Color Walks Away

Marina Adams - Howard Hodgkin - Suzanne McClelland

Exhibition 11th May - 30th June, 2012


New York / Zurich: Three years ago Monica de la Torre came to my studio to see some paintings I (Suzanne McClelland) had made. They were based on the children’s book Put Me in the Zoo, by Robert Lopshire. In the books—and in the paintings—color plays a major role. Monica then gave a reading of three new poems—“Red,” “Yellow” and  “Blue”—at my New York gallery during the exhibition of the paintings. She and I had begun a dialogue about looking at painting and about how we name the things we see in this world. This is how she introduced the reading:


Color Walks 


After Brion Gysin, whose paintings, in turn, inspired William Burroughs’s “Color Walks.” These works oscillate between two poles: on one end is Michael Taussig’s notion of color vision as “less retinal and more a total body activity,” in What Color is the Sacred? On the         other end of the spectrum is color as readymade, as part of the “industrial production of feeling” (Briony Fer). They are to be paired with specific drones emitted from a Buddha Machine, a portable music loop player.


“No known mode of excitement is absolutely colorless.” (The Psychology of The Affections, by Vance Randolph; Little Blue Book no. 727) 


I believe that every step an artist takes is a response to something. William Burroughs says that he became a writer after he killed Joan Vollmer, his wife, in 1951. In the introduction to Queer, a novel written in 1953 but not published until 1985, Burroughs states, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death... [S]o the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”


Burroughs’ shot missed the whisky glass—a version of William Tell’s apple—which was poised on Vollmer’s head, although that target was only six feet away from his gun. He thought of himself as a great marksman but the miss became a pivotal moment in his life. Conversations that followed the killing are preserved, with Burroughs, Brion Gysin and many other Beat artists and poets weighing in. Missing, however, is the voice of Joan Vollmer. Nor is her voice part of the historical conversation. Her silence is like the darkness that absorbs light when we fall asleep. Conversations that Burroughs had with Vollmer in her New York City apartment, in Texas and in Mexico City are not recorded, but they were heard and witnessed by many in the Beat scene (Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac among them), according to Brenda Knight (author of Women of the Beat Generation).


Conversations between Burroughs and Gysin are on record, a port of entry and a point of departure. Reading those conversations, published in various sources, brought my attention to patterns of what they call a “port of entry” in painting. That entry can have multiple locations simultaneously; moreover, the making of a painting can have multiple points of departure.


Blackness is the accumulation of color, and darkness a condition the eye must adjust to in order to see detail and subtle shifts of color. Darkness holds color within it and allows for imaginative wandering. A wide variety of blacks emerges as we search for information and objects in a dark room. It is this type of experience that led to my new paintings. I (Suzanne McClelland) look for color on the streets or in weather conditions, in bodies or interior space. People do not always experience color in the same way nor even agree on what to name it, yet we use color to identify objects. These paintings obscure shapes and block our view into light. If you look long enough, however, your eye adjusts to the darkness and can distinguish form. This takes time. I hunted for a new way back into these paintings, which I had previously abandoned in 2002, searching for a port of entry in each one. This, in turn, gave me a point of departure. The completed paintings are almost like portals or holes in the wall until you look at them closely, allowing your eye to adjust to their darkness.


I have admired Marina Adams’ paintings for over 20 years. While in her studio near Parma, Italy, last summer, I saw vivid color first. Form arrived more slowly. Pigment seemed to rise out of the surface and become the surface itself…all at once. The color is stained—soaked into the fabric so that the pigment becomes one with the binder and the ground. These beautiful works made me ask again where color is located in a painting, optically as well as materially. They provide a soft, seductive space that absorbs form. The paintings are pieces of color, sitting together lightly, loosely and coolly.  These paintings were the point of departure for this exhibition.


In November 2011 Howard Hodgkin had an exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York. It turned my head. I had always seen his materials first, his disrupted frames and his gestural smears and dots. The tough hard surfaces maintain a material presence and the pigment and the binder feel like they are at one with the gesture. The artist’s direct attack of the surface reads like the result of an impulsive act. These paintings are very reductive in composition and very decisive, like Marina Adams‘s, but where her forms have a soft absorbency and forms that are slowly reaching towards one another, Hodgkin’s color reads as material and color at once, moving at different speeds. He has said that he makes “representational pictures of emotional situations.” This has an interesting relationship to his dialogue with Susan Sontag, who said:


One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling…which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment. We have more or less the same bodies, but very different kinds of thoughts. I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.

“Susan Sontag: The Rolling Stone Interview,” with Jonathan Cott (1978; published Oct. 4, 1979)


Writers and painters talk to each other, presenting parallel experiences in tangible or intangible connections. A poem or a painting can offer a point of departure or a port of entry. Like myself with Monica de la Torre, Marina Adams has a dialogue with the poet Vincent Katz, which generated a print.  Marina and Vincent say that their “conversation focused on space, both the visual space in and surrounding a particular color/shape and also the space that is timing—created by the pauses in the reading of a poem.” The color shapes in the 2-part print were invented in the countryside in Italy where Marina has a studio; Vincent’s poem, “Taormina” was written on a recent trip to Sicily. The reader, or viewer, completes the conversation, and Galerie Andres Thalmann offers a place to “read” the poems, paintings and prints. Here we find, in a sense, imprints of several discrete conversations. William Burroughs wrote:


I don’t think I had ever seen painting until I saw the painting of Brion Gysin. Here is a transcript of a tape we recorded while talking in front of some of his pictures during the time we both lived in the old Beat Hotel at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur in Paris back in 1960, when I discovered I could really get into these paintings. (W.B)


Brion Gysin: How do you get into these paintings?


William Burroughs:  Usually I get in by a port of entry, as I call it. It is often a face through whose eyes the picture opens into a landscape and I go literally right through that eye into that landscape. Sometimes it is rather like an archway. …  Any number of little details or a special spot of color makes the port of entry and then the entire picture will suddenly become a three-dimensional frieze in a plaster or jade or some other precious material. … And you do get whole worlds. Suddenly you get a whole violet world or a whole gray world which flashes all over the picture. The worlds are, as it  were, illuminated by each individual color…worlds made of that color. You think of them as the red world and then the blue world. For example, I was taking a color walk around Paris the other day…doing something I picked up from your pictures in which the colors shoot out all through the canvas like they do in the street. I was walking down the boulevard when I suddenly felt this cool wind on a warm day and when I looked out all through the canvas like they do in the street. I was walking down the boulevard when I looked out I was seeing all the blues in the street in front of me, blue on a foulard…blue on a young workman’s ass…his blue jeans…a girl’s blue sweater…blue neon…the sky…all the blues. When I looked again I saw nothing but all the reds of traffic lights…car lights…a café sign…a man’s nose.


Exposé by Suzanne McClelland

May 2012


Biography of Howard Hodgkin

Biography of Suzanne McClelland