Essay on modern at Beaconsfield, commissioned for a gallery publication



A show called ‘modern’ and the artists want to talk to me about their work. Of course. For the notion of a line of descent
from the artist to the work is one of modernism’s tropes. Well, a trope associated with one kind of modernism. And if I
have slipped too readily from adjective to noun, then this is legitimated by the Press Release, which quotes from Clement Greenberg’s ‘Modernist Painting’.

I, on other hand, am going to quote from Emile Zola writing on that early modernist, Manet:

‘Every great artist who comes to the fore gives us a new and personal vision of Nature. Here “reality” is the fixed element,
and it is the differences in outlook of the artists which has given to works of art their individual characteristics. For me, it
is the different outlooks, the constantly changing viewpoints, that give works of art their tremendous human interest.’ (1)

Here is modernism’s artist as expressive self.

Thus, according to what might be described as ‘expressive’ modernism, the speech of the artist comes before the writing
of the viewer.

But before it does, I’d suggest that you put Jacques Derrida to one side and specifically, the culmination of an argument
from ‘Signature Event Context’:

‘[...] the intention that animates utterance will never be completely present in itself and its content.’ (2)

So, in speaking to me about their work, the artists are speaking of a process, or an act of making, that hasn’t negatively mediated their ideas, just as speech makes the speaker’s ideas present too.

Yet again: the speech of the artist comes before the writing of the viewer.

Here too, overlook what Derrida observes concerning the relationship between speech and writing and the failure of speech
to supplement the absence of full presence, which is language’s ‘primary and most intimate possibility’. (3)

And certainly forget Barthes, another voice - or text - from beyond modernism, who as you may know, writes:

‘We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.’ (4)

Let us entertain the idea that we are back in the garden of a certain modernism. Or even: that we never left - so that we
can hear what the artists have to say about this ‘modern’ show, this show called ‘modern’.

There are always other voices. Pluralism isn’t just a post-modern thing.

He said:

‘I’m a modernist painter and sculptor’.

I can concur with this less controversial aspect of his claim: the media-specific designations. For in the upstairs space at Beaconsfield there was painting and sculpture, if predominantly, the latter.

As you entered the space of the upper gallery, you were immediately aware of a strong formal presence: an intense configuration of verticals - meticulously arranged, slim, upright sculptures (three in all), interspersed with small, floor-
based items (three in all). And then, you saw the painting on the back wall.

Except that: in the presence of the three-dimensional work, the painting’s sculptural aspects were brought to the fore;
and not just the depth of the two foot square support, (the structure behind the picture plane) but more especially, the
thickness of the picture plane itself; the heavily impastoed canvas with its swarm of dappled brush marks. So yes, he
paints and sculpts, and / but sometimes in one work.

The terms get complicated even before we start on ‘modernism’.

And indeed, what of that?

Well, I was wondering if one could be a modernist painter and sculptor, thinking of Greenberg (and that seminal essay),
and the way in which, for Greenberg, modernism is defined as ‘the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to
criticise the discipline itself’. (5) And as Greenberg slides between the term ‘pictorial art’ and ‘Modernist art’, I have
always thought that he means the visual arts in general - not just the art of two dimensional picturing. So that when he
then goes on to argue that, for pictorial modernism, ‘flatness’ is essential, he is valorising painting and demoting sculpture. Thus one cannot be a modernist sculptor.

I ventured this speculation, and he - the modernist painter and sculptor - responded with a list of names.

‘Never mind Picasso, there’s Schwitters and Matisse’ - ‘and Degas’, I interrupted and added Giacometti to myself, as he
added that, for him, ‘modernism’ had to be defined by its artists, and what they wrote (which was of a very different ilk
from the writing by theorists - and he offered the example of Marinetti’s bombastic manifestos...)

So, put aside the cue proposed by Greenberg, if less so, the one that the Press Release had offered: a curious line in which Greenberg proposes that with Modernism, art no longer seeks its own boundaries (art-specific ones), but rather:

‘spells out the fact that the limiting conditions of art have to be made altogether human limits’ – which makes art less autonomous than elsewhere in the same essay.

In a turning of the tables, she then asked me how I would locate her work art historically.

Without hesitation, but sensing there were many other answers too, I replied: ‘In relation to Impressionism and Monet’s paintings of water.’

Downstairs, she had shown thirty images displayed in a line at eye-level that was almost panoramic in its installation. In various ways, all depicted water (and in as much as they were watercolours, the matter thus became the means). Mainly
the water as the subject was the sea, but the Thames also featured, recognisably, perhaps, for a visitor en route to Beaconsfield which is only a stone’s throw away, down Black Prince Road.

I had mentioned Monet not just because of this shared territory of water - why not, Turner instead? - but rather because
of Monet’s modernism (as defined by Greenberg) which her work bears witness to as well.

For Greenberg, the Impressionists advanced the modernist quest for flatness by ‘undermining shading and modeling and everything else that seemed to connote the sculptural’. (6)

In her watercolours, as with Monet’s paintings, the horizon (which for her, is a constant latitude) functions as the axis of symmetry; the cue for a push towards the picture as a painting (which in Greenberg’s distinction, is a formal composition acknowledging the limiting conditions of its rectilinear support, over and above something which proposes a window on
the world). Time and again, in these very English vistas, and acknowledging the first rule of seascapes, the washed-out sea reflects the sky, even, on occasions, to the point at which the two merge, leaving a horizon that is merely notional.

And yet there are other aspects of this work that suggest a very different patrimony. Not Monet’s and not modernism’s.

Perhaps this is to do with its taking place as watercolour... watercolour! I can only think of one convergence of watercolour, landscape and modernism: Emil Nolde’s...

Certainly, another patrimony is proposed by the stencilled letters that, in one respect, are intimately part of the images,
in being done with paint, often fusing with the more conventionally produced (brush-marked) elements. For sure,
according to the strictures of Greenbergian modernism, they are ‘other’ to the purpose of painting, referencing a system
of representation that is first and foremost non-pictorial. When she uses them more formally, as make-do pictorial
elements - a row of letters QRSTUVWXYZ back to front suggests a pier or breakwater - this is one thing. (Think of the
way that numbers and letters appear within the diegetic reality of Peter Greenaway’s films A Zed and Two Noughts and Drowning by Numbers - the latter text related to the paintings we’re discussing in as much as it may be seen as an
English, painterly and watery version of pastoral.)

But when, obstreperously, the letters flit around the extra-diegetic plane (as anagrams of words on the surface of the painting, thus extending the pictorial depth), this looks to an order and era of image-making that is closer to postmodernism’s than it is to modernism’s.

(Recall Ed Ruscha’s word-image paintings, Barbara Kruger’s play with verbal text and photographs and par excellence,
Joseph Kosuth’s deployment of writing - all of which, however, might have an origin in Braque and Picasso’s use of text
in their collages.)

Collage: which these watercolours touch upon, with their hybrid of letters, words and iconic imagery, but also more
directly as tiny fragments of non-painted stuff creep in: a newspaper ampersand, a tendril of seaweed...

He was interjecting:

‘My work is collage’.

Yes, his work is collage too, and more overtly so.

Certainly the sculpture, though I’m not sure about the painting. The sculptures were assembled, and in each case
comprised a range of elements: a wine glass (with unidentifiable dried scum) was set atop a pedestal of varied metal
tubes increasing in diameter towards the floor. The two other, tall, upright pieces were predominantly wood (though this
had the sense of being culled from many sources; here a door frame, there a joist and there a scrap of torn plywood) but garnished with a range of eloquent oddments: empty mussel shells, a fan of Rizzla papers secured by a metal plate, a
sea-worn stone, a ‘Daylight’ bulb, a black bra... these were the ingredients, putting to one side, for a moment their configuration - what they might have added up to.

(Indeed, we hardly touched on this - the subject of the work’s subject - both for him and her, though with her, the work seemed to be sufficiently narrated by its formal-technical-procedural aspects, as reflexively, the means of painting was
its matter, as the matter (water) had become its means. With his work, on the other hand, different things were more immediately insistent. A rich, connotative seam (which occasionally erupted into denotation) looked to age-old themes:
one of the tall assemblages proposed a female figure with its mussels (sic) and undergarment; another with its light-bulb head, posed as her companion (piece). And so on: on the floor the two dried, sea-kale structures could be seen as heads,
the more so when a pair of washers on each structure looked like eyes, and a protruding pipe could serve as an oesophagus.
Love, death, wine, women, but no song... a hive of bees, however, almost flying off the painting, and a neatly towered
stack of half eggshells...)

In discussing the eclectic quality of his materials, we had circled Schwitters: Schwitters’ collages and Schwitters’ Merzbau - Cathedral of Erotic Misery, two dimensional artist and sculptor, as he was. But I wondered if the sculptures at Beaconsfield were collage in the same way. With Schwitter’s work there is a certain uniformity of plundering: (printed) paper surfaces admit the odd feather and the odd scrap of fabric and even with the Merzbau there’s a sense in which it refuses the
excesses of postmodernist hybridity. Schwitters is a long way from Rauschenberg, and these sculptures at Beaconsfield
might be closer to the latter.

Rauschenberg has been associated by a number of writers and theorists - among them Rosalind Krauss - with postmodernism. (7)

Because, or before we had broached this theme of collage, we got onto the subject of the provenance of his materials: how
he accrued them, and a system of garnering with some complexity emerged, as some were sought, some found, others
were rejected, but all, for him, in some way bore the trace of his encounter with them.

I wanted to discard this extra-textual knowledge - this experiential information, preferring to discover a sense of the
object’s history in the work itself, which it indeed yields, though it may be a different, if contingent past. And the same
went for her work, as she, too, had spoken about the circumstances of the work’s execution.

Certainly her paintings suggest a swiftness of production, for watercolour is particularly insistent in marking the artist’s
stops and starts. Here there are few drying marks; the turning tide has not cut her off, though it might have stared
raining, on occasion.

But this sense of the work’s history as a temporality of execution is given by another, albeit intermittent, visual strategy,
and one which, like the anagrams, floats upon the picture surface too - also rendering the figurative dimension of this
work relative.

In the manner of a video camera, dates and times are stencilled at the bottom of the image. Thus:17:03; 22.04.00.

Small time is indexed; little as opposed to grand narratives. The ‘just now’ appears, and moreover in its own terms: those
of digital technology.

‘Just now’ is also a way of glossing ‘modern’ - via its etymology. But in another gloss, ‘modern’, more familiarly, pertains
to ‘modernism’ as the epoch in cultural life which purloined the ‘just now’ for itself, and thus for all time. And in the latter instance, the suffix ‘ism’ merely designates the noun relating to the term ‘modern’ so construed.

As this show, then, in the terms of its title and accompanying curatorial material, seems to look at ‘modern modernism’,
it is thus looking at a thing which signifies equivocally. Signifying thus, it might well entertain the range of readings that
this writing points to.

When ‘modern modernism’ designates a cultural order (tautologically perhaps - modernism of its own time), then the claim
of being a modernist is perfectly admissible (putting to one side the implications that this has for concepts of postmodernism). On the other hand, when ‘modern modernism’ designates a modernism of the now, of the post - the
beyond of modernism - modernism just now, in the year 2000, my writerly excursions around this work and what the
artists have to say concerning it, which put its modernism into question, are also given credence.

To return to Barthes, via appropriations of the text cited above, and Sherrie Levine’s ‘use’ of that : in observing ‘modern’
to the letter, ‘a variety of writings’, and ‘images’ as well as voices - do indeed ‘blend and clash’. (8)


(1) Emile Zola ‘Edouard Manet’ in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology eds. Frascina & Harrison (Paul
Chapman; 1982) p. 30.
(2) Jacques Derrida ‘Signature Event Context’ in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds ed. Peggy Kamuf (Harvester Wheatsheaf; 1991) p. 105 .
(3) Jacques Derrida Of Grammatology (The John Hopkins University Press; 1994) p. 44
(4) Roland Barthes ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image Music Text (Fontana Press; 1977) p. 146.
(5) Clement Greenberg ‘Modernist Painting’ in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology eds. Frascina & Harrison
(Paul Chapman)
(6) p. 5 . ibid. p. 7.
(7) See ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde’ in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (MIT Press; 1993) p. 168.
(8) Sherrie Levine ‘Statement’, 1982 in C Harrison and P Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900 - 1990 (Blackwell, 199