New Research In Abstraction

Abstraction and Possibility Space, A Conversation between Andreas Neufert and Robert Linsley

Robert Linsley) Andreas, we know that Abstract Expressionism
has deep roots in Surrealism, and we also know that it was very
important for the Abstract Expressionists to break with
Surrealism, and that the break was not just a matter of independence
from European models, but an expression of important
aesthetic differences. We are going to discuss these matters in
depth, but the obvious question is the relevance of ideas such as
"possibility space" for us today. I know that your thoughts on this
topic are grounded in your research on Wolfgang Paalen; can we
start with a description of what Paalen meant by a space of
Andreas Neufert) For me, "possibility" as a category has always
been something subjunctive and hypothetical, and I suppose it was
the same for Paalen. When does a possible idea becomes an idea?
Are there various pre-ideas, like informal shadows that appear before?
Is presentiment or emotional agitation such a shadowy sign
that a possibility is about to emerge from its non-reality? To put it
briefly, the whole thing is mysterious and that’s why it is so attractive
as a theme for painting. As Paalen was a painter above all, the
most precise description of what he meant with possibility space
lies in his paintings, which we can´t analyze here. But we also have
his writings, and they reveal that he is pretty near to Wittgenstein
in his ideas; you leave the causal view and advance into a space of
different realizations. Wittgenstein uses the word ein-räumen,
which means literally “to space in.” I’ve recently had the opportunity
to study his letters and diaries. There are also his theoretical
writings, which he published in his magazine DYN, based in
Mexico and New York from 1942-44, Form and Sense, a collection
of essays which was published by Robert Motherwell in 1945, and
his essay “Metaplastic,” for the Dynaton show of 1949 in San
Francisco, and all his thinking tries to reason out the different
layers and facets of this ein-räumen, this feeling of an unfolding
world, to curiosity as energy, to a sense of discovery similar to that
which drives a scientist. This idea of space is concerned with the
future and not with the past or with a rediscovery of something
already known or realized. DYN comes from the Greek word for
the possible (to Dynaton) and suggests a general focus on the time
element. Its source is in the Aristotelian idea of Dynamis et energeia.
When he explicitly discusses painting, he does not wish it abstract,
but “prefigurative” in the sense of Aristotle’s Poetics, in which it
means linked to the future, to the dynamic energies of projective
imagination, the hypothetical mind. In 1939, traveling through
Canada, he speaks in his diaries of “the memory of the future.”
We’ll come back to that later, but it has to be taken into account
when speaking about the emphatic reactions to these ideas by
American artists in the first and only issue of the magazine
Possibilities, published by Motherwell and Harold Rosenberg in the
winter of 47/48 as a successor to DYN. In the foreword to Possibilities
the editors assert the “greatest trust in pure possibility” and
point out the necessity to radically widen the concept of art in
times of political reaction. To Willem de Kooning, the concept of
the possible implies “a wonderful uncertain atmosphere,” and
Rothko writes in his text The Romantics were Prompted that: “In the
work of art which has inspired him, the artist has caught a glimpse
of not yet realized possibilities.”
Paalen aggressively disseminated his concept of possibility space
throughout the forties, and he tried to justify it, to theoretically
hedge it, with quantum theory, with the concept of totemism,
gestalt-theory, with his criticisms of dialectical materialism and
western dualistic concepts, with his analysis of cave painting and
so on, but to him this concept was very familiar—it was rooted in
his cultural disposition, his identity and his emotional character,
which was always more in love with the beginning of a process
than the completion or perfection of it. He was a Mannerist and
Romantic who had all possible doubts about Classicism and its
ideas of law and completion. When, in his sibylline letters of the
time, he writes that he dreams of a generation of painters with the
imaginative scope of the Elizabethan poets, that he wants to put
painting “in a new affective climate,” that “magnificent horizons
unfold” and that he sees “for the first time, how scientific discovery
can coordinate with emotional certainty, without getting lost in the
blind alley of metaphysics” and so on, this marks the programmatic
emergence of an idea of openness which I feel is still valid. We
could start to describe it as the unfolding of an intimate conversation,
or as any situation where the empirical is left behind and
speculation opens a new path which brings one into an inspired
state of consciousness. The self becomes an actor in a play which
hasn’t yet been written.
Linsley) Your last comment is most interesting. It implies that
the “possibility space” is a function of a relationship between individuals,
one in which the boundaries between them break, or
move, or warp. Boundaries between individuals and within individuals.
Is the new space a turbulence or distortion within the medium
of intersubjectivity, whatever that might be. Can we think
about the space between people as a plastic substance somehow
formed of sensuous and emotional experiences?
Neufert) Exactly. There is a moment when pale causality in a
relationship is lost and suddenly there is a space for something you
haven't yet seen. It's interesting to see how the painters learned
from such apparently banal things. In a short text for the 1949
exhibition Intrasubjectives at the Samuel Kootz gallery in New
York, Harold Rosenberg wrote about the group that would later
become the abstract expressionist painters that they had been
inspired “by something they themselves have not yet seen." So, in
the formative years of abstract expressionism there is discussion
about an intersubjective space that is apparently full of presentiments
of the future. The artwork becomes a means to force the
onlooker into a different realm. It is as if it drives her or him into a
fog where habitual identifications are lost, and where subconscious
fears activate an alert condition of consciousness, probably the
most creative we can have. Some neurologists think that the immediate
moments before death can be the most creative ones because
the hypothetical consciousness is under stress; it finds itself in
front of an unforeseen wall, with no possibilities anymore. So the
space in which poetry is takes place seems to be one in which
habitual perspectives are limited if not totally blocked.
Linsley) The intra and the inter subjective spaces seem to come
together here, and this is definitely an important topic. But I'd like
to talk a bit more about poetry. There is something very unfortunate
about the desire, central to American art of the last fifty years,
to purge literariness from abstraction. Both poetry and philosophy
were clearly important for the abstract expressionists, and I think
it is a mistake to just dismiss that as the rotten rags of European
culture. The greatest Elizabethan poet, of course, was Shakespeare,
and the image of Shakespeare was very important for the
Romantic conception of poetry and of art in general. Shakespeare
was seen as a channel for nature itself, for an experience greater
than any single individual could compass. This concept of the
artist comes though very strongly when Pollock famously says “I
am nature.” But, as I am beginning to learn, more important for
the Romantics was the imagination, which they set against nature
as a power that could transform the world. As we know well, the
intensity of the belief in the efficacy of imagination is in direct
proportion as the surrounding social world is resistant to desire.
Periods of social reaction are periods in which ever greater
transformative power is assigned to the imagination. The relevance
to Paalen’s historical moment is obvious, but for us two things are
clear—that all periods are periods of reaction, that defeat is the
permanent condition of the left, and that claims for the imagination
have been absorbed by capitalism today. Remember that yesterday
we saw a poster for the University graphics department that called
for the transformation of reality. If “possibility” can be made
functional for art today, without descending into mere use value,
we are going to have to dig deeper into the Romantics, and
possibly into science.
Neufert) Yes indeed, but the functionalization of possibility is
already the point where poetry leaves the drowning ship. Possibility
space is deeply personal; it can be trained, yes, but never
functionalized. You can start to write a love letter, like Paalen did
in 1922, by saying “if you would love me, I would write you a
different letter. I would write you like this….” this is already a
possibility space at its simplest, to realize that true communication
between individuals is to unfold hypothetical visions about the
world. The difference between capitalist and communist society,
even in Paalen’s own context, doesn’t work here anymore, as the
possibility space is not anti-capitalist, it is anti-totalitarian, and has
a revolutionary potential in the face of the total-realism of our
times, as it was certainly also a reaction to the totalitarian realism
of the forties. Realism—as philosophical concept—is as naive as it
is dangerous, because it ignores all world-making spaces, which
are by nature implicit and not visible or visualizable by everyone.
The snare of total realism is always pulled more tightly around us,
especially around our eyes, as there is always the jealousy of the
insistent realist eye. We live visually in a world of accomplished
facts; we discover a desire always after we are offered the object,
already perfectly designed for its satisfaction. This is something
that Jeff Koons is thinking about, through his shiny dolls with
their perfect surfaces. Their alarming obsessiveness registers the
fear that there might be a world beneath the norm which escapes
from the defined.
As we live in this world of explicit realism, a world of immediately
realized objects and images available for our use, the space for the
world-making processes, the arts, also has to be a realized object.
It holds the promise of a world in statu nasciendi, yes, but the fact
that we buy and consume it as an accomplished object is stronger
than this promise. No one wants to let themselves in for dissolving
enigmas anymore, or to take the unknown as the starting point for
a personalized dialogue, and this leads to a growing ignorance of
the self. Even the artist often seems to look around the art world to
see if there is any possibility left before he or she starts to work,
and this of course leaves the already realized in control. Successful
careers strengthen social roles and weaken those parts of the
personality that shelter the greatest uncertainty and fear, which
are in fact the poetical spaces. This is why Rothko rebelled when
he heard that his paintings for the Seagram building would not
only hang in a restaurant but also too high to permit any visual
experience. He was deeply offended because he didn’t conceive of
them as artworks or paintings, but as bodies of resonance for a
possible experience. He wanted them to work as Ein-räumer, as
vehicles that could bring us back to a unity of our rational and
poetical impulses, which in origin are the same. The destiny of art,
however, has always been to be the stepsister of capitalist objectfunctionalism
and fetishism. The impulse to exploit the potentialities
of the world originates in contingency and possibility, let's say
in chance and openness to the unexpected, and this is also the
source of the arts. That’s why Marx tried to close both chapters
totally, and even the Surrealists fell into this trap.
To represent the two sides of an open, precarious, dynamic identity,
which today we might call postmodern, there couldn’t be a
better example than the Paalens, father and son. Gustav Robert
Paalen, Wolfgang’s father, was a business man and inventor of
Jewish background, born in Bohemia, who came to Vienna in
1900, converted to Protestantism, and changed his name from
Pollak to Paalen. He became very rich through a whole series of
deals in fields which couldn't have been more diverse: he started
with small commerce, with ice machines, electric parquet brushes,
glove cleaning machines, portable kerosene heaters, air-circulation
heating devices, and then moved into pioneering inventions, developing
or launching the first boilers, the first vacuum cleaner
usable in a private home, the first reusable Thermos-bottle and the
first dimable neon signs with their somehow magical rhythms. So
the fabulous wealth of the Paalens was due to a burning but very
practical interest in the modern transformation of human existence
through science and technology. Money could be made in technology
both before and after the first world war, but his activities
also always had to do with tempering, vacuum, transparency and
illumination, all extremely interesting artistic themes. It is strange
but significant that each time his name appears on an official
document he gives a different profession. In Vienna, due to his
success with the Thermosbottle, Gustav Paalen was called
Thermopaalen. This was perhaps an adequate identification, and his
various professions just secondary attributes. Thermopaalen was
derived from the Greek word therm for hot, appropriate in light of
his obsession with all "hot" new things, and with the fact that he
was married to an actress and loved theatre and to play with his
own appearance like an actor. This passionate modernism coincided
with the outer appearance of a monarchist, baroque, aristocratic
and totally anachronistic patriarch, who in his castle in
Silesia tried to maintain for his children the world of 18th. century
ideals, of the epoch of genius, in which Goethe, Schiller and
Mendelsohn provided the models of how to live well and fulfill
one’s potentials.
Wolfgang Paalen turns out to be a man from Mitteleuropa, from
this dispersed and somehow occult Kakania, a man with an extremely
meaningful but now lost home; with an eccentric pedigree
consisting of Jewish parvenu nobility, Viennese and Berliner
bohemia, German romanticism and an habitual scientific turn of
thought, which he learned from his father who was really a kind of
artist of invention, business and development. That this son of a
capitalist family in the purest sense later became a roaming,
migrating evangelist of his own ideas may be partly because of this
lost world, wiped out and scattered around by the atrocities of the
mid-century. There is a special type of artist that comes out of this
situation. Adorno described him in his writings on the composer
Alban Berg as “endowed with overflowing warmness of sense,”
but “not totally present as an empirical person, not entirely
involved; (..)He was not at one with himself in the way the
existentialists extol an ideal...” Not at one with himself—this is
probably the state of mind we are after. There is also in him the
refusal to bring things to an end, a kind of genial failure. Following
similar life-lines as his father, Wolfgang transforms them from the
explicit to the implicit. Paalen later would say “I'm painter above
all” (precisely at the moment when he had his coming out as
editor) and this has something of the proclamation of someone
without real identification, someone with qualities which he does
not own, does not dominate, which don´t take real shape in the
world, a shape which could lead to an ordered life through this
identification, as a profession perhaps should do. He is not the
master in his own self, therefore he needs a mistress, a blind
mirror, which doesn’t reflect his own shape but only his potentials.
However, if a man accepts his nonidentity as a power, as a
capacity to create, then he comes close to what Robert Musil
meant when he called the protagonist of his novel a man without
qualities. When we accept qualities only as attributes that can never
belong to entities which can form and hold a persisting identity,
then we can say that personalities like Paalen, and the similar
Ulrich from Musil´s novel, live closer to the truth than anyone who
believes that his identity is a safe harbour. So everyone who
accepts this nonidentity is a man without qualities, not because the
way he lives and expresses himself has no qualities, but because
somehow these qualities don´t lead to a manifest, continuous form
(like one profession, one strong identification). Instead they seem
only to exist if someone else depicts them, reflects them, invokes
them. And there are thousands of qualities, which lie there in an
infinite space, waiting to be invoked, to be reflected, to be depicted.
Linsley) I think you’ve dealt with the politics very well. In the
world as it is, all possibilities are defined in advance, so the
contemporary rhetoric of possibility doesn’t even touch what art
can be. But I’d like to come back to your notion of “possibility
space” as a between, an interspace, therefore a social space, and
ask if it is transposable to painting in the sense that it exists between
the work and the viewer? And another interesting question
that arises is how does an individual and an artwork come together
to make one moving system when both terms are divided within
themselves to begin with? Isn’t there an utter nonidentity of work
and viewer, even of work and artist to begin with, just as there is a
nonidentity of all the qualities that make up the artistic personality?
It also sounds as if possibility is rather passive as compared
to the Romantic concept of imagination, however much it may
ultimately be grounded in the "negative capability" of Keats.
Neufert) Obviously it is always the case that viewer and work
interact, as do spectator and play and reader and novel. But the
interaction can only be effective if the author or artist works
implicitly. Dostoyevsky can provide a good example. When you
read the Brothers Karamazov your own life is under examination
by the continual questioning the characters undertake between
themselves. You don’t question the author's identity, but you
cannot do otherwise than question yourself because you participate
in the incompleteness of all the characters, which is your
incompleteness in the end. Paalen, who gave great emphasis to
textual implicitness in painting, makes it equally impossible to take
the comfortable standpoint of the onlooker who tries to decipher
the desires of the author or of the characters, without questioning
himself, as a psychoanalyst would do with a patient.
We have to understand that Surrealist imagery was primarily nourished
by research into the mystery of sexual desire, and everyone
developed his personal, sometimes very strange metaphysics of this
material, of which painting had to give testimony. But this
psychoanalytical space was limited by a severe and sometimes
dogmatic determinism. Breton, obsessed by Hegelian dialectics,
wanted to synthesize desire with the determinism of a material
outer world. He thought that every dominant desire paves its way
through the subconscious world until it meets an outer object by
objective chance. Breton's Surrealist theory is an attempt to bring
Romanticism together with dialectical materialism. After the Hitler
- Stalin pact there was an open argument on this point between
Paalen and Breton. Paalen wanted to clear up what he thought
were the errors in Breton's theory, the confusion of metaphysics
and imagination for example, the idea that reality is organized
dialectically etc., and he did so in his “Enquiry on Dialectical
Materialism” and “The Dialectical Gospel,” both published in DYN
in 1942. Unfortunately this whole debate went decidedly too far
for most of the Surrealists. Breton was offended and held to the
Marxist position that all possibilities tend to realize themselves,
and so in the end will be nothing more than countable aspects of
nature. Breton answered Paalen indirectly in the first number of
VVV “We reject the lie of an open surrealism, in which anything is
possible.” This remark echoes Marx and probably really marks the
death of Surrealism. Poetic non-identity has been replaced by
political determinism, obviously as a result of political frustration.
For the Americans in those times the theory of the possibility
space became instead a sort of vade mecum into the promised land.
Of this book length novel, maybe only the chapter on desire as a
means of inspiration is interesting here. We know that classical
surrealism led primarily to an analysis of the author, and the direct
lines which Breton wanted to spin between desire and the
objective world were the red threads that led deep into subconscious
motives of a narcissistic artist-self. Today we know much
better that the acts of life stand alone in themselves and do not
have single causes, just as a single desire cannot serve as the cause
of an artwork. An object or image which is able to give resonance
to the hypothetical and polyvalent structure of desire obviously
can lead to a much deeper and longer excitement, because the
impulses go back and forth. They not only dig into the object, but
into the subject.
What does that mean for painting in the concrete? Turning to the
forties, the Surrealist preoccupation with woman as the screen for
the projection of male desire is still primary, and it is this that
becomes the vehicle to carry the painters to a new idea of space. In
the text that I alluded to above, Rothko speaks of forms as actors
in a potential scene, and this came to my mind this year when I
saw his great painting of 1944, Tiresias, at the Fondation Beyeler in
Basel. Between 1942 and 44 a lot of semi-abstract, half monstrous,
half seductive “potential” women in men or hypothetical men in
women appear in the paintings of the young Americans. Pollock's
She-Wolf and de Kooning's Woman are only two examples. My
suspicion has always been that these painters wanted to get into a
very deep, profound, but at the same time hypothetical, possible
relation with their hidden female aspect, seen maybe as productive
energies, disturbing powers or simply as the treasures of a
multisided identity which at one point had been sacrificed to
enable one to become an integrated, functioning modern person.
Does a glimpse of other destinies, projects and potencies lead to a
more illuminated, more complete understanding of one's own life?
Tiresias, the blind seer, was a character in the Sophoclean tragedy
of Oedipus. He was a woman for seven years, and later he told
Zeus that women had ten times more joy in love than men, for
which Zeus blinded him but also gave him the gift of clairvoyance.
As joy has always been one major key for deep wisdom, so Tiresias
could be seen as a deep metaphor for an art which depicted the
possibility space within one individual, including the yearning
toward the lost other within.
Linsley) Firstly, I think that Breton's efforts to link desire
to material reality are not negligible, and perhaps Paalen could be
accused of idealism. But I also think there are productive moments
here that we have not yet explored. You seem to build a pretty
strong link between desire and possibility. Like the space of
quantum physics, in which there is no pure vacuum, in which
particles of light pop out of empty space, so "possibility" is all
pervasive, just waiting to emerge. Presentiments arise just before
the fulfillment of desire—I find this very interesting because it
suggests the beginnings of a work of art. An artist, particularly one
who uses automatic processes, works blindly but also critically. He
or she makes decisions in the light of what they have already done,
and then continue blindly as before, with a trust that the work will
exfoliate its own order for them. This kind of back and forth
between action and reflection might relate to the movement from
presentiment to fulfillment to new desire. It is also interesting that
a "possibility space" has no dimensions. We need to ground this to
the emergence of the characteristically American shallow pictorial
Neufert) No, the idea that something is waiting out there is already
deterministic and dimensional thinking. Paalen used the
word implicit, which is maybe better, as it is nearer to a sort of
information which is only perceivable as information when it is
received. Later, physicist David Bohm used the same word in
much the same way. We can go so far as to say that the
presentiment is already an explicit part of the evolution of a
possibility, and that it is here that objective possibility and the
human level start to interact. I think the state of presentiment is
crucial to the concept of space that we are trying to define. Rothko
may have worked his whole life on this idea, of how to use pure
colour and form to put the viewer in a state of presentiment. But to
discuss space in the light of quantum physics, as you suggest, it is
important to have a short look at another artist of that period,
Roberto Matta.
In 1937 Matta joined Breton as his youngest recruit and, right
from the start, seemed to compete with Paalen, who had played
the part of the favoured and most promising Benjamin before
Matta's arrival. Breton must have been very disappointed when
Matta, after the First Papers of Surrealism show in the autumn of
1942, increasingly turned to the young Americans, as did Paalen.
A schism between Matta and Paalen concerning the concept of
space deepened at this point, partly through its reception by
American artists. Matta held a workshop lasting several weeks in
which he tried to teach Pollock, Lee Krasner, Motherwell and
William Baziotes his views on automatism. However, the
American artists had all made their own trials of such techniques
and they were not ready to become acolytes of Matta.
The space of Matta's pictures remains completely faithful to the
peepbox principle of the Surrealist image world. We have multiperspectival
views and manifold overlapping of painted layers as
an intriguing new language, but the picture suggests still a
measurable depth that draws the gaze into the same empty box
that de Chirico, Tanguy and Max Ernst had filled with material
objects. Matta claimed that his work was derived from non-
Euclidian space. It referred beyond the three dimensions of human
perception to a cosmic space that, according to Einstein's theory of
cosmic curvature, must be limitless but at the same time finite. It is
possible to move and expand inside it in all directions without
limit, but, as on the spherical surface of the earth, no matter how
far one travels one inevitably arrives back at the point of origin.
Matta is intrigued by the idea of a boundless cosmic space with
finite substance. He wants to discover describable forms of a
different “surreal” world, “in which everything is interchangeable
and spirits disembodied float free of time.”
Paalen's work is quite different, and he also draws very different
conclusions from the new physics. In his fumage paintings the
light of the background pushes the forms up toward the picture
plane, where they tend to fold and twist around each other
laterally across the surface. His attention moves away from
Einstein, as he doesn’t see in relativity any possibility for a joining
of cosmic space and human space. Instead he follows the quantum
physicists Ernst Schrödinger and Louis de Broglie as they report
of strange microphysical experiments can no longer speak of
observation but rather of participation. If the result of an
experiment depends on how you look at it, it seems that the
scientist must also behave at each moment in the process of
observation like a fumage-painter, as though he has not yet seen
anything. From this point it is only a small step to turn the viewer
into the medium of the mysterious, instead of disregarding him or
her and just telling painted stories about the mysterious
transformation of metaphysical objects that remain inaccessible to
human perception in any case. Paalen writes in a letter of 1944
that “I personally like Roberto Matta a great deal and find his last
drawings excellent. But he is still cleaved to a point of dualism, in
which the human and the cosmic have not reached any equation.
His figures are satyr-like-analytical and his “space” too abstract.”
He was right. Roberto Matta remained mainly interested in the
morphological appearance of metaphysical objects and their
metamorphosis in the fourth dimension, which had little to do with
the emotional explorations that the Americans were interested in.
Linsley) It sounds like you are trying to bring together the up-tothe-
surface and lateral spread of American painting, as it has been
well and frequently described, with a kind of discontinuous space
perhaps characteristic of the densest parts of Cubist pictures.
When I say discontinuous I mean relativistic, in that the direction
of each plane is produced by that of the adjoining plane, so that
there cannot be an empty Newtonian box with abstract and universal
coordinates. Further, it seems that the viewer has a task to
construct, rather than passively observe the movement of the
spaces one into the other.
Neufert) Not quite. Paalen took up Apollinaire's idea of the
space-time continuum in Cubism exactly at a moment when everyone
was looking for a new reason to pick up Cubism where
Picasso and Braque had left it. And his reason was exactly the
unity of space and time. It takes time to look at a Cubist multiperspectival
space, and this time becomes an essential part of the
painting itself. Paalen sees Cubism as the place to learn how
onlooker and painting can be linked energetically and cognitively
in both time and space, which in the human mind always work
together, and that it can work as the starting point of a voyage to
future projections. He says that “...the pure cubist constellations
will shine always for those who leave for an expanse, whose maps
are still to be made, whose depths are still to be sounded: the new
space.” Paalen's own history as a painter shows that he never
wanted to adapt Cubism as a style; he always wanted to use its
principal ideas for something new, and in his case this meant
flatness, multiple perspectives and a time-element brought in by
the onlooker's active eye. And why shouldn’t we see Pollock as
linked to Cubism in exactly the same way; the dripped lines force
the onlooker to almost physically mimic the movement in time that
the eye would have while looking at a Cubist painting. And so the
onlooker's own perceptions become part of the language of the
painter. The subject of the painting is the process of looking and
participating. Remember that the main discussion in the forties
was about how to get rid of the subject in painting without becoming
abstract in the old sense. Picasso and Braque couldn’t do this
during their period of most intense collaboration, when they
almost gave up the signature entirely, because they wanted to
produce an anonymous, collective subject. Pollock achieved this
important goal by substituting the onlooker for the subject within
the work. The viewer finds a double in the painting, the anonymous
personality, who stares at himself and asks What do you
Linsley) But for the mainstream of American criticism today this
would be precisely where Paalen recedes into an interesting but no
longer relevant history. Newman, Rothko and Still supposedly
showed the way toward a definitive overcoming of cubism.
Newman and Rothko in particular may point toward a new relation
between viewer and work, but they also point away from
discontinuous space toward the unified, singular colour field.
Paalen's innovation seems to be that he interpreted Cubist space,
in which there is no empty box, and all the planes move only in
relation to each other and not in relation to pre-established
coordinates, as producing a similar relation between viewer and
work. He also seems to take Cubist space as analogous to social
relations that work to build a new world, in the end a very political
position and not far from that of the Russian constructivists, who
also understood Cubism in this way. I think that the task here is to
get constructed Cubist space off the canvas and into the space of
our own bodies, and paradoxically the colour field and Newman's
relational composition may help.
Neufert) Yes, in this sense Newman might have been the most
radical experience-painter of that period. If you stand for a long
time in front of one of the Who's afraid of... paintings, at exactly the
distance Newman wanted, you lose the sense of gravity. The
middle part of the coloured surface starts to move vertically along
the side lines of colour, and your whole body gets right into the
hallucination. You can really feel the Kantian doctrine of knowledge
as representation, right on your skin. Reality may or may not
be anything more than a phenomenon, but here you feel everything
that you habitually see as mere quantitative phenomenon.
And this feeling can bring you next to something like an awareness
of what we’re doing to the world with our minds. We carry our
mind into the world to produce bad copies of it, which we use as
tools for the satisfaction of our most banal needs. The internet is a
dream machine. Imagine that you could see a realist image of your
own subconscious, you would immediately get addicted to it! This
is, fortunately, still a bad dream of the cognitive scientists, but the
internet is a start; it disposes pretty much of the mechanics or rude
essentials of imagination. Newman builds a wall to block this
obsession with the imitative mind, and he does it in the most
radical way you could do with painting. Later it became an
attitude, a style, a surface and maybe boring, but in the beginning
there was an heroic stance, which all great poets probably have
had. You mentioned Shakespeare, I mentioned Sophocles—the
“Hey, listen, I am blind, but I see what you will do or become” that
Tiresias throws into the face of Oedipus. He forces you into
emotion, into the affective climate, which bears poetry as a hope, a
presentiment of a love ready to come, or an aggression ready to
kill. In actual poetry, of course, this is more subtle. It also comes
with open eyes, with all the facts of the empirical world. Take
Wallace Stevens' “The Idea of Order at Key West:”
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic notion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
Suddenly everything is illuminated and everything sings — the
ocean, the sky, the woman, the spirits, the air — and even after the
woman has stopped, the echo of her voice still
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
And although this poem was written in the thirties the experience
it offers is close to our idea of possibility space, and so we should
ask ourselves how to go with painting again into the subtlety of
poetic awareness. Your painting, I think, is an attempt to bring
together the radical goals of late modernist abstraction together
with a somehow minimalist poetry, close to the literary.
Linsley) As you have described it, the individual himself or herself
is already a possibility space. That means that parts of the
individual could take on an independent life, like Rothko's
feminine, which we already discussed, and that brings up the
question of the demonic and of possession. Certainly Pollock,
Motherwell, de Kooning and Still, and possibly Newman, have
demonic aspects, but I can’t see that at all in Rothko. This touches
on an important aspect of abstraction. As Angus Fletcher has
suggested, and I think it is a very comic notion, allegorical figures
in literature are demonic because they are “possessed” by their
meaning. Abstraction has tended to pursue a strictly modern, in
fact enlightenment notion of freedom as freedom from possession.
That leaves the individual as a monad—which has its attractions in
a period like the present in which the public space is itself almost
possessed by an oppressive religiosity—but it also means that
there is an absolute and unbreakable nonidentity of artist, viewer
and work. In the Stevens poem that you mention, he asserts that
“The sea was not a mask. No more was she.” This is a classic
American rejection of metaphor, just as we find in Minimalism. He
further says that “it was she and not the sea we heard,” so song,
singer and reality are not identical at all. But then,
She was the single artificer of the world
in which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
Modernist abstraction wants to preserve the distinction between
self and object, and between artwork and universe, and in fact
exacerbate our consciousness of those distinctions, in order that
every separate thing can come to life in relation to every other, and
in that relation overcome its separateness. One could argue that
modernism is a kind of neo-pantheism in which objects are alive
and nature thinks, in fact Roberto Calasso virtually does just that,
and it seems to me that Paalen's possibility space is one formulation
of the same insight. Yet, as Stevens suggests, solipsism is
never far away.
I think we all know presentiment as the anticipation of an erotic
meeting, and anyone who has been in love has had the strong
impression that the world has contrived somehow to bring the
loved one near. I’m sure most artists have also felt the excitement
of anticipation or emergence during the making of a work. But I
feel that the limitation of Abstract Expressionism, without trying
to make a joke, is that it is too abstract. By that I mean that its
lyricism has not much range. Where is loss, where is the inability
to possess the loved object? Failure we have, but the beautiful
breadth of emotion that we can find in modern poetry is lacking.
And, I want to reiterate, especially lacking are the many ways in
which the desiring self fails to achieve its object, because that is
what poetry is always about. The possibility space of Abstract
Expressionism seems to be limited a priori. I follow Samuel
Beckett, who said that the only possible evolution is in the sense of
depth. I would like to find maximum expressive depth with the
most limited means. In my works, to put it in the crudest and most
conventional terms, Cubist space making comes together with the
colour field. Many spatial possibilities hover on the edge of
realization, there is no significant distinction between figuration
and abstract form, and formalism cohabits with literariness. At
least that is how it appears to me to have developed, speaking as a
Neufert) The idea of the Daemon is highly interesting. I prefer to
use the Greek word, as the “demonic” is itself possessed by
monotheist-christian negativeness. If we say that modernist
painting is demonic to the extent that it is allegorical, then we must
admit that Paalen and Rothko are pretty close. Paalen's painting
circles around hallucination as a modern form of polytheistic
worship; in Rothko's painting the colour red, which always meant
blood, love and revolution, is the non-identical meaning. But with
respect to your paintings I have to admit that my associations go
more in the direction of Robert Musil, who starts his novel The
Man Without Qualities with a description of the traffic of the city of
Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets
into the shallows of bright squares. Dark
clusters of pedestrians formed cloudlike
strings. Where more powerful lines of speed
cut across their casual haste they clotted up,
then trickled on faster and, after a few
oscillations, resumed their steady rhythm.
Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a
wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding
here and there, smart edges running along it
and subsiding again, with clear notes
splintering off and dissipating.
This is a composition of “pre-islands” as vehicles for an equation of
all kinds of levels. I know that you have used the term “geomorphic
fantasy,” which is appropriate to our conversation because
your Island paintings are in a sense outside of time. They anticipate
islands of the future, they are pre-islands as it were, or they
could depict places that once were, or places on distant planets in
the past or future. They work before consciousness rediscovers the
empirical data with a very playful and somehow naive hope. And
here, in fact, we are in the midst of the neo-pantheism of painting
you are talking about. But there is also an irony, not least because
you are in contact with major scientists here in Waterloo. You're
familiar with and, I would say, inspired by people like Robert
Brout and John Moffat. Brout has worked on the Standard
Model, the map of all the particles and their interactions—of the
tensions, sympathies and antipathies they have or which they play
out in experiments, how their structures dissolve—all of which has
an anthropomorphic element, even a narrative or mythological
form. Brout expects that the missing Higgs particle will be found
next year in the first experiment at the new Large Hadron
Collider in Cern near Geneva, and I think that this kind of scientific
possession with hope has a lot to do with your work. You're
into it and you play ironically with it, just as Newman and Rothko
tried to open very seriously the tragic component of the scientific
mind, to bring awareness and light to its beginnings and means,
perhaps because the bomb had just been used for the first time.
But your work doesn't have that charge, that paranoid attitude
toward science. I think you like its creativity and the same time
you take it lightly, so I feel that you have a great affinity with
Musil, the engineer and ironic poet, and student of Ernst Mach. I
have this affinity too. And in your painting you bring us, as does
Musil, to the place of a facultas fingendi, where science and art can
meet very casually on the basis of the thought experiment. You
present the tracks of time, the contradictions and collisions of
different time levels, in the same space, and these things can be
contemplated. Fiction and Science meet here with all their
paradoxes and hybrid forms with considerable fascination.

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