Karen Gunderson


Karen Gunderson's Black Paintings

Modern painters are divided about the meaning and use of black.  On the one hand, there’s Kandinsky, who accepts its traditional association with death--black for him is always something burnt out, like the ashes of a funeral pyre, something motionless like a corpse--and on the other hand there’s Matisse, for whom black is simply another color, indeed, an important part in color orchestration. Their ideas were strangely complementary:  for Matisse, black was essential to so-called musical painting, adding to its richness of effect, while for Kandinsky black was a silence with no possibility that is, the pause within the music--the silence separating the living notes of color.  Without the silence of death there was no possibility of living music.

But then there’s Ad Reinhardt, who repudiates both views, arguing instead that black, however much it signals negativeness, is entirely an aesthetic-intellectual matter involving non-color.  Reinhardt turned to black because he didn’t like color—it’s always trapped in some kind of physical activity or assertiveness of its own, which has to do with life, and thus involves vulgarity. It’s an odd series of associations: non-color to physical assertion to life to vulgarity, but Reinhardt’s point is that color is the expression of life, which is always imperfect, while art is involved in a certain kind of perfection, and as such tends towards the absence of color. For Reinhardt black was the path to artistic perfection --a perfection that however lifeless it seemed transcended the imperfection of life.  He thought he had reached this perfection in his all-black paintings:  they showed that the idea of negativity is not a bad idea any more, and, more crucially, their reductive,... inexpressive, endgame, zero aesthetics signalled the vanishing of [the] mighty ego of [the] romantics, [the] neutralization of self.

For Reinhardt, the mysticism of art-as-art--art [as] supreme affirmation of self-sufficiency, separateness (from objects and their representation; presumably that was perfection)--purged the mysticism of the unconscious, as it can be called:  the romantic obsession with the hidden, chaos, regressive, base, unsublimated, guilt, origin, latent force, prime matter, penitence. Black can and has symbolized them, as Reinhardt noted, but when it appears as pure negative presence--its presence not as a living color (Matisse) or existential symbol (Kandinsky) but as a purely aesthetic phenomenon concentrating attentiveness--it loses all symbolic import.  Blacks’ getting rid of and dematerializing power, as Reinhardt called it, created a sense of non-being that was the dark of absolute freedom.  Thus pure black is perfection, self-sufficiency, and absolute freedom for Reinhardt:  pure black is the essence of art.

Where do Karen Gunderson’s black paintings stand in this debate?  Why are they such a remarkable achievement, art historically and aesthetically? Most crucially, they reveal the inner light within blackness, thus reconciling the irreconcilable.  They make it clear that while one may escape color, as Reinhardt thought, one can never escape light, as he seemed to realize.  He quotes Hokusai’s distinction between a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Fresh black involves an admixture of white while old black involves an admixture of blue, that is, color.  Interestingly enough, for Reinhardt sculpture is white, suggesting that there is no escaping a sculptural effect when one adds white to black.  That is, blackness, however flatly painted, stands out in subliminal relief because of the light in it, reminding one of Clement Greenberg’s observation that the Old Masters used gradations of light and dark to model figures, giving them a sculptural resonance.  Gunderson’s achievement--her brilliance--is to reconcile the Old Master use of chiaroscuro to shape figures with Reinhardt’s conception of black as the ultimate medium of art. Her work has the richness and complexity of Old Master painting and the purist ambition of modernist painting.  She brings out the inevitable light hidden in black, bringing to fruition Reinhardt’s suppressed intuition that pure black is a fiction--that there is no such thing as art that is completely self-sufficient, perfect, separate from life, that is, absolutely free of objects (if only in the form of collective memories), as Reinhardt wanted it to be. 

Gunderson shows that black can be an ideal medium of representation when it is used to represent objects that exist in the negative space of memory, which is a kind of fiction--Queen Isabella and King Philip, for example. They are indeed negative spaces and negative forms.  Their negativeness is in fact crucial to the art with which Gunderson subtly integrates negative and positive spaces, even as her flat surface and rich texture keep the dialectical tension between them alive.  Her representation of the royal figures stands to their once living presence as a negative does to the photograph that can be positively developed from it.  Except that her figures, and the flowers that surround them, remain negative in perpetuity--artistically embalmed in black.  Grand, surreally enduring hadean ghosts, they are magically vitalized through Gunderson’s chiaroscuro and texture, suggesting that they will never fade from memory however absent they will always be.

Gunderson’s paintings are all the more uncanny because of their ornamental grandeur--appropriate to their theme, but having a spectacular life of its own.  Since Adolf Loos deplored its use in architecture, ornament has been understood as impure and anti-modernist.  But the stripped down functional look has outlived its day, becoming a stereotype of itself, however much it has achieved its own eloquence.  And, as Wilhelm Worringer makes clear, ornament remained alive in gothic expressionistic gesture, where it conveys empathic immersion in life however autonomous it seems to become.  What Gunderson does is use the extravagant ornament of the royal costumes as a kind of abstract expressionist device.  It is sometimes highly patterned, as in Philip’s decorative outfit, sometimes freeflowing, as in Isabella’s gown.  It is always physically and emotionally intense. Luminous ornament gives the figures inner life even as it suggests their otherworldliness:  they live in a solitary world apart, as though on a higher plane--the rooms in which they stand suggest as much--not only because of their royalty but because they have been apotheosized by art.

The intensity carries over into the mannerist space and ornamental frames.  Philip’s frame is all geometry, Isabella¹s frame a floral pattern sandwiched between two geometrical bands.  But the point is that the geometrical and naturalistic patterns never stop moving.  They are not simply repetitive, but animated in their repetitiveness by the alternation of light and dark.  The over-all dynamics--a kind of inevitable movement, subliminally organic however geometrical, geometrically organized howeverorganic--continues into the space.  In Philip’s portrait it is generated by the abrupt shift from flat black and silvery planes.  In Isabella’s portrait it appears in the lyrically abstract foliage that covers the walls as well as in the globe.  (The map looks truly abstract expressionist.)  Most of all it appears in the sweeping, relentless gestures of Gunderson’s brushstrokes, generating a catalytic electricity of their own, independent of their exciting effect on the light.  Like the pattern of the frames, the pattern they form is inexhaustibly dynamic.

Movement is also conveyed by the architecture, with its muted depths and truncated perspectives.  The orthogonals in the Isabella portrait never converge; the grid of the floor unravels in the infinite, even as the distance is blocked by the walls of her room.  The table to her left, however close to her, recedes into the distance, while her right hand seems to float above the globe while resting on it.  Symbolizing Spanish rule of the world, it seems to float free in space, like the ship--emblematic of Isabella’s support of Columbus--does, however much it also rests in her hand and arm.  Philip’s space has a similar mannerist absurdity:  the chair hovers in space as much as it rests on the floor, as does Philip.  The open door is in one space, Philip stands in another.  Both Philip and Isabella seem to float in space, as though superior to it, however much they are part of it.  Their bodies may be finite, but the light that emanates from their faces and clothing expands it beyond its natural boundaries--and beyond the blackness. 

Perhaps nowhere is the tension and subtlety of Gunderson’s chiaroscuro more evident than in her Crucifixion:  a thin veil of ghostly light covers the devastated flesh of Christ, excruciatingly tangible in the texture.  Flowing and beading at once, as in Christ’s beard and crown of thorns and the seeds in the sunflower paintings, Gunderson’s texture is as excruciatingly dialectical and radically innovative as her chiaroscuro.  It has the palpability of wood grain, giving her paintings a sculpted look--adding to the sculptural effect of the chiaroscuro--so that their images seem to stand out in dramatic relief, as though they were revelations:  miracles of theatrical perception.  But it is not theater for the sake of theater:  Gunderson brings out the inherent theatricality of chiaroscuro (like Rembrandt, but with a modernist economy of means and tautness).  Paradoxically, by eschewing color Gunderson makes the surface more vivid, both in its flatness and painterliness--something that Reinhardt was unable to do in his black painting.  Gunderson’s paintings are just as pure, but they carry Reinhardt’s purity a step further, innovatively maintaining purity while giving it new resonance.  Reinhardt’s black looks old next to her lustrous fresh black.

Perhaps black is nowhere more fresh and lustrous--illustrious by itself, rather than subserving the illustrious personages it embodies--than in Gunderson’s paintings of sunflowers and orchids.  Exquisitely ambiguous in their use of black and white, these perfect masterpieces--perfect in Reinhardt’s sense as well as in the mastery of the medium of paint --seem to concentrate in themselves all the poignancy of the portraits.  At once brooding and joyous, they have a special relationship to the tradition of Spanish still life painting.  While deliberately colorless, unlike the still life masterpieces of Juan Sanchez Cotan, Gunderson’s still lives are as sacramental and sober, and, strange as it may seem to say so, more organic--surreallly organic, down to the detail of their ornamental frames, indistinguishable abstract and expressionistic.  Precious, idiosyncratic, and exciting, Gunderson’s flowers shine with a life all the more radiant because it grows in the infinite black.  They are a unique fusion of the life that Reinhardt said had nothing to do with art and the art that gives human life--and living nature--value, even life that has been lost to time.