Irma Blank, whose abstract, language-based works explored the lacunae in written and verbal expression, died April 14 at the age of eighty-eight. Blank’s interest in language as an art form was piqued after she moved at the age of twenty-one from Germany to Italy. Unschooled in Italian and thus unable to communicate with those around her, she began to investigate the idea that that no words existed in any language to fully express an idea. “The word is deceptive,” Blank told Artforum’s Julia Langbein in 2014. “Since the literary critiques of the 1960s, faith in the word has been largely lost. We see it still today: words, words, words that say nothing. The word is emptied of its meaning. I try to retrieve the space of silence, the unsaid.”
Irma Blank was born in 1984 in Celle, in northern Germany. In 1955, she moved to Sicily, where she was employed during the day as a high school teacher, and made art in her off hours. Working in solitude, at night, she grew acutely attuned to her physical actions in relation to her surround. “I [became] very aware of sound—of my breath, of the scratching of my pen nib on paper,” she told Frieze in 2019. “The more I plunged into silence, the greater my awareness of my breath became: my drafting table became a soundboard, like a drum.” The experience would lead to her first well-known series, “Eigenschriften” (Writing for the Self), 1968–73, pastel-on-paper drawings in which repeated symbols evoke a meaningless language, each drawing conjuring at once a work of abstract art and a diary entry. “
In 1973, Blank relocated to Milan, where she encountered concrete poetry, leading to a profound shift in both her work and her life. Moving away from internally generated asemic texts, she began her next series, “Trascrizioni,” 1973–79, for which she placed translucent paper over texts including newspapers and poems. Using black ink, she loosely traced the text, though in no discernible way. “I declare[d] more overtly that this writing is a script,” she told Artforum. While creating the works, she read the text she was tracing out loud with her mouth closed, her voice a monotonous, indecipherable drone, which she recorded. Blank’s capturing the sounds of her works’ facture harked back the hyperawareness she experienced on those first lonely nights in Sicily. “I had a lot of success with this series,” she said, “but I was sure I couldn’t continue working in that way, because I was exhausted.”
Blank’s “Radical Writings” series of 1983–86 saw her continue to draw on her youthful experience in Sicily. She based these works, variously made in oil or acrylic on canvas, or watercolor on paper, on the duration of her inhalations and exhalations. Blank here investigated color, first focusing on pinks and purples, whose hues to her represented experimentation, and then turning her attention to blue, which she saw as evoking infinity, determination, and writing. From 1984 to 1993, she split her time between Milan and Düsseldorf, where she had a studio. Returning full-time to Milan in 1993, just as the internet was gaining a global hold, she began exploring digital text and language in the series “Hyper-Text,” 1998–2002, in which she silk-screened words in various languages, superimposing them over one another on canvas. Her “Avant-testo” works 1998–2006, which she created by holding a ballpoint pen in each hand and then drawing on canvas or polyester with simultaneous circular motions, commented on the icy machine-ness of the computer by conjuring its opposite, explosive energy. For her “Global Writings” series begun in 2000 she created an eponymous alphabet consisting of eight consonants. Working variously by hand and digitally, she deployed this alphabet in an unintelligible but universal language in texts and books. “The language is smashed,” she said. “I still try to read the world as writing; writing is my tool for understanding the world.”
Following a 2016 health incident, Blank began working mainly with her left hand. Her series “Gehen-Second Life” (2017–23), comprising hand-drawn lines on notebook paper, showed her overcoming physical roadblocks to persevere. In the last decade of her life, Blank—who had been working in comparative obscurity following her participation in the 1977 edition of Documenta 6 and the 1978 iteration of the Venice Biennale—began receiving in international circles the accolades that attended her earlier work in Italy. She was invited to show at the 2017 Venice Biennale and subsequently enjoyed several solo gallery shows a 2019–22 retrospective of her work spanning seven institutional venues. Blank remained sanguine about the vagaries of a career in art.
“Every era has a tendency to want to define itself, without recognizing that labels quickly fade, losing their power and significance,” she told Frieze. “What counts is the doing itself, which gives strength to thoughts and underlines fundamental questions. The focus of my research is the human being who lives, hopes and suffers: it’s the relationship between me and you, between one and many. Labels,” she concluded, “belong to fossils.”