Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Negative Space

Joan Mitchell seems to be having a moment lately.

I was lucky to have caught a show of her late paintings at Cheim & Read this past December, the first time I've seen more than a small few of her works together.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1992 (detail)

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1992

It was a fantastic show: huge canvases – I always have a weakness for those – amazing color, and the energy of raw and unapologetic brushstrokes (and their aftermath).

Joan Mitchell, Sunflowers, 1991

Joan Mitchell, Sunflowers, 1990-91

Joan Mitchell, Trees, 1990-91

But what struck me for the first time is how the white space in Mitchell's paintings – so much of it, at the perimeter of the canvas and between the brushstrokes – holds so much power. It's almost as if the pristine nothingness of the canvas underscores the importance of the positive world, and vice versa. In person the white space itself is a beautiful thing to see, strangely feeling like looking into infinity...or so I imagine. It has an intention all of its own.

Joan Mitchell, Merci, 1992

That got me to thinking about how lately I've been so drawn to art that perhaps purposely says nothing, that's empty and sometimes cold – and in that, pure. Almost exactly a year ago, Mary Boone had a show by Terence Koh. I didn't see it in person; I only read about it in the Times (the review was by Roberta Smith, as my favorites tend to be). But for at least two months I couldn't get it out of my head...I literally thought about it constantly. I would sit on the bus and look out the window and just exist in it, like an actual, physical space. Truly, I was obsessed.

Terence Koh, nothingtoodoo, at Mary Boone Gallery, March 2011

As described, the sole performance piece consisted of a mound of salt in the middle of the gallery. Koh, dressed all in white, circled the mound on his knees for all of the hours the gallery was open, over the course of the month-long show, sometimes prostrating himself on the floor for physical relief. (Apparently he put on knee pads after the show had been up for a week to avoid grinding his knees to dust.) A piece that suggests penance, but more than that, to me, pointlessness. I've never considered myself a fan of Terence Koh, but that may have made me one.

Robert Ryman, Twin, 1966

I'm not sure why I'm drawn to that purity and pointlessness and nothingness right now. It's so strange...you want one thing, and the next day comes, and you want another. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my day job is about information...that's ALL I think about, while I'm at work (okay, well, mostly). And maybe it also has something to do with our present-day condition of constant movement and adaptation and the pressure of needing to absorb and navigate an ever-accelerating existence. The void feels like a relief.

Robert Ryman, Surface Veil, 1970-71

Finally, as a postscript, who knows what I would have thought of Koh's piece in person? Roberta Smith had her reservations ('Is it art?'). But her description made it live in my mind as if I had experienced it, and for that reason I can't think of a better example of just how powerful a good piece of art criticism can be.

I also think that it doesn't really matter how I would have responded to the piece in person. Relational aesthetics aside, to me what matters is my own, one-on-one relationship to (with?) something I grasp or feel in an artist's work – whether as a whole, or just a part that resonates – and that relationship alone. Meaning gets created there.

Joan Mitchell, After April, Bernie, 1987

1 comment:

Kristina said...