PRINT November 1964


Gordon Onslow-Ford’s Painting in the Instant

Gordon Onslow-Ford, Painting in the Instant (New York: Abrams), 1964.

RESIDENTS OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA have for years been afflicted by the ubiquitous, insidious drivel of California Zen. The otherwise almost faultless programming of listener-subscription station KPFA looses, with maddening frequency, the unctuous voice of Alan Watts to drench the entire Bay Area in tides of Zen molasses; saintly exponents are forever practicing their all-tolerant smiles in the local bars, and the newspapers cannot spare a week without an interview with some local poet just returned from his year’s stint with some Zen master in Kyoto. The mush has played hell with local poetry, and wherever its influence can be seen in local painting the results have been disastrous. The latest example of this arch-muddler at work can be seen in Painting in the Instant, the book by Gordon Onslow-Ford whose publication accompanies the artist’s latest exhibition at the San Francisco Museum.

Onslow-Ford’s paintings have lain like a clinker in the hot-bed of West Coast art for some time, appearing regularly in the region’s annuals and larger group shows, confusing viewers with the calligraphic fuzz which, for all its hinting at spontaneity, direct communication, elemental simplicity, never seems to leave the category of contrived and chi-chi office furniture. The paintings, all in black and white, and all composed exclusively of variations of a line, a circle and a dot, are called by Ford “⍕ paintings,” and, in some pretty typical Zen-talk, this is a part of what it is all about:  

To some people ⍕ paintings may at first conjure up associations with known objects.

There are endless ways of approaching a painting.

If a dot suggests a raindrop, that will be right and it will be wrong. It is surely a raindrop, but it can also be a bumble-bee.

If a line suggests a pin, it will also have about it some trail and some thin man.

If a circle is a hoop, it is also a crater and a swarm of hearts.

But beyond associations how wonderful it is to recognize ⍕ elements as heaven and earth joiners, and to enter them as components of the self!

The seasoned reader of Zen-talk can find in any sample of it the basic elements of California Zen. Here is the usual platitude behind the profundity (“There are endless ways of approaching a painting.”), the usual simplemindedness behind the simplicity, the usual staggering arrogance behind the humility, the usual “Haiku-syndrome” of style, the usual superfluousness behind the sham conciseness, the usual broad vagueness about the point of it all. Unfortunately, each of these characteristics attach to Ford’s paintings as well as to his book, so that, if the book has any value at all, it is that it tends to pin-point the crippling effect of the Zen-mush on yet another artist.

The book is hand-written (a precious pain in the neck) and nothing will do but it must commence with a weighty series of acknowledgments, full of the usual phony humility and simplicity. Examples:

to Jacqueline:
For her beauty.
For fragrant leaves every day.
For weighing the heart of this book against a feather.

How dignified, refined, elegant and restrained is the standard Western “For Jane, my wife,” compared to this cloying bunkum!

to Dr. Alan W. Watts:
For voyages to the limits of thought.
For the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Voyages to the limits of thought! Zenheads characteristically think nothing of this kind of presumption, as long as it is clothed in proper Haiku-humility.

From the limits of thought Ford brings back the substance of the rest of the book. The first section is on “The Function of Art,” and the Zen pearls drop with the usual hollow thud of the cliché, the platitude, the inflated truism:

How is one to find out about the self? Once this quest begins, art comes in. Art is a way of expressing the unknown, a way of discovering the self and the world.

★ ★ ★

It is a function of art to cultivate the ability to enjoy.

★ ★ ★

Art tells the stranger that he is not alone.

★ ★ ★

It is a function of art to create the world anew.

★ ★ ★

It is a function of art to bring wonder into the world.

And so on and so forth.

A section called “Painting in the Instant,” defines Ford’s approach to the making of a painting. It is a kind of Zen-emasculation of the tough, rich formulation of Action Painting made by Harold Rosenberg over a decade ago, and the difference in formulation defines, as well, the difference between Action Painting and Ford’s contrived Zen spontaneities:

Painting in the instant is the direct manifestation of the un­known through the painter as an instrument.
While painting in the instant, there is no pre-image in mind.
It is not known what will appear until it is down.
Painting in the instant is seeing what the paint makes, as it makes it.
The painting grows bit by bit, each bit leading to the next.
The painter disappears in the in­stant, and reappears in the painting.
The painter paints, but does not know how, until he paints again.
The painter knows that some­times he feels like painting, some­times he does not, but when the hand is moved to paint, it is completely absorbing.
The paint­er is amazed by what he has painted, and try as he will, though it may look easy, can never do the same again.
It is the nature of the mind to be creative.
The more the depths of the mind are plumbed, the more abund­antly they produce.

While the book has thus far contri­buted nothing, literally nothing, to the reader in the way of information or ap­preciation or understanding of art, it has contributed considerably to an un­derstanding of the pretensions that underly Ford’s work. Sections on the Painter and Self, the Painter and So­ciety, do not even contribute to this. A long section on The Search for a Basic Element inescapably implies, with the usual humility, that the history of art from the time of Cézanne has led to Ford’s simple-minded little vocabulary of the little circle, the little dot, and the little line. What can one say after that? Nothing. The book ends, but not without a final page that must be quo­ted in its entirety:

Man, as he appears to the senses, is no longer the measure of the world, but he is present.
The world is direct participa­tion—
The individual silhouette melts away—
Through the surface-bar­rier—
In the instant, earth, air, water, seed are one. The original place is found. This has been expressed in one clear word by the Zen monk Bankei; the word, true in attitude towards the self, as it is in fact, is UNBORN.

Isn’t that a lulu?

Philip Leider