Irma Blank, an unclassifiable artist whose experiments with the aesthetics of text went largely under-recognized outside Italy until the past decade, died on April 14 at 88. Her passing was announced over the weekend by two galleries that represent her, the Zurich-based Mai 36 and the Bologna-based P420.
“We have lost a graceful and radical artist and wonderful person,” Victor Gisler, the founder of Mai 36, wrote in his gallery’s announcement.
Many of Blank’s works resemble little more than illegible scribbles. Some are arranged in rows, as though they were readable texts, while others tangled together to form what appear to be painterly abstractions from a distance. All of Blank’s works were about her own relationship with language, as a German woman living in Italy, where few spoke her native tongue.
“I think whatever you write is autobiographical,” she said in a 2017 interview. “All of my work is: whether the signs I make are rigorous or free, small or large, they all express different aspects of myself. I write and recount, yet it also provides an escape because I simultaneously declare something and deny it.”
Blank was referring specifically to her first significant body of work, “Eigenschriften,” whose title translates to Self-Writings. Produced between 1968 and 1973 using pastels, these works may recall diary entries or notes toward something that would be unknowable to any reader who passes before them.
Her follow-up to that series, “Transcrizioni” (Transcriptions), produced between 1973 and 1979, had its basis in newspaper articles, theoretical writings, and poetry penned by others. Done in black ink, Blank would place her paper atop the writing she was transcribing, then rewrite the text beneath using squiggles and hatching. She would read the text as well, speaking its words without opening her mouth so that all that escaped was abstracted sound.
These works had a tendency to confound. Carrie Rickey, writing with faint, confused praise in an Artforum on the occasion of a 1979 Blank exhibition in New York, noted, “The devastating humor of Blank’s piece might well be opaque to the uninitiated.”
Half a century later, however, the reception of Blank’s work changed significantly. An appearance of her work at the Frieze Masters art fair in 2013 sparked a new fascination with her work on the part of international critics, ultimately leading to her being included in the 2017 Venice Biennale. Fifty years after her first New York solo show, she had her second, at Luxembourg & Dayan, in 2019—a sign of her rise on the international circuit.
In 2017, with a solo show on view at London’s Alison Jacques Gallery, Gabriel Coxhead wrote, “Irma Blank is one of the most interesting artists to have benefited from the artworld’s recent mania for overlooked or forgotten talent.”
Irma Blank was born in Celle, Germany, in 1934, and moved to Syracuse, Sicily, in 1955. She later took a job as a high school art teacher, producing her work at night, the time when she was least likely to be interrupted. Periodically, she recorded her process, causing some to compare it to a kind of performance art.
During the ’70s, Blank achieved some level of acclaim in Europe. She showed at the 1977 edition of Documenta, the recurring art festival held once every five years in Kassel, Germany, and at the 1978 edition of the Venice Biennale. After that, outside Italy, her work fell into obscurity.
She continued working, never giving in to the whims of the market. She did the “Radical Writings” (1983–96), for which she scrawled repetitive text-like lines in pink, pink-blue, and blue; the colors each bore out specific symbolism for her. She created her “Hyper-Text” works (1998–2002), for which she layered words in different languages, and later involved computers to help execute her art. She invented her own alphabet and published books.
In 2016, an illness forced her to significantly change how she worked. She began to rely more heavily on her left hand to write, a mode that had always interested her.
Although Blank’s process was rigorous and frequently painstaking, she recalled that it provided her joy.
“To work, for me, is a pleasure: being at my desk to make, to write,” she said. “After all, writing is an extension of myself. I like to find and lose myself in it.”