Barnett Newman – Onement I (1948)

I’d loved Barnett Newman’s paintings since adolescence, the simplicity and effrontery of painting a stripe of one colour flanked by another and calling it art appealed to the same bloody-minded bit of teenage rebellion in me that worshipped Joy Division, it was sparse and stripped down, making noise by what was left out rather than what was put in.

I’d studied his paintings in reproduction, but apart from three relatively small canvases in the Tate collection, I’d never seen any of his work in the flesh until a major retrospective at Tate Modern in 2002.

The exhibition was arranged chronologically, as you passed from room to room, you passed through the years of the artist’s work, starting at the beginning and ending at the end. This might seem obvious, but since the sixties other ways of arranging exhibitions, or ‘hangs’, have come into fashion. Sometimes a hang may be arranged by subject or medium; it all depends on the story that the curators want to tell. In group shows or retrospectives of art movements, these thematic hangs can set up new and exciting relationships between artworks, it’s something we take for granted, but a good hang can breathe new life in to a work that has almost faded into the background because of its familiarity.

For an abstract artist though, I tend to think the chronological hang works best, particularly for those of the first half of the twentieth century for whom abstract art was a matter of stretching the possibilities of painting. Abstract art is now so ubiquitous in homes, boardrooms, shopping malls and restaurants that it’s hard to imagine a time when it simply wasn’t considered a possibility. Viewing these artists’ works in chronological order helps us reconstruct some idea of just how revolutionary their project was.

For the European pioneers of Abstract Art there’s an excitement in seeing their works slowly creep towards a complete rejection of images from the real world. For example, viewing Piet Mondrian’s series of paintings of trees from the 1910s (Red Tree, Grey Tree,Tree,Apple Tree) is an exciting experience, you see an artist reaching and grasping for the abstract yet still tied by the conventions and culture of his time to the image of a tree. It’s like watching a piece of elastic being stretched and stretched and stretched, you’re just waiting for that connection between painting and the real world to snap.

For the American abstract painters of the 1940s and 50s, the situation is slightly different, the ‘Abstract Expressionists’ as they’re awkwardly named, all developed a ‘signature style’ that anyone with even a passing interest in Modern Art is familiar with. If we see splashes we know it’s a Pollock, if we see monolithic blurry rectangles we know it’s a Rothko and if we see stripes, or ‘zips’ as he called them, it’s a Newman.

The excitement and tension in an exhibition of these artists is seeing their work creeping towards the discovery of this signature style. The first few rooms of the Newman exhibition were filled with intricate organic doodles that recall the ‘automatic drawing’ experiments of the Surrealist Andre Masson. Occasional zips made cameo appearances, but only as background elements. These were followed by a tantalising series of monochrome works in ink where a series of ‘almost’ zips made their first starring roles – sometimes they didn’t quite make their way all the way down the page, sometimes they were subtly angled, like the blade of a stiletto stabbing its way through a mess of ink. Finally in the third room the first true zip made its appearance, in Onement I, a great untidy streak of orange cut across a loosely painted background of maroon.

It’s hard to get across how exciting I found this experience, even as I write now the rational, cynical part of my mind is saying “It’s just a stripe for God’s sake” but it was like seeing a film all the way through for the first time that you’d only previously seen the last five minutes of. You know the hero will defuse the bomb; you just don’t know how he going to do it and as the story unfolds you’re bouncing up and down in your seat screaming “The disarming code’s tattooed on the dog’s ear!” or in this case “Paint a bloody stripe!”

So are Newman’s zips ’just stripes’. On the face of it does seem rather simple. There’s a story that the artist Franz Kline found himself in conversation with an American collector who had just returned from one of Newman’s shows. The work was, the collector complained, empty and repetitive, there was he asserted ‘nothing to see’. Kline asked him to describe the canvases on show, their dimensions, their colours, whether the zips were horizontal or vertical, what colour they were, were they painting over the background colour or next to them, were they darker or lighter than the backgrounds. After a lengthy inquisition during which the collector was made to detail the many variations on the theme, Kline remarked “Well I don’t know, it all sounds darned complicated to me.”

I think that’s what I love about Newman’s work , it’s the single-minded pursuit of a simple idea and exploring its many variations, taking something as simple as a stripe and pushing it as far as it can go. It has something in common with minimalist music, take Sigur Ros’s Samskeyti which repeats a simple piano arpeggio over and over lulling you into familiarity, slowly introducing and building up different background atmospherics that subtly change the nature of the melody, then when you’re least expecting it, the arpeggio leaps up an octave and it’s a surprising and sublime experience hearing it for the first time. Newman’s paintings work like that for me – familiarity with a theme making its variations so surprising.

Anyone can make the simple look complicated, what’s really difficult is making the complicated look simple.


What’s The Story?

Edward Hopper – Automat (1927)

It’s the ‘story’ bit of art history that really fires me up. Happily works of art are surrounded by stories. Stories of how they were made, of who made them, of who has owned them…I could go on (it would be a nice easy way of filling up a blog post), but the point is that art is like an anchor for a whole web of stories that spreads out from it backwards and forwards in time, sometimes parallel, sometimes crossing over and sometimes directly contradicting each other.

Sometimes this web of stories can become so dense and knotted that it’s almost impossible to see through it. Over the years many friends have made the trip to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and their reaction invariably contains the words ‘disappointing’, ‘small’ and ‘brown’. I think the problem is that Leonardo’s painting is just too well known, it has so many stories floating around it, it’s weighed down with myths and legends, it’s been parodied and reproduced, it’s made cameo appearances in films and television series and been printed on T-shirts, mouse mats and shopping bags. In fact, if you can stamp an image on it, the chances are that La Giaconda’s been on it at some point. Because of this fog of stories and ideas that gather around the painting our expectations of it are so high that even if it was a hundred metres tall and made of platinum we’d still find the experience of a face-to-face encounter sadly anticlimactic.

But it’s also the absence of a story that can fascinate us and draw us in, Brozino’s Allegory, intrigues precisely because although the story has been lost it’s so clearly dripping with narrative intent that we have to fill in the blanks.

This natural reaction to fill in the blanks has been used by modern and contemporary artist to great effect – the installations of Mike Nelson and Ilya Kabakov both play with narrative instinct, offering us enough clues to know there’s a story there, but not enough for us to be absolutely certain of the strange characters that once inhabited their strange ghostly spaces and stage sets or the encounters that took place there and it’s then that our own stories, our memories and experiences, come into play, meshing and tangling with the artwork’s as we try to make sense of what’s in front of us.

For me though, the master of the uncertain narrative in art is Edward Hopper. His paintings of modern life in rural and urban America in the first half of the 20th century drip with intrigue. Hopper’s world is one where every figure or building has a secret and where every gas station lies on a road that could lead to adventure or disaster. He gives us enough tantalising detail to draw us in, setting up situations like the first chapter of a book or first scene of a film and letting us run with it wherever our minds take us.

The cinematic quality of Hopper’s work is almost a cliché now but it bears repeating, so strong and familiar is his use of the visual grammar of starkly lit and almost deserted urban spaces that we associate with film noir that it’s the first thing that strikes us when we see his work. It should be noted however that the relationship between Hoppers work and the look of Hollywood films isn’t a one-way street. Hopper influenced as much as he was influenced – Alfred Hitchcock for example used Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad as the basis for the design of the Bate’s Motel in Psycho, and his paintings continue to make their presence felt in the world of cinema – Terence Malik, Ridley Scott, David Lynch and Sam Mendes have all acknowledged the debt they owe to Hopper.

Automat sets up one of these ‘first scenes’ brilliantly. It’s night, a girl sits alone in an automated fast food restaurant. She’s removed one of her gloves. Outside the street may or may not be deserted, we can’t tell since the reflection of the sterile and brightly lit interior has obliterated our view of the outside world. It’s difficult to tell whether her blank gaze rests on the table in front of her or the empty chair opposite. The restaurant itself seems deserted, and here the title of the work comes into play, by making it clear this is an automat, we know that there are no waiting staff present merely morgue-like rows of mass produced food in glass-fronted, coin-operated pigeonholes. Her only company seems to be the bowl of fruit that sits on the windowsill behind her.

This last detail reminds me of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere – is there an implication that the girl, like Manet’s barmaid, is as much a commodity on display as the fruit bowl? Unlike Manet’s painting however, Hopper leaves us, the viewer, out of the equation, at the Folie begere, we’re clearly meant to identify with the top-hatted dandy we can see in the reflection to the left, but here in the Automat we seem to be absent rather than present – we have no reflection and the girl does not acknowledge us – we’re a ghost, a voyeur, like a film goer we can only watch, we can’t interact.

So what’s the story?

The great thing about Hopper’s work is that the gaps he leaves in the narratives are so flexible that no two people are likely to come up with the same story. Pete, my mum and I all stood in front of Automat when it was shown as part of Hopper’s retrospective at Tate Modern in 2003, and all of us came up with different stories – for me (morose as ever) the girl had been stood up by a blind date, for Pete she was a spy waiting for another agent to arrive so she could hand over the microfilm and for mum she was taking a break from a shopping trip, enjoying a moments quiet away from the busy city outside. Of course none of us were right, but none of us were wrong, we brought our own perspectives to the painting and as a result the encounter probably said more about us than it did about the painting.

So after all that what have learnt? I’m a miserable git, my mum’s a shopaholic and Pete’s a spy. Hmmmm. Must look into that. Might explain why he never lets me drive the car – worried I’d set of the ejector seat probably…

The Joy Of Bricks

Carl Andre – Equivalent VIII

When I was eight, my mum took me to the National Gallery, stood me in front of Paolo Ucello’s Battle of San Romano and asked me what I thought. Apparently I stood there for a second before announcing that it looked like painting by numbers. The memory is long lost to me now, but I can imagine the stifled sniggers of other gallery goers and my mum’s embarrassment at having raised a mini-philistine (to be fair to her ,in reality, she probably sniggered too.)

Of course these days when I look at the painting, I’m thinking of far higher things – of the techniques and commissioning practices of Medieval Tuscan panel painting, of the politics of 15th century Florence and Siena, of all ranges of viewing positions and theoretical mumbo jumbo, and yet right at the back of my head somewhere, nagging away is the voice of an eight year old boy saying “painting-by-numbers”

The things is though, now when I look at it I can see what I meant, there’s a consistency and precision to the great big flat patches of colour that make up the figures and landscape that do almost suggest to the facetious and fanciful part of my mind that Ucello and his workshop apprentices were slaving away matching paint to numbers:

“Oi! Paolo – what colour’s number 7?”

“Ultramarine Giorgio – and make sure you stay inside the lines”.

With hindsight I don’t think my eight year old self was denigrating the painting, in fact I think it was a compliment, I knew how hard it was to stay inside the lines. (Come to think of it I still do, as the sometimes wobbly outlining in my own work will attest.)

Years later when I was beginning my studies of art history, and was crowing at the high grade that my first essay had achieved, Mum sent me a postcard of that painting with the story of my first attempt at art criticism written on the back. I think the maternal intention here was twofold – first to remind me never to get too big for my boots, and second, and more relevant to today’s little artblurt, to remind me not to forget one of my first encounters with a work of art.

So what’s all this got to do with a pile of bricks – or more specifically Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII? Stay with me – all will become clear…

There are some pieces of work which I wish I could somehow induce a state of temporary amnesia about so I could relive the innocence and excitement of that first encounter, especially those encounters that occurred when I was a child One of those works is Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (more commonly known as ‘the pile of bricks’).

Andre was one of a loose group of artists, writers and curators that emerged in the USA in the 1960s, who have come to be classed together by art historians as the Minimalists. The art was simple, but to make up for it the theory wasn’t – a lengthy and heated correspondence was entered into, battle lines were formed and a debate raged back and forth in the pages of high minded art journals. Now I love the game of Minimalist art theory – it’s the kind of navel gazing mental gymnastics I’ve talked about before. A few years back I was at a session on Minimalism at a summer school and the tutor was asking us all to talk about a particular work to show how much we knew. When it came to my turn I was asked to talk about Equivalent VIII and I was overjoyed. I babbled garrulously about form and function, about objects and phenomenology, about modernism and postmodernism until, when I finally stopped to draw breath, the tutor said “Good grief Howard, if you can talk so much about so very little you’re already an art historian”.

This was all very well and good, and I got a kick out of the gold star from teacher – even if it was a fairly double-edged compliment. But something nagged at me, I remembered loving Minimalism from a quite early age before I knew any of that theory or history and no amount of Artforum articles could explain what it was that attracted me to that kind of work in the first place. I wrestled with this problem for a while – this is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night, well that and a few other odd little things (Chaos theory, why my aubergines have stopped growing, the next episode of Doctor Who) that prompt Pete to say “For God’s sake stop it – I can hear you thinking. Some of us need to get some sleep.”

Then one day I hit on the solution – to head to the Minimalism room at the Tate Modern on a Saturday afternoon and watch children react to the art.

It wasn’t particularly busy in the gallery that day, but I stationed myself near the bricks and waited. Soon a boy, of about a similar age to me in front of the Ucello all those years previously walked in accompanied by a frazzled and cynical looking Dad. The boy made a beeline for the bricks and studied them with the intense seriousness that only and eight year old can muster.

“See Toby,” huffed the dad “Told you there was a load of old rubbish in here – look at that. A pile of bricks!”(Okay I’m not sure if the boy was called Toby, but it just fits)

“I like that.” said Toby seriously.

“Don’t be daft” replied dad “You could have done that.”

“And that’s why I like it.”

Game, set and match Toby.

Exit wannabe art historian stage left stifling giggles.

It’s a cute anecdote, but the point is this – Toby got it! Without recourse to piles of textbooks, without hours spent in seminars, without a working knowledge of the ideological debates around art in the sixties, this eight year old had instinctively recognised something so central to Carl Andre’s project ‘art that anyone could make’.

Art is a wonderful thing and of course a head full of knowledge and experience can make us appreciate it all the more, but sometimes we just need to chuck the books out of the window and look at work like we did when we were children, sometimes our childlike instincts can prove to be just as insightful as our jaded adult eyes and minds.

It’s me being fanciful again, but I’d love to think that in a couple of decades time somewhere a yawning art history student will turn over a postcard of a pile of bricks to read..”Do you remember when you were eight and I took you to Tate Modern…”