David Batchelor in conversation with Jonathan Rée
Jonathan Rée: When I look at the sequence of your found monochromes, I feel they are trying to tell me several stories – not only general stories about life in modern cities, but also personal stories about your development as an artist. Let’s start with the second: can you tell me what first made you go out into the streets looking for monochromes?
David Batchelor: That’s quite a long story. I began making monochrome paintings and drawings back in the mid-1980s. By the early 1990s I had started to construct object-like things that were largely monochromatic, but it was only when I began to attach shiny panels of brightly coloured acrylic sheet to old low-slung warehouse dollies, that I felt any sense that they could hold their own in the world. That was in 1996. Around the same time, I photographed my first Found Monochrome. It was 18 November 1997, to be precise.
The first thing I should say about the photographs is that at the time I never thought of them as works. Rather, I imagined them as ammunition – blanks possibly – in an argument about the monochrome and the relationship of abstract art to modernity. The first ones were made as a response to a lecture given by Jeff Wall at the Slade on the work of On Kawara. In a nutshell, Wall argued that the monochrome was the apotheosis of the tradition of abstract art that turned its back on modern life in the city in favour of whatever abstract art was meant to be in favour of. The spiritual, formalism, autonomy: all the usual suspects. I think I have always been sceptical of that notion. I often feel that abstract art is the art of the city and that the monochrome is its exemplary form. So I went out into the streets of King’s Cross, where I lived at the time, with the idea that I would show this, literally. I would show that the city is full of monochromes. And it is: billboards, screens, doors, walls, the backs of signs, faded notices, the sides of trucks, etc, etc. I am now rather less sure that Wall’s argument was about all the things I thought it was, but maybe that doesn’t matter too much. The reasons why I began to hunt them down, back then, are quite different from the reasons why I continue to do so over a decade later.
JR: So you were happy, when you started out, with the idea that monochromes – whether coloured or black or white or grey – are a culmination of abstract art; but you didn’t go along with the argument that there was something anti-urban, perhaps even anti-modern, about abstraction. How has your attitude to monochromes changed since then?
DB: Well, I wouldn’t say they were a culmination of abstract art, but they are, or certainly were, a fairly extreme form of it. Perhaps the main change in my attitude is that I used to think monochromes were simple. In a sense they are, conceptually: a single colour spread evenly over a given surface with no drawing, no incident and no figure/ground relationship to bother about. But in practice it’s a rather different matter, thankfully. As I’ve said before, anyone can make a monochrome; the tricky bit is to make an interesting one. At least, that was the tricky bit for me. But I’ve also come to realise that as well as being quite difficult to make, monochromes can be quite complex things, spatially, optically, even psychologically, if that is the right term. I used to enjoy the irony that for all the talk of spirituality and the like, a monochrome is at the same time as dumb as a door. Or to put it another way, a monochrome is always situated somewhere between the mystery of an infinite void and the ordinary materiality of a flat surface. What I find surprising and interesting is the possibility that a monochrome might be both a void and a plane, or that it might oscillate between the two, without settling on either. That’s quite a large part of why I have continued to make these and some other monochromes. These days I have a little more respect for some of the things I used to take the piss out of, back then. It’s probably an age thing.
JR: As dumb as a door? Surely doors are not that dumb: they speak, and they speak about two elemental human activities: secrets shut away and vistas opened up. Or so it seems to me. So I wonder what you really mean, deep down, by your disobliging comment about doors. And I wonder if this might be linked with that ambiguity in the word ‘monochrome’, sometimes implying black-and-white-and-every-shade-in- between, and sometimes the coloured variety.
DB: I think we may carry around different default doors in our heads. Yours sounds a little rustic and carefully stripped down; mine is the standard B&Q plywood-faced, blank panel. And those doors really are dumb and prosaic, and painting one really does make me think of painting a monochrome. I can be extremely literal-minded at times. Strangely, I find that quite useful. Yours is a very much more interesting door, and a well-read one, and it reminds me that I have found Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception immensely useful when writing about colour.
There are certainly many ambiguities within the term ‘monochrome’, for all its apparent simplicity and singularity. Incidentally, there are a great many more black or white or grey monochromes in art than chromatic ones. That’s ironic given Yves Klein’s wonderful assertion that the monochrome represents the final liberation of colour from the tyranny of line. I have really never understood why this is, but the ambiguity is there in my work. Nearly all my three-dimensional monochromes are highly colourful, but the photographed ones are all whites. In the early days, I also photographed some black ones and also some blues and reds and the odd yellow, but they didn’t really work. The colours just sat in the picture space, whereas the whites can appear to lift themselves out of the visual field, or cut a hole in it.
JR: You’re right: there is something very special about white monochromes. For you at least, and for me, and perhaps for everyone, they come across as absences rather than presences – like silences in a musical performance, perhaps, or gaps in a conversation. But it seems to me that there is something disturbing, even freakish, about such absences. They are essentially provisional, a bit like the interval between the lightning flash and the clap of thunder. They are nothings awaiting their own destruction.
DB: There is a story that John Cage composed 4' 33" in response to a series of white monochromes made by Robert Rauschenberg in the early 1950s. I can’t imagine it being made in response to Rauschenberg’s black works of the same period. And 4' 33" is a great absence-event – one always at risk of being undone, invaded by noises off. I really like the idea of nothings like these as moments. It is literally true of the monochromes I find in the streets: they are never around for long. They are either painted-over or tagged or removed. It’s like they are errors in the visual fabric that have to be corrected. A blank in a cityscape is a bit freakish, even a temporary one; that is what attracts me.
JR: Is it too sentimental and subjectivist to say that your found monochromes always tell a story? Or at least, that each of them suggests a before and an after, placing us in the midst of an unfolding history – one that began before the monochrome existed and that will end when it is defaced or taken away? Might they serve as illustrations of what Paul Klee once said about art exploring the prehistory of the visible?
DB: I remember the occasion on which pretty much every one of the photos was taken, where I was, what I was meant to be doing. Amongst other things, the series is an autobiographical story or map. Each image feels like a reminder of a small event more than just a memory of a place, especially the ones I found outside London which crop up in small clusters throughout the series. And the term ‘found’ presupposes a narrative of some kind. So they are stories at least in that sense. But each monochrome is also its own short story of coming into being and passing away. Having said that, when I’m actually photographing a monochrome it is the last thing that’s in my mind. At that moment it is a flat, static abstraction that I need to line up in the frame figuring out the right proportion of monochrome to cityscape. It’s only when I print the photos or project them in a slide show – I have always shot them on 35 mm slide film by the way – that the story becomes apparent to me. And that can be months or years later.
I hadn’t come across the statement by Klee. Is it about the notion that art can bring things into visibility that might otherwise remain hidden or be overlooked because of their insignificance or ordinariness or ubiquity? Or is it more about how we learn to distinguish and differentiate what is in our visual field, how we learn to see ‘things’ in the flood of coloured light that hits our retinas? They are both pretty rich ideas that have left their mark on art of the last century and a half. I suspect Klee was more concerned with the latter, whereas with this series of works at least, the former is more to the point. It’s more Baudelairian, or Warholian.
JR: When I talked about being in the midst of an unfolding history, I was not thinking of the history of your stomping the streets for 10 or 15 years with your old film camera, nor exactly of the story of each monochrome coming into being and passing away; I was thinking more of what they may suggest to us, your audience, or what they may do for us. That’s where Klee came in.
Surely he’s elaborating on the familiar fact that visual experience involves more than opening your eyes to what’s in front of them. Part at least of what it involves is seeing as: seeing the sky as sky, seeing it as blue, and seeing its blueness as the colour blue; or seeing blankness as an absence; or seeing a screen as an obstruction waiting to be removed, or as a blank surface waiting to be filled. Klee’s maxim develops that point, it seems to me, by suggesting that art is a bit like hypnosis: it enables us to regress into our prehistory – to make a journey into our visual past, before we saw as we do now, and then to retrace our steps to the present, and perhaps to find that it no longer looks familiar.
I think there may be a significant ambiguity in the response these works elicit: is it about the monochromes you found, or is it about your photos of them? Perhaps I was assuming the former, but I can see that you might disagree. But even if my presumption is wrong-headed, I think it connects with a general point about what the public expects from its artists: traditional artists had to market their work by saying ‘Look what I have made’, whereas contemporary artists can simply say ‘Look what I have seen’.
If someone told me they’d come across something that reminded them of a Batchelor Found Monochrome, I’d assume they’d come across a white rectangle in the street, rather than an image of one in a gallery.
DB: I like the formulation ‘Look what I have seen’ because I have never found a better description of what art is than an invitation to look. However, I suspect the seen/made opposition is less straightforward than it sounds. Certainly I am more interested in pointing to monochromes-in-the-world than to my photos of them, and one reason is that the photographs are not intended to be anything special as photographs. They are documents. On the other hand, the act of putting together 250 of these images in a book (or as a slide show, or as prints) shifts the balance between seen and made – at least a little. Something changes, I suspect, for the viewer. At least something changes for me, although I’m not sure I can say exactly what. Perhaps that’s where ‘seeing as’ comes in. It is about seeing these unintended events as if they were intended, as if they were monochromes, as if they were works of art, even. And as if they were an ongoing and unfolding series of connected events that are taking place in every city all the time, only just below the threshold of visibility. Incidentally, people do come up to me and say ‘I saw a monochrome in Dalston yesterday’, and I rather like it when they do.
JR: I was a bit wary about bringing in the old idea of ‘seeing as’, but it seems to me you have revived it with the idea of seeing as if. (There’s a book from the early twentieth century called The Philosophy of As-If, whose author, Hans Vaihinger, maintained that all knowledge is founded in fiction, in make-believe.) I like the idea of seeing these monochromes as if they arose from some kind of conspiracy dedicated to subverting the way we usually see our urban environment.
But why urban? When we began, I went along with the assumption that there’s some connection between monochromes, modernity and the city, but that was only for the sake of the argument. Can there be natural monochromes – angular limestone outcrops perhaps, or the white cliffs of Dover – and if not, why not? Is it because they are natural rather than artificial, or because they are too solid, too deep, too three-dimensional – coloured not just on the surface but all the way through?
DB: I wasn’t even aware that I had added the ‘if’ to ‘seeing as’, but I like what happens when an ‘as if’ is there, especially when it comes to abstract art and monochromes. To see a monochrome in a gallery as a deep imponderable void is one thing, but to see it as if it were that may add a little scepticism a little uncertainty and self-doubt, and the possibility of a number of other fictions...
Nature abhors a monochrome. A square of sky on a moonless cloudy night might just about pass the test, but apart from that... Do you know about Alphonse Allais, the late nineteenth-century prankster who somehow ended up showing two blank rectangles of colour – one white and one red – at a Post-Impressionist exhibition? The titles are brilliant ‘as ifs’: Anaemic Virgins Taking First Communion in a Snowstorm and Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shores of the Red Sea. This must have been the first time monochromes were presented as art and there’s something about the spirit of his interventions that I love and admire.
It seems to me that our experience of colour was transformed during the Industrial Revolution, with the advent of electrification and in the development of artificial paints and dyes, and later of coloured plastics and the like. There may not be any such thing as a completely new colour, but in the city we certainly see colours in entirely different forms and conditions than in the natural world. Allais could play with the idea of an undifferentiated expanse of red in a landscape, a reductio ad absurdum of Impressionist painting, but he would only be likely to have encountered one that was manufactured in a paint or a dye factory. Actually there are two monochromes-in-landscapes early in the series, but they read like interventions from outside that block entry into the landscape, which is probably just what they were meant to be.
A monochrome has to be uniform: the slightest hint of modulation breaks the spell. Looking back I’d say some of the earliest monochromes in the series have a bit too much incident in them, too many variations on the surface. But that was when I was just beginning to get going; I had no idea then where it would lead or what, if any, were the possibilities and limits of the series.
It isn’t just the opportunity to see a single uninterrupted colour on a large scale that is unique to the city; it is also that the city is a landscape of regular surfaces, planes and facades – a landscape of edges and limits. And the colours we see are for the most part additions; somethings applied to those surfaces rather than qualities integral to them. So colours in the city can be vivid and intense, but they tend not to be deep and stable and enduring. Colours do not belong to forms in the same way; it always feels that a colour is more its own presence rather than the colour of something. I suppose it is the implied autonomy of colour that makes every surface in the city a potential monochrome, a surface on a surface, a provisional, contingent, temporary presence.
London, 31 May 2010
David Batchelor and Jonathan Rée, 'Nothings', in Found Monochromes, Vol. 1, 1–250, 1997–2006, Ridinghouse: London, 2010, p. 297-99.