The viewer’s position in French Impressionist painting is an intimate one, even in landscapes. One psychologically walks into the painting which is hung at eye level. Every painting presents an intimate a bedroom atmosphere even with Van Gogh. Growing up in Montreal during World War II this primarily was the work that I saw. Then, in the late ’60s after living in New York quite a while, I made my way to both France and Italy. Observing that in Italian Renaissance churches the work was hung high I was forced to think about placement of artwork and how that affected its presence. I was not looking up at the work. It was looking down at me. By this simple juxtaposition of position the space between me and the artwork became activated.
To go back a bit, but not leaving that spatial subject matter, in the spring of 1954 I visited Ad Reinhardt’s studio. He had become friends with my husband. A very animated, alive, and passionate person. Ad had an incredible, energetic sense of humor, which poked fun at just about everything in the art world. Although married to Rita—a strong person, very beautiful, extremely intelligent, and a good painter herself—Ad seemed rather sexist. To him, for instance, I was young, pretty, and invisible. Luckily later, through my work, fate brought me in contact with Rita and we became friends. She has a great eye and was a fountain of studio, art practice knowledge, from that time.
Fresh from Black Mountain College, I was immersed in the structure of pictorial space and how changes in that space had served to alter emotional meaning throughout art history. While understanding the various art movements I felt an almost mystic demand for an unknown, non verbal, perceptually projected, painterly dimension which would reach into the room.
Admiring Ad’s work, I listened carefully as he spoke, mostly to my husband. The questions I asked helped me to understand that consciously, through his intention and by his painting method, he activated the space between the viewer and his painting, the “in-between space.” To fully inhabit his work the viewer must understand Ad’s creation of that space as part of the painting/viewing experience. The modus operandi of much studio practice of that day consisted of throwing paint and testosterone around. Ad’s sensuous and not at all dry or muscular thinking stuck in my mind. His work contains a deep and lived philosophy which activated my senses.
Part of bringing a canvas to life can be the use of surface differences, of matte areas contrasted to the natural gloss of oil paint. In Beaux Arts practice, a matte surface can be achieved by mixing a small amount of plaster (spackle) with water and linseed oil (a necessary binder in oil paint). A very small amount of this mixture is in turn combined with oil paint to achieve a matte surface. Done correctly with this method, containing the correct amount of binders, the surface does not crack and is archival.
Ad’s oil-drained paint resulted in a fragile matte surface. This surface, combined with a barely discernable grid of painted wide horizontal and vertical bands of close-range, dark chromatic colors, seemed to cause the “atmosphere” of the painting to project into the room. This oil removal practice, however, somewhat threatened the longevity of the paintings.
I’d like to add a note here that with Ad Reinhardt’s work, controlled lighting is of the essence. The work must be lit through virtue of bounce lighting. Light must be directed to the areas of the wall between the paintings so that the paintings are illuminated indirectly from the sides and not directly onto the canvas surfaces. Otherwise “the space in-between” and Ad Reinhardt’s intention is lost.
Standing in Ad’s studio in 1954 his paintings were at once challenging, mesmerizing, and magical. His spatial reality became part of my being, part of my painterly understanding of the infinite possibilities of two dimensional pictorial space. Reinhardt’s perceptual revolution is one which is seated both in the East and in classic Italian ecclesiastic painting. Most of us, in some way, now use that space which Reinhardt explored and brought to the picture plane. It is one’s hope, as an artist, to leave a gift of knowing, as Ad Reinhardt did, for other artists so that our visual language can be further explored and built upon.
DOROTHEA ROCKBURNE is a Canadian born artist who lives in the U.S.