John Zinsser, Geometry and Ego, 2007
Enamel and oil on canvas
30 x 28 inches
December 18, 2010 – February 12, 2011
Get Me to the Church on Time
It was a simple enough assignment, drive the painter Marcia Hafif to her opening at Larry Becker Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. What I couldn’t have predicted was that a massive wreck on I-95 would shut down the highway completely. The trip became a seven-and-a-half hour odyssey, zig-zagging across strip mall New Jersey with no GPS, to arrive, finally, already late, to the opening.
Hafif was unflappable, an intrepid traveler, centered and calm throughout. I was in a state of nervous agitation. I had been looking forward to catching up with this great monochrome painter, whom I had first met in 1988, when we both were doing shows at Julian Pretto’s tiny storefront gallery in SoHo.
Anxiety and Its Influence
The episode on I-95 describes, to some extent, my larger protracted history with a family of reductive artists a generation older than me, a case of “anxiety of influence,” in the words of literary critic Harold Bloom.
You Can Take a Guru to a Mountain,
But You Can’t Take the Mountain
There was a time in my life when I tried to think of Hafif as a possible guru figure. There was much to admire in her adherence to material-specific methodologies and the literal nature of color application and its receivership. She didn’t so much tell me what I was, as what I wasn’t: “a monochrome painter.” She liberated me by declaring me: “a duochrome painter.”
A More Thoreau Understanding
But there was more to it than that. In our verbal exchanges, I came to realize that Hafif wasn’t so much a practitioner of Zen (as many would no doubt falsely believe) as she was, ultimately, a “self-reliant” American pragmatist of the first order. If I came away with a lesson, it might be this: “If you do something, then it is appropriate to do.”
Monochrome and its Moment
Over the past 25 years, I have continued to study the American monochrome painting movement since the 1970s. Robert Ryman is the best-known among this group, but it also includes, notably, Marcia Hafif, Olivier Mosset, Phil Sims and Joseph Marioni. All emerged directly from core issues raised by “The New York School” of the 1940s and 1950s.
For my generation, the three great movements of post-war painting – abstract expressionism, minimalism and pop — are not so much antithetical to each other (i.e., movement/counter-movement, assertion/repudiation) as they are part of a larger ongoing redefinition of the form of painting itself.
Yet this trajectory, the developing “DNA” of painting, was radically altered by Andy Warhol’s re-invention of its most basic structures. Not only are his works more “mechano-morphic” in their execution, they further heighten “objectivity” through the photographic repetition of imagery and the reduction of color to a single, planar presence. The affect is startling: all abstract painting is now “seen” differently as a result.
Larry Becker and Heidi Nivling came to me a year ago, expressing interest in a series of drawings that I had just begun: representational renderings of abstract and reductive post-war American paintings. I was working from photographic reproductions from auction house catalogues — Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips — along with their accompanying texts.
A “Devotional” Practice
I came to informally refer to these drawings as “devotionals,” as I was working like a monk on an “illuminated manuscript” version of the originals. At first, the issue of the “cultural currency” of such images seemed important. In other words, a painting, in its original form, is so material, visceral and immediate. Yet in its entry into shared visual culture through reproduction, it becomes “iconic” in a much different fashion.
The Impossible Act
These follow the age-old tradition of artists drawing from respected originals to learn from them. Yet, in my case, they’re made from “respected” reproductions. In the act of drawing, they return to a primacy of act. The painting is re-transformed anew through direct material engagement.
A Room of One’s Own
Drawing an Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, or even an Andy Warhol became a way of getting inside the form. There is a moment in the process when the work “becomes” my own: my hand, my eye.
Pre-Cognition and Viewer Response
When a viewer looks at these drawings, they bring their own pre-association. From having planned many art history lectures, I’ve come to call it “a mental slide carousel.” That is, one “projects” one’s own foreknowledge of the known icon “onto” the newly-drawn image, seeing it through the terms of one’s own subjective receivership.
You Knew It All Along
Of course, in doing this literal “devotional” act, I came to discover that I was only reinforcing and repeating what I had been doing all along for the last 20 years. My paintings are largely a “response” to that which I have already visually “internalized.” Between material and action, what emerges, seemingly on its own, is a fully developed “iconography” of that which we already know.
And so the DNA cycle regenerates itself, through mutation and adaptation, all over again.
—John Zinsser, New York, January, 2011