A few months back, an unexpected text popped up on my phone. German-born artist Ati Maier invited me to her studio near the East River in Greenpoint to view a newly-finished paintingan abstract landscape titled Entre-Temps.

Maier was set to leave for Munich in the morning, with plans to hand-deliver the approx. 60”x48” artwork to its patrons.

When I arrived, however, she was pacing the hardwood floors, chewing her fingernails with an unrestained nervous energy. I encountered the large painting only a brief second before Maier whisked me into her kitchen for a glass of wine.

She asked we talk about anything other than the work, but it was clear she had only the painting on her mind. After about fifteen minutes of mindless chit-chat, we returned to the studio, Maier clamoring for feedback.

Looking at Ati’s paintings up close is an experience you can’t quite prepare for. Her “space-scapes” are on the druggier side of traditional landscape; they have appealed to lovers of both abstract and psychedelic art for over a decade now.

The works combine a dizzying sense of movement via layered, compact lines, shapes, and colors that skein across the canvas, evoking three- (some would argue four-) dimensions of open space. Chaotic on the surface, Maier’s paintings seem to break apart ideas about Modernist technique (especially Kandinsky and Klee), suggesting as much an interest in challenging the medium as in asking the viewer to see the nature of the universe differently. I couldn’t help but wonder where this deep sensibility for multiple realities came from.

Ati Maier

Detail of “Breathless” (2010)

Growing up in Munich, Maier was surrounded by Der Blaue Reiter works and inspiration from the Bauhaus icons. Later, before heading off to art school in Vienna, she claims to have come under the spell of Franz Marc and August Macke’s colour schemes, and her earliest works, which were hung in her bedroom, look like excavations from some lost aboriginal culture, bearing the unambiguous stamp of a spacial thinker.

Maier later moved to the United States and acquainted herself with the endless vistas of the American West, where she spent time riding horseback and creating landscape drawings that swapped the ecstatic colours of expressionism for an almost lunar complexion of the desert’s geological rock formations.

Her 2003 series, Slow Moving, marks (to my eyes) Maier’s real shift from these wondrous Western landscapes to her ad hoc lyrical abstractions, where the romanticism of the Rocky Mountains is replaced by that most aspirational of all subjects in nature: Outer Space.

“Space exploration speaks to me,” says Maier, “because it is the unexpected and the unknown. That is a great thrill for me because I want to explore and see something nobody ever saw before. In my art I look for the same; my vision is to create work which makes invisible energies, structures, wavelengths, and unknown forces visible.”

In her home studio, Maier keeps folders filled with moon landing diagrams, astrological images, orbit charts, and research about NASA’s latest adventures for inspiration. All of which may suggest her work has some basis in concrete science or mathematics. The answer is “no,” says Maier. The real synergy is how these paintings evoke the emotionality of scientific exploration without ever being scientific at all.

Ati Maier

Detail of “Phoenix” (2008)

Were I to recommend a CD soundtrack for viewing Maier’s space-scapes, I’d go with Forbidden Planet: Music from the Pioneers of Electronic Sound, a compilation of strange, retro-soundscapes that teem with curiosity, fear, and optimism from the period when the U.S./Soviet race for space was in full-swing. Even if, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “The universe is unaware that men are walking around in it,” Maier accepts such emotionless sentiments almost ecstatically. Her works then are romantic landscapes… the place where lasting emotions are those of solitary wonder.

As we stood in front of Entre-Temps (translation: “Meanwhile”), the room went silent for what seemed like an eternity. Maier had been working on the painting tirelessly and I wanted to choose my words carefully here. Yet, I’m also a writer and I couldn’t help but think of words and phrases that I wanted to throw down just as furiously as the motion of the zigs and zags staring me in the face.

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“Entre-Temps” (2012) (Photo by Stefania Zamparelli)

What hit me most immediately was the way that this dogmatically modernist work threatened to cast off the chains of modernity by opening the door to more insurgent accents. (Something sorely missing in the bourgeois art world).

The background of Entre-Temps is boiler-plate Ati Maier/space-scape, with its rolling streamers and lunar spheres broken open as if on some visual molecular plane. But in the center of the painting is a graffiti-like spray paint scribble that gives the painting a kind of political immediacy, if not an outright nod to those urban artists on the outside looking in.

There’s a part in the catalog to MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 from a few years back that discusses the key role played by “cars, photography, relativity, and the death of god” in the stylistic developments of early modernism. Yet with a work like Entre-Temps, Maier updates these attributes for the present, where any current optimism for interstellar exploration or the digital revolution must be weighed against the myriad of hacker-leaked sub rosas that paint the contemporary institution as a kind of bubonic plague. And with this dystopian sentiment comes not only an accentuation of the death of god, but an opening for the revolutionary thought that was inextricable from that period when the first men stepped foot on the moon.

Ah, but Maier is not convinced.

“You have to go,” she says in a delicate but forceful manner. “I’m going to work on it all night before my flight.” Turns out I hadn’t seen the finished Entre-Temps, after all. As I shuffled out the door and back into the night, underneath the stars and the sky, which seemed more wondrous having stood in front of this strange, inimitable work, I was reminded of the words of the great William Wordsworth: “That in this moment there is life and food/For future years.”

Optimists we must remain… show us the way, Ati Maier. (Brian Chidester)

Ati Maier

Ati Maier in her Brooklyn studio.

Ati Maier