By Øivind Storm Bjerke
Confronting a work by Mark Harrington does not evoke a creeping feeling of looking at something we mistook by chance for a painting; we are not even in doubt that we are facing a work of art. The challenge posed by Harrington is not to decide if the object in question is art or a nervous breakdown, a dustbin or a radiator smeared with paint. Recognized as art the work adheres to the practices of a particular kind of art; painting as an art, an artform based on the distinction between art and everything else. Looked upon in such a manner, this is a kind of art: an art which confirms conceptions of what painting as art can be. One such conception is that a work of art is not an arbitrary artifact, but the materialization of an ambition to be revealed, through the test of time, as a masterpiece. In the aftermath of post modernism, the intention of making a masterpiece is a radical decision on behalf of painting as an art, connecting the actual work of art to concepts of, and ideas about art that most members of the art community are turning away from. This is an art that declares itself to belong to the family of classic painting and high modernism - not considered as oppositions- but as branches of the same family tree.
The first distinction we are confronted with is the surface of the painting as an object versus the surroundings. The way Harrington is handling this surface is to mark the picture plane as a place of aesthetic choices. The individual painting presents a place for locating art. The painting becomes a statement about art: art is not the white wall, but the marked surface of a particular type of object on the wall. But Harrington goes further, stating that what makes this marked surface art is not the decision to baptize it as art, but the way the marks have been brought into place. The individual painting becomes meaningful as art, as a marked location inside the total field that sums up the history of painting as art. Inside this total field of painting as art, the position of Harrington grows out of an idea of high modernism, having its high tide from the early 19th Century until the end of the 1960's and understood as the continuation of a classic tradition in European painting, distinguished by an investigating mood, where the object of investigation is the field of painting as art.
Harrington's art represents not a particular trend or movement, but a method. The method consists of commenting upon and questioning the artistic heritage of painting as art, not in words but in new paintings. The marks of Harrington are to be understood as remarks upon the history of painting. These are remarks saturated with knowledge of particular paintings; artists; ways of handling the medium - as a physical substance and as color. It also includes knowledge of how to forward knowledge and information through symbols. The actual painting stands out as a refraction of common and individual experiences, insights, comments, questions and adds up to a point of departure into unknown land. The historical orientation in question should not be understood as a glance backwards, but as the basis for an overview that makes possible a colonization of til now unmarked territory. In a supplementary way, this orientation gives the opportunity to recognize and pass judgement upon the claim of making new territory.
The art of Harrington is probably not blind to the ideological, economical, sociological or ethical dimensions of art, or even the idea of 'art as... 'art as economic'; 'art as sociology'; 'art as philosophy'; 'art as therapy'; 'art as politics'; 'art as fashion', or even of art as an instrument for gaining status, power and money. But these aspects of art and games of art are certainly subordinated to the challenges posed by the idea that art has its history, and the need for coming to terms with the aesthetic parameters involved in judging art within the dependency upon a certain kind of installation aesthetic. The paintings of Harrington address an open discussion of the work of art where a knowledge of the history of art provides a common ground that enables all those who may make the effort, to offer his or her own interpretations, comments and judgements. His proceedings are not a sign of haughtiness, rather they are an invitation to a discussion on painting independent of any esoteric knowledge of the currents or politically correct attitudes of the moment, avoiding ritual member ship of one or another artistic tribe.
The individual painting does not present us with a riddle to be solved, but is an invitation to a discussion on the discourse and history of painting as an art form. A pleasant side effect of this is that the person Mark Harrington recedes into the background. We do not need to involve knowledge of his life and whereabouts to admire his paintings - or even in the event that we find the painting ridiculous, boring or simply bad. As onlookers we can be blinded by the surface of these paintings and overlook the many layers contained in what meets the eye. But it is per fectly legitimate to reduce the layers of meaning of the paintings to the impression we get from this level of sensual beauty. Before these beautifully crafted works one is tempted to forget the abundance of aesthetic choices that are implied in the final result. The artist's thick layer of culture that expresses itself through a demonstration of his familiarity with artistic conventions and control of the materials involved in the process of painting, can be confused with an academic art where aesthetic choices are substituted by formulas.
Besides being a type of painting where the depth of content is connected to the surface qualities, those elements of format, the extent of the painted area, measure, scale, relation to the pictorial space, the border between the painting and its surroundings, the illumination and the installation of the painting must all be registered as elements of great importance to the interpretation of each painting as a work of art. It is a type of painting where decisive borderlines form important aspects of the work. It is not an art where life has wormed its way into the work of art and disintegrated the art object into one more piece of reality - art. The distinction between art and life is still valid in this kind of art. The actual work of art becomes a prism revealing influences from a tradition of painting where the meaning of the work is to be extracted from intrinsic qualities and content is inseparable from the way each work formulates, reflects, con firms, distinguishes and refracts impulses. The marks on the picture plane can function as a reference to something on the outside of the rectangle of the painting, as well as being marks within the borders of the picture plane.
The singular mark or particular formal entity, is not read able as something definite and unambiguous - in this way the paintings of Harrington are much less minimalist and conceptual than expressive in a discreet manner. Central to the references connected to the markings of the picture plane are associations to pictorial art in general. The paintings can be understood as comments on aspects of art we connect with the names of Klee, Toby, Rothko, Twombly, Tapies, Hantai, Dahmen, Pijuan, Green, the late work of Richter, Marden, Ryman, Scully not to mention those younger artists in dialogue with this genealogical line of artists. The family of painters Harrington belongs to treat the surface of the painting as a hybrid between a blackboard, on which you may draw, write and erase before starting anew, and a picture plane where you work-up the painting from the ground in layers - rather than a mirror bearing the reflection of an image or an idea. In this type of painting nothing is a reflection of something, but a reflection upon something.
Narration in such painting is often a by-product of the construction of the painting as an actual object having its specific materials and structure. When a painting is divided in two parts, this is not to be looked upon as a purely practical matter It is a way to create a certain kind of formal order, where the two parts are either in dialogue or discussion; where dichotomies like left and right, up and down invite interpretations on genetic, historical and psycho logical levels. The type of painting indicated by the afore mentioned canonical artists and family of painters constitutes a common ground of references for all those who still cherish a serious interest in art that is motivated by an idea of art as a meaningful and distinct subject, with its own varied history and praxis, symbols and institutions.
By Petra Giloy-Hirtz (translated by Paula Domzalski)
In a time of obsession with the narrative and overflowing with images, favouring figurative painting, Mark Harrington sets himself apart with the language of the nonfigurative. As with certain of his contemporaries, he has picked up the threads of the Abstract in Modernism, refreshing and renewing with techniques, colours and materials. From the middle of the nineties a conceptual body of work has thus developed, unfolding within the framework of a distinct structure. Mark Harrington's paintings have two things in common: structural conformity and a repetition of form - horizontal lines and a diptych format. That is to say, each painting creates its own entity out of two parts, placed above or next to one another. Instead of a brush, tools are used to draw tracelines into the layers of paint, in a complex process.The paintings resemble objects with their massive wooden construction supporting the canvas which is fastened onto a panel of synthetic material.
In this manner, varying from small to monumental formats, pictorial plates emerge, bearing their own unmistakable handwriting. Alternating between the unyielding, hermetically-sealed and the light and sensual, between the strangely and the seductively-beautiful coloured, the paintings reveal their multiplicity in the logic of reduction. Sublime variety emerges from their structural repetition. In focussing upon the manupulation of surface, a more sophisticated form of "drawing" has emerged during the last years. The compositions allow space for association and memory in the mind of the observer. And so the correlation between abstraction and independence of spirit fulfills itself anew.
By Wilhelm Christoph Warning (translated by Paula Domzalski)
Mark Harrington's work challenges you to enter into the phenomenon of time and space. His paintings resemble a time-machine, encapsulating their own generic progress, preserving it for when the viewer sees the final work. The artist, however, erases handwriting, brushstroke, gesture - all traces of the process, which could recall its creation in time.
At first glance he reveals us nothing about the path he took to create the final image. Mark Harrington irritates his viewer. He creates the basic structure of his painting mechanically-technically. Taking saw-blades and peg-like tools - randomly found, specially selected or even fashioned by himself - he draws over and marks the soft surface, allowing a framework of lines to emerge as a base. This act has its origins in a not exactly definable, genre mix. On the one hand, it has to do with drawing, so it belongs to the genre of drawing. But on the other hand, it has a lot to do with sculpture. The painter, who once studied sculpture, works here with the dialectics of high and low, penetration and accentuation, positive and negative, letting a structural relief emerge.
A line-scape on to which he coats colour-layers - like a painter - and coats again and again with his spatula. The surface becomes flat and smooth. This also an imperceptible progress.
He says that he could imagine using other mechanical methods in his work. It is also not immediately apparent where he uses a brush. There are no typical painterly gestures to be found. Manual traces of individuality - which we have linked with the process of painting for thousands of years - are extinguished. Traces of the mode of origin are not to be seen. Behind all this is not only a de-individualization - a point tackled again and again in the history of Modern Art - but a "de-timing", a timelessness. However, the artist does show the past and so creates a contradiction: working entirely with dialectics, he uses traces of the paintings' origins almost imperceptibly in order to compose inner-pictorial structures, find rhythms, develop dynamics. Lines.
The lines feature uncalculated, unintended "random" deviations. Despite "encapsulated time" Mark Harrington does open up his compositions, giving us a life-line to the past and thus to time itself. However, the viewer is still susceptible to a misconception of the chronological order, the sequence of each act. For a presumed last coat of paint could actually have been applied first. And vice versa. Anyhow, for Mark Harrington, the starting point is always deliberation. He always starts from the format of the canvas. Its proportion, the question of its form - whether rectangular or square - which special height or width - dictate later the dimension and composition of the painting and roughly the number and density of the applied lines. Here also the artist is treading the line between the worlds of painting and sculpture. The scraping and coating of colour being the equivalent of positioning sculpture in a spatial context. This he perceives with a birds-eye view from above - an empty field waiting to be composed and arranged. An act borne on the wings of time, Henri Bergson the philosopher pointed out, is "the fourth dimension of space".
Mark Harrington takes the theme of time still further. In a discussion in 2002 he stated that a painting is a materially composed entity which includes time in the process. And "Additionally the horizontally-linear, furrowed structure, inherent in the paintings, conjures the impression that things are happening in a time-given pattern." The horizontal linear moment, characteristic for Mark Harrington's work, distantly reminds us of notes in a music score, of lines with faded or blotched letters. Petra Giloy-Hirtz called it a "canonical composition of the horizontal line."
In recent years, this structure has developed into a different more decided impression of time, and, as it follows, space. The horizontal line dominates the painting as before. But Harrington has broken it up, interrupted it. Because of this, the paintings now swing to a different rhythm. It is as if they were filled with tiny pauses for breath, making the space and structure more lively and animated. A certain lightness and an impression of increased fragility have set in.
The lines which beforehand had run across the whole painting now start and stop at various intervals. They create a horizontal span of tension, settling, at closer inspection, on an exactly defined point, only to start again. In this way the horizontal structure is suffused with its own rhythm, varying with each line, with differing lengths and intervals. Moreover, the way the lines are placed one above the other, makes for an interesting simultaneousness of the unevenly spaced intervals.
Previously, the paintings were to be read and understood by their almost continuous, endless horizontal lines. This has now been augmented with clear, tension-charged points, which define the lines' rhythmical relationship to and with one another. The fragile structure with which Mark Harrington arranges his deeply-layered colour-planes accentuates the horizontal and the vertical construction of the surface. But above all, the intervals, the "spaces between", accentuate the rhythm of the lines.
Put another way: the lines first define and delineate the empty space and then simultaneously fill it - although it is empty. Here a fundamental concept of sculpture is evident in the work. The concept of space is defined by above and below, top and bottom, before and after. With this, it appears that the paintings can also convey a notion of the inconceivable, impalpable dimension of time.
Between the "before and after", the "past and future", is the moment we call the "present". Although we can experience and define it, we don't know if it really exists. This indefinable and inconceivable space between "having just come to be and not quite extinguished", is outlined here. What Mark Harrington is demonstrating, between a preceding before and ensuing after, is the quite special concentrate of the "here and now". An abstract "de-timed" zone filled with time - this also a sign of the polarity or dialectics in the artist's work.
The sense of time's flow and its direction are accentuated even more. Although, and especially because the lines are interrupted, they lead the gaze from one side of the painting to the other. "A scope of movement" Mark Harrington says, "constantly disconnected, which only goes to intensify its impact". And, one could add, a movement which also accentuates the vertical element in the artist's spatial concept. In his most recent works the previously rather thin lines have become deeper and wider. They have their own hue, stand out graphically. With their blurred edges they almost give the impression of rotating cylinders creating three dimensional space with their spinning turns.
There is therefore an element of depth in the paintings which doesn't only come from applying different layers of colour. This allows one to penetrate even more into the unfathomable depth of pictorial space without forfeiting the tension of the surface.
On the contrary, in his latest, more complex paintings, the artist applies more layers of colour which make light and dark contrasting tones - like arteries - visible in the lines. Again,this has to do with the concept of time, which is why the artist speaks of the "duality" in his paintings and that they contain both elements: tranquility and motion.
By Petra Giloy-Hirtz
Mark Harrington loves the line. It runs in pulses across the canvas. Without a beginning, as though there were no fixed edge, and without an end. Line after line. In the middle it breaks as it must; the surface is divided in two like an ancient folding writing tablet. The 'writing' breaks .in a groove and then starts again with the figures slightly displaced against each other. In contrast to the exact geometric lines of the early works the lines appear to be broken, more open, alive. They are not subject to any order or system Their strength varies as does their separation from each other. They are lines of force with great intensity that include the space and seem to continue along the wall.
Mark Harrington is a painter However he does not paint in the conventional sense. There is no brush stroke and no signature to reveal his technique of applying the color. Curious - the surfaces are slippery, faint, soft, the lines let into the painted foundation as though they were behind a veil. But the colors shine brilliantly!
In the front there are always two in contrast purple and red, yellow and orange, gray and white, yellow and black.But there are traces of more colors, a background depth of layers, each concealed but still present on the surface. Many are visible in the speckles and hatchings that accompany the lines.
These new works are reduced, purely conceptual. They are bundled together like a canonical collection of the horizontal line. The more reduced the formal means, the greater the amazing number of variations. The result is a series of repetitions and variations that sharpen the perception of nuances and differences Some of the works in the new series have titles that are associated with individual memories of the past: Angel, Camilla, Bye Bye Mr. Blue Sky. Harrington has chosen small and medium formats; he still considers large formats in their relation to the human body. His works are of modest size, sometimes even intimate, as though the viewer and portrait are eye to-eye. And then again from a generous breadth. The linear structure always remains in view.
With his picture surfaces lacking forms, their rhythms generated by the lines, their dynamic tension between surface and background, between opacity and transparency and in the contrasted balance between the two 'wings', Mark Harrington enriches the pictorial language of abstraction and fills it with life through the sensual quality of his overall textures. These are almost minimalistic.
How were these paintings made? The canvas was stretched over a solidly constructed plastic housing in order to withstand the procedure of making them. Stabilized like this, it has the qualities of an object. The painting lies on the floor when the artist bends over it with his prepared instruments like a sawblade or a scraper and inscribes traces through the moist mass of color. Lines are created. And around them cuts and spots, products of chance and control in a mechanical process. Direction, separation and depth of the lines have been calculated, as have tempo, physical strength, continuity and interruptions. The mediation of the tool, that is the renunciation of manual gesture and style, leaves much to the chance of the process.
Color applied with a spatula fills the empty spaces like liquid plastic The craggy surface is then flattened, polished and sealed.
This is new in his work. Mark Harrington came as a youth from California to England to study sculpture as well as art history and English literature. Beyond these interests he has a professional affinity to film, theatre, design and crafts. In the eighties he made geometry the subject of his painting. Its visual dynamic lay in the figuration of geometric forms, as in reverence to the iconography of Constructivism. He transferred that play of colorful geometric surfaces into three dimensions with cool furniture sculptures. The only thing he kept from the exact order of those works in the 1990's is the format. All works are now diptychs. This means that the works consist of two parts corresponding with each other. They are reminders of the medieval altar paintings as the pathos formula of religious art The panels are very different. Set next to or on top of each other, they are in contrasting colors - yellow and white, yellow and green, red and blue, black and brown, for example - and texture. Horizontal lines meet vertical edges.
Here there are wide spaces between them, there narrow ones. In the Boschhof Series from Munich in 1999 in small and medium format (with the materials alkyd colors, linoleum on wood, and oil and acrylic paints on canvas) the wings are different. However the unity of the parts is shown by colors and style. Tones of bright red, soft yellow, brilliant orange or strong blue are all over. The gap between the two parts is just the separating line of the horizontal structure. If it runs horizontally it is difficult to make out. Even the small oil paintings hold to the principle of the diptych, even though they have warmer colors and shining surfaces. Damage to the surface of the picture is not a provocative, aggressive or programmatic act to renew the art of painting. What is there today to rebel against or to invent? Harrington cuts into the body of the color - and he heals the wound. He opens the color space and closes it again. What is important to him is the work process, the act, the physical intensity, the relationship between back ground and surface inherent to the work.
That which the artist reveals by his operations can no longer be concealed. And not only because it can be seen from the edges of the canvas, that show traces of the process of applying color It is visible to the viewer on the surface, in the contours of the lines, in the aura of depth. It is clear that Harrington's paintings do not illustrate reality. They are also not to be read symbolically. In their elementary appearance they represent more than ambitious formal aesthetic variations in a conceptual framework of abstract painting. What is their effect on the viewer? What is their 'inner wealth'? Do they cause 'subconscious projections'? The diptychs are like musical scores. The sensitive viewer possessed of fantasy can read their signs like poetry or like music. The lines that surface and disappear and reappear, the sprinkles that hint at the depth of the space like galaxies abstract configurations but with a soul, calculated in their genesis but also magical and sensual.
This is not the cool, distant geometry of Peter Halley who processes intellectual and analytic life experiences with his studied works reminiscent of Minimalism, Color Field, and Constructivism. His vertical and horizontal lines may be in spired by the complexity of linear networks. On Line: 'It is the bundling of the linear, this creation of parallel systems of circulation, that characterizes modernity.' Mark Harrington's lines are less reminders of metropolitan traffic patterns and media networks than perhaps of landscape, the horizon, the touching of heaven and earth, a cut in space. And this is not because the view from the window of his studio shows the lines of the mead ow, the fields, hilltops and mountain ridges of the beautiful nature below the Alps. The artist has lived there for a while after having lived in England, Spain and Norway The works are effective in a general sense. They take the possibility of abstraction seriously once again.
'The format of my paintings varies in an effort to reflect the nature of the human being - vertical upon the horizontal landscape - and to identify with the basics of built form in architecture' (Mark Harrington, 2001). After the so-called end of abstraction it was often cynically handed over to industrial decoration. 'A catastrophic degradation to the status of reception hall decoration: was what Benjamin H.D. Buchloh called it. There was no further trace of transcendence, of painting's metaphysical past, of experience of nature or intoxication, of memory or history. In an age of universal amusements that has made the moving picture into the congenial medium of the Zeitgeist, pathos and spirituality are out of favor. Harrington's works look classical, traditional and non-spectacular They are more ikons than inventions in spite of their nature as objects and their technically advanced materials.
The works are not just formal experiments for the artist. Harrington is a romantic who believes in a sensual, emotional and even spiritual dimension. He wants painting to have an effect, that the canvas produces a mood in the viewer, who feels the material concealed behind the surface. But Harrington's paintings also lure the viewer to think - is it the balancing of the elements? - about harmony and equilibrium, stability and dynamic, continuity and breaks, symmetry and differences, order and disorder. What does art bring to life? The viewer may find an aesthetic pleasure and perhaps even experience something about himself and life through understanding these paintings.
By Marlena Donahue
Theorist Frederick Jameson describes our 21st century as inviting a sort of schizophrenia, requiring that we make and remake the world out of a disengaged barrage of imagistic selves and virtual "now's.
Painter Mark Harrington makes his permanent home-studio in the sensorial drama of wooded German farmlands. Raised between the US and England, traveling, teaching and exhibiting on just about every continent, the tri-lingual, undeniably cosmopolitan Harrington elects to live, think and most important for this consideration, create art in place of extreme realness . . a place he tellingly describes as "dotted with lakes whose waters are a chalky black silt against the skin."
This is not picturesque biography; it is a rich clue to an art practice and a life insistently enacted, perceived, operational.
By stark contrast to the above, most of us inhabit existentially and psychologically a heavily mediated global culture where
'experience' (actually its stand in) is rarely felt "on the skin" as it were, It is instead projected/extrapolated almost halographically from a limited array of pre packaged representations/brands/simulacra, more or less masquerading as free choice (i.e. free commerce), but increasingly removed from anything embodied or real.
The role of painting, of paint itself as either viable or anachronistic, how paint will function and what it can convey in this massly homogenized, fully digitized era are questions that bear directly on Harrington's work and artistic process.
Paint for Harrington is first and foremost an activity. Harrington's paintings, the wood substrates that he carefully builds to contain pigments, as well as the spaces his works hang in and activate are above all else to be sensed. All these are conceived it seems by Harrington to be material, tangible, to be applied, sanded, scraped, penetrated, made transparent or opaque, bifurcated and unified in the most mindfully physical way so as to generate fairly direct somatic, tactile kinesthetic events in both maker and viewer.
The agenda here, as they say on the street, is "keeping it real," with all the "bodied forth" and emotive charge implied in that vernacular use.
His focus places Harrington in direct and intelligent dialogue with changes in culture and art beginning in the 50s and 60s. Serious thinker-creators like Cage, Shiraga, Kaprow, Acconci, Klein and most prominently the German Beuys realized each in their sphere that media and icon brokers -- ads to newsprint, museums to academies, films to TV - imagined (which is to say mandated) for us our identity, selfhood, values, desires, notions beauty and, of course, definitions of art.
The first and fastest reflex to this was to jettison the premier social code for "high art:" abstract painting. In its place "Happenings," real bodies, lived space, the passage of real time, sounds, daily routines, in your face urban junk became the unavoidably sensual fodder from which art ought to be fashioned.
Lucy Lippard referred to this as the inevitable "dematerialization" (i.e. intentional disappearing) of the obsolete and contested "white wall" holding the gild-frame. Rich critique of abstract painting ignited profound, lasting art innovation; it did not deter the press of our techno-mediated living, nor did it in any manner end the fascination artists and viewers have for paint.
Harrington's work evolves in this aesthetic and social history in smart ways. His approach and ideas recharge but do not undermine the painterly. For this artist (and others of similar ilk, like the late Blinky Palermo), painting and paint itself are not spectatorial display artifacts, they are first and foremost necessarily performed and phenomenological - at every level of producing and apprehending them as art.
This begins with very physical, intensely hands-on construction of the wood surfaces Harrington manufactures to paint onmore architectural armatures than surfaces. With the careful muscularity of a master wood worker (Harrington made professional finished furniture), he builds two identical rectangles a little thicker than a canvas. These "diptych" parts are abutted via super clean faceting into one vertical surface with a thin barely perceptible seam at the center. By the care and detail of their execution, by virtue of the subtle seam at the center that goes in and out of awareness in finished pieces, Harrington seems to focus himself and us on the undeniable objecthood of the painted surface; his works have a funny way of dislodging our default expectations that a "painting" necessarily means flat inactive linen on top of which composed and still color
"rests" and then "represents."
The composite, fairly large scale rectangle he manufactures is sanded and sanded, then covered with unifying layers of gesso then sanded again and again to a Renaissance fresco finesse. On this absorbent surface, Harrington paints fee handed liquidly horizontal bands, here translucent, there matte, alternating in subtly keyed harmonies from dark (creating a kind of shadow) to incandescent colors. Also as in fresco, colors are laid down in complex layers with great speed while the fast drying gesso is still wet, so pigment is taken into the surface and binds not on it, but (also as in fresco) inside it. Colors both look and are inseparable from the physical structures that hold them.
To get the super nuanced transitions/interactions between opacity and transparency, between hardish edge and color-overcolor bleed upon which the physicality of this work relies, Harrington works fast and in fee hand, so that however controlled, perfected via practice the process may be, there is a quick, unpremeditated intuition ever at play against his conceived design.
This process of discovery-in-doing isn't necessarily the stuff of surrealist automatism, or Ab Ex existentialist seeking, but endemic to the demands of his technique, his materials and his body.
As a final step Harrington covers painted bands and the fields they hover in with another semi transparent, somewhat milky pigment that further veils color, mitigates edges, binds the gesso in selective ways before it is wiped off still wet. What this does is enmesh image and object further, blur yet more the traditional interactions between 2 and 3 dimensions that defined pre Modern and Modern painting. The plastic effect is to send the paint even further "back," exaggerate our awareness that color -i.e image-and wood are one.
His process places Harrington in good post modern company: the most vital painting today underscores image-as-object aesthetics. Interestingly enough, his particular way of envisioning the role of mark-making arcs much further back to Roman-Renaissance fresco, where the abstraction of "a picture" was not conceived nor apprehended as separate from the literality of the architecture. (As we know, the "pulled out of real time," or timeless fetishized canvas is late 19th century idea.)
Germane to post modern embodiment, and reminding us that there is nothing so very new under the sun, the whole purpose of earliest frescos was never to paint a picture, but to bind paint plus architecture in the most sensorially convincing way; tromp l'oeil wall-bound decor, columns, windows and outdoor gardens viewed through them were intended to be above all acutely experiential, to surround and enlist the whole body-just the opposite impact of passive museum viewing or your iphone.
As does Harrington, wet fresco artists worked on small sections quickly, filling in details spontaneously from vague sketches buried behind the layer of opaque, color-holding clay. This method according to Vasari was the only way to achieve what he saw as buono fresco's true intent: making almost living images able to stir the body and the feelings as only life can. (He called dry fresco a second order art precisely because the paint lies on top of the wall and is not made a part of space.)
Harrington's images have just that way of rather directly mobilizing spatial and emotional circuitry; though not precisely architectural, they have a way of speaking to our up-right stature, of triggering (more than depicting) certain pleasure-loss, order-making, meaning-finding human responses. The bands can suggest landscapes, horizon lines, clouds, seas, the forces of earth and elements, like the waves made by electricity, prismatic color or sound when "seen" via hi tech devices, but Harrington seems to intentionally stop evocation just before our natural inclination towards narrative, or story line.
A deeply literate artist, Harrington is not silly enough censure the inevitably metaphoric nature of the human psyche, but he does seem to be most concerned with how content and deep emotional responses to art emanate from properties of tangible form and experienced space.
The remote but readable references to classical axes and geometry that we find in this work have a way of temporarily fixing our geographic and emotive attention (in this dizzying post modernity where, as Foucault has said, the "order of things" is fluxing, arbitrary). While tethering us, the lateral spread of marks suggests a trajectory that extends out past the painted surface into the real-time environment of the viewer, of the architecture and beyond.
As we interact with them, these works then manage to inscribe us in space and time at a cultural moment when we least can rely on either of those old comforts; here we ought to note that situating humans with certainty has been at the heart of maps, history, Euclid, Newton, 1-point perspective, Descartes' coordinates, the modernist grid, science, the very concept of the self. Conversely, a Harrington painting suggests in us that state of being fully open-ended; here we must also note that confronting infinite expansion has been at the heart of religion, mysticism, philosophy, quantum mechanics, string theory, Derrida's "infinitely deferred" semiotics, our hyperlinked web-world, and --yes, again -- the very construct of the self.
Which is to argue for the lasting depth, breadth and timelines of this work.
Today we take for granted that we are inevitably made of matter and images. Less well addressed is the precise and complex way this constructed existence interacts with and reconciles itself to the basic fact of our irrevocable embodiment. You can Friend me and Google me, Skype conference me or cyber sex me, but ultimately we humans know it is the flesh that feels, creates, desires, propels, seeks communion and shelter, fails at same, decays, recoups and eventually (though as they say "the virtual never dies") will be no more.
Harrington as a person and a poet gets this boggle at its most weird and tender core. His visually lyrical striations locked inside their object like supports produce basic visceral, spatio-perceptual, psychic-social (perhaps anthropological) feelings rooted not simply in the abstraction of humanity but in the really liminal and mysterious unfolding experience of being human. Harrington 's paintings 'understand' (in the intuitive yet deliberate way that good art breathes in the exigencies of its social milieu) this very complex, uncharted moment in our existential, phenomenological, technological human arc; his work has a way of making manifest, as a sensed awareness our quirky post modern plight -real and represented, exhilarating and terrifying.
Marlena Donahue is a curator and professor of history of art living in Los Angeles
By Robert C. Morgan
A certain low-key intensity inhabits the linear abstract paintings of Mark Harrington. When seen together they constitute a kind of modernist mannerism generated through the application of both formal and constructive elements. While Harrington thinks primarily in relation to building the surface of a painting, his motive has never been a conceptual one, given to predetermined calculations. Rather his paintings employ what might be called a heightened visual intuition. Recurrent variations on the line run horizontally at intervals from the top to the bottom in each painting. By consciously sublimating the action gesture associated with impulse or chance -- as, for example, in abstract expressionist painting -- Harrington concentrates his effort more acutely on the all-over structure of developing his linear motif. His clearly discernable brushstrokes are made with a carefully discerning eye. The results engender an interwoven composition of parallel lines, bands, and spaces where stained, blotted, drawn, and brushed pigments often result in an optical overlay of reverberating color. His painterly technique further suggests an illusionist quality where both static and kinetic effects appear in optical conflict as if they were colliding on multiple surfaces or extending the distance between them. This is a crucial aspect of Harrington's importance as a painter and one that will be developed further in this essay.
In art and science, the terms "static" and "kinetic" may have more than one meaning. For example, form in painting is generally "static," which implies there is no movement. In contrast, the term "kinetic" suggests that a form is in motion. Some forms of optical art, such as the paintings of Victor Vasarely or Bridget Riley, tend to create the illusion of movement through the use of incremental geometric forms and color. Although nothing is actually moving on the picture plane, the human eye/brain mechanism may register a "kinetic" response to one of these paintings in that the shifting planes and colors offer the illusion of motion. Therefore, we can say that the forms are, in fact, "static" while our response to them may be "kinetic." In areas of applied science, such as electronics, the term "static" carries a much different meaning. For example, "electronic static" -- which occurs when a receiving terminal fails to receive a clear transmission -- appears "kinetic." When this used to occur in analog transmission we would say the picture is "breaking up." This means that instead of a clear picture, we would receive a jumble of random lines -- that because of the speed of the televised signal -- would appear to the eye/brain mechanism as if these lines were in motion. Today's ambiguity in the use of the terms "static" and "kinetic" today was not at all ambiguous to the ancient Greeks.
Whereas the majestic Parthenon above the Acropolis was seen as static, the waves of the Aegean below were in constant motion. Sculpture was static, but nature was kinetic. The distinction was clear. However, since the parallel advances in art and science during the twentieth century -- the century of Modernism -- these terms have become much less distinct and often impinge upon one another. With the advent of the digital revolution, it would be fair to say that these terms have become more relative today than ever before.
The relativist aspect in the paintings of Mark Harrington is an essential component of his work. We can no longer separate the static and the kinetic in these striation. Their optical effect chances how we understand the surface, how we ground it. What might ask where the surface actually resides. Does it exist through illusion in deep space or does everything appear on a single frontal plane? Perhaps -- as ,much other forms of purely optical art -- the surface tends to hover in front of the actual pigment applied to the surface. Or maybe his paintings induce a perceptual structure in which all of the above appear present at various intervals in the space of time. As a painter who has worked abstractly over the years, Harrington has sought to articulate a sense of balance in his work between diverse elements of line and color. This gives the linear surfaces a conflicted, yet convincing presence. This has become increasingly evident as the artist employs densely colored striations that both glide and stutter across discretely cut reams of linen, thus necessitating an actively engaged contemplation. The result is an embedded paradox in which illusory motion ignites the opticality of surface tension -- a tension that rarely diminishes, yet prevails in its lustlorn immanence, exhaling copious vials of exacting exuberance. Here one may perceive pictorial elements in Harrington's abstract tableaux that emancipate a tactile symphony of heraldic "zips"-- each sputtering infinite anthems, enunciating a conflation of time that challenges the ineluctable grasp of our temporal spatiality.
In reflecting on this statement, I become cognizant of a painting by Harrington called Star-Spangled Odyssey from 2009, a painting meant to open both doors and windows simultaneously. As one observes the painting closely, it becomes clear. One may discern a series of shifting planes through the use of horizontal lines that move from one side to the other, occasionally stopping short of the edge on the opposite side, shifting our perception of the surface we may have believed was static. Suddenly it becomes kinetic again. The optical sensation of these paintings pulls in, pulls us through time and space into another galaxy of aesthetic understanding. Harrington is essentially doing what Hans Hofmann proposed that abstract painting should do. The planar construct is obtained through linear and spatial dimensions. It is a literal, relativist set of maneuvers. Such formal maneuvers constitute a visual ploy and are difficult to describe accurately in that the terms vary ever so slightly from one painting to the next.
I have occasionally spoken of an interwoven context of the linear striations -- and recently his blotted or mottled colors -but this does not always prove accurate. Harrington's consistency as a painter over the past decade has been inexorable. There is no way to successfully generalize in terms of what he does. In this sense, there is a deceptive element in his work as much as one might allude to the techniques of concealment also found in the early (and recent) paintings of the American artist Jasper Johns. The temporality or feeling thereof embodied in the paintings of Harrington may carry a certain spirit of pictorial alignment -- a certain "unequal equation" (1) -- in comparison with those of Johns. This is neither a deliberate interface nor a matter of predetermined calculation. Rather Harrington is engaged in a process of seeing that involves taking a theme -- abstract in its linear or planar disposition -- that allows the process of transformative seeing to take place over time. The pictorial alignment relates to how the visual theme adheres to the sense of a surface in painting, and how the parts gradually align themselves to make a constructed (constructive) whole. This is where painting becomes moves to a higher level, where it spawns a new generation of tactile engagement through an effectual and somewhat deceptive phenomenological prognosis. We see, and then we do not see. But we sense the surface. Harrington's paintings have become the necessary rebuttal to the virtual world of disappearance. Through the acute manipulation of surface space, his paintings restore our belief in time and history.
Also, Harrington's application of paint has a similar distancing effect. He is given to include passages representative of its temporal engagement. To make sense of this, one might examine specific works, such as Untitled Red Dark-Grey (2009) with its extreme vertical format and wide open spaces between the lines, in relation to another horizontal painting, also Untitled, from the same year. In many ways, the two paintings are opposites. The first ascends upward and downward in the form of a ladder, while the second stretches horizontally like a constructed landscape. Yet the optical comparison is interesting from the perspective of tempi, namely the pulsation or staccato aspect of spatiality that may further imply the existence of time. Clearly the placement of the color red against a field of dark grey plays a role in terms of how the rhythm moves. There is the question as to whether the tempi implied within an abstract picture needs a vertical format to secure its rhythmical flow. Can we read rhythm both up and down and sideways?
Although the horizontal painting employs similar colors, they exist on a different register. In this case, there is red and blue in opposition to black and white. Given its horizontality, along with its symbolic color and linear configuration, one may associate Untitled from 2010 with an American flag. While there could be a resemblance or affinity to a theme employed by Johns in the fifties, the Harrington painting exists on an entirely different level. In the latter, there is less involvement with language. There is no Magritte-style counterpoise. Harrington is not particularly concerned as to whether we read his painting as a flag or a painting of a flag, which was an important critical aspect of the earlier Johns' Flags.
Rather Harrington concentrates on how the eye grasps the surface -- less through calculation than a kind of formal instinct that reveals how the surface of a painting congeals. This further implies that the rhythm implied in the structure of Harrington's paintings is not entirely by accident. In this case, I would argue that Johns' paintings are vertically absent of rhythm, simply because it is not his concern or intention. On the other hand, Harrington consciously constructs the surface through paint in order to liberate elements in painting that carry an all-over, interwoven intensity. In doing so, the uniquely oblique spatiality of his paintings becomes evident.
Perhaps the word "interwoven" is misleading. To weave is not to paint. Even so, there is a metonymical resonance between the two mediums. In either case, the equation becomes another aspect -- along with tempi -- in Harrington's phenomenology. He persistently establishes his own methodology in painting. This has developed concurrently with a particular way of seeing and consequently absorbing the effect of an intention that has progressively evolved in the process of painting. With Harrington, the phenomenology of painting is an all-in-one progress. It is less about separating one part from another than in how the part enfold, one upon another. Like in certain Eastern schools of painting, particularly in China during the great Northern Sung period of the 10th century, and then again in the late Ming Dynasty of the early 17th century on the eve of the Manchurian conquerors, essentially everything happens at once. But for all of a painting to appear as if everything is happening at once, it take time and an awareness of all that has happened in painting or that may happen in the future of painting. One might say that everything is already there, already in place, ready to be re-evoked and rediscovered. The point of departure is the action in which knowledge, painting, spirit, and light become inevitable through the invention of space and the realization of time. To grasp this as a condition of painting is to understand the basic premise from what Mark Harrington proceeds and endures in what he does.
To return to the problem of stasis and kinesis as they relate to the artist's paintings, this was a primary thought in considering the title of this essay -- "Pictures Soon To Be."
On occasion, while studying Harrington's paintings, such as Star-Spangled Odyssey or Seed a (2010) -- a recent acrylic painting in orange, grey, and white -- I made the connection with seeing electronic static on television. In this sense, I am reintroducing the word "static" not in opposition to "kinetic," but as an electronic phenomenon in which the reception of a transmission is not clear. To explain, I will offer a personal anecdote. In my younger years, I often spent in the Sierra Mountains of northern California for a few weeks in the summer. I lived in a cabin in the middle of a pine and redwood forest where the nearest village was a few miles away. In the evenings, I would sit alone and occasionally attempt to receive transmission on an early analog television. However, my efforts failed persistently. I received only static. It was impossible to hold a picture for longer than a few seconds before it would dissolve and dissipate before my eyes.
The experience was, of course, frustrating, tedious, and ultimately quite boring to watch. The task of finding a transmission signal on an analog television in the middle of the wilderness was a virtual oxymoron. While no picture could be found, somehow the presence of the static offered the comfort that somewhere a signal was being generated and that I was too often removed to receive it. It was here that I began to understand Thoreau's solitary isolation at Walden Pond, as, perhaps, Harrington has come to terms with being isolated in his studio retreat in the countryside south of Munich.
In reflecting on my experience visiting the artist in the summer of 2010, it occurred to me that Harrington's paintings suggest a kind of "static" -- or, more correctly, the binding paradox of stasis and kinesis -- as if one were waiting in anticipation for a picture to occur, or waiting for something recognizable to appear on the screen of one's consciousness. It might put the artist in a state of envisionment, that is, a period of waiting for a signal from the external visible world to enter and absorb all remnants of consciousness into a concentrated still-frame. Even so, whether analog or digital, the virtual world is not the same as a world of tactile experience. I believe that somehow Harrington intrinsically understands this, and yet, in waiting for a picture to define itself, one might consider the impact of contemplating the static as containing something virtual within it. This offers another kind of experience: a meditative experience somehow removed from the everyday reality of signs and pictures as in Heidegger's Discourse on Thinking (1959) where a hypothetical Scholar, Teacher, and Scholar argue as to the importance of waiting "to release oneself into the openness of that-which-regions." (2) Without going into the literal complexities of "that which regions" as a series of horizons on the mental landscape, it is interesting to consider Heidegger's paradigm as possibly related to the anticipation that a transmission will arrive not without a degree of anxiety along the way, and that a picture -- although never entirely clear -- is will eventually become discernable. This depends on achieving a perspective, on waiting for something:
a picture soon to be. The kind of tempered anxiety often involved in abstract painting becomes the painter's ground of contemplation -- somewhat comparable to Heidegger's concept of "that which regions"-- an embeddedness of a common anxiety that relates to certain aspects of life in the early twentieth-first century, where we engage in the act of waiting for something static to move, indeed, to become a picture that represents something already known, a point of resolution in the external visible world. At the same time, we understand that Harrington's paintings are static in their representation. Therefore, the picture will never arrive as such. The picture will always remain soon to be. It will never go further than what we are already in the process of seeing or perhaps even envisioning it. What we are seeing is what is in front of us, as the painter Frank Stella's reminded us in his provocative remark stated at Pratt Institute in 1960: "What you see is what you see." (3)
Clearly, the intricacies of Stella's point could be argued further in terms of whether they still hold true today. On a pragmatic level, perhaps they do -- but, at the same time, we have left the analog age and have entered what some have called the digital or virtual age. What is remarkable is that painters like Harrington manage to hold an essential role in our current "posthuman" reality. We are all still waiting for the picture soon to be, which is precisely the point of these paintings. While the conditions of alienation and existence may be different than they were in the fifties (when Harrington was born), the experience of waiting, as the writer Samuel Beckett has also indicated, has evolved into a chronic state, a persistent anticipation, an urbanized mediated panic in search of an impossible resolution. Here I would propose moving Harrington's aesthetic beyond the realm of a purely formal aspect of painting into the content of meaning. While there is the surface constructed of horizontal lines and -- in some cases -- bands of color, there is also the artist's intention in trying to locate the tension and balance that exist somewhere within the surface. Such a proposal does not end in a discussion of out-worn theories. Instead we have an obligation to acknowledge what is seen within these paintings through our initial encounter and then to consider what comes into consciousness based on the reality of our perceptions. I have learned that often literal descriptions of painting will pass easily into metaphorical readings, and here I would still insist that for Harrington such an approach is still viable without transforming his objectives as emanating through the course of modernism. Through his commitment to abstract painting in this series of work over the past decade -- a tumultuous decade, to be sure -- Harrington has made certain to acknowledge that abstract painting is not without representation, just as static forms are nor removed from their ability to suggest the shifting of planar structures of thought. On a larger scale, this appears analogous to how we are being affecting by globalization and how the reorientation to our sensory and cognitive aspects of speed and excess have changed our view of the socioeconomic realities around us. In this context, I would suggest that Harrington's paintings represent a way of thought that may be useful as we continue in the process of observing these changes.
1. The author recalls this quote by Jasper Johns from a review in Time Magazine (1965) where he discusses the use of objects in the composition of his paintings.
2. Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking. New York: Harper & Row, 1969 (original date of publication in German, 1959).
3. William S. Rubin, Frank Stella, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970: p. 156.
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, artist, curator, and art historian who lives in New York City. Author of many books on contemporary art, including The End of the Art Work (1998), Professor Morgan was the first recipient of the Arcale award for international art criticism in 1999. He teaches at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts, both in New York. He maintains an on-going practice as a painter and lecturer.