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Richard Bell and Michael Parsons on painting and music: correspondences

Conversation held at The Mercus Barn on 30 May 2016

June 2016

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

M: How did this exhibition at The Mercus Barn in the Ariège come about?

R: Firstly, it’s good to be with you here in the Pyrenees, and to express my thanks to David Saunders for inviting me to show my recent work. This is the fourth show in this series ‘Eye and Mind’, the title of which is taken from an essay by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

This gives me an opportunity to reflect on these recent paintings in the context of this theme. I would also like to discuss how there may be a correspondence between these paintings and your approach to experimental music.

Installation view: paintings 2014-2016. Photo courtesy The Mercus Barn

M: It is also important to say that although this exhibition is taking place in the south of France, it is rooted in an historical art practice, which goes back to the 1960s?

R: The historical context is important to discuss, and also how this work contributes to the practice in the here and now.

There is perhaps a debate about a divergence that has opened up concerning the roots of a systematic and constructive art. On the one hand there is a view of this history couched within a strictly rational model, and on the other hand a view that is also informed by a more empirical-experimental, even romantic, tradition (for instance, we could refer to the colour influence of Delacroix on Cézanne).  Of course, the debate is more complex than this, and involves textual and critical thinking - but it also returns us to our interest in the Merleau-Ponty essays and related ideas on performance and physicality in painting.

Palimpsest (vii), oil on linen canvas 80cm x 80cm 2016. Photo courtesy The Mercus Barn

M: This brings us to the wider context of subjectivity in relation to formal organization.  There’s the question of the individual sensibility and the question of how this is located in the historical, public and communal context.

R: I would like to talk about the work in terms of its ‘feeling’ being of primary importance. I think it’s about what comes first. We could end up with the overly restrictive possibility of placing the rational consideration first and the sensory second. This dichotomy perhaps finds its basis in a Cartesian duality that treats colour as emotional and secondary.

Writing about Cézanne’s project to make sensation tangible in painting, Merleau-Ponty said: ‘Quality, light, colour, depth, which are there before us, are only there because they awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them’ (Eye and Mind, 1964).

The embodiment of colour into a material organisation is primary. It would follow that what you can say, know and understand about that order (the intelligible nature of the work) is secondary in this process. So I believe that, in the context of these paintings, the sensory is primary and the intelligible is secondary. I would want to invite people to make a quiet response - which is about thoughtfulness and openness. I do not see this exhibition as a lesson in colour or scientific knowledge.

M: So it’s not a didactic exercise about exploring the scientific possibilities of colour, but more about an individual level of engagement?

R: This relates to the conversations we have been having about the role of the poetic in a systematic art practice, and this would involve the artist thinking about colour in a more poetic way.

This is what I am trying to do here. Rather than setting up a type of system which can then be unpacked and reassembled in another’s mind, to be taken away as information, I want to provide a site for the viewer to re-articulate and re-perform the work, to provide a different kind of colour experience.

Underlying these paintings there are certain principles that do have a formal and rational basis - but this resides at an individual level rather than as a mathematical axiom. It is important for the paintings to be seen as abstract and non-representational; colour is not used as a means to codify, depict or represent a system.

Installation view: paintings 2014-2016, oil on linen. Photo courtesy The Mercus Barn.

M: You don’t want the colours to be reducible to a system. I’d like to think of the rational and sensory aspects as interdependent rather than primary and secondary.

R: Yes, because this would avoid saying that the rational is at the heart of it.  It’s also the individual level of performance in making the paintings. Considerations of the materials and surface qualities are important to me.

In the catalogue for this exhibition I noted: “a somatic process of colour performance is concerned with memory (fragments: concealed/revealed/layers) in the sense that colour relationships have potential to provide new energies, definition and systematization – at times creating loss of predictability”.

I think it’s the painting methodology which is the ordered side of it, and how thoughts on colour relations can evolve with the work in progress. The painting does not have to be completely pre-determined. The starting point for the paintings in this exhibition was simply an array of colour differences in my mind, which I have known about and explored over a long time, together with new concepts about depth and time in colour use.

Palimpsest (ii), oil and wax on board, 80cm x 80cm, 2014. Photo courtesy The Mercus Barn.

M: This goes back to the exhibitions and associated events of the 1980s called  ‘Colour Presentations’1 (which we both participated in) and subsequently ‘Complexions’2. How would you say your work has evolved from this context?

R: I think this is important because there is a thread that runs through from that point. For instance, the work of David Saunders is ostensibly very different now from the work he exhibited then. I believe the continuity is in his ‘experimental method’, which he has previously referred to. I would say my work is also different, although the difference may not be so obvious. The continuity involves pausing and considering more closely the purpose of using colour in a more formal context.

M: There was a project to systematize colour by the earlier systems artists and the subjective element was rather played down. This was partly for political reasons. There was a lot of thinking about ideas derived from Marxist theory that played down the role of the individual and emphasized mainly the collaborative and social role.

R: That’s an important connection you make.  A more formal rigorous approach has sometimes been associated with the emptying out, or reductive use of colour, so that one is only able therefore to deal with rational and structural considerations. There is an earlier history of relational colour painting within the European constructive art tradition that has been associated with a greater subjective approach (I’m thinking here of the early Mondrian, Leger, and Herbin). I think there is also a correspondence here with the textual ideas developed by the French Supports/Surfaces group. Dezeuze has emphasised the political nature of the group’s beginnings: “Our movement was also a movement of revolt, social as well as aesthetic.”

M: How did Colour Presentations address these concerns?

R: It was about testing the boundaries of this paradigm within the context of colour language.  The six artists involved in that project (and they were not the only artists involved in these discussions) were all engaged in addressing this concern with formal colour relations, between and across a number of paintings. I would say that these artists, particularly those from the 1970s Systems group - Jeffrey Steele, David Saunders and Jean Spencer - would have made an historical linkage to the Swiss Constructive Konkrete Kunst group.

It is worth considering the differences between these influential Swiss artists as well as their shared ideas. For instance, Richard Paul Lohse and Max Bill used colour in a more strictly ordered system than did Camille Graeser and Verena Loewensberg, who were more concerned with a poetic response to colour. I think these differences of approach became apparent through the Colour Presentations discussions.

The paintings I made for that exhibition were deliberately set up to explore the idea of a non-literal colour system. I wanted to provide new colour relationships that challenged the verifiable basis of a colour system or language. They were concerned with the differentiations of colour rather than certainties, and the potential to develop an internal logic of colour names.

‘Colour Presentations’ at the Gardner Centre Gallery, University of Sussex, 1986. Richard Bell paintings, oil on linen.

M: It was important in the debate about how the colour experience maps onto our language of colour names. There were discussions around that issue. Different languages have more or fewer names to describe the colour spectrum. There were questions about how the language we use influences our colour perception, and to what extent colour is perceived as a meta-language.

R: The term ‘Colour Presentations’ was first used by the philosopher of language Bernard Harrison in his book Form and Content (1973), and Harrison had written the catalogue text. Jeffrey Steele had originally applied this term to describe colour use in systematic painting. I had become interested in this to explore the notion of ‘entropy’ in colour painting, to develop abstract and transformative relationships within the context of how we use language and interpret colour. This idea was developed further in ‘Complexions’ with David Saunders and Nicole Charlett.  

I am now concerned whether ‘systematic’ is the right word to use as a term to define painting of this kind. I would prefer to use the word ‘relational’.

Pair Overlays, oil on linen canvas, 80cm x 80cm 2000. Photo courtesy The Mercus Barn.

M: Perhaps Systems defined a period from which you and others emerged. We may not now use the word in the same way, but we acknowledge its history. It becomes a question of coming from a systematic approach, finding its limitations and going beyond it.

R: I would most definitely acknowledge the qualities and historical significance of the Systems group and the experimental music of that period. I would also say the post -Systems group colour painting of Jean Spencer and David Saunders has been particularly significant. As we previously discussed, it’s important to look at the theoretical and historical underpinnings of this practice, and to assess where these traditions come from.

M: We have identified this difference in the Swiss Group of Konkrete Kunst; the difference between Lohse and Bill on the one hand and Graeser and Loewensberg on the other. The seeds of this difference could be traced back to earlier phases of the European constructive art tradition, in the work of Mondrian for example.

R: Yes, and also in the European and American tradition of painting more widely. I have been reading an essay about Mondrian by Meyer Schapiro ‘On the Humanity of Abstract Painting’: which deals with differences between the early and late Mondrian, and his use of asymmetrical space and the extended picture plane. Mondrian was influenced by the late Impressionists’ use of the ‘cut-off’ in the picture plane, as deployed by Degas and Manet. I was particularly interested in the very dark and unusual colour of the early Mondrian.

M: Yes, he was working with colour long before he became interested in the geometrical division of the canvas. His early work can be located in the French tradition of 19th century painting: the distinction between colour and form can be taken back to Ingres and Delacroix, to the very origins of modernity. David Saunders is making a study of Baudelaire and his theories of painting. So we are not only looking at the British systematic art context.

R:  This interest in how colour creates form can also be traced back in painting to the Renaissance; for instance, to the Venetian school of Titian in which the chromatic brilliance influences the form, as distinct from the earlier Florentine artists who used colour and light more to illustrate the underlying mathematical composition.  Equally, looking at Piero della Francesca and Masaccio, it is remarkable how they achieve an almost rhythmic sense of complementary colour, and how the use of colour moves the painting away from the iconic to a new physicality and depth.

M: The way you are working with colour can also give the viewer a deeper appreciation of the implications in the work of the artists you have mentioned. It brings an awareness of an historical context for colour use.

R: Yes, although I would not want my painting to refer directly to art history. I do not think there is an easy set of references. However, the potential for people to make this type of correspondence for themselves is available. I am interested in a broad range of influences. There are perhaps some common abstract principles that connect a range of abstract artists such as Ad Reinhardt, Camille Graeser, Simon Hantai , Agnes Martin and Norwegian artist Anna-Eva Bergman, who I would say have a shared connection in what I would call the ‘transformative surface’. This is a common interest in the physicality, performance and poetics of the painting activity. I would also cite the artist Peter Joseph, whose work exemplifies this ability to be autonomous and to connect on a deep level to the history of painting.

Two-part collage, oil on panel and canvas, 20cm x 40cm 2016. Photo courtesy The Mercus Barn.

M: This brings us to how the time of the painting is articulated in the painting process itself.

R: The physical transmission of the idea to arrive at the painted surface is one of a number of articulations to achieve the changed aesthetic disposition. The embodiment of this performance is one outcome. Another, perhaps just as interesting a level of performance, is the articulation of the painting in the minds of people who then see, respond to and remember the work. In this way abstract painting becomes a living activity; the works are re-performed in a spatial-temporal context.

The physical performance in painting relates back to the essay ‘Eye and Mind’ in which Merleau-Ponty refers to ‘the body, which is an intertwining of vision and movement’. He cites the French poet Paul Valéry:

‘The painter takes his body with him. Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.’

These paintings are also about reflection, memory and time. I am interested in the duration of the painting, which is about the embodiment of time in the layering of successive colour states.

Palimpsest (i), oil and wax on board, 80cm x 80cm, 2014. Photo courtesy The Mercus Barn.

M: The underlying colour does not completely disappear. You have given the name ‘palimpsest’ to these paintings?

R: I discovered that this word refers to the ancient overlaying of successive layers of writing on parchment. But of course this could equally well refer to the layering of voices in a choir, a group of instruments or a range of colours.

To go back to our discussion about methodology, this successive layering in an organised way means that the visual outcome cannot be entirely predictable. Until the last layer goes on, it’s not possible to know exactly what will happen. Do you think there is any correspondence here with experimental music?

M: Yes; the use and re-use of the same piece of parchment, leaving behind traces of the previous text, corresponds with my interest in experimental music. John Cage and other experimental composers in the 1950s and ’60s were concerned with this notion of indeterminacy, where the musical result was not fixed or preconceived, but was discovered in the activity of performance. The same notation could lead to very different outcomes in terms of how the music was perceived. Indeterminacy has played a role in my music, in the sense that I can set up a series of operations, the result of which I cannot precisely predict. I do not think there is a literal equivalence of detail with painting, but it is possible to find analogical relationships or correspondences.

R: I remember when you and Howard Skempton performed at the openings at the Colour Presentations exhibitions. Was this was about testing the types of correspondence that might occur between the painting and music?

M: We were proposing the possibility of an experimental analogy, but not suggesting that there were any literal equivalences between sounds and colours. This is a simplistic notion.

R: Has there been a similar divergence between determinism and indeterminacy in recent experimental music?

M: Until the middle of the 20th century a degree of determinism was assumed: composers wrote scores and expected them to be performed precisely. Performers were allowed a certain amount of flexibility, but the score limited this. The European avant-garde composers of the 1950s such as Boulez and Stockhausen took this determinism to a new level: there was a tendency called Integral Serialism, in which the identity of the work was so precisely determined there was no place for interpretation. John Cage, Morton Feldman and others reacted against this form of determinism, and insisted on the interpretative role of the performer.

R: So Integral Serialism would correspond to a type of overly programmatic painting in which the sense of the physicality of the performance is lost?

Two-part painting, oil on board, 20cm x 40cm, 2016. Photo courtesy of The Mercus Barn.

M: The deterministic approach found its place in electronic music where the outcome could be even more precise. The physical activity of performance and its unpredictability was rediscovered as a way of resisting determinism. The whole dimension of performance is what corresponds with this physicality.

R: I think this is what Merleau-Ponty is getting at in his discussions on painting. He uses the physicality and colour in Cézanne’s work as the exemplar for his argument in Eye and Mind.

M: The physical medium of performance is something we try to maintain in the face of social pressure towards the increasing digitisation of sound and image. If people are led to assume that technical reproduction of data is the same as music, the dimension of performance is lost.

R: I believe this must be also true for abstract painting.

Palimpsest (Iii), oil on linen canvas, 80cm x 80cm 2014. Installation photo courtesy of The Mercus Barn.

1 Re: In 1986 ‘Colour Presentations’, co-organised by Richard Bell, Nicole Charlett and David Saunders, who exhibited paintings together with Trevor Clarke, Jeffrey Steele, and Jean Spencer. The exhibition toured six venues, and music by Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton was performed in association with the exhibition.

2 Re: In 1989 ‘Complexions’, an exhibition of paintings by Richard Bell, Nicole Charlett, and David Saunders “concerning spatio-temporal conditions in painting” was exhibited at the Dean Clough Contemporary Art Gallery, Halifax and Galerie L’Idée, Zoetermeer, Holland.

© Richard Bell, 2016