30.04.22 - 04.06.22

Harald Naegeli; drawings

Harald Naegeli has drawn all his life, and that in an extensive sense. His oeuvre knows elaborate sheets, which were created in weeks of work, as well as small, short pictorial notations, which take barely a second (if you disregard the lifelong lead-up to it). The master from Zurich is known for his graffiti, but they are also drawings in the true sense of the word: line structures whose existence not only presupposes a wall as a support, but also leads to a dialogue with it. His drawings aim to capture essential circumstances: outlines give contour to the physical boundary, core drawings capture inner structures or forms of movement. Even the lines reduced to the most necessary reveal what is essential in terms of characteristic elements, aiming at the essence. Naegeli’s work mirrors the art of the Stone Age which, as Albrecht Dürer knew too, possesses some magic in its capture of reality through drawing (1). With his many thousands of sheets and countless sketchbooks of drawings, Naegeli creates a universe of diverse subjects, from sketches of plants and animals to landscapes, motion studies, or the volumes of clouds. The mastery of his drawings consists not only in the certainty of the lines and the calculation of their free spaces. The occasional skepticism of the lineament, the groping, and not least the play of the line with surfaces that deliberately remain free also contribute to this. Only occasionally and rather as a contrast to the primacy of the line does he use color. The master can trust his hand; it is so well trained that he sometimes uses his left hand to circumvent this “school of fluency” (2).
Drawings generally take place with a reference to their substrate, both physically and in terms of content (3). For the fragile structures that Naegeli communicates to paper, its materiality plays a supporting role: does soft handmade paper absorb color as in ink drawings or etchings, is smooth cardboard good basis for the line structure that spreads out on its surface?
One can see Harald Naegeli’s cloud paintings as an experiment: is it possible, in terms of drawing, to distill the nature of a cloud out of this enigmatic and changeable natural phenomenon? As in his particle drawings, dots and lines condense into surfaces — but in a different way from Wassily Kandinsky (4), whom he admired. Naegeli imagines this as not only an analytical act of seeing, but as a practical experimental arrangement that ultimately tends towards a complex spatiality.
The comparison with art historical models such as Albrecht Altdorfer, Urs Graf and above all the artistic heroes of the twentieth century such as Wassily Kandinsky or Paul Klee has always been important for Harald Naegeli. He has studied their works with a rare intensity and frequency, and with a kind of collegial curiosity. After all, comparison is a particular challenge here: only a few artistic media have been developed as extensively and with such outstanding quality as drawing. To reach the level of a remarkable mastery here requires more than just talent and diligence, concentrated attention and virtuoso implementation. Drawing is also a question of perseverance and consistency (5), and not least of constantly questioning what has already been achieved. This is probably the only way to reach the spheres that are otherwise reserved for the clouds.
Johannes Stahl, April 2022


1. “For truly art is in nature, he who can tear it out has it.” – Albrecht Dürer, Four Books of Human Proportion 1528. Magic and the shift between contour and color body inherent in numerous cave paintings also preoccupied Harald Naegeli for some time.
2. Carl Czerny: Schule der Geläufigkeit, a collection of piano etudes published in the 1830s, has engaged generations of piano students – and has found echoes in other arts, not least because of its use as a technical hurdle to be practised.
3. “What for the graffiti is the wall found in the urban space, that is for the drawings on paper, first with random traces of age and flaws, then with the given rough burls or the coarse fibers of the Naturchina or tree bark paper.” Hein-Th. Schulze-Altcappenberg, “Wenn man sich bewegt, bewegt man mehr als sich.” Der Zeichner Harald Naegeli. In: Harald Naegeli Zeichnung, exhibition catalog Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf / Graphische Sammlung Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 1990, p. 7.
4. Wassily Kandinsky: Point and Line to Surface. Contribution to the Analysis of the Painterly Elements, Munich 1926 (Bauhaus Books No. 9).
5. The latter quality was even attested to him by a Swiss federal judge in his conviction for his graffiti: “Harald NAEGELI has known how to unsettle the inhabitants of Zurich for years and with unprecedented harshness, consistency and ruthlessness and to shake their faith in the inviolability of property, which is based on our legal system.” Reasons for the judgment of the Zurich High Court of 19.6.1981. Peter Thoss: Must the Sprayer of Zurich be extradited? In: Swiss Journal of Criminal Law 1983, pp.215-225. Quoted from: Frankfurter Rundschau No. 281 of 3.12.83, pp.14 and 15.