The first time I saw the art of Gert and Uwe Tobias, at the Maramotti collection in Italy, I was baffled. Fabulous, hybrid figures were assembled like puzzles out of abstract forms. A female figure swirled out of a ceramic block into semi-human shape. Colours were fierce yet subtle, matt yet sleek. Haphazard proportions were founded in impeccable geometries.
The associations in their work were myriad: central European folklore, the humanoids of Léger, the ornamental art and crafts of post-secessionist Vienna, Russian constructivism and Michelangelo’s prisoners all sprang to mind. Yet every work was a hermetic world, as mystical as an icon, as tightly plotted as a Picasso, as defiantly mute as a Donald Judd.
That was 2009 and the twins were far from household names. Three years later, their work resides in the collections of Charles Saatchi, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the philanthropist and collector Hilary M. Weston, who bought one of their woodcuts at Art Basel Miami two years ago. “Their work grabs you, then you delve in and see a darker side, which possibly derives from the twins’ cultural history – and that is what attracted me to their work,” says Weston.
Her purchase sowed the seeds for the twins’ latest show, which opens next week at The Gallery, Weston’s independent space in Windsor, the residential community on the coast of Florida established by Weston and her husband W. Galen in 1989. Curated by London’s Whitechapel Gallery, it is the second in a trio of exhibitions of works on paper in Windsor that commenced with Beatriz Milhazes last year. In spring next year, the Tobiases will have an exhibition at the Whitechapel.
I visit the brothers in Cologne, in a complex of rationalist-style buildings that encompasses the Tobiases’ studio, their homes and their parents’ home. The air of communal living and bohemian mood are slightly undermined by the pair’s incontrovertible glamour. Tall, dark, and athlete-handsome in black trousers and hoodies – Gert’s peacock-blue, Uwe’s black – they look more like off-duty models than contemporary artists.
Nevertheless, collaboration is a leitmotif of their lives. They do not fulfil the cliché of twins who finish each other’s sentences, yet similarity in looks and manners – both are self-contained, analytical characters whose smiles reveal affectionate personalities within – makes it tempting to regard them as a single entity. “Just say, ‘Tobias said,’ ” Uwe teases me as I frantically try to untangle who has said what.
Born in Ceausescu-era Romania in 1972, members of the country’s German-speaking minority, they came to Cologne with their parents when they were 12. “The future for children was better here,” one of the twins says with typical understatement. The other twin adds: “We were extremely lucky; we had a great teacher, who nurtured [our] interest in art.”
Their most important inspiration was German artist and professor Walter Dahn, under whom they studied at the University of Art at Brunswick. “He was very open,” says Gert. “There was a very collegiate atmosphere ... And no one had any fear of trying out new things.”
For the twins, who never seem to have considered working apart, it was the perfect nursery. Encouraged to work across different mediums, they move between sculpture, woodcut, mural, watercolour, drawing and ceramics. Of all these mediums, it is their woodcuts for which they are best known. “We developed a new way of working,” says Uwe, ushering me upstairs to the studio.
Dragging my eyes from the fully equipped gym in the corner (the twins work out for an hour a day), I gaze at tables covered with pots of acrylic paint and walls adorned with works in progress.
On the floor, painted wooden cutouts have been assembled into a complex pattern. It is this “puzzle-based system”, as Uwe puts it, that gives their prints their unique character. They carve each shape with a special saw that permits a “free movement of the hand” – essential if they are to recreate the delicate drawings out of which every image is born.
Then they paint the wooden forms, arrange them on the floor and press them on to the paper with their hands and feet. “The registration is different every time,” says Uwe, explaining the engravings’ ancient-looking patina. “This is the way that printmaking can become painterly.”
Thanks to this fusion of manuality and machine, the Tobiases achieve an art tethered to a tradition that stretches back to Albrecht Dürer yet is untainted by nostalgia. The use of the saw, says Uwe, liberates them from the heritage of expressionist printmaking. Yet the fact, as he says, that “drawing is the basis of all we do” explains why their work simmers with suppressed symbolic memory.
A similar creative tension exists between the artists themselves. “We start individually,” explains Gert, adding that “just because we are twins doesn’t mean things go easy.” Gradually, it becomes clear that “one has an idea that is better than another”. For them, he says, it is important to know which work originated with whom, even though this is not apparent or significant to the viewer.
For Windsor they have made a foray into collage. Against backgrounds that resemble walls rich with centuries-old traces of paints and paper float black-and-white illustrations of disembodied faces, figures, furniture and bugs. What the brothers call “translations from art history” – the surrealism of Miró, the Bauhaus grid, gestural painting – are clearly present but the pieces possess an organic mystery that defies deconstruction.
I admit that I find their work riveting yet utterly perplexing. “That is the most wonderful compliment,” purrs Uwe. His mother, it turns out, is preparing soup. Would I like to stay for lunch?
Gert & Uwe Tobias, curated by Whitechapel Gallery, at Windsor, Florida, December 9 2012-April 4 2013, www.windsorflorida.com/gallery