Call it a limited project of transcendence.
Governments are occupying but not interesting
because masterpieces are exactly what they are not.
Painting is rare. But when it is, that is, when its logic of sensation as an intense visual presence opens up a view of irreducible difference, then it is an absolute surprise, an unforeseen possibility in which an impossibility comes to itself. This kind of real painting is always paradoxical, a possibility of its impossibility. Even its conditions are not conditions of possibility in the Kantian sense, but conditions of impossibility in the non-sense of painterly presence. It only arises there where its impossibility and its necessity become one. Painting, this "impossible and necessary act" (Samuel Beckett). When it comes, painting comes at least in the double meaning of this verb. Its arrival in presence is a material event that cannot be reckoned with, a moment in which the consciousness of its problematic and questionability bursts in an infinitely short of a fulfilment of perception. This is nothing metaphysical, but a simple, profane illumination. It is, however, not an illumination that is identical with itself, but one that is self-contradictory and articulates also its own impossibility. A view of the impossible continues to be a criterion for painting. The possibility of a kind of painting that still had something to say, which would be in a position to formulate oppositions, is identical with the necessity not to gloss over the fundamental aporias, but to bring them out. Anything else is necessarily naive or a cynical confirmation of being controlled by alien forces within existing power relations. Only where the contradictions, antinomies, paradoxes and aporias of art and real life are not decided one-sidedly in a narrow-minded way, be it political or religious, but are fought out, can paintings arise which parry the situation, that is, accept it as it is, without any embellishment, and at the same time, contrapose it with an intense form that is not absorbed by it. Such a stance takes on the legacy of the sublime, whose concept Kant defined as the resistance of the spirit against every superior power. But real painting is always also abyssal. This concerns above all its sublimity which not infrequently has been confused with formalistic illusions of absoluteness. The legacy of the sublime in painting is a playing out of opposites against each other. Real painting gives problematic contradictions a form that does not gloss them over, harmonize them, betray them to illusions and references by pandering to them, or softening them up in tranquillizing aesthetics. Real painting comes to an image by visibly fighting through its contradictions, by taking the path of being in between, of passing through in between - the path of an intentional displacement, of a singular intermezzo. One of the most magnificent and still unsettled intermezzi in painting was created by Jackson Pollock with his drip paintings. His declared intention was to paint large, movable paintings that assume a middle position between a painting and a wall. And this is precisely what he created: movable, not static, but processual, interstitial paintings, neither a traditional painting nor a wall painting, neither object nor environment, but nevertheless touching all that and unbounding it, negating and in a commanding, affirmative turn overtaking it, something posited decisively in between: a painting as non-identity that, without points of reference, advocate true freedom beyond its ideology.
When I saw Jacqueline Humphries' black light paintings for the first time, I thought of this Pollockian gesture of a radical opening toward the non-identical, 1 because here, too, an interstice of painting is opened up which we have never seen before. It is not something 'new' in the traditional innovative sense (novelty as such is not interesting), but a newly accentuated intermezzo, emerging between the not unfamiliar problematic oppositions of painting, rising up on the horizon of painting's illusory character. There is no painting without light, without incident light, whether it be natural or artificial. And there is no really significant painting which has not added an encore of light to the light of the world. In the end, this, too, is an ineluctable criterion for painting. But could the incident light falling on the painting be further codetermined, for instance, by incorporating it into the painting? Why not, for instance, make artificial light an integral part of the painting? Jackson Pollock's all-over drip paintings brought along their own wall with them. Jacqueline Humphries' black light paintings bring along their own light with them. A black light that inverts day and night, black and white. As a component of tough, serious painting, I have never seen that before. In pop and folk cultures of all kinds, black light and fluorescent colours, of course, have been very popular ever since they were invented, at carnivals, on ghost trains, in the psychedelics of rock culture, in discos, in custom car culture, etc. What all these various uses have in common is the desire to make contact with other sides of reality. The black light paintings share this desire, but have also other, more far-reaching, painterly and artistic ideas, for instance, the light from the other side.
Inviting recollections and associations with pop culture atmospheres, the black light paintings intensify the contradictions of painting. Especially the opposition between gestural abstraction and technical device is played out to the full. The clarity and rigour of the construction of the technical frame, on the one hand, and, on the other, a free, open, way of painting acting in such an unscrupulously sensuous way and deployed so calculatingly put the guts of abstract painting to the test and create an intense, originary tension. Jacqueline Humphries has created for herself boundary conditions that enable the well-targeted deployment of gestural abstraction and, unexpectedly, even make it appear necessary. She plays out the entire gamut of abstract-expressive painterly techniques against black light technology, which first brings this abstraction to appearance. In doing so, the painterly diagram bears the mutually demanding and obliterating traits of many methods, from dripping, non-relational, all-over and colour field through to calculated interventions such as turning the surface of the painting over and over-painting. The result is nothing more and nothing less than a revitalization of abstraction won from a vibrantly intensive, contradictory construction consisting of black light technology and highly complex, non-referential, step-on-the-gas painting. The black light paintings breathe a regained freedom of abstract painting whose presence illuminates, and even looks on, from beyond its vocabulary. The painting as source of light. To be seen are large, movable, illuminated paintings that assume a middle position between light-space and panel painting. The black light paintings open up visual spaces but remain nevertheless paintings, an extension of the painting into space without surrendering the claim to be a picture. They insist on painting as painting at the highest level of form, conscious of its American history, but are at the same time completely permeable for evocations from non-painterly life, sensations and desires. Abstraction as non-identical chromatic inscription of a decisive logic of sensation, as irreducible formation of difference formed from affects, percepts and other painting-beings, displaced somewhere between light painting and (public) light sphere.
What allows itself to be seen as painting, what presents itself, what gives pause for thought, is a form, but not an essentialist form, and certainly not one with substantial presence. The form is presence itself. The form of something is that which presents itself in general. Form is a formation, a form-formation, for instance, the way in which, for a painter, the unsayable things she's concerned with take shape in the imagination on the canvas. In painting, form and formation are always also deformation, albeit a coherent deformation, just as every artistic deconstruction is a de-construction. Such a presentation is a presence of difference, or it is uninteresting, for the only interesting thing is to speak the language of another which one does not understand. Jacqueline Humphries' painterly diagram provides something interesting. Her way of painting is a refractory, subversive being of sensation that likes to disappoint expectations and, from one moment to the next, to confront us with apparently contradictory atmospheres, colours, forms and possible meanings. She avoids not only illusions and references, but above all refrains from the greatest evil in art and life: identity. Instead, she generates formations of irreducible difference. An abstraction generated from ghostly and refractory counter-presences, composed of untenable and, not infrequently, abyssal percepts and affects, beings of sensation transferred into painting which embody yearnings for surpassing and transgression: emotionally intensified, ambiguous images of non-identity.
Humphries' painting-beings are interesting forms with presence, presentations of difference which indicate the real, the unsayable core of desire, the unsayable im-possible about which everything revolves and for the sake of whose possibility we have committed ourselves and on which we continue to insist. But this does not mean that the black light paintings would make visible unconscious desire, that is, the desire of the other. On the contrary, here it is a matter of a kind of desire for the other at the end of which that stands which Jacques Lacan calls "giving-to-see / le donner-à-voir". Such a form of presentative abstraction is potentially sexy to the degree in which it radiates cool, unsentimental powers of attraction, giving them to others to see.
With their sexiness, the black light paintings fulfil a criterion for art. In art there is no difference without non-indifference toward the other. The black light paintings are autonomous and at the same time not indifferent to the other. Indeed, they attain their impossible autonomy precisely by exposing themselves to danger, not by anxiously closing themselves off to the other, but by opening up to it, accepting the full risk. They do not have any moral, but they breathe a conscienceless ethics without which there is no art. Assuming that it is free, true and real, despite the impossibility of this, art is always composed of that which our culture suppresses and which continues to insist in our bodies. This is the paradigm which in every serious painting gives existential questions for us to see. Roland Barthes has formulated it in the following way: "What are others for me? How am I to desire them? How am I to lend myself to their desire? How am I to behave among them?"
In this sense, the black light paintings, as living abstraction and an event of light, communicate a lot of amoral fun and serious pleasure. With the means of culture of the spectacle, they create different images which detract from spectacle. Their abstraction is twofold. Abstract painting abstracts itself from a staging which it has enabled in the first place. This reflection creates a cool distance, but at the same time, it releases the intensity of gestural abstraction. The result is living abstraction as a subtraction from cultures of the spectacle in the midst of the spectacle itself. This is rather wonderful because there is no outside. In our society, including the art world, there is no longer any authentic, pure, absolute, other outside. The best thing we have to offer are little transcendences within immanence, immanent difference, nothing more and nothing less. At a time in which there is no longer any outside, the black light paintings appear as an art of parrying. They parry the culture of the spectacle and empty enjoyment by employing its technical means in the service of painting. They broadcast joy without surrendering the highest standards of painting. On the contrary, they regain them as immanent difference. Abstraction as the tension between transcendence and immanence, as non-identical light boxes of fearlessness, which advocate, without points of reference, possible models of freedom that parry objective unfreedom. That is the beauty of these paintings. And this beauty bursts open in the gaze because it comes from its opposite, the legacy of the sublime - beauty without beautification, abstraction as profane illumination.
And in another darkness or in the same one, black light presences stand for themselves - beautiful, mean and torn: Responses preceding every question, responsibilities of forms, intensities of an irreducible immanent difference that meet the eye as gazes of non-indifference.
translated from the German by Michael Eldred
1 Cf. Gertrude Stein, What are Master-Pieces and why are there so few of them?, Theodor W. Adorno Aesthetic Theory and Jacques Derrida The Truth in Painting.