Rémy Zaugg

We’ve been accustomed to thinking of the visual concerns of abstract painting and the linguistic ones of Conceptual art as two distinct artistic territories. Rémy Zaugg’s language-oriented work of the ’80s and ’90s once led me to describe him as one of the few true “conceptual painters,” so it was something of a surprise to discover that the origins of his work lie in monochrome abstraction rather than conceptual investigations. This revealing exhibition was titled “Retrospektive, ein Fragment,” and while it spanned the arc of Zaugg’s career (the four earliest paintings were dated 1968–72, the most recent ones, 1990–97 or 1994–97), it did not attempt to survey the full range of his work; indeed, some of his best-known series were omitted. Instead, there was a heavy emphasis on his earliest efforts (twenty-eight of the forty-nine works were dated 1974 or earlier), to which were added seventeen paintings from the series “Für ein Bild,” 1986–87, and four from the ’90s, including a sequence of eight varnish-on-aluminum panels, Über die Blindheit (On blindness, 1994–97).

The relation between vision and blindness may be at the heart of Zaugg’s most recent work, but the same thing was already true twenty-five years ago. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of the relation between showing and hiding. In the early paintings Zaugg exhibited here, the image consists primarily of a field of a single color—often the one whose designation gave the title to many of these paintings, “Hell blau” (Light blue). In most cases, however, the monochrome field peters out toward the edges of the canvas to reveal, or rather imply, that there was once some quite different (and many-colored) painting underneath. The effect was very dissimilar from, for instance, Brice Marden’s monochrome panels in which the lower edge also reveals traces of various states the painting has gone through to achieve the taut simplicity of a gray or blue field. With Zaugg’s paintings it is clear that what the edges show is there simply to be excluded, to be hidden by a dominant color that has nothing to do with it other than to cover it like a blind covering a window. And, as with a blind over a window, through which shadows of what transpires beyond can sometimes be divined, one often has the impression that one can make out intimations of the more complex painting below. These, however, are unverifiable, and it is necessary to take into account the possibility that this could be pure conjecture based on the little bit really visible at the edges which, for all one knows, does not continue beyond those edges: a pure visual fiction, in other words.

Inasmuch as the monochrome field is as decidedly a concealment of the potentially nonexistent underlying picture as a revelation of color itself, there is also the sense that this might be the matter of a simple reversal, that it is really a matter of placing the ground in front of rather than behind an ostensible figure (at the same time and through the same gesture displacing the figure from its conventional place within the pictorial field out to its margin)—or, rather, of placing the viewer behind instead of in front of the painting. Even before engaging in any overt examination of the way language both constructs and disturbs the visual, Zaugg’s analytical approach to painting unsettled not only the painting’s construction, but also the viewer’s sense of his or her relation to the painting.

Barry Schwabsky