The Painter and the Blind Composer [redux]

 

Part 1

Blind Composer [B]

May I touch it?

Painter [P]

Yes, of course. Let me help you.

B

It’s much bigger than I had imagined. How big is it? The frame is thick.  I feel what seem like staples. You paint even the edges? It isn’t oil, is it.

P

It’s X by Y… I fold and the stable the canvas over the frame, so yes, it’s edges are painted too. No, it’s ink and acrylic. How did you know?

B

Ah… much larger than I am. Well, it couldn’t be oil because it doesn’t smell of oil, nor does it have much texture. Is it canvas?

P

Yes, it’s canvas though I often paint on watercolor paper.

B

Is it the only one?

P

I don’t understand what you mean?

B

Are there other paintings beside it?

P

Yes. One on each side, but they are a couple of meters away.

B

May I touch them also?

P

Yes, I’ll take you to the left first, then to the one of the right.

B

They are both the same size as the first I touched, aren’t they?

P

Yes.

B

The textures are different. So they must look different. So each of them is the only one.

P

I suppose that’s true. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

B

Well, you wouldn’t paint the same painting twice, would you?

P

No, I suppose I wouldn’t. But even if I wanted to, and even if i could, I would choose not to. But I don’t think it’s possible to paint the same painting twice.

B

You mean like Heraclitus’s river.

P

Indeed, exactly like that.

B

Do you really mean, ‘exactly’ like that? A river is not exactly the same as a painting is it?

P

No. You’re right of course.

B

Tell me how they are different. You see, when one is blind, great subtleties are greatly significant. I’ve never seen a river. Though I have swum in them and can tell the difference between the Seine and the Thames.  Nor have I ever seen a painting. but I know when one painting is different than another, sometimes at least. I have only ideas about what they are, really. Though when I’m allowed to touch them, or smell them, I do come to know at least something about them beyond what I”ve read or been told.

P

So this is why you asked me to touch the other paintings? So you could compare them and come to understand how they are different from each other?

B

Yes. How could I know much about the middle painting if didn’t have some idea about the others?

P

Right. I understand the dilemma. Returning to Heraclitus, and the difference between a river and a painting, I can tell you this. When I paint with ink it’s like painting with water. It’s fluid like a river is fluid. But when I paint with acrylic, it’s like painting with the mud you may have encountered on the river bank. I have to use different techniques to spread them.

B

I can imagine that. Maybe that’s similar to degrees of pitch in music, to high and low pitch. Perhaps your use of ink is like piano and your use of acrylic like forte.

P

That’s an intriguing idea. Yes, I think we can compare painting and musical composition in some evocative ways. It certainly requires more effort to push acrylic around than is required for ink. Ink requires great delicacy, at least sometimes. Other times I simply spill it onto the canvas or paper and shift them around so it runs in a way I can only partially control. But either way, its action is very fast as it’s absorbed and once the mark is made, it’s made, and I can’t change it. But with acrylic, I have to make it do what I want it to. It’s much more forgiving than ink and easier to change if I don’t like it.

B

We do have the idea of composition in common. And I think we share a vocabulary, though words like ‘color’, ‘tone’, and ‘hue’ refer to very different things in music and painting.  I know that Debussy was a great ‘colorist’, and have heard that Kandinsky thought of his work as based in jazz.

P

Indeed. And both music and painting have a great deal to do with spatiality.

B

True. But music has much more to do with time. Though it does have to do with sonic density, and in that way one can describe it as spatial.

P

I’ve been told on occasion the some of my paintings must be interpreted as temporal because the marks I make can be seen as manifesting speed and acceleration.

B

That’s compelling to imagine. So you paint with something like ‘tempos’ in mind? Would you say that you paint in ¾ time?

P

More like in sixteenths….

B

So your paintings are very fast!

P

Often, yes, they are. But some are slow, some are fast. But usually they combine different tempos simultaneously.

B

Really?!  Then they are orchestral, with different instruments playing at different tempos at the same time?

P

Yes. I would say that that is a close analogy.

B

And what of key signatures?  Do you paint in the key of ‘C’?

P

Perhaps. But the analogy breaks down here. For a note, I would substitute the term, color. I might paint the ‘key’ of blue, for example. The middle painting we began with uses a palette or perhaps a ‘scale’ of blue.

B

I’ve been told that a single color has as many variants as a musical note. Would you say that a ‘bassoon blue’ exists? Analogous to a bassoon C note?

P

Ha! What a spectacular idea! If bassoon blue exists it might be cobalt. There might even be a way to demonstrate a series of parallel’s between musical notes and color hues if we think of them both as vibrations or frequencies!  Perhaps that has been done.

B

If it has then it would be true that what I hear as bassoon C might be the equivalent of what you see as bassoon blue. Wouldn’t that be a fabulous thing! Note: cut to bassoon music playing as blue paintings scroll by.

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Part 2

B

Well, now that we’ve established a way to translate, or perhaps better put, transform, music into painting and painting into music, describe to me what this middle painting looks like.

P

Alright. I’ll do my best…

B

Don’t be too concerned, dear Painter, I may be blind but I do have a knowledge of geometry, and of the human figure, since, after all, I do have a body myself, though I’ve never seen it. Perhaps that is a good thing…

P

Oh please! dear Composer. You’ve been told often, I’m sure, how beautiful you are!

B

Your flattery falls flat with me, Painter,  since I have no conception of visual beauty, only musical beauty.

P

Beauty is in the ear of the listener, is it?

B

Well put, indeed! But I sense that you’re stalling…

P

I see that intuition doesn’t require eyes.  Well… I have to forewarn you that your knowledge of geometry and the human form will do you no good… will do me no good I should say, in aiding my description because my paintings aren’t figurative or architectural or geometric or realistic…

B

Ah… they are what is called abstract, then?

P

Yes. And precisely here we encounter the first impasse that we will need to overcome, I suspect. Music is very ordered, mathematical in fact, classical music is, at least. I know that music is often considered an ‘abstract’ art, but musical abstraction and that of painting are quite different, aren’t they?

B

Having no experience of visual abstraction, I’m not qualified to say. We are in a spot here, aren’t we.

P

Yes, I think we may be. Nor am I, really, qualified to speak about musical abstraction, not as qualified as you are. I listen to a great deal of music of all kinds from all eras, so I have at least a toe hold there. But perhaps you should first describe to me what musical abstraction is. That way I can better look for analogies for our different uses of the term.

B

Stalling again, are we? I’d been warned that you were a sly dog. I don’t mean to insult you. I appreciate cunning in a person. Alright, then. I’m game. Music is abstract in the sense… well… in the sense that… hmmm….

P

Ah ha! Now you see my dilemma.

B

Indeed I do.  Allow me to moot this – music is abstract because it’s made of sound, noise, and silence. It doesn’t appear to us to be a physical thing, because well, it can’t be touched. And for you, I imagine, it’s also abstract because it can’t be seen. It is true though that sound, and therefore music, ‘touches’ us. We can’t put out our hand and grasp it, but our ears, in fact our entire body, can. But for humans, touch and sight are the dominant senses, the perceptual modes which allow us to experience the world as physical, concrete, material, objective. Whereas, we don’t experience sound as physical, usually, as listeners at least, because we don’t think that we experience it, physically.  When in fact we actually do. We choose to reach out and touch something, and, so I’m told, we can choose what we look at or not look at. So we think we have more control when we touch or see something. Seeing and touching give us a sense of power and control over the world. But our ears are passive organs, aren’t they? We can’t choose or not choose what we hear. It just somehow, mysteriously, happens to us. As listeners, we don’t cause it to happen. And anything that just happens to us, that we can’t control, is not part of our body, is separate from us, and that is one way in which music is abstract – it’s something independent of us.

My, I’ve become loquacious. My apologies.

P

Not at all. Please go on.

B

It’s a very different case with musicians, for those who play an instrument. For them, it’s a profoundly physical experience. But oddly, even though they cause music to happen, they can’t make sound happen. For, as you say, sound is only in the ear of the beholder. Even for them, as they perform, they are also passive listeners, just as dependent as listeners are on their ears, perhaps even more dependent because they’ve trained their ears to be expert listeners.

P

So music and sound are very different things?

B

Yes. It’s a very strange situation, isn’t it?  But it gets even stranger. And this brings me to suggest a second way in which music is abstract. Music, like mathematics, even like language, consists of symbols, of notation, and symbols themselves are not concrete things, are they? They only point to concrete things. But they are not the concrete things themselves. They are abstract scratches on a piece of paper that have no physical existence, other than being a mark on paper. By themselves though, they have no meaning. The note, ‘C’, doesn’t have any concrete existence or meaning until the piano key is struck, does it? It’s merely an abstract mark that can only point toward a sound, or be a single element of a word, which itself is only an abstract group of symbols. A musical score is a gathering of symbols into some kind of order that can only represent sounds unfolding in time. But they are not the sounds themselves.

P

You’re very right. This is a very strange set of affairs. I’d say that it’s even paradoxical. You were describing how the musician, the performer, is different from the passive listener. This may be key to thinking about painting. So could you say more about that?

B

Yes, of course. Imagine the musician as she plays. She is in two different places simultaneously. She is intimately engaged in the very physical act of playing her instrument. But at the same time, her brain is on fire with the complex patterns of the abstract symbols of the score, as she translates them into the physical actions of her fingers striking the piano keys or plucking the strings of an upright bass. The act of playing an instrument is a truly miraculous event. Somehow the musician is able to forge or compress purely abstract symbols and abstract sounds into a single thing, a single act, the performance. It’s almost like forcing the north and south poles of a magnet together into a single space and time, into a force, and, we know what happens when that’s done – a great explosion occurs. So a musical performance is an explosion caused when abstract notation and abstract sound are compressed together. Then, and only then,  can one hear Bach or Zappa.

P

Wow! I now  regret turning the tables on you!  I fear that I’ll not be able to rise to the same heights in describing the abstraction of painting.

B

Come now. You’re just being a sly dog again.

P

Don’t be so sure, Composer.

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Part 3

P

I appreciate, Composer, that you wished to touch all three paintings again. I often wish that those with eyes took such care. Is beauty in the fingers of the composer well enough now for me to attempt to rise to the occasion of your discourse on musical abstraction?

B

Yes, dear Painter. I have your work at my fingertips… So do proceed. I’ve even banished all thoughts of geometry, architecture, the human form, and all thoughts of realism, whatever that might be. I’m all ears.

P

Good. Is the chair comfortable enough?

B

Do get on with it Painter!

P

Ahem… Alright… We are in my studio. The walls are white, without color. The ceiling is high. The north wall is formed of large windows that allow the room to be filled with neutral light so it least effects the color of my paintings. This is important because color is light. Paint is the light reflected by pigment. Were the sun to shine on it directly, then it would distort the light of color. This may be similar to the way sound is reflected off the walls, ceiling and floor of the symphony hall. The way Bach’s Cello Suite #5 in C Minor sounds in the Berliner Philharmoniker sounds differently in the Royal Albert Hall.

B

So your paintings look different in different exhibition spaces?

P

Yes. So every individual painting has many different appearances, just as Bach’s Cello Suite # 5 sounds differently when, and wherever, it’s played.

B

So a painting is no different than an musical score?

P

No. It isn’t. Which is why some painters, like Rothko, attempted to control the conditions of lighting in which his paintings were shown. Most museum’s don’t meet his conditions. So to truly see a Rothko painting, you have to travel to Houston to see his works in the Rothko Chapel. where those condition are met. What I’m trying to say is that, because ultimately, painting is about light, and light is variable, to experience, to see, a painting properly is similar to a musical performance in that there are more or less optimal conditions under which it can be viewed. Who is to say whether or not Gould’s Bach played on piano is better or worse than Savall’s Bach played on harpsichord?

B

So what you’re saying is that your bassoon blue has many shades of cobalt alone, depending on where, and how, it’s displayed?

P

Exactly. Yes.

B

So, the painting I’ve touched and compared to the others, is not the only one? This one painting can take many different forms, or, appearances? So, like a score, IF I were able to see, it’s possible that I’d see it in many different ways?

P

Yes. That’s what I’m saying.

B

Alright then. That’s very helpful indeed. Every painting exists like a single note or chord within an envelope of grace notes. Okay. I understand that. Go on.

P

The painting before you is 2.5 meters high, and 1.5 meters wide, approximately. And it’s frame is 10 centimeters think, so depending on how it’s lighted, the frame casts a shadow that make it both a substantial object, while also making it seem to float over the surface of the wall.

B

Like a bassoon solo holding a C whole note for several measures?

P

Yes. Like that, but not the same exactly. In the painting before you, there is a central motif of a blue so pale that it’s almost white. It’s shape, or form,  is spatially three dimensional, while the painted marks, the lines or brush strokes that give it definition take the shape of an elongated human head, though less symmetrically shaped than that. And it’s not a solid object, doesn’t have a continuous surface, but is broken up by contour lines meant only to give it an approximate shape. If you had eyes, you’d see that it has an interior volume, that it is porous, that it is shape that floats, or is suspended in, a much denser background space that implies the physicality of a medium, a density of some other kind of matter, a matter of a different nature than what the motif shape is made of, like a human body floating in a river with it’s currents and eddies and whirlpools, and variable depths.

B

Like a first violinist playing a ‘solo’ line in the midst of a full orchestra accompaniament?

P

Yes. Nearly like that.

B

Okay. I can imagine that. But what does it feel like? What is the fate of your motif? If it’s like a body suspended in a river, will it sink or swim? Is it part of the river? Or, is it ‘something’ else? It is emerging from the river? Or, is it dissolving into it?

P

Perhaps that is in the eye of the beholder.

B

Fair enough. But if it’s painted in the bassoon key of cobalt, then, musically speaking, your motif would be heavy, wouldn’t it? and therefore its natural tendency would be to sink?

P

It would, yes, if the motive were bassoon, or cobalt blue. But it isn’t. If you recall, the motif is a pale shade of blue, and therefore far lighter than cobalt, in the high pitch range of a bassoon, and therefore a figure that floats on the surface, in no danger of being submerged. It’s a dandelion bloom floating over the surface of a dark blue river. But one that’s always in danger of becoming saturated by the river’s substance, and, yes, of eventually becoming heavy and sinking. So it’s fate, in my painting, is depicted as not yet determined. A wind could still lift it into the air and blow it onto a shore where it might bloom again. Or, it might be eaten by a trout or be dashed against a rock where it would dry and die in the heat of the sun.

B

You’re sounding Wagnerian, Painter.

P

Well, I am, after all, dear Composer, German.

B

Ah… I see….

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The Painter and the Blind Composer [redux]

a philosophical reflection on abstraction, in the work of Alf Löhr

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note: excerpts from a talk give at Tate Modern, London, for a conference entitled, Abstract Connections, 12 April, 2010, which took place on the occasion of two major exhibitions, Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World and Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective.  see –  https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/audio/abstract-connections-conference-audio-recordings

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it’s always been curious to me that so many very sensitive and intelligent people have a visceral dislike of much art that goes by the name of modernist abstraction.

and i’ve a confession or sorts, as a cultural art historian and philosopher, i must relate at the outset. i’ve had a love-hate relationship to it. so i do have some sympathy with it’s detractors, for reasons very different then theirs, for the most part.

but here i am, making abstract, geometric paintings for the first time.

at moments like this, i’m always reminded of a well known lesson from Confucius’s Analects:

[2:4] The Master said: “At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I was unperturbed; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing the norm.”

Ezra Pound translated this masterwork quite differently; the last clause in his words are far more beautiful:

at seventy, I was able to follow my own heart’s desire without overstepping the T-square.

70 is still a ways off I’m happy to say. whether or my ‘ear is obedient’ or not, is not for me to judge. i suspect it sometimes is, sometimes not.

but to return from this divigation to my thesis – that a love of abstraction is innate to most people.

it’s not difficult to find a myriad of examples from everyday life – the most cliche and therefore perhaps the most representative – the love of sunsets and sunrises. it’s not a distant segue to star- and cloud-gazing. the mesmerizing effects of waves crashing against a sandy beach or rocky cliffs. patterns of drifting snow. the grey and silver tones that gloss the surface of a mountain lake surrounded by peaks. the variegated striations of geological formations. the great minimalist distances of landscapes in the southwestern US. the barrenness of the green hills of the Scottish highlands. Saharan sands drifting. the joy of a cloudless blue sky. the love of miniaturization, as when the world is seen from 30,000 feet out the window of an airplane.

But when this instinct is hung on a museum wall, the degree of general animosity is boundless. The cause of that anger? Many things of course, but many may be generalized as a defense of naturalism and realist representation that has for so long been historically and culturally dominant.

To put this in the register of philosophical language –

Every encounter with visual abstraction and its history is also, to some degree, an encounter, a direct ‘interaction,’ with the elimination of a realistically rendered world. To borrow and extend Kobena Mercer’s terms, abstraction produces an experience of discrepancy – a discrepancy between what ‘common sense’ tells us about how the world appears, and the ‘uncommon sense’ that abstract art aims to produce. Abstraction aims to disorient us from the modes of what is optically dominant, the realism found in the photographic image. It is a demonstration that all perception is learned, constructed, and teaches us to see and feel in ways that fundamentally challenge the strictly optical clichés of visual perception that conventions of realism tend to police.

In Peter Wollen’s semiotic terms: “Abstraction strips the sign of the signified, withdrawing its relationality into an essentialist self-referentiality.” Translated, that means an abstract painting, say, intends to refer only to itself, not to the world beyond it, the signified. But the signified is only half of the semiotic game in this account. If abstraction abandons only the signified, its reference to the real, must we then conclude that the signifier abandons all forms of relationality and reference? Must we conclude that abstraction is doomed to a reductive and essentialist self-referentiality as Wollen believes? I don’t think so. The sign is stripped only of its linguistic, signifyig meaning – that yellow round mark in the blue field is the sun; and only meaning dominated by linguistic knowledge, is abandoned. If abstraction is freed of Wollen’s semiotic interpretation, then its signification can and must be redefined independently of its linguistic origins. So the question then becomes: what other forms of referentiality might abstraction offer beyond linguistic meaning?

Alf Löhr, a Germany born, London-based painter, hos been addressing that question for 30 years.

His modes of abstract thought are related, but arise from quite different impulses and principles. We’ve been in dialog about his work and art making in general for well over 10 years now. He recently sent me the following email message, that I think is the best way to begin my analysis of his work:

Good Morning Mark,

After reading what the dictionary says about, “Abstract,” I am starting to think that I have the wrong word all together – ” Existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence : abstract concepts such as love or beauty.” – I can live with. But not the following –

  • dealing with ideas rather than events : the novel was too abstract and esoteric to sustain much attention.
  • not based on a particular instance; theoretical : we have been discussing the problem in a very abstract manner.
  • (of a word, esp. a noun) denoting an idea, quality, or state rather than a concrete object : abstract words like truth or equality.
  • of or relating to abstract art : abstract pictures that look like commercial color charts.

So who is right ? They or me? What is it that I do?

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It is my view that Johnson’s invention of the dictionary in 1755 has had some unfortunate consequences. It has, as it intended, imposed strict limits on lexical variation. The definition of the term, abstract, that Löhr cites, is not free of ideological and epistemological problems. Of particular relevance here is the definition’s exclusion of events from the domain of abstraction. Johnson’s legacy in this particular case has imposed Platonic idealism and Enlightenment rationalism on the term. Not to mention its quite disturbing conception of abstract art. I hope that by now I’ve convinced you that events can indeed be abstract. But more to the point is an analogy I wish to draw here. Just as the Johnsonian lexicon restricted the aural, sonic variability of Shakespeare’s 7 ways of spelling his name, to one; so has art historical canonization and discourse delimited what may be epistemologically and ontologically recognized as abstract art. The consequences for visuality cannot be underestimated. The still largely Greenbergian formalist conception of abstraction tends to frame the picture plane in terms of the “scene,” as in a theater scene. The criterion for a legitimate work of abstract painting is that it represent only one form of visuality, the passive gaze. But what about other forms of vision, other lexical registers like glance, look, see, regard, spectate, watch, peer, stare, terms which connote a sense that vision is highly active and dynamic, that it has a constructive, imaginative role to play? The oft cited criticism of formalism is that its reductiveness essentializes the medium. But there has been virtually no critique of how it even more significantly essentializes visuality itself, reducing it to the singular form of the passive gaze. The consequences for the artist’s I’ve talked about so far, but particularly for Löhr, is that their work cannot be seen, that it literally cannot be recognized, because its whole purpose is to step out of the idealizing scene of the gaze and into the event.

So Löhr raises exactly the right question: What is it that he does? To put it in a Gertrude Steinian way: what does his doing, do?

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Löhr’s painting at first glance might be historically described as action painting. However, his aesthetic principles are motivated by quite different concerns. He does not aim to produce a fetish finish surface, or compositions seemingly free of human production. He is governed by principles of action-reaction, and by a clear set of visual dynamics and vocabulary. His painterly syntax is based on an exquisite dance between chance and determination of visual and emotional differences modulated between transparency, layering, drips, splatters, splashes, opacities, luminosities, hues, and tones, given scalar force and dimensionality.

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Löhr’s work is about that directionality of the viewer’s imagination. It is about elementality, but an elementality of active forces not forms, of acts and events rather than forms. It is about producing in the viewer affective states and emotional experience, about the production of such states through the means of projection – throwing paint and catching it midair as it were. Landing somewhere along the line of their arc into being, his paintings never realize being as such, only processes or events of becoming. They are neither form nor formless, never become resolved in Euclidean space or linear Newtonian time of the everyday we have been trained to believe in, to see without really seeing. They never resolve themselves in the safety zones of integrated one-, two- and three-dimensionality, but insist on variable velocities and variable scales co-creating each other, in 2/3s of a dimension, or 1/4 dimensions, 2.66 dimensions, 3.333 dimensions. In effect, and affect, they must be understood more in terms of time than of space, closer to filmic experiments of the American and British avant-gardes of the 60s and 70s, but derive from our contemporary moment made manifest in televisual moving images of war, forest fires, floods, weather, or the melting of artic ice sheets. Löhr’s catastrophic vision are joyous, imbued with pleasure, perhaps even a desire for explosive violence. It is this dark force that he so brightly illumines.

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He directs his viewer to enter precisely that aporia. In so doing, his work must be interpreted as resisting the spectacular hegemony of filmic expression by slowing it, condensing it once again into the still frame of his watercolor works on paper, where movement in all its fragility and mesmeric intensities are caught with great precision and range. They are slow ‘zoom ins’ and ‘zoom outs’ that aim to capture the raw power of the violence that constitutes today’s affective visual atmosphere. They are simultaneously macro- and microcosmic, where the universe is simultaneously both scaled up and down to register all the more powerfully because rarity becomes density as it compresses, and the super dense becomes super rare as it expands. Löhr’s work must be understood as seeing and feeling events taking place more in time, rather than through Greenbergian reductions to the idioms of formal spatiality. In this fact lies his great achievement; his work takes painting in a radically new direction, beyond the formalist obsessions that have typically driven the medium.

Löhr work, then, revitalizes the concerns that have long been at work in the traditions of abstract painting. Yet he recasts it radically as a typology of tensions produced between a restricted set of non-plastic marks, forms, and structures, freed of the highly controlled techniques and effects that characterize the abstract work of previous decades. Unlike the 20th century traditions of abstraction, which aimed above all for the effect of harmony and unity, Löhr strives for disunity, or dissonance, abandoning any pretense to harmonious, visual singularity. Surfaces and depths simultaneously occupy a plurality of scales, just as the marks are the effects of a plurality of speeds. The vastness of the sky has given way to the vastness of the invisible exterior of which the painting desperately attempts to contain only the smallest part, for the briefest moment. Shapes rarely cohere, and are radically subordinated to collisions among forces and events of which the marks are only an index. They do not constitute photographic indexicality in any way, they do not constitute indexicality of the scenic gaze, but of the deep, invisible forces of active empathy, always so alive in us.

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In Löhr’s work, time is compressed, condensed in the performance of the “painting-act,” which because it is an event, requires the viewer to investigate it as such, and requires a continuous, reciprocal exchange between the painter, the viewer, and the world since everything is, literally, on the surface where all three meet, producing what Löhr calls, paradoxically, an objective emotion. This is an emotion that originates in the world, not in the interior of the viewer’s psyche. Löhr’s paintings then do not seek to evoke an emotional response from the viewer, but to produce one not experienced before, and therefore cannot be subjective.

Löhr’s paintings are an objective depiction of the correspondence between mankind and the fragment-world that so thoroughly determines our emotional world, today.

a philosophical reflection on abstraction, in the work of Alf Löhr