Richard Tuttle, Untitled, c.1967, watercolor on paper, 7 x 10 inches
The Spirit of Paper
Spirit is the shared one, and paper is its special house. It is the stillness, and still--it is always moving. When an individual brings an inspiration to this house, he mingles his soul with the spirit of paper: they cast their shadow into the daylight. This is what is so special and telling about paper; it locates everything, if only for a moment.
Paper is plant, and in America that has meant tree: tree as in the great woods--the primeval forest-the home of wildlife, the Indian, and pioneer. It has been the one raw material for the American home, industry, and culture. Rooted in the landscape, the tree is in the service of both nature and people; it is spent for every purpose, not the least of which is paper. The past of every tree is present in every piece--this is its great beauty, heritage, and spirit. For while these are essentially things not seen in paper, they are its essence. We cannot see these things, and yet they are there, and it is the creative who bring them within our grasp.
The thing seen and the thing not seen, this is the province of paper. Each one is an ally in a quest for the whole: the soul embracing the spirit, the dark stepping into the light. The whole story is the sum of what is put in and what is left out. Not everything can be included, or excluded. They are equal partners. Paper can register the passions of the heart, the journeys of the mind, or the "flight of any fancy," but whether these burn or float on the page, everything put down is still a load for the paper to carry. It is still a shadow over its pure light.
What occurs when the individual joins forces with paper to bridge the unbridgeable is once again visible and invisible. However, while each may be sensed separately, only together will they be under- stood. The way in which paper is used tells us about the user and his attitude. It tells us as much about him as it does about the things which are and are not the object (and/or subject) of his creativity. The attitude is the individual, and no matter how removed or abstract it may be, it means all work is the result of the worker's relationship to things. This is certain.
Consider the attitude of a drawing or a watercolor. The ever-present spirit of paper makes this possible. It is through the individual's relationship to that spirit that we are told so much--about their subject-- about them--about their attitude. What kind of relationship is it! Looking at a work it is hard to know what happens, why we like it, are moved by it, or not even interested. Like reflexes, we sense, intuit, feel, and even act in the presence of a work without understanding or even trying to understand why.
Of course understanding is only equal to experience, yet for a number of reasons, viewers find works on paper easier to engage and experience than the generally considered major works of art in three dimensions or on canvas. There is no doubt that at first a drawing or watercolor is less intimidating. Glass protects the viewer from the work and vice versa, and the open whites of the page offer the kind of levity and rest that a major work rarely concedes. These things do make the work more approachable and easier to live with. That could also mean easier to live without.
It is true, the major work of art can be threatening. It seeks to dominate us with its self and its intensity. It is not for the faint hearted. It is a prickly thing that can be as terrible as it is wonderful. Even if its mask reads flower petals, there are thorns hidden somewhere. It is that drawings and watercolors seem thornless, and this is the marvelous lure they possess.
When we experience paper, we are rarely conscious of it. When we are, we become aware of how conscious the author was. Again, what kind of relationship was it! Was it really an alliance, a camaraderie, a taming, a friendship; or was it an opposition, a domination, a servitude, a battle? Was it all of these things, or none of them! Is paper not even an issue at all--is it just a material--a means to an end!
Looking at a work on paper we can see all these things. We can see if it is just pedantry at work, or ego, lust, therapy or confession. We can also see if it is something more, deeper, about larger truths, touching a live nerve. We can see if it is emotional, psychological, spiritual, sensual or thoughtful in its primary sense. We can see if the individual was in awe of paper or not even aware of it. Art, with the exception of music (and possibly some poetry and prose) is about light, seen and not seen.
Light is how we see, and in its absence we don't. All works are therefore, to some degree or other, about light. Works on paper seem especially blessed in this respect since they are washed in the pure paper light, and they never forget it. There are even individuals who devote themselves entirely to this light, and only seek to magnify it. We face their works as we face the sun and stars.
Color is one of the joys of light, and of living. It is often how we know things and enjoy them. Paper gives life to color almost like light itself and here again there are those whose devotion has been primarily to light through color. It is as stained glass.
Then it is shape which flowers into flesh in the light.`We can touch the shapes which the individual created through his touch. In a drawing or watercolor we see things reduced to shape, and experience that this is how we sense, feel, and know things. In works on paper we can see these things so directly, so simply and clearly, with reason. Works on paper tend to be the single vision, the moment, the full but single face of an inspiration. We can see all this, we can sense and feel it. We can know color and shape as how we view the world, and they speak to us of what we love and hate, think and feel, even if entirely through our unconscious.
All this is possible because the work on paper is usually short and sweet. It is done to make some- thing clear in the individual. It is private. There is nothing to hide or contrive because it is for something else-mostly the self. It is not often intended as a major work of art-or intended to be art at all. This is why it has been called the "backbone" of the arts. It serves a primary function to the creative. Otherwise, it has played a secondary role historically. Drawings and watercolors have been thought incomplete; they promise what the final work delivers.
Not all works, however, drawings or watercolors, are preludes to works in oils or Stone, but even if they aren't, it has been logical to put them last even though they may come first. But that they came first is very important. It makes them rather primary, not secondary. It makes them special--where it happened first, and maybe never again. All the intensity of an inspiration gathered in a moment. Perhaps the moment of truth, This might explain why some painters or sculptors go directly to the oils or stone to preserve the inspiration--a feeling expressed can be a feeling spent. It might also explain why some individuals who work on paper first, rarely succeed in, or even complete, the final work.
As paper is a spiritual house, a cardiograph, a mind reader, and an advertureland, so too with all these it is a door. Through it we pass onto the plane of paper, a place of union or isolation. Out on the plane of paper each lone mark must seek integration, and it doesn't matter if the work is abstract or figurative, progressive or conventional, decorative or plain; what counts is if it is true to and touches the paper. Then it can touch us as we touch it. For paper cannot, and will not, lie.
Addison Parks, 1981, New York City
Catalog Essay, American Works on Paper/100 years of American Art History
This Exhibition traveled to over twenty museums and art centers throughout the United States (1982-85)
Philip Guston, Untitled, 1953, ink on paper, 18 x 23 inches
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