Four Boys / Four Horses

Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, The Netherlands (2000, solo show)

Four Boys / Four Horses, 1996
four parts, marker on paper
dimensions: 212 x 185 cm, 215 x 309 cm, 209 x 217 cm, 213.7 x 237.5 cm
Other versions as templates (1996), preparatory drawings (1995/6), print on panel (2023), slide projections (2000), limited edition mugs (2000) and posters also exist.
courtesy Galerie du Jour Agnes B., Paris, Last Tango, Zurich, and the artist



The following pictures are versions of this work at the 2023 show at Last Tango, Zurich, Switzerland:

Exhibition Text for the show at Last Tango in 2023 (excerpt)
by Linda Jensen and Arianna Gellini (source)

For this exhibition we have taken an “archeological” approach, looking back at an older series of Robert Estermann’s drawings Four Boys / Four Horses (1996). What are the questions that come up when we encounter this image? The boy seems to be otherworldly, with his Mona Lisa half-smile, gazing at us innocently. The horse, of uncertain gender, is calm and surprisingly curious. Could the line drawing be abstracting, impairing, or even subverting our full comprehension of what’s going on in the image? What is it that is making us deal or not deal with these unruly lines?

The source materials at the entrance produce a time travel back to the artist’s studio. It’s 1995-96, when Robert was studying at École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris. Four Boys / Four Horses started as one drawing before becoming four drawings, with each image staging a singular experience. Exhibited at Last Tango, Boy / Horse is the preparatory drawing for a mural inside a Parisian staircase, later becoming the template for Four Boys / Four Horses #1. At this point in time, three of the original drawings of Four Boys / Four Horses have apparently been misplaced by a gallery. However, the paper cuts (templates) are as Robert describes them, “the DNA that never got destroyed.” Ultimately, as the exhibition goes on, Robert will perform on the paper, producing a new work. One of the rare constants in his work is the expressionism of the angles. Robert gets excited by the idea of movement of a line, the radicality of the angle, the freedom of a line to relate to our existence. The three “missing” drawings exist fictionally in a composite photograph titled Four Boys / Four Horses #2 #3 #4, sourced from the artist’s archive. Robert is standing proudly in front of his work. What happens when we see three of these drawings in their original frieze-like hanging? The mugs, because of their mass-produced everyday object appeal, enable another access to this drawing series.


shown in:
“Robert Estermann & Oz Oderbolz”, Last Tango, Zurich, Switzerland (2023)
“11th Biennial of Visual Arts VALUES”, Pancevo, Serbia (2004)
“PARA…SIGNS”, Elisabeth Kaufmann, Zurich, Switzerland (2003)
“Kunstszene Zürich”, Toni-Areal, Zurich, Switzerland (2003)
“seeyuatthepremierefair”, Kongresszentrum Rauchstrasse, Berlin, Germany (2002)
“Robert Estermann”, Galerie du Jour agnès b., Paris, France (2002, solo show)
“UNLIMITED.NL#4”, De Appel Foundation, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (2001)
“drawings 1”, Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, The Netherlands (2001, solo show)
“open nights”, Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, The Netherlands (2000)
“Sin-Aesthetics”, MK Galerie, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (1996)

Last Tango, “Robert Estermann & Oz Oderbolz” (exhibition text and interview), 2023, Zurich
corner art space, Ji Yoon Yang, Gregory Maass (interview), “About the Kim Kim Gallery show with Robert Estermann”, 2013, Seoul
“imam da kazõem – Robert Estermann Very Yellow Plane, umetnik iz Sõvajcarske”, Pancevac, No.4042, 25 Juni 2004, Pancevo
Gallery of Contemporary Art, “11th Biennial of Visual Arts VALUES”, exhibition catalogue, ISSN 1451-804X, 2004, Pancevo, pp. 102-103
D (is for drawing), international magazine on contemporary drawing N°1, Johnny Golding, “Four Horses, Four Boys and the Techne of Line Drawing”, ISBN 90-72076-23-0, Juni 2004, Maastricht, pp. 76-79
“tout est important – Hans-Ulrich Obrist parle avec Robert Estermann very yellow plane – mercredi 4 septembre 2002”, édition galerie du jour agnès b., 2002, Paris, CD audio, 40′
illico, “Expo”, 12 septembre 2002, Paris, p. 23
“Robert Estermann very yellow plane”, booklet, self-published, 2001
sl@sh, “Very yellow plane”, décembre 2001, Montreux, p. 60
art-das Kunstmagazin, Elisabeth Lebovici, “20. Internationale Kritiker-Umfrage”, Januar 2001, Hamburg, pp. 46-47
de Voorkant, Eric Hagoort: “Magere man lost op in korrelig beeld”, 26. mai 2000, Amsterdam, p. 14
Radio Nova, “On a vu ça, ça et ça…” together with Bojan Sarcevic und Gemma Shedden on talk with Elisabeth Lebovici, 9.2.97, Paris
HTV De Ysberg, Caroline de Bie, “Four Horses”, 1/97, Rotterdam


Four Horses, Four Boys and the Techne of Line Drawing or Sex, Smell, Touch, Light, Air & Speed (the great western internet) [after Turner]
About the drawings from the series ‘Four Boys / Four Horses’ by Robert Estermann

by Prof. Sue Golding (PHD), published in „D (is for drawing)“, Issue 0, Juni 2004, Ed. Yane Calovski, Maastricht ISBN 3-937577-61-0

1. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Once upon a time there was a youngster named Judgment, sown from the laurels of good taste and strict community-standards. The birth was heralded in newspapers, emails, phone conversations; the child’s sweet image could be spotted everywhere, smiling from milk cartons and t.v. commercials, from billboards, and holiday spas, and even, after a few years, from church dockets, law boards, and a few well-placed art galleries. Thus in this way, Judgment learned to feel, applaud, (and, later, require) a certain kind of certainty; a certain kind of sureness; a certain kind of self-certainty – one derived, as it were, from a kind of Cartesian coagitare – a certain kind of synthesis which glued (what was perceived to be) an ‘outside’ object of reality to an ‘interior’ assuredness of self. Ego cogito [ergo] sum. And so began the first love affair with the ‘deep-cut’ or, as it was wont to be called: the line.

2. RECURSIVE MATHEMATICS (AND A SMALL WORD ON THE EXCLUDED MIDDLE). Different logics grew like grass fields on rich top soil. Three species, to be precise, took hold: the telos, the dialectic and the rhizomatic. Telos had, as its special trick, the ability to unfold from seed what it was to become, and then, projecting its ‘what is was to become’ back upon itself, it could leisurely (or otherwise) become what it was always meant to be, albeit, given the right conditions, determination and a few wellplaced guidelines along the way. Judgment was quite fond of Telos, as the latter never strayed from what it was meant to be. This gave them both a seductive sense of calm, a kind of knowledge in advance (and despite a turbulent, greedy and mean-spirited world) of their own goals/purposes/ends. In this sense, Telos was the ultimate sense of security and forecasting; and, albeit a bit dull, made Judgment feel inspired, powerful, safe, and even neutral (or at least, what might be called ‘natural’). The Dialectic, on the hand, had a different kind of magic, for it held out the promise – a very big promise – that it could not only do everything Telos could do, but it could also do everything Telos could not do (and would not be caught dead doing). But more than that! Our little Dialectic was also able to do these things (and not-things) at the same time! In the same space! And was able to do this by a form of reasoning that took as its core value: nothingness, and out of the nothingness was able to create the something – whatever that something might be or later change into becoming: say, the ‘what ought to be’ of morality, philosophy, art and life. True, it required a certain form of mysticism, transcendence or even quasi transcendence in order to secure the absolute attraction of the one side to its absolute other (side), whilst at the same time excluding this very divide; but as this exclusion of the line/middle/boundary/horizon was drawn in sand or wind or abstract reasoning, and yet could synthesize the either/or’s of life into some kind of (moral/aesthetic/cultural) whole greater than the sum of it parts; as it could do all this and more! promising also to dance across the dirt, grime, and ugliness of reality (at least half of the time), whilst remaining perfectly clean, smooth, and more cleverly, still, being able to do so with ‘change’ at its core and a dynamic stability as its outcome – well, all this and more, made the Dialectic a very, very attractive proposition indeed. A kind of three-ringed circus, with glitter and promises and outfits to match — that once its exposure was immanent (and its exposure was always immanent), our Judgement could scarcely have stayed away, even if you had personally intervened to crush it at its root! A kind of addictive and sweet tasting purgatory, surrounded by mirrors and movements of all that could be, but never were – though quite reassuredly would always and forever be just around that proverbial corner, a kind of democracy, art, politics, pleasure, (fill in the gap) ‘to come’. And then there was the rhizome, neither here nor there, neither fast nor slow; filled with events of appropriation, and weightless and more. Telling all, revealing nothing; Revealing all, telling nothing; going everywhere and nowhere all time, for none of the time: irritating, and cruel and lovely, and revolting, sadistic, voyeuristic, masochistic and bored, a discursive whoring, fuelled only by the economy of its surface circuitry curves, papers, dots, waves, and yes, lines.

3. PREDICTIVE TEXT (MESSAGING). One is thus forced to ask: when might the medium be the message? I’d like to say: when it is willing and able to make present the next step on the path or the journey or sentence or thought, and guesses that next step: correctly. (Communicative line-grammars at their most secure). Go to the top of the class; receive the status-quo’s status. On the other hand, when might the medium not be the message? I’d like to say: when it is able and willing to make present the next step on the path or the journey but guesses that next step (or gesture or sound or touch, skin, smell): wrong. (Communicative line-grammars at their most insecure). Fall off the ladder and be eaten by, say, snakes, insects, rats, toads, liberal fundamentalists. On the third hand, could there ever be a time, when the medium has nothing at all to do with the message and yet, despite this (or even because of it) can overtly, covertly, and all things in between, be, at precisely the same time, its message? I’d like to say: yes, when Judgment is without its roots, speaks and moves with speed and light and air, but remains mute, transfixed, unstable media over and over again. A kind of thieving of the siren’s song, calling out to its navigators, to all that might be mediocre, sacred and profane, and doing so in the resplendent mathematical gestures of the information age: with its fake dimensions, and the singularities of its voice. And so began the temptation of Judgment; clearly, it was just a matter of timing (acoustic calling, aura, beat, movement, slice of life).

4. FOUR HORSES / FOUR BOYS AND THE TECHNE OF DRAWING. Perhaps what we are groping toward, blindly or otherwise, is a kind of poetic whose ability to grasp ‘the there’, to appropriate it and make it ‘mine’, whatever its condition resembles more closely a kind of recipe: of the literal, the elemental, the periodic chemical, the gene pool, the mimetic, shot through with a ‘something else’ (say the folds of its smell, taste, voice, touch). A different sense of time — perhaps a ‘cooking time’; even a toxic time (for cooking need not produce something healthy for it to ‘work’). Maybe it just boils down to a question of seeing with one’s ears, hearing with one’s nose, smelling with one’s eyes and etc. Or maybe it is just a plea to take seriously habeas corpus, ‘there shall be the body’ for any and all forms of rhizomatic drawing to occur.

5. THE REDICALLY A-RADICAL EVENT OF (THIS) DRAWING. We might wish to call that projected ‘cooking time’, something more akin to an installation; ie, a matter of installing into a stretched-zap-instant: a memory, a signature – including one’s own signature – into a kind of seductive surface, a libidinal surface, granting (indeed requiring) all the grammatical improprieties of the improper noun, gesture, narrative which is nothing other than what it is: the sensuous multiple criss-crossed dimensions of curved space-time (one could say ‘duration’) which becomes ‘recognisable’ in the economy of its ‘being there/being here/being with.’ Perhaps we could call this a kind of ‘vision’ (as in goal, mission, telos), though devoid of its Nicomachean Ethics, overaching ‘masters’ and other Aristotelian moorings. We might wish to call this a kind of synthetic surface poetic; that libidinal economy of the beat-beat beating, replete with ‘acoustic’ vibration and teetering on, with, amongst and around what Estermann alone is able to condense in his line drawings: ie, a rhizomatic tension; powerful, whimsical and quite beyond (because quite within and amongst) the banalities of good and evil. Thus at last, as Lucius Apuleius, remarked all those many centuries long gone by, ‘Psyche became united to Cupid, and in due time they had a daughter born to them whose name was Pleasure.’


Ausschnitt aus Uneigentliche Politik von Daniel Kurjakovic
in: Robert Estermann, Pleasure, Habeas Corpus, Motoricity. The Great Western Possible, ed. Susanne Neubauer, Kunstmuseum Luzern, edition fink, Zurich, 2007, ISBN 978-3-03746-105-1

Andererseits gibt es keinen Grund zu verhehlen, dass die Arbeit von Robert Estermann immer wieder auch eine Auseinandersetzung mit dem Obszönen bietet. Doch wird das Obszöne, und das ist eine entscheidende Feststellung, nicht spektakularisiert, im Gegenteil. Bezeichnend ist in diesem Zusammenhang eine Gruppe von Zeichnungen mit dem Titel Elephant Man (Abb. S. 54/55, 56): Hier taucht der Elefantenmensch – übrigens anders als im gleichnamigen Film von David Lynch mit seinem phänomenalen Hauptdarsteller John Hurt – nicht als amorphe physische Erscheinung auf, sondern als eine Art Block, als Kubus, als räumliche Figur. Diese der Erwartungshaltung zuwiderlaufende Form erweckt den Eindruck, dass das Obszöne nicht gezwungenermassen mit den stereotypen Bildern des Amorphen, Verzerrten, Grotesken zusammenfallen muss, sondern sich durchaus als «rationale» Form zeigen kann, die allerdings mit dem Obszönen infiziert ist. Das Obszöne wird nicht konventionell mit dem Attribut der monströsen Entstellung ausgestattet, im Gegenteil, der Kubus wird als passende Visualisierung «behauptet», auch wenn es eine uneigentliche Form des Obszönen darstellt. In Four Boys/Four Horses (Abb. S. 62 – 65) werden vier Knaben, die vier Pferde besteigen, vergleichbar uneigentlich, indem sie «schematisiert» gemacht werden und dadurch auf die gleiche Ebene wie der Kubus gehoben werden.

In einem gewissen Sinn hat man es also bei Robert Estermann immer wieder mit codierten Szenarien zu tun. Ein kleiner Exkurs diesbezüglich mag angebracht sein. In welchem Sinn ist hier von Codierung die Rede? Zunächst meint der Begriff Code nicht, wie im allgemeinen Sprachgebrauch, den geheim gehaltenen Code. Er ist hier genereller und offener als das Hilfsmittel gemeint, das nötig ist, um auf wirksame Weise Informationen zu vermitteln. Ein Vergleich soll dies veranschaulichen: Wenn der Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) Sprache in ihrer Gesamtheit darstellt, dann macht er dies – in den (posthum veröffentlichten) Grundfragen der allgemeinen Sprachwissenschaft – zum Beispiel auch mittels eines Schemas, eines Schemas zumal, das ohne den entsprechenden Textkommentar nur bedingt verständlich ist:

Die übereinander gelagerten Bereiche sehen wie Zonen aus Wellen und Wolken aus, die eine vage Vorstellung von etwas Beweglichem und Diffusen wiedergeben. Die Buchstaben A und B anderseits legen im Verbund mit den gestrichelten, vertikalen und zueinander parallelen Linien andererseits eine gewisse Messbarkeit nahe, was die Beziehungen zwischen den beiden Bereichen A und B betrifft – im Ganzen gesehen ein nicht sehr aufschlussreicher Eindruck, der ohne Beihilfe einer Erklärung entsteht. Der erläuternde Kommentar von de Saussure dazu: «Wir können […] die Sprache in ihrer Gesamtheit darstellen als eine Reihe aneinander grenzender Unterabteilungen, die gleichzeitig auf dem unbestimmten Feld der vagen Vorstellung (A) und auf dem ebenso unbestimmten Gebiet der Laute (B) eingezeichnet sind; das kann man in annähernder Weise durch folgendes Schema abbilden […]».8 Das Schema wird also im oben genannten generellen Sinn zum Code für die Konzeption der Sprache bei de Saussure. Obwohl das Schema ohne Erläuterung abstrakt erscheint, wird es, einmal erklärt, zu einer wirksamen Weise, die Informationen zu bündeln und zu vermitteln. Interessanterweise erfüllt es neben der Hilfsfunktion der Abbildung noch andere Zwecke. Das Schema erlaubt nämlich dem Autor, einige anfänglich vielleicht diffuse und zugleich komplexe Intuitionen zum Phänomen Sprache zu konzeptualisieren. In diesem Sinn erweist sich der Code (das Schema) als Element in einem Erkenntnisprozess mit eigenem Gewicht: Es visualisiert einen noch nicht bekannten Sachverhalt und dient dazu, die «Behauptungen» einer theoretischen Spekulation wahrscheinlicher erscheinen zu lassen. Solche Codes wie das de Saussure’sche Schema machen interessanterweise die damit verbundenen Aussagen nicht weniger mehrdeutig, auch wenn sie diese konkretisieren. Ein bisschen in dieser Art mögen auch viele von Robert Estermanns Zeichnungen (seine Arbeiten insgesamt?) funktionieren.


Excerpt from Improper Thinking by Daniel Kurjakovic
in: Robert Estermann, Pleasure, Habeas Corpus, Motoricity. The Great Western Possible, ed. Susanne Neubauer, Kunstmuseum Luzern, Museum of Art Lucerne, edition fink, Zurich, 2007, ISBN 978-3-03746-105-1

On the other hand there is no reason to conceal the fact that Robert Estermann’s work repeatedly presents an engagement with obscenity. However, the obscene – and this is a crucial observation – is not turned into a spectacle, quite the reverse. Of great importance in this respect is a group of drawings entitled Elephant Man (figs. pp. 54/55, 56): here the elephant man – unlike in the eponymous film by David Lynch with its phenomenal lead actor, John Hurt – does not appear as an amorphous physical phenomenon, but as a kind of block, a cube, a spatial figure. This shape, running counter expectations, creates the impression that the obscene need not necessarily coincide with the stereotype images of the amorphous, the distorted, the grotesque, but can present itself perfectly well as a “rational” shape, albeit one that is infected with the obscene. The obscene is not conventionally fitted out with the attribute of monstrous disfigurement, on the contrary, the cube is “claimed” as a suitable visualisation, even if it represents an improper form of obscenity. In Four Boys/ Four Horses (figs. pp. 62–65), four boys each copulating with a horse, improperly once again since they are “schematised” and thus raised to the same level as the cube.

In a sense, then, Robert Estermann always works with coded scenarios. A brief digression on this subject might be apposite. In what sense are we talking about coding here? First of all, the term “code” does not mean, as it does in ordinary language, a secret code. Here it is more generally and openly meant as the aid required if information is to be conveyed in an effective manner. An example should illustrate this: when the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) represents language as a whole, he does so – in the (posthumously published) Course of General Linguistics – by using a diagram, and a diagram, moreover, which is only partially comprehensible without the corresponding textual commentary:

The areas layered on top of one another look like zones of waves and clouds, which create a vague idea of something moving and diffuse. The letters A and B, on the other hand, suggest, in connection with the broken vertical and parallel lines, a certain measurability about the relations between the two areas A and B – over all, not a very revealing impression, without the help of an explanation. Saussure’s clarifying commentary: “So we can envisage the linguistic phenomenon in its entirety – the language, that is – as a series of adjoining subdivisions simultaneously imprinted both on the plane of vague, amorphous thought (A), and on the equally featureless plane of sound (B).”8 Thus the diagram becomes, in the general sense outlined above, a code for Saussure’s conception of language. Although the diagram appears abstract without explanation, once it has been explained, it becomes an effective way of packaging and conveying information. Interestingly, as well as the auxiliary function of illustration it also fulfils other purposes. The diagram enables the author to conceptualise some intuitions, which may be both diffuse and complex, about the phenomenon of language. In this sense the code (the diagram) proves to be an element in a process of understanding with a weight of its own: it gives visual form to an as-yet unknown subject-matter, and serves to make the “assertions” of theoretical speculation appear more probable. Interestingly, codes like Saussure’s diagram make the statements associated with them no less unambiguous, even though they give them concrete form. Many of Robert Estermann’s drawings (his works as a whole?) perhaps function in a not dissimilar fashion.


Excerpt from Four Horses by Caroline de Bie,
in: HTV De Ijsberg, 1/97 on the occasion of Robert Estermann’s exhibition at MK Gallery (former MK Expositieruimte), Rotterdam 1996

Four large drawings are hanging at the wall of MK Expositieruimte. With feltpen they are represented, mainly in contour, a man and a horse; the man penetrates the horse. The natural proportion horse / man is here simplified to 1:1 and this makes the drawings symbols, just as the tant lines do and the frozen attitude of the man. Only the horse changes perceptible, from left to right, from graceful into flat, from horse into deer, dog, beast. Robert Estermann points out the man who also slightly changes, he turnes somewhat. With the little streaks on the animal’s body one can suspect a turn also there. The man turns a little towards profile (although the face stays almost frontal) while the drawing itself seems to get thinner. […] These images (at MK) are his language, his sequences. In their quietness they have their own space between the two other exposants who also use sexuality as their theme. Siri Hermansen shows motilated female bodys as casted sex-dolls; with Alberto Sorbelli we hear the sound of the sexual act (and by that I do not refer to the moaning) on the rhythm of classical music. Between all the violence in image and sound the four men with horses hang imperturbable. Mating with horses, a lonely trade. Sailors had their little dogs and with the cavalry they stood on buckets (to be able) to get in their horses. But Estermann’s image is equally tall as the horse and his deed is as easy as self-evident. It seems. Nothing is wrong, no tormented body, no marginal plodding, it is all incredible obvious.


About the Kim Kim Gallery show with Robert Estermann
Excerpt from an Interview with Ji Yoon Yang (Director of Corner Art Space, Seoul) and Gregory Maass (Director of Kim Kim Gallery), March 2013, Seoul

GM: I donʼt know how to talk about sex in connection to art, sexual issues are very boring to me and I think they are very boring to Robert, too. He sees sex as a dimension between people. Itʼs something in reach of humans, which provokes madness. Thatʼs him speaking. There are too many connotations to sexuality. But there is something very funny to quote. “ The word ʻsexʼ is sex in almost every language. Even if you go to the Philippines or somewhere in Africa, they use the word sex, not some other word.” They donʼt have a proper word for it. Itʼs a concept. Itʼs a philosophical concept in the end. Thatʼs why itʼs called sex because its origin lies in Western thinking. I asked Robert why he is interested in sex? He said that the sexiness of sex is interesting to him, not sex itself. For him itʼs like a color. Itʼs like something un-describable. But I think he wanted to say that it is somehow an invisibility. Itʼs like a floating imaginary space or a drifting hew or pattern in the space between people. And this pattern is provoking madness. He says this is a pre-linguistic, a pre-spoken entity. Itʼs like before there was speech, there was already this pattern in space between human beings, which is sex. Thatʼs why itʼs interesting to him. Everything is related. That´s very-very-very relevant in Robert´s work. He said one remarkable thing concerning sex, he said itʼs an invisible anchor in space. He wants to make himself lighter through his art and he succeeds, I think. […]
There are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding these drawings and personally I think they are overrated. Firstly these are 4 different works, hence the title: 4 Boys, 4 Horses. They all differ in some way. It´s Robert´s understanding of the term singular. Each of this drawings represent a singularity to him. The drawings themselves have different layers. They are not just drawings about a sexual preference, and similar motifs can be found on antique greek vases, that is not in the center of interest for Robert. To Robert it is of utmost importance that he leaves the spectator no possibility to see the motif of the drawing as something morally abject, he must see it as something socially acceptable. If he succeeds in doing so is another question. For him the boy in the drawing is constructed like the Mona Lisa. See here, even the eyes seem to follow the spectator.
For Robert the horse represents something similar to the golden sun of James Lee Byars, some idol of Robert. I quote “The boy could be a young art student who sees James Lee Byarsʼ work for the first time”. He says that the work is about courage, courage to be alone. There are many misunderstandings concerning these wonderful drawings. It is not a kind of logo or brand.