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Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957; actually Brâncuşi; pronounced Bruncoosh)
Bird in space, c.1931–36, white marble 184 x 44, limestone collar 17.1 x 17.8, sandstone base 117 x 42.5 x 42.5, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1973
Bird in space, c.1931–36, black marble 193 x 47.8, white marble collar 18.1 x 18.1, sandstone base 117 x 51.4 x 51.4, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1973

‘A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.’

Those words come from Archibald MacLeish’s 1926 poem ‘Ars Poetica,’ which also says: ‘A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit…A poem should not mean / But be.’ Philip Guston hoped that his paintings would not (quoting Paul Valéry) ‘disappear into meaning.’ A picture, like a poem, opens up a lot of space in which to move around. Should we not respect that space, and not try to fill it up with verbiage?

In translating a Grecian urn into the language of poetry, John Keats did not explain it, or say what it meant, or say what its maker’s intentions were. Instead he acknowledged the urn as a ‘bride of quietness’ and a ‘foster child of silence and slow time,’ who could ‘express a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.’ He did not even look at it for information; it is true that he asked ten questions about the legends, characters, actions, sounds and places depicted on the urn, but he, or it, answered none of them. All his questions were rhetorical; no answers were expected, wanted or needed – in the same way that the music from the painted pipes was sweeter for being unheard, because it thereby addressed the spirit. Rather, the poet reflected on how the music, love, beauty and youth on the urn, all of which he described, would never fade or end. Finally, he addressed the urn as a ‘silent form’ that ‘teases us out of thought’ and has only this to say to humankind: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ So the urn spoke to him, and he wrote down what he heard.

Well, not literally. Far from giving out advice like a dictionary of proverbs, the urn, as always, said nothing. So we must conclude that it was Keats alone who spoke, and that if he heard anything coming from the urn it was because he was a kind of ventriloquist. It therefore remains an open question whether the same urn could be heard to say the same thing by someone else, or by Keats on another occasion.

‘I prefer not to know,’ said George Sand of a question she had put to herself, ‘for it might detract from the pleasure of wondering.’ ‘Seeing…is irreducible to thinking and cannot be comprehended by it,’ said Mikel Dufrenne. ‘In art it is hard to say anything as good as: saying nothing,’ said Ludwig Wittgenstein. Or, as the Straw Man says in The Wizard of Oz, ‘Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking.’

Should we, then, attend to the silences? Jean Baudrillard replied that in the case of photographs, yes. There is indeed an eerie silence in the ‘still’ photograph. The camera silences its subjects in its images, cutting them off from communicating with the viewer, who is of necessity silent, too, towards those subjects. Silent attention could also be appropriate with abstract modernist art, from which many critics insisted ‘upon excluding “literature” and subject matter.’ The high point of Henri Matisse’s students’ visits to his studio was when he showed them Paul Cézanne’s Three bathers: ‘His silence before it was more evocative and eloquent than words,’ recalled Max Weber. ‘A spirit of elation and awe pervaded the studio at such times.’ Henry James wrote, ‘There is a limit to what it is worth while to attempt to say about the greatest artists.’ To which Roger Kimball added, ‘I believe that is true of all art. The great occupational hazard for an art critic or art historian is to let words come between the viewer and the experience of art – to substitute a verbal encounter for an aesthetic one.’ Paul Valéry wrote, ‘One must always apologise for talking about painting’; and again, ‘A work of art, if it does not leave us mute, is of little value’: to which Susan Sontag added, ‘Of course, we don’t stay mute.’ Rosalind Krauss wrote of ‘modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse,’ and of defending itself ‘against the intrusion of speech.’ For Iris Murdoch it was a Titian, however, of which her husband noted, ‘Iris went to see it countless times, and never said a word. To be mute about pictures was her way of paying them homage.’ For Italo Calvino’s Kublai Khan every report by Marco Polo – who had yet to learn the emperor’s language – was enhanced ‘by the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words. The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off.’ The pianist Susan Tomes regarded silence
…as the backdrop against which I hope to play, the canvas on which I work, it’s the material which runs through the pauses and gaps in the music. Silence is heard in every tiny musical rest. In a way, silence is the very essence of rhythm, because what is rhythm except the organised interaction between sound and silence? Silence is the realm into which any individual note dies away.

Sometimes the merest hint of some aspect of a work can be sufficient to get thoughts moving in a fruitful direction. Many people start with the name plate or label that is attached to the frame, plinth or wall. It should, if it is of the useful variety, give details of the artist’s name, date of birth (and death if applicable), the country or countries in which he or she mainly worked, the title of the piece, the place and the date or dates of its execution, what materials it is made of, and how and perhaps from whom the institution acquired it. Even so, Paul Valéry argued that:
such historical remarks may be highly interesting in themselves, but will in no way add to my actual enjoyment, which can result only from contemplation of the work itself, independently of any notice written under it. I am so convinced of this that I did not hesitate to say, at the Council of National Museums, that if I were responsible for the administration of the museums, I should have all the painters’ names removed…Let the eye choose for itself!

Valéry clinched his argument in favour of works of art themselves by relating an experiment of his:
I went to the Brussels museum, entered a room at random, closed my eyes, turned once round, and opened them again: giving myself the soul of an amoeba, one of those amoebas that are used for experiments on tropism, I moved toward the picture that attracted me. It was one that I never should have noticed on a normal visit, a feminine martyr by a fairly well-forgotten Bolognese painter. I should never have thought of looking at that picture; I should have headed straight for Rembrandt or Rubens. Try it at the Louvre, you’ll see.

Donald Friend:
You can’t really talk about a picture. The picture, if it is good, does all that. I would not paint a picture if I could say it in a conversation, or play it on the piano, or just live it.

A picture is good when it is so utterly, independently a thing in itself that it cannot be expressed in any other medium.

So out of the gallery windows with all that pseud’s talk about explaining pictures, about discovering their real meaning, about artists’ intentions for us and about what the works should say to people. Remember, ‘every image is polysemous’! The only thing clear about a work of art is that it exists, and with ephemeral and conceptual works even that is not always certain. Educational and information programs have their place, marketing programs in which works of art become corporate advertising logos may be inevitable, but room must be left in all this hullabaloo for looking, for reverie, for free-floating contemplation, for Keats’s slow time in which works of art may speak their silent words to our eyes. It was significant that in a 1990 survey of visitors to three art galleries in South Australia, 92 per cent agreed that art galleries should primarily be for the enjoyment of art, compared with only 65 per cent who said they should mainly seek to educate about art.

Anyone taking visitors around an art museum must beware of needless fact-mongering. For example, the exact year in which a work was made is not usually relevant to understanding what we are looking at, but the rough date almost always is, because dealing with a work on its own terms requires that we take full account of its age. Locating it in time suggests some of the circumstances of its making and of its subsequent history, all of which is essential to our understanding of what it is we are looking at and to our appreciation of it.

Ambivalence towards art museum guides is very common. For every person whose heart is warmed by the sight of a huddle of visitors around a work discussing it with their guide, there is another whose ire rises at the intrusion of an organised group into the sanctuary, and another waxing satirical at the credulous who listen to someone else. It may be that guides suffer from being linked in people’s minds with poor teachers, or with tourist guides who have a bad name as touts; perhaps it is that men do not like seeing women purporting to know more than they do, or that young people must disparage anyone over fifty; or it may be tacit agreement with the ancient Chinese saying: ‘Those who know of it do not speak of it; those who speak of it do not know it.’ Donald Horne had all such sourpusses admitting to ‘understanding next to nothing of what we are seeing’ and ‘despising the people who show it to us’; but even he was merciless towards ‘the pseudo-precision of the spiel of guides,’ including the guides at Maya monuments who ‘go on spinning ludicrous stories which, out of nothing, explain everything’; at Amber in India, ‘the indomitable verbiage of our guide, alienated by the cruel traditions of his occupation, has put me into a panic. Unless I take care, I might hear what he is saying.’ Bernard Berenson’s contemplation of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was interrupted by ‘herds of tourists bellowed to by their guides,’ Italo Calvino in his ‘A King Listens’ had the monarch hear around the palace ‘the blathering of the guides,’ and Richmal Crompton’s visit to a church in San Martino was marred ‘by the beastly and amorous guide who insisted on placing me in best position for each picture, with a lot of mauling and pawing. Couldn’t do anything in circs. but grin and bear it.’

Marcel Proust might have agreed, for in Remembrance of Things Past he has his narrator say, when on his way with his love Albertine to a little church she was painting:

The carriage could not take us all the way to the church. I stopped it when we had passed through Quetteholme and bade Albertine good-bye. For she had alarmed me by saying to me of this church as of other monuments and of certain pictures: ‘What a pleasure it would be to see it with you!’ This pleasure was one that I did not feel myself capable of giving her. I felt it myself in front of beautiful things only if I was alone or pretended to be alone and did not speak. But since she had hoped to be able, thanks to me, to experience artistic sensations that cannot be communicated thus, I thought it more prudent to say that I must leave her, that I would come back to fetch he at the end of the day, but that in the meantime I must go back with the carriage to pay a call on Mme Verdurin or on the Cambremers, or even spend an hour with Mamma at Balbec…

A good friend, Keryl Kavanagh, writes, ‘I have to confess to having spent much of my time in museums avoiding overhearing guides giving a spiel about this or that work.’ She speculates that things might improve were they differently trained. ‘Of course it’s much easier to trot out the prepared ten minutes on the Mona Lisa and then rush to the next work. But really, there’s no point in having living guides if they can give you nothing more than a tape-recording can. Oh, they can answer questions (possibly) if one has the temerity to ask. I’ve also reacted to those (usually) male (mostly) Americans you come across in galleries who are loudly telling their (often female but not always – sometimes younger male) companions what to think, with a barely repressed desire to strangle them.’

Henri Matisse was ‘distracted rather than stimulated by the riches of the Uffizi galleries and the Pitti Palace’ when he visited Florence in 1907, wrote Hilary Spurling.
He found it hard to remain patient with Leo [Stein], who, having spent the past seven summers perfecting his knowledge of Florentine art, had laid on a highly specialised programme few tour guides could match.

Leo’s helpful comparisons and didactic tips were admirable for opening the eyes of inquisitive young art students. But Matisse had been looking at pictures as intently as Leo for a great deal longer, and with a ruthlessly professional eye. Travelling was for him essentially a solitary experience. He said that the last thing he needed was Leo buzzing at his back, allowing him a short pause in front of each new masterpiece before darting forward to solicit his impressions. Matisse became exasperated, Leo felt hurt and disappointed.

About that occasion, Wendy Beckett reported Matisse as complaining, ‘I was only looking at art so as to talk about it.’ ‘What does the visitor most desire in a museum?’ asked Robert Hughes. ‘And the answer is: to be alone with works of art,’ so that he even condemned museums for supplying acoustiguides ‘so that the visitor could be spared the discomfort of being alone with his own thoughts in front of a masterpiece.’ (The more telling case against audioguides was Lawrence Weschler’s reference to their being marked by ‘the same bland, slightly unctuous voice you’ve heard in every museum slide show…the reassuringly measured voice of unassailable institutional authority.’) The division over how people should behave showed up in a report on visitors to three art galleries in South Australia: on the statement that art galleries are places for peace and quiet, 51 per cent agreed, and a surprising 30 per cent disagreed, the rest being undecided.

There is a view that the ideal visitor to an art museum is like the classic flâneur or stroller in the streets of nineteenth-century Paris or Weimar Berlin, as celebrated by Walter Benjamin and Franz Hessel. On an imagined ‘sight-seeing’ trip in Berlin Hessel thought any effort by the tour guide (‘our Führer’) to direct or filter the perceptions of his charges highly suspect. ‘The Explainer now forces our gaze’ toward national monuments, or ‘tears our gaze’ over to the palace of justice. The ‘bus travels too quickly’ for the flaneur, ‘we must put it off until a journey through the streets on foot.’ ‘There is no time to research the native secrets of the area from this tourist bus.’ ‘Sometimes it is worthwhile to enjoy, rather than the antiquities, the entertaining presence of the doorman of the arts and lords and his carpet-shuffling herd.’ He advised his ‘dear fellow stranger and fellow tour member’ to ‘come back to this area and have time to get lost a little.’ There is no reason why a voluntary guide in an art museum should not suggest something of ‘the art of getting lost,’ refuse to convey the suggestion of any predetermined interpretation of the works of art, and follow Hessel’s dictum: ‘It is not necessary to understand everything, one only needs to look at it with one’s eyes.’ The model is not that of the tourist guide doling out slabs of predigested interpretation to passive followers, but an equal group of travellers, of whom the voluntary guide is but one, launching themselves into the adventure of the unknown.

The US artist and critic Fairfield Porter consistently played down extraneous information, insisting that ‘experience is the only way to know [art]’, that ‘Art can be known best in its own terms, artistically’, that ‘The experience of art is inhibited if it is experienced as something to be “understood”’, and that ‘Artistic understanding comes from confidence in one’s intuition.’

Harold Acton had these words of praise for a user of few, but exact, words: ‘Professor J.D. Beazley, the great authority on Greek vases, rarely utters, but his few utterances are pregnantly to the point. He is a purist, concerned with the object and not with his own emotions and their literary form. After hearing so many of our Florentine phrase-mongers, one turns to him as to a spring of healing water.’

Guides must not even be afraid of the occasional silence. Barbara Hepworth was very taken with the silences of Herbert Read, saying, ‘Whenever he was in the presence of a new work, of any kind, he was totally silent and he probably wouldn’t speak for half an hour. But the silence itself was a great inspiration because one began to look at the work through his eyes.’ Now and then guides should give their voice a rest and join the viewers in facing the piece and looking at it in silence. By so doing they will be letting viewers’ imagination, and their own, work on what they are looking at without the guidance or distraction of mere words. It was Oscar Wilde who said that James McNeil Whistler’s conversation in Edgar Degas’s presence was reduced to ‘brilliant flashes of silence.’

How many tours have been spoiled because the guide talked too much? Henry James, of all people, criticised Eugène Fromentin for attempting to say too many things about his painters. ‘He can say so much so neatly and so vividly…that he loses all respect for the unsayable – the better half, we think, of all that belongs to a work of art.’ Which is very like Walt Whitman: ‘At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather’d is far more – perhaps the main thing.’ About music, Daniel Barenboim went so far as to say, ‘Whenever we talk about music, we talk about how we are affected by it, not about it itself…I don’t think you can speak about music. You can only speak about a subjective reaction to it.’

If silence is too radical an option for gallery guides, they can at least practice the eloquent pause. ‘The most precious things in speech are pauses,’ was attributed to Ralph Richardson, the British actor. Pauses convey guides’ hopes of being suggestive, open-ended and undogmatic, of allowing for other interpretations besides their own, including the eccentric, and they can contribute to a productive alternation between active and passive viewing.

John Keats was fond of an attitude he called ‘negative capability,’ which he thought was essential for a good poet. He thought it ‘is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ It is about being able to identify completely with another, about being receptive, empathetic, passive even. ‘If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.’ So before a work of art we listen. ‘Does the spectator ever succeed in exhausting the objects he contemplates?’ asks Siegfried Kracauer.

Short takes
‘All I am striving to do is to shift the boundaries of art deeper into the unknown,’ Brancusi said. So, let us start with his Birds in space by honouring their silence, their timelessness, their simplicity, their pure form, their reduction of the grossly material to the pure essence of birds in space, their truth to the material of marble.

There are a number of problems with attempting such an approach:
– there is a good deal of irregularity in Brancusi’s Birds, including around the beak in the first Maiastra Birds, and in all of the Maiastra Birds around the eyes;
– as well as the process of form reduction over the more than thirty years during which Birds were made there was a process of form production, a point that would be clearer, perhaps, had these Birds been moulded or built up. We have to beware of confusing the reduction of the marble entailed in its being carved and the reduction of form between the first Bird and the last. Anyone who tried to end up with a shape like a Bird in space just by cutting away birdish details would instead find themselves with something looking like a chicken carcass;
– judging by the number of broken marble sculptures he left along the way, and by the steel rods up the centres of these Birds in space, it must be said that Brancusi sometimes worked against the objective properties of his materials.

In other words, trying to see these sculptures as pure Platonic forms would be just as intrusive and manipulative a handling of them as any other. We cannot forget that Brancusi was a real live complicated man – he tried to hide his homosexuality yet spent two weeks in Corsica with Jean Cocteau’s teenaged boyfriend, Raymond Radiguet – and that therefore contradictions, departures and tensions exist in his works too.

One solution, as a compromise between saying nothing and too much about Birds in space, would be to follow Max Friedländer’s advice against the vanity of attempting to describe works of art in detail: ‘The “strictest economy of words” is what he enjoins, and recommends limiting oneself to “aphoristic remarks, put together unsystematically”.’

Another solution would be to go for short takes, one being simply: Brancusi probably worked in the sculpture studio of Auguste Rodin in Paris for a month in 1907. The extent of Brancusi’s revolt against Rodin’s style can be seen in the contrast between Rodin’s rugged hollows and lumps and exaggerated gestures expressive of human emotion, and these smooth, carved abstractions of the idea of flight.

Another equally restrained take would be: Brancusi’s first version of a bird, in 1910, was based on Maiastra, a famous bird in the folklore of Rumania, the country where Brancusi was born and where he lived until he was twenty-eight. In the Rumanian legend it was a beautiful and melodious bird, which helped the prince and princess of the fairy-tale find each other with its magic powers. 1910 was also the year when Serge Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet performed, also in Paris, the ballet The Firebird, which was based on a Russian version of the same legend. Similarities exist to stories of golden birds or sun birds in many countries: the Golden Hawk and Bennu in ancient Egypt, Feng Huang in China, Garuda in India, As-Samandal in Arabia, and the Phoenix in the Graeco-Roman world.

One notable difference is that Maiastra is a female bird. Another detail that cannot be ascertained from the smoothed-out Birds is that they have a front and a back, the flat oval plane at the top being a development from the open beak of earlier Birds and therefore indicating the front. This means that if we see the Birds as taking off, they are doing so while bending backwards, and that if they were to slip aerodynamically through space like a Concorde aircraft, they would in fact be flying upside down.

A third take could dwell on the contrasts between the peasant origins of the Birds and the streamlined machine-aesthetic to which they appeal. Some of Brancusi’s Birds are reminiscent of the stylised birds woven in Rumanian rugs, and the rhombic patterns in the bases of his 1912 Birds resemble those carved in the wooden posts of the porches in his mountain village of Hobitza between the Transylvanian Alps to the north and the Danube to the south, in the Oltenia region of Wallachia, west of Bucharest. Rumanian poets, such as Ion Vinea and Lucian Blaga in the 1920s, have written poems about Maiastra and Brancusi’s Birds. Margit Rowell argued that it was because Brancusi, coming out of the age-old traditions of Rumania, did not fit into modern Paris that he turned for parallels to his own ‘remote and timeless sources’ in the equally timeless art of Egypt, Africa and Asia. His art looked industrially streamlined, but was hand-carved: ‘in it, tradition and modernity blend to form a unity in which all traces of the contradictions from which it springs are almost, but not quite, invisible.’

That could easily diverge into an aside on whether Brancusi is better seen as coming out of the past to grapple with the present, or as standing in the present and raiding the past. Rowell seemed to favour the former in her work just quoted, Anna Chave the latter in her conclusion that Brancusi
could painstakingly shape by hand a unique object, such as a Bird in space, that appeared to many onlookers as commercially manufactured and endlessly reproducible; he could make an image evoking the latest in rocket or propeller design and call it instead a magical, mythical bird; and he could anchor that gleaming shaft of metal, seemingly hot off the production line, in a stone cylinder and cross atop a hand-chiseled, course-grained, wooden base, as if it were a cultish icon.

A fourth take: In 1933 the Maharaja of Indore, Yeshwant Rao (‘Bala’) Holkar, decided to buy these two Birds and one other in polished bronze while visiting Brancusi in Paris. Both Holkar and Brancusi wanted the Birds to stand in a temple for spiritual meditation to be built in the grounds of the palace; Chave’s statement that the temple was commissioned, ‘by some accounts, partly as a mausoleum for his recently deceased wife,’ is hard to reconcile with the fact that the Maharanee died in 1937. One of their ideas was that the Birds should stand beside a rectangular pool of water, pointing the spirit upwards. At the end of 1937 Brancusi travelled to the princely state of Indore in west central India to deliver them, but the temple was never built – ‘The death of the Maharanee in Paris in 1937 may well have contributed to the Maharaja’s failing interest in the project,’ Holkar quickly marrying and divorcing one American woman and then marrying another. The Birds’ settings in the National Gallery have nearly always been in some way in sympathy with the original plan, and in any case their great marble weight still spears effortlessly towards heaven – or at least appears to do so, even as it presses heavily downwards.

A fifth take: Between his first Bird in 1910 and the beginning of the second world war in 1939 Brancusi made twenty-seven Birds in marble or polished bronze according to Athena Spear (although Ann Temkin says ‘more than thirty’). The first seven stood very upright, with rounded bodies on straight legs, heads and beaks stretched up high. Then came four in which there was no separation into two legs, and no shoulders, but just a long, thin, body-like shape, swelling out to be widest where the chest and shoulders used to be, and tapering off towards where the head and feet used to be. Finally came sixteen Birds in space, of which these two are numbers 24 (white) and 26 (black), the last two to be carved in marble, the purest expression of aerodynamic streamlining imaginable. Brancusi told Henri-Pierre Rochè in 1936: ‘My last Birds in black and white are the ones where I most approached the right measure – and I approached this measure to the degree that I was able to rid myself of myself.’

A sixth possible take: Can you notice any differences between the two Birds? From below they look fat, oleaginous rather than marmoreal, which can be partly attributed to the lighting and the kinds of reflections it produces off the surfaces. The one in black marble is bigger, being nearly ten centimetres taller, and nearly four centimetres more around at the widest point than the white one. The black Bird has a white marble collar that is also slightly bigger than the other Bird’s, which is made of limestone; and the black Bird stands on a sandstone base that is the same height as the other one, but wider and deeper, and the indentations on two of the sides of the bases are shallower. There are also slight differences in the proportions of the upper and lower parts of the Birds, and in their tilt from the vertical. And do you notice something about the shape of the sandstone bases? The waist of each base is less than halfway up its height, so that there is a greater mass of stone above the indentations than there is below, echoing the greater mass of marble that is being lifted up higher still by the base as a whole.

Brancusi’s bases, including pedestals and plinths, were to him not optional extras, but integral to what they supported, and were even sculptures in their own right. Bases have certain effects anyway: they root a work to one spot, they serve to protect it, they lift it up where it can be more easily seen, they set it apart, they give it greater presence, and they tend to turn anything on top of them into ‘art.’ In addition, Brancusi created interplays between the forms, materials and textures of superstructure and base, and often intended the rise from base to work to symbolise a progress up a hierarchy from lower to higher: in our case, for instance, from geometrical to organic forms.

One work that can be seen as relating to looking at the base as sculpture is Robert Morris’s Slab (platform), 1973 (originally shown on its own, but intended by the artist to be accompanied by his Slab (cloud), 1973), after the first exhibition of which John Cage reported ‘that he didn’t see any works of art in the gallery, just a slab on the floor.’

All six takes could be strung together if the occasion called for it, but any one of them is capable of standing on its own as an admirably self-restrained reflection. They focus, in turn, on bouncing off the work of an older sculptor, as Brancusi did; on seeing the sculptures’ links with world-wide legend; on their hauling of peasant handcraft into the machine age; on seeing their intended Indian setting; on seeing their place in Brancusi’s oeuvre; and on a close scrutiny of them as material objects: a small sample of delights from the endless smorgasbord of the artist’s context, style and intentions, the work’s subject matter, contents, materials and viewing contexts and current viewers’ contexts and points of view, and so on. In each case a particular conception of the Birds governs our perceptions.

Mary Eagle said something similar: ‘There are many ways of looking at a painting, and for each approach there are many sightings.’ Because adding up the information from all of the sightings would produce nothing less than life itself, and a synthesis would subsume everything to its own logic, her preference was for seeking out the relations between overlapping and contradictory points of view, without requiring that the differences between be resolved.’

Shakespeare has Hamlet offering short takes of the clouds for a gullible Polonius, except that his were not meant to be helpful:
Hamlet:    Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a
Polonius:     By the mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet:      Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius:     It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet:      Or like a whale?
Polonius:     Very like a whale.

Charles Schulz’s version of this was perhaps even more relevant to art appreciation:
Lucy:    What do you see in the clouds, Linus?
Linus:    Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of British Honduras in the Caribbean. That cloud looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor, and that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen.
Lucy:    And Charlie – what do you see?
Charlie: Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie. But I changed
my mind.

We may take our pleasure of any art, but few works permit such wanton interpretation, and we would jeopardise the right of the work of art to be itself were we to elevate our authority over it in the way of Hamlet. Far better to involve everyone in the effort of probing for their own facts and producing their own meanings than of having to listen to imposed interpretations. We should not be trying to tell viewers everything anyway. Asking questions is often better, including leading questions which we have no intention of answering ourselves or of waiting for an answer to from our listeners – so that viewers can work out their own responses independently and privately for themselves.

What I mainly want to take from Hamlet, however, is the lesson of just how much perceptions are governed by concepts.

Ian Burn (1939–93) claimed the right of the artist to dictate the takes – nine of them – that viewers were expected to make of his Blue premiss, no. 2, 1965–67, remade 1992. The work consists of a large blue painting and a small white page. On the left half of the page is a table with nine empty rows, below which Burn put these words:


The surface of the painting is a single uniform colour.
The surface is defined into nine sections or ‘areas’ through the effect of light on the differing finishes: the mat ‘lines’ absorb light while the gloss ‘lines’ reflect the light.
All ‘areas’ are stated with equal size, proportion, colour and surface. Visually, they are all ‘the same’.

On the right half of the page is the same table, but with each row now labelled in the top left corner, from ‘NINE FEET’ in the top row to ‘ONE FOOT’ in the bottom one, and with the following words appearing in larger type in the middle of each row, from top to bottom:

Below the table are these words:


Attached to each ‘area’ is an experiential word.
Each word, since it does not conflict with a viewer’s responses, conditions the responses to each section of the surface.
By establishing a condition for each section, the viewer’s perception is influenced, thus allowing each section to be seen as different and displacing the visual ‘sameness’.

As Michiel Dolk commented: ‘Much in the way that catalogue information tends to mediate perceptions of works of art, the spectator was forced to reconcile two separate orders of information: the linguistic and perceptual…This time the play on sameness and difference was transferred from object to text, a play which translated the untranslatable and exposed the (incommensurable) gap between concept and percept.’

Earlier in 1965 Burn had made Yellow premiss, which consisted of six identical paintings. ‘Sameness seemed to offer a functioning outside of the direct perceptual mode,’ he later said; ‘“sameness” seems to function in language prior to perception.’ He said he had reached ‘a point arrived at by eliminating everything that wasn’t vital and what I have done since has been built from that point. This is why I have called it Yellow Premiss…concentrating on the idea or concept to the point of denying any physical qualities whatsoever…a way of working where the actual paint has no qualities of its own…’ Blue premiss, no. 1 followed in 1966, which Burn described as ‘a painting consisting of nine areas which appear the “same” in all respects, but the sizes of which are all slightly different.’

That these three works were all made in London enabled Dolk to speculate that Burn nostalgically edited out all but the beach-yellow and the sea-blue from his 1963–64 tributes to Sidney Nolan’s St Kilda, with even the yellow ‘to disappear in the glacial (glazed) surfaces of saturated blue.’ Blue premiss, no. 2 was not the end of that road for Burn, for as Dolk said, ‘as a physical support for the projection of language, Blue Premiss proved cumbersome. The disparity in scale between the phenomenological space of painting and the textual space of the page still revealed a fundamental incongruity between two domains of activity bound by their respective conventions’; and Burn’s theoretical concerns were developed in his 1968 essay, ‘The role of language.’ But this painting did mark a progress in Burn’s work from the discovery of the premiss or fundamental presupposition that the perceptual properties of a work of art are of secondary relevance to the act of seeing and thereby thinking it, to the logical conclusion that conceptual properties are primary.

(The opposite position was voiced by Stéphane Mallarmé, when Edgar Degas complained to him that he was making no progress writing a sonnet, despite being full of ideas, ‘But, Degas, it is not with ideas that you make a poem…You make it with words.’ But, Burns, it is not with ideas that you make a painting…You make it with brushmarks.)

When he returned to Australia in 1977, however, he reengaged with the landscape, so that whereas in 1967–68 his Looking through a piece of glass had been just that (at those words), by 1989 his Homage to Albert (‘South through Heavitree Gap’) was of looking at the sentence ‘A LANDSCAPE IS NOT SOMETHING YOU LOOK AT BUT SOMETHING YOU LOOK THROUGH’ through a reproduction of an Albert Namatjira painting. ‘At the time,’ wrote Ann Stephen, ‘we were writing an essay together on Albert Namatjira which proposed that the Aboriginal artist’s adoption of the European watercolour tradition engaged in a double vision which resisted assimilation.’

Homage to Albert was a precursor of his ‘Value added’ landscapes, 1992–93, in which he took amateur landscapes picked up in markets and junk shops and covered them with text on perspex, the title being a play on the current insistence on processing the nation’s raw materials prior to export. He saw merit in the paintings, himself beginning as an amateur painter in the Geelong Art Society in the mid-1950s. He wrote:

The text self-consciously models a set of relationships – between itself and the viewer, between itself and the picture, and with itself as text. Thus the text appears as a psychological presence for the picture, as an aspect of the picture’s ‘surveillance’ of the viewer, and as a critical self-reference. The interweaving movement between these modes of address promotes slippages, simulating the kinds of shifts which occur frequently in our patterns of seeing pictures. This ‘phenomenological’ reading reassembles the text within a pictorial (not typographical) iconicity.

The text contests the representational limits of the landscape painting, opening it up to other competences of the viewer and ‘releasing’ new qualities of the painting. This exchange transforms both text and image, leaving a sense of incompleteness attached to each element. Parts of the text describe the picture, other bits offer no match, positioning the text ‘out of registration’ with the picture. Hence the picture can never quite anticipate or displace the text, or the text substitute for the picture. The text engages the picture in order to insist on incommensurabilities: it proposes a unity to inform us of discontinuities.

Try to ignore the text, he said, and words keep intervening – words separated from their sentences, the picture having that power to take the text apart. Concentrate on the text, and the picture keeps coming out between lines, words and letters. Having to see through and around the text means that we end up imagining the picture as much as we see it. Everything is moving and changing: a constant process of fresh ‘takes’.

Ad Reinhardt and Robert Ryman
At the National Gallery of Australia the placement of other works near Brancusi’s Birds in space has often proved instructive. At one time there was a wonderful dialogue with the similarly pared-down images of Tahitian coral, birds and fish in Henri Matisse’s Oceania, the sky. Painting 1954–1958 by Ad Reinhardt (1913–67) has also sometimes hung near the Birds, making two works in the same room to have suffered irreparable damage. The white Bird, as we can see, has had the top of its ‘beak’ chipped off and glued back on. It was knocked off by Brancusi himself as he was carrying it on his shoulders through the door of the palace in India to present it to its first owner, the Maharaja of Indore, in January 1938. Reinhardt’s painting was irreparably damaged by an as yet unknown visitor to the Gallery in 1997 who, from the two or three handprints on the surface, may have fallen forward into it after tripping on a protective box put on the floor to stop viewers getting too close. All the Gallery needs is one of Lucio Fontana’s deliberately slashed canvases to put in the same room.

Reinhardt would have supported the judgement ‘irreparably,’ saying on at least one occasion that only he could restore his paintings, and proving it while he was alive when he had them returned to him for repair. The irony is that the erection of the box was a protective measure recommended by the first commentator on the painting for the National Gallery, Lucy Lippard, who said:
The increasingly nocturnal effect of the dark canvases is due to the oil being drained from the paints…The disadvantage was that the paintings became extremely sensitive to damage from any oily substance, especially fingerprints.
Pointing out how bright light can obscure the detail in the work, she continued:
The more invisible the work becomes, the more impatient viewers become; they are often constrained to touch instead of look and can thus damage the painting irrevocably…One solution is low white boxes in front of each painting to keep viewers at a respectful distance.

In 1987, ten years after Lippard’s advice and ten years before the Reinhardt disaster, a Mark Rothko painting on loan from the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, Green and tangerine on red, was damaged when a woman visitor to the National Gallery of Australia, ‘middle-aged and possibly wearing thick glasses’ according to a witness, also tripped over a low box placed in front of the work and dinted the canvas with her elbow.

Damage aside, at first glance at the Reinhardt we seem to be looking at nothing more than a black square. This is baffling to anyone who expects a painting to imitate nature, or to tell a story, or to express an emotion.

A longer and closer look, preferably from several angles, uncovers an almost invisible cross-like shape of bands and squares. Colours also emerge, although these can usually be seen only subliminally. ‘Looking isn’t as simple as it looks,’ said Reinhardt.

Perhaps most intriguing is the discovery that the surface of the work has apparently been built up with very small soft brush-strokes. In this way colours such as red and blue have been submerged by the dark grey, changes in the direction of the brush strokes have defined the shapes, and an extraordinarily interesting matt finish has been achieved. The surface absorbs our gaze, as it absorbs the light.

Even so, compared with other paintings there is, as Reinhardt himself said, ‘nothing to latch onto.’ One of his reasons for choosing matt black was that black (or dark grey) was a non-colour, and the matt surface would not reflect anything going on in the room. The result is an absence of almost everything that might distract us from the contemplation of pure painting. As time and effort fall away, our perceptions reach out into unexpected subtleties of an almost non-physical kind. There is nothing here demanding that we see this or admire that. Instead, we are persuaded to leave nature, history, literature and religion behind us and to experience art at its most pure and elemental.

Nevertheless, close as this work approaches to the metaphysical ideal, it is still a material object, paint on canvas, whose carefully constrained shapes and colours and textures are fascinating in their fugitive effects.

Reinhardt valued art that was, in his own words, thoughtful, absolute, pure, cool, empty, quiet, unique, unmannered, negative, lifeless, soundless, airless, smell-less, motionless, timeless, useless, undramatic, unpoetic, austere, abstract, square, moral, disciplined, traditional, formal, colourless, dark, noble, hieratic, symmetrical, repetitious, invisible, disinterested, complete, rational, conscious, clear. He drew up twelve rules for art: no texture, no brushwork or calligraphy, no sketching or drawing, no forms, no design, no colours, no light, no space, no time, no size or scale, no movement, no object or subject. As fellow spirits he cited Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (‘No more imagination, no more movement’), G.K. Chesterton (‘I never get enough nothing to do’), and Lao Tzu (‘The five colours will blind a man’s sight’), W.H. Auden (the phrase ‘the total dark sublime’ in his poem ‘The More Loving One’), and Jeremiah (‘and the heavens above be black’).

Also sometimes hanging near Brancusi’s Birds in space is Arena, 1977, by Robert Ryman (born 1930). It consists of a near-square canvas covered in near-white paint, the kind of thing that Ryman, by 1977, had been making for the previous twenty years and would continue to make into the new century. The black Reinhardt and the white Ryman are a good pair to accompany the black and white Birds in space.

Were all Ryman’s white paintings to be seen together, the differences between them would stand out, for they range from very small to very big, and display a great variety of paints and brushstrokes on many kinds of surfaces – stretched and unstretched, framed and unframed and suspended by all sorts of attachments – and with all kinds of different relationships with the wall.

In the 1960s they tended to be seen as colour-field, post-painterly abstraction or minimalist, with the artist’s own ‘The painting is exactly what you see’ guiding other viewers away from looking for the earnest metaphors of the earlier Abstract Expressionists; they seemed so perfectly in tune with Clement Greenberg’s insistence that painting be non-representational within a flattened picture space.

However, Ryman called himself a ‘Realist,’ taking pains to distinguish his art from Minimalism and abstraction generally as much as from representational art, all of which in his opinion made the mistake of inviting viewers into an imaginary world inside the painting. What Ryman meant by ‘Realism’ was the abandonment of the picture, ‘and since there’s no picture, there’s no story. And there’s no myth. And there is no illusion, above all.’ He painted the paint, and not anything else with the paint. ‘He has said that there is no question of what to paint but only how to paint – that is, that the “how” of painting contains the meaning.’

The opposite position, from which Ryman was trying to escape, was well-explained by Philip Guston in 1978 when he said:
The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see. I suppose the same thing was true in the Renaissance. There is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous statement that painting is a thing of the mind. I think that’s right. I think that the idea of the pleasure of the eye is not merely limited, it isn’t even possible. Everything means something. Anything in life or in art, any mark you make has meaning and the only question is, ‘what kind of meaning?’

Within 1960s art Philip Leider distinguished between ‘abstraction,’ by which he meant an emphasis on line and colour in two dimensions, and ‘literalism,’ an emphasis on the work of art’s existence as a made physical object (roughly Ryman’s position). ‘That the differences were immense,’ he wrote, ‘can be seen simply by comparing a [Kenneth] Noland circle painting with a [Jasper] Johns target. The one is about color and centeredness and two-dimensional abstraction…The other is about an object called a target and an object called a painting…’ The critics Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried and William Rubin and artists such as Morris Louis, Noland, Jules Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler – the abstractionists – were seen as pitted against artists such as Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Carl Andre – the literalists. Both sides drew inspiration from Jackson Pollock; and Frank Stella had a foot in both camps, so that when Rubin quoted Stella as saying that Stella’s move to three-inch deep stretchers actually accentuated the two-dimensionality of the painting’s surface, Leider scathingly wondered why greater depth did not make the object more three-dimensional.

One clue to understanding Ryman’s work is that he learnt to paint by painting, after one day wandering into an art-supply shop in New York, where he was working as a jazz player, and buying some oil paint, canvas board and brushes:
I was just seeing how the paint worked, and how the brushes worked. I was just using the paint, putting it on a canvas board, putting it on thinly with turpentine, and thicker to see what that was like, and trying to make something happen without any specific idea what I was painting.

After that, a couple of short art courses aside, he learnt by looking directly at real paintings while working as a security attendant at the Museum of Modern Art between 1953 and 1960 (just before Dan Flavin thought up his ideas for electric light art while working as a guard in the early 1960s in the American Museum of Natural History in the same city). Since the act of painting and the act of looking at physical paintings were the sources of his art, it may be appropriate for other viewers to adopt the same curious and intuitive and experimental approach to this output, concentrating on what is physically present, making the most of experiencing it at first-hand. What one is likely to experience is a growing ability to discriminate between shades of white, kinds of white, paint thicknesses and thinnesses, methods of applying paint, material supports for the paint and so on.

Most of his paintings have been white, yet he said:
It was never my intention to make white paintings. And it still isn’t. I don’t even consider that I paint white paintings. The white is just a means of exposing other elements of the painting, that can make it clear. White enables other things to become visible.
It is a case of the more art stays the same, the more it changes. White also is not freighted with much symbolism or mysticism, and does not over-emphasise a painting as a shape against a wall. Most have also been square, a quality that is similarly valued for its neutrality. Ryman’s position is very close to that of Robert Rauschenberg, who in the early 1950s made black paintings and white paintings, and for whom, according to James Fenton, ‘The point was not the paint itself but what happened in the looking at it. “A canvas is never empty,” Rauschenberg later wrote.’

Robert Storr took pains to show the falsity of supposed influences on Ryman of Kasimir Malevich’s White on white of 1918, of Rauschenberg’s monochrome paintings of 1951–52, and of Jasper Johns’s brushstrokes; and whereas Ad Reinhardt negatively subtracted all vestiges of representation etc from his painting, Ryman positively sought the point at which he had enough to work with. ‘[I]t is obvious,’ Storr added, ‘how gross formal comparisons between works can lead to false explanations of their genesis and meaning.’ Ryman, unlike most other artists, valued seeing what is physically there and then letting the experience of seeing the painting work on one’s feelings (as opposed to using historical, theoretical or philosophical references to find any hidden content: compare Roger Scruton, ‘There is no greater error in the study of human things than to believe that the search for what is essential must lead us to what is hidden’).

The history of monochromes began with Malevich’s quite small black painting, made about 1913 and exhibited in 1915; he made others in the 1920s; there was also the red one of 1917 and the white one of 1918, all Non-Objective paintings that symbolised the pure reality of space and energy in the spiritual cosmos. Then there were Reinhardt’s and Rauschenberg’s in the 1950s, and from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s Yve Klein’s bright and sensuous paintings in the patented International Klein Blue, put on with a roller, with the corners of the canvases slightly rounded, and symbolic for Klein of the Void. Ryman began in the late 1950s, and it was not until the mid-1960s that Mark Rothko made his first true monochromes, which were for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. In the 1990s there was a revival of interest of an appropriative or a revisiting kind to test art and art theory, with A.D.S. Donaldson, for instance, making allover purple paintings and prints.

Whether or not Ryman would claim that the elimination of all meaning is possible, he certainly claimed that a painting of his is just a physical and material object, as real as the wall it hangs on, related to nothing outside itself – except the wall; for since, like other ordinary real objects, it has no frame, ‘there is an interaction between the painting and the wall plane, and even to a certain extent with the room itself.’ In some respects he presents painting as collage, in the sense that in front of this work we are able to intuit the essence of painting because it has been detached from its normal use, in much the same way as Edmund Husserl and other phenomenologists would have us achieve an epoché or engagement with phenomena in themselves.

Although Thomas McEvilley found precursors and counterparts for this position in Piet Mondrian, who wanted his work to be ‘free of the tragic,’ in Piero Manzoni, who wrote in 1960 in terms almost identical to Ryman’s, and in the European ‘analytic painters’ of the 1970s, he argued – in spite of Ryman’s not thinking of his work as sculpture at all – for viewing Ryman’s paintings as sculptural.

In any case, Ryman’s attempt to get rid of the picture would have embraced pictures in sculptures as well as in paintings. Whether or not he succeeded must be left in the hands of viewers, many of whom, from my experience, find mystical truths conveyed through his surfaces; McEvilley thought that ‘absence was already a kind of narrative.’ This raises the interesting possibility, not just that any work of art can mean different things to different people, but that two physically identical works of art can mean quite different things even to the same person.