Exhibition text
Ellen Blumenstein

Channa Horwitz laid the foundations of her distinctive formal language at an early stage and maintained these artistic principles for more than fifty years until her death in 2013. From the early 1960s onwards, working at the peripheries of an art scene whose fashions left her relatively untouched, Horwitz produced an independent body of work that found expression in cycles of work and notations mostly in the form of drawings that followed the same basic rules and described reality through abstraction. Horwitz set out to create ‘a separate world of visual rhythm’ that would be equally valid in every art form. (1) Her central concern was to grapple with space and time as an indivisible unity, a theme that seems increasingly topical given the growing relevance of the virtual.


This first large institutional solo exhibition brings together Horwitz’s main groups of work and shows how she transposed her systems of signs into other genres such as painting, sculpture, installation and performance. The project was initiated at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin in 2015, and its second iteration in London focuses on the spatial and performative realisation of two key series: Language Series (1964/2003–11) and Sonakinatography (1968–2011).

The exhibition begins by introducing the basic principles of these series and follows them through increasingly complex and sophisticated elaborations, which are based consistently on the number eight and on a small set of instructions. As an abstract language that finds form in the shape of black circles and rectangles on an orange grid, or as notations composed on standard graph paper, Horwitz plays out potential visual variations on the picture plane, in space and in time.


Language Series and Sonakinatography are particularly significant within Horwitz’s oeuvre. Not only were they amongst her earliest groups of work from which all later works derived, but she also continued to work on and develop these two series intermittently throughout her career. In her advanced years, she encouraged younger artists to produce new musical and choreographic interpretations of her early compositions from the Sonakinatography series. (2) Also in later life, she broke new ground developing free combinations within the parameters of the Language Series, transferring pictures from paper onto walls and into space, before finally treating this cycle, too, as a score that could be activated in time.


Like her successful male colleagues Allan Kaprow, Sol LeWitt and James Turrell, with whom she came into contact while studying at the California Institute of the Arts, Horwitz was interested in bringing movement, sound and light together into spatio-temporal choreographies. Dissatisfied with her initial experiments into the possibilities of realistic figurative representation, she radically reduced her formal vocabulary to the basic geometric figures of the circle and square, which she then set in relation to one another in two- and three-dimensional paintings and sculptures. However, she was not interested in abstraction for its own sake, so it would be inaccurate to describe her work only as conceptual or minimalist. She was also making structural descriptions of reality, and experimenting with different constructive applications of these.


It was in this spirit that Horwitz made her first series of drawings in 1964. The black pictograms of the Language Series, consisting of squares and rectangles on an orange grid, and combined with circles in a second variation, could be constructed according to predefined rules with one hundred and sixty-eight possible variations. Horwitz visualised the basic structure and matrix on two large panels – Language Series I and II, both 1964–2004 – realising individual image sequences or blocks in parallel, in whole and in part, while also varying the dimensions of the drawings.


There is a playful aspect to many of Horwitz’s processes, present seemingly to counterbalance her need for the greatest possible control. She set herself rules so as to be able to break them whenever necessary. A system was either applied without complete consistency, as in the Language Series, though it nevertheless exists even when its implementation was only sporadic; or a version was repeated so often and with so many iterations, as in some of the Sonakinatography compositions, that its internal variations undercut the system.


After the turn of the millennium, Horwitz returned to the Language Series, realising further motifs, both using and expanding on the same schema. She extended the original rules to experiment with the possibilities of colour, including white, orange and black along with the rectangle and circle. She also designed a number of murals and installations but was only able to realise a few of these before her death. An important cæsura in this respect is the performative arrangement Displacement (2011), which was conceived at the invitation of Y8 Art and Yoga Studios in Hamburg. Displacement has been reconstructed for the first time for this exhibition, and will be reactivated by Y8. The orange grid and eight blocks from the Language Series have been enlarged and transferred to the floor of the studio in such a way that the eight-by-eight squares relate directly to the bodies of the yogis, and participants can arrange the blocks freely in any number of potential combinations.


A few years after her early conceptual experiments Horwitz made the first of a number of notations that were explicitly intended for enactment. Suspension of Vertical Beams Moving in Space (1968), was made in response to a call from Maurice Tuchman, organiser of the Art and Technology Program (1967–71) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Drawing on her interest in sequential representations she initially proposed a sculpture with eight illuminated beams, each moving rhythmically and in relation to the others. It was the only submission to be accepted into the programme but not realised. Following this, Horwitz laid out eight columns next to one another on graph paper for a series titled Movements (1968/69) that she referred to in text within the works as energies, instruments, characters or objects. Changes in position (movement, sound) and quality (volume, intensity, pitch) are recorded in vertical progression. The key to each notation is a matrix of eight-byeight fields at the edge of the image, each corresponding to a rhythm and having a number, a colour and sometimes also a symbol. Horwitz subsequently developed the basic principle of Sonakinatography by compressing a beat of eight fields into one so as to facilitate more complex notations. For the twenty-three different compositions of Sonakinatography, this constituted a programmatic combination of the picture plane with movement or sound in space. It was supplemented with a fourth dimension, denoting change over time.


Whereas Horwitz’s main works in the 1970s were variations of Sonakinatography Composition III  – which was adapted for enactment as dance, sound and lyrical performances – in the 1980s, she discovered the aesthetic and graphic potential of new fundamental patterns with higher degrees of complexity. One variation from each of the completed compositions of Sonakinatography  are brought together for this exhibition.


In several of the large drawings titled Four Levels (c.1975), the drawing paper serves as a loose system of coordinates for eight squares that expand and contract on four different levels within the virtual space of the paper, producing eight interleaved but offset curves. In the 1970s and 80s, this gave rise to further series developed from number games, such as 8 Expanded and Variations and Inversions on a Rhythm. Here, though, Horwitz simplified the schema, allowing for a greater degree of complexity and replacing the squares with lines that went through numerical rule sets to form graphs.


In the early 1980s, Horwitz began to develop new groups of work in which angles between separate points in the matrix were given a key function for the first time. While the works grouped under the collective title Canon are densely interwoven aggregates of distinct linear patterns, the works in the series Rhythm of Lines (1987/88), Moiré (1983/84), Flag No. 2 (1984) and 1/4 Noisy (1998) are based on simpler grids.




1 Channa Horwitz, ‘Statement’ [1976] in Channa Horwitz, Searching/Structures 1960–2007 (Berlin: argobooks, 2009), p. 4.

2 The term ‘sonakinatography’ is a neologism of Horwitz’s invention andis made up of the Greek words for sound, movement and notation.