Category Archives: creativity

Naomi Shihab Nye on writing things down


Naomi Shihab Nye on writing things down:

Sit down with a notebook for about seven minutes a day, or if you prefer, for about three lines a day that belong to you, three lines that come out of your experience. Three questions you’re asking, or three details you’re wondering about. It’s good to have a regular time period when you do this. So sneak it in on a regular basis and your mind will feel very rich, and suddenly all these things will be recognized that have been gathering in your mind. This way you’ll become more flexible with language and at the end of a month you’ll have 90 lines that belong to you. Any one of them has the possibility of growing into a story, into a poem, into an essay or into some research you do at school. You have no idea where the little things you write down in your notebook can go. I don’t mean a diary where what you eat for breakfast, what the weather was like etc., although you could include that if you want to.

If you write things down you can grow into them later, believe them later, and sometimes something will come out of your pen and paper and you won’t be sure you understand it. But if you go back to it, it can perhaps mysteriously continue to guide you for years to come. So, by simply focussing and calming down to write a few words that may come from ‘somewhere else’ rather than from yourself, you may later discover that they can guide you.


‘An Old Man’s Frenzy’: A Last Tribute by John Berger


Here is ‘A Last Tribute’, Chapter 3 of John Berger’s ‘The Success and Failure of Picasso’, which first appeared under the title ‘An Old Man’s Frenzy’ in Art International, issue no. 3, Summer 1988, pp. 21–30.

‘A Last Tribute’ by John Berger

The paintings which Picasso made as an old man, between the ages of seventy and ninety, were for the most part only shown in public after his death, and after this book was written. The majority of them show women or couples observed or imagined as sexual beings. I have already pointed out a parallel with the late poems of W. B. Yeats:

You think it horrible that lust and rage

Should dance attention upon my old age;

They were not such a plague when I was young;

What else have I to spur me into song?

Why does such an obsession so suit the medium of painting? Why does painting make it so eloquent?

Once more, Picasso forces us to question the nature of art and, for this, one must again be grateful to the ferocious, untameable, and unflinching old man.

Before attempting an answer to the question, let us clear the ground a little. Freudian analysis, whatever else it may offer in other circumstances, is of no great help here, because it is concerned primarily with symbolism and the unconscious. Whereas the question I’m asking addresses the immediately physical and the evidently conscious.

Nor, I think, do philosophers of the obscene – like the eminent Bataille – help a great deal because again, but in a different way, they tend to be too literary and psychological for the question. We have to think quite simply, about pigment and the look of bodies.

The first image ever painted displayed the bodies of animals. Since then, most paintings in the world have shown bodies of one kind or another. This is not to belittle landscape or other later genres, nor is it to establish a hierarchy. Yet if one remembers that the first, the basic, purpose of painting is to conjure up the presence of something which is not there, it is not surprising that what is usually conjured up are bodies. It is their presence which we need in our collective or individual solitude to console, strengthen, encourage, or inspire us. Paintings keep our eyes company. And company usually involves bodies.

Let us now – at the risk of colossal simplification – consider the different arts. Narrative stories involve action: they have a beginning and an end in time. Poetry addresses the heart, the wound, the dead – everything which has its being within the realm of our inter-subjectivities. Music is about what is behind the given: the wordless, the invisible, the unconstrained. Theatre re-enacts the past. Painting is about the physical, the palpable, and the immediate. (The insurmountable problem facing abstract art was to overcome this.) The art closest to painting is dance. Both derive from the body, both evoke the body, both in the first sense of the word are physical. The important difference is that dance, like narration and theatre, has a beginning and an end and so exists in time, whereas painting is instantaneous. (Sculpture is in a category by itself: it is more obviously static than painting, often lacks colour, and is usually without a frame and therefore less intimate – all of which demands another essay.)

Painting, then, offers palpable, instantaneous, unswerving, continuous, physical presence. It is the most immediately sensuous of the arts. Body to body. One of them being the spectator’s. This is not to say that the aim of every painting is sensuous; the aim of many paintings is ascetic. Messages deriving from the sensuous change from century to century, according to ideology. Equally, the role of gender changes. For example, paintings can present women as a passive sex object, as an active sexual partner, as somebody to be feared, as a goddess, as a loved human being. Yet, however the art of painting is used, its use begins with a deep sensuous charge which is then transmitted in one direction or another. Think of a painted skull, a painted lily, a carpet, a red curtain, a corpse – and in every case, whatever the conclusion may be, the beginning (if the painting is alive) is a sensuous shock.

He who says sensuous – where the human body and the human imagination are concerned – is also saying sexual. And it is here that the practice of painting begins to become more mysterious.

The visual plays an important part in the sexual life of many animals and insects. Colour, shape, and visual gesture alert and attract the opposite sex. For human beings the visual role is even more important, because the signals address not only reflexes but also the imagination. (The visual may play a more important role in the sexuality of men than women, but this is difficult to assess because of the extent of sexist traditions in modern image-making.)

The breast, the nipple, the pubis, the belly are natural optical foci of desire, and their natural pigmentation enhances their attractive power. If this is often not said simply enough – if it is left to the domain of spontaneous graffiti on public walls – such is the weight of Puritan moralizing. The truth is, we are all made like that. Other cultures in other times have underlined the magnetism and centrality of these parts with the use of cosmetics. Cosmetics which add more colour to the natural pigmentation of the body.

Given that painting is the appropriate art of the body, and given that the body, to perform its basic function of reproduction, uses visual signals and stimuli of sexual attraction, we begin to see why painting is never very far from the erogenous.

Consider Tintoretto’s Woman with Bare Breasts. This image of a woman baring her breast is equally a representation of the gift, the talent, of painting. At the simplest level, the painting (with all its art) is imitating nature (with all its cunning) in drawing attention to a nipple and its aureole. Two very different kinds of ‘pigmentation’ used for the same purpose.


Tintoretto, Woman with Bare Breasts

Yet just as the nipple is only part of the body, so its disclosure is only part of the painting. The painting is also the woman’s distant expression, the far-from-distant gesture of her hands, her diaphanous clothes, her pearls, her coiffure, her hair undone on the nape of the neck, the flesh-coloured wall or curtain behind her, and, everywhere, the play between greens and pinks so beloved of the Venetians. With all these elements, the painted woman seduces us with the visible means of the living one. The two are accomplices in the same visual coquetry.

Tintoretto was so called because his father was a dyer of cloth. The son, though at one degree removed and hence within the realm of art, was, like every painter, a ‘colourer’ of bodies, of skin, of limbs.

Supposing that beside the Tintoretto, we now put Giorgione’s Old Woman, painted about half a century earlier. The two works together show that the intimate and unique relation existing between pigment and flesh does not necessarily mean sexual provocation. On the contrary, the theme of the Giorgione is the loss of the power to provoke.


Giorgione, Old Woman, c. 1569

I met the Bishop on the road

And much said he and I.

‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,

Those veins must soon be dry;

Live in a heavenly mansion,

Not in some foul sty.’

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,

And fair needs foul,’ I cried.

Yet no description in words – not even Yeats’s lines – can register as this painting does the sadness of the flesh of the old woman whose right hand makes a similar but so different gesture. Why? Because the pigment has become that flesh? This is almost true but not quite. Rather, because the pigment has become the communication of that flesh, its lament.

Finally, let us add to the other two paintings Titian’s Vanity of the World, in which a woman has abandoned all her jewelry (except a wedding ring) and all adornment. The ‘fripperies’ which she has discarded as vanity are reflected in the dark mirror she holds up. Yet, even here, in this least suitable of contexts, her painted head and shoulders cry out with desirability. And the pigment is the cry.

Such is the ancient mysterious contract between pigment and flesh. This contract permits the great Madonnas and Children to offer profound sensuous security and delight, just as it confers upon the great Pietàs the full weight of their mourning – the terrible weight of the hopeless desire that the flesh should live again. Paint belongs to the body.


Titian, Vanity of the World, 1515

The stuff of colours possesses a sexual charge. When Manet paints the Déjeuner sur l’herbe (a picture which Picasso copied many times during his last period) the flagrant paleness of the paint does not just imitate but becomes the flagrant nakedness of the women on the grass.

What the painting shows is the body shown.

The intimate relation (the interface) between painting and physical desire, which one has to extricate from the churches and the museums, the academies and the law-courts, has little to do with the special mimetic texture of oil paints, as I discuss in my book Ways of Seeing. The relation begins with the act of painting or watercolour. It is not the illusionist tangibility of the painted bodies which counts, but their visual signals, which have such an astounding complicity with those of real bodies.

Perhaps now we can understand a little better what Picasso did during the last twenty years of his life, what he was driven to do, and what – as one might expect – nobody had quite done before.

He was becoming an old man, he was as proud as ever, he loved women as much as he ever had, and he faced the absurdity of his own relative impotence. One of the oldest jokes in the world became his pain and his obsession – as well as a challenge to his great pride.

At the same time, he was living in an uncommon isolation from the world: an isolation, as I have noted, which he had not altogether chosen himself, but which was the consequence of his monstrous fame. The solitude of this isolation gave him no relief from his obsession; on the contrary, it pushed him further and further away from any alternative interest or concern. He was condemned to a single-mindedness without escape, to a kind of mania, which took the form of a monologue. A monologue addressed to the practice of painting, and to the dead painters of the past whom he admired or loved or was jealous of. The monologue was about sex. Its mood changed from work to work but not its subject.

The last paintings of Rembrandt – particularly the self-portraits – are proverbial for their questioning of everything the artist had done or painted before. Everything is seen in another light. Titian, who lived to be almost as old as Picasso, painted towards the end of his life the Flaying of Marsyas and the Pietà in Venice: two extraordinary last paintings in which the paint as flesh turns cold. For both Rembrandt and Titian the contrast between late and earlier works is very marked. Yet there also is a continuity, the basis of which is difficult to define briefly. A continuity of pictorial language, of cultural reference, of religion, and of the role of art in social life. This continuity qualified and reconciled – to some degree – the despair of the old painters; the desolation they felt became a sad wisdom or an entreaty.

With Picasso this did not happen, perhaps because, for many reasons, there was no such continuity. In art, he himself had done much to destroy it. Not because he was an iconoclast, nor because he was impatient with the past, but because he hated the inherited half-truths of the cultured classes. He broke in the name of truth. But what he broke did not have the time before his death to be reintegrated into tradition. His copying, during the last period, of old masters like Velázquez, Poussin, or Delacroix was an attempt to find company, to re-establish a broken continuity. And they allowed him to join them. But they could not join him.

And so, he was alone – like the old always are. But he was unmitigatedly alone because he was cut off from the contemporary world as a historical person, and from a continuing pictorial tradition as a painter. Nothing spoke back to him, nothing constrained him, and so his obsession became a frenzy: the opposite of wisdom.

An old man’s frenzy about the beauty of what he can no longer do. A farce. A fury. And how does the frenzy express itself? (If he had not been able to draw or paint every day he would have gone mad or died – he needed the painter’s gesture to prove to himself he was still a living man.) The frenzy expresses itself by going directly back to the mysterious link between pigment and flesh and the signs they share.

It is the frenzy of paint as a boundless erogenous zone. Yet the shared signs, instead of indicating mutual desire, now display the sexual mechanism. Crudely. With anger. With blasphemy. This is painting swearing at its own power and at its own mother. Painting insulting what it had once celebrated as sacred. Nobody before imagined how painting could be obscene about its own origin, as distinct from illustrating obscenities. Picasso discovered how it could be.

How to judge these late works? It is too soon. Those who pretend that they are the summit of Picasso’s art are as absurd as the hagiographers around him have always been. Those who dismiss them as the repetitive rantings of an old man understand little about either love or the human plight.

Picasso, Nu couché, 1972

Picasso, Nu couché, 1972

Spaniards are proverbially proud of the way they can swear. They admire the ingenuity of their oaths, and they know that swearing can be an attribute, even a proof, of dignity.

Nobody ever swore in paint before.




On choosing a subject matter by John Berger


On choosing a subject matter by John Berger

Here is an extract from John Berger’s The Success and Failure of Picasso:


The painter is now free to paint anything he chooses. There are scarcely any forbidden subjects, and today everybody is prepared to admit that a painting of some fruit can be as important as a painting of a hero dying. The Impressionists did as much as anybody to win this previously unheard-of freedom for the artist.

Yet, by the next generation, painters began to abandon the subject altogether, and paint abstract pictures. Today the majority of pictures painted are abstract.

Is there a connexion between these two developments? Has art gone abstract because the artist is embarrassed by his freedom? Is it that, because he is free to paint anything, he doesn’t know what to paint? Apologists for abstract art often talk of it as the art of maximum freedom. But could this be the freedom of the desert island?

It would take too long to answer these questions properly. I believe there is a connexion. Many things have encouraged the development of abstract art. Among them has been the artists’ wish to avoid the difficulties of finding subjects when all subjects are equally possible.

I raise the matter now because I want to draw attention to the fact that the painter’s choice of a subject is a far more complicated question than it would at first seem. A subject does not start with what is put in front of the easel or with something which the painter happens to remember. A subject starts with the painter deciding he would like to paint such-and-such because for some reason or other he finds it meaningful. A subject begins when the artist selects something for special mention. (What makes it special or meaningful may seem to the artist to be purely visual – its colours or its form.) When the subject has been selected, the function of the painting itself is to communicate and justify the significance of that selection.

It is often said today that subject matter is unimportant. But this is only a reaction against the excessively literary and moralistic interpretation of subject matter in the nineteenth century. In truth the subject is literally the beginning and end of a painting. The painting begins with a selection (I will paint this and not everything else in the world); it is finished when that selection is justified (now you can see all that I saw and felt in this and how it is more than merely itself).

Thus, for a painting to succeed it is essential that the painter and his public can agree about what is significant. The subject may have a personal meaning for the painter or individual spectator; but there must also be the possibility of their agreement on its general meaning. It is at this point that the culture of the society and period in question precedes the artist and his art. Renaissance art would have meant nothing to the Aztecs – and vice versa. (If, to some extent, a few intellectuals can appreciate them both today it is because their culture is an historical one: its inspiration is history and therefore it can include within itself, in principle if not in every particular, all known developments to date.)

When a culture is secure and certain of its values, it presents its artists with subjects. The general agreement about what is significant is so well established that the significance of a particular subject accrues and becomes traditional. This is true, for instance, of reeds and water in China, of the nude body during the Renaissance, of the animal head in Africa. Furthermore, in such cultures the artist is unlikely to be a free agent: he will be employed for the sake of particular subjects, and the problem, as we have just described it, will not occur to him.

When a culture is in a state of disintegration or transition the freedom of the artist increases – but the question of subject matter becomes problematic for him: he, himself, has to choose for society. This was at the basis of all the increasing crises in European art during the nineteenth century. It is too often forgotten how many of the art scandals of that time were provoked by the choice of subject (Géricault, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Lautrec, Van Gogh, etc.).

By the end of the nineteenth century there were, roughly speaking, two ways in which the painter could meet this challenge of deciding what to paint and so choosing for society. Either he identified himself with the people and so allowed their lives to dictate his subjects to him; or he had to find his subjects within himself as painter. By people I mean everybody except the bourgeoisie. Many painters did of course work for the bourgeoisie according to their copy-book of approved subjects, but all of them, filling the Salon and the Royal Academy year after year, are now forgotten, buried under the hypocrisy of those they served too sincerely.

Those who identified themselves with the people (Van Gogh, or Gauguin in the South Seas) found new subjects and renewed, in the light of the lives of those for whom they saw, old subjects. A landscape by Van Gogh has a totally different meaning (and reason for being selected) from a landscape by Poussin.

Those who found their subjects within themselves as painters (Seurat or Cézanne) strove to make their method of seeing the new subject of their pictures. In so far as they succeeded in doing this, as we saw in the case of Cézanne, they changed the whole relationship between art and nature, and made it possible for every spectator to identify himself with the vision of the painter.

Those who took the first solution were mostly driven on by the terrible pressures of loneliness. Because they wanted to ‘belong’ they became socially conscious. Having become socially conscious, they wanted to change society. It is in this sense only that one can say that they were political, and that they chose their subjects by the standards of a future society.

Those who took the second solution were more reconciled to being isolated. Their devotion was to the logic of their vocation. Their aim was not to submit their imagination to the demands of the lives of others, but on the contrary to use their imagination to gain an ever-increasing control of their art. They chose their recurring subject – which was their method of seeing – to create the standards of a future art.

No artist will fit neatly into either of these categories. I am deliberately being diagrammatic so as to shed some light on a very complex problem. The important artists of this century can also be approximately divided into the same two categories: those whose method of seeing transcends their subjects: Braque, Matisse, Dufy, de Staël, etc., and those whose choice of subject insists upon the existence of another (tragic or glorious) way of life, distinct from that of the bourgeoisie: Rouault, Léger, Chagall, Permeke, etc.

We must now return to the consequences of Picasso’s isolation as they have affected his art. He has not lacked appreciation. Nor has he lacked creativity. What he has lacked are subjects.

“When it comes to it, there are very few subjects. Everybody repeats them. Venus and Cupid becomes the Virgin and Child, then a Mother and Child, but it’s always the same subject. To invent a new subject must be wonderful. Take Van Gogh. His potatoes – such an everyday thing. To have painted that – or his old boots! That was really something.”

In this statement – it was part of a conversation with his old dealer Kahnweiler in 1955 – Picasso unwittingly reveals his difficulty. No other statement tells us so much about the fundamental problem of his art. Only in the crudest sense is a Venus and Cupid the same subject as a Virgin and Child. One might as well say that all landscapes from the early Italians to Monet are the same subject. The meaning of a Venus and Cupid, the significance of all that has been selected to be included in the picture, is totally different from that of a Virgin and Child, even when the latter is secular and has lost its religious conviction. The two subjects depend on an utterly different agreement being imagined between painter and spectator.

Certainly Van Gogh painted new subjects. But they were not ‘inventions’. They were what he naturally found as a result of his self-identification with others. All new subjects have been introduced into painting in the same way. Bellini’s nudes, Breughel’s villages, Hogarth’s prisons, Goya’s tortures, Géricault’s madhouse, Courbet’s labourers – all have been the result of the artist identifying himself with those who had previously been ignored or dismissed. One can even go so far as to say that, in the last analysis, all their subjects are given to artists. Very few, such as he has been able to accept, have been given to Picasso. And this is his complaint.

When Picasso has found his subjects, he has produced a number of masterpieces. When he has not, he has produced paintings which eventually will be seen to be absurd. They are already absurd, but nobody has had the courage to say so for fear of encouraging the philistines for whom all art, because it is not a flattering looking-glass, is absurd.

The experience is Picasso’s experience of his own way of painting. It is like an actor being fascinated by the sound of his own voice or the look of his own actions. Self-consciousness is necessary for all artists, but this is the vanity of self-consciousness. It is a form of narcissism: it is the beginning of Picasso impersonating himself.

It would be petty to draw attention to such a failure if it was incidental. What artist has not sometimes been vain or self-indulgent? But later, after 1945, a great deal of Picasso’s work became mannered. And at the root-cause of this mannerism there is still the same problem: the lack of subjects – so that the artist’s own art becomes his subject.

What is all the drama about? Unhappily, it is about being painted by Picasso. And that is the extremity of mannerism, the extremity of a genius who has nothing to which to apply himself.

Beginning Again by Marcia Hafif



Beginning Again by Marcia Hafif

The options open to painting in the recent past appeared to be extremely limited. It was not that everything had been done, but rather that the impulses to create which had functioned in the past were no longer urgent or even meaningful. Tracing magic images, storytelling, reporting, representing in a one-to-one relationship a scene or figure in paint – none of these acts was credible in the way it once had been. Abstraction appeared to be used up; expression through shape and color was very familiar and had become meaningless. The process of flattening out the canvas had reached an end; formalist painting had soaked color into the canvas and moved shape to the edge, presenting an almost but not quite, unbroken field. We no longer believed in the transcendency of paint and saw little reason to use the medium of painting for making art.

In the middle sixties some expressed surprise that I was still using a brush. By 1975 Max Kozloff could say, “for at least five years. . .painting has been dropped gradually from avant-garde writing, without so much as a sigh of regret.” (1) (An odd situation was implied as he went to admit that there were still plenty of artists painting.)

The enterprise of painting was in question, was “under erasure.” I use this term of Derrida’s (2) to denote a state in which painting appeared to be no longer relevant, not quite right, and yet the only possible activity for one who has been or is a painter – an artist deriving satisfaction from painting, drawings, the ordering of space, with a sensibility directed to paint, to pencil, to materials in general. But there was no dialogue, no discourse.

It was necessary to turn inward to the means of art, the materials and techniques with which art is made. Artists still interested in painting began an analysis – or deconstruction – of painting, turning to the basic question of what painting is, not so much for the purpose of defining it as to be able to vivify it by beginning all over again. That question led to an examination of the discipline of painting, the taking apart of it as an activity; it led to a restatement of what we already knew along with an investigation of it in depth. We pretended in a certain way that we did not know anything about painting. We studied and rediscovered it for ourselves.

This pretending resulted in a kind of extra-consciousness, a looking in from the outside. We were no longer “involved” in painting in the sense of engagement, but now saw clearly what we were doing from an exterior position – an attitude appropriate for the interim period of work which some saw this to be.

The notion that this was the last painting was not difficult to hold. And this greater consciousness could allow parody and the easy summation of painting, including the idea that it was actually possible for its relevance to have expired. Art could merge with other disciplines – science or religion – and cease existing as an independent activity. The idea of the end of painting had been around for a long time, long before Ad Reinhardt talked about the one size, the one color.

With the invention of photography in the nineteenth century the need for painting as representation had been brought into question. In Russia in 1921 Rodchenko had shown three “pure color” monochromatic paintings and then had stopped painting. Tarabukin declared that this step meant the “death of painting” and the “suicide of the painter.” Fifty years later one still asked if an analysis of painting might not lead to mere footnotes and ultimately to the end of painting.

An opposing idea, however, gave the new work strength: a belief in abstraction, and knowledge that in its short history this had been the mode of much significant work. Non-objective painting had existed for us only since about 1910. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism had led toward abstraction, searching for ways to be expressive in paint through its own materials and devices, breaking up color and separating color and form from function. In 1910 Kandinsky painted his first abstract improvisation attempting to use painting means as ends in themselves, much as time and sound are used in music. Picabia, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Kupka, Morgan Russell, Arthur Dove, Leger, Mondrian, Klee, Macdonald-Wright and others were working with color abstraction. In 1913 Malevich showed a painting consisting of a black square on a white ground “in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity. . .” (3) A great deal of non-objective painting has been made since then: De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction and more. The abundance of work of quality, which has been produced in so short a time, constitutes evidence of the validity of non-representational work. To my mind the significant art of this century has been abstract.

Painters today confronting the question “What is painting?” work, in large part, in an abstract or non-objective mode. Essentially uninterested in using the medium to convey messages, they have looked for what was inherent in the medium itself. An examination of the essences of paint materials and methods was expected to release new subject matter. The work was frequently monochromatic or of an undivided surface. Placing colors side by side would produce shapes and relationships, but all these shapes had been exhausted. The figure had moved off the ground; not the painting itself was a figure on the ground of the world around it. An early example would be the paintings of Ralph Humphrey, who, from 19?? to 1960, was involved in an analysis of what painting is and who, though he modulated the paint of his one-color paintings to varying aspects of a given color, did no use interior division of the surface because he found the manifest shape of the canvas itself to override any interior shape.

The insistence on no internal division was not new. I have mentioned Malevich’s black square and Rodchenko’s single color. A little-known Russian, Wladyslaw Strzeminsky, who was prominent in the Polish Constructivism, may have been the next after Rodchenko to use a field of one color. Writing in Unism in painting (1928), he said:

Two colors, hitting one beside the other, break the unity of the picture by their contrast. . . Rather than contrast, it is the unity and the means aiming at producing it that ought to be the standard of a picture’s form now. (4)

A monochrome is a painting or drawing in a single hue (Webster’s). Many of the paintings I am talking about, however, although they may have an undivided surface, are not merely of one color in one undifferentiated plane, each panting exactly like another. We can examine monochromatic thinking and some of its manifestations, seeing just how dissimilar two monochromes can be and how much in the way of imagery they can encompass.

Strzeminsky, with his concept of “Unism,” painted seemingly one-color surfaces that were usually divided up into very small units, so that they are closer to what we think of as “all-over” works. Yves Klein in France, in an art-related gesture, produced thick, pocked surfaces in what he called his “International Klein Blue.” Klein related to Surrealism: Manzoni, in the nineteen-fifties in Italy, made “Achromes,” often using white materials, but actually concerned with non-color. He was not interested in surface and did not use paint but was making a statement (as part of the Azimuth group (including Castellani, who did make white paintings) toward the un-individual: we can all make art, everything is art.

Robert Ryman paints his surfaces using white because that color does not interfere with paint as paint. His concern has been with the paint surface and the application of paint – with the support for the canvas, the ground, and the means of attaching the painting to the wall.

Stephen Rosenthal does not stretch his canvas, but etches, then subtly dyes it; or he varnishes it and scratches into it along the lines of the threads of the canvas. The final appearance of the work grows out of the characteristics of the canvas itself.

Dale Henry has made canvas paintings covered with transparent materials. One of his primary concerns here is the interaction between the work and light. Often incident in one of his work is discernable only through the action of light.

Doug Sanderson has painted layers of color over each other, finally producing an apparently monochrome surface affected by the underlying coats. Jerry Zeniuk prepares stretched linen and paint it with layer after layer of alternating complementary colors, arriving at a luminous, neutral surface that remains undivided except for brushing incident and the intimation of the many underlying colors.

Rodchenko called his monochromes Pure Red, Pure Blue and Pure Yellow Color, which I would contrast with my own use of Cadmium Red Medium, Cadmium Yellow Medium and Ultramarine Blue, among others. The specific color replaces the theoretical color and is seen in its pure physical state.

From examining these many distinctions it becomes apparent that the goal of recent artists has not been the depersonalization of the painting and that in fact, one work can be very different from another – both between artists and in the works of any one artist.

The choice of ground will have been made with the coloring materials in mind, and it too affects the appearance of a color.

Although the work may have been determined to be monochrome, certain drawing decisions concerning the edge immediately arise with the idea of applying paint to the canvas. Where is the paint going to stop? The paint may run up to the edge of the support, around onto the sides, or it may stop within the canvas edges. If the paint does end within the front surface, it will probably form a rectangle slightly smaller than the supporting canvas – otherwise it would make a discrete shape on the ground. A neutral solution has been to stop the paint at, but not beyond, the edge of the front surface.

The tool used in drawing or painting may be a pencil, a brush, a pen, and so on; it becomes the mediator between the artist and the ground. The tool chosen leaves its very specific marks influenced by the way it is used. It is chosen for it appropriateness to the medium and for its capabilities in regard to that.

Construction, by which I mean the way elements are brought together, extends from the decisions necessary in preparing a support and ground through the distribution of paint or marks on the prepared surface, including any other interventions by the artist on the materials. The act of working in conjunction with the chosen materials produces an aesthetic or an internal ethic. An inherent logic manifests itself through the use of the materials, and here a set of values arises.

Such values arise from the necessities associated with the material in question. The work is determined through the observation of the materials and techniques chosen for a given project or body of work. Rather than altering material to fit one’s needs, material is left to a large degree integral and the art is drawn from it. The qualities of the materials and tools, and also the nature of the discipline, determine the choices made. Rules emerge derived from the material and methods in question, and results become the desired end product. The image searched for, more than simply what happened. With this integrity even the smallest decisions take on great importance, as an interrelated consistency is produced among all the elements off the work creating a meaning. The artist determines how, where, how much, and so on, while the nature of the materials is respected, playing its part in determining the final result. The artist works within the (chosen) givens of the materials.

Choices in these areas are made without reference to a known aesthetic, each decision being weighed on its own, taking into consideration the material and the desired end in a specific process. Often these are traditional time-honed paint procedures being used, the artist restating, investigating, as though for the first time, the use of materials that have been long known to art. The difference is in the kind of consciousness focused on the details of these decisions. This is not necessarily a new focus, but one that had not been used for a while, that of seeing the material and its use more for itself than for what it can do.

The hanging of a monochromatic painting is of prime importance. Since the painting is an object to be related to directly, its position with respect to the viewer indicates something of what that relation is about. The painting may be placed low on the wall. And thus be brought into our own space, or places higher, in which case it becomes to a degree removed from us. It is most often hung alone on a wall. A monochromatic painting does not hold a tight focus in that its own energy spreads out to areas surrounding it, which is one of the reasons why walls today are white or neutral avoiding the color harmony automatically set up between the painting and a wall color.

A reduced rectangle on a wall sets up a composition with any other paintings that may be on the wall, with the rectangle of the wall itself, and with any other physical elements present. Rather than being a surface that holds figures on a ground, the painting itself becomes a figure and is put on the ground of the wall. In placing one or more of these objects on a wall one confronts the inevitability of their composing that wall. It has become necessary in hanging as well as in making the work to acknowledge the concrete and delimited space of the wall and its relation to the concrete object placed upon it. This may be done by using the entire wall either as a ground or as a given area determining the size and location of work, by accepting the relation set up between painting and wall by hanging paintings in groups, perhaps even by ignoring the wall and locating the painting in the room. Ryman placed his Varese Panel on blocks in the gallery. I have made certain stretched canvases whose size as determined by the wall, or have even painted the entire wall, in order to eliminate composition by making the painting congruent with the wall. A small monochrome painting, however, which many tend to be, frankly accepts the relation to the wall.

Most often a painting is seen alone or in a group of similar, though discrete, paintings, although Brice Marden has combined panels of color, as has Kelly. Merrill Wagner lets the work pass through stages, and we are presented with three or four phases of the process it goes through. No doubt one reason realist representation is generally rejected is that we are not content with one single image, we are used to seeing multiple images in movies and on television, and one still image in a painting seems insufficient. Photographs are often shown in groups or pairs for this very reason. Monochrome, on the other hand, is open and receptive and “empty;” it is non-specific and changing according to time, location and the viewer. A monochromatic painting does not need to be supported by the presence of other paintings and, in fact, is generally best seen alone.

When we are seeing one painting, however, we need a clue to that painting; knowledge of other paintings by the same artist and of painting of a similar kind by others. And we are also aided by awareness of the artist’s intention, although ultimately of course it is the work that speaks.

Paintings were once seen as surfaces on which were created illusions representing real life; or they were seen as the “flat-bed plane” on which to place objects. Now they exist (perhaps since Suprematism) to be related to to other objects in the world. The experience of seeing such works is very different from the earlier way of looking. The eye stops on the surface, where once it expected to go within. Where we used to read a surface, ignoring the material it was made of, we now look at that surface’s very materiality. This work accepts the objectness of the painting. No illusion is created in terms of three dimensions, and associations outside the object are almost nonexistent. Although it is an object, the painting is painted like the particular kind of object it is – a painting. The paint is applied by an artist and the brushstrokes are visible. The surface is painted, but not the edges.

A frame is not needed to separate this thing from space around it as we accept its material limits. In fact, the edges are left unframed in order to allow verification of the kind of object it is.

The close-up focus implied by one-color painting is consistent with the enlargement of scale within a format that has taken place throughout this century to the point that finally one brushstroke, one color, can make up the entire painting. Artists concentrating on limited aspects of painting or exploring its various attributes one at a time, have, inadvertently or consciously, put together an informal catalogue or inventory of art materials and techniques. An early example from sculpture would be Carl Andre’s table of elements, with which he catalogued metals that could be used in sculpture, rather than actually making sculpture of them yet at the same time making them into a sculpture. Dale Henry showed an 80-piece work in which he catalogued methods of drawings and painting in relatively colorless materials, outlining areas of work he planned to investigate. Lucio Pozzi’s drawings have made subject matter out of the various processes of drawing – addition, removal, etc. In my own work I have examined the pigments used in making paint, as well as formats, media and mixes, and have used those separately in making paintings in order to make visible the qualities and attributes of a specific pigment color in a specific medium and format.

Much of what I am taking about has had to do with the emptying of the field of work. A surface apparently without incident reveals to the artist the impossibility of eliminating it altogether and gives to the viewer the experience of seeming emptiness and the option of dealing with her/himself in that emptiness. What is there when we have taken everything away? What happens when there is very little to see? Painting has long flirted with emptiness. Think of Malevich, Humphrey, Reinhardt, Marden, Ryman. We could not say of any of these painters’ work that everything else by one color has been removed. It is not a difficult task to distinguish between these “empty” paintings. The removal of known subject matter opened the way for other content to enter in. A painting without interior relationships of color and shape is not empty.

Although in these new explorations decisions are limited, one painting being very much like another – perhaps otherwise the same, but with minor changes – a differentiation should be made here between repetition and series.

In order to treat one concern in depth the artist may indeed repeat work, knowing that repetition leads to a similarity and not to the same. This is very different from extending permutations, working in series. Every painting is complete in itself and, rather than being a variation on earlier work, is more like the earlier work that it is different. The desire is not to work out all the possibilities so much as to refine central decisions, not to search for the new and different so much as to move toward the one.

With the elimination of drawing on the surface, painting is freed from the structural necessity, so strongly felt in the sixties, of relating shapes to the outside edge. The painting is the shape, and the horizontals and verticals of the canvas shape relate to the space it is expected to occupy; but the surface is, in a sense, free. The use of the grid in the sixties also represented that kind of rigid structure, although it could be used with a certain purity and a retaining of the personal – at least by Agnes Martin. In relations to the new work, however, the grid – as well as its atomized expression, the all-over – represents a control far too structural for acceptance of integral imagery that is now searched for. The grid provides a way to divide things into manageable chunks that is too easy. It is now too known.

The new, often monochromatic work, insisting on a restatement of the essentials of painting, was begun with the idea that quality might be in some way definable, that at least painting must have meaning, must have credibility in our present way of seeing. The issue of “quality” has been discussed at length in recent years and I do not want to go into the entire question now. The quality which is felt to be definable here is felt in a wholeness existing in the work, through an integrity of the factors involved in its making, and it is measurable by the criteria set up in the work itself. Although the work is not pushing a message, the meaning inherent in it is crucial to its viability, and, on some levels at least, is very direct.

Painting can be understood on at least four different levels. First, the painting exists physically, as an object in the world that can be responded to directly – it is tactile, visual, retinal. Secondly, technical factors exist in the making of the painting, inherent qualities of material determine method, formal aspects of the work can be examined and understood, and therefore must stand up to certain criteria. Thirdly, a painting exists as an historical statement; it is made at a particular time and represents the artist’s view of the state of painting at that time, whether consciously or not. Finally, the painting represents a form of thought, indirectly reflecting the world-view of the artist, and the time, and transmitting philosophical and spiritual experiences.

While it may be possible to speak of universal meanings, it is doubtful that content is communicated solely by eye contact. Primitives do now understand our photographs, as we have learned to do. Meaning can be communicated nonverbally, but this is at the same time a relative phenomenon, learned by experience, as one learns to read, by looking and by familiarizing oneself with the problems attacked. The body of work of one artist provides clues to the meaning of given work, as the works together of a group of artists have meaning in relation to each other. Masaccio’s painting was significant in relation to the work that preceded it and to that contemporary with it. At any period in history various works have enhanced the meaning of each other, and this continues to be true now.

There is a certain passivity evident in much of the new work. Size is often small – there is no attempt to overwhelm or to change the world. Decisions go with, rather than against the givens of a location or a chosen material. Considerations of construction take precedence over taste. Necessities in the making of a painting direct how it will be made, the final appearance, consequently, being a result rather than a predetermined effect. The work is built from the inside out. In this way form results from necessities inherent in the bringing together of elements, creating an open space in which unknown and unexpected images become active. Interior logic allows a distancing of the esthetic judgment of the painter.

Unlike previous aleatory work, decisions here derive from materials themselves, in that no foreign content is brought in. With this defining of inherent rules, the content of the work that originates in its physical aspect is transferred from the material worked on to the artist. The real subject becomes the experience of making the work, the information derived from the work, the set of values interconnected with and refined through the work.

As the making experience becomes a prime activity, the time in the studio is given greater attention. The preparation of materials is as important as the use of them. Grinding paint or preparing canvases is an equal activity with the application of the paint. Time must be arranged in order not to be interrupted; the extension of time required for work is as much to be desired for itself as for the purpose of accomplishing something.

Related to that is a certain focus of attention to one detail, one form, counteracting the fragmentation of the world around us. Eating a banana is different from eating a banana and reading a book. As a society we use our minds in McLuhan’s “mosaic” manner – we deal with several subjects at once, trying to read the news while having full-page clothing ads compete for our attention. We keep our minds on any one subject for a very limited period of time, interposing another subject, then returning to the first, but the time span is always broken. We infrequently read an entire article from start to finish. Life demands pull us from one subject to another. If meditation helps some re-experience a focus, certain work carried out by artists performs a similar function. Both in life and in art these artists attempt to give attention to one thing at a time and to avoid interruption. When attention is divided nothing is experienced completely, and the artist can communicate that intimation to the viewer.

The work I am talking about is involved with the experience of being. It begins with givens. The material exists; decisions are made as to format, combinations of materials, tools, arena. Given one choice others are made on the basis of that. A certain integrity pervades the whole. The artist is involved in being as a way of doing and in letting be, developing materials worked with. The experience is one that few other activities allow us to know: the possibility of direct action in work with final materials, of seeing what was visualized materialize itself in our own hands.

In that search for the present, for perception of being, the artist discovers a wholeness, a means of deriving beauty from within the area set out, from the nature of the materials together with the techniques and human attributes chosen to be dealt with.

I use the work “beauty” cautiously. One wonders if the term is valid, if it any longer has meaning, but we do need some way of indicating the psychotropic action of visual stimuli. It is undeniable that an effect is felt in the presence of certain phenomena – an awe, an excitement. That can be as simple as a reaction to a landscape undergoing the change of autumn colors, or the sense of grandeur felt in the face of dramatic mountain scenery. The courtyard of an Islamic mosque can provoke that feeling as can a simple bowl of calligraphic inscription. We respond to the ingenious economies of shaker furniture and to present-day work in similar ways.

This work is quiet, contemplative, and, as I have suggested, even meditative. This is a most difficult quality to discuss. We are used to talking in terms of materials and formal elements but not of subjective content. Perhaps we feel that too much discussion dissipates the fact of it. We are trying to talk about an experience that is essentially personal. All monochromatic painting has something of this in it. (Other artists one might think of here are James Bishop and Susanna Tanger.)

Recent monochrome has been called Minimal or Reductivist. Because of the apparently reduced surface, it has been easy to relate this work to Minimalism. However, the recent work is not involved in modules, fabrication or industrial finish. This differentiates it, too from Suprematism and Constructivism, where the marks of the hand were largely eliminated. The new painting accepts the marks of human touch and idiosyncrasies of the artist in conjunctions with the varying results obtainable from given materials.

From process art such work took its tendency to set up a procedure and to accept the results of carrying that out. Conceptual drawing also works this way: rules are given, and the work carried out. The product is the result of that action, although here personal content is allowed to enter. Arte Povera contributed another concept, that of using simple methods and materials rather than difficult and costly ones. A term to consider is “aesthetic primitivism” (borrowed from Robert Goldwater’s Primitivism in Modern Art), which Carter Ratcliff says “appears whenever an artist of any period intends to work with formal ‘essential,’ either to establish the fundamentals of his medium or to engage perception at the deepest levels. (5) Both of these intentions are basic to recent work.

There have been in Europe such shows as “Fundamental Painting,” “La Peinture en Question,” “Analytische Malerei,” “Bilder ohne Bilder,” “Pittura.” The Supports/Surfaces group and related artists, analyzing the materials of painting and influenced by color-field painting, have written and theorized about their work. Claude Viallat has made work out of the elements of canvas, the stretcher, color, location. Dezeuze elaborates on the components of the stretcher. Louis Cane showed paintings in which even elements of figurative art were abstracted and incorporated in his generally flat color surfaces. Work shown in Italy, Holland and Germany, as well as the American work discussed here, grew largely out of a rejection of color-field painting and its atmospheric quality. More than the French, it tends to put elements together into a whole, rather than opposing them; it is less involved in binary opposition and Structuralism.

The artist I am talking about keeps work whole and within the vision of one author, rarely using an assistant, ordering work form a factory or working in a group. Painting has been able to gather new energy by throwing things out and starting afresh. Although much of it has seemed to continue reduction, it has been, more precisely, involved in a deconstruction, an analysis of painting itself. With belief remaining in the potentialities of abstraction, and in reaction to the apparent exhaustion of painting, the artists cited above, and others, began the inventory – the cataloguing, the examination – of the parts I have spoken of. Painting became demonstrative, conceptual, a thing to be examined, more passive that it had been. The artist was making personal work. Thus certain changes came about. The format became generally smaller. Color became opaque, seen for itself rather than being used to create an illusion or to express. Line was used for itself rather than to delineate shape or form. Personal touch was readmitted as the sign of the brush and the artist’s hand was again visible. These are elements of painting.

A certain span of this analytic period appears to be concluded now, although much about painting remains to be investigated. The whole area of relational color and shape has barely been touched upon. Devices for creating illusion, and the history of painting itself, could provide further subject for study. Individual artists will decide whether or not this is necessary, but there has been through this analysis a reaffirmation of the strength of non-objective means of artistic expression. If one phase of this period of analysis is coming to an end, we may be ready to enter still another phase of abstraction, a synthetic period.

1) Max Kozloff, “Painting and Anti-Painting: A Family Quarrel,” Artforum, September 1975, p.37

2) Jacques Derrida Of Grammatology, Baltimore 1974

3) Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World, Chicago 1959

4) Wladyslaw Strzeminski, Unism in Painting (Praesens Library, No. 3), Warsaw 1928, quoted in the catalogue by Ryszard Stanislawski and others for the exhibition “Constructivism in Poland 1923-1936; BLOK, Praesens, a.r., ” Essen and Otterlo 1973, p.92

5) Carter Ratcliff, “On Contemporary Primitivism,” Artforum, November 1975, p. 58

Marcia Hafif