PRINT May 1979

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s “North Group” Paintings

Contradiction provides the dialectic that makes it possible to see.1

THE PAINTING OF Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe is scientific in a Brechtian sense: it is subversive, consisting of structures that question the conventionality of structuring. The conventionality is, of course, pictorial. However, since the pictorial engages the perceptual and the cognitive, the process is, ideally, endless. One may reflect on the conventional nature of all relations—reflecting in a nonpassive way—for to see the conventional is to see that what seems “natural” or “essential” is in fact historical or conditioned, in a word, artificial, and thus subject to change. A painting rehearses or retards a convention (say, the linearity of the symbol) to define it as such and, perhaps, to allude to ideological consequences (say, a linear reduction of history based on such a model of the symbol). The tactic is itself ideological, the modernist tactic of estrangement, here quite subtle.

Teutoberg A.D. 9 is a long, mostly blue, rectangle of two panels. Above center, in line with the viewer, is a blue (reflective) square; along the top is a series of squares, gray and white on the left, and (displaced by the blue) modulated gray on the right; two white squares ghost a diagonal down the canvas. Given the subliminal landscape format of the rectangle, the painting seems stable. However, as one reads it, one is aware of a dislocation of terms. It is convenient to oppose “temporality” and “simultaneity” as concepts, yet in actuality, one articulates the other dialectically and this is the case here. The gray and white squares do form an image, but it is read, part by part,as to the left-right/diagonal bias of the printed page, a convention here rehearsed as such. Like strophes in a narrative poem, it is the articulation of difference that connects the squares. Moreover, as the gray and white are close in value to the white of the wall, and the squares are contiguous with it, the painting in effect engages the wall via color and drawing. Once decentered (by the literary bias of our eye), the gray/white is now dislocated: it is difficult to read it as “image” on blue “ground.” The wall renders the opposition dialectical, and one becomes aware of the tenure of such archaic terms and the inadequate dualism they pose.

The center of Teutoberg is also problematic. One assumes, in painting, that the center is a deep space, a privileged fiction. That it seems deep is the effect of a residual reflex to see there the convergent point of perspective but it is also the effect of a perceptual commonplace, namely, that we see space as an ellipse, with the periphery attenuated, flattened. (This is made evident in Warfare and Pleasure, 1977, in which the grid is compressed at the edge as part of the passage from painting to wall.) Reflective, the center of Teutoberg resists a reading into depth. Though not as extreme as Warfare and Pleasure (where a kind of inverse perspective would thrust the cruciform center onto the viewer, as corpus), Teutoberg impacts the ellipse of vision outward, which makes us aware of the elliptical space behind us. The center is, thus, hardly correspondent to any interiority, and it is not a zero point of ideality. For one thing, it is not the absolute center: slightly high, it refers to the disposition of the viewer more than to the geometry of the rectangle. The deep structure, as in all the paintings, is the cross and not the Cartesian axis. Teutoberg is thus iconic in aspect, referent both to the concrete and the abstract, and the center is a point of contact or contiguity, not of entry or substitution, which reflects the metonymic bias of the work in general. Not only is it “inordinate” vis-à-vis the geometry of the canvas—two squares but for the central zone—but the center, which, by definition, is the most interior, and, by convention, the most fictive, of spaces, rests on the physical edge of the two panels. Hence edge intrudes upon center, so as to make one aware of (then unsure about) one predicate of representation: that inner be opposed to outer in a strict dualism. Here one begins to suspect that these “grid” paintings are at odds with systems of thought, binary or axiomatic, centric, in nature, that use the grid as a spatial analogue, e.g. the structuralist grid.

The recent work includes several smaller paintings done in four squares or quadrants of color. Painted, I think, to define the generative rules of a kind of base grammar of form they seem to be binary structures in terms of color, warm vs. cool, earthy vs. clear (ideational); in terms of space, recession vs. projection, gravity vs. suspension; in terms of structure, left vs. right, centered vs. decentered: etc. Or at least such is the end of much axial or grid painting; to order the work and coordinate the context. The grid is, then, a device that tends to render the painting a tautology of form and format. Gilbert-Rolfe argues, however, for “an internal elasticity” to the tautology: the grid as “a more fluid context of transitionality, a denser ‘range of convergences.’ ”2 In the painting Turpin, for example, the grid is flexed into a series of displacements that allows one “to analogize”3 between pictorial and real, in a reading of similarity and dissimilarity. This is a system of transformation more than of equation.

It is indeed hard to unthink, or to think through, the grid as a principle of order. Elements are made pure, granted a Cartesian clarity; abstracted, they form easy binaries. This is to deny the dialectical immanence of one in the other (and of art in the world); the opposites (e.g. warm vs., cool) are, rather, accomplices. The squares of color, however disjunctive in terms of spatiality or materiality, are mutual, and defined by commonality. Distinct because connected, they are (again) dialectically articulate—a primary truth, it would seem, for such is the way actual space is perceived. Which is to argue, perhaps, for the immanence of a kind of grid in perception: that which allows us to read different spaces as together, if not as equal. This is not, then, to argue for the grid as an order imposed—as perspective, not coincident with perception, is imposed as a reconstruction of space—but as an order derived—as a square of the grid is coincident with a discrete space, a specific perspective for each object. Argued by Cézanne, this approach is upheld by Gilbert-Rolfe, who reminds us, throughout the work, that the relation of consciousness to nature or to the institutions of society is a material nexus—via the body.

Here one may make sense of the general rubric of the “North Group Paintings,” a reference, I am told, to the milieu of early Northern Renaissance painters, out of which oil painting per se emerged. Gilbert-Rolfe sees the (northern) technology of painting at odds with its (southern) pictorialism. Thus, for him, there inheres in painting a contradiction between the luminous material quality of oil paint and “the idealist imperative expressed in monocular perspective.”4 I am unable to discuss that nexus; still, one may note an internal luminosity in oil painting that seems to inhere in the objects depicted, a luminosity that renders the objects, and the spaces they occupy, materially specific. One may see, I think, that the grid in Gilbert-Rolfe is derived from the specificity of each object-square, and that the order, and thus the signification, of the work adheres in the gaps—in the dialectical operation of the shifts from specific object to specific object that leads one to a concerted definition of the whole and its shifts from support, to wall, to room, etc. Again, one notes the metonymic property of the work (which Jakobson noted as a property of Cubism).

This is most evident in the painting Hugo Grotius. Here the grid is so labyrinthine that, again, the temporal partakes of the simultaneous, and vice versa. The work is indebted to Robert Ryman (as others are to Marden and Stella), for it is in relation to Ryman that one discusses transitionality. Here, though, the transitions are not those of process, “the act of looking” not being so closely related to “the act of making”; nevertheless, the center is still oneself.5

There are three, more or less distinct, areas in Hugo Grotius: a black area with a gray/black/white cruciform motif, and a white/gray area of rectilinear forms on either side. The cruciformality calls for a holistic or metaphoric reading, but the linear complexity—its contexture—compels a metonymic reading. In a painting in which modulations are modalities, the transition of wall to painting (via the white and the drawing at the edge) is sublimated, in a kind of commutation of the two. One reads this at the lower left, where a stepped rectilinearity then leads the eye to the upper right, which contradicts our literary bias and so clarifies “reading” (the bias is vestigial, ghosting a kind of “X” across the cruciform motif). The transition of white/gray to black, although also mediated, remains severe: the black space is manifestly of another order, more hieratic perhaps, as the image it contains is crosslike. (The tripartite character of the painting recalls a triptych and, indeed, on either “wing” there is an inchoate cruciform, deformed or not yet emergent from the ground. There is a similar configuration in Warfare and Pleasure,6 where it is more direct. Vis-à-vis the concern here with transitionality, one recalls the problematic relation of such pictorial structures and the architecture of the church.)7 However, the process of displacement continues; and as the linear contiguity is near-complete, it is difficult to order a hierarchy of (literally) black and white, “image” and “ground.” Oddly, it is the cruciform motif, white, gray and black, that subverts it—oddly, because “the cross itself relates to that most primitive sign of an object in space: the vertical of the figure projected against the horizon-line of a nascent ground.”8

A rectilinear drawing, more intensive than elsewhere, brackets the apparent center, that is, the center vis-à-vis the viewer. This recalls the drawing in certain works of Stella—an allusion which poses a relation that critically defines its terms as distinct, even as it asserts a commonality. For the form of the image does acknowledge the format of the painting—in a highly complex way. In an often cited remark, Rosalind Krauss noted that, in paintings by Stella that use common signs like a cross or a star, “the logic of the deductive structure is shown . . . to be inseparable from the logic of the sign.”9 In Hugo Grotius the logic is of a displaced, rather than a deductive, structure, so that the logic of the sign is also displaced. (In the usage of Jacques Derrida, one is asked to see each term of a sign as the difference, i.e. the difference and the deferment, of the other; this may explain why no sign in the work emerges as a complete presence.)

In Hugo Grotius, then, color and drawing do not seem to “close.” The wall and support edge so invade the painting—the first as neutral white, the second as line and sort of common measure or ratio—that the opposition of outer and inner, as a predicate of representation, is (again) questioned. One answer, apparently given, is that art is an issue of displacement more than of substitution (or re-presentation). Now such displacement tends to decenter the painting, as a structure and as an experience. It is perhaps too convenient, or too naive, to regard a decentered painting as a sensuous analogue to the “decentrism” so pervasive in critical theory of the decade. However, such is the very mandate of modernist art: to decenter, or otherwise denature, given signs and conventional relations. Here one begins to understand Adorno when he wrote that avant-garde abstraction has little in common with logical abstraction but is, rather, a negative reaction to the abstraction of law that dominates society, that while its principle is rational, art seeks to defy the totality of rationality.10

In an essay on Brice Marden, Gilbert-Rolfe notes that for de Saussure, the anagram was the (secret) principle of one kind of poetry;11 it would appear that for Gilbert-Rolfe, it is the principle of one kind of painting; painting as an order of elements generative of ever-new orders, with the same elements. Now to identify an anagram is difficult: “to recognize an anagram is not to know it . . . what provides order simultaneously signals the obscurity of its origin”:12 one sees it only in its transforming of itself (hence the concern with transitionality). Nevertheless, a concrete instance, however deformative, is necessary and one may allude to the cruciform principle of the painting. The cross, as a sign or term in a common vocabulary, precedes the work (since it is not invented), which assures that signification is not entirely within the work but also between it and the audience—as is obvious, if often unnoted) As an anagram, the cross determines the relation of the work to itself and of the work to the world: it “generates the text that is our reading of it.”13 (Thus to think in terms of temporality or simultaneity is fraudulent: “the narrative is given form by the rhetorical.”) Insofar as the “content” of the cross is prescribed and then “read,” there is no question of art apart from an audience. (This is not to say that art is “completed” by the viewer, as many literary critics would have the text be a project of the reader.)

One may recast the argument in terms of the index, which, far from an idle exercise, engaged the “paradox” of just how art interacts with the world by virtue of a necessary negative distance from it. An index (or icon) is unlike a symbol in that an index is in direct reference to the world, whereas a symbol is a sign of an abstract correlation. Joseph Masheck has written of the abstract/concrete ambivalence14 or indexical aspect of the cross, and this, it seems, is what interests Gilbert-Rolfe in it: “all indexical or iconic references to the concrete contain a dimension which places them in the realm of the abstract—the symbolic.”15 That is, motifs, like the cross, that are indexical, partake of the actual, referring the painting to them, and yet remaining distinct, able to order the painting on a level apart.

This is evident (somewhat) in Montale’s Shadow, in which a purplish square is so disposed as to be our point of contact with the painting, the index of its order and of our presence. As in Teutoberg, a centric principle decenters itself, for, strictly, the square is not within the painting, not a part of its grid. The grid, or the ideal space it intends, is reworked in material terms via the color: while in a few squares it tends to an (ideational) purity (mostly at the periphery, where our physicality is less present), it is in general visceral, which insists on a kind of Viconian mind-in-the-body. The gravity of the color contends with the suspension of the canvas, and thoughts turn to our own mixed condition. The square mediates, that is, defines and connects, pictorial space (the two squares of the rectangle), even as it mediates actual space. In a sense, it is effective as a pictorial “figure” and as a rhetorical “figure” or trope for the painter/viewer. So the painting seems open and closed: there is a relation to the actual without a concomitant loss of critical distance.

Here, as elsewhere, the mode of address is both mediated and immediate, which allows for a “diffused arousal”16 and a critical consciousness of such arousal as regards “the esthetic,” in a manner more subtle than in prior work by Gilbert-Rolfe.

The “shadow” of Montale’s Shadow seems to refer to two things. In one sense, it describes a desire to render each object-space discrete as one thing, with a luminosity that dissolves the illusionist definition of “substance” and “shadow.” It is also, I am told, a reference to a Montale poem, “At This Point,”17 in which a shadow—that of the reader—addresses him thus: “I must raise the mask, I am your thought,/ I am your ‘unnecessary,’ your useless exterior.” The shadow is an illusory, or ideological, representation of the self; oddly, it, an illusion (like painting?), exhorts the reader to reality: a paradox resolved, perhaps, in that there is nothing but ideological representation. Much like the square in the painting, the shadow doubles the reader, grants distance enough to free him of it: identity as illusion. No alternative is offered. One is just aware of things-as-they-are: “At this point look with your eyes/and also without eyes.”

This leads one to the apparent reason for these paintings. Gilbert-Rolfe argues that art is an occasion for cultural/ideological recognition of a particular sort. This is not to neglect psychological processes, but only to resist a psychologistic reduction. Those processes, so defined, must be referred to the cultural/ideological processes that inform and reflect them, that is, to painting as an institution. For it does no good if a recognition, vis-à-vis painting, exhausts itself in the dialectic of the consciousness of self. Gilbert-Rolfe thinks in terms of the relation “individual: institutional,” in which each term articulates the other.18 The task of the individual is to displace/develop the institution, not by an idiosyncratic addition to it but by a conservative retreat to what its bases are. This is not as general as it seems, for it occurs only in the specific work, the work that, even though a product of an institution, and a ramification of it, is nonetheless able, by its very specificity, to articulate itself in critical relation to the institution.

“Good” painting, then, is a concrete instance of an institutional nexus that, while an instance in it, is able negatively to define the nexus—even the more diffuse relations—so that, as a critical act, it may take in more than the institution, even as it focuses strictly on it. The problem remains: how articulate, or conscious of articulation, can the art be about the contradictions that inform it? Is painting, like language, a public and known force that “brings the unconscious into being?”19 Do we, in fact, live in a “period of historical consciousness” that renders a work immanent and complex “by virtue of its very emergence?”20

If the work of the artist, as Gilbert-Rolfe asserts, is to clarify, more than to invent, one may perhaps see through the apparent contradiction between “conservative” and “original.” In critical parlance, “deconstruction” is an inflated term. Suffice it to say that to deconstruct is not to destroy; rather, it is to conserve and develop what is, apart from ideological inflection. Even if there is no end to such inflection or contradiction (no “epistemological break” when “ideology” falls to “science”), the necessity of such negativity (exemplary in the work of Adorno) impresses one deeply. It denies the specious originality seen in much painting today—an originality that is often no more than inarticulate eccentricity passed as style—an art of liberation that is unaware of its conformist lineaments. The work of Gilbert-Rolfe is witness to the other originality.

Hal Foster


1. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Appreciating Ryman,” Arts, December 1975, p. 73.

2. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe and John Johnston, “Gravity’s Rainbow and the Spiral Jetty,” (three-part essay) October 1, 2, 3, Spring, Summer, Spring 1976-77, part 1: p. 77.

3. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Matisse the Representational Artist,” Artforum, December 1978. p. 49.

4. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Brice Marden’s Painting,” Artforum, October 1974, p. 35.

5. Gilbert-Rolfe, “Ryman,” p. 70.

6. Joseph Masheck, “Cruciformality,” Artforum, Summer 1977, p. 62.

7. See Gilbert-Rolfe, “Marden,” p. 35.

8. Rosalind Krauss, “Sense and Sensibility: Reflections on Post ’60s Sculpture” Artforum, November 1973, p. 47.

9. Ibid.

10. Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” trans. Francis McDonagh, in Aesthetics and Politics, London, 1977, pp. 190-2.

11. Gilbert-Rolfe, “Marden,” p. 35.

12. Gilbert-Rolfe, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” part 3: p. 95.

13. Ibid.

14. Masheck, passim.

15. Gilbert-Rolfe, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” part 3: p. 97.

16. Gilbert-Rolfe, “Matisse,” p. 49.

17. Eugenio Montale, “At This Point,” in New Poems, trans. G. Singh, New York, 1976. p. 73.

18. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Robert Morris: The Complication of Exhaustion,” Artforum, September 1974, p. 49.

19. Ibid., p. 47.

20. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Book Review: Progress in Art” by Suzi Gablik, Artforum, November 1977, p. 70.