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Forward exhibition announcement, courtesy of Union Pacific, 2019.

OTP Review: Max Ruf, Forward 

Progress in progress.

By Ellie Paine

A review of Max Ruf’s solo exhibition Forward at Union Pacific. 

(06/06/19 - 31/08/19 by appointment only)

Walking through Whitechapel on a colder-than-expected Monday evening, you would be forgiven for thinking that Union Pacific was between exhibitions. 


Boarded up by a wall of clinical white, the front window is the antithesis of a welcoming shop front. Two strips of light are visible on each side, offering a fragmented view of the gallery’s interior. Closer inspection yields a seven-letter word, engraved onto a brass plaque. It reads: Forward

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Max Ruf, Forward, 2019, installation view, courtesy of the artist and Union Pacific.

The purpose of this hostile exterior becomes clear only upon stepping into the first room. The opposite side of this wall serves as a fourth surface for Max Ruf’s work, trapping the visitor in an interior universe of vibrant colour, as the door shuts behind them.


Ruf’s work immediately places the onus on the viewer, even before they step into the gallery. Visiting requires a leap of faith, the white exterior yielding nothing, the transactional expectations of a show of paintings at a commercial gallery gently unpicked. Here, the viewer is the active participant, and has the agency to define Ruf’s work however they see fit: the artist has left no map, no handbook…


Indeed, instantly recognisable figures are almost completely absent. For his first exhibition in this space (Phthalo Green in 2015) he covered the walls floor to ceiling with paintings and framed picture books, the simplest ones serving as sketches or ghosts of the more expansive works. He turned each wall the page of a newspaper or a book: a sensory overload of columns, commentary and noise, greater than the sum of its parts.

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Max Ruf, Phthalo Green, 2019, installation view, courtesy of the artist and Union Pacific. Photo:

His approach four years later is somewhat different: rather than creating a story that stretches across the horizontal planes of each wall, Forward functions on a cyclical basis. Each work spirals into the next, down the stairs, and back up, in an endless stream of dialogue. This begins the narrative of movement announced by his title, but crucially does so in a constant state of self-reflection,

-awareness, and -analysis.

The first piece the viewer sees upon entering, inscrutably untitled, serves as an ironic mock-up of the obfuscated window. With its grey frame and thick green lattice, our vision through the screen of the painting is partially obscured. While a yellow path alludes to movement, with its long lateral brushstrokes, any apparent direction is confused by the ambiguity of the reddish blocks that sit either side of it.


At first glance, rather than depicting the street beyond, as we might expect, this latticed window seems to allude to a bird's-eye view of cityscape. A suggestion of movement in one direction is inverted, shifted, and any assumption about what might be represented is quickly thrown overboard.

Max Ruf, untitled (dark green lines, graticule, four red squares, grey), 2016-2018, oil on canvas,

courtesy of the artist and Union Pacific.

Defining his artwork as abstract would perhaps be missing the point. Instead of purposefully avoiding figuration, his approach captures subjects as affective signifiers, not fully formulated, all gently resisting each other.


This openness means that any moment of satisfying understanding is infinitely delayed: leaving questions unresolved, and crucially, keeping the mind moving, even as you step out the door to leave. Max’s work withholds clarity, demonstrating the malleability of the mind, its restless attempts to map out meaning and navigate stimuli.

Max Ruf, untiled (top: grey fields, green, yellow, red and blue; bottom: red animal, green), 2018-2019, oil on canvas,

courtesy of the artist and Union Pacific.

Here, Ruf is dealing with the process of image-making. His use of primary colours references a visual world of surface meaning: of signs, of logos, of headlines. While his paintings are often direct in their use of undoctored paint (straight from the tube) and in their use of loud colours which mark links from wall to wall, this directness does not equate to immediacy.


While movement is constantly present: in loose, wide brushstrokes, and ubiquitous gesturing to the space off the canvas, this movement is never linear (for long). Instead, Ruf’s work charts a back and forth motion, a fragmentation, a critique of unexamined progression.

Max Ruf, untitled (red shape, red field, dark background), 2018, oil on canvas,

courtesy of the artist and Union Pacific.

He often creates a moving image within a static canvas. His use of layering is cinematic, leaving traces of the previous frame in a way that points to the inherent materiality of the work.


While his work signifies as a whole, it is made up of signifying fragments in constant conversation: whether that be between paint and canvas, between two works, between work and room, or between exhibition and viewer. But crucially, this dialogue is not contained within or limited by the traditional system of language; instead of accompanying his paintings with an explanatory text or title, one work comments on another non-lexically.


The justification of each image is not spelled out for the viewer, they remain hanging, as unfinished thoughts, untitled and unexplained.

Max Ruf, untitled (top: transparent yellow over red imprint, grey, green; bottom: vertical green lines, red), 2017-2019, oil on canvas,

courtesy of the artist and Union Pacific.

This ambiguity brings the primarily affective nature of the mind to the surface of experience. His paintings often lack a protagonist - a recurring motif in his work. In his 2019 exhibition Allgerische Instrumente (LISZT, Berlin), Ruf layered his paintings over a display of old exhibition photos, each one with the human figures carefully edited out. In Phthalo Green, a projector in the basement showed footage of a German village, its inhabitants curiously absent.


Ruf’s work creates a setting with no characters, using landscape to refer to systems and orders, rather than individual faces. This staging of a human-less environment prioritises the role of the individual, placing the viewer in the position of protagonist within the setting of the exhibition.

Max Ruf, Haus 8, 2015, courtesy of the artist and Union Pacific.

Max tells me about the inspiration for the exhibtion's title. Visiting a small maritime museum in Kingston, two hours north of New York, he was reading a publication on the history of the city’s canal system. Once used to transport goods and freight to America’s epicentre, these waterways were quickly taken over by faster, more modern railways.


This history of canals was preceded by a foreword, incorrectly announced as the 'Forward'. He was struck by the irony of this mistake, a tacit admission of uncompromising, impulsive progress in the title of a section so often skipped by readers rushing to begin the first chapter.

The back and forth motion that recurs in Forward figures a process of constant revision, pointing back at the material components that make up the image, and the affective fragments that make up perception.


He discusses the notion of examined progress, a poignant contemporary anxiety. His work serves as a placeholder in a world of rapid change, a moment of anticipating stasis epitomised in his recurring colon motif. Max Ruf moves into the next clause, in the context of, and without forgetting, the previous sentence. 

(left) Max Ruf, untitled (yellow dots on green) 2019, oil on canvas, 100×150 cm,

courtesy of the artist and Union Pacific.

(right) Max Ruf, untitled (two boats), 2019, objet trouvé, perspex, paper, wood, 129x90x16,5cm,

courtesy of the artist and Union Pacific.

Max Ruf, Forward at Union Pacific is on view until Friday 31st August 2019, by appointment only.

See more from Max Ruf:


Union Pacific is a 5-year-old contemporary gallery based in Spitalfields, London.

Ellie Paine is a London-based freelance arts writer specialising in contemporary painting and contemporary global fiction.

See more from Ellie: