Bob Law

Karsten Scubert Ltd.

Bob Law’s career sounds like the plot of a movie. The young artist, while living in a Cornish cottage, is befriended by Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, and other members of the St. Ives set. He reads Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. He spends long afternoons drawing in the fields, exploring his relationship to nature. In 1959 he travels to London,where he sees work by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman at the Tate Gallery’s “New American Painting” show. His intuitions are confirmed. The next year he’s in a two-person show at the Institute of Contemporary Art and is included in the seminal “Situation” exhibition. The future, it seems, is set . . .

Now the story takes a twist. The early drawings of actual fields and boundaries, of real topography, are translated into a metaphysic of planes and edges. Symbols come and go. Mysticism and alchemy replace the common light of day. The field becomes a solid plane of black, and stays that way for about thirty years. Somewhere along the way Law encounters Ad Reinhardt’s work. He begins to write poetry, and in 1964 delivers a lecture on “The Necessity of Magic in Art.” He begins to paint boundaries just inside the real edge of an otherwise blank canvas. Now appreciated as a painter’s painter, he sits for hours contemplating his work. He ditches canvas after canvas; it is not his vision or his craftsmanship, it’s the paint that betrays him, buckling or blemishing as he applies coat after coat of different colors to reach a resounding mute depth of near black, inner black wholeness . . . He survives the plaudits and ultimate disaffection of his critics as his work comes in and then goes out of fashion. Even the Absolute can only claim an audience for a limited time, and the pundits get bored. Law continues to work.

Here, Law showed 15 watercolors, all painted between March and August of last year. In these works, the medium’s usual transparency and luminosity are gone, replaced by dense, evocative darkness. Only faint glimmers remain. Nuances or imperfections, tidelines left by the drying paint, variations in the absorbency of the paper (which was subjected to layer after layer of wash in different hues)—all contribute to this effect. The surfaces are a dunnish black, a corpse of a color framed by an edge of even heavier black stained deep into the handmade paper, like a glimpse of underclothing beneath the hem of a cassock.

Law keeps faith with beliefs to which we have become inured. His seems a futile pursuit at a time when we have forsaken the contemplative; yet, his works will surely outstare us all. They preach a faith of absence to an almost empty church. The congregation, convinced that it has more urgent absences to deal with, has moved on; it is no longer looking for the perfectable in art, but nowadays only looking.

Adrian Searle