Monochrome and Materiality in Painting
The article examines the interpretation of monochrome painting as radical painting. Radical painting relies on the medium and materiality of painting. Finnish art writing does not, however, recognize the tradition of Radical painting.
The argument that the art of painting is dead is one of the most repeated theses in art. Nevertheless, painters still exist and painting is still a vibrant art form – some hundred and fifty years after the first manifestation of the last painting. The Finnish artist and esseyist Kimmo Pasanen ends his story of art history in the book Musta Neliö (‘Black Square’, 2004) on Ad Reinhard, finding his paintings are boring. Pasanen’s view of the current state of painting, or painterly, is not a rosy one. However, in the romantic closing sentences, he claims to see light through closed eyes.
The abstraction on painting is placed to start in the end of 1800th Century. Process towards empty, non-representative art happened with different thesis, in different traditions and geographical places. The art theoretician and critic of modern art and abstract expressionism Clement Greenberg (1909 – 94) agreed logically to admit an empty canvas to be as piece of art.
What I find interesting in the story of monochrome painting is the historical model used. The industrialization period, with which the whole idea of modernity is closely associated, is viewed as a period of rapid changes in Western history. In the speed of technical innovations, the historical big picture disintegrated and a certain interpretation of global economy surpassed the idea of governmental politics. The elite art of painting was thought that to be run over by the possibilities of reproduction and duplication provided by the new technologies. Humanist values and collective, sustainable meanings were kept alive in art by performing arts and political activism.
In the end of the 20th century, the contractual and conceptual nature of high culture was encapsulated in monochrome painting. In art business, abstract painting became an extreme example of high culture’s contractualism. As the art business slowed down, the interest in the abstract form and monochrome painting diminished as well. One may ask whether the tempo of historical interpretation of monochrome painting is currently slower than that of the rest of the world and art speech in general because of the art trade and the culture of exhibiting art closely associated with it.
I have noticed that in Finnish art discourse monochrome painting is not depicted radical. Altti Kuusamo’s semiotic classic, Tyylistä tapaan (1996), and Jan Kenneth Weckman’s doctoral thesis at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, Maalaus mailman osana (1996), seem to be based on Greenberg’s idea of modernism. Although Greenberg is no longer significant to Pilvi Kalhama (Muotoutuva maalaus 2006) or Inka-Maija Iitiä (Käsitteellisestä ruumiilliseen, sitaatiosta paikkaan – maalaustaide ja nykytaiteen historia 2008), they do not label painting radical, either. The radical monochrome painting differs from the increased importance of construing colour due to, for example, the influence of radical feminism.
The discussion shifted from painting and painterly to photography. The essence of colour and colourless, formerly associated with painting, were now also being discovered with experiments of using light in art.
I studied in the Free Art School in Helsinki in end of the 1980s. The school concentrated on painting but there was no teaching regarding painting materials or technology. However, at the same time, the school’s publishing activity was remarkable. It was mainly concerned with the tradition of spiritual painting. I think that it was and still is impossible for a young female artist to internalize the emphasizing of the meaning of Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Vassily Kandinsky (1866–1944).
If history is thought of as a linear continuity, it is impossible to accept the idea that nothing new would have happened in monochrome painting after Clement Greenberg’s theories. However, perceiving cultural periods as progressive curves, as Greenberg saw them, makes the idea plausible. On the other hand, this thought pattern may distort the perception of reality and writing about it. If it is decided that the pinnacle of modernity took place, for instance, in the 1970s and that subsequent art is only its cultural backwash, the situation results, at the least, in a generational conflict.
Radical painting, Radikale Malerei, continues the tradition of monochrome painting. In painting, the optic and even the haptic surface on the support consist of colour material and colour itself. Painting may concentrates on itself, on its own medium. The birth of radical painting can be dated to the 1970s, its theoretical maturation to the 1980s, and the commercial success to 1990s. Radical painting maintains that materiality is a part of the painterly content; therefore, Clement Greenberg’s thinking does not concern radical painting.
Sebastian Freytag and Tiina Lamminen:
Discussion about the topic of radical painting and monochrome painting in contemporary art, in the context of Dystotal exhibition in Pori Art Museum 2014 and the Konsortium concept in Düsseldorf. (Below)
The colour material itself is significant. The technical development of acrylic paint, new painting materials and mediums changed the range of materials in artistic work from the 1950s onwards. The manufactures co-operation with artists and new technologies made it possible to create colour systems that correspond with the theories, and even to create new ones. The colour pigment does not necessarily have its own characteristics; instead, it is modified to correlate with its place in the mechanical colour system. Therefore, I think, it is unsound to claim that contemporary artists are able to be free from colour systems and their policies.
Tiina Lamminen and Päivi Sirén: Discussion about monochrome and abstract in contemporary Finnish painting, in the context of Nix exhibition in Sic gallery. (Below)
An abstract painting – whether monochrome or consisting of multicolour surface areas – does not exclude naming, conceptualizing, or theoretical and idealistic points of view and interpretation. Art and changes in science have their own meeting points. The cultural history of material and the knowledge of pigment’s indication or geographical place are widening the possibilities of interpretation.
I noted three actual themes of (mono)chrome and colour abstraction in painting at professor Silja Rantanen’s lecture in the Colour Seminar at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in spring 2013. These themes are based on recent museum exhibitions. They are colour charts, the power of colour expression and the anthropology of colour abstraction (the spiritual and metaphysical in painting).
My doctoral studies at the University of Lapland discuss the work of contemporary artist committed to a locality. Landscape of Ruovesi – Landscape painting as a strategy and praise for profane: the study includes a written and an artistic part. In the written part, I will situate art history of the cultural landscape of Ruovesi and evaluate the landscape from the point of view of administrative valuation. I will participate in the culture political debate by showing the importance of an artist committed to a locality. In the artistic part, I will trust on materiality of colour as such, engaging with the radical tradition of abstract painting with colour. In my artistic work, monochrome gains its significance through connection with the locality and a memorizable narrative. The parallel landscape for my work is in Murnau, Bavaria – a city where Gabriela Münter (1879–1940) lived and worked, but Vassily Kandinsky moved away from.
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Sebastian Freytag and Tiina Lamminen: Discussion about the topic of radical painting and monochrome painting in contemporary art, in the context of Dystotal exhibition in Pori Art Museum 2014 and the Konsortium concept in Düsseldorf.
Tiina Lamminen: Thank you for agreeing to discuss with me about the topic of radical painting and monochrome painting in contemporary art, in the context of your Dystotal exhibition at Pori Art Museum 2014 and perhaps in your Konsortium concept in Düsseldorf as well. I was quite impressed by the exhibition at Pori Art Museum. You are one of the curators and you have also your own paintings on display in the exhibition.
Could you please explain radical painting? I am interested in its geographical and historical placement. And regarding Dystotal, could you please tell more about the idea of Radical Painting in the exhibition?
Sebastian Freytag: Radical painting is very much connected to American Art and but also to what happened in Cologne in the 80s. Our approach to radical painting may be based on a negative view on art. Radical painting avoided a lot of the strategies that were established in the field of painting. For example gesture, subject, narrative content, etc. Ad Reinhard is perhaps the biggest role model, beside Frank Stellas early paintings.
The term "radical painting" expresses a difference compared to the old terms of abstract / concrete art from the 20s. While abstract or concrete art often had a strong link to society and politics – it was common in classical modernism – the term radical was established during the postmodern discourse. Maybe it is radical because it avoids any contribution to society.
I don´t know how much the ideas of "radical painting" play a role in our exhibition Dystotal. I think we are very influenced by the art of the 80s. So you could say we learned a lot from the art of the 80s and from the radical painting approach. I think, for a lot of painters in the 80s, "pop art" would be a counterpart to their ideas. As for us, we don´t make these differences; we combine and contrast these different worlds of radical painting as well as pop art; we combine abstraction and classicism, non-objective and high-objective, high art and low culture. Maybe for a classical radical painter like Günter Umberg or Joseph Marioni this would be a no-go.
What are your interests in radical painting?
TL: I am interested in radical painting because I am interested in painting as an act and paint as material. And then there is this tempting and, at the same time, repugnant idea about the great economic value attached to art. In art business, economic value is largely imaginary and based on agreement. The level of imaginary trade seems to be highlighted in abstract – and especially monochromatic – painting. And I have the idea, which may be completely wrong, that radical painting – and radical painters, too – arrogantly expoited this situation.
In the media release for Dystotal you use the phrase “radical modernity”. How do you explain this? Why don´t you use avant-garde there?
In which purposes do you use prefix radicals, as a term of art theory, philosophy or as a term of art history?
SF: Interesting that you ask about the difference between the terms "avant-garde" and "radical modernity". I am not aware about the use in Finnish language and I am not sure whether there is a common difference in the German theory of art. In my understanding I would point out that "modernity" is more of a historical period while "avant-garde" would describe a state of mind. So we used the term of "modernity" because we referred to a more or less specific period or even style that is quoted by artists. I would say it is possible to quote and refer to modernity, while quoting the avant-garde sounds contradictory. But if you use the term avant-garde equivalent to modernity in the first half of the twentieth century I would say both terms are somehow synonymous.
The term “modernity” describes a historical period so I would use this term as a historical reference. We use the term “radical” to focus on more specific articulations of modernity. I had in mind positions that wanted to break with the past rather than argue for continuity. Part of the modernistic discourse, I would say, was about a belief in a cut in history (maybe after the First World War?). The argumentation pointed out that a real new era has begun. So I would say the term "radical" can describe a position of a discontinuity or a moment of failure. In some way it is synonymous with absolute. But radical emphasizes a stronger distance to the common.
Concerning the historical reference to America. The term itself isn´t American, but the development of what is called "radical painting" comes from New York painters and was invented there in the 80s. What would you say? Where did this term and movement have its starting point?
TL: It is this continuance on monochrome itself, which is interesting. I am not so much concerned whether it is painting or not, but why this evergreen monochrome? Or what will monochrome be called after radical painting ends? What do you say?
How do you explain the paintings of Tobias Abel in Dystotal?
SF: I don´t understand your question concerning Tobias Abel’s work. Do you think that his work doesn´t fit in the show? We included some monochrome works – John Tremplay, Michal Skoda, my work, maybe you could also include Julia Bünnagel in this row. Tobias Abel is the only artist in the show who can be called a monochrome painter because he practises exclusively this form of art. In the careers of the other artists, monochrome painting is a reference point where they sometimes come back to, but they still have different tracks they follow. It was important for us to have his work in the show because it marks an important position in the recent art scene in Germany. Beside other fashion things that occur in the art market, he is one of the few artists focused completely on reduction in his work. I think this position is very strong and "radical". For the show, it is important, for example, to have his black monochrome as a counterpart to John Tremblays work. While Tremblay’s work is a kind of "shadow", a postmodern reference, Tobias Abel quoted nothing with his work except for its shape and specific color. The link to the theory of Donald Judd and the minimalist attitude (specific object) is clear in this work. These shifts between the individual works are maybe essential forms (with perhaps a belief in the essential term of art) and reference quoting builds the basic structure of the show.
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Tiina Lamminen and Päivi Sirén: Discussion about monochrome and abstract in contemporary Finnish painting, in the context of Nix exhibition in Sic gallery.
SIC Gallery, Nix 1.2. – 2.3.2014
Nix Exhibition avoided providing linguistic answers and presented the artist modestly with just one or two works. The exhibition text posed the question of whether the exhibition as a whole presents something that could be talked about. There was no direct answer given. The concluding words of the text, however, gave a kind of an answer, expressing gratitude to Carolus Enckell and Marianna Uutinen: the spiritual tradition of abstract art and the radical feminist tradition. Neither of these is sufficient in deciphering monochrome painting and abstract art in the present.
Tiina Lamminen: You participated in the Nix Exhibition at SIC Gallery. What do you think about the exhibition?
Päivi Sirén: It was interesting in the sense, for example, that it was not strictly confined from the outside in any way. There were no attempts to argue for any shared truths beforehand. All of the artists were able to set their own boundaries for their work. For me it is clear that, once certain boundaries are set for working, one is at the same time set free within these boundaries. Marianne’s work can be approached from several other viewpoints than radical feminism, which you proposed. I don’t think Marianne was included because of that, but instead as a representative of nonfigurative, abstract colour painting.
TL: The artist were invited to participate in the exhibition. What was the link between the artists? Was it their relation to monochrome or reductive abstraction? Or, on the other hand, in what ways did the artistic visions differ from each other?
PS: We were definitely not united by our relationship to monochrome painting. Monochrome in what sense? There weren’t any monochrome works! Perhaps the closest to monochrome was Antti Nyyssölä with his white and transparent adhesive tape works... the most accurate of the definitions you use is reductive abstraction.
I dare not say much on behalf of the other artist about their artistic visions, goals or starting points. I’m under the impression that Pekka Nevalainen’s work stems somewhat directly from modernism, but this is hardly the case for the younger artists. At least not in the same sense. Whether it is about commentary, dialogue or something else, the answer is certainly different for each artist. The interesting thing is to try and see the works and to understand them, too – to be touched.
One of the starting points was the different age groups of the invited artists. There is a huge difference between creating something for the first time and following the same old path. It is also possible to distance oneself and to comment on things. None of the approaches is, however, placed above the other; instead, the exhibition opens a space for dialogue. I have been following the work of all the young artists in the exhibition, and it is interesting to note the continuation in their artistic work.
TL: Are your paintings monochrome?
PS: My current paintings are not monochrome. Because I’m making the colour myself, I have accepted the slight shade variations that occur in the colour. For instance in the grey paintings that were on display, the shade composes of blue, red, yellow and white. The lines on top of the painted surface were done with pencil crayons. I’m using one or more shades on the lines. For the paintings displayed at the gallery, I chose a neutral colour for the lines in order to make the value distinguishable. The intention was to make the surface divisions visible rather than to make the colour expression richer. If I were aiming for monochrome, I would be using one pigment at a time or ready-made paints.
TL: What is the purpose of paint material in a finished work?
PS: It is my choice to make the colour myself. I use pigment and matte acrylic medium. In this way, I’m able to have an influence on the texture of the colour material, composition of colour, sheen of the paint surface or matte finish. It is important for me that the finish of the painting remains relatively matte. The feel of the finish is as if skin-like. I want the paint finish to be calm ja relatively expressionless as well, as if to respect the colour’s own shade. Nevertheless, I don’t want to level all the pigment rises and graininess; I don’t want the finish to be mechanical. I use flat brushes of various thickness and wideness for spreading the colour. A painted surface is of certain weight due to multiple layers of paint it’s formed of. It’s important to me that the coat is thick enought to cover the structure of the canvas and to form its own independent surface – in my current paintings, the surface needs to be such that it is good to draw on.
TL: Do you think that your central theme is the materiality of painting, the value differences between the layers, or the composition presented by drawing?
PS: It is difficult for me to separate them from one another; they all serve the final result as a whole.