ON THE LINE

 

By Nathaniel Cunningham

 

 

The insight of post-war painting goes a bit like this: if there is to be something rather than nothing—or everything—then there first must exist a line. Only the line can transverse the picture plane and allow for this to differentiate from that. It is as if painting begins with a paradox. Before you touch the canvas, it is already full with everything, with all that could be, and so it appears to your eye as if nothing is there. You think that the canvas is empty and colorless but really there is the blackness of all. So you draw that line to precipitate the first something from everything. This is how you get going. In a strong sense, then, the line precedes the painting because it conditions the very impulse to divide: only because of the line could you ever consider making a mark upon the canvas. 

 

The initial promise of abstract expressionism was that it would use the gestural mark to explore this insight in the form of color upon raspy primed cotton. But this never panned out. After a couple of heady years, the movement hit a dead end and splintered into a predictable set of formalisms: there was action painting, reprised faux primitivisms, some decorative geometries and generic cubisms. Of course, Pollock exemplifies so much that went wrong with this period. If you consider the tracking of his drips, the course these marks take on the canvas, it is clear that he uses only a single line and just repeats it a thousand times. The line never chases a singular path; it moves, but only as the component of a broader idealism of painting. In other words, his work was not about pursuing the gestural mark but about solidifying a coherent style through rote execution. The paintings are esculent in this deeply mental way. They want to satisfy by serving up abstractions: the autopoiesis of the brushstroke; painting as an autonomous medium; the bankable genius of the male artist.

 

Recently, painters such as Jutta Koether, Thomas Eggerer, and Monika Baer, amongst others, have developed a line similar to the gestural mark of the post-war generation, yet they do so to cut against the parochial idealism and market-syntonic fabrications of that period. In particular, their work combines abstract and figural elements in order to counteract formal hermeticism. The set-up of Baer’s work, for example, is often an abstract wash, void-like in its cloudy consistency. Into this wash she will place a finely wrought figure, sometimes a face, at other times a head or just the body. These figures are carefully detailed and yet incomplete. The head lacks facial features, while the face has no hair and the body is missing its head. It is as though a single figure has exploded, scattering its body parts across multiple paintings. What impresses about this incompleteness of the figure is that it keeps the painting open and prevents intellection, the feeling of closure that comes with “getting” it. Instead of cognizance there is emptiness and no clear payoff, no mental analogue to walk away with.

 

This is achieved by reworking the gestural mark through an inversion of the initial terms: in this case, it is the artist that labors for her line, rather than the line evincing the handiwork of the artist. For this to make sense, consider for a moment the line as a dynamic entity in its own right. As it hits the canvas, the line bears a specific momentum and trajectory; it tracks at a given speed, it gets angles, going slantwise and inducing curves. This line, which appears before it can be thought, is the product of several layers of mediation, of history and context, of physics, habit, and viscosity. Nonetheless, as soon as it is on the canvas, the line has its own capacities and potentials.

 

In a recent review of Eggerer’s work, David Joselit identifies several types of lines that appear in a single painting. In some spots there is a rapid sketch and in others a more deliberate mark, as though the lines move not just at different speeds but across different “temporalities” altogether, never intersecting, just various discrete moments superimposed upon a single plane. My claim is that these lines are not gestural so much as vectoral. They operate through force and direction. The lines do not divide one moment from another but rather invoke an assortment of temporalities through their own dimensional capacity. In this manner, the vectoral refuses to engage with division as a natural habit of embodiment. It doesn’t destabilize identity so much as cancel out the rituals that give rise to this illusion.

Briefly, there are two procedures at work in this mode of painting. The negative procedure subtracts the normal footholds that the viewer expects so there is nothing to hypostatize. At first glance, it does so by bringing together all these disparate registers—representation and abstraction, figure and field—and combining them without hierarchy. It destabilizes the boundaries that traditionally keep these modes apart. For this reason, it is tempting to read into the vectoral the deconstructive routine associated with institutional critique, in which the painting refuses genre and self-identifies as a networked commodity (for example, in the work of Wade Guyton or Cheyney Thompson). But the vectoral goes in a different direction. It is neither figural nor abstract, nor is it the deconstruction of these categories; it is something else entirely. It uses the line as a means of subtraction, cancelling out our deadened visual habits. Again, this move becomes clear if we consider the vectoral in light of the habit most crucial to the success of the gestural mark. The formalism of abstract expressionism separated painting from context and deadened the internal potential of the line. At bottom, painting of that period was a method of hermetic division. It was a habit that drew lines to separate from the world. This is a deeply conservative project because it treats painting as an apotropaism, a means to ward off the night side of the image. The vectoral counteracts this habit by refusing to indulge in form. And the outside of form is not the formless so much as it is force, pure and concussive. This brings us to the positive procedure. Here the vectoral invokes two tendencies that complement and complete one another: impermanence and indestructibility. It does so through an awareness of the propulsion to mark, while insisting on the mark’s finitude. It is cognizant of failure and offers not-knowing as a lesson of epistemological value: for us, there will only ever be the incomplete, cracked, partial, and provisional. And so there is a necessity to the fluid movement with which lines dissolve away, an easiness with which this turns into that, something becoming nothing, and therefore everything, at every moment.

Looking back, it appears that Pollock and other artists of the period fell into a common egoic trap. This is the one in which you buy into the myth of your autonomous creativity and so barricade yourself into a world of your own invention, glittery, hermetic, and wafer-thin. You draw a line that says this here is not that, and that is not this, a division that is necessary for the functioning of subjectivity but that can only remain porous, precarious, deeply aware of its flawed origin and outside. Then at some moment, you can’t predict when, there will sprout a crack and this crack will portend the line’s dissolution. This won’t be pleasurable, and so you face a decision. It’s possible to let go of the line and allow for some light to come in; or you can seal up the crack and hold tight. But if you follow the latter course, there is a twist the second time around: you’ve just learned that the outside intrudes and so hereafter the preservation of the line becomes a perilous act, giving rise to anxiety, demanding constant vigilance and a profane rituality just to safeguard the status quo. If you keep going then the re-inscription of the line becomes habit, and habit becomes pathology, and then pathology becomes identity.

 

This is painting as a parable.

 

What still fascinates about abstract expressionism is that rare vulnerable moment. Take De Kooning. In his painting Excavation (1950), the brushwork is layered and alternates an inebriated and violent application with marks of a Miró-like delicacy, finer than pirouettes. Throughout there are hints of geometry and a cumbersome grey impasto that builds up texture. The effect is one of turbulence, but turbulence achieved through prolixity rather than chaos, over-worked, repetitive, and chauvinistic in its self-aware effort. But in the upper right quadrant, there is an eye. It is filled in in white and the iris is black, simple, as though drawn with a Crayola crayon. A couple more eyes hover around this one, turned at odd angles but similar in appearance, as if he caught the same eye at different moments and each time pinned the little guy onto the canvas, as careful as a lepidopterist. Amidst all the tough moments in the painting, the bloody reds, the sets of flashing teeth and tongue-colored sectioning, this eye stands out: De Kooning sought anonymous turmoil and yet stumbled across someone else. A glance over his work from this period finds this confrontation repeated. Aggressive, dense, and insistent brush strokes give way to a cautiously wrought personage, as though a face emerged from some crack inside of the painting itself, a locale more serene than his surface-level tempest.

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