Text reproduced from the publication: From Memory - Callum Innes, 2006 (Hatje Cantz and Fruitmarket Gallery) 


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Once Removed

In the mid-1950s, the musician Morton Feldman took his friend and colleague John Cage to Philip Guston’s studio. Guston was in the process of making some of his sparsest and most challenging abstractions. After looking at the paintings for a while, Cage exclaimed, ‘My God, it’s possible to paint a magnificent picture about nothing.’ Feldman responded, with equal astuteness, ‘But, John, it’s about everything.’ At the time, Guston’s working method involved immersing himself in intense painting sessions in which he would continually add brushstroke after brushstroke of relatively closely valued hues, his face so close to the canvas that he could see only a few brushstrokes at a time. At the end of a session, he would stand back to see an image in a strange kind of flux between a form that was coming into being and one that was being painted away. 

The paintings apparently struck a perfect equilibrium to confound two musicians who challenged their own audiences with music that fluctuated between sound and silence. Standing in the artist’s studio, one observer saw nothing, and the other, everything. Cage would likely point out that a Zen Buddhist would refer to this philosophical outcome as a koan — a question or dilemma proposed to a student to bring the student, through contemplation of it, to a greater awareness of reality; in this case, the paradoxical reality of abstraction. 

It is no secret that many of the Abstract Expressionists were interested in Zen Buddhism and that a number of them attended the lectures of the Zen philosopher D. T. Suzuki at Columbia University in the 1950s. Their interest was not a matter of philosophical fashion. Abstraction, which had been pioneered in the early part of the century by Vasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, had by the 1950s come to a new threshold. The pictorial stage had been purged, leaving behind elemental fields of colour and gesture. What began as a small window into the non-objective world had become a doorway into what some described as ‘nothingness’ and others ‘the absolute’, terms that today sound almost clichéd, but at the time were loaded with meaning in the painter’s ongoing search for the most fundamental condition of the image. 

For painters, as well as philosophers and poets of the time, Zen brought a more worldly and less pessimistic approach to the dilemma of nothingness than did the post-war existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Referring to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Feldman remarked, ‘Sartre left us with literally nothing. Zen gave a little more hope … what is eliminated makes room for something else. It’s hard to describe what that something else is — maybe just the mystery that exists between the beginning and the end — between something and nothing.’ 

One could argue that the history of abstract painting is itself an extended visual koan. Throughout its century-long development, abstraction has survived, and in many periods thrived, on its inherent contradiction: a process in which something is given at the same time it is taken away. Every painter who has engaged the idiom of abstraction — from Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian to Pollock, Rothko and Newman or Agnes Martin and Frank Stella — has, each in his or her own way, wrestled with this inexplicable process in the shared belief that the landscape of abstraction is an enigma. 

Callum Innes has physically rehearsed this koan over and over, claiming his own piece of this landscape. He calls many of these works Exposed Paintings. His process involves painting a geometric, monochromatic form made of dense layers of oil paint. Using a turpentine-soaked brush he then carefully attempts to remove a large section of the form, leaving a soft veil of ghostly brushstrokes behind. Juxtaposed, then, is the carefully applied and the equally carefully removed. In this case irony does not indicate nihilism, and the eliminated section does not amount to a negation as much as a challenge. As more than one Minimalist has expressed it, when you start taking a lot away you had better make what is left better than it was. Otherwise, you will have to start again and then begin to eliminate more carefully. In other words, reduction is a difficult thing to achieve accurately and predicting its accuracy is no more assured than applying materials to a surface. 

Robert Rauschenberg made a point of this with a series of all-white paintings in the 1950s, the creation of which at the time was widely misinterpreted as a Dadaist, anti-abstract painting gesture in the face of Abstract Expressionism’s austere sublimity. In fact, these works were an intuitive extension of his elders’ reductions. Rauschenberg imagined the shadows of viewers animating the surfaces of his paintings, which meant that his surfaces had to be very carefully constructed so as not to upstage the subtle inflections that might fall on them. For Rauschenberg, learning to take things away was the biggest challenge of his early career. As if to exaggerate the difficulty of reduction, he created one of his most infamous gestures, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953. Rauschenberg later described the process and his intentions: 

I went to [de Kooning’s] studio and explained to him just what I had in mind. I remember that the idea of destruction kept coming into the conversation, and I kept trying to show that it wouldn’t be destruction, although there was always the chance that if it didn’t work out there would be a terrible waste. At first, he didn’t like the notion much, but he understood, and after a while he agreed. He took out a portfolio of his drawings and began thumbing through it. He pulled out one drawing, looked at it, and said, ‘No, I’m not going to make it easy for you. It has to be something I’d miss.’ Then he took out another portfolio and looked through that, and finally he gave me a drawing, and I took it home. It wasn’t easy by any means. The drawing was done with a hard line, and it was greasy, too, so I had to work very hard on it, using every sort of eraser. But in the end it really worked. I liked the result. I felt it was a legitimate work of art, created by the technique of erasing. So the problem was solved and I didn’t have to do it again.

Some viewers never bother to scrutinise the finished drawing, assuming it to be a purely conceptual gesture. Others look for the de Kooning that may or may not be there. We seldom look for Rauschenberg, even though he is there in a very reductive but full way. He has made a re-drawing in which careful erasures represent the work of his hand attempting to remove everything as evenly as possible, and in so doing, creating what some might think of as an empty, uninflected abstraction. However, it is the subtle unevenness of this hand-work that brings the surface of the paper to life, that in fact brings the abstraction to life. The paper — a simple geometric form — is essentially made human by what is only partially visible. 

For Rauschenberg, ‘getting it right’ once was sufficient. Innes, in his Exposed Paintings, deliberately presses his luck, the result being small groups of beautifully executed reductions, and a larger number of failures, which the artist routinely, and at considerable expense, discards. His process is also vulnerable to simplistic interpretations. The Exposed Paintings can be seen as improbable accidents or the predictable results of a sterile, systemic formula. In fact, neither description is accurate, but it is accurate to say that the tension between these two extremes animates Innes’s paintings. As the Zen monk would admonish, ‘Simplicity is never simple.’

Exposed Painting, Mars Black (2002), hangs on its own wall in Gallery Three in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, a building designed by Tadao Ando. Those who know Ando’s buildings know them to be beautifully lean. There are ‘empty’ spaces that have no art but never seem empty. As Ando has said, ‘Art in the deepest sense is not materiality and ego. An architect, for instance, has to leave space for someone to enter. You have to leave room for people. Whatever boldness we bring about through materials should be balanced by the modesty and mystery of emptiness. Every person who enters completes the building.’

Although Exposed Painting, Mars Black operates in the more esoteric architecture of painting, it looks very much at home in Ando’s spaces. It is a painting waiting for a viewer to partake in its process, to understand its strange oscillation between form and non-form. It shares this building with paintings by Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin. At first glance, it would seem to relate more easily to the Kelly. Part of the personality of Exposed Painting, Mars Black is geometric. Its immediate visibility, particularly from a distance, is about the strength and orderliness of geometry. There is no black rectangle in nature, only in the illusory world of abstraction, which proposes it as a symbol of the possibility of a perfect invented form, but a form that is nonetheless made in the mind, not by the hand. In a sense, it is a material illusion. 

The other side of Innes’s image — the removed side — suggests the real or human side of this platonic architecture. From this view, Exposed Painting, Mars Black relates more to the Agnes Martin painting that hangs across the room. Martin often talked about ineffable moments of ‘balance’, and of humanising geometry, if not eliminating it altogether: ‘I keep telling people that my paintings are not about geometry. They are about trying to find perfection in the balance between a form and its human nature.’ Geometry is not ‘perfect’. It is the illusion of order. A painting finds its natural order in the human nervous system, which — no matter how disciplined — is irregular and impulsive. Martin’s paintings were once discussed in terms of Systemic Painting and yet she could not see a system to her paintings any more than she could see geometry. Although she used a ruler to lay down pencil lines on a raw canvas, she always pointed out that the lines were not perfectly straight, nor were they near to being ‘hard edge’. The very act of pulling the pencil lead over a woven cloth created unpredictable little graphite distortions that softened the lines. In the early 1960s, Martin did not employ colour. She simply allowed the line to vibrate between the spaces that were created. Those spaces are as important to her images as the lines.

Innes’s paintings also represent a delicate balancing act in which presence and absence play a subtle shell game. The abstract geometric form — an iconic symbol of weight and emotional clarity — is connected like a fraternal twin to its own partial removal. Here, weight and clarity are given over to an ethereal existence — a series of liquid gestures, like a hand passing through water. Their commonality is that a single hand made and unmade the image. The resistance of the canvas, and of the paint as it is being added or removed with a turpentine-soaked brush, is specific to the artist’s energy in a given moment. The trick for Innes is to apply the same energy to both operations. The same hand, seemingly with the same attention, is constructing at the same time it is dissolving — a moment of balance between giving and taking.

There are moments when Exposed Painting, Mars Black suggests a postmodern sumie, an ink painting in the guise of an abstraction. There are related words like naru (becoming) and ma (translated as space, it can also mean time). An ink painter strives to create an image that is not ‘finished’ in the Western sense, but is perpetually in the process of ‘becoming’. Areas where the ink fades to grey at the end of a stroke, or the off-white rice paper where there is no ink, are equally not unfinished but are equal partners in suggesting a ‘live’ image between a beginning and an ending. It is an image that is more a moment of perception than a thing.

Franz Kline’s paintings of the 1950s were frequently discussed in relation to Japanese calligraphy. Unfortunately, often the suggestion was that Kline was simply enlarging a calligraphic ‘look’, when in fact he was tapping into the most fundamental polarities that exist in all painting but seem so acutely apparent in abstraction: personal gesture versus structural order, form versus space, and black versus white. 

The poet Robert Creeley understood this early in Kline’s career. Creeley wrote that Kline’s abstractions were a metaphor for the dialectical forces that make up perception. Typically, the poet used his own peculiar metaphor to describe Kline’s: 

There are women who will undress only in the dark, and men who will only surprise them there. One imagines such a context uneasily, having no wish either to be rude or presumptuous … think of it, a woman undressing in broad sunlight, black. What if light were black — is there black light? If there is black light, what is black? In other words, argue to the next man you meet that we are living in a place where everything has the quality of a photographic negative. Take hold of his coat, point to anything. See what happens. 

It is unlikely that Innes is familiar with Creeley’s text, which appeared in the Black Mountain Review of 1954. It is interesting, however, that Innes has also evoked photography as a means of describing the ineffable qualities of his Exposed Paintings. When the artist remarks, ‘I find that I look more at photography than at painting’, he probably does not mean that literally, but is trying to find his own metaphor for that moment of exposure when the act of painting is both naked and vulnerable.

Michael Auping