The Empiricism of Michael Kidner: Dreams of the World Order
I have written before about two approaches to making an abstract painting. We could call one of them ‘dialogical’: the artist enters a conversation with the materials in a state of ‘not knowing’ or with only a vague idea of what s/he is going to paint. The process becomes one of responding to previous ‘moves’, most of the decisions about the work being made during its production. The other strategy is pre-planned, with decisions being made before any paint is applied to a support. If the first is in danger of becoming ‘automatic writing’ the second may suffer from being too predictable. Perhaps they correspond to what Michael Kidner referred to as “the gestural approach”, which to him seemed “foreign to Western tradition” and lacked the possibility to develop, as opposed to the “preconceived image” which he thought “seems contrived”. Instead of either he proposed an empiricism of “imagery through optics” stating that “whereas a painting conceived in two colours can fairly easily be predicated in the mind’s eye, the addition of a third colour makes this impossible. The work necessarily becomes empirical.”
At Michael Kidner, Dreams of the World Order – Early Paintings at Flowers Gallery until 20 October 2012, this empiricism is evidenced in the relationship between paintings shown in the downstairs galleries and between those paintings and the wonderful (preparatory?) works on paper that are shown upstairs.
The exhibition explores four of Kidner’s sub-themes: After Image, Stripe, Moirè and Wave, described in the catalogue as “progressive experiments with optical effects and rational procedures, inspired by his preoccupation with how space, pattern and form function” and explaining that “a year after Kidner’s death in 2009, a number of rolled up paintings were discovered in his Hampstead Hill Gardens studio. These have now been re-united with this iconic body of work”. Many of the works on view in this exhibition are being shown for the first time.
It is a real treat being able to see them together, and to discover that some of the works on paper are double-sided (thank you to the show’s curator Amie Conway for demonstrating this).
One of the paintings I am particularly impressed by today is Circle after Image, 1959-60. Seeing an after image presented simultaneously below the image is a strange contradiction, the equivalent of an oxymoron like “objectively subjective”, and caught in this contradiction I am made aware of the temporal dimension of viewing a painting, and of vision in general. The after image is there represented by the artist yet as I view it, after about 20 seconds, I cannot help but project my own after image of the upper half of the canvas into the lower half.
I feel sure that Slavoj Zizek had something different in mind when he said that the ethical duty of the modern artist is to confront us with “not objective reality but the objectively subjective” though it does seem to apply. It is almost as if there is a double constructivism at play here, the paintings themselves being situated within that tradition, that also produce a keen awareness in the viewer of the part s/he plays in constructing visual reality.
Seeing the smaller after image paintings on paper in the upstairs gallery gives an insight into Kidner’s empirical working method, yet I hesitate to label them ‘preparatory’ because they provide specific experiences that are similar but different to the larger painting, and highly interesting and enjoyable in their own right.
A painting for which I find no preparatory works, unless perhaps it should be grouped in the “towards moire” category is Raindrops, 1960, a wonderfully chaotic yet finely ordered painting.
The clear circular motif seems to break down on prolonged viewing, and then as I notice the complementary coloured squares I realise that this too is based on after images, and indeed the ‘figures’ becoming unstable is in part due to my own after images that the painting provokes. There is also a small painting on paper entitled Moving Green from this same period that explores a similar theme. The after images do seem to pulsate and to move and there is also something ‘moving’ (in the emotional sense) about seeing them. I note my involuntary sigh that signals a change of state as I look at these beautiful paintings, yet my cognitive mind is an equal partner in the experience.
To my mind the work in this exhibition is proof, if proof were needed, that a rational, systematic (empirical rather than pre-conceived) approach to abstraction can result in works that are both emotionally charged and intellectually interesting. It could even be said that Kidner combines the opposing traditions of expressionism and constructivism. Although he criticised abstract expressionism for its “assault on the unconscious” there is something of Rothko’s feeling for colour in these paintings. Yet there is no mysticism or ‘spirituality’ here, even though there is Grace in the sense of the term that (following Aldous Huxley) systems thinker Gregory Bateson used of “integrating conscious and unconscious minds”.
(All images by courtesy of Flowers Gallery. My Zizek quote is taken from How to Read Lacan, chapter 4, my Bateson quote is taken from Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Part II and all my Kidner quotes are taken from the exhibition catalogue.)