55 Minutes for Bart Vandevijvere
The following text was first published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of paintings by Bart Vandevijvere, dilemmania, held at Art Concern, Kortrijk, Belgium, from May 10th until June 30th 2002. English translation of the text is by Stefan Beyst.
DIETER ROELSTRAETE, 2002
“It is a closed world, huis clos, and right from the very first measure we find ourselves in the midst of it.”
So reads the – rather enigmatic – opening phrase of the liner notes in the booklet accompanying the recent cd-release of Morton Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett.
For Samuel Beckett is also the soundtrack to the rain-drenched Sunday afternoon when I lay eyes upon the one-and-a-half year pictorial harvest of Being Bart Vandevijvere. I do not notice it at once – as it tends to happen in the Spartan musical universe of Morton Feldman – but I nevertheless am instantly impressed and mesmerised by this chthonian and at the same time ethereal composition (that is already a first paradox, from where a tangent to Bart Vandevijvere’s work unrolls), and, on Monday, I spurt to the other record shop looking for the “original” performance of For Samuel Beckett by the Ensemble Modern under the direction of Arturo Tamayo. Which, alas, as the authority in case assures me, is no longer available – a re-release seems not to be one of the possibilities of the insolvent hatart-label – but there is a worthy, though to my taste somewhat too hectically executed alternative, by the Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin, conducted by Roland Kluttig and annotated by Peter Niklas Wilson. His opening phrases, which by now have become equally mine, set the tone for a better understanding of the musical experiences stirred up by a Sunday-afternoon in the presence of Bart Vandevijvere’s (recent) pictorial production.
“No preliminaries, no introductory formulas. With the first sounds we learn what this case involves, and during the next good forty minutes we are held captive within this sound space.”
A soundscape: this – somewhat eroded and endlessly chewed up – metaphor conjures up involuntary reminiscences of an earlier exhibition in Art Concern, equally showing works of Bart Vandevijvere – Unlimited #3, when, among others, also works of the land-art artist Hamish Fulton and Andy Goldsworthy were to be seen. But ‘landscape’ is an elastic and thus potentially meaningless concept, and, for obvious reasons, Vandevijvere prefers to avoid the decorative ethos implied by this association. Abstraction above all: it is already true enough as such, and can do without an excess of “meaning” spooned up by traditional representation. No, soundscape hits the mark rather closely: apart from being a ‘musical movement’ or ‘- genre’ with its own rights, rules and itineraries, where it is a nice – if not a contemplative – place for the artist as well as for the contemplator, the painter and the viewer, it is the very form and the scale of the world of experience unfolding before our eyes and minds in this exhibition and catalogue – always musical in a nothing if not distant metaphorical sense of that word.
In a recently published anthology of Morton Feldman’s polemic essays – essais in the literal sense of the ‘attempts’ of a creative genius taking up its pen only occasionally, as a mere dilettante with the best intentions – we read by way of an introduction, the telling words that follow: “Again and again Feldman cites painters to support his own prejudices and elucidate his arguments. Of the classic modern artists, he most reveres Mondrian, who “endlessly reduces, endlessly simplifies”. Painting and painters are Feldman’s metaphors for music and composers, his way of writing and talking about issues of music. In fact, no other major composer was so concerned with visual artists and so influenced by visual art.” And, somewhat further: “Here [in the essay Crippled Symmetry from 1981, ed.] he emphasizes Rauschenberg’s influence in particular, for his “discovery that he ‘wanted neither life nor art but something in between'”. After this, Feldman “began to compose a music dealing precisely with ‘inbetweenness’: creating a confusion of material and construction, and a fusion of method and application.”
I quoted this passage with such detail because of: 1) Feldman’s predilection, as a composer, for the metaphorical power of painting, which in the case of Bart Vandevijvere’s work is complemented by his predilection, as a painter, for the metaphorical, ‘hermeneutical’ power of music, and because 2) Feldman’s fascination for ‘inbetweenness’, the radical confusion of material and motive, construction and method, application and result, sheds a particularly enriching light on Bart Vandevijvere’s art of painting itself. The names of the artists Feldman summons up in the above mentioned context, are sometimes worlds apart from the painterly context where I, in my turn, summon up Morton Feldman himself – namely, Piet Mondriaan and Robert Rauschenberg (at first glance?) seem to have nothing in common with the work of Bart Vandevijvere. Other names, though, not quite unexpectedly, come to the fore: that of Feldman’s best friend and inseparable compagnon de route Philip Guston, who proclaimed a more delicate, more ‘academic’ abstract-expressionism than his far better known contemporary Jackson Pollock; that of Franz Kline and Clyfford Still, calligraphists, seismographers and geologists of the painted canvas; that of Mark Rothko, the first ever to understand that even such a purely two-dimensional object as a painting, be it easel painting or not, has a three-dimensional potential. These are names and histories of which I – before tackling the actual reading – take leave of, and which merely inaudibly implicit, and only when the reader wants it, will surface in what follows.
And you, what system do you have?
Bart Vandevijvere’s work balances on the knife-edge that separates supervision from chance, control from element – and, to put it really basically, “nature” and “culture”: a balancing act in the most literal sense of the word, including all the contemplation and the self-reflection celebrated in the meditative reduction to silence naturally pertaining to it, but also with the equally essential ingredient of a kind of “unmediated” spontaneity, the blind confidence of the tightrope walker in the intuition of his footwork. Inter-acting between the absolute antinomies of a stylised geometrical abstraction and its lyric-expressive antipode.
An evident minimum of method, the result of precisely such contemplation and reflection, announces itself in the interaction between horizontality and verticality, the structural basic movement, wherewith any painting, as if it were a dance, lets itself be introduced.
Where the vectors and co-ordinate systems of vertical and horizontal cross – it is always important to preserve the balance, the harmonising; that this harmony generates such an expectant symbol as the cross is anyway not entirely without interest – the appearance of an old chum from the jargon of canonical modernism follows in its wake: the grid (Rosalind Krauss considers the grid as an essential figuration in the development of the modernistic ideology of originality – according to her, the anti-referential, puristic and speechless grid produces the originality of the avant-garde). The grid signals the minimal presence of the artist as an organiser, conductor, choreographer: from the grid the artist as an author extorts a minimal number of agreements and premises – “paint has to behave such and such”. The grid is the paint as a support.
But there also ends the reach of the voices of a Mondriaan, Robert Ryman or Agnes Martin: just before control is becoming too total, too ‘totalitarian’, and the author too ‘authoritarian’, the artist ventures the crucial strive backwards, becomes the big absentee, and, through this crack of the last chance, chance returns in the image. This is not a reductionist, “fetishist” painting about structure and composition as the ultimate and absolute foundation of the painterly endeavour. We have to do with a dialogue, a crippled symmetry: the act of balance that keeps painting – and contemplating it – exciting. Vandevijvere has to report the following about that: “On occasion, I feel as much the attentive recipient as the producer. A painting has to generate itself from an interaction between acquired knowledge and unforeseen circumstances.” These unforeseen circumstances are the circumstances imposed on the artist by the route of paint, and not the other way round – their physical reality, their unwillingness to submit to any story whatsoever: one single path of paint stubbornly follows its own course, as the wind-and-weather-driven whims of a lonesome raindrop on the dormer window of Vandevijvere’s studio.
Unforeseen “weather conditions”: that is what I think about when I take review of the weather-beaten surfaces of Vandevijvere’s paintings, seasoned through a relentless daily struggle. The paradox is the governing principle in and behind this compact, programmatic oeuvre: the above described field of tension between chance and control, chance through control, but also the paradoxical tension between transparency and stratification – the primacy of the materials, the painterly substance, not degenerating to matter painting, but dissolving in a rather ephemeral, diluted shrouding. These paintings are about painting itself, without becoming masturbatory therefore: however the paradox may manifest itself, it always does so in a subdued, reflexive manner, with controlled grace. Here is another paradox. Their modest size notwithstanding, Vandevijvere’s canvasses exude an undeniable cosmic flavour: even the minutest works have an air of easily harbouring an entire microcosm. Here, endorsed by the structural logic of a primordial grid, they reveal themselves not only as mere scores, but really as ‘maps’, imprints of nebulae, geological schemes setting down and mapping the progress of time striding along in a cosmic pace. (That precisely the painterly production of recent years manifests an intrinsic bias to “darkening”, seduces me to use the metaphor of a starlit firmament lighting up and the cosmological law of an ever expanding universe, growing ever more cold and desolate. Again, the above-mentioned tendency to darken brings another paradox to light: that of light and dark, chiaroscuro, lofty and earthly, stratospheric and subterranean, le vide et le plein.) There is the paradox of singularity and repetition, uniformity and heterotypy. And, of course, any painting is ultimately merely itself – that, as such, will do – yet when presented in diverse, changing clusters and subsets, they give the impression of closing the ranks of a series: they move back and forth between the extreme poles of a rigorous serialism (that certainly, in a musical sense, proved to be sterile) and an unbridled, but ultimately “decorative” abstraction. Isolated pictures join in series on the base of separate formal parameters, determined ad hoc: verticality and horizontality, colour and intensity of light, velocity and rhythmics, size.
That is not to say that this art of painting would advocate the golden section or the golden mean – more often than not mere mediocrity raising itself to philosophical peerage; above all, it means that an extremely cautious manner of painting is practised here, an exercise, withdrawing into itself, in what Gerhard Richter, with monastic-prosaic accuracy, called ‘the daily practice of painting’. Great is the temptation to quote the inevitable point of reference of a Japanese Zen-garden – and thus it herewith happened, though not wholeheartedly.
Silence, though, is the noise, the breeze wherein the static, seemingly eventless universe of Bart Vandevijvere’s paintings seem to bathe, and reduction to silence is more than an exclusively Japanese art. Silence is the space that surrounds us – I hereby merely renew my emphasis on the totalising, “environmental” character of Vandevijvere’s oeuvre – and the primeval soup wherein, in the works of Vandevijvere’s big heroes Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, the musical fragments surface as polished up driftwood. The paradigmatic 45 Minutes for Morton Feldman, Vandevijvere’s own homage to the composer of the withering away, is a call for reduction to silence and slowing down: pricking up one’s ears, blinking and entering a slow and subdued world, “being hypersensitive”. In Vandevijvere’s own words, his work asks for ‘inter-esse’ indeed – nothing else but “being between things”.
Back to the one and only paradox, the sole oxymoron lying at the heart of all others. Physics, the law of chance (no contradictio in terminis!) – was this not also the cardinal principle upon which the titan of contemporary music, the self-declared Zen-Buddhist and Tao-freak, John Cage, built his entire oeuvre?
It is not by accident that Bart Vandevijvere so often makes use of the pattern of vibrations and vibrating strings: just like sound in general, and music in particular, moves as a complex network of vibrations through space – in fact: the continuum of time-space – just so light itself, mother and condition of existence of every visual perception, is little more that a ‘life-giving’ string that encompasses the universe and makes ourselves light up.
Amidst the abundance of musical metaphors that traditionally, and also in my case, are conjured up to give a graphic representation of the visual experience of Bart Vandevijvere’s work – let us the work itself recover a while from this upbeat of hineininterpretieren and in our turn take a chivalry stride backwards – a neglected third trail is indeed floating around: that of the superstring theory.
The superstring theory is one of the most important realisations wrested from the research field of theoretical physics in the past years: it is dubbed the “Holy Grail of the Theory of Unification” i.e. the long-awaited and long-searched-for missing link meant to harbour under one and the same umbrella the two complementary but equally contradictory pillars of modern physics – Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s quantum physics on the one hand, Einstein’s generalised theory of relativity on the other hand. The American physicist Brian Greene writes about this in his magnum opus The Cosmic Symphony : “On the basis of one single principle – that everything on an ultimate microscopic level consists of combinations of vibrating strings – the string theory offers one single explanatory framework encompassing whatever forces and all matter in the universe.” In its most elementary version, the building blocks of the universe – ergo the universe itself – would consist of vibrating strings: in this case, the “string” is the infinitesimal thread in the form of a loop caught in the endless dance of an eternal oscillation, the ultimate microscopic layer hidden behind the surface of the so-called “quarks”, which in their turn are the building blocks of electrons, neutrons and protons combining to atoms. Those strings are not just vibrating haphazardly: they all join, as if somehow orchestrated, in patterns apparently commanding certain fundamental physical laws. To phrase it differently: we could assert that the string theory conceives the universe as a kind of ‘cosmic symphony’ wherein the so-called “Theory of Everything” functions as a kind of score for the most fundamental behaviour and characteristics of reality. The string theory as a kind of ontological tuning fork, as it were. (Former stages of the experimental search for the Theory of Unification, such as the bubble chamber and the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, equally allow for such musical-metaphorical reading – everyone who is for instance familiar with the notational techniques of the Rumanian composer Horatio Radulesco will understand what I mean). Even more than higher mathematics, the physical language of music – vibrations, frequencies, keys and resonance – proves to be the lingua franca of the universe. Therefore, another American cosmologist, John D. Barrow, justifiably called it The Artful Universe (in a book subtitled Cosmic Sources of Human Creativity) … Also these are musings and speculations crystallising out in the wake of a rain-drenched December Sunday afternoon. As such, they obviously are entirely the undersigned’s view – take it or leave it.
By some whim of the history of art, Morton Feldman in the last years of his life – he died only sixty years old in 1987 – resorted, after the sudden loss of his bosom friend Philip Guston, to a novel, somewhat peculiar artistic obsession and private passion: collecting oriental, ‘Persian’ tapestry. No longer driven by the desire to comment on these passions and fascinations and to explain them, Feldman remained rather reticent when commenting his deep-rooted passion for tapestries; he lets the pieces of music, directly of indirectly inspiredby them, speak for themselves: Why Patterns?, Crippled Symmetry (from 1981) and Coptic Light (from 1986). In the above-mentioned hieratic objects, Feldman alternately admired the power to undermine the universal aesthetic law of symmetry – a speciality, it seems, of a certain brand of Anatolian tapestries which therefore were the formal starting point of Crippled Symmetry – and the way in which they knew to reflect “the moment of stasis in a Matisse”. In other words, it was obvious that Feldman did not consider these objects as sheer ornaments, as ‘applied art’: his Anatolian tapestries were paradigms, epistemological models, spectrums, “cards” “maps”. In the liner notes on Coptic Light Feldman himself writes about them: “What struck me about these fragments of coloured cloth [Feldman is referring to the showpieces of the Louvre collection of Coptic textile, ed.] was how they conveyed an essential atmosphere of their civilization.” The tapestries became Feldman’s cosmic scores precisely at the moment when the art of painting, at least in his view, had exhausted its discursive potential. The very last thing I would suggest with this concluding remark is that Bart Vandevijvere’s painterly practice belongs to the same “Anatolian” universe. Traditional weaving techniques are just about the last thing a candid observer would think about when letting himself submerge in Vandevijvere’s meticulously balanced Kammerspiel. Again, also here the tangents are rather metaphoric: only figuratively can Feldman’s tapestries be understood in terms of maps, and in an equally figurative sense do I ‘read’ the crypto-geographical coordinates of Vandevijvere’s pictures as textile, scores, maps, each of them a recognisable fragment of a more encompassing whole: the minuscule blueprint of a musical cosmos. Also they convey ‘a something’ of the atmospherics of the world wherein they were created, refer to something higher, something more. An in a certain sense fatalistic rhythmics runs through Vandevijvere’s entire painterly production: whether these separate fragments – each of them is a self-sufficient entity which nevertheless seems to rather easily merge in the logic of a more encompassing whole – move horizontally or vertically, whether their spectral bodies shift, now from the left to the right and then from the right to the left, whether the canvas looks rather empty and desolate or crowded and brimming over with rampant life, in nearly all these pictures, in the lee of the background or rather frontally, a similar pulse can be felt, the vibrating silhouette of a single percussive “moment” – it rather seems as if, again, “something” is brought to light. Their somewhat ephemeral apparition, an indelible impression of temporariness and transience, of an arbitrarily agreed existence also, strengthen their echographical character: they map something living, growing and underway. That is why I all the more can read those paintings as ‘snapshots’, as signals out of an echoing well – out of which ‘something’ is brought to life. I therefore presume to take the liberty of calling Vandevijvere’s painting “metaphysic” in a certain sense (the inevitable association with Giorgio de Chirico must be avoided; Newman’s or Rothko’s work are closer to the mark): it transcends the earthbound physics of mere painting, is about more than the – mere, see above! – act of painting – and its submission to the laws of medium and materials.
The whispering of its ‘crippled’ symmetries remind of something older, deeper, further and more timeless – and I like listen to the siren’s song of its hesitations, the squabbling of a vinyl old but wise.
With thanks to Other Music, 15 E 4th Street, NY.