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An ethical space, THE PAINTINGS OF ANNE MADDEN
It is, though, unlikely that Madden would sympathise with Lacan’s view of the individual as cut adrift from the “real” and confined to an endless cycle of unfulfilled desire in the emptiness of language. Her work suggests a faith in the belief that the ontological act of artistic creation confirms and offers a path to the “real”.
Yet there is certainly a sense in which her mirrored images are reflections of a self. Firstly, the landscapes are also self-scapes. The canvases are organic containers, like the body, and the paintings do have a life-energy, their surfaces full of flow, movement, porosity, unsettled and volatile. There is also the visceral hint offered in Homage to K. M. Rilke, of (spilt?) blood against bone (in a way reprised later in her “Bloody Sunday” Elegy), and her own protracted experiences, over three years from of long and debilitating spinal surgery, during which time she became understandably obsessed with bones, reading medical textbooks and making numerous drawings.
Then there is her strong identification with the Clare landscape in which she felt uniquely at home. This landscape was for her a kind of reflected other, an image of the self to the extent that, even in her teens, before she read about psychical theory in any depth, she became convinced that she was of the same “stuff” as the Burren. The symmetry of opposites in Quadripartite black and white sequence mirrors inner and outer worlds.
She has long been interested in the question of inside and outside, how the mind’s structures impose themselves on the universe in our perceptions, how quantum theory acknowledges the role of the observer in determining the nature of the reality perceived. Observers influence events and hence are, ultimately, implicated in them: we are not separate from the world we describe. “It may prove to be that ‘psyche’ and ‘matter’ are actually the same phenomenon, one observed from ‘within’ and the other from ‘without’”, noted Jung’s friend Marie-Louise von Franz in an essay on the Jungian interpretation of the process of individuation,11 outlining an image that comes close to a description of Madden’s approach to the landscape.
One central aspect of this approach is a pronounced element of sensuality, recalling Mark Rothko’s endorsement, on his list of essential qualities for a good painting, of a “lustful relation to things that exist.”12 In Land near Kilnaboy, 1964 (p. 36) the soft, amorphous forms melt into each other. Elsewhere, there are phallic -sometimes aggressively phallic - shapes, as in Lacuna or Homage to R. M. Rilke, and a brute, ejaculatory force to Alpine Structure diptych, Study of Limestone Hill, 1964(cat no. 85, p. 100) or Red ridge, 1964 (cat no. 86, p. 100).
Madden’s work throughout the 1950s and 1960s, then, moves quickly from a conventional, descriptive relationship with the landscape to a penetration of the landscape, a desire to embody it by equivalent means within the language of painting, to actually get inside the structure of the landscape. Equally she psychifies the landscape, making it a stand for the mind, a place of memory, possibility and desire reflecting the interior life of artist and viewer. “Over the past twenty years, some of the focus of academic geography,” Barry Lopez wrote in Arctic Dreams, “has shifted away from descriptions of the land and focused instead on landscapes that exist in the human mind.”13 That is, on the “mental maps” that each individual carries within their head, maps of their particular worlds, rich, personal and idiosyncratic.
Lopez relates this notion to Elaine Jahner’s suggestion that “what lies at the heart of the religion of hunting peoples is the notion that a spiritual landscape exists within the physical landscape.”14 He also refers to Australian Amos Rapoport’s observations of aboriginal myth and its integral relationship to the land. “The land... makes the myth real. And it makes the people real.”15 Lopez is exemplary in detailing the complex layers of meaning inherent within what we - almost dismissively - term “the landscape,” and Madden’s work is in many respects a gradual unfolding of meanings within landscape. It is a significant progression but one that led her, nonetheless, to an impasse at the end of the 1960s, one prompted as much by personal as formal factors.
As it happens, many of the artists at the receiving end of Clement Greenberg’s theoretical statements, including those whose work was in part or whole endorsed by him, recoiled from his interpretation of what they were about. Barnet Newman, the exemplary flatness of whose paintings Greenberg praised - as they were flatter than Rothko’s they were better - was opposed to the kind of exclusively formalist interpretation proposed by Greenberg. As, vehemently, was Rothko, who remarked that he would “sooner confer anthropomorphic attributes upon a stone than dehumanise the slightest possibility of consciousness.”16
Greenberg saw the - to him - positive strand of American Abstract Expressionism as a riposte to and a decisive advance on a jaded Cubism, applauding the excision of what he saw as Cubism’s extraneous elements, its spatial frameworks, armatures for description, and its gestural signatures. Extraneous, that is, to a purified concern with colour and flatness, painting’s true domain.
There is another significant group of Abstract Expressionists who fall outside the ambit of Greenbergian purity, gestural painters like de Kooning, Kline and Guston, who operate in a recognisably post-Cubist pictorial space, making structured, hierarchical images of one kind or another, from de Kooning’s body-space Woman paintings or Kline’s brushwork girders to Guston’s stubborn accretions of clustered, undefined forms. Though they are often considered in a purely iconographic way, there is unmistakably a world in de Kooning’s canvases, a versatile, habitable, expansive world that is, quite simply, incompatible with Greenberg’s proposed refinement of painterly qualities, and that is relevant to the state of painting today.
Robert Rosenbium, in Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition,17 proposed quite a different view of the work of Rothko, Newman and Still, seeing it not as a break with the past, a bid for Modernist originality, a kind of ascent of the north face of Modernist enterprise, but as marking the continuity of a tradition with its roots in early Romanticism. Rosenblum, in fact, posits a kind of alternative tradition, with its focus not on the exploration of formal possibility, the incremental structuring and denial of pictorial space, the discovery of the colour field, but on the search for spiritual meaning in an increasingly secular world.
Rothko and Newman were well aware of and actively influenced by Edmund Burke’s notion of “the sublime”, which was a profound influence on the development of the early Romantic movement. A sense of the sublime, evoked by qualities in nature including “vastness, oneness, infinity, vacuity and darkness”18 engenders a transcendental experience in which “the awe-inspiring infinities of the natural world” are presented “as a metaphor of the supernatural world beyond.”19 This spiritual dimension was an indispensible facet of their art for Rothko, Newman and Still among others of the Abstract Expressionists.
Mircea Eliade, the historian of religions, has suggested that a sense of the sacred is common to all societies, and that a universal aspiration to the spiritual is integral to the concept of freedom in that “it allows the possibility of transcending the boundaries.”20 Salvation myths are symptomatic of the human impulse to survive “the terror of history.” Yet, as Rosalind Krauss puts it, while during the 19th century art became virtually a form of secular belief a “refuge for religious emotion”, now “we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.”21
In her critique of Modernism and Postmodernism, Suzi Gablik argues for the necessity of a return to “spiritual dignity” in art. “In primitive spiritual cosmology, power comes from the mysterious forces of the cosmos. Art was a form of mediation, a means of establishing contact with this spirit world and participating in its creative energies... Our own secular ideology has led us to eclipse this sacred dimension—the sense of participation in a timeless reality—and to pursue immortality through the individual’s own acts and works... In modernist culture, nothing is sacred.”22
It is Rothko, Rothko the “tragic and timeless”,23 who comes to mind when considering the series of monumental paintings that form the core of Madden’s output during the 1970s, the Elegies and Megaliths with their big, saturated surfaces, their air of sombre mystery, their subdued resonances of dark colour.
In the latter stages of his life—that is to say quite early on in terms of natural expectations of lifespan—Rothko suggested that he was dealing more and more, in his paintings, with death. His own morbidity, in a sense, was his subject, and through exploring it he clearly hoped to strike a universal chord. Aiming for the high ground of tragedy, he was still alert to the dangers of the pathetic fallacy and portentousness, of failing to allow for the irony of interpretation. Low culture, Saul Bellow once remarked in an interview is high culture that fails.
Rothko was never so unworldly as to seem merely ridiculous in his quest for the sublime. Itemising the ingredients he judged essential to the success of a painting he included irony, wit and play, and sensuality (which is where the lustful relation to things that exist comes in), together with tension, intimations of mortality, and some ten percent hope.24
There is no doubt that Madden’s Elegies are tragic works. In part they are, indeed, a public mourning, meditations on death prompted by a series of traumatic, tragic personal losses. They dare to introduce spirit into the same sentence as art, and in fact set themselves to address the question of transcendence. They are also responsive to the climate of the time, to, for example, the ominous, increasingly violent progression of events in Northern Ireland—witness Menhir (Bloody Sunday), 1976 (cat no. 31, p. 9’). And to the polarity in East-West relationships that, until the end of the 1980s, made the prospect of nuclear annihilation seem uncomfortably close yet strictly unimaginable.
To make these Elegies, she turned, as ever to the Co. Clare landscape of her teens. The megaliths which were her primary visual source in the landscape, plentifully distributed throughout many areas of Ireland, are thought to date from about 4,000 to 2,000BC, as part of a more widespread cult practice of the time. It is a time coincidental with the development of farming methods and it is thought likely that the bare limestone of the Burren was then covered with an arable layer of rich mineral soil.
The megaliths common to the Burren are predominantly wedge tombs, so termed because they are usually wedge-shaped in both plan and profile, being wider and higher at the western end. While they are described as tombs, and they are generally burial sites, the purpose of megaliths is unclear and still the subject of speculation.
“Careful consideration,” archaeologist Elizabeth Shee Twohig has written, “shows that the monuments cannot have been built solely or even primarily for burial... The elaborate structure of the majority of tombs argues for their having fulfilled some special role in society... There is a growing concensus among archaeologists that the monuments in some way acted as a focal point for a group or tribe... Whatever the reasons... even in their present denuded and often neglected condition most of them still retain a sense of mystery and majesty powerful enough to stir the imagination of all observers.”25 For Madden they are a focal point, moreover, at which earth and the unearthly meet, a link between material and immaterial, body and soul, life and death. The entrance to the megalith chamber is a doorway from life to death, but it is also an assertion of the life of the spirit within, for which the chamber is a metaphor. (When Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke looked for a symbol of transcendent, superior intelligence, the unknowable, for 2001: A Space Odyssey, they lighted on the simple image of a dark, smooth-surfaced monolith, a device brilliantly visualised and employed in the film.)
The Megalith pictures are big, roughly two metres by three on average: big, but, like Rothko’s large works, intimate, made to a human scale. They are always built against a notional right-angled grid and regulated by strong verticals, their dominant structural element being lines of tension that recall Barnett Newman’s “zips”. As Dominique Fourcade has described the paintings, these lines mark off “a highly charged area worked with vigorous brush-strokes, producing a seething surface” from “a calm area composed of gently graded colours handled with. . .poise and lightness of touch.”26 There are of course variations on this general structure: the spatial arrangements are continually proposed and contested - often fiercely - throughout the series. It is and remains, however, a prototypical subject-ground configuration, a statement that paintings, despite their materiality, and while remaining formally rigorous, refer to things in the world beyond themselves.
As we might expect, since the form readily accommodates itself to the basic layout, there are many triptychs. More surprisingly, there are also many diptychs as well as single panel works. The dividing line in the diptychs frequently threatens the integrity of the central area, the “megalith” itself, and it is often amplified by lines taped on the canvas that echo the break - but one of many gestures that underline the paintings’ material presence, their almost paradoxical denial of illusionistic effects.
One of the finest of the early elegies Alignment II, 1972 (pp. 36-37), a diptych, already exhibits many of the features that characterise the series as a whole. There is a central division and then a veritable forest of verticals. But the verticals are not allowed to run true: they are pulled apart, distorted into angles off the perpendicular, knocked, in fact, out of vertical alignment into another, instinctively judged alignment. The arrangement of the lines suggests the sway of terrific, gravitational forces, perhaps even a reference to the frequently voiced theories that megalithic constructions related to celestial phenomena - exemplary here not of some particular interpretation of the data but of the instinctive human appeal to something beyond. On the other hand, one of the clearest, simplest examples of the basic pattern emerges relatively late, in Menhir triptych, 1978 (cat no. 35, p.91), its central panel a tumult of cloudy red and black, flanked by expanses of pale, smoothly modulated blue. But the issue is rarely so clear-cut. Like Alignment II, Alignment, 1975 (cat no. 30, p. 90), shuffles the elements so that we are not quite sure where we stand, a consequence of the way, in both, Madden explores the possibilities of destabilising the implicit grid, perhaps as a means to enliven the “dead” surface space, a strategy evident from early on in the series in, for example, Megalith I4, 1971 (p. 39), or, with monumental deliberation, in Megalith (Pierre Levées), 1974 (p. 40), and one practised with increasing force.
Common to all of the paintings is a concern with light, and a play between light and dark. They are shot through with a flooding, mystical light that irradiates their cloudy atmospherics, sometimes quite dramatically, as in Monolith III, 1972 (p. 38), Megalith I4, or the richly textured Alignment II. Light is life and illumination, yet they are for the most part dark, sombre paintings, looking backwards in time and full of misgivings about the future.
In many respects these paintings offer a synthesis of the two, complementary approaches employed by Madden in her earlier, comparatively naturalistic Co. Clare landscapes and her highly formalised landscape “equivalents” of the 1960s. First of all, they are carefully located by their titles in a specific geographical and psychic space: we are still in Co. Clare and, as it happens, sometimes further afield in Ireland, but always the Ireland of the megaliths, as in Menhir, 1979-80 (pp.44-45).
The megaliths, literally the big stones, awesome and still largely obscure of purpose, provide the psychic context, a focus in a timeless void. In fact the stones, as embodied in the paintings, are lights, beacons shining through time, free of time, they are acts of transcendence, soaring free of the temporality of human existence.
Then, they are intimately concerned with material processes. We are sure, that is to say, that we are dealing with paint, there is no pretence of resemblance, of mimesis. The atmosphere that they evoke, and they all evoke atmosphere, virtually everything else is discarded in a bid for reductionist concentration, is engendered not through visual resemblance to the specified stone structures, but through colour, tone, divisions and gestural marks.
They not only anchor the painterly void in an objectively and subjectively real space, they anchor it to an image, a conspicuous absence in, for example, the radiant colour-fields of Jules Olitski in the 1960s and 70s, and the roughly contemporary paintings of Sam Francis in the 1970s in which areas of colour retreated to the margins of the canvas.
Lamenting what he perceives as the failure of American abstract painting in the 1970s, Frank Stella relates this failure to a loss of ability to create space. Painting, “in a series of withdrawals...began to illustrate the space it had once been able to create... It was not longer available to feeling, either emotional or literal. This fulfilled one of modernism’s great dreams: the space in painting became available to eyesight alone, but unfortunately not to eyesight in a pictorial sense, but to eyesight in a literal sense...to the eyesight of critics...what we are left with is illustrated space which we read; what we have lost is created space which we could feel.”27
Closer in feeling than Olitski or Francis to Madden’s Elegies, perhaps, is Robert Motherwell’s Ancestral Presence (1976), by virtue of its non-specific evocation of a presence, something pursued in the form of an ambiguous motif (egg? phallus?) in his mammoth Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, a lament for Spanish democracy that extended over several decades.
Madden’s image remains elusive even though it trails a much more specific referent than Motherwell’s “ancestral presence” and a more focussed metaphorical embodiment in structural terms. The megalith is symbolised by the space between two panels of sky, but that sky is also real: throughout this time, Madden also made works directly from nature, sequences of studies of land, sea and sky, underlining her attachment to a real space.
The void that she opens up, so to speak, in these paintings, does bear a direct relationship to the shallow space of the Abstract Expressionists, outside of history primordial, mythic, Rosenblum’s sublime spectacle, the space quickly compressed by Clement Greenberg into the flat, material plane of the canvas itself, stained with colour as colour. But it is also a place apart.
That is, Madden appeals across the restricting framework of formalist thinking to a wider conception of modernist enterprise. Her version of Pollock, Rothko and Newman’s mythic, essentially a historical realm is one rooted in both her own past and the greater, deeper; mythic (in the sense of the system of belief, no longer accessible, adhered to by the megalith builders) but still historical past. She does not reach outside of history or aim for a break with the past in a bid for modernist originality, but sees herself and her art as being necessarily placed in the world, and open to the world. The megaliths in this schema are a distillation of meaning in the landscape, an enduring trace of the human presence and a solid token of the human aspiration to transcendence.
In 1914, during the first autumn of the Great War, Matisse painted a singularly stark work, Porte-Fenêtre a Collioure, remarkable for its spare simplicity. It is “a view between paralleled vertical strips of a shutter and curtain - blue, grey and green - into black night. The darkness is ominous yet the four colours rest calmly together on the picture surface.”28The darkness of the night can be readily interpreted as pertaining to the cataclysmic war into which Europe and, more, the whole edifice of European civilization had plunged. Yet it is a remarkably calm picture, even-tempered and almost serene. The yawning space of the night is skirted by soothing colours, established with just a few lines, so that the entire painting is composed of several minimally demarcated planes of subdued colour. It is a work which has obvious, premonitory affinities with Newman, Rothko and with Madden’s Elegies. But it also anticipates the next development in her art, which was based on an exploration of the ideas suggested by the motifs of doorways and windows.
11 Man and His Symbols, p.226.12 Quoted by Irving Sandier in the catalogue for the Mark Rothko retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1987, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970(London, The Tate Gallery, 5987), p.15.
13 Bary Lopez, Arctic Dreams; Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (London, MacMillan, 1986) p.295.
14 Ibid., p.273.15 Ibid., p.296.16 Rothko quoted by Irving Sandier in Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, p.14.
17 Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition; Friedrich to Rothko (London, Thames and Hudson, 1975).18 Irving Sandler, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, p.12.
19 Robert Rosenblum, ‘Notes on Rothko and Tradition’ from Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, p.24.20 Mircea Eliade quoted by James N Wood and Anne d’Harnoncourt in their foreword to the exhibition catalogue Anseim Kiefer (Chicago and Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987), p.7.21 Rosalind E Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths
(Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1985), p.12.
22 Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed? (London, Thames and Hudson, 1984) p.94.
23 “Only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” Mark Rothko’s sole contribution to a letter sent to The Times by himself and Adolph Gottlieb’s in 1943, quoted by Irving Sandier, Mark Rothko 1903-1970, p.15.
24 Ibid, p. 15.
25 Elizabeth Shee Twohig. Irish Megalithic Tombs ) Princes Risborough, Shire Publications, 1990) pps. 60-6226 Dominique Fourcade, exhibition catalogue for Galerie Darthea Speyer, Paris, 1979.
27 Frank Stella, ‘Working Space’, p.43.28 Lawrence Gowing, Matisse (London, Thames and Hudson, 1979), p.129.