presence | absense


How do you describe a canvas covered completely and only in white paint?

I’m thinking of paintings like Rauschenberg’s seven panels. What can be seen there? 

Or what about the projection of only clear leader in Paik’s Zen for Film? Or a piece of music that is full or rests, or pages of nothing marked on the score except some timings, as in Cage’s Four Minutes Thirty Three? Or imagine other such stuff, like the dance of a certain number of people just standing there not moving, or a poem with nothing written, or a five course meal with cutler, crockery but no food or drink to ingest, or a website that loads with nothing there, not even an error code. Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone somewhere has done versions of any or all of these.

Rauschenberg seems to have oscillated in his description of the canvases. First up, he went for a symbolic interpretation, that the whiteness was a purity representing something of the divine and infinite: ‘1 white as 1 GOD… presented with the innocence of a virgin. This was a representation of something beyond.’ But he also thought the canvases as a reduction, in pursuit of the Modernist artistic formula made famous, prosecuted, by the critic Greenberg—the stripping back of all supposedly superfluous elements to arrive at the basic unique qualities of each artform (in the case of painting, it was said to be opticality and flatness, but this at best is only relevant to the tradition of canvas painting; ask a panel beater what core qualities of their art are, and they might nod to opticality, smoothness (no bumps across curved planes) and depth-iness (the way car paint, especially metallic types, seems to sink below the surface)). This is what a critic of the time, Crehan, said of the Rauschenberg’s white paintings: ‘they are a climax… to the esthetic of the purge, with its apparatus of elimination, its systems of denials, rejections and mortifications.’ This was the reduction of what was expected; no image.

Some years later, Rauschenberg hooked up with Cage, who was working towards the so-called silence piece Four Minutes Thirty Three (4’33”) and who was inspired by Rauschenberg’s white paintings to actually make this piece of music public. It was then that a third way of talking about the paintings emerged, which Cage actually provides. This time, he wasn’t referring to something other (a yearning symbolism) nor to what it wasn’t (the blanking of imagery and symbols). Instead, it is about what is palpably there, in and around the canvases: 

‘the white paintings were airports for the lights, shadows, and particles’ and they ‘caught whatever fell on them.’ 

It is now not possible to describe these paintings as white, since there is dust, different shades of lighting and the shadows cast by architecture and people.

This way of perceiving and appreciating what was there, rather than what is not, is very much in approach of Cage around this time. Cage himself moved through a similar triplet of interpretation surrounding 4’33” (and related draft/preliminary pieces). First there was a his somewhat symbolic idea of a Silent Prayer to sell to the Muzak company to include in their elevator and background music offerings (I doubt they would have bought it). Next, he visited an anechoic chamber in the hope of experiencing what it was like to not hear anything at all. These chambers are completely sound proof with hyper angular foam padding only all walls, ceilings and floor so any sound made is not reflected. Dead silent. The auditory realm reduced to zero. But upon entering, Cage instantly heard a high pitch and low rumble, and apparently it was the janitor who explained this was the sound of Cage’s circulatory and nervous systems. So, suddenly he realises whenever there is life, there is sound. Silence is not actually possible, and if we call something silent that just means we are not concentrating enough, or rather we are focusing on something else.

Such an approach links to Cage’s interest in Zen Bhuddism and other non-Western-classical views. And Joseph in his White on White essay links all this to Bergson (who wrote Creative Evolution) and specifically to his idea of ‘positive difference’. A negative difference is when something is seen as different to something else, in a way that makes that something lacking. A blank piece of paper is describe as ‘blank’ only in relation to the idea that paper should be marked, ignoring the fact that the paper is already full of immense visual and tactile subtleties. Blankness is a negative difference. A piece of music can only be described as silent when we imagine what level and type of sounds its should be making, ignoring the sounds that are already going on all around us. Silence is a negative difference. The symbolic is also a negative difference, as the great semioticians have shown us. The sign or symbol is directs us away from itself, to something other which it is not. A sign is a negative difference. A positive difference is something else all together. It is the noticing of what is going on right here, right now, and not in terms of what is should be, over there.