Mark Harrington and the course of line

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 rep resent 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.

To top