Nothingtoseeness – the state of having seen nothing, allied with words like void / white / silence or immateriality / zero point / emptiness – brushes up against an old philosophical problem that in the past 150 years has moved disconcertingly up the agenda: the problem of nothingness. John Cage and the Akademie der Künste stand on the brink of this; with their substantives and catchwords, they stop short in the interstices of the physical body, which, as we know, make up by far the largest part of the universe, that bleak yet indispensable zone whose void is gradually beginning to fill with trash and space junk, albeit only in the immediate vicinity of the earth. As cosmonauts heading to Mars or Jupiter, we would experience en route – as a result of immateriality (the absence of material) – a temperature of zero (0° Kelvin = −273.15° C), and there would be a silence whose totality would not even be punctured by the spaceship moving on its lonely orbit. It follows the forces of gravity, and even when one of its thrusters is fired, nothing can be heard: after all, there is no matter in which sound waves could form.
Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, science could not imagine that the space between the stars, both luminous and extinguished, is completely empty; to explain the propagation of light through the vastness of space, we assumed the existence of an all-pervading carrier substance, immeasurable and light, and called it ether, until one day we had to accept the reality that there really is nothing but emptiness through which light comes to us, in a paradoxical dual form that we termed a photon, so that the radiant absurdity would at least have a name.
But nothingness is of quite another class than the void! Art can take on the void insofar as the void is not an obstacle to light (otherwise we would be sitting in the dark; no, we would not in fact be sitting, lying, standing at all); but nothingness leaves art speechless, or rather imageless. From time to time the literary arts have incorporated nothingness, and an epochal drama like Goethe’s Faust even succeeded in giving nothingness a voice: in both the first and penultimate scenes of the work, Mephistopheles is nothing other than the advocate of nothingness.
The visual arts have been at a loss to make anything of nothingness. At times they have flirted with the void, then at some point monochrome paintings became the latest thing, which they literally were. But it was a colourful void, not a real one in other words. The visual arts have nothing to do with silence either – the art of listening is not their business. It’s a different story with “the colour white”; here they wake up, they feel competent. In Goethe’s writings on optics I find, in passing, the most concise of definitions of this un-colour and its opposite; he calls black the “representative of the darkness”, white the “representative of light”.1 There we have polarity in its most comprehensible form, and we immediately grasp that it incorporates other polarities: being and non-being, day and night, life and death; we also realise that the one side of these polarities cannot do without the other.
Is it legitimate then to isolate the two sides from one another in separate exhibitions? It is at any rate original, and legitimate insofar as in this case the two non-colours are both treated as colours, as artistic material. However, white does not function here as a “representative of light” but rather as a particularly bright and at the same time achromatic colour, with black as the opposite, the objectified negation of light through the refusal to transmit it. It was Isaac Newton who discovered that white is an illusion, like the daily sunrise and sunset; he did this by having a sunbeam that collected at a point hit a glass prism in a darkened room, with the result that its clear white light resolved into a whole palette of colours on the projection screen behind it. The palette of creation, one might say, provided one were to add that perceiving it relies on the human eye, which over the course of millions of years has produced three kinds of cones on the retina that, by distinguishing light of different wavelengths, generate the various sensory impressions we call colours: “It takes the eye to create the world.”2
That is the reality: what we perceive as colour does not belong to the extra-human, or what we call the objective world; colours only come about by virtue of us seeing them. Goethe was averse to the splitting of white light into its colour components; he felt that Newton’s experiment constituted a rape of sunlight and fought as the Don Quixote of anti-Newtonism for white as a primal phenomenon of the Weltwesen, the embodiment of the world. When it became clear that what we refer to as white light consists of vibrations ranging from red to violet – and thus from 384 to 789 billion vibrations per second – that stimulate all three cones equally, a philosophical wag remarked: “Anyone who is colour-blind has miscounted.”
The visual arts are on Goethe’s side, taking white as a variable yet integral substance. And so it is too, with all its many facets, in the life of our society and that of many others. Our ceilings are white, and coloured wallpaper is an eccentric exception; there are no carved beams or ceiling paintings in public spaces or in wealthy private homes, where they were once taken for granted as a mark of luxury. Since when do we gaze at an aseptic white, void of colour and shape, when we look up in rooms or halls? White is associated with cleanliness because it is where dust and dirt are most evident; it has its place in hospitals, quite understandably. But white is also the non-colour, a luminous annihilation of the colourful. Is it an expression of residential nihilism?
The dirt-sensitive tint of colourless brightness rendered into an absolute – for us it is at the same time the colour of festive garb; we wear white shirts when we want to look our best, and brides still prefer to wear white. White saloons and sports cars are the most elegant form of individual transportation, and even the fastest trains follow this rule, which is not a superficial social stipulation; as with every other colour effect, it is deeply rooted in our psychology.
But there is also a white clown with an authoritarian manner and white face paint, and he doesn’t just exist in the circus. Rooted in ancient theatre, he has more recently taken the form of a literary clown on television who, clad from head to toe in white, causes books or poems that he does not like to disappear into nothingness with an explosive bolt of lightning. White as the garb of an omnipotent attitude obsessed with destruction – that is something new; this comedian, of course, would not have looked good performing in brown, or in red for that matter. Black would have given him the impression of seriousness, and so he was left with the non-colour of the white clown. This impostor of a critic, this hurler of lightning bolts, disguised himself by turning his flash-fire posturing against a book that had, with indescribable effort, already destroyed itself some time ago, and he was foolish enough to take out his sham power on a lyrical obituary, which was a heartfelt absurdity. These were camouflaging manoeuvres, for in reality he was interested in a book that forty years ago, faced with a seemingly hopeless situation, had employed subtle means against the violence of the inanimate and destructive forces advancing in the world. Where the advocates of being prepare to dispute the status of the advancing nothingness, Mephisto sets aside the cock’s feather and horse’s hoof and dons the white fool’s costume to intervene with his flash-bang powers.
But how does Strawalde’s white painting fit into all this? It was painted on New Year’s Eve at the end of December 2017 and is called Sonnenflecken (sunspots) – why is that? It is the name of a phenomenon of teeming matter, a crater-like, darkening disturbance in the glowing liquid slurry of fusion at the source of that force of light, the moderation of which, across a distance of 150 million kilometres, is what makes existence possible in the first place. Why has this name been given to a painting surface of delicately modelled whiteness that suggests what we might see if we were to look down on the sketch of a town planner who has lost his pencil, forcing him to draw houses, parks and avenues in white on white? Or is it the view from a great height looking down in the glaring sunlight on a beach where holidaymakers have left windswept traces in the sand? This finely graded lightness, bearing the name of a type of skin blemish on the surface of seething explosiveness? I would have to pick up the phone to get the master to explain his intention to me! But he doesn’t answer, and we are left to our own devices to try and understand what is meant. Could this perhaps be some kind of hoax? In which case, we have a right to another sunspot painting.
1 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Beiträge zur Optik: Erstes Stück” (1791), § 93, in Nachgelassene Werke, vol. 18, Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1842, p. 305. 2 Christian Morgenstern, “Der Meilenstein”, in id., Alle Galgenlieder: Mit Vignetten von Horst Hussel, Leipzig, 1981, p. 179.
In the exhibition:
Strawalde Sonnenflecken 31.12.2017/1.1.2018, 2017/2018 Oil of canvas 160 × 120 cm Courtesy of the artist
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