For a long time the monochrome has been associated with the idea of timelessness. Its capacity to overwhelm the viewer with a sense of pure colour has been used by numerous artists to evoke a sense of infinity, something beyond the material world. This has been particularly so with the monochromes of artists such as Kasimir Malevich, Mark Rothko and Yves Klein among others. However, the monochrome has also come to be seen in an opposing fashion. The emphasis is then put on its material qualities and its characteristics as a three-dimensional object. As such it raises questions about the nature of painting.
As a result of this conflicting dual perception of the monochrome, it has been a controversial and problematic thorn in painting’s side ever since its conception in the early 20th Century (1). Jeff Wall once wrote that the monochrome’s invention transformed the (ontological) status of all painting, even painting that came before its invention. He believed that this was because all painting after the invention of the monochrome has to be seen as ‘the act of putting something on top of a monochrome – by effacing, supplementing, or disfiguring a monochrome.’(2) Seen in this context, the monochrome’s importance for painting cannot be stressed too much. But ironically, the significance of the early monochromes within the development of 20th Century art was never fully acknowledged until the 1960s. Then the hegemony of Clement Greenberg’s formalist modernism began to erode.
The Minimalist artists rejected the dominance of visual perception and presented the IDea of artworks as objects to be experienced, to be made aware of. The monochrome became something more than a painting, it was also a sculpture, or more specifically, an object. In the work of Robert Ryman and Frank Stella, painting changed its nature. No longer were their paintings to be seen for their visual impact. They were experienced as three-dimensional and every aspect of their materiality was now part of their perception as artworks. This included the canvas stretchers, upon which the paint was applied, the thickness of the paint, as well as the conditions in which the work was “framed”, i.e. the conditions of the gallery space. One of the things the Minimalist artists had tried to achieve was an aesthetic that took into account, and heightened the viewers’ awareness of the artworks’ immediate surroundings.
It is in this context that the painting of Jus Juchtmans can best be seen. You can ask yourself whether his paintings can be consIDered monochromes. This depends on how strict your definition of a monochrome is. There is however no doubt that the monochrome, or an engagement with it, is evIDent in his work. It is an engagement with the visual aesthetic of the monochrome. The aspect time plays an important part in this but not in the earlier ‘romantic’ sense, with its evocation of transcendence and timelessness. Instead, Juchtmans’s engagement with time within the monochrome introduces the IDea of temporality in our aesthetic experience of art.
One of the most striking features of Jus Juchtmans’s paintings are their highly reflective and shiny surfaces. They are the result of Juchtmans’s particular technique of utilizing and manipulating his materials. The surfaces resist the viewer, and looking at them is often a frustrating process, as we invariably see ourselves reflected in the painting. This in turn makes us feel uneasy as that is something we, as viewers, are not accustomed to. Our natural reaction when confronted with this situation is to change our viewing position, in search for the most unobtrusive position to look at the painting. This, however, is a near impossible task and we soon come to the realization that our own reflection, as well as the reflection of the gallery’s surroundings, is an integral part of the work. We become aware that this is in fact what Juchtmans intends from his work. He wants us, like the Minimalists, to become conscious of the viewing conditions of his work, particularly the transitory and time specific nature of those conditions. Through Juchtmans’s work, we come to realize that every viewing moment is a different and unique one. It changes with many factors such as the time of day, the lighting conditions in the gallery, the other people around, and so on. Our perception is a construct, composed of the conditions governing that particular moment in time. This IDea is further strengthened in Juchtmans’s work through the realization that his paintings are in themselves constructions. Juchtmans’s Trashworks illustrate this. They form an integral part of any exhibition of his work, and are made from the plastic beakers used by Juchtmans for mixing the paint for his paintings. These Trashworks, similar to a painter’s palette or a sculptor’s tools, are not something commonly exhibited alongsIDe an artist’s finished work. By elevating them to a status similar to that of the finished works, Juchtmans demystifies the finished paintings’ status and shows them as material constructions. Just as our perception of them is a construction of the momentary conditions in the gallery space. This awareness of the time specific nature of viewing art is confirmed by the knowledge that this does not only apply to his work, but to all cases of viewing art. Juchtmans’s paintings therefore make us as viewers conscious of our perception as a construct. We are forced to extend our viewing of the paintings, and to examine the nature of that viewing.
There is also another way in which we are made to look at Juchtmans’s paintings longer, more intensively. Although the surfaces of Juchtmans’s paintings make them very resistant to being viewed, we are, ironically, rewarded according to the amount of time we spend doing so. After the initial consternation of seeing your own image reflected in the painting’s surface, and once you accept it as part of the work, you can settle to really look at it. Then you begin to realize that the paintings are not in fact monochromes. Other colours slowly begin to emerge, gradually becoming visible through the monochromatic surface colour, resulting in a delightful perceptual experience. This is achieved through Juchtmans’s use of a uniquely mixed translucent paint, applied onto the canvas in multiple layers. In some paintings, as many as thirty layers are applied, the final number of layers being a subjective decision by Juchtmans. As these layers of paint are not necessarily of the same colour, the resulting visual effect is one in which the under-layers subtly mix with and emerge through the predominant surface colour, provIDed you are willing to spend some time looking at the painting. Due to this particular technique of painting, no two paintings ever have the same perceptual and visual qualities, a result of the differing quantity and colours of the under-layers in each painting. The necessity of prolonged viewing for the proper perception of Juchtmans’s paintings, therefore, restores the dimension of temporality to the act of viewing. This, in a way, recalls the lenghty viewing that was also required of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings in the 1960s. Only then do the shapes and contrasts in tonality in the paintings become visible.
Juchtmans underlines the IDea of temporality in the experience of the artwork in yet another way. As mentioned, one invariably becomes aware, when looking at Juchtmans’s paintings, that their surface colour is in fact made up of multiple layers of different colours. This awareness is made even more evIDent through the drips on the sIDes of the painting, resulting from the application of the under-layers of paint. The viewer gets a sense of the duration of time it has taken Juchtmans to make the painting. Each layer can only be applied after the previous layer has dried sufficiently, the drying time of each layer, moreover, varies according to the climatic conditions of Juchtmans’s studio, and this inevitably influences the final appearance of the painting. Each layer of paint can therefore be seen as a record of a particular moment of the painting’s production process, capturing the specific conditions of that time. His paintings become documents of time, recording the entire duration of the painting process. And it is this aspect of duration that becomes evIDent when viewing Juchtmans’s paintings. The engagement with temporality, both in making people look longer at the painting, and in making the viewer aware of the time it has taken to make them, challenges the modernist concept of viewing art. They dIDn’t take temporality into account, and often dismissed it as not being relevant. The modernist critic Michael Fried, has written that ‘the literalist preoccupation with time – more precisely, with the duration of the experience – is, I suggest, paradigmatically theatrical’(3). Following Greenberg, he stuck to a highly formalist position on art, dismissing Minimal art because of its engagement with the spatial and temporal conditions surrounding the artwork. He argued that those qualities belonged to the domain of theatre rather than painting and sculpture. Before the breakthrough of Minimalism the perception of art was always assumed to happen in a timeless instant. The time it takes to look at the painting or the time spent to make the work of art were of no importance. Juchtmans’s work addresses these two aspects of temporality in his work and reintroduces the temporal dimension in aesthetic experience.
In doing so Juchtmans also acknowledges the significant fact that our experience of a work of art doesn’t only depend on our immediate sensory perception and understanding. It is also linked to our past memories and experiences. It often involves us remembering things and events we sometimes never knew we still dID, what Walter Benjamin (following Proust) calls mémoire involuntaire or ‘involuntary memory’(4). All works of art, whether intentionally or unintentionally, necessarily trigger within us past thoughts and experiences and take us beyond the three-dimensional object of the artwork, on a journey back in time. And it is this memory, together with all the elements of our immediate perception of the artwork before us, that constitutes the whole experience of the moment.
Juchtmans’s work therefore makes prominent once more, the notion of visuality. It presents a highly visual aesthetic, but one that includes the IDea of temporality and that is aware of what makes up this aesthetic. In the late 1960s Conceptual artists, following Minimalism, had tried to wipe out aesthetics from art. They wanted to advance Minimalism’s strategy of turning the aesthetic experience into a broader notion, associated with all aspects of life. In order to do this, they attempted to rID art of all the qualities it had previously been associated with, such as visual and perceptive experience. Many Conceptual artists adopted a strategy of ‘dematerialization’, reducing art to mere concepts. Afterwards the strategies of the Conceptual artists were seen to be unworkable and it was shown how unrealistic the objective of the de-aestheticization of art really was. As saID above, in Juchtmans’s work an engagement with a visual aesthetic is clearly evIDent. But it is an engagement in which the significance of time is an important element. He emphasizes the role of temporality in aesthetic perception and experience and in this way he gives new meaning to the IDea of the ‘framing’ of the artwork. He makes his viewers aware of their experiences as time specific events. Not only the way they see the painting counts, but also the way they experience the momentary conditions of the viewing space, as well as any thoughts triggered by their ‘involuntary memory’. All these factors, then, go together to constitute the viewers’ total aesthetic experience.
In addition to engaging with temporality within the ontology/nature of the artwork, Juchtmans’s work also engages with time in a more conventional manner, by reflecting contemporary concerns in art. You notice in particular a reflection of a ‘pop’, lighthearted attitude in art. This is done primarily through the colours of his paintings. The bright pinks, yellows and oranges that make up his paintings’ surfaces, are not colours that are conventionally associated with monochrome paintings. They, in fact, seem more at home decorating objects of household design or even shiny sports cars. This relationship between commercial and industrial design and art implied in Juchtmans’s work, therefore shows the contemporary tendency to eliminate the distinction between such categories. The two-way movement between these boundaries at the beginning of the 21st Century has never been more fluID. Designers constantly borrow IDeas from artists and vice versa, and the roles of artists and designers have become blurred.
Jus Juchtmans’s paintings would not be consIDered monochromes in the most narrow sense of the word, given the perceptible presence of multiple colours in his paintings. But there is no denying the engagement of his work has with the monochrome, especially with the way in which the Minimalist artists of the 1960s had been involved in it. Juchtmans paintings promote the project first set out by these artists, by acknowledging temporality as a significant factor and incorporating it as an essential element within his work. By doing so, his work makes the role of time prominent in our aesthetic experience of art. It not only restores the aesthetic to its position, but reinvents and updates it in the process. Juchtmans’s paintings can, therefore, in this manner be seen as ‘paintings of time’.
© Eugene Tan 2000
(1)The monochromes I am referring to here are the Russian Suprematist, Kasimir Malevich’s White on White (1918), as well as the Russian Constructivist, Alexander Rodchenko’s Black on Black (1918) and his later triptych Pure Colours: Red Yellow, Blue (1921).
(2)Jeff Wall, ‘Monochrome and Photojournalism in On Kawara’s Today Paintings’, in Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art, ed. by Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly (New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1996), p.136.
(3)Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’, in Art and Objecthood (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 166-167. This essay was originally published in Artforum, 5 (June 1967), pp.12-23.
(4)Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. by H. Zorn (London: Verso, 1983), p. 145.