for the cover of the journal Texte zur Kunst (no. 11, September 1993) was taken up a few years later by Mathias Poledna for his own cover design for an issue of the same journal (no. 31, September 1998) and was then reused by Zobernig as a kind of reappropriation for his book Kunst und Text (Art and text) for his exhibition at the Kunstverein in Bonn in 1998.
The five terms (color-text-space-art-modern) are crucial to Heimo Zobernig's artistic practice and form a spatial figure, which quotes an outline of El Lissitzky’s Proun room. Zobernig uses the four colors of the CMYK scheme, supplemented by green, which is the result of a 100:100 mixture of cyan and yellow. A few months later, he used the same spatial principle to design the Blue Box Video motif for an invitation card.
Typography and Layout
Zobernig’s typographic concepts and layouts seek complexity in simplicity. He practices maximum reduction by focusing on a fixed set of design tools, which stands in contrast to the multitude of design possibilities that he acquires through subverting established design rules and conventional reading habits. In the late 1980s, he settled on an A4 format for books and catalogs, the Helvetica font, and a largely uniform layout. Behind his choices was not a search for what was unique and unusual, but a preference for the high degree of functionality, neutrality, broad availability, and accessibility that these standards provide. These are standards that supposedly convey democratic values and that have an inherently non-hierarchical appearance. Zobernig’s unconventional use of these design elements is characteristic of his fundamental interrogation of conventional ideas about how a book cover or a poster should function. His enigmatic typographic designs – with their roughly cut texts, missing spacings, multiple superimpositions, and drastic shifts in proportions and reading direction – all serve to emphasize the image-like character of these textual works.
The corporate design of an art institution is present in all its printed matter. However, we rarely reflect on how it influences our perception of art. Zobernig has repeatedly created designs for exhibitions, including catalogues, invitation cards, and posters. In 1997, he conceived a corporate design for the Vienna Secession that was used by that institution for over ten years for its printed matter, especially its exhibition catalogues; Zobernig’s concept thus determined the Secession’s image for a long time. But even beyond his commissioned work, Zobernig is interested in addressing the connection between how an institution presents itself and how it presents art. For the catalogue of his retrospective, which took place simultaneously at the Neue Galerie Graz and at the Salzburger Kunstverein, Zobernig used the corporate design of both exhibition venues – which had been introduced shortly beforehand – and intertwined them on the catalogue cover, while juxtaposing them inside the catalogue itself. Zobernig conceived designs for the Generali Foundation on several occasions, including the catalogue for his own solo exhibition in 1991 and a monumental facade curtain used during the construction of the Generali Foundation’s former Viennese building, in addition to designs for posters and advertisements. These often focused on an artistic, subversive interpretation of the Generali Foundation’s logo and the corporate design specifications of the Generali insurance group.
With regard to content, Zobernig’s experimentation with the visual properties of text mirrors his engagement with language as a system of communication. Linguistic games and constantly reorganized lists of words testify to his verbal wit and, at the same time, open up space for reflecting on the concepts that shape the nature of an artist’s work in the contemporary art world. Through his juxtapositions of pictorial matter and texts, Zobernig often investigates the relationship between image and language, only to reveal – almost in the same breath – the absurdity of exact correspondences. His manner of making (seeming) typographic and orthographic errors productive is striking. We can read them as a humorous play with language or as an ironic commentary on language’s shortcomings – such as when he writes Katerlog or Austelung [roughly “Caterlog” or “Exhibishn”] instead of Katalog and Ausstellung (“catalogue” and “exhibition”). But they can also trigger semantic shifts and expand the room for interpretation of a word – such as when Stellproben (“set rehearsals”) becomes Stellproblemen (“set problems”), or when Farbenlehre (“color theory”) becomes Farbenlere (where Lehre, “theory,” becomes Le[e]re, “emptiness”).
The manner in which information is communicated and knowledge presented is determined on a formal level by design schemata, standards, and norms. They are part of comprehensive systems of ordering and classification upon which Zobernig repeatedly draws. The encyclopedia, the dictionary, or the (card) catalogue are tools for classifying, communicating, and producing knowledge. More specifically, they can reveal how meaning is generated in the field of art and how particular categories gain relevance, despite (or perhaps precisely because of) having to be constantly renegotiated. Zobernig plays with the notion of classification, borrowing the techniques and formats of reference sources, in his depiction of his progress as an artist. Those of his publications that have a retrospective character feature extensively annotated biographies, chronologies, and bibliographies arranged according to clear, predetermined models. An alphabetical list of twenty-six exhibitions from 1990 to 1992 was made visible on-site by his use of each respective letter of the alphabet at the exhibitions themselves. His documentation of these interventions became a work in itself, in the form of a slide projection that he later published.
An alphabetical or chronological list creates formal “brackets” and makes it possible for us to reflect on the mechanisms involved in the development of artistic careers and on the role of the artist in his own canonization. (Jürgen Tabor/Stefanie Grünangerl)