"Hēliotropion" - Shattering or Healing
In anticipation of "Hēliotropion," Tamar Getter's exhibition recently on display at the Mishkan Museum of Art, Ein Harod, H.S.L.R. talked with her about horses and other matters that preoccupy her in her work: painting stoppages, idealization, and painting as a "machine," immobile.
"Hēliotropion" ('facing the sun') is Tamar Getter's new painting installation at the Mishkan Museum of Art, Ein Harod. The recurring image of this show is a horse on its back. Two of the show's three sections exhibit drawings, and the third is a strip painting that delimits a rectangular structure within the exhibit hall. For more than two years, Getter drew horses doing their relaxation roll, on their backs, inventing the modes and content of her drawing via photographed analyses of the roll, questioning in the process what would be her attitude of description toward an event that lasts only a few seconds, which content is pleasure. The drawings focus on great speed of execution, on thinking about the powers and capabilities of the continuous line, and on the unique qualities of serialized repetition in regard. In a chosen contrast to the drawings, Getter's strip painting revisits her questions of sequence and movement through a new development of her fragmentary, 'slow' painting with its concerns with 'painting stoppages: ways of physically constraining its production and content. The strip painting shows a series of imaginary clusters of horse, writing table, and sunflower (as in the drawings, they are all 'on their backs') that simulate huge barriers hovering above an imaginary track.
In response to the exhibition H.S.L.R. spoke with Getter. The interviewer name is a fictional acronym that disguises a friend.
H.S.L.R.: Let us talk about what you call 'painting stoppages.' Where does this term come from?
Tamar Getter: From the title of a work by Marcel Duchamp, Network of Stoppages.
H.: Do you refer to it?
T.: To its title. Duchamp combined a figurative oil painting with the product of a random measurement and a diagram. I stayed with the notion of stoppage, obstruction, halting, in the context of my thoughts about the inanimate immobility of painting. For me it has become a question on the modes of physically constraining its production – delaying the already delayed.
H.: I'm making a list: drawing from memory or with covered eyes, replacing the 'painterly’ touch with laconic stamping by sniping a paint-covered cord, large formats that hamper the execution and viewing of the whole painting, discarding measuring implements when they are required and necessary (all your schemes), and conversely – working with large rulers attached to the body, which regulate the movement of the drawing hand… Are these the 'stoppages?'
T.: Sort of, yes.
H.: You've dedicated hundreds of drawings to the fraction of a second out of the horse's brief relaxation roll. What started this preoccupation?
T.: A film clip about dressage. This monstrous training is followed by relaxation. The horses then wallow on their backs in sand or paddles.
H.: Drawing a roll?
T.: I'd say their freedom, their deep joyous pleasure. The roll delighted me! I got curious.
H.: It is a reflex of sorts that dogs too have, isn't it so?. They also wallow in carcasses, I think.
T.: Yes, but this is not relaxation. It's for disguise. There was a time I used to watch tapes of rock concerts with the sound off, just to study the movements of the limbs and the pelvis: to watch the look of rhythm. But nothing is more beautiful than a dead-tired horse lying on its back, happy. It is a mind-blowing beauty. As if 'nature' itself is coming apart.
H.: The large strip painting is also made of repeating units.
T.: I'm captivated by it. The movement of that which reiterates, runs through again and again, a thing inherently broken, forever demanding readjustment and correction. What regularly embodies a work process is for me the work itself. Nissim Aloni, Ionescu, Albert Camus, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard – they all create such specific 'stuck-on-gas-pedal' situations; you press and press but your story-machine does not move… This describes my painting-machine as well. It is about a movement stopped. The opposite of the horse's movement.
H.: You have said on several occasions that these reflections on work process seek to delay as much as possible the expectation for, or the prospect of, stylistic perfection with all of its associated 'aesthetic' discussion. What does this mean?
T.: It's simple. A horse, for example, used to be an artistic certification of sorts: Make a horse, and we'll know what you are worth... I couldn't care less about improving my drawing of horses… "Hēliotropion" is a story about painting, long before and long after it is a story about horses. And yet a horse is a condensed capsule of everything that painting is not.
H.: What attracts you about 'a machine that does not move'?
T.: Do I have a choice? This has been my life: I am stuck with a wheel against a wall. This is painting – it doesn't move. The delay, the waiting, the chance. To delay for the sake of affinity, getting close to the now of doing, to the becoming. I like the transient, the taken-apart. Or perhaps I don't know how to do anything else. It's also a possibility. My paintings always seem to me like stuttering that has been neatly organized, helped.
H.: Organize the stuttering? But everything here is quite fluent…
T.: Oh really? The movement of the broken, more likely. Nothing moves.
H.: I find that the expressive intensity of the drawing pushes aside the 'normal' astonishment at your strange Houdini practices. I am less interested in the process, or in the repetition. The drawings are very expressive and immediate. Is it the subject – the horse being very contorted when it wallows?
T.: It is an animal. A gigantic one, on its back. A wallowing horse is an event.
H.: In the drawing, it looks like a wounded animal, maybe even a bloated corpse.
T.: It drove me crazy. The horse is having great fun, but each drawing act condemns the roll to freeze, and makes it seem as evidence of terrible suffering. But I think we are all aware of how similar pain and pleasure might appear. It's embarrassing sometimes, for example in the torturing of martyrs. They are meant to appear to be suffering, and not from the petit mort, which is what the French call the orgasm. Anyway, I really wanted and attempted to describe just pleasure, of a horse, on its back, in the sand.
H.: I'd like to pause on the tension here that is new to me: what is going on between your usual work procedures and the blunt, direct expressiveness of the new work? There is something grandiose about it, but also dark, apocalyptic; the great, heavy bodies, the upturned tables, the falling… and conversely the odd floating of all the elements, as if they are completely weightless. I've also seen several drawings where a baby's head is hidden in a horse's bosom... This is not exactly the idiom you have been speaking in until now.
T.: It would have been great to grow up in a horse's bosom, or at least be the student of Chiron the Centaur. Can you consider this an answer?
H.: I'm not sure.
T.: The word 'expressive' has been over-reduced. I mean simply: the line is not the 'soul'... In works that had dealt with engineered contours of plans (such as the Tel Hai Yard) or with formulae (such as Uccello's Chalice or an ideal city), it was necessary to work only in straight lines since there were no others there. But when I drew corpses, and then horses, the type of assignment demanded that I work with curves only, keeping a line as continuous as possible, which was impossible to execute because of the paintings’ dimensions. I think everything in my work is oriented toward the static flatness of the painting. It 'plucks' time.
Hēliotropion is quite transparent about its issues: a clash between strictly straight lines – the tables, and strictly curved lines – the horses.
H.: And the sunflower?
T.: As a (wilted) flower, I curved and folded it. In its geometric 'sun' form it is made of straight lines only.
H.: But you wouldn't want to sum up "Hēliotropion" in terms of straight and curved lines, would you? These horses are amazing. Do I think of a curve opposite a straight line?!…
T.: Why not? It does not seem a small thing to me. It needed to have been invented. There are twelve variations of the table-horse-sunflower intersections, and this is the work. Perhaps 'mutations' is more appropriate.
H.: Mutations. You perceive expression as structurality, what the composition is?
T.: How it is. Its modalities. Relationships. Painting is an abstract thing. Sometimes I think it reveals its abstractness many times over when it shows concrete objects.
H.: That is, the opposite of what the pioneers of the abstract had thought?
T.: Perhaps. After the great, important lesson learned from non-relational painting, of Pollock and others, sometimes this is the sense. There are many relevant questions about relational painting. It's an open channel. He who had once catheterized a corpse breathed life into it, more than anyone else.
H.: A table, a horse, a sunflower, all have very different structures.
T.: Indeed, but at least two in this cluster have four legs. When you think about being on the back, more things come up. I didn't want to bind the horses... The tables are neither a rack nor the surreal ‘operating table.’ It's complicated. Lines, shapes, tone – they all mean something, which is absent until revealed. It is a process – a becoming of meaning. To put it into words? It might result in a detailed description of these mutations, which might be too taxing for most people. It is done by the few who are truly interested in how things are made, for whom the very question of how a thing is made is what provokes their thoughts, their thinking.
H.: I agree, and yet looking at and understanding an artwork are not necessarily dependent of the reconstruction of the process of its making.
T.: I think description and reconstruction are different acts, although related. All the same, it's a good thing the eye can see all at once. If it were possible to 'wear' such a painted cluster, the body might have joined the eye in understanding. Sometimes interpretation positions a person in front of an artwork, as if he has no body. It is odd.
H.: You would have loved growing up in the lap of horses! And why would you want to be Chiron's acolyte?
T.: He is a master pedagogue. One learns while riding... It is good to learn from an animal, and if it happens to be half human… Chiron is there to remind us of our other half, but also of the human side. This is the main thing!
I like to think of the paintings as a mnemonic technique – that is, as a way of remembering the greatness and the extent of the passion of a universal person. A while ago I happened upon such a description by Baudelaire of how Delacroix saw painting. I can identify with this.
H.: Delacroix? What stands out in the way you have chosen to present the drawings of "Hēliotropion" is the imposing of the principle of serial addition over any other. It sets up an impersonal, or a passive, context, as it had been in Minimalist exhibitions or in the alleged topological investigations of the Conceptualists. I have never searched for that in art. For me, it has always had something better to offer and still does. To me, your horses too reveal an acuteness higher than the one offered in their display in rows, and again higher than what you are pointing to when speaking of relationships. Going back to Delacroix, I sometimes think that his passion for the universal is apparent through the particular and the unique. That is his exemplary, and in many ways, I would say this is his Modernist exemplary. Don't you see it this way? It is also something I would like to say about your horses.
T.: I throw away a lot, so what remains is what I have approved. The drawings of the roll mean nothing when each is standing by itself. This is so because they never came into being as part of any process towards 'the one'. Rather, they are fragments in the face of the unachievable or impossible 'one' drawing. This is why they have to be displayed in the same way I have made them, one after the other, in succession. As for the personal: it's personal. Maybe here we part ways because for me LeWitt is as personal as Delacroix... But this is not the point. I simply meant to say that I cherish the idea of thinking about the artistic act as a remembrance, or an evocation of a great human passion. Very great.
H.: While we're at it, do you place Delacroix and LeWitt on the same level?
T.: You are insistent, I can tell. So I'll put all my ducks in a row. Here goes: all the horses, all the tigers, Delacroix himself on Gericault's raft, lost beyond the lost ones (note, who are, in reality, French settlers from occupied Senegal...). So, those miserable colonialists and the painters who felt for them, and LeWitt's cubes – all together, yes.
H.: Perhaps this is a bit obscure.
T.: I once said that were Uccello not so deeply preoccupied with the immeasurable, I'd have probably not bother myself with his Chalice. What is there about this vase? But there is something here that belongs neither to the vase nor the Church, but rather to the exemplary clarity of the drawing. It is always a cause for a dream, before and after any content, in every composition made with high care and feeling. The desire for clarity is the shape of hope where there's none... and it belongs to everyone, always. A chalice, cubes, refugees – in art there is no great difference between dealing with geometry or with people... or horses, for that matter.
H.: I agree with you about a lot of things, but not this.
T.: Too bad… I was thinking that also when I saw a film about Lucian Freud this week, which was indeed contrary to everything said there about his 'humane' measure and the 'depth'. He found some reasonable formula for this painterly pasta of his, worked hard and specialized in this crust with the same devoted, delicate, and cold passivity that Donald Judd had used to handle his cubes. It is not about feelings or depths that one supposedly has and the other does not. A good artist is a cold artist. As Goethe has written, “All theory is gray, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.”
H.: The Tel Hai drawings from the 1970s, as well as the later chalice drawings, dealt intensively with bodily estimations of measures; the correct segmentation of the object depicted, the true extent of its lines placement, all was strictly free-hand work, thus contrary to the exclusively instruments-assisted original scheme; an ideal city, another time a drawing of a chalice. At that period, the aesthetic ideal of perfection, mostly symmetry, was related to your feeling toward Utopia. Here, now, I am surrounded by contorting animals, writing tables flying like paper jets, and sunflowers more monstrous than octopuses. Grotesque and distortion is the field in its whole.
T.: You once quoted from Ruskin's discussion of the grotesque imagination. Here is what you've sent me then:"imagination is the pilgrim on the earth and its home is in heaven." The way to escape the egotism lurking for the grotesque - the current, modern menace – is by losing one's field of vision and the sense of self, in favor of passive openness to a state of testimony or dictation. In this respect, the supreme grotesque painter is an impassive scrivener of the vision of imagination." This idea remains very significant for me.
H.: Are you thinking of this pilgrimage in regard to "Hēliotropion?"
T.: Let's set the 'impassive scrivener' aside for the moment. Imagination idealizes. The line is to the drawn horse as memory is to things: there's always a problem of idealization because we don't remember, because it is impossible to remember. This is the horrific pastoral revealed to me in Dürer's turf watercolor: vision does not encompass the richness of data. A memory of a thing like the line on a page, the two are no more than a hovering around things. In this sense, you never draw what you see. Painting or drawing is subject to idealization. You describe a consciousness, not a horse. When I designate a line as 'correct,' the correctness is not due to similarity.
H.: This is quite an old matter.
T.: Yes, but it is always relevant to the understanding of painting. The 'correct' line operates like Proust's Madeleine cookie: it is a minuscule material-sensual event, rearwards cognition-wise, whose paradoxical power is in the transition it enables from the imagination to what it is in the world, outside of the possibility of imagination; Something from the past surfaces into the present. It hits you as the case of 'always'. This is also the connection between 'always' and remembering.
H.: So in this sense, you might say that the act of drawing is always related to the past – what has already been, or is 'always?"
T.: Yes, and it's very different from thinking that you are drawing what is there or is happening in front of you.
H.: And the drawing of the roll is different from dealing with the scheme of Uccello's chalice because the object of observation comes into being in motion?
T.: No, and it is odd. Be it a scheme or a rolling horse – the act of drawing orientates itself always to the past tense. I would say it even of some non-object drawing, indeed as in a work by LeWitt where a formula seems to hold no more than its self referentiality, where no room for surplus is to be expected. Perhaps this is the core of the event we wish to identify as 'artistic'. I remember realizing it when I was working on the yards of Tel Hai in the Israel Museum, in 1975: before mine, there was a drawing by Sol LeWitt on the wall. The wall had been whitewashed so I could do my drawings, but his drawing came through. And it was clear that the formula did not suggest the full legibility of that line, no, there was yet a secret to it, how it was made, the dimension, the placement, the distance, every detail, every little thing… it shone at me even from under the whitewash!
H.: What was his drawing?
T.: It was a circle.
H.: Oh, that hideous glorified meagerness, what ever do these ascetic mannerisms have to do with me!
T.: Nevertheless, it's still true! It is not at all about sanctity or caloric content. The same art that professedly objected to secrets had a secret. And this is precisely the great lesson to be taken from Network of Stoppages. This realization was a gift. There is always matter. Where there's matter there is memory. The occurrence of drawing is an occurrence in matter, which always involves remembering. You don't just know where the line should be, you also remember. The range of remembering is different and also larger than knowing. It can be reduced to a minimum if your object is a doodle, or a square, a circle, or a chalice made of 54 polygons. But you cannot brush it out. You may say that there is no such thing as 'conceptual' art, but it's better to say – there is only conceptual art.
H.: ...with horses?! I must admit I don't have a great desire to think of "Hēliotropion" as conceptual art, or to think of any art as 'conceptual.' Just as I don't need to put Delacroix and LeWitt on the same plane. Look at your horses, it's crazy…. How come you hit upon these postures?
T.: Too bad! The postures? I chose complicated ones, unfriendly to symmetry... This ancient, strange problem hit me while I was working – that description always, and necessarily, stops (or gets stuck) in the memory. This thing cannot be appeased or placated. That's why it seemed relevant. The thought about the halt joined the awareness that the mimetic is a matter of understanding power: it's not that we are condemned to create idealizations, but which ones and how. The given must become a choice.
H.: So this is where the Utopian aspect enters?
T.: Maybe…? But in the past I have often been preoccupied with metaphoric analogies between idealization in painting, say a perfect radial symmetry, and revolutionary formulae for a better society (what would it be like to make a painting that is a 'Tel Hai' (a living-ruin) or truly some "Nahalal" in and of itself...), not that I ever believed such a society could exist. But at home and where I grew up, such formulae were grist for the mill. The spark of art is released – it seems to me – after you 'renounce' the correction of the world. Art offers itself. However, if the destiny of art, and art’s given is to create a scheme or a formula, then the questions of repetition and correction, and their presentation – the variations, the series – is a way to give presence to my intuition regarding the unappeasable described earlier.
H.: Is it about defeat?
T.: In a way. The rolling of the horses introduced me to complete freedom of movement, the supreme pleasure of an animal, free of any usage, which in the static realm of drawing or painting is forced to be totally defeated. This rolling cannot be described.
H.: I'm thinking about the anatomical deformation and also about the absurdity that characterizes all of the figures in the grotesque drawings from the "GO" show at Dvir Gallery, in 2001. Their one task, on paper, was to 'stabilize' themselves, to 'stand' and not to 'fall.' Like the figure of the Captain, who rests his one leg on the twin points of a compass, his prostheses. The double meaning of this 'standing' becomes comic in the sense that the suggested success is in fact a kind of failure: it succeeds only 'on paper.' But you don't mean this kind of defeat with the horse's roll, do you?
T.: As I said before, the depicted pleasure appears to the eye as suffering. The painting’s stillness does not meet the roll. At least, that has been my experience. The optimal state, which Delacroix has also aspired to, is that drawing from nature, faithful and detailed as it might be, would seem dull, ugly, and unthinkable, compared to a quick drawing of the same thing from memory. Such a beauty contest is a dive into a bottomless abyss. It is of course hubris, certainly the modern kind, very distant from Dürer's turf or rabbit… but it is impossible to dream the extent of Universal Man's passion without it.
H.: Looking back now I see what you mean: if nature is infinite, then, regarding the conclusive quality of the scheme, it is a deformation. Thus, painting from memory, or the imagination, or with eyes closed – all these, in being methods of enormous reduction, and in all that is skimpy and faulty in them - produce a correction. Memory heals the contorted, corrects the distorted, and in being limited it improves.
T.: Right. I understood it through a strange reversal in the chalice works, when I sort of mimicked bodily calibration with Uccello's formula, not with 'nature,' not a horse... I have been told again and again that the free-hand-drawn chalice, as distorted and full of errors as it was, with none of its lines hitting the formula, was more beautiful than the geometrically precise one.
H.: Ever since the Assemblage, the Ideal, as embodied by Aphrodite there has been the classic notion of 'natural' 'royalties:’ how to overcome imperfections, for the 'natural' to look natural... We’ve gone some way; we started our talk with the apocalyptically imperfect, and arrived at the ideally corrected...
T.: For me, this sits en bloc on the fragment – only out of the worship of perfection. Not only does the eye not see the infinite, it - and this is the important thing - rejects it. The partial in idealization is what art positions opposite the vulgarity of infinity. That which is 'All' is external to description. Nature does not 'need' a description, but art is about description – it is just about that which is most contrary to nature. Art deals with the cognitive or conceptual experience of vision. The partialness, the state of being a part, is a human problem, art's problem, a conceptual problem. Nature has no part, detail, or a segment problem. I got myself a life from the inherent obliviousness of vision.
Tamar Getter's exhibition "Hēliotropion” has been on view at the Mishkan Museum of Art, Ein Harod, until March 3, 2018.