Pictures Soon To Be

A Decade of Paintings by Mark Harrington 

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. 

 

NOTES: 

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.