Knoebel undertook his first painting experiments in the mid-1960s. In his ‘Linienbilder’ from 1966 on, he varied the intervals between the lines using a simple numeric principle until the distance between two lines became so large that the picture was monochrome white, creating a homogeneous surface that was seemingly immaterial. The line paintings, in their concentration on the picture’s centre point and line, are a demonstration of Knoebel’s study of Kasimir Malevich’s strict reduction to the purest formal elements, a purist painting brought back to zero, to ‘limitless nothing’. Like him, Knoebel wanted to free the artefact of any reference to figuration. Malevich, by declaring the colour black to be the embodiment of all other colours and the square as the elementary form, led painting in his 1915 ‘Black Square’ back to the basics, namely to the relation between figure and ground. After his Darmstadt days, Knoebel – like Imi Giese and Palermo – made Malevich their model. In 1962 they studied in detail the first German publication of Kasimir Malevich’s writings, Suprematism. The World as Non-Objectivity. The experience of the purely non-objective is described by Malevich as the feeling of being freed ‘from the pressure of figurative representation’ and from the ‘false notions’ of a ‘utilitarian idea of life’ erected on a truth existing under the surface of appearances.
To Imi Knoebel this release seemed to offer the possibility of a new definition of painting. The reverence for Malevich – which the two Imis documented by shaving their heads and wearing long coats – Knoebel expressed in the 1960s by direct paraphrases and quotes such as ‘Weißes Quadrat’, 1968/98, ‘Schwarzes Quadrat’, 1968/96 or ‘Schwarzes Kreuz’, 1968. The homage to Malevich in 1991, ‘Hartfaserquadrat (Ehre an Kasimir Severinovich Malevich)’ as well as the 1995 ‘Jena’ paintings show that his engagement with Malevich is still alive and well. While Malevich did in fact still paint the black cross onto a white canvas and thus did not give up the traditional easel painting, Knoebel applied his plywood forms directly to the wall, forms that take over the function of the picture ground and set up relations to the room. The ‘Weiße Bilder’, which seem to melt into the wall, are a continuation of this by means of light projections. In the series of indoor and outdoor projections at the end of the 1960s, it is projected light that replaces the easel painting and takes over the immaterial function of the colour white. In his repetition of the classic vocabulary of forms, Knoebel is interested in the silence, the meditative components of colour, and not in any kind of critical stocktaking, in taking over or continuing the idealist foundations of Suprematism. Since to him the utopian impetus of the avant-garde seemed exhausted, Knoebel used this formal appropriation as well as an engagement with the metaphysical idea more as a means to fine-tune his own artistic identity, namely the counter-position he took up in Beuys’s class.