Irene Zaharoff’s work (by Konrad Oberhuber)

Anyone seeing Irene Zaharoff’s monumental Triptyches for the first time, as something elemental, will probably react with a gasp of surprise.

These days it is rare to find such a radical contrast between dark blue and light yellow, deep orange and rich red. This contrast is enhanced by the vivid luminosity of these colours and by their expressive character: the calmness of the blue, the sparkling brightness of the yellow and the more static demeanour of the red and orange. At the same time the luminous colours hover freely in space like celestial phenomena, lifting the observer from the heaviness of body into a sphere of free spiritual colour.

Despite the use of oils we never feel the usual denseness and solidity of this medium because the luminosity is not achieved through a thick application of paint but through diverse layering of the thinnest varnishes. The polarity and gestures of colour are not enhanced and presented with equal emphasis in all works. In paintings such as “mehr gegen den Rand der Welt zu” the colour tones are more subdued and the paints applied in smaller areas, and the impression thus produced is quite different – a comfortable nestling into the cosmic whole.

Irene Zaharoff’s works demonstrate many variations in the way luminous colours work together, from the celestial to the more earthy, stony realm of landscapes, and even works in which the painting media themselves are given a voice. This aspect of her work is particularly visible in her works on paper. Here the artist works principally with the structures formed by the evaporation of mostly brown or black water-soluble pigments on the base material. The varying densites of mixture, the greater or lesser solubility of the mineral or plant material, and the absorbency of the paper, are used deliberately as structural method.

The brush serves rather as a guide to this process than as an independent creative agent. And in this way the most astonishing creations – mostly reminiscent of landscapes – come to life, sometimes coupled with the poems of the artist’s friend and poet Buh-Kutzli, who personally wrote his verses into the paintings, emphasising their poetic effect. One is reminded of east-Asian paintings and poetry. Through such works Irene Zaharoff forms part of the great paperwork tradition pioneered by Antoni Tapiez and Joseph Beuys, and she adds to this tradition a particularly individual sensibility towards nature.

Since the revolution around 1900 against the then predominantly representative art, the demand to let the material itself speak has become stronger and stronger in the arts, particularly in German expressionism. In the second half of last century this demand was answered to an increasing extent. In Austria, for example, Max Weiler experimented extensively with the qualities of his tempera colours and gave their gestures plenty of free space in his paintings.

As for the autarchy of colour, it was principally the well-respected Rudolf Steiner – revered also by Beuys – who, at the beginning of last century, demanded that in future colour and not line should determine form. Rudolf Steiner was referring to J.W. von Goethe’s observations about the character of colour, whereas the academic tradition, and even the great colourist Matisse, demanded that form be determined by line.

As Weiler observed in the sixties, liberated colours and materials then formed naturalistic and spiritual creations. In her works, Irene Zaharoff pursues in a particularly radical way these new demands of the arts and enriches them by her deep sensitivity towards plants, landscapes and animals. It is in this way that she arrives at the often quite astonishing results which we described at the beginning.

Konrad oberhuber, born in Linz in 1935, studied art history in Vienna, Cologne and Rome. From 1961–1971, he was employed in the Albertina/Vienna, where he returned as director in 1987. In the years between, he worked at the National Gallery in Washington and taught at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Priceton and for twelve years at Harvard University.



your painting is a doorway
inside my head it opens
like a gash
hard un-hardened things
felt but unexpressed
seen but unperceived
words torn apart unravelled
into meanings
in and through and down
along the caves and tubes and
filamental paths of hormones
cradle our dreams

your painting is a journey
fantasies and cloud castles
open bursting into

Katharina Russel-Head
design director
Melbourne, 1998