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An ethical space, THE PAINTINGS OF ANNE MADDEN
Retrospective exhibition catalogue, Dublin 1991. The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaion
RHA Gallagher Gallery Dublin, 2 - 28 July, 1991.
There is a particular relevance to the timing of this retrospective of the work of Anne Madden, work that spans more than thirty years, three decades that have witnessed the brief burgeoning of modernist high formalism and its supplantation by a staggering variety of movements whose general tendency was to reach “beyond” painting per se, and the eventual emergence and recognition of postmodernism—still the subject of much contention.
Even a cursory acquaintance with Madden’s work will confirm that it eludes the precise strictures of formalism in its narrow sense. That sense can be understood as being the programmatic exclusion of all elements not unique to painting, a refinement of means and possibilities and an absorption in its own qualities: a prescription for an abstract, reductionist art.
Such a definition of modernist formalism, exemplified in some of the writings of Clement Greenberg, is frequently seized upon with enthusiasm by commentators on the postmodern scene. Understandably, because it projects an entropic vision of an art of diminishing returns, self-obsessed and ultimately self-defeating, by contrast with which postmodernist promiscuity, its enhanced referentiality, looks attractively healthy: the virtues of openness as opposed to the vice of closure.
In fact, champions, even critics of the postmodern all too often embrace a travestied account of modernist enterprise in the interests of dramatic contrast, opposing modernism’s hypothesized, exclusive absorption in formal concerns to postmodernism’s inclusive engagement with the world. In practice, modernism never was the monolithic theoretical edifice proposed in such comparisons, but a wide, diverse and at times self-contradictory body of theory and practice.
There is no question, however, but that things have changed. Without endorsing the most extreme statements of either postmodernism’s champions or critics, it seems fair to say that the mere existence of the debate has irrevocably changed the climate within which art is made. For one thing, modernism has become “modernism”. A layer of irony has been grafted onto all stylistic possibilities. The image per se has been effectively devalued in that its status as a medium of authentic expression has been undermined, even denied.
The extent of this process is perhaps exaggerated by some commentators on the postmodern, many of whose observations and hypotheses veer off into hyperbole and hysteria, with apocalyptic visions of reified values and uncontrollable commodification, of everything submerged in the “pure and random play of signifiers”1 - that is, endless chains of signifiers, bearing no relationship with any hypothetical referents, no connection with, and no real desire to attain any connection with an original, perhaps in any case unattainable reality.
All too often the claims of postmodernist commentators turn out to be excessively portentous interpretations of fairly innocuous phenomena. This is not to undermine mass culture’s potential for trivialisation. Perhaps the most serious consequence of postmodernism has been the pervasive, relentless trivialisation of cultural forms.
Against the continuous barrage of technologically produced and reproduced imagery that is endemic to contemporary Western societies, what Peter Fuller has termed the “megavisual tradition”, against the uncontrollable proliferation of information technology, painting seems to be an activity of limited scope, an aspect of cultural commodification in capitalist market economics, perhaps outmoded, finished as a viable cultural form. Such was the tenor of debate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in some ways Neo-Expressionism, which swept through the art world like a tidal wave at the end of the a 1970s, obliterating the opposition and leaving the way clear for a startling plurality of endeavour - the pure and random play of market forces, perhaps - was nothing more than a confirmation of painting’s wider irrelevance and its inexorable commodification. In essence, the resurgence did little to reassert painting’s moral authority an authority widely de-constructed and dismissed, merely emphasising its role as a value-free cultural commodity - value-free only in the sense of its sheer irrelevance on any level other than the commercial.
That, however, is not the end of the story. For one thing, it makes sense to say that an entire strand of painting to a large extent went underground in the 1960s. Artists - committed painters - did not give up painting but, though they did exhibit and sell, they became curiously invisible, painting gave them up. As though painting as an activity wasn’t really there, beyond its formal manifestations. As an activity, that is to say, in the sense of Bayan Northcott’s description of the western tradition of musical composition “as a speculative, many-dimensioned mode of thought” (currently, perhaps, under attack).’2
Furthermore, the values of painting in such a sense are inherently opposed to the conventional characteristics of the postmodern. Its concerns entail a continuing centrality of the idea of a tradition - not a conservatism - the freedom and value of the individual creative imagination, a belief in the potential for investing images with a meaning beyond inter-textual referentiality, and the relevance of the activity to human existence. Anselm Kiefer is the obvious example of a contemporary artist who unflinchingly holds to the moral high ground in insisting on the relevance of his art, its ability to address the pressing issues of history and contemporary life, but there are others as well, including Willem de Kooning and the now fashionable London School painters Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach.
How, though, do we place Anne Madden in the temporal and spatial field of modernism-postmodernism? And is that the right question to be asking about her art? It is certainly one of the right questions, one of the necessary questions, because her paintings invariably entail reference to a moral stance on the part of the artists in relation to the world of facts.
It is striking that her work frequently has to do with finding a way into a space, as evidenced by the profusion of doorways, windows, megalithic chambers, the excavated Pompeii and a penetration to the bones on the landscape. Such a concern means that she necessarily broaches formalist issues: flatness and depth, the problems of representation and referentiality. To say find a way into a “metaphorical-topographical”3 space in this context means finding a way into a consequential arena, a real space, remote in kind from the playpen of Neo-Expressionism, the depthless postmodernist field of simulation, and the attainment of such a discrete, distanced space is deemed impossible by many commentators on the postmodern. For Madden, too, alive to the history and traditions of painting, one legacy of modernism that must be considered is bound up in formal concerns, in respecting the material nature and limitations of process, yet still transcending that materiality.
In Working Space, the artist Frank Stella, a staunch advocate of abstract art, proposes that abstract art has achieved a new kind of pictorial space, as important and significant as Caravaggio’s illusionistic stage-sets. Part of his argument is a forceful rejection of referentiality. His invented space is a space in and for itself a space within which to make pictures. The maintenance of this space depends on its continued denial of a represented world. It is itself. How does this relate to the kind of pictorial space characteristic of the work of two major Abstract Expressionists, Stella’s stylistic precursors, who “struggled with the stubborn armatures of Cubism,”4 and whose central importance he readily acknowledges while being disturbed at how their work was “subjected to threats from the representational painting of the past”,5 “threats” against which his initially austere minimalism was made in reaction? For “subjected to threats from” we can perhaps read “openness to”.
The received knowledge is that the paintings of two central artists, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, inhabit shallow space, on and just behind the picture plane. But a look at their work reveals nothing like the unanimity their stylistic tag might suggest. Such shallowness may be a common quality but is not an altogether useful criterion. The crucial difference between them is that there is effectively no way into Pollock’s paintings. They are worked all over and they are of themselves, they offer a spectacle but not a space.
Though we can appreciate their technical exploitation of shallow space, the sheer layering, the advance and recession of colours, it remains inaccessible to us, perhaps because it is, ironically, in Stella’s own terms, an abstract space, of and for itself. The frenetic tracery of poured and dripped pigment seems designed to keep us out and is strangely echoed in Stella’s own later work which, for all its teasing allusions and bold reliefs, offers us no access but only a kind of enhanced self-referentiality. Neither Pollock or Stella offer us a world, a possible world, as do de Kooning’s paintings. In his later work, as Conor Joyce 6 has observed, de Kooning has finally succeeded in breaking through the surface and creating his own space.
“Then there is a time in life when you just take a walk:” the artist wrote as early as 1960, “And you walk in your own landscape.”7 The overt figuration of his 1950s Women led to his being acclaimed as an exemplary precursor of Neo-Expressionism but, ironically, de Kooning’s real achievement went largely unremarked in that the paintings he made in the 1970s and 1980s were all too often accorded the respectful but patronising attention bestowed on a harmless, elderly relative whose mind has begun to wander. These paintings are in fact among the finest achievements of his life, specifically because of their establishment of a pictorial space—a working space, if you like.
Stella is, though, right in seeing space as the issue, now more so than ever. As we shall see, Madden’s project has been, in many respects, the establishment of a comparable, consequential space, one amenable to the exigencies of individual experience.
Her work springs out of the circumstances of her own life, a life that, while in many respects happy and creative, has been indelibly stamped, early on, by a series of tragic deaths, including those of her father, sister and brother. It is essential to point this out because these losses have inevitably left their mark on her in terms of the way she views fate and the world, and have contributed to the development of her work, both in consigning her to long periods of grief and dejection when it was difficult for her to work at all, and in lending her art an elegiac, tragic cast, something that makes the affirmation of her recent paintings quite heroic.
Anne Madden’s identification with a place, with the very substance of a place, to the extent of seeing a fundamental continuity between man and matter, has been significant for her work on a number of levels. Most obviously, Co. Clare and the Burren have been a source of direct visual inspiration, providing not only the subject matter for many early, representational landscapes, but becoming the model for a kind of archetypal, personal space as well.
Madden’s early work is, not surprisingly, dominated by the Burren, the place that became, throughout, a notably unsettled childhood and adolescence, her spiritual home and, more, the outward reflection of her inward world. Time, distance and absence have served only to strengthen her links with Clare and the remembered, psychified world of her teens, a wild landscape through which she roamed on horseback and to which she hardly dare return.
This charged arena has become one with the created spaces of her paintings, a realm of imagination and possibility which her work tirelessly affirms. Clare is her space, and in more than thirty years of painting it has shaped and influenced her work in many different ways.
Her intimate knowledge of the place, its forms, structures and processes, and her direct, sensual experience of its physical reality, have been central in works, notably those made during the 1960s, that have dealt in a more general, metaphorical way with landscape and with the meanings implicit within the landscape, often offering analogical insights relating to such diverse phenomena as the flowing processes common to both ossification and erosion. Later, during the 1970s the monumental Elegies and Megaliths drew on yet another aspect of Co. Clare, exploring the symbolic significance of the megalithic stone structures distributed throughout the region. Again there is the use of direct visual sources, and an elucidation of their hidden dimensions: from the primary reality, the directly visual through the analytical-structural to the symbolic there is a progressive elaboration of meaning, rooted in the same ground of observation, experience and reflection.
Madden’s art has never abandoned a descriptive relationship with the world, but neither has it ever seen description, in the sense of a visual reflection of a subject, as its primary function. From an early age her formal grasp has been remarkable and instinctive. In Vivian in the bathroom, 1950 (p. 22), a spare domestic scene in which the figure of her sister leans over, drying her hair, the forms of figure and ground are blocked out, poised and stylised, while colour is muted and restricted. The treatment is almost Balthusian: the blockiness of the figure, the self-absorption. But here self-absorption reflects a certain formal inwardness. Domestic detail is rewritten in a searching exploration of spatial relationships.
The planes of this painting quietly prefigure later developments. Horse and crows, 1950 (p. 23), also looks forward, notably in that its economic arrangement of simplified elements employs a rudimentary form of opening, later to become a favourite device, viewing the landscape through the frame created by the horse’s body, which creates an arch curiously reminiscent of the figure of Vivian.
An early, comparatively naturalistic landscape, Mulloughmore, Burren, 1951 (p. 24), sparing of colour, already takes a rigorously formalised view of its subject, emphasising the structural patterning of the gridded limestone and the almost ordered distribution of standing stones. The search for order extends to the network of bowed lines that cup the clouds in the sky. Everything is linear, schematic: the landscape is being examined, almost, as the concentric fissures of the hills suggests, resembling as they do contour lines, mapped. The marks made, sketchy and tentative, are cautiously descriptive, probing for an order, an underlying structure.
Common to all of these works is a tension between the depicted image and the strokes that constitute it. These tend to push towards formalising, flattening, finding pattern and method. When Madden returned to painting in the latter half of the 1950s, after an enforced absence entailed by protracted surgery and convalescence after suffering a severe spinal injury, though her output reflected an enhanced interest in formalism and formalist concerns, she continued to draw on aspects of the Clare landscape as fundamental source, maintaining what can be seen as a two-part strategy to which she has, as it happens, remained consistently faithful.
Aran field, 1957 (p. 25), typical of several landscapes completed within a few years, bears some resemblance to the explosive energies of Jean- Paul Riopelle’s work, similarly transmitted along curvilinear lines of force and consisting of aggregations of individual, blocky strokes. The formal urge of Mulloughmore, Burren has become paramount, and there is a correlative rather than a straightforwardly descriptive relationship between the strokes and the stones they indicate, a device that Madden used extensively in addressing the natural world and one that, certainly in this case, allows her to be entirely faithful to the picture’s stated subject while letting the process find its own voice. The same holds true of the near-monochromatic Burren land, 1960 (cat no. 8, p. 87), in which the brisk, rhythmic, all-over patterning of palette knife strokes, essentially abstract, falls away from a high horizon that locates the picture firmly in its stated domain. These pictures are, it is worth noting, all on the surface and, in relation to what is to come, there are intimations of a grid structure in the repetitive patterning of the stone, but this grid is one that emerges from the natural forms.
Her work toward the end of the 1950s indicates that she was loosely attentive to international developments in painting as they related to her own established preoccupations. There are correspondences to be found between her own work and that of the French-Canadian Riopelle, the Europe based (in Paris until 1961) American Sam Francis and perhaps even the Portuguese Maria Elena Vieira da Silva, with her strong, architectonic interest in the construction of pictorial space.
Blue landscape, 1958 (p. 27) is typical of a number of works made around the same time, all of them much leaner, more reductionist paintings. The recurrent use of curvilinear strokes recalls the nascent orderliness of the earlier landscapes, but now the gestural marks are the dominant structural motif the artist is consciously holding back, refraining from involvement in overt description. The paint is applied thinly and allowed to drip copiously, placing an emphasis on process and on the fact of the support. Blueness, the clusters of brushstrokes and the way the paint is allowed run all suggest associations with Sam Francis but again Madden is explicit in referring us to the landscape as source.
There is, though, a distinct informality about this and similar paintings. Though the link with place remains strong, the strokes conform to a predetermined format, not mimicking forms in nature but instituting their own, arbitrary forms to indicate an equivalent set of relationships. There are two divergent impulses at work: the desire to embody the landscape and its meanings in paint, and the desire to make autonomous constructs, to allow the paint to find its own voice. Neither of these impulses, which demarcate the boundaries within which the dialectic of her painting has evolved, has been allowed to lapse.
Throughout the 1960s she made work that consistently tended to minimize her own manipulative role. To do this she set up situations, the conditions of which she controlled but the outcome of which allowed a strong element of chance. Her procedure, which entailed pouring paint, and often ancillary materials like sand, onto wet surfaces and capitalising on the resultant fluid patterns, called for split-second decisions and precise anticipation. Naturally, it didn’t always work. But the element of risk, the all or nothing aspect of the process very much appealed to her. She has frequently compared making pictures in this way to horse riding, both showjumping in the ring and out in the open spaces of Clare, putting herself in circumstances that had their own momentum, that allowed her both “maximum risk and maximum control”.
Despite this process-oriented method, throughout the 1960s work a strong link to sources is maintained. The titles indicate references in landscape. More to the point, the works themselves are steeped in a sense of landscape - the sparing use of colour, the gritty textures, the stark forms all suggesting a rocky place. For much of the time, however, they also, quite strongly, suggest bone, drawing a parallel between stone and bone, something that has relevant implications on a number of different levels.
For the moment, however, it is worth considering a few more of the salient, external characteristics of the work. From early in the decade, Madden initiates a number of practices that are still central to her pictorial procedure. She begins to use diptych, triptych and other multiple and composite image formats, as in Mountain, 1962 (p. 31), Alpine structure diptych, 1964 (cat no. 84, p.99) or Field stones, 1964 (cat no. 19, p. 89).
Within these formats, the constituent images are related to each other in several different ways. There are mirrored forms, to greater or lesser degrees of accuracy, as in Quadripartite black and white sequence, 1966 (cat no. 21, p. 89), Homage to R. M. Rilke, 1966 (p. 34), Lacuna, 1966 (cat no. 22, p.89) and Valley structure, 1964 (cat no. 17, p. 88). There are variations on specific kinds of form, as in Transformations, 1964 (p. 33), Field stones, 1984 (cat no. 19, p. 89) or Land formation, 1963(cat no. 10, p. 87), many of which, as the title of, for example, Transformations, clearly implies, offer views of process. They imply that there is nothing definitive about the view or views offered, they imply that things change, that the land, and for that matter the person, are subject to the depredations of time and to the natural processes of metamorphoses. The five vertically stacked panels of Transformations do not so much suggest a consecutive, sequential transformation from one state to another, but rather multiple views of a general state of flux.
What has happened in these works is that the grid, previously evident in the shape of the limestone pavement of the Burren and the artist’s own will to order, to find the hidden structure in things, has moved from within the pictorial space to without. This move introduces a quality of duration into the paintings, in that they offer alternative views of process over time, and fragments the unitary status of the modernist object by presenting a world of chance and discontinuity. “The pairing and grouping of images,” Ronald Alley was to write of her later work, “resembling at times the frames from a film, serves to remind us that each moment is part of the cycle of nature stretching long before and after.”8
The fact that the forms achieved through flowing paint so frequently read as either rocks or bones draws together interior and exterior space, suggesting an analogous relationship between the workings of the body and the workings of the landscape. Stones, particularly polished stones, have frequently been interpreted as symbols of the self-witness the Australian aboriginal idea that the spirits of their ancestors remain bound up in certain stones, or their mythological belief that the bodies of medicine men have been emptied of their perishable organs and filled with incorruptible stones and crystals.9
As she remembers it, Madden’s first desired object was a black-and-red bean, smooth, shiny, perfect, which she encountered in an oxen cart on the family farm in Chile. She was perhaps two years old. Later; in England, she broke open stones, convinced that they had some extraordinary internal life that might be revealed. Stones were charmed, magical. Then, in Co. Clare, the limestone pavements of the Burren became thelandscape of her mind, a world of stone. The megaliths were startling expressions of her instinct about a hidden life within. And most importantly, the Burren laid bare the inner structure, the underpinning that she had always known was there.
The mirrored and repeated forms that emerge in the 1960s are characteristic and significant. A consistent pattern of thought, from folk mythology to psychoanalytic theory, identifies the idea of the mirror reflection or double with an alternative version of the self, whether one removed to some safer realm, and unaffected by the vicissitudes of life or, as in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory an imagined other, an aspirational ideal which is the basis of narcisissism and even what might be described, in Lacanian terms, as the humanist fallacy: the mistaken notion of the autonomous, individual, imaginative subject.’10
1 Frederic Jameson’s phrase from his essay, ‘Reading Without Interpretation: Postmodernism and the Video Text’ quoted by Steven Connor in Postmodernist Culture, (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1989), p.49.2 Bayan Northcott writing on Beethoven, The Independent, (October 27th, 1990).
3 Steven Conor, Postmodernist Culture, p.227: “The problem for a postmodern politics...is this dual prospect, on the one hand of a transformation of history by a sheer act of imaginative will, and on the other, of an absolute weightlessness, in which anything is imaginatively possible, because nothing really matters. This difficulty often plays itself through in postmodern cultural theory in the metaphorical-topographical terms of space and territory in the imagery of centre and margin, inside and outside, position and boundary.”
4 Frank Stella, ‘Working Space’, the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1983-84, (Harvard University Press, 1986), p.155.
5 Ibid., p. 158.
6 Conor Joyce, unpublished essay.
7 Willem de Kooning, from ‘Sketchbook I: Three Americans’, a film script (New York, Time Inc, 1960), reprinted in The New York School, Maurice Tuchman, (London, Thames and Hudson, 1970), p.51.
8 Ronald Alley, in a catalogue note for an exhibition of Anne Madden’s work at the Dawson Gallery, Dublin, 1977.9 Marie-Louise von Fran.z, ‘The Process of Individuation’ in Man and His Symbols, edited by Carl Jung, (Aldus Books, 1964, reprinted London, Pan, 1978) p.127; and Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (London, Sphere, 1975), p.141.10 This broad encapsulation of Lacan’s highly complex ideas draws on summaries offered by Richard Kearney in Modern Movements in European Philosophy (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1986) and The Wake of Imagination (London, Hutchinson, 1988), and Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory; An Introduction (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1983).