Review of James Elkins, What Painting Is, Routledge, 2000. ISBN: 0415926629. 256 pp. $16.00 pb.
Other Voices, v.2, n.2 (March 2002)
Text copyright © 2002, Victor Grauer, all rights reserved.
On the cover of art historian James Elkins' book, What Painting Is, appear the unmistakable features of Rembrandt, a detail from one of his most familiar self-portraits. Drawn at first to the intensity of the eyes, we are soon distracted by something very different and strange on the tip of Rembrandt's nose—a blemish, almost a pimple. Closer scrutiny reveals that the artist, indeed, seems to be suffering from some sort of strange and very pronounced eczema, not only on his nose but covering his entire face. The odd disfigurement is paint. Rembrandt's face is literally plastered with it! Elkins has had the portrait photographed close up with sharply angled lighting to make sure we notice this obvious, but all too often ignored, fact. As he puts it, "A painting is made of paint." And we are forced, perhaps for the first time, to think: "How odd."
What is painting, after all? What is there about paint that has caused so many—artists, collectors, curators, critics, historians—to obsess over it for so many centuries? To this by no means simple question our author has a deceptively simple answer: "painting is alchemy." And if we should inquire as to the nature of alchemy, Elkins would respond even more enigmatically: "water and stones." If we press him, he might amplify a bit: "Alchemy is the old science of struggling with materials, and not quite understanding what is happening: exactly as Monet did, and as every painter does each day in the studio."
Elkins is fascinated with exactly those aspects of painting which continually absorb the artist but too often elude the historian, the struggle with materials, the fascination of the medium itself, the lure of raw substances, the mess and madness of paint and the act of painting. "A painting is made of paint, of fluids and stone—and paint has its own logic and its own meanings even before it is shaped into the head of a Madonna. To an artist, a picture is both a sum of ideas and a blurry memory of 'pushing paint,' breathing fumes, dripping oils and wiping brushes, smearing and diluting and mixing." In short, "painting is alchemy. Its materials are worked without knowledge of their properties, by blind experiment, by the feel of the paint." Searching for the "science, or the pedagogy" that can do justice to the secrets of great art, Elkins rejects chemistry, anatomy, physiology as too exact, offering no room for intuition. Only alchemy has a sufficiently "large vocabulary and wide experience in describing unnameable and unquantifiable substances. . . Alchemy is the art that knows how to make a substance no formula can describe."
Never mind about the ultimate validity of such claims or their theoretical implications. Elkins is as absorbed in all the details of alchemy as Melville was in the minutiae of the whaling industry. Like the great novelist, he gets more than a little carried away, giving us a book that is as much a treatise on the hermetic arts as a meditation on the magic and lure of paint. Thus he provides us with all manner of information on notions such as hypostasis, the ouroboros, the materia prima, the tetrad; materials such as mercury, sulfur, salt, copper, iron, tin, lead and gold, complete with the symbol for each. I already knew about the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, but there are also four qualities, moist, dry, hot and cold. An elegant diagram illustrates the relationships among them. "Many things make sense with the help of this diagram," as Elkins goes on to demonstrate. But the diagram "is also vulnerable when it comes to unusual substances. . . Mercury is like water yet it is like metal . . . it is both moist and dry, both water and earth." Alchemy makes sense, but is also nonsense. Elkins is fascinated with both aspects and in love with every little reason why.
Moving on to the next chapter, our author considers the "mouldy materia prima," the "First Substance," which provides the starting point for every alchemical "work." "The one object that anyone in the world would overlook, the one that would attract no ones attention, the one that would be instantly cast away like a mouldy orange: that alone would be the key to eternity, spiritual consummation, riches, and everlasting health... Alchemists actually dug in swamps and tried to breed turds and urine. Visual art is the same...." I cannot help but be reminded of another book which recently came to my attention (and which I also, coincidentally, decided to review for this journal): Formless: A User's Guide, by Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois. The authors, following Bataille, also focus on a kind of materia prima, what Bataille has called the informe (formless)—a term which, for him, designates that which "has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm."
The two approaches could not be more different. Krauss and Bois forge a distinction between an art which seeks to sublimate or thematize that which is "low" and one which puts it to use as is, warts and all, forcing us to come to terms with its radical otherness. Elkins is fascinated by the way in which painters and alchemists seem to want to have it both ways at once—to transcend the materia prima and, at the same time, wallow in it. The User's Guide can take its place among a long list of recent critical/theoretical works reflecting certain fundamental "postmodern" concerns with the social, artistic and political role of the irrational, the repressed, the marginal, the "other." While concerned with very similar subject matter, Elkins' work is different and perhaps unique in its approach. Citing the huge number of works dealing with the history and criticism of painting, he complains that "in all that torrent of words I have found less than half a dozen books that address paint itself and try to explain why it has such a powerful attraction before it is trained to mimic some object, before the painting is framed, hung, sold, exhibited, and interpreted." Eschewing philosophical or theoretical reflection on the meaning of painting as art, Elkins plunges feet first into a very personal, utterly non-theoretical speculation on the meaning of painting as paint.
The result is indeed unique, at least in the literature of art history and, for anyone with an interest in both painting and alchemy, refreshing, absorbing and yet, at times, rather tedious. Elkins covers a great deal of ground, sometimes in mind-numbing detail. In a chapter entitled "How to Count in Oil and Stone," he guides us through a maze of monads, dyads, triads, tetrads and beyond, taking inordinate delight in describing systemic realms consisting, for example, of "four elements," "three principles," "two opposites" and "one stone." In another chapter, "How do Substances Occupy the Mind?," Elkins explores the way in which "moods and meanings" can "creep into our experience without our noticing, sparking directly from the eye to the mood without touching language at all." Not content with vague speculation, he moves on to treat in some detail of "the old science of substances," systematically considering in turn the lore of mercury, sulfur, salt, gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead, teaching us the symbol and symbolism attached to each and every one. Not surprisingly, all this eventually leads to a chapter entitled "The Studio as a Kind of Psychosis," where we are invited to come to terms with the "allure of insanity" as courted by painter and alchemist alike.
Finally, in a chapter entitled "Last Words," Elkins sums it all up: "There is no escaping medium. . . It is a world of paint, where the airiest clouds are resinous smears, and the most verdant field is a compound of rock and oil." Approaching any painting, stepping closer and closer, there comes a point where "there is nothing but paint." "Yet even in this airless realm where paint refers only to itself, there is still a tremendous richness of meaning, and it is the meaning proper and intrinsic to oil painting." The point is made again and again in the remarkable illustrations Elkins provides—unusual and compelling color close-up views of all sorts of paintings, from Sassetta, Magnasco and Rembrandt to Monet, Nolde, Dubuffet and Pollock. All but unrecognizable, these endlessly fascinating examples very effectively illustrate the author's principal theme: paintings are made of paint, and this in itself can provide us with extraordinary experiences and meanings.
Is Elkins simply "being naive"? Isn't it dangerous to speculate uncritically about notions such as "paint itself" or "primal substance," about what "the painter" experiences (as though all painters acted, thought and perceived the same way), about some sort of unmediated "meaning" apparent to the senses alone, with no reference to all the current research in the areas of semiotics, psychoanalysis, the critical theory of "the text"? It is part of Elkins' achievement in this truly extraordinary book that we very quickly cease to care. These days there are no end of theoretical explanations, critical reconsiderations, reappraisals, denials, paradoxes and aporia. Elkins provides us with something far simpler, more refreshing and, at this particular point in time, badly needed: a good old-fashioned "thought piece."
In the end my only serious quibble is with Elkins' insistence on alchemy as an art of "substances," and messy ones at that. Whenever I write a computer program, I feel like one of those old alchemists, weaving magic out of thin air. Surely alchemy is not only about earth, air, water and fire, mercury and sulfur, the materia prima, feces, mold and slime. Surely it is also about loops, conditionals, double bufferings, bitmaps and system calls. Alchemy lives on not only in the minds and acts of painters, but the fantasies and triumphs of programmers and other computer addicts everywhere. There is more than enough of obsession, madness and sheer perverse pleasure in both pursuits. And who needs all that mess?