Creativity and Creative Process Talking about Black-and-White

A Conversation with Sandra Indig

Artist and Psychotherapist

Talking about Black-and-White

Pre-dating the Guttenberg Press which invention revolutionized the printing of books forever, black marks of dye or ink were always made on preferably white paper. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the ancient Chinese practice of painting and calligraphy form a fractional but vital part of the bedrock of man’s reoccurring love affair with black-and-white. A demonstrable preference for the clear, concise, unambiguous statement in art, in fashion and in everyday speech set us apart from the clouds and vapors associated with the 1800’s Romantic period of Western history.

Nearing the close of the 1900’s I am finding myself noting a marked opposition to our general and present need for pleasure, as well as a fictionalized, sanitized and modified version of reality. The need for clarity, if not pragmatism, is now in demand. This shift in preference seems to occur historically, politically and personally when the pressure of feelings or emotions have become too pleasurable and therefore perhaps too burdensome. A simple example of this may be the preference of many an ardent movies as opposed to MTV’s colorand TV viewer seeking uncomplicated relaxation with minimal distraction from form and content for stations such as Bravo and its pre-color sound saturated videos. By extension, I’m also wondering if the energy given to the habit of pleasuring oneself by means ofexuberant acquisition and the resulting phenomena of clutter, singularly equated with inner chaos, lack of discipline, and an excess of feeling at the expense of logic is not a defense against the burden of responsibility of choice. For example, the publication of such books as. Lighten Up! Free Yourself from Clutter by Michelle Passoff and the plethora of self-help groups devoted to this issue indicate a wish for clarity, space, and definition – a cry for help for something basic and simple. Not to minimize this message but rather to amplify its range and application, the advertising gurus of the New York City Ballet announced a Ballanchine dance program as, “(speaking) in the cool, clean palette of black and white.”

One must respect black…
Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye and it awakens no sensuality. It is the agent of the mind far more than the most eautiful color of the palette or the prism.Odilon Redon

Few things are more direct than a straight forward black- and-white work of art. Odilon Redon, in both his charcoal and conte crayon drawings as well as those printed in lithographic ink, circa 1890, created hauntingly beautiful works whose essential substance and resonance were achromatic – black. He said of his “noirs “, as he called them, “One must respect black… Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please theeye and it awakens no sen-suality. It is the agent of the mind far more than the most beautiful color of the palette or the prism.”

It appears that Redon discovered the freedom of the medium of charcoal as an es cape from the overly fussy practices of his teachers.Over a century later and at a loss to put a name to this period of art, Michael Mulhern, evolved his personal black-and white manner of painting.Like Redon and the centuries of artists to translate the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.For the last number of years he has painted as directly as possible so as to maximize the transmission of an intuitive awareness unique to his rhythmic vitality and energy.During the course of focused studio visits followed by his show at Rosenberg + KaufmanFine Art (Manhattan Arts Summer1998), it appeared to me that the mix of our ideas and perceptions resulted in a synergistic effect. His associations and ideas offered in response to my suggestions about the kinds of choices (conscious and unconscious) made to not use color evoked his recollection of a key memory.

He went on to reconstruct and describe in elaborate and moving detail his memory of a trip to Italy. Slowly we discovered the pathways or roots most accessible to this method of inquiry, at this time, and under these circumstances. A decision to find the most direct and unencumbered manner in which to express himself evolved over an extended period of time and was only recognized after the fact the fact that color was absent from his palette!

Very briefly, while in Florence the artist saw the paintings of Fra Angelico in the monastery of San Marco. Drastically departing from the style he had reserved for his huge Vatican commissions, he painted the cells of the monks in a very simple and very spare manner. It appeared to this viewer that “he had given himself over to something else, maybe to his God, whatever that maybe.” Almost as an aside Mulhem told me that the colors of this Dominican order were black and white! As we continued our talk on this point, it gradually came to him that, “Yes,… after this trip I too wanted to get back to basics.”

and art ist/philosopherswho worked to explore territory invisible to human sight, Mulhern too came

One paints and paints and suddenly realizes,”Oh, I “m not using color! The underpinnings for such a choice are complex and niulti-deterniined by bio-psycho-social dynamics.

The more I reached out and dialogued with different artists and informed gallery owners, the more I realized that the stated reasons for using an achromatic (black-and-white) versus a chromatic paletteare often nconsciously determined, or at least, not readily known to the conscious mind. One paints and paints and suddenly realizes, “Oh, I’m not using color! “The underpin- nings for such a choice are complex and multi-detennined by biopsycho-social dynamics.I barely touched on this in my referenceto individual artists and only noted the shift in stylistic preference associated with the mid-nineteenth ceptury revolutionary upheavals which swept Europe. I believe as Norman Mailer recently remarked, the artist extrapolates. To the best of my recollection, and I paraphrase, “… if you have 5% of what’s out there you can write about it; the rest is research and conversation.”

Pressure whatever its source, internal or external, to break the limits of the self as Jackson Pollack did by 1946 had more to do with a deep personally felt need to translate emotion into convincing pictorial sensation than it did with pragmatic concerns. Pollack’s “gesture” and “living” line transcended not only his personal dynamics but went so deep as to also merge both eleventh century aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy and contemporary Western art.

Apparently untrammeled by the usual and more traditional restraints to energy and force, including brushes and stretched canvas. Pollock like Fra Angelico, Redon, and so on, gave himself up to what? His lord, his dream life, his process. The directness of his intention was to put nothing, including himself, between the paint and the painting. He aimed to eliminate associative imagery and presences from his work.

However, it was the work of Naomi Ament, contemporary, abstract New York printmaker and not Pollock who initially drew my attention to the possible association between the need for an unencumbered directness of expression and the use of black-and-white. Both Ament and Mulhem worked many years before getting simple – getting a palette simple enough where content carried and complicated by color were absent. Mulhem said that he “didn’t feel that it was a matter ofremoving color; it was just a matter of getting more direct.” Inresponse to my numerous questions concerning preferences culled over a long period of time, Ament admitted to feeling that her prints more than any of her other work, were personally more meaningful and more intense.

Two major themes dominate her production of almost eight years: the wish to conceive and the wish to create order. Beautifully haunting and lyrical images reminiscent of Redon’s L’Armure, 1891, told the story in rich, sensual textures and tones of lustrous blacks of her desire to have a child. The Desire etchings were executed, exhibited and awarded special recognition at the National Academy of Design. Ament’s more recent body of prints were done when, “a difficulty in hearing caused sounds to become painfully amplified in “her” head.” She explains, “I didn’t realize it then; not in words, but in talking to you I see that the hours of scratching and scraping on my etchingscalmed me and helped organize that internal roar.”

More than that, and not to minimize the healing inherent in art, this series of prints makes an uninhibited and fiercely direct statement. Freedom from the earlier symbolic sign language allowed this almost calligraphic work to reach a most spontaneous manifestation of emotion. The achromatic print is unquestionably the perfect vehicle for the charge of violence and personal fury which gives to her work a presence and vitality.

Though their styles are distinct and uniquely individual, the contemporary artists I talked with and those I referred to from the past, regard directness of expression in making what is not seen visible, as the most important element of their work. Toward this end and for reasons not entirely understood by this artist and psychotherapist, the choice, conscious or unconscious, to work in black-and-white is associated with the most direct and unencumbered vehicle of expression. No matter how subjective that choice may be, the resulting work communicates the spirit of the time in which the artist lives. It is therefore our time. None of us are exempt from the spirit of our time.

4 MANHATTAN ARTS INTERNATIONAL SUMMER 1999