Lee Bontecou

Lee Bontecou made her most famous work in the late '50s and early '60s, just when AE was waning as a coherent and dominant movement. Indeed, her work has more often been seen as a precursor to Minimalism (the next big thing for male artists), and its relation to AE is rather tenuous.

Mostly, what ties her work to AE is the simple fact of making huge rectangular canvas things to hang on walls. In the context in which she worked and showed her work, making steel-and-canvas reliefs that exploded the traditional picture plane was a direct challenge to a movement that relied on it; at once in the way of physical assault and insofar as she revealed the made-ness of the picture plane, its status as an object composed of armature and, crucially, a particular kind of cloth. 


Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1962. Canvas, welded steel and wire construction, 144.78 x 138.43 x 55.88 cm. Coll. Manfred and Jennifer Simchowitz. Photo: Brian Forrest.

But of course the connection goes beyond that, to the idea that part of the point of "art" is to communicate a powerful emotional charge, and to do so through bodily contact with a monument (Bontecou's works are in fact smaller, in two dimensions, than many AE paintings). The black hole at the (at least conceptual) center of her works, which is at once seductive and terrifying, does this very well. 

Women action painters (or women v. action painting?)

I have a convoluted relationship with Abstract Expressionism (hence AE). That is to say, i have a great love for much AE painting, and for the notion of painting in which painting itself is the object; but the ideology of AE is so strongly masculinist and american-imperialist that it is hard to feel much but revulsion for the movement itself. (E.g. Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," The London Magazine 1.4 (July 1961), http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=9798.)

So as i go along my merry way, i keep in my head a folder with the label "women artists who offer cool responses to AE." Responses: alternatives, ripostes, expansions? These artists allow me to bridge the gap, to celebrate AE as a catalyst for other research and other work.Or, put another way, they fulfill the promise of AE in a way that the movement itself could not.
Needless to say the work of these women can be and should be read in many other ways; they are not reducible to a movement in which they did not partake. But that is the angle through which i wish to view them for now.

As i write posts, i'll add names and links below. And they will share the "women action painters" tag.

1. Lee Bontecou (b. 1931)


Three Trees part II: Rembrandt

Looking at Proust's words for the connection seemed to lead nowhere except to the bare kernel of "three trees." So allow me to jettison Marcel for a little while and look closely at the Rembrandt print itself for answers, focusing on the issue of time.
Time is not a theme of the work as it is of, say, contemporary still lives. There is movement, activity: a carriage traveling, a behatted person fishing, cows grazing, an artist etching, a couple frolicking in the shadows. On a longer time scale, trees and cities growing, and sea becoming land. But this interchange of state is not, or not obviously, here evoked as the devouring menace of Time which wastes all things - rather, there is a humdrum, cyclical time of days and years in which we act. Much more clearly thematized is the social world of work, creation and procreation, and the distance that separates actors from each other as they pass each other by, unknowing. Social and spatial relations, not temporal ones, are the immediate object of the print.

Nonetheless this print works temporally. It does so in two ways. First, it structures our viewpoint to be temporary and unstable: as we saw, we are located at an elevated standpoint, with the trunks of the trees at eye level. It appears to follow then that we, too, are on a high road; the diagonal of the road on which the trees perch connects with the slight rise of the printing plate itself somewhere to the right of the painting, enhancing our own sense of travel. As our gaze moves from left to right, we come closer to the subject matter, as if we were in fact moving closer.
The other characters on high ground are a passing carriage and a sketching artist; each in its way is a stand-in for both Rembrandt and us: observant, distant, and transitory. Moving to the right beyond the frame.

Here it is worth pointing out how artificial is the exercise i am engaged in now, of circling and sampling the etching as i attempt to build a narrative analysis. Use of details is highly useful for the purpose of communicating a narrative (and helps break up the wall-of-text effect). It in no way corresponds to the experience of the work (in my case on a wall, which we know has always been a display modality for etchings), which is one of active movement from left to right or right to left, perhaps punctuated by a moving closer, a peering further into the depths of the landscape. But the whole never disappears, and so its power to situate the viewer spatially as mobile in the landscape is ever present in a way that it is not when manipulating the digital object.

The other way in which Rembrandt evokes time is of course weather (in French the same word: in search of lost weather?). The etching is framed by a stormy sky, with dark clouds above and streaming rain to the left suggesting a stage curtain about to fall. To this large motion is added the apparent seething of the most distant clouds and, at the same time, birds flying into what seems to be (at least due to their presence) clear sky.

These lines of ink convey several things. They depict, with great skill, a stormy sky; or rather they evoke it well enough that we complete the image, transpose all of our experiences with stormy skies, add in colors and light and most crucially, emotion. Of course all representation relies on the viewer to fill in the gaps, but there is clearly a difference between the more schematic and obviously artificial mode chosen here and highly specific depiction of, in particular, the three trees themselves, in which the medium is disguised. Given the small size and monochrome nature of this piece, a depiction of a stormy sky so conceived would have been less awe-ful than this one, which requires the viewer to more fully engage her memories and experiences.

The several distinct layers of crosshatching, as well as differing weights of lines, communicate the impression of great depth. The many directionalities of the lines create a sense of movement and instability, and the eye wanders around the clouds, fascinated.
Rembrandt, at this point in the etching, draws attention to its facture, to its coalescing from a large number of lines. And because he does this, the lines themselves, as well as what they represent, create the two key impressions of depth and movement, of great space and little time, which set the stage for the entirety of the scene.

Rembrandt image

The facture of the storm clouds suggest an appropriate mode of viewing, but this mode is ambiguous. On the one hand, we have the sense of a fleeting moment, a brief opening into great distance. On the other hand, the storm clouds insist on their irreality, their status as etching, and by extension the long and painstaking process of their creation. So, on the one hand, the viewer seems almost to intrude on a private moment of the universe, by accident to be present when distance and light break in upon the world; on the other she is made aware that the moment shown is fabricated and static, not really a moment at all.

This etching makes visible the means by which these three stunted little trees come to signify much more than that: their framing, both by the overall arch of clouds which define the scene in general and by the storm clouds in the rear, which echo the shape of the trees themselves, focusing the eye towards them; the way that they are outlined directly onto white paper, made monumental and distinct from their surroundings by the stark contrast at their edges; and the insistence on the transience of both effects.
The combination of these three factors is an impression of revelation, of the inbreaking of meaning, or perhaps rather meaningfulness (but isn't that an ugly word?).

The trees themselves remain obtrusively ordinary, even as the light and the frame give them gravitas.

One of the ways we are tempted to resolve this contradiction is by thinking of something coming through or behind the trees. Indeed, the stark contrast between the dark shadows on the trees and cast by them and the very bright landscape behind confirms the sense that the trees are, if anything, in the way.
What is perhaps difficult to see from a digital reproduction is the transparency of the trees themselves.
An etching effectively is composed of two layers: paper and ink, applied in this as in most cases at one moment in time from a singular printing plate. Although there are many ways to differentiate within the ink layer - through different weight of line, the use of burin and drypoint (most visible in the fishing figure at far left) as well as etching, and very often in Rembrandt the addition of clouds of ink to the printing plate outside of the incised lines - the paper layer is largely undifferentiated. Most of the time, this is unproblematic: the viewer of a print abstracts paper into "lighter color" and allows it to signify whatever context requires it to signify - here a plank of wood, there the open sky. Cross-hatching and other techniques are read as differing shades and textures, and then the viewer projects the whole thing into a three-dimensional landscape. It's a complicated process, made more so by the consistent awareness of facture, of the (here virtuosic) lines of ink that bring the image into being.

In a small, barely noticeable way, this process breaks down in the trunk of these trees. I can identify three factors: first, the heightened contrast between dark and light, such that swathes of untouched paper are juxtaposed with densely crosshatched representations of rough bark; second, here paper as a highlight in the foreground is adjacent to paper as light in the background, separated only by an outline; third, the light which strikes the trees comes from the side, but the effect of the clouds is such that one thinks it would come from behind.
In person - and hopefully i've said enough that this will come through even when all is homogenized into pixels - the impression is unmistakably that light comes through the trees. The trees are made to be transparent, such that something (meaning, Beauty, intimations of eternity...) shines through them. And all the time it is piercingly clear that that which transpears is merely the paper itself and the light reflected off it.

To return to the question of time, then, i would argue that there are two different temporalities at play here, each structured around a contradiction or paradox. In the sphere of the signified, we have the cyclical time of life and work, the rushing time of the storm, and the eternity of the moment which breaks through them. In the sphere of the signifier, we have the brief, almost punctual instant depicted, the long and painstaking process of depiction, and the (relatively; i.e. apart from the slow and ineluctable degradation of all objects) static nature of the resulting work. The success of this print is that all of these levels of temporality are visible and maintained in tension with each other.

Both of these concerns - how eternity breaks into ordinary experience, and how art transfigures experience, including the experience of eternity, to preserve it - are of course the central concerns of Proust's writing, especially in the climactic recollection-moments, of which the Three Trees is one.


Three Trees part I: Proust

Rembrandt van Rijn, Three Trees, etching with drypoint and engraving, 1643. Image filched from the Boston MFA, subsequent details from the Morgan (Rembrandt's print-making technique leads to variations between impressions).

As i walked through a lovely hallway of Rembrandt prints in the Boston MFA, i saw this one and spent a blissful quarter of an hour just staring at it, taking it in, enjoying the details, the crisp line, the deep black. And i thought: "Those are Proust's three trees."

One of the things about loving Proust is that it's always appropriate to bring Proust up in conversation, because a sudden rapprochement between unrelated things for reasons that are very vague is a Proustian sort of thing to do. Proust, so to speak, is its own retroactive segue.

So this probably isn't really unrelated: Proust, like many people, considered Rembrandt a paradigm of the artist; he also knew Rembrandt's oeuvre extremely well. So it might be that this (very famous) etching was in Proust's mind when he wrote about seeing three trees; it might be that others have made the connection and i remembered it as though it was my own; it might be that the formative experience of reading Proust, which was more or less contemporary to my first real encounters of Rembrandt and conditioned them, imposes itself still, is constantly, as it were, on call when i look at works of Rembrandt's; it might even be that this etching, which i had certainly seen before even if i could not then recollect it, carried with it precisely that weight of familiarity which is the hallmark of the Proustian moment.

Or it could be none of those things.

I looked through my boxes, pulled out my worn copy of Remembrance of Things Past and looked for the three trees. I realized i had misremembered: there was a bell tower (le clocher de Martinville) where i first looked for them, and they weren't in Combray at all but in Balbec. 

Nous descendîmes sur Hudimesnil; tout d'un coup je fus rempli de ce bonheur profond que je n'avais pas souvent ressenti depuis Combray, un bonheur analogue à celui que m’avais donné, entre autres, les clochers de Martinville. Mais, cette fois, il resta incomplet. Je venais d’apercevoir, en retrait de la route en dos d’âne que nous suivions, trois arbres qui devaient servir d’entrée à une allée couverte et formaient un dessin que je ne voyais pas pour la première fois, je ne pouvais arriver à reconnaître le lieu dont ils étaient comme détachés, mais je sentais qu’il m’avait été familier autrefois ; de sorte que, mon esprit ayant trébuché entre quelque année lointaine et le moment présent, les environs de Balbec vacillèrent et je me demandai si toute cette promenade n’était pas une fiction, Balbec, un endroit où je n’étais jamais allé que par l’imagination, Mme de Villeparisis, un personnage de roman et les trois vieux arbres, la réalité qu’on retrouve en levant les yeux de dessus le livre qu’on était en train de lire et qui vous décrivait un milieu dans lequel on avait fini par se croire effectivement transporté.
Je regardais les trois arbres, je les voyais bien, mais mon esprit sentait qu’ils recouvraient quelque chose sur quoi il n’avait pas prise, comme sur ces objets placés trop loin dont nos doigts, allongés au bout de notre bras tendu, effleurent seulement par instant l’enveloppe sans arriver à rien saisir. Alors on se repose un moment pour jeter le bras en avant d’un élan plus fort et tâcher d’atteindre plus loin. Mais pour que mon esprit pût ainsi se rassembler, prendre son élan, il m’eût fallu être seul. I.717 (page numbers from the Pleiade)

Rereading this passage, perhaps appropriately, the similarity seems to slip away. 
There is a similarity of setting - the three trees are in each case elevated, part of a roadside berm, and viewed from an equally elevated point, a high-placed road from which they are a little set back, en retrait - in very broad terms, although nothing about Proust's words suggests the fields and the people in them, the settlement in the background, or the sea, barely visible in the distance.

But this piece of flat landscape, almost quotidian but for the way in which the whole picture condenses into a line of light on the horizon, is constitutive of the power of Rembrandt's etching, as much as the three trees which dominate the composition. By contrast we know nothing of the immediate context of Proust's trio: somewhere in Normandy, on a raised road, on the way from an ivy-covered church to another, tree-lined road, in the late afternoon ... we have a temporal context, but not a visual one. The trees step forth from undifferentiated ground, from nothing at all. 
The only impression i have when reading the text is of golden, serene light. That comes mostly from the pages immediately preceding and following this passage, although perhaps there is something in the sonority of his language, in bonheur, in the implicit throwback to (golden-green) Combray, in the sense of enveloping haze.
It is this impression, however vague, which most challenges the connection which seemed so self-evident when i stood before the etching.

Proust tells us nothing about what the trees look like. They are, for us as much as for him, insaisissable, ungraspable. They make un dessin, a design or drawing, but he cannot say where he has seen it before. (Is that it? the simple word dessin, our point of linkage?). We have one adjective: old.

Rembrandt's trees, though they have some marks of age, or rather of weathering - a dead branch off the top left of the clump, the bite which seems to have been taken from the right, the bumpy rough curves of all three trunks - are no more old than they are young. Three stunted little trees in exposed and probably sometimes salty location, they might rather be read as a marker of this landscape's relative youth and marked artificiality than as a connection to some sort of Past, whether rustic or aristocratic.

But if Proust gives us no specifications of his trees, it is because they stand for a moment of revelation (unveiling, transparency) which is let go unstudied and unthought. Presumably the narrator himself, years later, remembers no more than "three trees" because he never put in the work to fix the dessin itself or that which shone through them.

Ou bien ne les avais-je jamais vus et cachaient-ils derrière eux, comme tels arbres, telle touffe d’herbe que j’avais vus du côté de Guermantes, un sens aussi obscur, aussi difficile à saisir qu’un passé lointain, de sorte que, sollicité par eux d’approfondir une pensée, je croyais avoir à reconnaître un souvenir ? Ou encore ne cachaient-ils même pas de pensée et était-ce une fatigue de ma vision qui me les faisait voir doubles dans le temps comme on voit quelquefois double dans l’espace ? Je ne savais. Cependant ils venaient vers moi ; peut-être apparition mythique, ronde de sorcières ou de nornes qui me proposait ses oracles. Je crus plutôt que c’étaient des fantômes du passé, de chers compagnons de mon enfance, des amis disparus qui invoquaient nos communs souvenirs. Comme des ombres, ils semblaient me demander de les emmener avec moi, de les rendre à la vie. Dans leur gesticulation naïve et passionnée, je reconnaissais le regret impuissant d’un être aimé qui a perdu l’usage de la parole, sent qu’il ne pourra nous dire ce qu’il veut et que nous ne savons pas deviner. Bientôt, à un croisement de route, la voiture les abandonna. Elle m’entraînat loin de ce que je croyais seul vrai, de ce qui m’eût rendu vraiment heureux, elle ressemblait à ma vie.
Je vis les arbres s’éloigner en agitant leurs bras désespérés, semblant me dire : Ce que tu n’apprends pas de nous aujourd’hui, tu ne le sauras jamais. Si tu nous laisses retomber au fond de ce chemin d’où nous cherchions à nous hisser jusqu’à toi, toute une partie de toi-même que nous t’apportions tombera pour jamais au néant. En effet, si dans la suite je retrouvai le genre de plaisir et d’inquiétude que je venais de sentir encore une fois, et si un soir – trop tard, mais pour toujours – je m’attachai à lui, de ces arbres eux-mêmes, en revanche, je ne sus jamais ce qu’ils avaient voulu m’apporter ni où je les avais vus. (I.719)

There is then, an opening to imagine that, in some extravagant round around time, this is what would have resulted from the narrator's encounter, if prolonged. These shades, these mute loved ones, which he lost by not looking back, we can make of them what we will.