Galerie Hubert Winter

Getting on with painting
Marcia Hafif — in: Art in America. April. 1981

Aniconic, or 'pure', paintings rejects most pictorial strategies commonly employed on other less absolutist types of abstraction. Below, a practitioner of the form describes its raison d' être as well as some methods that she and her colleagues frequently use.

Paintings, hand painted surfaces, are composed more or less evidently of a series of brush strokes. One stroke id added to another in a judicious way until most or usually all of the underlying support has been covered in a manner appropriate to the subject matter and innate to the artist. Meaning in these strokes, and consequently in the painting, derives from the method of organization of the strokes together with the personaltouch of the artist. In a realist or in an abstract painting the strokes function (and have always functioned) at an underlying level, but in a one-color painting the strokes carry a major load signifance. Rather than serving another intention, they are that intention, a part of the subject matter of the painting as a whole.
When, as in aniconic painting, exterior subject matter is not present, the necessity for each stroke still is the result of an interaction between the artist and a stimulus, but that stimulus is different. To locate the motive for the placement of strokes, I would like to investigate some of the basic methods and materials of one-color painting.
An obvious point of departure is the ever present rectangle or square of the support. An empty piece of paper, an empty canvas provides its emptiness-or ist horizontal and vertical edges - as starting points. For the artist who plans to cover the surface of the support with marks, with paint, in a manner not determined by subject matter, but one which grows out of the act of marking a painting itself, there are several basic moves found to be productive.
One of these is to start in the upper left corner and to paint vertical strokes cross the surface in a horizontal row, allowing with a second row below the first and continuing until the entire edge is covered. Another method is to begin from the upper left corner and to work across and down together as one would in painting a wall, keeping the wet edge fresh and avoiding lap marks. Strokes can also be applied down the left side in columns which then proceed from left to right. Or horizontal strokes can form bands across the painting which move down the surface. There are of course other starting places, but all these methods achieve the primary meaning that grows out of order.
The methods I have described so far and to be repetitive, to be linear in their order and to proceed from beginning to end in a matter-of-fact way. A comparatively simple order grows out of the materials and tools involved. Most frequently, one color is used; the format is repeated. This relatively unchanging process functions for the artist as a means of working out identity without the distraction of an ever constant search for the new. Small changes become significant in themselves.
In a step towards complexity, the artist may use new points of departure rather arbitrarily. For example, dividing line may be introduced through the paint work, or simple drawing figures may used as internal edges, or brush strokes themselves may serve as jumping off points. As the paintings begins, the artist adopts a state of mind similar to that required for the work previously described in which the act proceeds virtually on its own and the painter makes decisions while in a mental state appropriate for unconscius scanning or unfocused attention. Decisions follow an inner order but are produced less through conscious deliberation than through a visceral action/reaction process smoothly functioning in that mind state.
When painting develops this greater complexity, new meanings are created and a new creative process evolves. The simpler method of starting work from an edge had initially provided a structure for painting which did not depend on the grid; but in time it has become possible for artists to let go of the edge and to make a new beginning in the very void of the center of the canvas. With the new complexity, the meaning of the work develops even more clearly from the connection made between the artist and the canvas through the medium of the materials. A direct relation between the two is set into motion. As the work develops, the artist puts down strokes related to the body and vision, strokes which then serve as working points for subsequent strokes, which themselves feed into the subconscious and provoke responses which lead to further strokes.
The meaning, then, of one-color painting is closely related to theact of painting, the action of painting. As it presently functions, this type of painting is neither a means of representation of nature nor is its purpose the 'self expression' of the artist. It is , rather, a direct mode of thought by which the artist, using reason and intuition, works out (creates) meaning through his/her materials and through the process of using them. This approach represents a shift in the avenue of meaning and the source of an esthetic. Ist purpose is not reduction or analysis for its own sake, but the development of a visual language, a personal and poetic language, not a parody of literature, science or industry.
The painting I have been talking about is pure painting in the sense that it is not at the service of other needs. Husserl discusses "pure science of essential being such as pure logic, pure mathematics, pure time-theory..." and in describing them indicates different kinds of thought:
"These in all their thought-constructions, are free through out any positings of actual fact... The geometer who draws his figures on the blackboard produces in so doing strokes that are actually there in a board that is actually there... whether instead of actually drawing the lines he draws his lines and figures in a world of fancy does not really matter. The student of nature behaves quite differently. He abserves and experiments, i.e., he fixes what is concretely there just as he experiences it... But for the geometer who studies not actualities but ideal possibilities, not actual but essential relationships, essential insight and not experience is the act that supplies the ultimate gounds."(1)
Paint supplies a medium for this kind of thought which does not depend on 'positings of actual fact' but is released from correspondence with external reality to find its own content.
The interdependence of the mental and the physical characterizes all painting and is apparent in the experience of painters: in oder to effect any advance in the work, actual painting must be done. ("Why try to anticipate in thought what only experience can teach?"(2) Unlike the 'strokes' of Husserl's geometer, the strokes of painting do matter; it is important that they are really there because it is only in joining the physical act with the mental one that what is known can lead to what was not previously known. The physical materials function as tools for this discovery.
To consider the act of paintings as a mode of thought we have to include, along with rational thought, a kind which is non-verbal, a kind of thought which is closer to a state of mind:
"this state in which nothing definite is thought, planned, striven for, desired or expected, which aims in no particular direction and yet knows itself capable alike of the possible and the impossible, so unanswering in its power...and is at bottom purposeless and egoless... "(3)
Decisions are made with reason and logic in order to bring about a situation into which the unintentional can enter. Rationally selected signs form a framework of meaning from which the painter works towards the unknown. Factors are set up, reasons for being, internal rules which are not imposed from the outside, but which function within a network of terms evolving from the work. Rules come into being through the process of thought and thought the process of work, rules which are coherent within the terms of painting. Even so, all decisions are arbitrary to a degree; there is nothing about the painting which must be the way it is (other than enough of the basic elements so that we can call it a painting). And yet when certain decisions are made, others follow from them until finally every decision is a part of the whole. This whole - the completed work- becomes a part of the painter's identity, but it stands outside his/her personality.
Painting thus functions as a source of identity. The artist works repeatedly through painting towards the discovery of the self, developing the game which will be played out in the canvas and which in the course of its coming into being results in form which has the power to identify. The artist produces work which has an exterior, public existence, but which also clarifies his internal sense of identity and forms a bridge to reality.
To make this discussion more specific, let's think of three paintings,which at first glance appear to be very much the same - the works are Olivier Mosset's Red Painting, Phil Sim's NYC 16 79, and my own Cadmium red medium(4). They are all approximately two feet square; they are painted on stretched and prepared canvases on wooden stretchers; they are one-color surfaces; all of them are red. They are, however, differneces: one of the paintings, Sim's NYC 16 79, is a vertical rectangel, while the other two are squares; one (the Hafif) is stretched on a thin stretcher, while the other two are thicker; one is painted without evidence of brush stroke (Mosset), another has vertical brush strokes visible in the medium thick paint (Hafif), and the third is painted, again in vertical strokes, in layers of red (Sims).
These paintings, executed at different times and by different painters who were then unknown to each other, create a dialogue in their similarities and differneces. Each artist has made a primary statement throuh her/his initial choice of painting as a medium over sculpture or other current mediums. When, the small size of each of these three paintings, indicates a certain intimacy, a desire for a one-to-one relationship with the viewer. The square format is contemporary, while a rectangle recalls tradition. But all refer in another way to the tradition of painting - all are painted on stretched canvas. The narrow stretcher edge asserts itself less as an object then does the wider one, which projects its surface further from the wall into the viewer's space. Mosset's flat, evenly painted red surface is different from Hafif's surface, which is made of hand-ground prigment in oil, specially Cadmium red medium; both are matter-of-factly painted. Sim's surface, also painted with hand-ground color, is, however, worked by the artist to achieve a desired image. Through all three artists have made the same decision isin each case modulated by choices in each other relevant element. As with body language that speaks without words, these paintings convey meaning with every act of their being.
Because these paintings are essentially one color, their mode of existence is non-hieratic. The juxtaposition of color means the formation of shapes; if these shapes don't arrive at an uneasy balance, one shape or color takes precidence over another. In varying ways, many of the painters am discussing these multiple colors to arrive at their coloristic surface - avoiding, however, the hierachy I just mentioned. Divisions are made, if at all, through the process of painting; they are not meassured out, the canvas is not subdivided, the division remain subtle. When such divisions come about through the paint process or through layering, different colors may be used over each other. Even line may be formed, but again as a result of process rather than as a calculated design. Where line or change of color does occur, it is as an integral part of the painting and of the material process which produces the image of the painting. Line is not arbitarily applied and does not function in a divisive way. It is not used for the purpose of established positioning in space, for relationships of distance or for the simulation of light. Nor is line used to indicate direction or movement. The work is not experienced in linear time, but synchronically. Drawing in this psinting is found in the first instance in the choice of the stretcher size and proportion, in the intended placement of the painting on the wial and in the method of hanging to be used. It exists in the decision of how to attach the canvas to the stretcher, how to treat the outside edge, in decisions as to where the paint ends (at the edge, around the edge, inside the edge), in the choice of brush and brush mark, in deciding what to do about lap marks, in consequences of starting places, in references to the outside edge, in marks indicated by the nature of material and marks caused in making corrections.
Paint and canvas can function with such an immediacy, such a directness, that no mediation is required. A piece of paper and a pencil represent the minimum materials required to make visual thought concrete. (Many painters even need them as adjuncts to verbal discussion.) The triangle of the pencil, the paper and the artist, easily brought together provides the opportunity for thought to become form without the intervention of machines, expensive processes of help from others.The directness of drawing and painting may be one of the reasons certain artists persist with pencil and paper, paint and canvas. When Okakura metions in The Book of Tea that "Teaism (is) essentially a workship of the Imperfect, as it is a tendence attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know all life"(5), he expresses a need which w e may all feel. Whether ar not life is 'impossible', drawing is for us the possible and is directly within our contral.
Painting, for these reasons then, continues to be a viable and satisfying activity. Rather than turning to experimental mediums, these artists have chosen to continue working with standard paint procedures, accepting the traditional mode of application of paint to a rectangular stretched canvas. Though they use traditional paint materials and methods, they are concerned with a non-traditional subjet matter and with a new view of space. All have developed a kind of painting which goes beyond the familiar abstract/pictorial mode.
Specifically this painting is not engaged in representation of material world around us but exists independent and physically factual rather than atmospheric or transcendent. Ist economy does not allow it more than what it needs, but it is not reductive; it makes use of human touch. It has developed and is extending a language in painting that can provide an experience of wholeness, center, oneness to the viewer. It provides these experiences to the painter, as well, along with the active process of thought in paintings terms worked out on a two-dimensional 'ideal' surface.

1) Edmund Husserl, Ideas, General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, New York, Macmillan, 1962, p.55.
2) Eugen Herrigel, Art in the Art of Archery, New York, Vintage Books, 1971, p.41.
3) Ibid., p.37.
4) Beginning in the fall of 1978 and sporadically thereafter the following often changing group of artist met to discuss painting issues: Olivier Mosset, Stephan Rosenthal, Jerry Zeniuk, Marcia Hafif, Doug Sanderson, Joe Marioni, Phil Sims, Frederic Thursz, Rraimund Girke, Carmen Gloria Morales, Robert Ryman, Susanna Tanger, Anders Knutsson, dale Henry, Merrill Wagner and Howard Smith. In June 1979 they had a private showing at work at Julian Pretto's Franklin Street speca for the purpose of discussion, during which these three paintings were one focus of observation and argument.
5) Kaluzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, New York, Dover Publications, 1964, p.1.