Paul Corio in his blog No Hassle At The Castle has an ongoing series called “Paintings I Like” which I always find to be of interest. I enjoy seeing what other artists like as it gives an entrance way into their thinking and appreciation. With my recent blog post about motif, a constant concern of mine, I thought I would do the same. The reason for this is a similar one but also because sometimes stepping back and attempting to write about a work of art forces one to put, best as one can, the ineffable qualities of a work into a more tangible substrate of words, for better or worse.
In my analysis of the works presented I hope to answer to myself why motif is of vital concern and the approach the artist takes in applying paint to canvas (or as we will shortly find some other substance) leads to creating a work that I find important.
The criteria for this and future essays will be that the painting gives me a Wow moment. A moment of excitation that goes back to my post Conceit with the Paul Valéry quote, “A pleasure which sometimes goes so deep…..”
In short, paintings that say “yes”, that puzzle me, that trouble me, that have a place in my memory as to the first time I saw them, that echo in my studio or at least my minds eye and have left a lasting impression on me. So without further ado and hot air…
Negative Value II, Mizar 1982
Oil, pigment of violets and red lead underpainting on canvas
260 by 200 cm, 102.36 by 78.74 inches
I first saw this painting at the Brooklyn Museum at the Sigmar Polke retrospective in 1992. This is part of a triptych and I would include all three but this is the only image I could find online….
Polke’s play between illusionism and reality in this painting is of interest. First there is no recognizable imagery and the color in itself is ambiguous. What gesture that exists, if one could call it that, is not in the traditional painterly terms that one or at least myself thinks about in creating space. The space that exists in this does not make the canvas plane, the proto-typical concern of a Greenbergian formalism in late 20th century the primary focus. In fact this surface plane is of no import, hence the illusionism. Polke has created a spatial infinite not unlike a Pollock classic drip.
What I remember being “Wowed” by was the fact that there was no traditional approach to design, motif, application, formal concerns or painterliness. It was like a giant mess wrought real.
The bands of violet do somewhat affirm the surface plane but are askew and haphazard and overlaying this are moments of drips, stains, blotches of material that physically sit atop the surface and in their presence on the plane as raw materiality are just that, material and real.
What Polke started in this painting for me was another way of thinking of color. Oil paint carries a historical weight and this despite the oil materials operates outside of that realm. I cannot say with certainty but from what I know of Polke’s oeuvre this might be the beginning or the door to his large scale paintings that used resin, varnishes and other materials not traditionally associated with painting. This material fracture forced me at least to rethink materials and color.
The imagery, if one can call it that and Polke certainly mined this particular non-image as image, breaks out of the conventions of abstraction. In this work, Stella doesn’t matter, nor does Johns or De Kooning; this works operates as if it exists in an alternate universe of the late 20th century painting dialectic.
It is weird, hallucinatory (as much of Polke’s work was) and of the fantastic, fantastic in the sense of being a phantasm. Polke showed me a door to getting out of the box of my painterly and artistic concerns, out of the Greenberg knot of formalism I had been steeped in thinking. Polke’s work is not one dimensional but multi-dimensional, his later works using imagery following the rabbit down the hole to another way of thinking, a way of thinking that allows mystery, confusion, dislocation and then affirmation into the world and the viewer. Polke allowed painting to breath again.