|Barnett Newman, The Voice, 1950|
Other visitors took photos of The Voice, though I wondered why. As you can see from the image above, in reproduction, there is nothing much to see. Everything in The Voice happens as I stand before it, in person, over time, just like the (presumably human) voice of its title. In time, the white becomes too bright, it reflects the light and the after images become overwhelming, the glare is blinding. To compensate, I am pulled in towards the canvas, to examine the movements of the paint, its viscosity, the cracks on the painted surface which remind me of aged skin, or more likely, the tiny red branches of an irritated eye. And up close I see the strokes of the brush, horizontal and vertical, revealing that the “white” might just be white afterall. I see that it is only in the handling of the paint by this anything but anonymous painter that monochrome is transformed into an array of rich, variations of white, cream, off-white, dirty white, and so on. There is the virtuosity of The Voice.
|Franz Kline, Chief, 1950|
Clyfford Still, 1944-N No. 2, 1944
A swathe of black spreads out over the surface of 1944-N No. 2: though of course it is not really a swathe, but a highly worked over and worked up, meticulously crafted surface of layer upon layer of variegated black paint. This halting, yet deep, intense black surface creates both a space of liberation, but also of doom, the unknown. And then at the edges and in the cracks that emerge in this vast wilderness of black, comes the color, the brown the red, as if looking out from a cave into the possibility of color and light, life and future existence at the edge of the world. Ironically, even though the room of Barnett Newman’s paintings precedes Still’s in the Abstract Expressionism exhibition, the possibility and the future in 1944 would pave the way for Newman, for Rothko, even for Pollock. Not only did they all explore color and its effect on perception, its relationship to other colors, but they were the progenitors of an American obsession with the dynamic relationship between the surface of the canvas and the necessity for a frame. We see this “problem” or relationship resolved by Newman in his trademark language of the zip, a problem that is first imagined by Still in those red and brown interventions into an all black color field.
I am still thinking about Clyfford Still’s work as quintessentially American, and I wonder who is the American who engages with this work? Who is it painted for? Who is this so-called American who has such a relationship with the landscape? A relationship that is colored by such force and energy, a relationship that sees few limits as possibility opens up inside and across the sumptuous surface in black. Perhaps the one Still imagines is characterized by the self-reliance and physical drive of the American spirit – an energy I don’t see anywhere in Europe?