Hendrik Wittkopf: Nothing Not Invisible

Just as architects, designers and engineers ‘work to a brief’, can’t we think of artists as investigators/developers/inventors/synthesizers who also work to or from a brief? In the book Patterns of Intention Michael Baxandall asked exactly that question. He approached artworks in terms of the imagined briefs that they could be seen to address. The obvious complications for an artist are: [1] that they usually set the briefs for themselves; and [2] set them tacitly instead of explicitly and often without ever properly voicing the terms of those requirements; what’s more – [3] in a common artistic rendition of the future anterior – an artist is often only able to identify the brief in retrospect, after the work has been done. A final complication that arises is the question: [4] How far is it ever possible to describe a brief for an artwork or for series of artworks – even a brief that is tacit and/or future anterior – without first imagining an audience of some kind, with its particular proclivities and habits of speech, thought and visual-social behaviour?

Hendrik Wittkopf’s self-chosen brief seems to impose a peculiar set of demands upon his painting. They come close to asking for the impossible. He stages an ordeal in which, on the one hand, an individual painting is not permitted to hammer out a properly pictorial unity either through a declarative visual structure or by its compositional, chromatic or narrative resolution; yet on the other hand, the painting is not permitted to become abstract in any conventional sense.

In Della Pittura, published in 1435 as probably the first theoretical book on painting, Alberti wrote: “No one would deny that the painter has nothing to do with things that are not visible. The painter is concerned solely with what can be seen…” ; the painter’s task is “to describe with lines and to tint with colour… (the) observed planes of any body so that…they appear in relief and seem to have mass.”

Let’s say that the contemporary painter’s task is precisely the opposite of the one Alberti formulated: today we affirm that THE PAINTER HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THINGS THAT ARE NOT INVISIBLE. Hence the triple negative that presides over contemporary painting: nothing not invisible. We could argue endlessly about how and why painting’s historical relation to the in/visible got inverted since Alberti, but for now let’s just acknowledge some obvious ingredients in the mix: [a] through the historical growth of capital and especially the rise of the commodity, value as such became invisible; [b] through the psychoanalytic formulation of the unconscious, the subject became invisible to herself; [c] photography was invented largely to do the job described above by Alberti, and it soon did it better and cheaper than painting, thereby forcing painting to seek fresh pastures; [d] day by day we now routinely navigate a lifeworld in which causal relations as such (be they social, economic, electro-magnetic, pathological, meteorological or other) remain invisible and do not avail themselves to the eye.

For Wittkopf, and for the purposes of making a painting, the problem is one of finding pictorial contact with what is not visible: rubbing against the invisible until some kind of pictorial resistance is experienced. Some sort of friction created. But what is the invisible for Wittkopf? It is not exactly the spectral. It seems to be rendered by him often as something almost totemic and iconic, which has to remain unnameable. Almost nameable, almost a mesh of resemblances but always shrugging off the cloak of the name. But in their resistance to the name, the paintings sustain a very insistent and precarious particularity. There are determinate assemblies of marks/colours within the paintings that function as ‘figures’ in relation to ‘grounds’ but without anything like figuration appearing. Here the transparency and translucency of the colours helps to hold figuration proper at bay, because no figure is ever quite separate from its ground.

According to Wittkopf’s brief, abstraction seems to be prohibited. Why? Because abstraction has had a tendency to answer invisibility either with universals (Mondrian, Rothko) or with some non-depictive mode of visibility, such as the trace (Pollock) or the unmediated percept (Riley). Wittkopf is committed to particularity plus invisibility. That’s why his brief demands the implausible. Yet in demanding also an articulation of figure/ground – albeit one that is at best vestigial – it arrives at near impossibility. Wittkopf’s work reminds me of Rothko before he became Rothko. The Rothko of the 1930s and 40s: paintings of angular alienated New Yorkers on subway platforms interposed between alternating zones of saturated and tempered colour; followed by difficult paintings of stylised figures with titles taken from classical myths. These mythological paintings never quite added up. But you breathe in their fearlessness, recklessness and risk, attested to in his slogan “Rather prodigal than niggardly.” Nevertheless, something crucial was got from the intermediate paintings of the 30s and early 40s that went beyond their inventive technical informality (important though that turned out to be): this was the sense that Rothko’s fundamental intervention was an assertion of the archaic and even the ahistorical. His intervention was arguably dependent in turn on him being pretty clear about what was nameable in the paintings.

What of the quasi-figures in Wittkopf’s paintings? What are they? Some are like limbs. Or garments without bodies. Bodies/body parts without personas. Some are like monoliths. Boulders. Rocky hillocks. None are fully opaque. These are quasi-figures that as fragments and part-objects seem to have a fetish function. But it’s hard to say what kind of fetish we ought to be talking about: psychoanalytical or ethnological version? (And presumably not the Marxian version.) In the way Wittkopf’s paintings perform their evident desire for a figure – or at least a quasi-figure or place-holder for a figure – they walk a fine line between poetic irresolution and blurry evasiveness. The risks of irresolution carry their own costs, which Wittkopf weighs against what he regards as the higher price to be paid by manifest pictorial resolution. I’m sceptical about this: for me the refusal to define things can itself become a form of violence that is frequently just as determinate and just a restrictive as any production of definitions. Indeed, isn’t contemporary art in general plagued by evasions carried out in the name of irresolution /creative fluidity /anti-definition? In my view there is a real ideological dilemma here that is settled in practice only at a deeper level, according to how as an artist one interpellates an audience, since it is the audience that must receive and somehow find nourishment or empowerment in the splashes or intervals of irresolution they are offered. Or, in the terms mentioned at the start, how can you describe a brief for an artwork without invoking an audience of some sort (whether that audience be utopian, futural, present, confraternal, intimate, anonymous, mercantile or whatever)? Wittkopf’s project acts out a constant challenge for contemporary painting: should it proceed according to an aesthetics of irresolution allied to a Bartleby ethics of preferring-not? Or does it wade into the muddy waters of tactical style-mongering? Or instead invoke the rigours of a grand unifying strategy? Wittkopf’s dislike of both tactics and strategy might be folly. On the other hand it might sow the seeds of a genuine invention. If it does, then that would constitute not the painterly behaviour of an author, but rather the production by and in painting of a new subject.

John Chilver