Signs Spaces Drawings


An Essay on Maja Rieder’s Work

Wolfgang Schneider



The first Maja Rieder work I saw, some years ago, consisted of

countless sheets of paper, portrait format, each one not particularly

large. Each carried the same sign, an X. For this Maja

Rieder used ink and yellow gouache. A line from the upper left

corner to the lower right corner, a line from the lower left corner

to the upper right. Everything else has been eliminated, I

thought. Which line came first? In which corner did the game

begin? The crossing-point is at the centre of the page – X is also

a crooked cross (like the St. Andrew’s Cross or saltire). The

pages are marked by extreme economy. Their succinct immediacy

is bewildering. Considered side by side, the repetition is

striking, the play of repetition and variation. The work is a


The signs are painted on paper. Are they signs at all? Is

this writing? Is it painting? Is it drawing? Drawing signs?



The artist’s earlier works are also defined by their reduction,

though in a different manner to the semiotic economy of the X.

Large-format two-dimensional works in black, grey and white

have emerged since 2009. The preferred painting1 medium has

been graphite on paper. The interleaving, folding and composition

of these drawings, which is as minimal as it is complex, is

not easy to understand or describe without actually seeing them

in real life. Photographs of these works in their given exhibition

locations allow us to see their intimate connections with spaces.

Space: an ambiguous and open term, and thus a vague one. This ambiguity

is reflected in the many different ways in which Maja Rieder’s

works create connections with their ‘space’. They create spaces themselves,

‘unfurl’, abandon the two-dimensionality of drawing and open

out spaces, and sometimes they also represent spaces. Through

their size, their form and how they relate to wall, ceiling, floor,

niches and windows they create a direct connection with the

spaces in which they stand and we, the viewers, are part of this

with them.

A few years earlier still, in 2007 / 8, Maja Rieder engaged thematically

with (mostly Modern) buildings. A fundamental interest

in architecture as built space, enclosed space and unbuilt

space shows in these works, as well as in urban and rural


This loosely surveyed connection to space gives way to what

seems, at first glance, to be an emphatically two-dimensional

approach in the X works mentioned in the opening. Maybe this

confirms my intuitive reading of the X as a symbol or as text.



What is a sign? In the Brothers Grimm’s German Dictionary is the


basic definition: ‘that which refers to something. which evokes

the idea of something.’2 A sign is a pointer. This indication can display

various degrees of abstraction, the Latin alphabet with its 26 letters on

the one hand, a * for a star on the other. If you identify what is to be

seen in the Maja Rieder work described in the opening here as an X, as

the artist herself does, you initially suggest a connection with the letter

X and thus with writing. The penultimate letter of the alphabet has an

additional function in Latin, it denotes the number 10. Many Latin

numbers are derived from the written numerals (such as C for 100, deriving

from the numeral centum). But this is not true for the first three

Roman numerals – I (1), V (5) and X (10). Today it is generally assumed

that these were adopted by Etruscans and Romans from older Italian

cuneiform writing. According to one thesis, to check their animal numbers

shepherds would carve it into their crooks. I as 1 counts in this as

the oldest sign, derived from counting on fingers. As quick legibility is

limited after about five notched lines, crossing through an I can

show it increased tenfold: X.3 This halved in turn makes V.4

In our use of language, X is also the letter that indicates or replaces

text. A person who is unable to write can sign a document

with an X. This X then is a symbol for the name or the confirmation

of facts by virtue of a signature with a name. With this the X

can refer pars pro toto twofold: to writing as such, as something

indicative (signifier), and as the carrier of this name, that which

is indicated (the signified). It is thus a double reference, a reference

to a reference.

And then in mathematics X stands for the unknown, the solution

sought. In this sense, it indicates that which we do not (yet)

know, nor (yet) understand.

In Maja Rieder’s works the X is simply there. Flat. Black. Grey.

On white or yellow glazed paper. Without further detail. If these enigmatic

Xs are signs, then what do they indicate?



X gelb5 consists of 60 of the sheets of paper mentioned previously in

portrait format and can be hung in various ways. Each page shows the

same subject in a repetitive form of presentation: X. Each diagonal cross

which links each corner and divides the lines of the pages is emblazoned

in ink on a sheet soaked in yellow gouache. Exhibited at the Centre

PasqArt in Biel in 2013 they hung, edges abutting, without gaps, the individual

pages creating a double row. The meaning of an individual page,

or a single X, seems to have been removed. Move further away from the

work and a rhythmic overall impression emerges; the Xs melt into a continuous

pattern or, possibly, an ornament. Repetition becomes the element

that creates form. The hand-made gestures that counter this uniformity

irritate and intensify the overall impression. Step closer and the

individual sheets come back into focus, but the means of production also

appears, the composition and the construction: Maja Rieder does not

hide the individual pages on a stiffer backing material, the

breaks must not be made imperceptible. The specific materiality

(and fragility) of the paper jumps out at us where the edges curl

up slightly and small shadow gaps emerge.

Depending on the distance they adopt in relation to the work,

the viewer sees signs, or, in fact, a row of signs. Like a variable

combination of letters make words, and these words sentences,

you could speak of the fundamental syntax of the installation

X gelb.



So the installation X gelb can be arranged in various forms. How

does the specific hang within an exhibition emerge from this

arena of possibilities? And how does Maja Rieder respond to

her spatial givens with such a hang?

In this last example, a presentation in Biel, the sheets hung on a long

white wall with flush skirting mounted just above the ground. This long

line is repeated along the horizontal edge between the upper and lower

row of Xs. The room forms a long expanse that is not particularly high,

mirrored in the emphatic horizontality of the work. An intensive relationship

between the herringbone parquet and the ‘syntax’ of X gelb emerges.

The three-dimensional illusion of the flooring makes the rows of Xs appear

all the more flat and two-dimensional (from a distance). Where the

individual sheets ostensibly reclaim a emblematic quality, this presentation’s

intense relationship to the space generates a dialogue for viewers

between the pattern described and, in a second stage of reflection, the architectural

and artistic signs that meet here. Removed once again from

the wall, this expansive work fits into a small portfolio which could easily

be transported to another place on a bicycle or a tram.



This variability of individual parts also applies to Prêt-à-porter6 (2015),

another serial work by Maja Rieder. There are already two components

indicated in its title (prêt-à-porter, so ready to wear, to put on or equally

to take home): universally ‘suitable’ prefabrication and mobility (trans-

ferability). Prêt-à-porter consists of up to 50 wooden elements

(5 cm high and 83 Å~ 80 cm in area) with a wood-block print on

each. These parts are combined, lying on the ground, to form a

larger whole. The individual elements seem to show details of

an envisaged larger X; stripes of differing grey levels cross each

other diagonally. New patterns emerge depending on how the

individual tiles are arranged, here and there an X appears. Like

with X gelb, the individual parts are arranged edge to edge.

In 2016 the work was exhibited in the hall of a former power station

in Rheinfelden. How did it ‘fit’ in these post-industrial surroundings?

The old industrial flooring in Rheinfelden consists

of roughly square wooden cobbles. Once again, the materiality,

the arrangement and the pattern of the work have a direct relationship

(one could also say they are in competition) with the

floor’s framing. Maja Rieder used the generous spatial conditions

and the ‘mathematically’ regular grid in Rheinfelden for

an imposing two-part and many-cornered installation of all 50

elements of Prêt-à-porter. The light grey tones of the work create

a surprising aesthetic alliance with the industrial green of the

remaining machinery. These two – decidedly variable and nomadic

– works also captivate viewers through an intense relationship

to space in their presentation. But it would be false to

speak of site specificity, an exact and unbreakable link to place,

in relation to either X gelb or Prêt-à-porter. The relationship to

place is not fixed to one place,7 but this is exactly what plays an

essential part in the variability of its serial character (the ‘syntax’). It

seems that both works were only ‘completed’ when each was displayed

– and this ‘completion’ only ever applies to the given place and time.

There is not a special space in relation to which connections are important,

but rather the connection to space per se becomes visible in each

given place.8

I look out of the window and see an old garden table. Its legs are

made from narrow tubes and form two crosses. The form gives

the table stability, but mobility too. With one hand the legs can

be collapsed, then the table can easily be stored away or transported.

These qualities of structural stability with slender construction

and maximum flexibility make the X a useful element

in architecture too. Nonetheless, the interplay of vertical and

horizontal dominates the aesthetic of classical Modern building.9

There are, however, famous architectural works that use the X

form as a central aesthetic element. The John Hancock Center

(JHC, 1969) in Chicago designed by SOM is a skyscraper that

is marked by the X-shaped criss-crossing of its steel exoskeleton.

The narrowing of the building as it rises upwards also creates

A façade dominated by slanting lines.10 At the time of its construction

(1965–1969) the JHC was a ground-breaking progression in highrise

building which enabled an immense reduction of the inbuilt steel

mass. All the same, the basic principle of this method of building is long

recognised: every cross-beam of a timbered medieval house employs the

stabilising qualities of the diagonal. The JHC makes its architectural

(aesthetic) language from the structural (functional) qualities of the X

and from the sequence of crosses climbing up the building facade. Here

too the X has a double function: firstly its optical brevity serves the

identification and recognisability of the building and, secondly, it turns

the structural construction of the building onto the outside – in contradiction

with its almost playful ornamental syntax. Here form does not

follow function – one of the central requirements for Modern building –

nor is the opposite the case – the widespread bad habit of contemporary

building. In fact, it seems to me, form and function merge.

This combination, or coming together, of form and function (leaving no

hierarchy in the sense of one following the other) may set something

free. The symbolic quality, the character of referring to something, can

skip over into something else.11



Since 2013 Maja Rieder has been developing variations, overlapping,

streamlined and denser versions of reduced X forms (and in the meantime

also + and * forms). Increasingly in these the X abandons its almost

paradigmatic, or ideal type, quality as a sign12 and becomes drawing,

design or painted motif; it dissolves sometimes and, ultimately,


ever more sculptural, or at least something with a three-dimensional

body that can be experienced tangibly.13 This three-dimensional expansion

opens up a further side to the complex relationship with space in

Maja Rieder’s work.

Juxtapose14 is a multi-part work from 2007/2016. These pictures, each

150 Å~ 240 cm, find their starting point in older drawings in graphite on

paper, which were further worked over almost ten years later with ink

and yellow gouache. With broad and confident gestures the new pictorial

elements lie over the older image sections. These, inasmuch as it can be

made out, belong to an abstracted, but still figurative image tradition.

Spaces can be recognised, windows and foliage. Through this ‘overpainting’

the figurative elements in Juxtapose become a part of a rhythmic

abstract image composition.

These large-format sheets are also not hanging flush. On the contrary,

the outer edges show clearly visible signs of bending and folding. Examined

from the side, they suggest that during the work’s creation the

paper was stretched over a cube-like structure like a skin, after which

each was removed and made ‘flat again’. Drip marks of paint

running both horizontally and vertically confirm this suspicion

(Maja Rieder’s works often trigger such an ‘investigative observation’).

Given that the drawings produced in three dimensions

were brought back to a ‘two-dimensional’ form after the creative

process, fluid movement between sculptural, drawing and

painting work becomes a formative principle. Here too you

could talk about a merging. These works ‘function’ comparatively

independently from the space that surrounds them. Their

‘individual character’ detaches them from the framework of the

display; in this case the space is palpable through its limitation,

it seems small and somewhat oppressive. But in Juxtapose itself

an all the more powerful connection with space is to be found,

on two counts: thanks to the emblematic reworking and thus ‘flattening’

of the previous figurative engagement with (built) space, and, secondly,

in the formative three-dimensional production process of this complex




When it comes to describing the central parameters of Maja Rieder’s

work, the terms sign, space and drawing seem suitable. The close relationship,

as well as the dichotomy between the first and the last, define

the idiosyncratic dynamic of these works: if a sign strives for universality,

to be reproducible and for uniform simplicity, the drawing represents

what is individual, direct and dynamic. Between them is space: the a

priori category of the world as can be experienced, the frame of reference

which provides our dimensions, the reality principle.

There are other essential elements of Maja Rieder’s work: its materiality

(like the preference for using paper, an ancient, everyday, fragile and

tactile material); its reduction (the reduced colours, for example); seriality

(the play between sign and ornament); and its ontological ambivalence

(between drawing, painting and sculpture).

Over the years, a cohesive development has become apparent, though

new works continually take unexpected turns.15 In the current works the

sculptural approach and her application of drawing come ever closer together;

the merging becomes increasingly three-dimensional.

It is striking how Maja Rieder’s works appear as simple as they are complex,

how they can be appreciated as as simple as they are complex,

and can be described as simple or complex. Although these works often

attain impressive dimensions, and are immediately striking, given their

powerful gestures and their complex construction, nothing in them is

‘exaggerated’. And Maja Rieder does not want to exaggerate either. This

contradiction, this resistance, may trigger some irritation. Her works

characteristically operate in a circular manner at once clear and cryptic,

they are as artless as they are overwhelming; they simply overwhelm.



1 In this text there is not a strictly consistent application of the terms to paint

and to draw, or painting and drawing. I find it difficult to find terms that


define the artist’s continually oscillating work. I view drawing,

however, as its starting point and anchor.

2 ‘das, was auf etwas verweist. die vorstellung von etwas wachruft.’ The use of

the lower case is a stylistic characteristic of the Brothers Grimm’s dictionary.

Deutsches W.rterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm, volume 31: Z–Z Masche,

Munich 1984.

3 A comparable increase to this tenfold multiplication is to be found in the serial

duplications of Xs in Maja Rieder’s work.

4 This ‘half X’, a V, occurs in Maja Rieder’s most recent works in which the


deconstruction of the X form appears as jagged sculptural elements.

5 X gelb (60 parts), 2013, ink and gouache on paper, each 54 Å~ 40 cm, installation,

variable size, exhibited 2014 at the Centre PasqArt, Biel.

6 Prêt-à-porter, 2015, woodcut on paper, 50 parts in all, each 83 Å~ 70 cm

(exhibited 2016 at the Kraftwerk Rheinfelden, mixer exhibition, and at the

Kunsthalle Basel).

7 This also applies for most other Maja Rieder works: even though 4 Å~ diagonal

(12 parts), 2009, was clearly made for its exhibition location, it could also reveal

its effect in other contexts and spaces (each time anew).

8 “The work should not be dependent on the space or wall” was Maja Rieder’s

answer to a question in this regard.

9 See, for example, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion for the

Barcelona International Exhibition (1929) or Frank Lloyd Wright’s House

Fallingwater (1939).

10 This ‘slanting’ fa.ade also contradicts the ‘classical’ parameters of post-war

skyscraper building, of which the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip

Johnson-designed Seagram Building in New York (1958) is often viewed as an

example of best practice.

11 Initially only coolly received, given its unusual form and dark fa.ade, the JHC

soon became a landmark for the city. Chicago residents personalised the

skyscraper as ‘Big John’ – an unmistakeable sign of the transformation of a

building into an emblem.

12 The terminology of the ideal type introduced by Max Weber in the social

sciences denotes a reductive principle, which ‘concentrates’ and exaggerates the

typical characteristics of something (an object, a quality, a ritual, etc.). The

counterpoint of this is the ‘normal type’, i.e. that which we (generally) encounter,

‘sullied’ by contingency and irrationality.

13 Such as Falter (2014) or Passagier (2015)

14 Juxtapose, 2007/2016, graphite, ink and gouache on paper, each

sheet 150 Å~ 214 cm, exhibited at the Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Freispiel



15 Three-dimensional models and sculptural objects in paper, cardboard, plaster,

clay, stone or wood are continually produced alongside the graphic works.

Are these prototypes, sketches, stand-alone works? The artist herself is taciturn

on the subject.