241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Barnet Newman, Cathedra, 1951
Barnet Newman, Cathedra, 1951

‘There was nothing, nothing at all to see.’ This line, which would become famous, was spoken by a visitor to a Barnett Newman exhibit on January 1950 in New York. Newman presented the monumental monochrome paintings, cut through by a vertical line, for which he would be well renowned later. Paintings without a title, without a motif. In a certain sense, Newman did not want to ‘show’, at least not to show any subject, no image referring to the history of fine art. That was the discovery he had made shortly before: he no longer needed a subject. He advised the viewer to look at his paintings from up close, and not from afar, which one tends to do because of their large sizes. ‘Paintings need to be felt, not to be read,’ was his adagio.

Titian, St Margaret and the Drago


Four centuries before, around 1550, a similar discussion took place. The incentive was the paintings of Titian. At an older age, the master from Venice started to paint ‘invisible’ scenes. No longer did he bind colour to matter and shape, his palette had the figures dissolve in a kind of fog or haze. He built his composition with broad, bold brushstrokes and colour fields. Moreover, he left parts of the canvas unpainted, so that, as his contemporary Vasari put it, ‘one does not see much from up close, whereas from afar the paintings appear to be perfect.’ With ‘perfect’, Vasari meant that Titian’s paintings gave the impression of being alive.

The revolution that is born with Titian and comes to an end with Newman, is that of a category of painting that thrives on invisibility and shapelessness. It is an art of painting that shows the process of the métier, the dynamics of the brush, the use of colour, the texture. But most of all, it is a way of painting that involves the viewer in the work. For it is his position, his place, close to the painting’s skin or from a distance, that determines what can be seen. This form of painting creates the illusion of the viewer as a (co-)creator, an artist, who has to finish the work.
Ironically, this suggestion is raised most strongly by remaining at a distance from Newman’s work, yet by almost pressing one’s nose against the canvas in the case of Titian.

Detail, Titian, St Margaret and the Dragon, c.1559


Less is better, less is more. This principle has held the last century's art in a tight grip. Even now, the elimination of frills and the absence of the anecdote remain praised and encouraged by the majority of art critics and art tutors.

Fred. Sandback

A lengthy history precedes the art of omission. Remarkably, the roots to this aesthetic approach lie in the Baroque; age of decorum, extravagance, excess, and the ornament. But this same seventeenth century period also gave way to a break in the tradition of following a narrative and by representing it scene after scene, like in a comic strip. The Baroque celebrates the climax and the apotheosis; that one instant in which an entire story is condensed into an ultimate moment of theatricality, frozen in time.

In 1793, the art of omission encountered a curious development in the form of the French painter Jacques-Louis David. His ‘Death of Marat’ is a world famous masterpiece, an icon of the French Revolution, an unequivocal image of devotion inspired by the events that instigated the uproar in Paris on July 13th, 1793 when a young woman of twenty-four named Charlotte Corday from Normandy murdered the Jacobin revolutionary leader, Marat. David’s idiosyncratic depiction of this scene might be considered religious and engaged rather than factual or pragmatic.

Death of Marat

Jacques-Louis David

What is most unusual about this work is that both the murder and the perpetrator are absent from the image. David’s Marat is dying. His head hangs limply on his right shoulder, arm dangling over the edge of the bath, his left hand still clutching Corday’s letter of announcement. Through a beam of light entering from above, as though cast from the heavens, Marat makes his departure from his earthly existence as a true hero and martyr for the people of France.

Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ inspired David’s brilliant depiction of Marat’s dangling arm. His ability to isolate this motif was genius. No painter before him had brought an arm to light in the same dramatic way.

En zapatillas, 2007
No title, 2008
Nights like obstacles, 2011
En zapatillas, 2007

People are in a truly awful state. Wherever I look, I find someone tottering toward a void.

In the bar where I was yesterday, a girl fell asleep on her table. Just before that, she took one look at my son, Joan, and gave him a faint, nondescript smile. I was amazed she still had the strength for such tenderness, or even to put makeup, however poor the result. I ached just watching her.

Alex, 2008

Today on the street it was an ugly woman, struggling to put on her coat. I imagined the staleness of her life and the wretchedness of being without sexual attractiveness.

People that talk to themselves in the street; people just letting themselves die; mistakes not corrected now taking their toll in mid-life. There's no going back. The bitterness of having wasted one's chance to live has marked their features. They are drowning in senselessness, and only short-term solace will relieve the sting: a beer, gambling at the arcades, watching peep shows, drugging oneself to death ensues, a weekly spell of the idiotic, underhand boxing match of Moros y Christianity1 , vainly attempting to persuade someone in a bar that you are an expert on politics; avoidance, self-deception, watching others suffer; attitudes so often shown by many of those around us.

Feeling like Gilles, 2008

I get dizzy just thinking about how commonplace unhappiness is, how many unhappy souls cross my path every day.

And the girl I saw yesterday... where did she find the strength to smile at my child? In any case, thanks for passing the baton on to him. Joan, it's your turn now. Don't stumble.

1 Moros y Christianos is a talk show on Spanish television.

Ad Reinhardt, Moma
Ad Reinhardt, Moma

What does it really mean? Artistic research

Everyone is suddenly talking about “artistic research” and the “artist as researcher”. Only since recently can artists and designers undertake a PhD at the University, a new Master Artistic Research has started at the Royal Academy of Fine Art of The Hague, and art tutors are conducting research.

Ad Reinhardt (1913 – 1966) said his black paintings were about “nothing”. In the first of these paintings, made in 1953, darker tones of green, red and blue were discernable. They also varied in size. But from the 1960’s until his death, Reinhardt only painted black canvases on identical formats, five by five feet (157,5 x 157,5 centimetre. He was “painting the very last paintings,” he said, “the last that you can make.”

The paintings are severe, although they are less stringent than you might initially think. They are not evenly black, in some places the paint is more matte, catches more light, than in other spots. Glancing sideways at the surface, you’ll see squares within the paint, and Greek crosses. Otherwise, every other characteristic of a painting has been discarded: representation, composition, brush stroke, expression, and colour. Yet, they are not anonymous or mechanical. The black breathes, is space. These paintings are exceptionally fragile, because Reinhardt used minimal amounts of binder to ensure a paint made almost purely of pigment. The black plane is unfathomably deep, and all light disappears into these depths.

Reinhardt owes his important position within modern art to these black canvases, as well as to his radical views on painting. But to the general public, he was known in a very different manner, namely as cartoonist for, among others, the magazine The New Yorker. In 1946, Reinhardt made a series of cartoons named “How to Look at Modern Art”. One of the drawings from this series, “How to Look at a Cubist Painting”, is depicted above.

Cartoon uit de serie “How to look at a Cubist Painting”, 1946.

A mocking viewer responds to a cubist painting. In English, “to represent” has the same double meaning as in Dutch: “to represent” as in “to portray” or “to display”: but also “to represent” in the sense of the degrading, “that doesn’t represent much”, “that doesn’t mean much”. By angrily retorting, “what do YOU represent?” the painting confronts the viewer with himself.

And this is exactly what happens while looking at an artwork. The artwork is silent and confronts you with yourself. As opposed to all other forms of art like theatre, music, dance, and literature; visual art does not immediately immerse you. This silence is not only relevant to painting and sculpture, but in general also to performance, video, film and acoustic art: little is “said”, and there is no finality in intent, or hardly. Duration of time is rarely ever prescribed. The artwork unfolds itself within the span of time that the viewer takes to look at the work. The “narrative” that arises is the exchange between the viewer and the artwork.

Only through the viewer’s effort does the artwork reveal itself. The viewer must take the first step, open himself up, and set aside his own preconceived notions. He can then penetrate the work and engage with the artwork. Within this dialogue, the distance is bridged between one world of thought and another. The experience of engagement with an artwork allows the viewer to become aware of the activity of his own thinking, of living, and of being alive. As the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer said: experiencing art is a “multiplication of existence.” This is what makes artworks important.

It’s difficult to look, said Reinhardt, but we can learn to do so through art. This is not just true for the viewer; it also counts for the artist himself. The artwork is the result of the combination of the desire to make something and the desire to see something. The artist is the first viewer of the artwork. He must learn to see what it is that he’s made, and to recognize it’s meaning. This is reflection; thinking about one’s own experiences and about how and why something has been made, with the goal to clarify the structure of the work and to find a foundation and a context for it. This reflection can only take place once the maker distances himself from the experience of making. To then, if the work is unfinished, pick up where he left off.

The artist's reflection on his own work is the subject matter of artistic research. Within this, the importance of the process of making outweighs that of the final product. Artist-researchers share this reflection with others through conversations, debates, publications etcetera; and are likewise fed by this.

making = thinking
thinking = speaking
speaking = thinking
thinking = making