Seeing it all in black and white.

zebraFor much of my childhood (up through, I believe, about 1970) all of my family’s television viewing was on an RCA portable of late 1950s vintage, a clunky plastic thing with an extensible antenna on top and a wood-grain panel on the front decorated with dials and knobs that read “On/Off”, “VHF”, “UHF”, and “Fine Tune”. Inside the unit’s scorched yellowy-beige backside brooded a clutch of humming, glowing vacuum tubes, and its strangely convex twelve-inch screen delivered the Kennedy funeral and I Love Lucy reruns alike in a palette consisting entirely of gentle, hazy grays.

Later on, of course, with shows like Star Trek and Batman, color — or its absence — became more significant, but for the first half of the sixties much of the available programming was only broadcast in black-and-white. Color technology was new, color televisions were big and expensive, and The Addams Family and The Donna Reed Show didn’t use it anyway — why spend all that money for a new TV if the only things happening in color were Clairol commercials and the second half of The Wizard of Oz? The fifties B-grade horror/sci-fi flicks to which I had been addicted from the time I could work the dials had all been produced in monochrome, and the antics of Bugs Bunny and Huckleberry Hound were no less funny in shades of gray.

Color was pretty, but it was just the red/green/blue icing on the black-and-white cake.

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I don’t like the word “abstract” with regard to art: it has been used and abused to such a degree over the last seventy years or so that it no longer means anything at all. I prefer the term “non-figurative”, meaning that the forms you see in such a painting are not images of some objective external object or scene — a bowl of fruit, a swimming pool, a nude woman — but purely vehicles for the artist’s ideas or processes.

Over a period of two or three years, between 1946 and 1949, New York painter Willem de Kooning created a series of non-figurative (see sidebar) canvases in black and white. To me, these are among de Kooning’s most interesting and appealing works: he began with drawings, rough sketches painted on newspaper — scenes of women, the studio, the street — which he then transferred to canvas by the simple expedient of mashing the paper onto the prepared surface while the paint was still wet, and then peeling it off. Into these fragmented and often illegible frameworks he would slather the syrupy sign-painter’s enamel, creating messy, multi-layered masterpieces.

Some art historians have speculated that de Kooning fell back on the unconventional materials because he was so impoverished that he simply could not afford expensive artists’ oil paints. This makes an appealing story, but in fact many of the artists of his circle were experimenting with black and white, including his friends and rivals Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock. Limiting color is a way of emphasizing form, and these artists were all exploring new formal territory, looking for ways to depict what was going on in their heads or on their canvases independently of real-world objects and images.

For artists like Kline or Motherwell, the limited palette was a considered choice, a means to focus attention on the forms and rhythms of their pictures without the distraction of color, but for de Kooning the monochrome works were a way to explore new ideas during a period of stress or creative block, stripping the artistic process down to its bare essentials and rebuilding it from the ground up.

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Anyone who knows me is painfully aware that, for me, conversation is not a gentle give and take, happening in some quiet shared space, but is more like a door thrown open to a hurricane. The door can be slammed and bolted, but as long as it’s open, the blast coming through it can only occur at the intensity of the storm itself. Hurricanes don’t have “low”, “medium” and “fan only” settings.

I exist in a perpetual cyclone, anchored inside my own skull only by the weight of the information that I accumulate like chunks of storm debris blown up against a wall, tree branches and roofing metal and items of pool furniture that chip at the bricks and mortar when they strike, but then help protect the wall against subsequent turbulence as they pile up. I have no quiet center, no place from which I can look out and meditate on sunlight through leaves, the gloss on an apple, or the expression on the face of a friend. It isn’t possible for me to readily zero in on a visual experience and say: “This is my model, my muse, my meaningful thing.”

This means I can’t always access the external universe — the “real” world — for my subject matter. I have to build a new vocabulary with each project, a new visual syntax. The more limited the vocabulary, the simpler the goals, the more manageable the undertaking.

I think this is why I find black and white art so appealing: the rules are simpler, the goals more easily defined. In black and white, structure becomes clearer; light and shadow take on more meaning. Detail can become clinical, precise, or it can dissolve into mere texture, like the fabric of a tapestry when the colors have faded away. Removing the colors renders much of the hurricane’s airborne debris less visible, allowing other factors to clarify: movement, temperature, the response of people and things to the wind’s force.

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When I’m tired or stressed, I scour YouTube for movies with titles like Night of the Demon, or House on Haunted Hill, or The Gorgon, old black-and-white films where Dana Andrews or Vincent Price or Peter Cushing pursue evil through big, airy rooms in bright, indirect light. Underlying themes are clear, villains are always doomed by their own excesses, and everyone speaks in complete sentences. These were the films of my childhood, first viewed on that tiny B&W portable, and they still quiet the noise like nothing else can.

Likewise, when I feel the wellsprings of creativity running low, I turn back to the basics: black ink on a gray or white surface; tiny marks, no finer than a hair, accumulating one by one until they depict a leaf, a stone, a house, an idea. No color, just structure, line, light and dark — a moment of quiet in a turbulent universe of color.

 

 

Journal: Friday, January 18

I’m currently working my way through a series of critical biographies of American painters of the mid-twentieth-century: I’ve finished Rothko and Arshile Gorky, and now I’ve begun Willem de Kooning. Two suicides and an Alzheimer’s victim — compared to the Abstract Expressionists, the Surrealists were a stroll in the park.

The one unifying characteristic that seemed to prevail in American painting mid-century was the prevalence of European immigrants struggling against very difficult personal legacies: Rothko was a Latvian Jew at a time when Jews were being blamed for the upheavals tearing the Russian Empire apart; Gorky was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey; the Dutch de Kooning survived a terrible childhood of poverty and emotional stress only to succumb to alcoholism and eventually dementia in his adult life. Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, but his Western upbringing left him little better prepared for life as a New York artist: he was struggling with alcoholism before his career had even begun.

The European Surrealists, such as Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Andre Masson, were also uprooted by war and economic turmoil, and all seemed to share a profound emotional instability that left them incapable of lasting emotional attachments, but they seemed to be able to externalize their problems, making life difficult for those around them but leaving themselves relatively unscathed.

Was it the nature of each group’s work that had such deep, but different, effects on their emotional lives, or were they all drawn into their respective universes because of each individual’s personal charactistics? In other words, did Abstract Expressionism make artists self-destructive, or did only self-destructive artists become involved in Abstract Expressionism?