SENS OF A WHITE SQUARE. THE ORIGINS OF EMPTY PICTURES
“Anyone can do this” – even if these words are not spoken aloud, they often accompany people who contemplate Black Square by Kazimir Malewicz, or other Modernist works of a similar style. Jackson Pollock's “splashed” paintings, as well as abstract and monochromatic pictures by Mark Rothko, encounter risk of the same estimation. What is difficult about scattering paint or covering surfaces with a just colour? And what does such a painting depict? If painting is about depicting – picturing and representing, an image like this, which shows emptiness, is an anti-image: it crowns a long process, during which its initial assumption – to demonstrate evidently and clearly – is turned to be its own contradiction.
When we look at renown works of contemporary painting, it is easy to notice that many of them show something vaguely or even show nothing. Luc Tuymans' pale paintings, blurred works by Gerhard Richter or Wilhelm Sasnal's cut canvas can be actually qualified as sketches (free, hasty works of an expressive character), non finito (empty or partly unfinished pictures) or even self-destructs (works that are splashed, cut, etc.), in other words, “incomplete”, imperfect works. Concern expressed by contemporary artists about this “deficiency”, is not always understood by the audience.
The feeling that by questioning sense of classic craft, the majority of avant-garde currents opened the doors for many impostors, who support their empty works with exuberant sophisms, may be treated as one of the reasons for diminished interest in so-called modern art. Remembering social engagement of Soviet Constructivists and their, related with Bauhaus, colleagues from the West we have to admit that ambitions of the Modernist innovators were not such. Nevertheless a big number of painting lovers misses something in contemporary art, whereas academic “realism” still arouse great interest. The Biedermeier landscape remains most widely accepted ideal, and the Modernists are most often accused of ignorance for technical achievements of the 19th-century Academism, which actually followed “anti-pictorial” mimetic-literary programme (despite using means of painting).
What strikes mostly when we compare, let it be superficially only, an academic masterpiece with a picture typical for high Modernism (even not necessarily strictly abstract), is the number of descriptive details, large amount of precisely depicted elements, in the first case - continuous differentiation, and inclination to synthesis, neglect and understatement in the other one. We may risk a thesis that the whole evolution of European art, from Renaissance to Conceptualism, was about gradual appreciation of a sketch or visually related with it destructs and non finito. These are works that comprise not only elements of “poetic” non-instantiation of a form but also various ephemeral actions, by definition infinite and bound to be temporary - as in the case of disappearing drawings by Oscar Mŭnoz (made just with water or on water surface).
Conceptualism would be nec plus ultra of this process – a complete elimination of executive phase and its material effects. A conceptual artist does not perform the very work, he merely evokes at the audience an imaginative state of the work's reception, or – as in the case of ready mades and objets trouvées – he ascribes an artistic status to objects that already exist. He is therefore rather the first recipient than “a creator”, part of the audience, not an author, who is constituted collectively by all participants of the process of aesthetic realisation. Conceptualism, by making the status of an artist equal with the status of a viewer, gives the majority of competences to the audience. Famous is Joseph Beuys' slogan: “Everyone's an artist”, and one of the most important achievements of Marcel Duchamp is opening the hitherto exclusive set of artistic items to infinite riches of reality, not only the material one but also the conceptual. A conceptual work of art is a lack: it is absolutely infinite for its creator, as not even commenced, and absolutely infinite for a recipient, as it is entirely undefined regarding its interpretation, dependent on the recipient's imagination. R. Mutt's Fountain1 makes art one huge non finito – a radical opposition to an academic fini.
This famous fini, a sort of meticulous, often excessive finishing touch, colloquially named “licking”, was subjected to attacks of sketch and understatement adherents as early as in the 18th century. Edmund Burke, by proving that “in nature, dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions, than those have which are more clear and determinate”, developed Kant's idea of disinterestedness of art and his contradiction of rational idea of beauty with ambiguous feeling of grandeur, related with the experience of boundless landscape and infinity. The function of painting was transferred by a leading Abstraction theorist, Clement Greenberg from a transparent description (mirror) to expression (lamp), liberating a picture from “manacles” of rationalism. The sources of academic concepts of art as domain of reason should be searched for in scientific ambitions of Renaissance. In the 15th-century treatise De Pictura Leon Battista Alberti wrote: “I do not praise a work when it is left unfinished and not polished”, and criticised “anything that is blurred, uncertain, complicated” (Alberti, 1963, p. 56). The academic postulate of visual transparency that makes feelings objective, serves therefore dependence upon reason and language which gives sense to abstract phenomena. Their renewed denominalisation became a goal for the 20th-century phenomenology. I'm going to refer to two examples here.
A famous Polish painter, Jan Matejko, though he is not a typical academic2, is an ideal example of both narrative and formal excess. The surface of The Battle of Grunwald, along with immensity of included on it details with huge amounts of information encoded in them, makes “seeing” this painting impossible, even if apparently we “know” the picture. It seems that we are rather “aware” of the painting: it comprises clear proximate and ultimate causes, although the level of the offered sensations exceeds capability of our perception. James Whistler's Nocturne in Blue and Silver, executed in the very same year (1878), we are able to comprehend in one second: merely few shades and compositional divisions, no details. This formal purification, which gives an impression that even the slightest change, moving one element or enriching the composition, brings the risk of spoiling this “divine proportion”, is accompanied by complete futility of narration. Whistler's anti-academism, based on dark games and blurring, is lack of clear proximate and ultimate causes between specific elements of the view which does not subordinate verbalisation – iconographic description – it stops us at the stage of a formal analysis: pure perception. Matejko is for reading, whereas Whistler is only for looking; in view of the academic doctrine with a principle of pictorial legibility, a painting by the latter is unfinished – deficient.
What is interesting, we know similar works of other Academics – Henryk Siemiradzki or Thomas Couture. These are mere underpaintings, studies and concept sketches (“unaccomplished” works), and their freedom results from their working character. Perhaps this was all about Edouard Manet's revolutionary concept. As he was Couture's pupil, he must have known his sketches: visibility liberated from the rule demanding details of narration. Manet's paintings are self-governing, whereas academic paintings are determined from the outside, subordinated to a certain ideological and formal programme. Exactly this limited character of Academism was subjected to Romantics' attacks, as they noticed a hidden comfort in the apparent executive difficulty: rigorous codification of “relations” between an artist and a pictorial surface provides almost mechanical predictability. Whereas freedom, moving the stress onto uniqueness, implies a basic difficulty – it is an author who decides when a painting is finished, and his subjectivity make this moment almost elusive. Every answer to a question: “Is it already this?” depends much on the author's momentary mood, and in result, the answer is bound to be relative. Often enough an artwork that have been assumed complete occurs to lack expression, on other occasions, the works we treated as merely commenced, seen anew strike with their expression despite visible lack of finishing touches. According to Joseph Gantner there are no finished masterpieces at all, and the whole “creative process is an evolution, during which a final work is only one (and often arbitrary) stage” (Poprzęcka, 2000, p. 56). In one of the interviews Wilhelm Sasnal admits: “Perhaps I indeed have this ability of finishing a picture at the right moment (…)”, but he also adds: “Many paintings are created a few times. I deface one of my pictures and I start from the beginning, as I have missed the finishing moment” (Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, 2008, p. 231).
Being aware of the increasing role of lack in contemporary art as an effect of a diminished distance between a sketch – a concept and a proper work, it is worth wondering: why an unfinished, incomplete artwork may be more interesting than a complete one?
Infinity is not only what exceeds the full (immeasurable), but also what does not reach it (unfinished, imperfect). Therefore infinity would be lack and excess at the same time, in accordance with the statement, that nothing is more than something, as something is limited, and nothing is limitless. Finiteness appears as an ontological full, but most of all as a limit. To finish means to accomplish, execute, and the sense of the latter word for good reason refers us to a word execution. To execute a work means to put it to death, to kill it, as let it be Pablo Picasso used to claim.
Formal infinity in a picture, i.e. incomplete visual structure (“deficient existence base” using Roman Ingarden's expression), may have two sources: it may result from deliberate actions (sketch and Minimalism), but also secondary and author independent factors (non finito and destruct). Whereas semantic infinity, semantic “imperfectness” of an artwork, is based upon a possibility of extending interpretation, secondary usage or reinterpretation (ready mades, collage, painting-in-progress, conceptualism).
In the case of Malewicz's Black Square we deal with metaphorical infinity, as the lack of form and emptiness refer us to semantic infinitude only in a conceptual way. This painting was revolutionary regarding uncompromising rejection of any reference to sensually accessible (subject) reality, while the square on its own still was an item of precisely defined limits. We may only guess that Malewicz made an attempt, to some extent, to overcome this spatial individuality by displaying his work at an angle in the corner under the ceiling. Contemporary technology abolishes such limitations, it enable preparing completely empirical “infinity”: James Turrell's light installation allow us to experience the infinitude quite sensually.
Finiteness and infinity as time and space categories refer us to wide spectrum of existential and cognitive issues, from dispute between idealism and naturalism, rationalism and sensualism, monism and pluralism, to questions of relations between part and whole, and infinite divisibility of defined segments. The beginning and the end. Perfection and imperfection. Evident and unevident, unambiguous and ambiguous, and also light and dark. Although by different means, both 17th-century nocturnes by La Tour and “counted” pictures by only recently late Roman Opałka express the truth about imperfect, limited in time and space human being nature. On the other hand, the universe is also limited although it is continually expanding, according to current astronomical observations and calculations. At some time however, the vector is going to reverse and the universe will begin to shrink: from lack to excess, and then back again.
A painterly process follows a similar path; one of the best illustrations of this we find in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a still metamorphosis (Poprzęcka, 2000, p. 50), the effect of long lasting struggle, countless alterations, an artwork from the borderline between self-destruct and non finito. After the initial expanding often comes a stage of reduction, subtraction, and a painter is faced with dilemma: is it already enough? Should anything be added? Is it this stage when nothing can be added or deduced without a risk of damage of the work?
It is the last, and perhaps the most important question in the whole sequence of doubts during the process of creation, from the key question: what, through the next one: how, to the question: when to stop? In artistic practice it occurred fairly recently, completely consciously no sooner than in Romanticism. From the period of Renaissance to High Academism requirement of fine execution of artwork predominated. It followed preparatory designs, sketches or even templates, and the very realisation of a painting was a rigidly planned and rational process of covering underpainting with mixture of binder and pigment according to systematic program. The preserved non finito originated in these epochs reveal that an artist operated almost like today printers.
The first signs of hesitation at the stage of executing a proper artwork may be observed in Venetian painting of the Renaissance, where it came to superimposition of two, hitherto separate, stages of creation on each other: a stage of concept and a stage of execution. In practice of Titian or Tintoretto's workshops phases of sketch – searching for a solution, and its realisation – execution, began to intermingle, revealing filled with doubts mechanism of a work creation. The works by Velázquez or Manet, which place themselves on the brink of modernity, owe most just to Venetian solutions. Realism of these paintings, with their lack of finishing and anti-academic ease of elaboration, makes us pose a question about a character of a relation between reality and its pictorial representation: perhaps there is no such a thing as a “finished”, complete, entire work? Maybe “finiteness” is a mere illusion?
Every picture is to some extent “unfinished”, incomplete inside, onthologically deficient. Lack is a part of its nature, as it is always a sort of reduction – not a real thing, but solely its semblance, two-dimensional representation. Manet was criticised by his contemporaries for the lack of volume in his paintings, what made an impression of all the elements being placed on the surface. He would be happy knowing that at present similar hypotheses are considered in reference to the reality itself. Sławoj Żiżek in his text on Sasnal quotes the uncertainty principle and its so-called Copenhagen interpretation (by Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr), according to which the fact that we are not able - in regard of quantum mechanics – to define wave function and particle situation at the same time, does not prove theory deficiency but, right on the contrary – it proves deficiency of its very subject: the reality. The world is onthologically “incomplete”, the reality is like a facade, i.e. it finishes right where we see it. In the earth interior there is emptiness, and the stars are dim lights, at least as long as we do not approach them: "(…) quantum uncertainty we come across during research over the smallest elements of our universe, may be explained (…) as a quality of a limited resolution of our simulated world” (Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, 2008, p. 79). Events do not exist until they become subjects of observation. It remind us of George Berkeley with his absolutisation of perception: esse est percipi, and empiricism, which becomes idealistic, connotes a paradox formulated by Gilbert Chesterton: common sense materialism, where academic physics, based on accordance of calculations with experience, begins, ends in losing the reality itself in abstract quantum equations. Żiżek writing about Sasnal “who circulates in emptiness”, defends abstractiveness of Modernism with approximation to “preonthological level of the blurred proto-reality”, whose ultimate verge may be the Higgs boson: “something” that constitutes “nothing” (Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, 2008, p. 86).
I do not know whether Black Square on White Ground represents something that constitute nothing. Yet I think that a less known picture painted by Malewicz, White Square on White Ground, representing nothing, refers us to iconoclasm, among others. This practice of disposing painterly decoration from temples, known from the period of Byzantine empire and later religious wars, was justified theologically: God is eternal and ideal, whereas human artefact is complete and imperfect, as such man's means are inappropriate to depicting the inconceivable and interminable.
Painting is deficient, and its imperfectness, regardless of subject, refers us to a vanitas motive of an inexorable counting, which Opałka tried to capture. All his Counted Pictures may be treated as one great non finito, and the painter's death, which determined the last written down number, may be assumed this non finito's “co-author”. The ideology of formal defeat3 is assigned for good reason to the most influential contemporary artists: their works often remind museum destructs, and they seem aesthetically closer to us in this deficient form and more interesting than perfectly finished and well-preserved pieces. Richter's blurred paintings connotes Leonardo's sfumato. Sasnal's “riddled” Partisans evoke Michelangelo's The Manchester Madonna. Tuymans imitates faded and discoloured antiques, and many others – Matthias Weischer, Aaron Wexler or Alexander Tinei – play with aesthetics of a destruct and non finito. They intermingle academic elaboration with entanglement of sketchy gestures together with clearances of ground and underpaintings, introducing uncertainty and avoiding unambiguous definitions. For Louis Marin non-narrativity of a picture is a thrilling experience: “an eye disappears as it penetrates the surface on which representations of items ultimately stop being definite and identify with words” (Marin, 2011, p. 292). Admittedly, the statement refers to Vermeer's perfect paintings, but it connotes his impressive, undescriptive method of painting of not the items but their abstract “views” built upon “atoms” of light and shadow.
Academism with its strive for a clear and predictable process of reception, just like the process of creation, reduced the significance of an author's individuality and awaited passivity from a viewer. Such an author could have been certain he would gain acclaim, as he fulfilled the program strictly elaborated by the Academy, and a member of audience would have been convinced that he understood the picture. Nowadays, when actually there are no rules, an artist struggle with a necessity to define rules every time anew. Unpredictability of effects achieved in this way still demands the audience's active attitude, as they have to “complete” the artwork. Eugène Delacroix, highly praised by academic painters only for his sketches, defined a sketch as a space for imagination, he found its attractiveness in the possibility of unassisted complement of missing parts in viewers' minds. In a concept of a picture as “a bridge between an author's mind and a recipient” (Poprzęcka, 2000, p. 57) we can trace elements of interactivity, which is seen as one of defining features of new media art.
Romanticism by questioning academic rules of creation, initiated a process which was closed by Modernism, and Conceptualism opened rules of reception, or even more precise deleted borders between them. Duchamp was consequent in his claim that “it is a viewer who finished the work, and the audience gives the picture more than they take away from it”. He wrote: “at present we are discovering El Greco; the audience paint his pictures three hundred years later than the author allowed them to”. The statement: “a picture is not a work by a painter but by the one who watches it” (Poprzęcka, 2008, p. 185) would be in a way acknowledged by Ingarden, who in his phenomenology of an artwork as an intentional object postulated seeing an author rather as a creator of a situation than of an object. Art is created in the act of reception, which means it begins at the moment of “aesthetic realisation” – separation of impression from its existential foundation, i.e. artefact.
Umberto Eco is univocal with all these theories with his own idea of opera aperta, allowing audience far reaching interference in the sense of a work. Eco recognised an artwork as permanently not formed, potentially open to any formal and narrative reinterpretation, and its sense is independent from the author's will, and being defined anew in every act of reception.
The process of questioning fini in painting may be related with theses on decline of “great narrations”, weakening belief in progress and a myth of an end which crowns the only right and ideal, long but fruitful evolution process, a rational development from stating a problem to solving it. All these phenomena are reflected also in music which, according to Zygmunt Mycielski's diaries, till Arnold Schoenberg's times was punctuation: it headed for a point, developed tonally till it was closed with a full stop. Dodecaphony and aleatory music seem to be parallel to painting phenomena as they reject any “necessity” in music and they open themselves to the limitless world of purely acoustic sounds. What do I hear when I look at Rothko's empty pictures? I have Giacinto Scelsi's liberated sounds in my head.
1. Marin, L. (2011). O przedstawieniu. Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo słowo/obraz, terytoria.
2. Poprzęcka, M. (2000). Pochwała malarstwa. Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo słowo/obraz terytoria.
3. Poprzęcka, M. (2008). Inne obrazy. Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo słowo/obraz terytoria.
4. Alberti, L.B. (1963). O malarstwie. Oprac. M. Rzepińska. Wrocław - Warszawa - Kraków: Ossolineum.
5. Sasnal. (2008). Warszawa: Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej.
1Urinal, Duchamp's groundbreaking artwork, signed “R. Mutt”, was displayed in 1917.
2Matejko did not take care of form sufficiently, paradoxically, he was a typical “engaged artist”, just like Żmijewski.
3This utterance is used by Jordan Kantor when writing about Tuymans (Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, 2008, p. 127).
translated by Anita Wincencjusz-Patyna