Blind Spots

Painting and the problems of her bastard children

Are you also too incoherent to write a tightly structured piece? Do you think your own words sound far less important than those of others that have already been published? Do you also try to hide this inadequacy and inferiority complex under the (French) philosophical cloak of the text-that-writes-itself? I won’t say that reality is just the same as tv-with-remote-control, a fragmented spectacle that matches my habit of never finishing my sentences. (Although that may well be the case.)

Please read (or reread) Theo van Doesburg’s Grondbegrippen der Beeldende Kunst, 1919 (Fundamental principles of visual art): He’s extremely lucid about his basic principles. I like clarity: at least as far as it’s possible to be clear in this tragic profession. It’s quite unnecessary, especially these days, to pile on even more layers of ambiguity. We already know that, by definition, art can never be unambiguous. But that doesn’t mean that we have to succumb to Duchamp’s ‘as stupid as a painter’. Gradually you’ll realize I’m after something other than an exact artwork, although I can’t (as yet) uphold my views with the same lucidity as he.

I went to art college in South Africa from 1972 until 1975. The painting teachers taught me that the ‘illustrative’ and the ‘literal’ were the greatest sins. As I understood it, the subject – whatever it might be – should not be clearly recognizable or, preferably, completely unrecognizable. Thus motifs derived from reality, the surface, the outward appearance of things, had to be reduced either by distortion or refinement. Imagination, not imitation. Who could disagree with that?

But I wasn’t happy with the situation. Something was gnawing away at me. Pop music, literature and film used subjects that everyone could relate to, but which painting wasn’t (any longer) permitted, able, or willing to tackle. Yet these were subjects that I was unwilling to accept as being, by definition, ‘unpaintable’. Jeff Wall (Canada) talked about the concept ‘The painting of modern life’, (he himself makes cibachromes, not paintings), which he considers the greatest task an artist can fulfil. He has a great respect for the painterly tradition, but doesn’t rate the painting of today very highly. Perhaps you should read his book Transparencies (1986). His major contribution is that he questions the basic premises, which underpin the concept ‘depiction’. And he does it very well. I agree with him on many points. Nevertheless it’s a great pity that it seems as if only ‘media-artists’ have something meaningful to say about our cultural decline, or want to portray it. Generally speaking it’s media-artists who still get all excited about notions like ‘honesty’, or about manifestations from the advertising world, or other power structures.

It strikes me that many art critics (and artists too) use the concept ‘manipulation’ as a compliment. Could this be because our pluriform and satiated society finds ‘equating’ less demanding than ‘differentiating’? But Jeff Wall can’t be accused of using words inaccurately. He demonstrates that a narrative motif doesn’t necessarily produce an anecdotal image, or that socio-political interest doesn’t perforce immediately lead to Agitprop, so long as there’s enough visual intelligence present.

But to return to my years at the academy and my attempts to become a modern artist who knows how to veil the origins of her work in such an ingenious way that all that remains are suggestions and vague suspicions extraneous to the work, that no-one could possibly label as cheap. It’s only too well known that the use of sentimental, dramatic subjects can be a cheap way of attracting attention. And as a sensitive artist I, too, was particularly keen not to be cheap. Women in particular have to watch out not to be cheap. Easy effects can fade just as easily. Thus painting steers clear of readily recognizable images, leaving politics and eroticism to hetero and homo sex magazines, fashion magazines, World Press competitions, tv or the Third World.

When, around 1870, Cézanne broke away from associatively charged themes, the benefit to art was enormous. But I can’t evince the same respect for the many artists who still view the challenge of an exciting-picture-without-exciting-subject-matter as painting’s sole task. (Although I have to admit that it can be pleasurable to leave the dirty work to ‘others’.) So under the heavy burden of Malevich, Mondriaan (and Marilyn Monroe), and in the knowledge that everything of value is invisible, and because of my love of Abstract Expressionism and everything that goes with it (particularly, therefore Clement Greenberg), I felt a growing need to re-evaluate the concept ‘realism’. Did it come from Andy Warhol who more or less said: ‘It’s all on the surface, not inside’? Even Beuys, who knew all there was to know about the connection between surface and depth, had sympathy for his so-called antithesis. Oh well… it’s much too long a story…!

In conclusion I come to what I really wanted to talk about: Oliver Sachs’s book The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985). The importance of this book becomes evident if we cease to experience subject matter as a visual dead-end. The issue here, however, is not the difference between a word and an image. Even Magritte assumed that when he got up in the morning he was still partly Magritte. Identity is actually something other than having a specific name. (But they’re often equated with each other figuratively speaking, as metaphor.) The central concern here is the recognition and evaluation of reality, which is essential to our survival as human beings. As a sort of neurology of identity, neurologist Dr. Sachs, (Einstein College, N.Y.), described the history of his patients’ illnesses in narrative form. He’s concerned with ‘the what’ as with ‘the who’. A return to the nineteenth century tradition where the central focus was the power of description. People need dramatic stories. The book deals with damage to the right half of the brain (called the primitive minor hemi-sphere), as opposed to the sophisticated left half (designed to deal with programming and schematization), which up to now has always formed the prime focus. For example: patient P suffers from a special form of visual agnosia (the inability to interpret stimuli to the sensory organs). On a visual level, P has lost all sense of the emotional, the concrete, the personal, and has had to fall back on the abstract and the categorical, like a computer. His illness began when he noticed that he (a music teacher by profession) was unable to recognize his students if they weren’t speaking or moving, although, technically speaking, there was nothing wrong with his eyes. Also he mistook non-living objects for people. Dr. Sachs carried out perception tests on P, which produced the following in relation to identification of reality:

  1. Platonic solids – he had no problem with recognizing cubes and other abstract forms.
  2. Playing cards – also no problem with stylized forms.
  3. Cartoons – also no obstacle, because of the schematic nature of the data and the fact that determining characteristics could be isolated.
  4. Television: a love scene between two people – he could neither identify facial expressions nor describe the situation.
  5. Photographs of himself and family members: no recognition. Not a funny, but a tragic situation.
  6. A glove – he described it as a continuous surface, folded over, with five bulging pockets which could contain something. Although he had no idea what.

P was thus functioning as a machine. The world as representation no longer existed for him. He could no longer interpret or evaluate, all he was capable of were cognitive hypotheses, although there was nothing wrong with his intelligence or his powers of abstraction. A complete human being uses both hemispheres of the brain, but artists choose for themselves the areas they wish to focus on. I’m not trying to make an obtuse diversion, but rather to point-up that there are actual and important differences between the concepts ‘representation’ and ‘abstraction’, which is vital to recognize if people want to address them seriously. Read the book yourself and don’t let yourself be clouded by loyalty to any art institution or advertising agency. It could be the beginning of something meaningful.

Blind Spots was originally published in Dutch as Blinde Vlekken in De Rijksakademie, vol.1, no.3 (November 1987), p.13; and is included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, first edition Galerie Paul Andriesse and De Balie Publishers Amsterdam, 1998; and second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.