“ Pitch 

Frederik Van Laere

“Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.”
― Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red

“Do we have anything in music, for example, that really wipes everything out, that just cleans everything away?” This is what Morton Feldman wondered at the end of his days. After a life full of composing, experimenting and stretching our musical awareness, he thereby joined a rich tradition of artistic quests that resulted in a love of the minimal: wanting always to add less and wanting increasingly to put the emphasis on the voids between everything that already exists, aiming for a music that dissolves into its duration. Feldman is one of the musical greats for whom the painter Bart Vandevijvere has a soft spot. He honours him in the titles of his canvases and finds in him a sounding board for his research.

It is above all the second part of Feldman’s question that makes a lasting impression. It elicited a question from me too: ‘is there anything in art that also cleans everything away, wipes it out? Is it possible? Some ascribe this honour to Malevich’s black square. But that imperfect square, in flaking black on a chalky white canvas, doesn’t wipe anything away. On the contrary, it demands a place in a very material and pamphletary manner.

To what extent does something that has been wiped away differ from something that was never there? Do we recognise it by its residue? It reminds me of Bart Vandevijvere’s paintings. The very finest gestures in his works are those that he wiped off or rinsed off before they had fully adhered. A pool of acrylic paint has a certain surface tension. It dries from the edges to the middle. When the painter decides to remove it, a ragged circle is left that reveals where the spot once was. This sort of ‘nothingness’ that continues to whisper something to us is not new. Under infrared light, a palimpsest, which is a re-used sheet of parchment, may reveal three or four previous pieces of writing, possibly at right-angles to each other. In this way, a lot of ‘discarded’ information has remained legible to later generations, at least if one takes the time to decipher them. 

Bart Vandevijvere’s paintings have the same layered quality. In their final, solidified state, the numerous movements of paint and leftovers tell us of the course of the act of painting itself rather than describing any known reality. And this course can be quite fitful. Vandevijvere could not care less about top, bottom, left or right. He turns the canvas while painting and at some point along the way decides on how it is to be viewed. The process is more a cautious taming of events than purposeful depiction. Depending on its consistency, the paint drips, runs or spreads out, from watery to sticky to firm, in directions he only partly determines. In this process, a subsequent movement may wipe a previous one off the map, sometimes thoroughly, but rarely with no permanent traces. Perhaps he is simply directing his own curious erosion over and over again. He does not control all the parameters. His flirtation with the limits of this control expresses the greatest satisfaction. There are layers of paint that repel each other and there are rings of dried paint. There are the remains of wiping, strokes of brushes, the clear caesurae created by tape, and proper, limpid gradations or rough, grubby areas. In some of the things he does he appears to have been very much aware of the edges, while elsewhere he seems to have lost sight of them entirely. There are verbs for visual phenomena that reveal a lot about how they came to be. For example, you ‘make’ marks, and you ‘leave’ traces. This verbal distinction is perhaps the best indication of the tension in his work. After all, one undergoes painting as much as one does it. Events often have as great a share in it as deeds and in the final image they are given the same power and voice. Viewed in this way, these works, in all their imputed abstraction and with virtually no mimetic references, are amazingly closely related to the nature of life’s course. They make you wonder whether events are not simply deeds, if they are elicited. And are deeds not also events, if they turn out differently from what was intended? And where on this axis do we find the artist and his choices?

Back to music. Musicians preparing for a concert can be fascinating. They often wander around dejectedly, look for a comfortable position on the platform and pluck, beat or blow a few notes as if to remind themselves of the sound of their instrument or its range. They do this almost casually, like breathing, each for himself. They are gradually joined by their fellow musicians. At an unpredictable moment the cacophony of sound comes together and they briefly move forward in unison. This small miracle usually takes place spontaneously during the rehearsal process or while tuning up, out of the blue, with no predetermined score. A guitar strikes up, a bass joins in, a rhythm follows, and shortly afterwards they go their own way again. This is the magic of the jam, like a cluster of starlings flying up and briefly joining in formation. There are several levels at which their paths can converge: a specific note, a harmony, a rhythm, the repetition of a motif, a tempo. Pitch is one of them. Bart Vandevijvere’s references to experimental music and jazz in his titles and series might well be misunderstood as those of an abstract artist who, intuitively and with inspiration, allows the atmosphere or temperament of his work to be defined by the lyricism of music. This would be too romantic an approach. Of course no one is without sensitivity to the stirring expressive tones of music while painting and I assume that the soul of a piece of music will have just as much influence on an artist’s gestures as the light entering his studio or his mood following a party or receiving a parking fine. I have not asked him yet, but the question remains of whether Bart ever listens to music while painting. And if so, whether it makes any difference. His oeuvre is neither the sheer expression nor the illustration of that sort of musicality. The affinity between these two artistic disciplines is inherent to the structure and the modus operandi of the creative process itself.

Gerhard Richter once said of the relationship between music and painting: “I believe that each art form, including painting, can possess a sort of rightness, as in music, where we hear whether a note is pure or false.” There is no such thing as a ‘note’ that is absolute in itself. What we experience as notes is an agreed interval and relationship between notes. Consequently, it is almost impossible to recognise whether a note is pure or false, unless you have an exceptionally well-trained musical ear or an inborn sensitivity, the very rare perfect pitch. In fact it is hardly possible to judge the ‘rightness’ of a sound without knowing its relations with a set of other sounds. And it is only in relation to a temporal sequence of a number of existing sounds that you can determine whether you are keeping time. Richter also attributed the same ‘rightness’ of some traditional artworks to nature, where he sees them as being beyond question. Nature is in any case ‘right’, mainly because it is not concerned by our judgement of it. When, in the interview, Richter was asked to give some examples, his answer was surprising. He recognised this rightness not only in traditional painting such as that of Poussin or Friedrich, but just as much in Pollock’s wild, abstract gesticulations. The point of this singular view is that both examples pass over the personality of the painter as an actor. Both the works of ‘classical’ beauty and Pollock’s dripped works are freed from the artist himself, in the latter case because he ‘loses’ himself in the act and is absorbed by the transcendent logic of a ‘high’, once he no longer experiences the boundaries of the painting.

I would even venture to say that a painter like Bart Vandevijvere is here adopting a cunning, ambivalent middle position. It is as if he stepped in and out of logic, and also in and out of the work. First he briefly hands over the reins, loses himself in what gravity and chemistry do with the paint, and then at another point intervenes again explicitly as a true author. In this way he changes register in the course of the process. Experimental music is notorious for incorporating this sort of shift. It plays with dissonance and changes of rhythm, leads you in a new direction as you listen, deliberately integrates ‘falseness’ and then explores it. It is notable that the liking for atonal music and dissonance burgeoned just after the discovery of the theory of relativity. It cannot be a coincidence. In 1915, Einstein undermined the notion of time and the immutable relationships between phenomena that we had for centuries assumed to be firmly fixed. Shortly afterwards, Schoenberg took the first steps in free atonal music. The birth of abstract art was not far off either. These are extremely important gearshifts in our way of thinking.

Bart Vandevijvere does on canvas what a musician does with a pitch pedal. He changes track. It is a little like suddenly making chess moves on a draughts board; no longer neatly diagonal, but jumping like a knight. This unpredictability gives us a sense of disorder. Now and again we think we discern a reassuring start of depth, perspective or at least some harmony. But elsewhere, within the same rectangle, we are teasingly presented with the opposite in an abrupt edge or an amorphous area. Yet in this repeated adventure lies a fascinating evolution. In the work he has produced in recent years, Vandevijvere has been increasingly interested in an intensified contrast between geometric-looking forms in which you surmise a certain order, and the shapelessly accidental. The more vividly coloured areas, which sometimes look like opened-up measuring containers, enter into competition with swelling or perished patchiness.

Titles such as Because of Daniel Levin undoubtedly imply a profound admiration for the way this virtuoso jazz cellist is able to draw the very marrow from a single instrument and for his exploration of the extremes of its range. This is what Vandevijvere aspires to on canvas. Painting is in essence a solitary occupation. Is it possible that this is exactly why Bart Vandevijvere envies jazz musicians? Is it the cockiness with which they improvise a solo and wrest a nimble musical response from a fellow musician? The continuous group playing, attraction, repulsion and dialogue of jazz is a state that the painter, experimenting and whirling with canvases all alone, strives for, either with himself or the paint as a surrogate for the missing sparring partners. In any case, I detect his allergy to standstill, to images that have withdrawn entirely into themselves. Bart Vandevijvere yearns for dialectics. One choice blocks or elicits another, sometimes pronounced, sometimes very subtle. Even the stillest of canvases contain action and reaction, even if it is only the subtle interruption of the stillness of an empty area by small, tenuous gestures, for example as visual references to Salvatore Sciarrino, a composer who does not make sound events clash thunderously with each other, but lets them fall in the course of time like small drops. This deliberate generation of friction releases a fresh energy. Seen through empirical eyes, after the deed all paintings remain unchanged and hopelessly dead matter: nothing more than a few wooden slats, canvas and dry paint. He seems to be concerned with preserving a sort of friction or tension of adventure in the final image, to make sure that the tone struck does not fade.

In the final instance he grafts language onto it: the title as a noble gesture, through which he hands the disconcerted viewer pointed and recognisable associations to counteract his confusion. A veil of paint fanning out from left to right elicits the title Fast Forward Painting from him, while a well-aimed blob in the middle of a white area is called A Perfect Storm. The titles of course also include references and tributes to contemporary musicians. But it is just as common for the artist to comment on his own attitude as a painter, which wavers between directing and letting it go its own way: Tumbling in There. Or It ain’t over till the fat lady sings: a nice reference to that delicate, critical and hard to determine moment when the painter brings to an end a series of acts and contained events involving paint and finally lets go of the canvas as a completed story. It’s only lately that I see that these titles might be an underestimated stage in Vandevijvere’s working method. They too are ‘pitches’, in the linguistic sense as used by PR and management: a concise, inviting set of words, brief banners that cover complex content and trigger the desire to keep looking.

(Translated by Gregory Ball)