THE YEAR PINK BROKE
In his new series °, Thomas Arnolds used only the color pink. Seven monochrome paintings of different sizes in hot pink and pink, respectively. This is the very color that during the late 19th and early 20th Century had a high priority in classic modernism — Picasso’s pre-Cubist pink period in the mid 1900s being a prime example.
The situation has changed in the course of the neo-avant-garde of the 1950s and ’60s, when — in Color Field Painting and in monochrome painting — color itself became the carrier of meaning. It seems that the color pink was incompatible with the pathos-laden self-understanding of the Abstract Expressionists in such a manner that Newman’s question in a different circumstance actually should have read, “Who’s Afraid of Pink?”. The differences in color and motifs are considerable, and yet there are some connecting links with Arnolds’ Kitchen and Spazieren paintings of the past three years. This does not only include constitutive stylistic characteristics such as the rigorous insistence on two-dimensionality and a haptic characteristic style. Two works really function as a hinge here: °(4) measures 115 by 80 cm, just as Fliesen A (Klein), and also adopts its internal structure: the division in overall ninety-six compartments (15 by 15 cm each), cropped by the top and bottom edge of the painting. In fact, at least, because the individual structural units are now by definition no longer identifiable as squares
It is mainly their horizontal edges that survived the transfer to the new group of works — but not without damage. They may not exceed the length of two ex-squares in perfect condition. The resulting gaps are partly considerable, and the line itself is continually being affected by the consequential unrest. At one point it is a U-shaped sag, at another, it branches off diagonally upwards, and elsewhere it sinks downward, convex or concave. Curved, mostly diagonal lines advance into the cleared areas within this scattered grid structure. However, they are no evidence of the fact that spontaneity and speed — indicators of an expressive, intuitive way of working —entered the paintings’ production. They, too, arise from considerately superimposed layers of paint and are significantly protruding from the canvas. Similarities in the course and in the manner of the curvatures give reason to suspect that even the curved lines depend on schematic specifications. The hemispherical paint accumulations, too, partly follow (imaginatively) curved lines — in two places, several of the hemispheres fused completely into a paint bead. The “tiles”, as it turned out, are not representing actually existing entities. They are nothing more than what they are in a material way: combinations of grid-like structures and squares. And even the latter ones are no subjects of an identity-principle, as the juxtaposition of these two works makes clear. They are not irreducible signifiers or smallest order units for the measurement of pictorial surfaces, but simply options of line arrangement.
“Richter, in turn, leaned on Palermo. A few months later in 1969, at a point when the two had grown even closer, Richter titled a small gray painting Blinki, because, as Richter explains, Palermo immediately ‘understood’ the painting when it was just finished. “Certainly I also wanted to honor him with that.” Part of a series of small gray monochromes, the painting seems odd: its grid recedes sharply into the upper right corner to create an illusionistic opening within an opaque plane; modernist monochrome meets traditional perspective. That convergence of outmoded and modern painting devices anticipates the very issues that Richter’s future collaborations with Palermo would confirm. (...) Palermo understood Blinki, because both of them had the same “sense” for quality and the same sense for a crisis, which resulted from the fact that both had dedicated themselves to painting, despite its limited social and artistic relevance at that time.”
Christine Mehring, Light Bulbs and Monochromes: The Elective Affinities of Richter and Palermo, quoted from Lynne Cooke, Karen J. Kelly, Barbara Schröder, Blinky Palermo. To the People of New York City, Dia Art Foundation, 2009, p.45-78; here p.49-50
Pop Art, Fluxus, Performance, Minimal and Conceptual Art subjected any legitimation to a considerable amount of pressure. More than forty years later, not much of that was (and still is) being experienced — a fact that was most unlikely back then. When Arnolds made his paintings of the late 00s years, a decade came to an end that, on reflection, especially baffled us with a disturbingly anachronistic presence of paintings. That is to say, an over-presence and over-production that supplied the art fairs with white noise. This occurred with the beginning of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008 (at latest). As a result, so-called “Flachware” (a German pejorative term that translates literally as “flat commodity”) in convenient formats came to new glory. At the time, painting was being declared dead, and now it is being produced to death. In Arnolds’ °(4), you won’t find the “illusionist opening” of the curved, unraveling grid on the very handy (30 by 40 cm) Blinki. Within the disarray in the grid-like structure, spatiality only emerges in the literal sense—namely, when two of the prominent lines cross. Richter applied the lines onto a flickering color field that had been painted with gestural, relatively thick brush strokes. Whereas in the °-paintings, the lines no longer stand for an aforementioned “modern painting”. They do not dominate any diffuse “blurry” surfaces, i.e. closed systems or independent, unambiguous statements of painting. On the contrary, the static, consistently understated monochrome paint application in °(4) stresses the texture of the canvas and the painting’s object-like quality. In other works of the °-series, the color bars are forming strict boundaries between areas that differ in characteristic style.
More of the curved and slightly curved lines recur in the central area of the right half of °(3) — now forming outlines. A fragile “scaffold” — consisting of several stacked board-like, semicircular to L-shaped structures — projects its two lower ends in a diagonally placed rectangle with rounded corners. In combination with the adjoining trapezoidal fields and a wheel with a corresponding frame, the rectangle proves to be a stylized wheelbarrow tub. This in turn is being carried by an upright male figure that is larger-than-life (the image measures 250 by 200 cm). The direct comparison of these two paintings excellently illustrates Arnolds’ concern of leaving behind the antagonism between representational and abstract painting and of declaring an even more fundamental issue his pictorial agenda: the relation between line and surface. Within this reclusive basic research, the differences between representations that can be associated with abstract painting and those that resemble figurative structures are of a gradual, non-categorical kind. In exaggerated terms, the bodily forms in °(3) are basically nothing more than extremely stretched and curved grid-like structures, while the deranged grid in °(4) results from the highly fragmented and regulated outlines of figurative elements. Two diagonally oriented paint beads are located in the central region of the left half of the painting. They have been applied to exposed areas, such as the top of the left trouser leg and the right front of the jacket — however, without offering representational functions, for example as accessory or appliqué. This evidence of a particular relief-like approach to painting (one is almost tempted to speak about “pure painting”) literally wrecks the figure’s representative potential. Moreover, it serves the image’s structure — along with three circular paint accumulations and a system of five horizontal and vertical stripes, which extends almost over the entire surface. One of the two vertical thin stripes, coming from the top of the screen, meets a much wider one. The second line connects the first one with the upper corner of the wheelbarrow tub and marks the vertical center — just like the edge of the door in Küche 2 or the edge of the cabinet in Spazieren (International) Groß 1. From this corner, a thin stripe extends to the right edge of the painting, while the second broad stripe runs at ankle height. With their lateral grooves and shapes, both stripes are identifiable as schematic profiles of tongue and groove boards (Fig. 13). This designation emphasizes their function as a classification system that is intrinsic to painting. The interlocking of apparently primary structural elements with the allegedly figural components finally causes the inability to locate the latter in any (even the most diffuse) representational pictorial space. Within this unusual arrangement, the lines operate like membranes; they are as much a part of the defined areas as the more loosely painted fields “in between”.
“It is the confrontation of the Figure and the field, their solitary wrestling in a shallow depth, that rips the painting away from all narrative but also from all symbolization. When narrative or symbolic, figuration obtains only the bogus violence of the represented or the signified; it expresses nothing of the violence of sensation – in other words, of the act of painting.”
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London, 2005 (orig. 1981), p.xiv-xv
In some cases in °(1) (image on page 19), the individual elements of this arrangement reappear in a drastically reduced and modified form. As already in °(3), a schematic, almost clumsy representation of a middle-aged person can be seen: bespectacled again, this time shaven and wearing a hat. All of the °-paintings are executed in “skin-color”, the shade’s official name. Yet the choice of color does not allow any hasty conclusions on the paintings’ real subject, because, in contrast to Francis Bacon’s portraits, it is not about the appearance of skin or flesh. Not physicality is the object of obsession, but the artificiality of the make-up. Unlike in °(3), only a few areas are being thickly executed here. The canvas is mainly covered by a subtle application of color. The canvas is simultaneously being covered and accentuated and thus becomes more than just a work surface. A segment of the covered canvas, which is circumscribed by lines, is corresponding to a face that is covered with skin-colored paint, and vice versa. The fact that the latter is a self-portrait can only be identified at second or third glance. However, the sum of characteristic details— the hairline, for example, or the distinctive glasses — provide a measure of similarity that finally allows this conclusion. The reason for the even more abundant un-virtuose implementation (which leads to a rather unflattering representation) is a conceptual one. Thus all the curved lines were executed with the aid of commercially available curve templates, as it was already the case in °(3) and °(4).
What looks like the fragments of a neck brace, are in fact modified miniature versions of the curved shapes from °(3). Just as in that situation, they determine the right half of the painting in °(5) and form a psychedelic symbiosis with the centrally placed figure that appears to reach out a hand to the viewer in °(2). In °(7), the shapes even take over the command of the entire painting, while at the same time, figures are only indicated in a shadowy manner and as abstracted body fragments. The curved shapes are without doubt the central motif and, thanks to the artist’s hint, are identifiable as sauna benches. They represent a place of a ritual act, defined by the combination of different aggregate states — hence the exhibition title. Within Arnolds’ classification, ice, water and the act of pouring water on the hot stones represent point, line and surface. The sauna benches are, even more than the self-portraits, no longer just occasions for painting. And yet, the whole thing is still a solipsistic, even cryptic matter. The fact that the self-portraits are not performing a narrative or even representative function is particularly being symbolized in °(1). Contrary to the conventions of representation, the outlines of this decontextualized head are not located in the top half of the painting. They are slipped in such a way that the lower rims of the glasses run at the level with the central axis.
“Bacon often explains that it is to avoid the figurative, illustrative, and narrative character the Figure would necessarily have if it were not isolated. Painting has neither a model to represent nor a story to narrate. It thus has two possible ways of escaping the figurative: toward pure form, through abstraction; or toward the purely figural, through extraction or isolation. If the painter keeps to the Figure, if he or she opts for the second path, it will be to oppose the “figural” to the figurative. Isolating the Figure will be the primary requirement. (…) Isolation is thus the simplest means, necessary though not sufficient, to break with representation, to disrupt narration, to escape illustration, to liberate the Figure: to stick to the fact.”
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London, 2005 (orig. 1981), p.2
Once more, now in the upper left corner, three circular paint accumulations appear in the large scale painting °(5), which is sized 250 by 400 cm, just like the Kitchen paintings and °(6). The nearly hemispherical, plate-sized and finely-executed accumulations — most likely the most relief-like way of painting ever — are also the central motif of °(7) (Fig. 14). Just like its counterpart Spazieren (international) Klein 1, the only 45 by 75 cm large painting can claim to be a veritable bundle of energy within a series of large-scale works. The lower left half of °(5) is dominated by the representation of an automobile in profile. The painting’s left edge crops the auto body at just behind the front passenger door, while the front third of the car hood extends across the painting’s middle, together with the Star that directly identifies this pictorial element. In the car sits the now familiar, casually dressed person, holding the steering wheel with both hands and turned towards the viewer with a slightly strange expression on his face. Here, at the very latest, the caricature traits of the self-portraits are unmistakable. Particularly those self-portraits indicate that the °-paintings are, despite all their theoretical (and practical) finesse, definitely imbued with an anarchic humor. This kind of humor ignores the so-called unwritten laws — conservatism’s greatest evil — and opens the door to presumed inconsistencies. Especially within the transfer to such a highly reputable terrain as monochrome painting, Surrealist combinatorics shows its continuing effectiveness. Lautreamont combined a sewing machine with an umbrella; in Arnolds’ case it is a sauna bench and a Mercedes-Benz (Fig. 15). The monochrome canvas becomes a dissecting table. Placeholders for portrait and genre painting collide, and barely identifiable and decodable elements come together on equal terms. And the distrust towards narrative, metaphoric or representative contexts of meaning is noticeable. The result of this continued infiltration processes is a form of egalitarian, libertarian, in a Deleuzian sense figurative painting.
“The whole thing is getting away from painting at the same time I’m painting. I am making a Still Life, but the activity of making a Still Life is so silly to me that I don’t want to be making a Still Life. This is a way of removing myself from the stupidity of doing that sort of thing so it becomes a non-painting, at the same time it is a painting. I don’t think of that while I’m doing it but I guess it’s behind it. I mean, what can you really paint that isn’t ridiculous.”
Roy Lichtenstein, video interview with Hermine Freed, 1972, quoted from Roy Lichtenstein: Meditations on Art, Skira, 2010, p.193
Excerpt from Wolfgang Brauneis, “The Year Pink Broke” (Translation: Sonja Engelhardt) from Thomas Arnolds – Grad, exhibition catalogue Galerie Hammelehle und Ahrens, Cologne 2011