Collected Writings

Painting close to the origin

A philosophical note on how and what Jon Groom's art work reveals

Michael Eldred

artefact text and translation

Jon Groom Light II 1998 Acrylic on canvas 160 x 90 x 8 cm

Jon Groom "Light II" 1998 Acrylic on canvas 160 x 90 x 8 cm

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    Nu=n de\ ka/lloj mo/non tau/thn e)/sxe moi=ran w(/st'
    e)kfane/staton ei)=nai kai\ e)rasmiw/taton.
    Plato Phaidros 250d 

    Now, however, beauty alone has this lot, so that it shines forth most of all and is most loved, attractive and desirable.

    ... a)ll' eu)qu/ ti le/gw, fhsi\n o/ lo/goj, kai\ perifere\j kai\ a)po\ tou/twn dh\ ta/ te toi=j to/rnoij gigno/mena e)pi/peda/ te kai\ sterea\ kai\ ta\ toi=j kano/si kai\ gwni/aij, ei)/ pou manqa/neij. Tau=ta ga\r ou)k ei)=nai pro/j ti kala\ le/gw, kaqa/per a)/lla, a)ll' a)ei\ kala\ kaq' au(ta\ pefuke/nai kai/ tinaj h(dona\j oi)kei/aj e)/xein, ou)de\n tai=j tw=n knh/sewn prosferei=j kai\ xrw/mata dh\ tou=ton to\n tu/pon kala\ kai\ h(dona\j e)/xonta.
    Plato Philebos 51c

    ... but I mean something straight, says the argument, something round, and surfaces and solids that come of these by means of compasses and straight-edges and squares, if you understand what I mean. For these, I say, are not beautiful in relation to something else, like other things, but of their nature are beautiful always in themselves and have their peculiar pleasures nothing like [the pleasure of] scratching oneself [when itchy]; and colours, too, have beauty and pleasures of this type. 

    The title of one of Jon Groom's exhibitions, Painting Reveals,(1) provokes the question: What does painting reveal? The very formulation of this question, however, leads us off the track, for can it be that painting reveals a what? And if painting reveals, then it also conceals, at one and the same time, for there is nothing that is not infected by negation. 

    In Groom's paintings there is to be seen most often just two colours in strictly defined rectangles on a ground (background or foreground?). The paintings are structured by simple difference between chromatic qualities. The rectangle — often a square, often only as a border — composes and defines the surface of the subjectile (the canvas, the paper, the glass, ...) in delineating and delimiting one surface-area from another. Here we will restrict ourselves to the acrylic paintings on canvas. There is the limit, the border at which the colour changes. Two different colours, often contrasting colours, bring forth a vibrant tension for the eye. There is this simple tension of chromatic difference and at the same time, each colour in itself rests identically within itself, radiating and simultaneously refusing any further definition. Often the colour glows or iridesces, calmly, strongly. The definition of one colour vis-à-vis the other is clear and simple, although their interplay is rich and saturated. 

    The boundary is sharp and straight, without transition or gradation. The boundary reveals difference as such, but in the simple, sensuous, qualitative medium of colour. What the painting is, its essence, to start with is only chromatic quality in simple, abstract, but sensuously radiant, difference. The presentation and presencing of quality as pure chromatic difference is reinforced by the preparation of the canvases, which are levelled out, sanded and polished to be completely smooth, and also by the mode of application of the paint which, instead of being brushed on, is applied with a spatula. Thus there is no difference to be seen caused by a brushstroke, no texture, and thus also no personal 'signature' of the artist's brushstroke. 

    There has already been a movement away from the pure abstractness of indeterminate, immediate presence to the — likewise immediate — determinateness of sensuous quality, where this quality is also doubled in difference, thus bringing forth the tension of a contradiction (the one colour is not the other; it negates it, in line with Spinoza's formula, omnis determinatio est negatio, everything is only through what it is not). But this concretion of different determinations is still highly abstract and simple — the contrast, difference and contradiction between sensuous qualities whose transition is a simple, straight line, i.e. a line reduced to the simplest of differences. 

    For a pure, evenly monochrome painting that is pure, simple quality, difference would have to be sought not within the art work itself, but between the art work and the surrounding space. The border marking differentiation and a relation of negation between something and the other would then be the frame of the painting itself. But the prime contradiction of difference in a bichrome painting is contained within the art work itself, so that only with the transition from one colour to two colours can the art work generate the tension of a contradiction within itself, thus revealing it and bringing it to shine. Each colour in a bichrome painting reveals itself only in its difference from the other colour, in the colour which it is not, its negation. This difference defines the colour also through the other colour and allows it to radiate in a specific way determined by its specific negation in the other, equally well-defined colour. So each colour, while resting within itself, self-contained and apparently for itself, can only be the colour it is and reveal itself as the definite colour it is through its determinant difference from the other colour. There is an interplay of simple, pure chromatic difference, one colour conceding the other, the colour in the rectangle, a foreground position, even if the rectangle is read as a window to a depth. For the two colours in their rich saturatedness suggest solidity and invite the eye to play with depth, as if the colours were not just on the surface of a canvas but solid substance, and as if one colour were in front and the other behind, or vice versa. 

    The colour is not a what, not an identifiable figure, not the contour of a being. The rectangle, too, says little, only 'border', 'limit', 'negation'. The colour is identifiable, nameable as a determinate colour, but this name names the colour only as pure, sensuous quality. It is a way of being that fully defines a what of being; i.e. here, what the painting is, is defined by its sensuous quality, its mode or 'howness'. The chromatic way of being vibrates sensuously. In the difference between the two colours, a definite tension of difference vibrates and attunes us, the viewers who are open to and receive this colour-play. The chromatic difference may be brilliant and vibrant, delicate and subtle, gentle and harmonious, harsh and stark, or muted and nuanced, but in every case a chromatic splendour is presented to the eye, which is always more than the sensuous eye, for it sees simple difference as difference, the simple shape of the rectangle as a rectangle, the colour as colour, etc. The gaze is led past the sensuous given of a sense impression to view pure, simple, still abstract shapes of being: the something of a painting, quality, limit, identity and difference, the one and the other. To paint abstractly is to draw off the determinations of concreteness to come closer to the origin where the simplest faces of being reveal themselves. 

    It is tempting to speak of transcendence in connection with Groom's painting and to mean by it a climbing-over, a being-carried-over beyond the sensuously given, to a mysterious yonder realm of the divine and sublime. But the transcendence that is energetically at work here is closer to home and nearer than we usually think, for it is a transcendence — literally, a climbing-over — to the granting of being itself in its determinacy as (chromatic) identity and difference. The transcendence opens up the view of the supersensuous AS which raises the sensuously given to show itself off as a face of being that is granted. The supersensuous as is nowhere else than in the sensuously perceived painting itself. This granting is usually taken for granted and not seen as such, even though it is the unthought precondition for all seeing, at least as far as we human beings are concerned. Now, through the transcendence that radiates in and through the painting and its play of colour, the granting itself in its self-concealment is evoked and becomes visible to the mind's eye as a granting of simple chromatic identity and difference, still very close to the origin of undifferentiated, immediate presence itself and in this sense primitive. The origin is not a temporal beginning lost in the mists of time, but the point of the original, primal leap or Ur-Sprung from abstract presence, in which all determinacy is extinguished, to the negation of the determinacy of a something, namely, a bichrome painting in which 'nothing' is to be seen apart from two colours. 

    Light II, a 160 x 90 x 8 cm acrylic on canvas from 1998, for instance, glows in an 80 cm square of bright, saturated orange on a shimmering gold sparkling softly with ground, iridescent mother of pearl. The painting, of thoroughly human dimensions, is a radiance of chromatic identity and difference risen from the blinding, invisible indeterminacy of being and now shining forth as pure, simple quality. The painting is a reminder and celebration of origin. 

    If painting reveals the determinate identity and difference of colour, then what does it conceal? It conceals that which enables colour as such to appear at all in its specific, simple, sensuous identity and difference from another colour. This is the clearing of time-space that grants the presencing of the identity and difference of somethings. The clearing itself refuses disclosure, but, in its withdrawal, enables the simple play of chromatic difference in its pure sensuous modedness or quality that translates for us into a specific moodedness. This mood remains only scarcely sayable, resonating as an atmosphere that attunes us nonetheless to the origin that we have always already forgotten. 

    The one definite colour is different from the other definite colour through the limit that delineates, defines and demarcates the one as different from the other. The one could be, potentially, the other, however, only through a movement of change. But this change, driven by negation, has not yet happened. The two colours only quiver sensuously, arrested in the tension of the contradiction they maintain between each other. This quivering is only the anticipation of movement through which what is still only potential would become the energy of movement in its particular form as change. 

    Insofar (as far as we have come so far), Groom's abstract painting reveals the play of pure chromatic identity and difference through which a world only starts to shape up and come into definition, attuning with its specific moods, whilst at the same time concealing the nothingness of the time-space of presencing into which light and darkness fall, enabling this play of difference to present itself. As such Groom's painting is a disclosing casting of world that is incipiently going forth into concrete difference and is still very close to the origin. Seen from the prospective side, this casting of world as simple, determinate difference in tension is also arrested in its movement toward more complex concreteness in which further determinations coalesce, so enabling through this growing-together a world to come more concretely into view. 

    But is it true to say that movement here has been arrested? Are the painting's two colours really so definite? Are we forced to go further in our thoughts? So far we have viewed the painting as a determinate being defined simply and even exhaustively by two colour-qualities in a simple geometric arrangement. This, however, is a view only within the painting, as if it were self-contained, but the art work is situated in its surroundings. The painting is in the world. It has its place on the Earth. It is an art-thing and has a body. Groom himself points to the "objectness" of his paintings "which always operate on that border between painting and object".(2)

    That which makes the painting what it is, its defining quality, is colour, but there is no colour in the painting itself for, as Groom says, "When we talk of colour we are actually talking of light".(3) Colour is only "when material becomes light". The material thing, the painting, receives light from its surroundings and reflects it as colour, a sensuous quality. There is an ongoing interplay between the material painting and the incident light that enables it to be what and how it is. The light is the sensuous element that falls in the clearing of time-space, granting the painting its sensuous, luminous presence. The light itself cannot be seen but it enables seeing, just as the Platonic Idea of the Good (another name for being itself) cannot be seen, but enables beings as such to be seen. We see colour sensuously, and we see colour as colour (i.e. as a quality) supersensuously, already with a view to and in the light of being that grants faces of being. 

    But now, because colour is nothing other than the ongoing interplay between material and light, the colour itself changes, continually. So, although the painting is defined by the tension between two definite colours in their interplay, and these colours remain definite colours, this definition and interplay are also constantly changing through the light that falls on the art work. The otherness of the other colour is now the one colour's own becoming other through it itself changing. 

    The bichromaticity of each painting is itself dynamic because colour is the quality of the art work that only comes about through the interplay between earthly matter (paint, pigment, ground metal, mother of pearl, etc.) and light, and light energy itself is at work dynamically, through the changing weather and the Earth's own movement through space, i.e. the change between day and night and between the seasons. Moreover, the viewer can also move through the room when viewing the painting, which shows a different chromatic face when viewed from right or left or centre. So the two colours defining the painting such as gold and orange, or a silky red and a deep ochre red, although definite, are always changing subtly whilst remaining the same, namely, an identifiable pair of colours. The painting gathers the world simply and luminously in an intersection between light and matter which in turn radiates into space as colour that changes according to the viewer's perspective and the changing incidence of light on the painting as a physical body. 

    The painting remains itself through these changes of colour-quality. Its being is now no longer defined purely by quality, by its 'howness', for how it is changes with the incidence of light. Although the painting is (simply) a painted canvas with two different materials applied to it that reflect incident light in different ways, resulting in subtle variations of colour, it has a being for itself that in transforming into another "goes along with itself".(4) The painting presents itself in its interplay with light as something that remains itself in becoming other. It 'survives' negation by the continual change of colour through its interplay with the world, remaining the definite bichrome painting that it is. We now see that the something that the painting is has moved beyond sensuous colour, even though all that is to be seen in the painting is the constantly and enigmatically shifting play of colour. This something is now no longer identical with sensuous quality, but has become, through 'surviving' change, being for itself, something infinite, unbounded beyond the finiteness of the something defined solely by its qualities. The world has become more complex, more concrete because it is now inhabited by somethings that do not coincide with their qualities and that remain the same through change. We viewers can see this in viewing the painting, supersensuously and implicitly, for it is taking place before our very eyes. 

    The encounter with Groom's paintings is nevertheless a pure, simplified encounter with a world of beings still shaping up close to the origin. What we see sensuously is colour embedded in perfect, geometric figure, but supersensuously we see difference, identity, a something identical with quality, change and movement, a thing for itself. Faces of being look at us and we understand these simple, abstract categories that are still very close to pure, undifferentiated, immediate presence without knowing it explicitly. The aura that radiates from Groom's art work is owed partly to the alchemy of the mixture of materials that the painter puts together, which results in a deep, subtle, rich, at times opalescent interplay with light. In part, however, it is due to the rigorous simplicity of the composition, restricted to just two colours in a strictly defined geometrical structure with clear and simple boundaries. (That is, there is nothing much to see, which may disappoint the expectant viewer.) This simplicity, still infinitely removed from any figure or narrative or representation, enables us to see and esteem the aura radiating from a closeness to the origin where being does not yet have any contours. The painting shows itself off for our estimation in a beautiful, sensuous colour-play that is simultaneously a supersensuous play of simple, abstract categories that are indispensable to appreciate the play of colour, even though these categories are not seen as such but tacitly 'assumed'. They remain hidden while nevertheless being perfectly understood implicitly, enabling the aura of beauty to radiate. 

    The painting's beauty holds the eye's gaze, for its luminosity shines forth captivatingly, the painting having gathered the light at a still point of the turning world and passed it on to us. This shining beauty is not merely an intriguing phenomenon of sense perception, but lifts the gaze in a kind of transport, reminding us atmospherically of the origin in pure being from which all determinate beings arise and also that the gaze that sees being in its nothingness is what enables us to be human beings. 

    Groom's painting is thus close to the origin also in the sense of being close to one of the main sources of Western history, namely, Plato's philosophy. This closeness undercuts the Platonism and Neoplatonism that Plato's thinking became after Plato. Platonism erected a dichotomy between a supersensuous realm of Platonic Ideas and a lesser, sensuous world, a dichotomy that became known blandly and uncomprehendingly as Plato's Theory of Ideas. In the dialogue, Phaidros, cited above in the motto, Plato speaks of the difficulty of seeing the ideas in what is given to the senses when he writes that "the likenesses here [on Earth] of justice, moderation and the other ideas esteemed by human souls do not shine" (250b) so that the ideas are hard to recognize through the senses. But beauty does shine and in fact it is that which "shines forth most of all" (e)kfane/staton 250d ), namely, for sight, which is "for us the sharpest of the ways of perceiving through the body" (250d). Such sensuous perception, however, cannot see the ideas directly, cannot see beings as such in their being, nor being itself, but only entice and draw the eye past the sensuous to the supersensuous that can be grasped by the mind. 

    As we have seen, Groom's painting shines forth as a simple, beautiful, glowing play of colour with no further determination, only barely emerging from immediate, undifferentiated presence, which cannot be seen by eyesight, but taken in by the mind. But because this beauty is so simple, so uncluttered and unobstructed, and does not divert attention through a misleading concreteness, its lovely face attracts the eye back to that invisible origin. It is not beauty itself that is "most loved, attractive and desirable" (e)rasmiw/taton 250d), but being itself, through which each being can be what or who it is. Painting returns close to the origin in that movement of modern art, the art which emerges into view in the era of modernity, starting with impressionism, through which the painting frees itself from representation, from mimesis, from iconic or narrative depiction and naturalistic portrayal, to become the abstract art of the twentieth century.(5)  This regressive avant-garde movement comes to a certain culmination in the 1960s in Frank Stella's stripe paintings. In an exchange with Bruce Glaser, Stella declares, 

    My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. Any painting is an object and anyone who gets involved enough in this finally has to face up to the objectness of what it is that he's doing. He is making a thing. All that should be taken for granted. If the painting were lean enough, accurate enough, or right enough, you would just be able to look at it. All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion... What you see is what you see.(6)
    This quotation is telling in several respects. This painting does not refer to, does not represent or re-present anything but itself, so that the eye sees all there is to see in the painting itself as an object in its objecthood.(7)  This avant-garde 'discovery' can by no means "be taken for granted" and comes only through a long line of development of thinking through what art can still be in Western history when it no longer opens the view on the sublime divine. This regressive-progressive movement also does not amount to a reduction of painting to the materiality of the object made by the artist, even though the artist is merely "making a thing", for in making a thing, the artist is bringing about more than a thing, namely, the object in its "objectness". The objecthood of the object made always exceeds its mere materiality, for, through the material object shines "the whole idea" so that to claim, "What you see is what you see," does not amount to reducing painting to a mere materialist tautology. The statement, "What you see is what you see," is not the tautological assertion of a mere identity, but already of an identity of identity and difference: What you see is only what is there to be seen by the eye in its plain presence, without reference to something absent that is now represented and re-presented in and by the painting. This is the statement's subject, the painting in its sensuous, material singularity. The statement's apparently tautological predicate, however, is not what can be seen by the sensuous eye, but what is seen by the mind's eye, namely, "the whole idea", thus introducing difference into the tautology. This difference is an excess; the eye always sees more than it sees sensuously, namely, an "idea". Thus, for example, in the case of Groom's painting discussed above, the ideas of (chromatic) quality and difference (between colours) are given immediately to an intuitive perception.(8)  

    With the choice of the word "idea", Stella indicates unmistakably that he is not a proponent of a painterly materialism, and such a painterly materialism would already amount to the collapse of art into mundanity and be a thorough misunderstanding, including of Dada's call for the separation between art and life to be overcome. Rather, precisely through its apparently mundane, material presence, the art work already uplifts the gaze; the painting even in the plain, uncluttered presence of its sensuously visible, material singularity defined only minimally by sensuous qualities already shows the difference from itself of an idea in its universality and thus already transcends itself within itself, without pointing to a beyond. The idea to be seen in abstract painting that is "lean enough" is the concretion of only few determinations, thus showing the "idea without any confusion", the idea in its simplicity, where such simplicity is due to painting close to the origin of pure, indeterminate, abstract presence/nothingness into which no differentiating limit has yet been inscribed. 

    No less than Stella's, Jon Groom's abstract art work is an esteeming through beauty of being itself and of the clearing of time-space within which all beings are able to define and present themselves, mutually esteeming each other for a time. 

      1. At the Katholische Akademie in Bayern from 22 September to 20 November 2005. Back 

      3. Jon Groom when material becomes light exhibition catalogue, the gallery, Guernsey College of Further Education 4 - 18 December 2003 p. 3. Back 

      5. ibid. p. 9. Back

      7. Hegel Enzyklopädie I Werke Band 8, Frankfurt/M. 1970 § 95. Back 

      9. Cf. Sebastian Egenhofer 'Passages of the Object in the Art of Modernity' for the exhibition catalogue Re-Object 18 February - 13 May 2007, Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria. Back

      11. Bruce Glaser 'Questions to Stella and Judd' in Gregory Battcock (ed.) Minimal Art. A Critical Anthology Berkeley / Los Angeles / London 2nd ed. 1995 pp. 148-164, here p. 158.   Back 

      13. Cf. Michael Fried Art and Objecthood (1967), according to Egenhofer op. cit., to the present day the central reference in the debate on Minimal Art and its consequences (Michael Fried 'Art and Objecthood' in Michael Fried Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews Chicago 1998 pp. 148-172.  Back 

      15. Cf. Miguel de Beistegui puts the phenomenological insight into 'seeing more than you see sensuously' well: "The phenomenological turn takes the form of an absolute commitment to what Husserl calls 'the principle of all principles,' which he formulates thus: 'In regard to the principle of all principles: that every originarily donative intuition [Anschauung] is a legitimizing source of knowledge, that everything originarily (so to speak, in its bodily actuality) offered to us in 'intuition' ['Intuition'] is to be accepted simply as what it presents itself [sich gibt] as being, but also only within the limits in which it there presents itself, no conceivable theory can mislead us.' (E. Husserl Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie Erstes Buch, Husserliana 3, ed. Walter Biemel (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1950) p. 42.) Intuition, then, and especially perception, which Husserl saw as its paradigmatic and fullest expression, was to serve as the guiding light through the newly born science of phenomena and experiential contents. By way of caution, though, let me emphasise from the start that Husserl never equated perception with sensation alone. Perception is an intuitive act, that is, according to Husserl's own definition, a sense-fulfilling act. This, in fact, is what distinguishes it from the merely sense bestowing—or signifying—act, which refers to an object without presenting it in person or in the flesh (leibhaftig). Intuition, on the other hand, doesn't merely represent the object, but allows it to be there, bodily present as it were. With the notion of fulfilment, Husserl was able to extend the reach and legitimacy of perception beyond the merely sensible object, and apply it to ideal objects. A category, for example, is fully and actually present in categorial intuition. Similarly, an essence is present 'in its corporeal identity' in eidetic intuition.(E. Husserl Gesammelte Werke (Husserliana) (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984), Band XIX/2, Logische Untersuchungen VI § 45 A 614/B142; Gesammelte Werke (Husserliana) (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976), Band III/1 Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und Phänomenologischen Philosophie, I, Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie §§ 24, 43-44.) Perception, in other words, is an act that is broader than sensation." (Miguel de Beistegui 'The Work and the Idea' in Parrhesia No. 11 2011 pp. 1-34) The phenomenological drive is to open our eyes to what we see, without the interposition of a 'theory', which is always a construction, a construed pair of spectacles. (Back)

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