Artists Draw A Blank


 White Cube, Patrick Ireland, 1998 

by Tim Gilman and Františka Sevcik

intervals of destructuring paradoxically carry the momentum for the ongoing process by which thought and perception are brought into relation toward transformative action.

—Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation [1]

Facing a blank canvas or blank page is a moment of pure potential, one that can be enervating or paralyzing. It causes a pause, a hesitation, in anticipation of the moment of inception—even of one that never comes. The implication is that the blank is yours in that moment, and it calls on you to act on it, to think into it, to create on it. Each blank canvas gives you time, of an undefined length, to transform that canvas’ inherent potential into a work. This two-dimensional plane of potential can be projected into a space, which the body can then occupy. When you “destructure” a space in the same way, prepare it to be a blank, much as you build a canvas, you allow your entire body to enter the space of potential, and you rest in anticipation of work, like the hand poised above the page. Artists have found that the deliberate creation of that space of potential through sealing the space and painting it white, thereby erasing details and distractions, can be such a transformative experience as to help define their whole practice. The cessation of distraction, the absence of indicator that a “blanked” workspace provides allows for a new presence of mind, it gives them the room, literally, to move into their work, and from there to move their work into the world.

The workspace for the artist, the studio, is often perceived as a lab-like condensation of the gallery or museum, the traditional and idealized white cube. Similarly, with the blank page, a concrete relation between space and time comes forward as the intentional simplification of the architecture changes behavior and perception within the space. The work of “blanking” the studio space is a meditative reduction, an erasure, and in a way, an attempt at drawing away from the world beyond the studio – the sealed space is meant to recede from reality, to become abstracted by its willed lack of details and distractions. Within that space the time for a new beginning is made more present, more attainable, and the focus it fosters becomes another tool to aid creation.

At the formative moment of his artistic practice, Tom Friedman used the blank of his studio, saturated in white, sealed off from the world, to fight velocity. He describes how he projected his vision of the end goal, the museum – a place he believes to be defined by slow contemplation – onto his own studio experience. He then sat and reflected on common objects, one by one, framed by the blank box he had created. The domestic objects he brought into the space to study foreshadow his mature works, where often the quotidian object has a single additional element – his intense labor. Friedman makes discrete objects through absurdly intense and focused labor, epitomized, perhaps by his 1,000 hours of Staring, made from 1992-97:

1000 Hours of Staring, Tom Friedman, 1992-1997

His labor, to use his own words, is his way to “bring all of who you are to the experience.” Friedman shares his labor, allows the slow, deliberate pace of his work born in the studio to penetrate the museum. Nothing seems effortless, or a gesture, the labor is apparent, displayed, and tangible. He gives us the labor, the personal investment in the physical that saved art for him, that divorced the work from the language he cites as a factor of alienation. When we see his work we do not see words, we see acts, we see objects. He has forced the studio as workspace into the exhibition space, as he stuffs hundreds of more hours of labor into his shows with each new piece, filling the space with material and labor, material and labor – his involvement, his investment, is his gift to us as the viewers, as he introduces the laborious and contemplative pace he feels belongs to the museum. He saves us also from the alienation of language, which first drove him into the sealed studio and away from the discourse of his school. He presents us with his real, the object which stands in stark contrast to the white slate of the studio, the sealed white box he started from, where his individual, self-contained objects begin and end, completed through the intensity of isolation, first of the individual artist, and then of the material he chooses to slowly, slowly, slowly work:

Untitled, Tom Friedman,1992

In his in-depth analysis of galleries as a blank white cube, Brian O’Doherty emphasizes the religious connotations implied in the strict laws of the exhibition space and the valuation, aesthetics and elements of control he feels it imposes upon the work. Like Friedman, he recognizes the power of the restricted space – indicating the “perceptual fields of force” – that act on any object introduced into it. Going beyond Friedman’s assessment of the space as highly utilitarian for focusing his perception, O’Doherty emphasizes the rejection of the physical body of the artist or observer, saying that the cube allows for only observation – eyes and mind. He later parallels the picture frame as a psychological container for the artist with the room as the same for the observer. In both cases, this is an emphasis on the alienating nature of the relationship – just as the artist is kept out of the frame by the picture, in the gallery the art forces the body of the spectator out, calling for a self-referential purity.

O’Doherty makes a point of saying that the installation shot of the gallery without figures is “one of the icons of our visual culture.” In recent years, however, installation shots have begun to include figures, in some cases they are essential to understanding the scale and even the nature of the work, specifically with work that captures the experience of the space and the way that it varies from a white cube. The work of Olafur Eliasson is a case in point, as the Danish artist uses elements of scientific and natural phenomena to alter perception within the controlled gallery environment, tweaking and redirecting O’Doherty’s “perceptual fields of force” to make points about the act of seeing, or seeing yourself seeing, to quote the artist. This indicates a shift in the role of the artwork, not to exclude the body and stand discretely and self-sufficiently, but to include it, to manipulate it and to make the observer aware of the nature of that manipulation and the work’s ability to manipulate.

360º room for all colours, Olafur Eliasson, 2002

So though in O’Doherty’s analysis, the intense blankness of the gallery pushed the observer out in favor of the artwork’s isolation, artists can replicate this inhumane sterility in their own workspace to focus their work on the influence of the gallery right from inception. This can be interpreted as an almost opposite understanding of the purpose of sealing and whitewashing the workspace as stated by Friedman. He sought a refuge from the critical language of the art school, and a space that, like the museum, gave him a protracted sense of time, and, he felt, welcomed him in, “to bring all of who you are,” as opposed to O’Doherty’s feeling that the museum was asking you, at least in body, to leave, and allow the work to take on its own life. Friedman does not seem to imply the tension with the cube and critical stance that O’Doherty prioritizes. Where Friedman finds a refuge, O’Doherty defines an opponent.

In a third position, Robert Irwin describes his sealed studio space as “the world.” Though he made the same effort as Friedman to seal out all influences and distractions, he implies that he is in dialogue with the world through his own concentration and perception. This is reminiscent of the nature of the monad, as interpreted by Deleuze, a unity that envelops a multiplicity, a sealed container that contains the universe. He went through the same ritual described by Friedman, sealing up the space, painting it white, and then forcing himself to remain inside, staring at his own work, training his concentration relentlessly. But he found that the room became the distraction:

…he became aware that a thin crack along the wall a few yards away from the canvas likewise exerted its presence; that when he plastered that crack over and repainted the wall, the canvas itself presented an entirely new aspect. [2]

The context was in a relentless dialogue with the work, and trying to neutralize that dialogue, to mute the conversation between space and object, became part of his ritual as he “fixed” his space each day in the hope of total concentration on the work. Ultimately, Irwin shaped the trajectory of his art by relinquishing the studio, establishing a post-studio practice, where the work is conceived and created out in the world, in dialogue with the world and reflective of the conditions it finds surrounding it. The white cube failed to ever achieve neutrality, his heightened concentration prevented him from ever neutralizing the space, so, instead of continuing to try to maintain the charade of a perfect blank, he acknowledged the unstoppable voice of place and turned all his efforts onto the object and the world, as a constant dialogue. Some artists push their studio space far from purity, domesticating it like a lair or a living room, and others destroy it, fill it with chaos or detritus, blacken or clutter it so as never to be starting from a blank, and thereby try to avoid the anxiety of facing that void. Similarly artists may never prepare a white canvas, a clean page, a marble block, or other form that is intentionally lacking, in order to try to escape the dialogue with emptiness. But Irwin, like O’Doherty, found an opponent in the white cube, and he learned not to fight it, rather he ended the conflict by making it an ally, an interlocutor, a collaborator. We can vainly strive to start from nothing, to find the lull, the clearing, and to always consider what we do in balance with the empty set. Somehow that intangible cloud of hazy nothingness, that softness of a lapse continually offers a place to bounce off of, to react to, to wrestle with, to rest with, in tension, or a place to begin.

Excursus: Homage to the Square3, Robert Irwin, 1998

Piece oirginally published at Continent Continent | Creative Commons License 

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[1] Massumi. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. p271.

[2] MOMA, NY. Eliasson, 360〫Room for All Colours. Installation. 2002.