Thursday, October 06, 2016
Making paint work: Vik Muniz's Metachromes
This is the catalogue essay to accompany the exhibition Metachromes by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London, 6 October to 12 November.
Why did so many artists abandon painting over the course of the twentieth century? There is no point looking for a single answer, but among the ones we might consider is that painters lost their trust in paint. It’s something rarely talked about, this relationship of painters to paint – or at least, it is rarely talked about except by painters themselves, to whom it is paramount. Paint represents the graft and the craft of painting, and for that very reason it is all too often neglected by art critics and historians, who have tended to regard it merely as a somewhat messy means to a sublime end. But many leading artists since Matisse have been making art not with paint but about paint, and in the process displaying their uneasy relationship with it.
No one put this better than Frank Stella: “I tried to keep the paint as good as it is in the can.” Two things leap out here, as British artist David Batchelor suggests in his book Chromophobia. First, for Stella paint comes in cans, not in tubes (it is an industrial mass product). Second, it looks good in the can. Indeed, perhaps it looks better in the can than it will once you start trying to apply it. The challenge of a blank canvas is familiar: it demands that the painter find something to fill up that blankness, something that will have been worth the effort. Blankness means it’s up to you. But paint in a can is a challenge of a different order. Here it is, already sensual, beautiful and pure – qualities that the artist might hope to retain in the finished work, but the paint sitting in the can says ‘you think you can do better than this?’ Probably not.
Paint had become too perfect. Anyone who has tried to make paint the way a Renaissance master (or more probably, his apprentices) would have done will know that it emerges as unpromising stuff: sticky, gritty, oily. It was the artist’s task to wrestle beauty from this raw earth, which must have seemed a noble and mysterious thing. In the Middle Ages there was barely time even to take note of the paint: blended from pigments and egg yolk, it dried in minutes, so you had better get to work and not sit there admiring it in the dish. But industrialization changed all that. Pigment was machine-ground with the power of horses or steam until the powder was fine and smooth. It was mixed with oils and additives in great vats like those one can still see in the factories of artists’ suppliers such as Winsor and Newton: an almost obscene orgy of viscous colour. Cheaper pigments and new binding media led to the production of colour by the can, made not for daubing onto canvas but for brushing in flat swathes over walls and ceilings. These were no longer the rust-reds and dirty yellows of Victorian décor, but deep pinks, azure, viridian, the colours of sunsets and forests and named for them too.
That makes it sound as though artists were spoilt for choice, and in a sense they were: the range of colours expanded enormously, and most of this rainbow was cheap. But not all the colours were reliable: they might fade or discolour within weeks or years. Instability of paint is a problem as old as painting. But in the past painters knew their materials: they knew what colours they could mix and which they should not, which are prone to ageing and which withstand time. From the early nineteenth century, however, painters became ever less familiar with what was in their materials. These were substances made in chemicals factories, and not even the paint vendors understood them. Even if the technical experts (then called colourmen) guaranteed them for five years, how would they look in fifty? At first, paint manufacturers had little idea about such matters either, and they did not seem to care very much. Disastrous errors of judgement were made at least until the 1960s, as anyone who has seen what became of Mark Rothko’s Harvard murals will attest: valued at $100,000 when completed in 1962, they were in too embarrassing a state to remain on display by 1979.
But it was not just this lack of technical understanding that led painters to distrust paint. Every medium had its message, and the message of oil paint was now deemed a bourgeois one, to be disowned by any self-respecting artistic radical. It “smacked of garrets and starving artists”, according to British artist John Hoyland. Any sign of a brushstroke spoke of painterly traditionalism, and was to be avoided at all costs. The impassive matt finish of acrylics was the thing: it gave the artist a neutral colour field to play with, unencumbered (so they liked to think) by history. For some, this embracing of new paint media arose out of economic necessity: commercial paints bound in synthetic resins were cheaper, especially if you planned (as many did) to work on a colossal scale. For others, new media offered new styles: Jackson Pollock needed a “liquid, flowing kind of paint”, Stella seized on metallic radiator paints to step beyond the prismatic rainbow. But paints made from plastics also spoke of modernity. Nitrocellulose enamel spray paints are used on cars and toasters, so why not, as Richard Hamilton decided, use them for paintings of cars and toasters? “It’s meant to be a car”, he said, “so I thought it was appropriate to use car colour.”
The idea, then, was that the artist would no longer try to hide the materials in the manner of a nineteenth-century French academician like Ingres, but was constantly referring to them, reminding the viewer that the picture is made from stuff. That’s true even of the flat anonymity of the household paints used by an artist like Patrick Caulfield, which at first seem to be concealing their identity as ‘paint’ at all: they’re saying ‘this is only a surface coated with colour, you know’ – or as Caulfield puts it, “I’m not Rembrandt.” The paint is not pretending to be anything else.
Part of the pleasure of Vik Muniz’s works is that they often do pretend to be something else, but so transparently that you notice and relish the medium even more. “Oh, those are diamonds! That’s chocolate, that’s trash, those are flowers.” His Metachrome series is particularly rich in allusion, because the works confront this issue of the material of painting in ways that highlight several of the problems of paint, which have vexed and in the end sometimes inspired painters. They leave the medium – pastel sticks – literally embedded in the work, and not as accidental remnants but as constructive elements. On the one hand this creates a Brechtian sense of ‘here’s how it was done’, a denial of illusion. These become not just images of something, but works about creating art. It reminds us of the disarming honesty of French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet’s remark: “There is no such thing as colour, only coloured materials.” By reconstructing the paintings of famous artists with the pigment-saturated tools still visible, Muniz demystifies the original objects. And art itself then becomes more humble, but also more valuable: not an idea, nor a commodity, nor an icon, but a product of human craft and ingenuity.
This wouldn’t count for so much if the aesthetic element weren’t respected either. The solidity and chromatic depth of these pieces of coloured material are richly satisfying. We can enjoy them as substance, source and subject. They seem to invite us to pluck them up, and to start making marks ourselves.
Points of colour
One thing brought to mind by Metachromes is the specks and lumps of colour and crystal seen in cross-sectional micrographs that art conservators use routinely to study the multilayered techniques of the Old Masters. Those images reveal that the colour may be surprisingly dispersed: sometimes the grains are as sparse as raisins in a fruit bun, so that it seems a wonder the paint layer does not look patchy or translucent. (The effect may be cumulative: in Titian or van Eyck the bold colours come from the painstaking application of layer after layer.) But what these micrographs also reveal is colour unmixed: greens broken down into blues and yellows, flesh tones a harlequin jumble of hues mixed with white and black. They remind us that the rich hues of the Old Masters are an optical illusion conjured from a very limited palette: they had only a few greens to play with, their blues were sparser still. The illusion is sustained by scale: the flecks are so small that the eye can’t distinguish them unaided, and they blend into uniformity. When this optical mixture produces so great a perceptual shift as yellow and blue to green, the effect seems like alchemy. We get accustomed to this method of making green in the nursery, but still it seems odd to be confronted by such stark evidence that our eyes are deceiving us, that there is only yellow and blue at the root of it all.
Colour mixing is genuinely perplexing. Isaac Newton explained it in 1665, but the explanation made no sense to artists. Yellow, he said, comes from mixing red and green. Add blue and you get white. This was clearly not the way paints behaved.
Newton’s experiment is commonly misunderstood. He did not show for the first time that sunlight could be split into the rainbow spectrum; that had been known since time immemorial, for all you needed was a block of clear glass or crystal. Some suspected, however, that this colouration of sunlight might be the result of a transformation performed by the prism itself. Newton showed that if one of the coloured rays of the spectrum – red, say – is passed through a second prism, it emerges unchanged: these are, he said, “uncompounded colours”, irreducible to anything else. And if the entire spectrum is squeezed back through a focusing lens, it reconstitutes the original white ray. Colour, then, comes from plucking this rainbow, extracting some rays and reflecting others. Black objects swallow them all, white objects reject them.
According to Newton, the colours we see are in the light that conveys them. Goethe (whose antipathy to Newton I have never really fathomed) spoke for many when he said that thanks to Newton “the theory of colour has been forced to enter a realm where it does not belong, to appear before the judgement seat of the mathematician.” Dyers, he says, were the first to perceive the inadequacy of Newton’s theory, because “phenomena forcefully confront the true practitioner, the producer of goods, every day. He experiences the application of his ideas as profit or less.” And so he knew much better than to waste valuable dyes by attempting to make yellow from red and green.
Goethe’s largely misconceived theory of colour continues to exert a strange appeal, but what he did not appreciate is that there are two kinds of colour mixing. One works for dyes and pigments, and it involves the removal of prismatic wedges from sunlight: take away the reds and violets, and you are left with green. This is subtractive mixing. The other works for light rays, and it involves a gradual reconstitution of the spectrum from its component rays. The retina tickled with red and green light, for example, reports back to the brain in just the same way as it does when struck by pure yellow light. This is additive mixing. The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell explained this in 1855, and his discoveries quickly filtered down in popularized forms to painters, some of whom dreamed of finding within them a prescription for filling their canvases with sunlight.
Additive mixing can be achieved in various ways. In television screens, trios of light-emitting pixels in the additive primaries – crudely speaking, red, green and blue-violet – are juxtaposed at too small a scale for the eye to resolve from a normal viewing distance, and their light is blended on the retina. Maxwell showed that he could achieve the same thing with pigments by painting segments of disks and spinning them at great speed, something that the polymathic Englishman Thomas Young had also done at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Impressionists took away the message that all visual experience is constructed from spectral colours, so that these were the only ones they should use – no more ochres or umbers. They tried to banish black from the palette, and while white remained indispensable, their whitewashed walls and snow were broken up into bright primaries. When Claude Monet needed browns and blacks to depict the smoky train station at Saint-Lazare, he mixed them from primaries, although you would never guess it.
Paul Signac and Georges Seurat went further. They hoped to do away with subtractive mixing entirely, seeing that it almost inevitably degraded the brightness of the colours. Instead, their pointillist style, with small dots of pure pigments placed alongside each other like meadow flowers scattered among grass, was intended to let the colours mix optically, on the retina rather than on the canvas, when viewed from the right distance. These Neo-Impressionists believed that this would give their works greater luminosity.
Curiously, Newton himself had described something akin to this. He said that a mixture of dry pigment containing yellow orpiment, bright purple, light green and blue looked at a distance of several paces like brilliant white. The scattering of coloured grains in Muniz’s pictures hint at the same thing. There are places where the colour seems uncertain, treacherous, on the verge of shifting: it depends on where you’re standing, and might change as you step back.
But for the Neo-Impressionists, pointillist optical mixing did not really work. Partly this was because they had only a hazy grasp of the new colour theory, corrupted by an old notion about the yellow-orange colour of sunlight. Partly they were inconsistent in applying the technique, varying the size of their tache strokes. Signac admitted his disappointment with the experiment: “red and green dots make an aggregate which is grey and colourless” – although this pearly sheen is now an aspect of what we enjoy in the atmosphere of their peinture optique. As it drifted from its scientific origins, pointillism became just another mannerism, a style rather than an experiment. It’s a style that Muniz plays with here, the strokes and marks of the artist sometimes playfully but effectively substituted by the pastel sticks themselves. They are Titian’s grains of colour writ large, confessing their illusionism – but still performing it anyway, if we let them.
Work with dirt
“Sometimes we want to know how things are made. Sometimes we don’t,” says Muniz. Metachromes forces us to confront the fact that painting is made from what Philip Guston called ‘coloured dirt’. It is not smoothed flat or artfully raised into ridges by brush or knife: the dirt is simply there, heaped and glued onto the surface, and provoking us to wonder what this stuff actually is.
Many art historians and critics don’t care much for that. They will talk of ‘cobalt’ as a shorthand for a strong blue, as though they think this is the hue of that silvery metal itself – and never mind the fact that the blue cobalt-based pigment of van Dyck had very little to do with the cobalt blue of van Gogh – the latter a nineteenth-century innovation that the artist called a “divine colour”.
Paint disguises this grainy minerality. Seeing it restored in Muniz’s images, you can’t help but wonder about the chemistry. Colours like this are rare in the earth, for even gorgeous gems such as sapphire and ruby turn pale and disappointing when finely ground. When geology alone supplied the palette, reds were rusty and yellows were tawny, both of them ochres. Malachite, a copper ore, gave a pleasant bluish green, but not the vibrant green that light-harvesting chlorophyll brings to grass and the leaves of flowers. Of purple there was almost nothing – a rare manganese mineral, if you were lucky; or dyestuffs that blanched in the light. For orange you took your life in your hands with realgar, the highly toxic sulfide of arsenic.
Blue alone is well served by nature: it could be extracted, at immense cost and labour, from lapis lazuli, a mineral mined in Afghanistan, and brought across the seas – or as the name has it, ultra marina. Mere grinding wasn’t enough to turn lapis into this midnight blue: the blue component (called lazurite) had to be extracted from the impurities, which otherwise made the powder greyish. This was done by mixing the powder with wax into a dough and kneading it repeatedly in water to flush out the blue. The best ultramarine cost more than its weight in gold, and was reserved only for the most venerated of subjects; skies made do with cheaper blues, unless you were Giotto. When Johannes Itten, the mercurial colour theorist of the Bauhaus, insists that blue connotes meekness and profundity in medieval images of the Virgin, he forgets that to the medieval artist symbolism embraced the material too: the ultramarine robes of the mother of Christ honour her through their vast expense.
Today ultramarine is produced by the tonne – not from lapis lazuli, which is still very costly, but as an industrial chemical made in a furnace from soda, sand, alumina and sulfur. This was a triumph of nineteenth-century chemistry. Some of the leading chemists of that age were assigned the task of finding good synthetic substitutes for ultramarine, and they succeeded with cobalt blue; but it did not match the real thing. In 1824 the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry in France offered a prize of 6000 francs to anyone who could devise a way of making ultramarine synthetically. Its elemental constituents had been deduced in 1806, but the curious thing is that, unlike most pigments, ultramarine does not derive its colour from the presence of a particular metal in its crystal lattice (iron, copper, lead, mercury, chromium, cobalt and zinc are among the usual sources). Here, sulfur is the unlikely origin of the rich blue, and to understand it properly you need quantum chemistry.
The prize drew plenty of charlatans, but within four years it was claimed by the colour-maker Jean-Baptiste Guimet from Toulouse – a claim that was challenged, with justification but without success, by a German chemist at Tübingen. ‘French’ ultramarine offered Giotto’s glories for a fraction of the cost, although at first artists could not bring themselves to believe that it could be as good as the natural material.
The ultramarine you will buy in the tube today is made with this synthetic product, and it is probably better than the gritty grindings Titian used. But you should see the pigment before it becomes paint. It seems to emit a glow just beyond the visible range, it has a depth and velvety lustre that the liquid binder can only diminish. It is a colour to gaze on for long moments. Here is Frank Stella’s dilemma redoubled: if you think the paint looks good in the can, you should see pigment before it becomes paint.
That was what bothered Yves Klein in the 1950s. “What clarity and lustre, what ancient brilliance”, he said of raw pigments. But the touch of a binding medium is fatal to this texture: “The affective magic of the colour had vanished. Each grain of powder seemed to have been extinguished individually by the glue or whatever material was supposed to fix it to the other grains as well as to the support.” What goes wrong? The way light bounces off the pigment particles is modified by the medium, even if it is perfectly transparent, because light entering it cannot but be refracted, the rays bent as they are in water. This effect of the medium depends in its refractive index – a scientific measure, if you like, of its ray-bending power. So the same pigments may look different in different media: vermilion mixed with egg yolk is a rich orange-scarlet, but when Renaissance painters began mixing it with oils the result was less impressive, and soon they turned to other reds, to the crimsons and magentas of red lakes.
By the 1950s, painters already had several alternative binders to oil at their disposal – nitrocellulose, acrylics, alkyds, most of them petrochemical-based resins. Was there a binder, Klein wondered, that would fix the pigment particles in place without destroying their lustre? This was a chemical matter, for which the artist needed technical assistance. He got it from his architect friend Bernadette Allain, and most importantly from a Parisian manufacturer of paint, Édouard Adam. In 1955 they found that a resin produced by the chemicals company Rhône-Poulenc, called Rhodopas M60A, thinned with ethanol and ethyl acetate, had the desired effect. In Klein’s words, “it allowed total freedom to the specks of pigment such as they are found in powder form, perhaps combined with each other but nevertheless autonomous.”
Klein used this binder with the pigment that best deserved it: ultramarine. He premiered his brilliant blue sculpture-canvases in Milan in 1957 with an exhibition called ‘Proclamation of the Blue Epoch’. This blue became his trademark: coating blocks, impregnating sponges, covering twigs and body casts. It was International Klein Blue, patented to preserve its integrity in 1960, two years before the artist’s untimely death.
Another solution was to simply refuse to degrade the pure pigment with any kind of binder. In his Ex Voto for the Shrine of St Rita (1961), Klein encases ultramarine powder along with a synthetic rose pigment and gold leaf in clear plastic boxes. In Metachromes, Muniz offers a homage to Klein’s pigment triptych, this celebration of raw, synthetic “coloured dirt”.
Like Klein’s works, Metachromes poses the question: when does the material “leave the can” and become a work of art? It’s not a question that needs an answer. It’s there to remind us that “what is made” should require us to consider too “how it is made” and “what it is made of” – that we are not merely Homo sapiens but Homo faber, and that it is because we are both that we survive.