02. Michael Pepi on Joseph Havel (A Short History of Blankness)

By taking the very conventions of their medium as their subject matter, Modernist painters stripped out every reliable practice associated with painting. Over time, this achieved a logical conclusion in the blank (or white) canvas, or so goes the story of post-war American formalism. In 1948, Clement Greenberg had already recognized that the “all-over” tendency of his contemporaries had become “problematical.” In The Crisis of the Easel Picture Greenberg warns that “in using this convention as they do — and cannot help doing — artists like Jackson Pollock are on the way to destroying it.” This sort of thinking framed the arrival of the blank canvas in America as something quite related to this process of final destruction, and it preoccupied the artists and theorists active in the transition from post-painterly abstraction to minimalism.

But recently, the use of the blank or white canvas has migrated into new aesthetic territory. Contemporary work suggests a turn, away from the raw formalism associated with the canonical blank canvases, toward a more rhetorical function. Abandoning its formalist critical history, the use of blankness has re-possessed its significance beyond its justification as a mere anti-aesthetic device. In the work of Joseph Havel, we find new commentary on the uses of the blank canvas through the artist’s clever reworking of the notion of representing “nothing.”

Enacting a white or blank canvas, that coup de grâce of the strictly conceived Greenbergian narrative, is for Havel not a simply an outgrowth of the “logic of modernism.” His Seven Variations of Nothing (2008-10) — recently exhibited at Yvon Lambert Gallery in New York — calls to mind the careful formation of blankness in the visual arts. But how did we come to see the blank canvas as an issue of form, so intimately wrapped up with the specificity of the medium? We might start with the earliest suggestions of the blank or white canvas, which occurred outside (and prior to) the American post-war avant-garde. The theory of Kandinsky and the Suprematism of Malevich and his White on White (1918), flirted with the ramifications of the white canvas. For Malevich, Suprematist art reaches a “desert in which nothing can be perceived but feeling.” White space was this void — and its explication was not only an endorsement of non-objectivity, but furthermore it explored the mind’s innate reception of blankness as a sign. Malevich was direct in that he actively took “refuge” in the square, especially in reference to his Black Square of 1915 though applicable to his stark White on White of 1918. Kandinsky wrote of white’s harmony of silence, and its “appeal of the nothingness that is before birth, of the world in the ice age.”

In considering the genealogy of the blank or white canvas in Western modernism, we may be able to describe two of its discrete sources, each with a set of their own assumptions. Malevich and Kandinsky, to the extent that these two men were connected intellectually, erected an a priori theoretical blankness as a proactive call for purity, an attempt to locate painting in the commonwealth of the arts — Malevich formed a group in 1919, whose name translates to “Affirmers of New Art.” The other way that blankness arrived, so to speak, was through a slow, self-inflicted process of the decoupling of the medium of painting and its formal conventions. With the latter, the problem of the blank canvas and its definition as art came to consummate the redemptive narrative of modernism, meaning that the formalism that heightened the abstract expressionists’ “flattening” was in effect proven if the blank canvas could stand alone as art, specifically as a Modernist painting. In its mid-century formalist iteration, we might say that the blank canvas, as an event, occurred more profoundly in theory before it was actually realized by any one painter.

In the United States, the New York School elected a kind of de facto ideology that privileged this narrative. Modernist painting’s inessential conventions were discarded in a self-critical process that strengthened the material competence specific to the medium; painting had engaged itself in a race to distance itself with sculpture by abandoning three-dimensional illusion. The prospect of blankness involved the attrition of painterly signs from the canvas — they were the very last convention to be stripped out without it becoming something else, an object in itself, namely minimalist sculpture. Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg and a host of others brought this to a precipice, so close to eradicating the possibility of a “verdict of taste” to be performed by Modernist audiences. The trick here is that Greenberg feared that Modernist painting would actually forfeit its status as painting by following this logic. Many of the artists in the 1960s and 1970s, who would later be called minimalists, were not.

Blankness and the various experiments with the white canvas are thus constructed by the history of these two phenomena, one narrative, textual, analytical and the other prospective, performative, forthright in its faith in aesthetic signification. In various dimensions they contribute to the range of intentions enacted by artists who work with the blank canvas. Havel’s negotiation of this history helps to say something new.

In Seven Variations of Nothing (2008-10) Havel assembles white shirt tags with the word “nothing” embroidered on them and presses them behind Plexiglas. The collective impression is that of a room of all-white canvases, save for the faint patterns created by the edges of the tags, pressed and folded closely together. Like Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana and Robert Ryman, the blank or white base is given form by altering the material such that an external presence is achieved without resorting to the traditional application of paint (that is, paint which allows the viewer to distinguish, by color, that which is foreground and that which was applied by the painter).

The blankness of Kandinksy and Malevich is conceived as iterative, as in its effects were realistically repeatable in situations outside art — for example, their natural corollaries were picked from outside the art word: “desert” and “ice age,” respectively. Perhaps for these two, new frontiers in painting were a route to join up with the expectations of society, not a device to wall it off. The blank, white image signifies a shared, universal idea to just about every human. And when Kandinsky imagined the effect of “many pauses in music… pregnant with possibilities,” he had this much in mind for painting as well. Conversely, the formalists’ blankness is an ex post facto result of a worldview in which the role for art was much more autonomous, and thus thrives the alienating discourse in which the blank canvas is not the same blank object — meaning unfinished or “never begun” — as it appears to everyone else. Instead the formalists’ blank canvas, at the moment the painting becomes an unpainted sculptural object, is given meaning primarily for its momentous historical precedent in which the material specificity of the genre has been blown open, and a new history of form inaugurated. What seemed to most like a dead end became for conceptualism a foundational text. We know blankness as an alpha and omega: a beginning for Kandinsky — “nothing before birth” — but also a final destination in the logic of modernism.

It is this pre-history that makes the recent work of Joseph Havel a multi-level rehabilitation of the notion of blankness from the inertia of anti-aesthetics. In considering Seven Variations of Nothing (2008-10) and its position in relation to the uses of blankness, one is able to see the weaknesses in the requirements of formalist inquiry. In his mix of a formally derived “white canvas” effect and his surreptitiously delivered message on nothingness, Havel employs two poles, the two distinct achievements of blankness: blank as revulsion of commercially assessed value, a pure utopian vision of art freed from the fallibility of interpretation, which is a social concern, while still relying on the blankness as if it were indeed the logical conclusion of a tendency towards the criticism of a discipline by using its own material conventions against itself, which is a formalist concern. Suddenly we remember how in choosing the strict formalist road to the blank canvas we limited its potential social message, providing cover for a characteristically vapid and intellectually bankrupt avant-garde.

To treat the canvas this way is to remove all (the mere) formal impulses that, as history suggests, drove artists inevitably towards it. What is the formalist impulse once it is without form to give? By the letter of the formalist framework, the blank canvas does not alter the “ideal viewer” in any autonomous manner, and as such disregards a rhetorical message. In fact, such a positioning of the ideal viewer is anathema to the formalist project at large, and to address this query we are forced to turn back to the social knowledge of the blank or white canvas. Kandinsky and Malevich’s pre-structured white canvas does posit a very specific viewer, one that further highlights the philosophical breakdown amongst twentieth century avant-gardes, one utopian, in a sense millenarian, and the other deductive in its rigorous application of syntax and meaning.

In this latter situation, Blankness — or the effect achieved by the white canvas — was merely the absence of all aesthetic properties. The arrival of the blank canvas, heralded, as it were, by a hegemonic discourse obsessed with formalist concerns, provided the viewer with the underlying assertion that this blank object was still an aesthetic act. Despite all Renaissance notions of art that informed the greater public to the contrary, the blank canvas withstood the challenges, propped up by a heavily worked code, laid out in literature and notably propagated in Northeastern Universities from Barr to Baudrillard. But as Havel shows, it is also a bona fide aesthetic property, and one that signifies a suspicion on the part of the artist that blankness cannot actually mirror the vapidity of the modern individual. White dress shirts, middle-class mediocrity and the late capitalist construction of meaning through brand identity are all at trial.

The “nothing” in the work is both the thing signified and a side effect of the signifying form. Said another way, “nothing” occurs twice in two disparate aesthetic fields: the form and the content. Havel uses blankness’s ability to turn paintings into “arbitrary objects” and reverses this faculty into the content of the work; it points to its status as an object, and simultaneously apes the assumptions of the blank canvas. But this is only really possible once the method by which we arrived at the blank canvas comes into full view, such that Havel can violate the rules of the formalists. Blankness becomes a type, a category of matter, not in a strictly formalist configuration, but as a fully historicized, socialized manner in that it is a unit to be signified. It has been noted that Blankness can serve simultaneously as signifier and signified. Though blankness, for Havel, is a device, as it were, used like an idiom, that pushes out through the aforementioned ambiguity and dares to remove the fictive nature of its inadequate definition. There is nothing blank about it, really.

Epistemophilia, the innate ‘desire to know,’ that animated the arts and letters, was long occluded, even by realism, and then further troubled by abstraction. Yet only in the blank canvas do we fully realize the utter theft of any epistemological grounds. Havel’s variations led us past this point. The social critique proceeds from the careful execution of this duality: there is nothing to know — nothing to know of the object that lay before, and nothing to know of the subject for which it was made.

Havel’s use of the white canvas is a socially critical blankness that moves toward a recuperation of the allegorical imperative of the utopian avant-garde, though the emancipation the blank or white canvas from its formalist past can never be so simple.