As the story goes, in the early 1950’s, Robert Rauschenberg began experimenting with strategies he hoped would help him move beyond the expansive gestural mark making so revered by the Abstract Expressionist at the time. Rather than fill the canvas with profligate form, he was intrigued with the idea of producing a drawing that was empty (as he discusses in the video at the end of this essay). It was a moment when artists were attempting to access profound, expansive fullness, if not sublimity, in empty spaces. Yves Klein, out of the blue, was leaping into voids. John Cage was failing to articulate silence in under five minutes. And Robert Rauschenberg was trying to rub it all out with pink pearls.
These experiments in the production of absence marked a shift away from a concern with pure form that had been so important to artists in the first half of the 20th century, towards an engagement with performative phenomena, initiating (or further elaborating on) a fundamental critique of Western metaphysics. The work of art was no longer merely grounded in what it was, but rather in what it did. Artists were now free to probe the boundaries of representation, the edge of the text as it were, outside of which, we were later informed, nothing could exist. It was a radical break with traditional Western metaphysics, away from a metaphysics of substance towards a critique of the metaphysics of presence, which is a metaphysics of absence too.
The reification of absence produced a new kind of idolatry, for which a new kind of iconoclasm was necessary. And it was this shift in Western metaphysics that held my attention in those early years of the 21st century when I produced the work featured here. The work of Rauschenberg, Klein, Cage, and others weren’t just acts of negation. They were new strategies for grounding reality.
But a mark that is made and then erased is still a kind of affirmation of form. An empty surface that was once full but is now empty is not empty in the same way that a surface that has always been empty is empty. The void remains unannounced, silent and invisible; a null set.
Negative spaces are dependent on their relationship with positive form to signify their absence. Drawing and painting have always been both subtractive and additive affairs; it is this dialectic of form that generates the composition. And because the void, as a thing in itself, beyond representation, is supposedly always already inaccessible, there is always already a trace; a presence that signifies what is absent.
Which brings us to the familiar and mysterious Gioconda. I made many paintings like this around this period; many copies of works from the canon of Western art, usually from the Italian Renaissance. I invented histories for these paintings that existed in no one’s memory but my own. Perhaps they weren’t actually painted by Leonardo, but by another artist working in Milan or Northern Italy in the early 16th century, from the “School of Leonardo”… a second rate colorist in the workshop of Bernardino Luini, or a third de Predis brother unmentioned by Vasari. These ersatz histories were carefully aligned with the official histories. After all, every painting that is not the Mona Lisa gives meaning to the Mona Lisa, just as the Mona Lisa gives meaning to all other paintings by differing from them. It is this negative space of history that gives form to the contours of presence by implicating what is absent.
I was also faced with the practical matter of learning how to paint, so I went directly to the Old Masters themselves. I copied paintings as faithfully as I could, trying to understand the way they worked, layering thin glazes of oil and pigment, fat over lean. Sometimes after long hours of deep looking, they would give up their secrets to me. But the process felt incomplete. The breakthrough came when I realized that I had the ability to erase what I had copied, producing new compositions that revealed the referent — La Gioconda in this case — as both present and absent at the same time. To erase the Mona Lisa in Paris would be a crime. But to erase a copy? What was at stake then? I described this process as “trace/erase”.
I did not actually trace these paintings in the sense of directly transferring the image by overlaying it onto another surface. Rather, usually, I meticulously copied the images from books… a copy of copy of a copy. Representation and reproduction always leave something out, but that is where new possibilities begin. There is always less within the frame than there is outside of it.
The trace, in the sense I was thinking about it at the time — as the positive mark that signified absence — was a product of the painting being “sous-rature”. The empty spaces signified both what was there and what was missing; its presence was always already differing from and deferring to other things. The trace could never be more than the reified, positive mark of something absent.
I wanted to know what it was like to paint the Mona Lisa, not merely to passively view it. I wanted access to a memory that wasn’t mine, a memory that had faded centuries ago, but which might be recovered as a trace. Leonardo was particularly appropriate for this kind of endeavor because of the unfinished work he left behind. I often found his unfinished works, and the unfinished works of other artists of the period, the most interesting paintings in their oeuvres because they reveal the deepest insights into what is present and what is absent in the process of becoming. The careful study of the head of St. Jerome, or the arrangement of figures in the Adoration of the Magi is worth a year of tuition at a prestigious art school.
The overarching question I struggled with as I made these paintings, which perhaps neither art nor metaphysics can fully answer, was an inquiry into the possibility of a noumenal void; absence as a thing in itself, as both a transcendental object and transcendental signified; a way to grasp what ever was outside of the text, as impossible as that seemed. Kant suggests that the presence of space (like time) is not a mind independent feature of the world, but constructed through engagement with phenomena. I had hoped there was a way to access the void through representation.
Absence is a necessary condition for the presence of phenomena. It is what allows the mind to impose order onto the world by setting relationships between things, to give them meaning and to make them accessible and ready-to-hand. Absence makes space for the world to exist, like a tzimtzum that establishes space for presence, if not substance, to exist.