Tomma Abts @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

There are two Serpentine Galleries. The original one was opened in 1970 in a one-time tea-room pavilion built in 1933, and has been putting on exhibitions by cutting-edge contemporary artists for nearly 50 years.

In 2013 a second site was opened – the Serpentine Sackler Gallery being the conversion into gallery space of a Grade II-listed, former gunpowder store, originally built in 1805. Whereas the original gallery is just south of the lake, the Sackler Gallery is over the bridge on the north side of the Serpentine.

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery consists of four display corridors set in a square around two large brick rooms which once held gunpowder, and hence are named the Powder Rooms. Artists and curators are free to utilise these rather dark mysterious spaces or not, as required.

From a practical point of view, maybe the most important thing about the two galleries is that, while they host a steady stream of exhibitions by leading contemporary artists, they are both COMPLETELY FREE.

Tomma Abts

Just opened at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is the first ever solo exhibition by leading German woman artist, Tomma Abts. It is one of the largest collections of her work shown anywhere, bringing together 25 works from the last decade.

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Abts is best known for her acrylic and oil paintings which ring an extraordinary variety of changes on a limited number of motifs and colours, all contained within a uniform canvas size of precisely 48cm by 38cm.

Why this size? Because, she explained at the press launch I attended, it allows freedom and flexibility. A little larger and you have to begin to plan and compose the work. At this size, works can be reworked, reversioned and remodelled.

The process of making

Starting with her standard-sized canvas, Abst lays down a bed of acrylic paint, lets it dry, and then begins experimenting with shapes, hand drawing in patterns, beginning to colour them with oil paint, getting a sense of their play and interaction.

There is no subject, nothing is being depicted. It is a completely open process. Guided only by intuition and a feeling for design, for what works and what doesn’t, Abts slowly builds towards a final version, painting over earlier patterns and designs, until shapes and colours crystallise into a new work.

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

The results are surprisingly varied and visually interesting. They also have a genuinely hypnotic quality.

For a start, you can get far more up-close-and-personal to Abt’s work than you can to most paintings.

  • None of them have a frame – which makes them more approachable in an obvious physical sense, but also in a more subtle aesthetic way.
  • They are not covered with a glass sheet, unlike so many paintings in so many galleries – thus you don’t get horrible reflections to put you off an immediate and full cognition of the image.
  • There is no marker on the floor a yard from the works and no officious security dude telling you to keep your distance. You can go up as close as you like. You could easily touch the surface if you wanted to, and you can certainly examine the canvas from just inches away.
  • There are no wall labels to distract you with information about the title, date, materials or anything else. Each work stands alone on the blank white wall in its own zone of attraction.
  • And the hang has been done deliberately so all the works are about five feet off the ground, at exactly head, and eye, height.

All of this has been done to encourage you to really ‘engage’ with the works. To look closely and then look again. I got chatting to one of the gallery assistants (an Italian guy) and we spent a good five minutes looking closely at Unno.

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

We noticed that:

  • The oil paint is deep. The canvas has been painted over, and then over again. This gives the surface of the canvas – seen up close – a noticeable grain and texture, and the image as a whole – seen from a little further back – a kind of richness and depth.
  • Looking close, you can see the traces of where previous designs have been painted over but left their marks. Each painting is thus a palimpsest (‘something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form’). The closer you look, the more residues and traces of earlier compositions you see – in the case of Unno you can make out wavy lines which had once existed but have been painted over to create a completely geometric image – but which nonetheless have left a ghostly residue.
  • Next, the light source. Only after really looking for a while did I realise that some of the patterns are given the illusion of depth by being painted as if casting ‘shadows’ – namely the two diagonal sticks. But only two of them. The third one doesn’t have a shadow. I presume the use of some shadow creates the illusion of depth and so the traditional painterly notion of looking into a three-dimensional space, while the unshadowed elements (the third stick and the ring) do not have shadow but sit purely on the surface. The result doesn’t clash, but adds complexity to your perception.
  • Also playing with conventions of light and depth is the way the brown circle which dominates the image is much lighter on the right, as if it is a metal ring and is being burnished by sunshine or some other light source coming from that direction. And yet, unlike the sticks, it doesn’t have a shadow.
  • Taken together, these are deliberately trompe l’oeil effects, aspects of oil painting which can be played with to deceive the mind. Having observed all these elements, if you put them back together you realise that, although they’re there, they don’t seriously disrupt or undermine the composition: they enhance and deepen it.

And all of this is before you come to consider the palette, the particular combination of colours being used – obviously dominated by the brown background, with a darker brown (though deceptively burnished metallic aspect) for the ring. And against this the three ‘sticks’ which combine pink and beige and light blue punctuated with their own brown blips to create… to create what?

Well, a distinct and powerful colour world. Just for this work. Other works have completely different palettes, for example, the acid yellow of Feke pictured at the top of this review, or the limited use of acid yellow against a much more sombre backdrop in Fiebe.

Each of these one-off colour schemes creates a specific ‘mood’, just as the patterns and shapes create a different action or motif. At one point I thought of ballet, of evenings of ballet I’ve been to where they put on three or four short works by completely different composers, each one creating its own mood, colour, music and imagine-world.

In a way Abt’s paintings are like ballets, each with a unique set, with dancers dressed in weird, abstract or geomorphic costumes, and each has its own peculiar ‘music’.

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Geometric and organic

So are they all rather rigid and geometric?

No. A number of them, admittedly a minority of the works on show here, make a point of being ‘looser’ and more organic.

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Almost all of them use the same devices of shadow to create illusory ‘space’, and the ‘burnishing’ of some lines or surfaces as if they are metallic and closer to a light source – all the tactics I noticed in Unno – but each cast in their own strongly unified colour schemes. Each with its own music of colour and composition.

In some of them the shadowing gave the elements a bit more of a physical and tactile quality. I wanted to reach into this one and tug the ribbon or wool or paper or string, and dangle and twirl it for my cat to play with.

Playing with the canvas

Having got to grips with Abt’s core or base style, you then come across works where she plays with it, evolves it, varies it.

Specifically, there are a number of works which take the painting-as-object idea further by experimenting with the shape of the canvas. Some have one corner gently rounded off. Others have a corner sharply cut off. And some of the canvases have been cut entirely in two.

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

The most radical experiment with form was the couple of works which she had designed and then had cast in aluminium – quite a big step away from the organic process of painting and repainting which the other works make such a virtue out of.

For me the ‘whole’ works, with their integrated colour schemes and subtle trompe l’oeil effects, with their textured surfaces and the just-visible traces of previous designs – maintain a subtle and pleasing balance between being objects you look into, absorbed by colour and composition, and objects you look at, beguiled by their obvious presence as objects-in-the-world.

I can see why Abts was drawn to experiment with her basic format – after all, why not? – and I was intrigued and pleased with some of them. But somehow I felt that the fundamental idea of a kind of never-ending sequence of 48cm by 38cm canvases itself had a kind of formal beauty. I felt a little let down by the ‘altered’ canvases.

Larger scale

And the same went for the three larger canvases which the show includes. These are all 86.5 x 63.5 cm, so nearly twice the dimensions of the ‘standard’ Abts work.

It was interesting to learn from the artist herself that this significant increase in scale required an entirely different working procedure, namely that the design had to be completely finished and composed before the work began. 86.5 x 63.5 cm turns out to be too big a scale to experiment, revise and repaint on.

Stylistically, they are recognisably the same kind of geometric patterns incorporating trompe l’oeil shadow effects as their smaller cousins – indeed the need for formal composition meant that Abts was able to select very precisely where lines would intersect or hit the canvas edge, and so all three seem a bit more vividly, even abrasively, mathematical in design.

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

But I didn’t feel they necessarily added anything to the fundamental concept which the 48cm canvases so powerfully convey. She’s interspersed the three big ones in among the regular 48cm works but, to my mind, they required seeing in a noticeably different way. I’d have preferred to see them hung next to each other, maybe with 2 or 3 others, to have made a separate section of the show, so that you could soak up all the implications of the difference in scale more thoroughly.


These paintings by Tomma Abts are really beautiful, absorbing, mesmeric works which offer up more and more rewards, the closer you look.

Many paintings are just paintings, but Abt’s works are like a kind of Zen training in How to Look, to look closely, and then to look again.

And the exhibition is FREE. It’s in a lovely, light, air-conditioned gallery right next to the picturesque Serpentine, with its deckchairs and its ice cream vendors.

Go, and give your mind a treat.

Related links

  • Tomma Abts continues at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 September 2018

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Products for Organising by Simon Denny @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

This is really up-to-the-minute art. Simon Denny is a youthful 32-year-old New Zealander and arrives in Hyde Park hotfoot from an acclaimed installation at this year’s Venice Biennale, with a show designed specifically for the symmetrical space of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery and titled Products for Organising.

This is Denny’s first solo exhibition in London and it presents a number of challenges:

  • It tackles one of the major issues of our time, one which nobody in fact fully understands – the worldwide explosion of digital technologies, the role of hackers understood in the broadest sense, and their impact on large organisations.
  • It addresses this complex and multi-faceted subject in a visually and intellectually demanding way – not in tidy 2-D paintings but via scaffolding, vitrines, display cases and architects’ models, which are themselves stuffed with texts, notes, labels, TVs showing historic footage as well as countless objects, from cooling fans to the cuddly toys which IT dudes like throwing at each other in the office, magazines, corporate logos, books of management theory, T-shirts and trivia, all these and much more are stuck, glued, appended, inserted, stuffed into and dangle from Denny’s packed and hectic installations.

Whereas Transiencethe exhibition of paintings by Michael Craig-Martin up the road at the main Serpentine Gallery, deals with the surface, the look and design of modern digital products – smart phones, laptops, electronic door passes – Denny’s installation looks at how digital technologies are changing the way organisations are conceived and managed, and interrogates – ie displays for our wonder and dismay – the rhetorics of corporate language. Products for Organising digs beneath the surfaces Craig-Martin so lovingly depicts, goes behind the scenes of modern technologies. So it’s entirely appropriate that it’s made out of behind-the-scenes materials – scaffolding, computer racks, abandoned hardware. All the wrack and paraphernalia of the Big Data revolution.

Take Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) – basically the frame for a stack of computer components which has been adapted to incorporate a spiral train track on which runs a model train (a Roco steam locomotive BE 23.10, in case you wondered). Painted up the front is a snakes and ladders-style ladder listing key moments in this history of computer hacking.

The information on the base says the whole thing refers to technicians and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who, just after World War II, set up the ‘Tech Model Railway Club’, to experiment with ways of circumventing and altering official computer programs, experiments which later led, among many other things, to the first attempts to illicitly tap phone calls, so-called ‘phreaking’, in the 1950s.

They called this and other ways of getting round official technology, ‘hacking’ – and thus the word – and an attitude and a whole area of human activity – was born.

Simon Denny introduces Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny introduces Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking is a snapshot of history, explaining the origins of ‘hacking’ via the detailed information label, but also dramatising it in the form of an object taken from the milieu being described and then repurposed, with a large dollop of humour (the train, the ladders), as… as a what? A 3-D embodiment of the moment, of the movement? An art work in itself? A museum exhibit? A teaching device?

Products for Emergent Organisations

The space at the Sackler gallery is made up of four equal-sized corridors forming a square around a pair of rectangular central rooms. Denny’s installation is divided into two distinct parts, each with its own title – Products for Emergent Organisations and Products for Formalised Organisations.

On the left as you go in is Products for Emergent Organisations, dominated by a scaffold which you climb in shallow steps, next to which are a further series of computer racks modified to explain various moments in the history of hacking. They display old-fashioned payphones, computer screens and keyboards from the 1980s. The top one (visible in this photo) contains a carefully assembled pile of Red Bull energy drinks – classic fuel for the all-night ‘hackthons’ which the rack refers to.

Installation view of Products for Organising by Simon Denny at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Installation view of Products for Emergent Organisations by Simon Denny at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Continuing round the corner you come across more displays showing how information and objects, computer parts, motherboards and fans and keyboards and screens, embody the interpenetration of hacking activity and organisational logic, the spread of acronyms and attitudes from ‘breakout spaces’ to buttoned-up bureaucracies. It is a potentially overwhelming amount of stuff, but one which is maybe appropriate to the information overload of the subject matter…

So is hacking good or bad, I asked him? Too simplistic a question. The press and media and movies have given the word bad connotations – especially in light of the illegal hacking of celebrities’ phones by our bestselling newspapers – but it refers to a very diverse set of people and activities, the bad, the ugly but also the very good.

Many members of the far-flung and diverse hacking community are committed to liberal causes like keeping the internet accessible for all, developing free open-source software, exposing bad corporate practice and revealing illicit government surveillance.

Many large technology-based corporations employ computer whizz-kids solely to try and breach their security defences, to be constantly testing and probing their data protection. Many organisations have, over the past decades, encouraged off-the-wall and radical rethinking of their products, their marketing, their entire approaches to doing business.

Hacking as a concept, goes much wider than eavesdropping other peoples’ calls.

Products for Formalised Organisations

Which brings us to the other half of the installation, Products for Formalised Organisations. The objects in this second section show how management techniques, organisational structures, corporate governance, bureaucratic procedure and so on have, over recent decades, been penetrated and transformed by the looser, more ‘creative’, less structured approach pioneered among the software development community, by the hackers. So this section addresses a different, a more ‘formal’, application of the same movement of thought.

The Products for Formalised Organisations installations are on the right-hand side of the gallery as you go in, and – in contrast to the rectangular racks and scaffolding which convey something of the hand-made, individually constructed and therefore deconstructible nature of what Denny has broadly defined as hacking – over here on the right, in the world of corporations, it is all circles.

Simon Denny introduces Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny explains Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Thus, in the main right-hand corridor are lined up four large circular installations. The first one sets the tone (and physical pattern) by being a two-metre tall model of the building housing GCHQ, the UK Government Communications Headquarters, a hollow circle in shape and fondly known as ‘the Doughnut’. At the other the end of the row is a model of the proposed new Apple headquarters in California, ‘Campus 2’, already nicknamed ‘the Spaceship’, and next to it another architects’ model of the headquarters of Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer.

Agile as art

The installation in the photo above, pictured with the artist explaining, is titled Formalised Org Chart / Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015).

As the capitalised green sign AGILE suggests, this work refers to / draws from / demonstrates / explains the newish approach to project management known as Agile methodology. In old-fashioned project management you created detailed plans to be implemented over a year or more and stuck rigidly to them, come what may. Hence (its critics claim) the notorious overspend and calamities in (especially) large government procurement projects – the NHS database, Ministry of Defence aircraft carriers etc.

Agile takes the opposite approach: larger goals are broken up into small units which can be delivered quickly in so-called ‘sprints’, often run over as little as a week. If they’re completed earlier than planned, there is a backlog or ‘locker’ of similar sized components which can be incorporated into that sprint and completed ahead of schedule. Members of the team or stakeholders are invited to judge and assess the results of each sprint, so that the entire project’s goals can be re-evaluated, new learnings incorporated etc, on an ongoing basis. It is short-turnaround, iterable, flexible. You don’t have to wait two years and then have a ta-da! moment when the developers unveil the product and everyone looks at each other and says, No, that isn’t what we wanted.

The yellow post-it notes in a spiral in the centre of the piece explain the Agile methodology. The white shapes on the right-hand side contrast an old fashioned static layout of desks and tables with a modern agile or hot-desking approach, the desks arranged to encourage informal communication and debate. Various circular logos stuck elsewhere on the frame convey the importance of Agile being a process of continuous improvement, relentlessly seeking perfection.

I happen to work in government IT and so am very familiar both with Agile in theory and the problems large organisations face in implementing it in practice. I totally agree that these new ways of thinking and working ought to be registered in art somewhere, art which – after all – generally ignores the vast world of work which the majority of us inhabit for most of our day.


But is this the right way to do it? Does it shed light, explain, clarify these issues? Is it even intended to? Or is the subject a pretext for making things, making objects with their own value and aesthetic, making artworks out of the bric-a-brac of these big social, technological and organisational ideas? Hard to decide…

It’s certainly a way to do it, to communicate these topics, but it requires quite a lot of commitment on the part of the strolling visitor, commitment to read the labels for each piece – and it assumes a fair amount of background knowledge to relate what they see to their own lives and work practices. Only around that point, maybe, when you’ve done the preliminary study, can you start to ask whether this is art as we know it. Or a new type of art? Or management theory masquerading as art? Or the only way this kind of complexity could be captured and conveyed? Carefully contrived to appear spontaneous and slapdash? Is it agile theory turned into art, quick and effective rather than perfect, encouraging stakeholder criticism, do it again, do it better? Continuously improving art.


In one of the two central rooms, where the brick of the building has been left raw and unplastered, is a further series of circular installations. Here Denny explained some of the thoughts / issues / ideas related to or arising out of the concept of HOLACRACY. This is, apparently, ‘a system for redistributing authority throughout the organisation’. As well as the bunny-bright, hand-made wording stuck all over it (see the photo below) there are attached to the steel circle more detailed texts explaining the theory of holacracy, as well as books with titles like Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It and The Happy Manifesto and Peopleware. Hacker mentality, hipster thinking, coming to your workplace, any day now…

Simon Denny introduces Products for Organising at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny explains Formalised Org Chart/Model: GCHQ 3 Agile/Holacracy Workspace (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Despite the larky presentation, the handmade signs and the cuddly toys (see the toy alligator bottom left in the photo above – there are plenty more hacker-related toys elsewhere) I don’t know how accessible, how assimilable, how comprehensible this arresting and challenging show will be to visitors without a background in computers or big organisations.

There’s no doubt it addresses head-on massive issues and ideas – the relatively unexplored history of hacking and the way new, looser ways of thinking about all manner of social relations have passed into the practice of big and influential organisations and are percolating everywhere.

It puts into quirky, striking and unexpectedly physical form some of the difficult and quite abstract concepts which underpin the ongoing social, organisational and technological transformations which are affecting all of us. If you make the effort to read and study everything displayed for your attention, then it raises all manner of thoughts and implications to take away and ponder.

Not an easy show to visit, though. Not easy at all.

Related links

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