Monday, 7 January 2013

Black or White

From 'The Writings of Robert Motherwell', University of California Press, 2007:

Black or White
February 10th, 1950

Are we to mark this day with a white or a black stone?- Don Quixote, II, ii, 10

There is so much to be seen in a work of art, so much to say if one is concrete and accurate, that it is a relief to deal on occasion with a simple relation.

Yet not even it, no more than any other relation in art, is so simple.

The chemistry of the pigments is interesting: ivory black, like bone black, is made from charred bones or horns, carbon black is the result of burnt gas, and most common whites- apart from cold, slimy zinc oxide and recent bright titanium dioxide- are made from lead, and are extremely poisonous on contact with the body. Being soot, black is light and fluffy, weighing a twelfth of the average pigment; it needs much oil to become a painter's paste, and dries slowly. Sometimes I wonder, laying in a great black stripe on a canvas, what animal's bones (or horns) are making the furrows of my picture. A captain on the Yukon River painted the snow black in the path of his ships for 29 miles; the black strip melted three weeks in advance of spring, and he was able to reach clear water. Black does not reflect, but absorbs all light; that is its essential nature; while that of white is to reflect all light; dictionaries define it as snow's colour, and one thinks of the black slit glasses used when skiing. For the rest, there is a chapter in Moby Dick that evokes white's qualities as no painter could, except in his medium.

Indeed, it is our medium that rescues us painters. "The black grows deeper and deeper, darker and darker before me. It menaces me like a black gullet. I can bear it no longer. It is monstrous. It is unfathomable. As the thought comes to me to exorcise and transform this black with a white drawing, it has already become a surface. Now I have lost all fear, and begin to draw on the black surface." (Arp).
Only love- for painting, in this instance- is able to cover the fearful void. A fresh white canvas is a void, as is the poet's sheet of blank white paper.

But look for yourselves. I want to get back to my whitewashed studio. If the amounts of black and white are right, they will have condensed into quality, into feeling.