PRINT April 2001


If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.
—Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes

Spencer Finch hardly looks up as I step into his unusually tidy studio. Bent over, dabbing paint onto what seems to be a large polka-dot drawing, he blurts out a casual “Hi” as he circles his cinemascope-shaped work like a chess master scrutinizing the position of his opponent. A minute later he finally straightens up and looks at me. “You see this color here? It's the color of that chair,” Finch says, pointing to a rust orange piece of furniture sitting across the studio. When I approach the work, I see that the name of something nearby has been finely penciled in around the bottom of each circle: the World Trade Center (visible through the window); the word “real” written on a piece of paper; a T-shirt (now dust rag); a book on Ad Reinhardt; wire cutters; yellowish Hellmann’s mayo jar; ultramarine pigment. The polka dots, it turns out, are the colors of the objects in the room, each circle distinct, but together a quirky, even tongue-in-cheek panorama of the artist’s studio.

Nowadays, this kind of puckish Conceptualism may not raise a lot of eyebrows, but it does say a lot about Finch’s determination to stick to his own brand of droll inventiveness. Indeed, as Artist’s Studio (Theory of Relativity), 2001, demonstrates, Finch has a penchant for always playful, often abstruse, and sometimes patently absurdist projects. It may also explain why he reminds one more of a stoic philosopher or a reclusive monk than the post-Warholian rock star much more familiar in the art world today. A drawing composed of nothing more than colors and the names of their sources in the artist’s studio is closer to alchemy than to a brew of Pop-Minimalism. Take the wry Forty-Eight Views of Loch Ness, 1997, which presents forty-eight unassuming photographs of the famous lake arranged in a grid. By inviting its viewers to imagine the monster they clearly are not given to see, Finch all but calls the mythical beast into being. In the slightly morbid Sky over Cape Canaveral (Challenger) . . . August 12, 1994, a homemade siting device offers a view of the actual location in the sky where the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. Then there’s the batty Blue, 1996–2001, in which Finch beamed a one-second brain wave he recorded while watching the ’70s television series Hawaii Five-O to Rigel, the bluest star in the sky, located 960 light-years from Earth. Transmitted in the form of a microwave capable of escaping Earth’s ionosphere, the image should arrive in, oh, about 955 years.

As these works intimate, Finch, a thirty-eight-year-old Brooklyn-based artist, has a passion for the quixotic gesture and the well-honed litotes. This is evinced by his continued devotion to elaborate highwire acts of drawing, a medium he has made central to his practice. In “Up,” his most recent solo exhibition in New York, at Postmasters Gallery, drawings made up close to half the works on display. The most intellectually exhilarating of these was Index of Wind, 2000, a spectacularly hard-to-make-out white-on-white drawing, on which Finch has written the names of all the winds of the world, some 437 of them. I can’t resist listing some here: Boreas, Zephyr, Xlokk, Argestes, names drawn from classical mythology lending these natural forces the guise of subjectivity and agency in much the same way hurricanes today are dubbed Agnes or Camille. The image of wind is captured not only by the near invisibility of the white pencil but also by the visual onomatopoeia of Finch’s cursive handwriting, which is as deliberate as it is unstylized. Even the show’s centerpiece, a motorized contraption suspended from the ceiling that dropped apples onto a square patch of Astroturf at five-minute intervals (Composition in Red and Green, 2000), was essentially a drawing. As the apples fall, they roll in random patterns onto the green carpet, referring obliquely to Newton’s epiphany at the sight of the fruit falling from a tree, but for all intents and purposes creating a jury-rigged chaos-theory drawing.

While Composition in Red and Green may parlay the implicit tension between randomness and order into a conceptually elegant work, Finch’s proclivity toward drawing is often governed less by an interest in physics than by a fascination with theories of color and the vagaries of our experience of it. Color provides Finch a way to get at tricky questions surrounding perception, memory, and consciousness. In the drawing Orange-Yellow (Sunset for Werner Heisenberg), 2000, for instance, Finch explores the phenomenology of color without the dogmatism of a systematic theory like that of Josef Albers or the direct visual experience offered by, say Ellsworth Kelly’s shaped canvases. The drawing presents two circles: One is composed of the word “orange” scribbled in four different directions; the other is identical, only the word is “yellow.” The pencil color is halfway between orange and yellow, and it is impossible to determine whether it is the former or the latter—or to delimit the color “yellow-orange” conceptually. Where precisely does orange end and yellow begin?

The question underlines the importance attributed to color not only in philosophy from the time of Plato and Aristotle but perhaps more to the point in modern art and twentieth-century phenomenology. Baudelaire, known during his lifetime as much for his art criticism as for his poetry, argued for the primacy of color over line in his early modern paeans to Delacroix: “It seems that this color, pardon me these subterfuges of language I require to explain extremely delicate ideas, thinks by itself, independently of the color of the objects it dresses.” Cézanne made color the virtual basis for his understanding of form: “Form is finished when color reaches perfection,” he wrote. In his recent book Chromophobia, English artist and critic David Batchelor explores how color is incompatible with the machinery of naming and conceptual determination that arose with conceptualism in the ’70s. Batchelor argues that the Pop-Minimalist aesthetics that dominate contemporary art are guilty of a fear of color, and that this guilt goes part and parcel with the greater Western cultural and philosophical inability to permit the existence of something that escapes its conceptual machinery. It is squarely in the heart of this debate that Finch’s work should be understood. It spans the polarity of color and language, but without being an argument either for modernist essentialists, who see in color the basis for a renewed formalism, or for conceptualists, who are only too happy to dispense with the unsightly materiality of both the plastic arts and language itself. Finch is smart enough to know this aesthetic duality is not really a matter of choice but something inherent in the very terms of modernity and its investment in aesthetic experience as a whole.

This means that Finch’s understanding of color theory, in the end, doesn’t amount to an alternative to formalism or Conceptualism. He is unafraid to inhabit the paradox that art exists in the play between language and perception. What many artists and theorists find unbearable, literally, the “speaking against itself” implied in para-doxa, is for Finch less something to escape than the very condition necessary for his art practice. This is why his work demonstrates a Proustian interest in the difficulties and disappointments of recollection. He knows that color lies at the boundary of what we see and what we remember. Despite the thick red line of humor that runs through his work, Finch’s projects are always laced with the acute pathos of someone disappointed by both perception and language and by their mutual exclusivity and incompatibility. “There is always a paradox inherent in vision, an impossible desire to see yourself seeing. A lot of my work probes this tension: to want to see, but not being able to,” Finch says in a catalogue for a 1997 show at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT. Color is less a trope of indeterminacy than a way to re-create an almost visceral experience of our impossible desire to name our perceptions. Color may not belong to the domain of language, as Dave Hickey insists in a review of Batchelor’s Chromophobia, but it’s precisely this slippery evanescence that Finch records and recounts. The difficulty of “seeing yourself seeing,” for Finch, is above all an existential experience of perception, and only secondarily an abstract idea that develops out of modern philosophy and art.

It is this palpable, experiential aspect of Finch’s work that lends it both its humor and its unique tone. The artist draws on problems surrounding perception as a way to catapult his work beyond the merely formal or merely conceptual into the realm where vision, memory, and desire blend, then separate out again. In recasting a conceptual problem on a visceral level, Finch offers a narrative of perception and a talisman of how our everyday lives are defined by it. That is clearly the object lesson of the early, Don DeLillo–esque Trying to Remember the Colour of Jackie Kennedy’s Pillbox Hat, 1995 a series of 100 drawings, each of which contains a specimen of pink; taken as a whole they form an absurdly impossible attempt to capture the exact shade of pink the former first lady was wearing on the day of her husband’s assassination. This piece simultaneously bridges and forever separates the palpable event of the eye from the remembering mind. A still more poignant version of this is Ceiling (above Freud’s couch, morning effect, 19 Berggasse, Vienna, Austria, February 18,1994), 1995, an oval-shaped painting &splaying precisely what its title says. Here, the work—a washy replica of the painted ceiling—is a cipher not only for our attempts to imagine what it “must have been like” to have been Freud’s patient, but also for a slew of other possibilities. Was this how Freud’s patients felt during their fifty minutes? Was looking up at this what triggered the patient's memories? What kind of memories does it trigger in me? Finch's conceptual sleight of hand plays out Freud's famous image for the functioning of the psyche, the magic writing pad. According to him, the unconscious leaves traces on consciousness that are erased but are nevertheless inscribed onto our psyches in the same way that lifting the paper off the popular turn-of-the-century toy erased what had been written on it, but left the impressions in the wax tablet.

Finch’s inflection of aesthetic theory with subjective experience is heightened even more in the recent series “Wandering Lost upon the Mountains of our Choice,” 1998. In seven glass mosaic-tile paintings, Finch presents blizzard conditions on the world’s tallest and most forbidding mountains—K2, Anapurna, Mount Everest—drawing out an allegory of blindness. In these images of whiteout conditions, he plays on the contradiction between the literal surface of these works—the earthy rough-hewn tiles—and the metaphor of seeing that painting always proposes and recalls the deeper terror of blindness in the Oedipal narrative that affirms a paradox between seeing and knowing.

It is this paradoxical understanding dependent on literally blinding oneself that the title of Finch’s show, “Up,” may refer to. Up is, of course, not only the direction of the sky, but also the orientation in which human beings have long invested their metaphysics and religions, not to mention their art. Today, “up there” is where UFOs, aliens, antimatter, and darkness lie, an out-and-out contemporary cosmology that veils the terrifying sublimity of deep space. It is perhaps this sublime endlessness that Sky (over Roswell, New Mexico, 5/5/00, dusk), 2000, a rhinestone-studded, irregularly shaped aluminum panel, wants to remind us of but also deflate. Aristotle once credited looking up at the sky with the beginning of philosophy. One might add, however, that it led also to Greek astrology. It is perhaps the combination of philosophy and astrology that Finch's glittering painting evokes in a supremely self-effacing gesture. His art is the surface of everything we can't know but can clearly see—a vote, in other words, against the sublime and in favor of the more limited earthly pleasures of the beautiful.

Saul Anton is a writer and critic in New York. He is editor of