Bob Law, Drawing 29.4.59, 1959, pencil on handmade paper, embossed, 10 × 14".

Bob Law, Drawing 29.4.59, 1959, pencil on handmade paper, embossed, 10 × 14".

Bob Law

Throughout his life as an artist, Bob Law (1934–2004) was on a “road to nothing and nowhere,” curator Douglas Fogle wrote in a 2015 essay, quoting Scottish broadcaster Fyfe Robertson, who had castigated Law’s work on the BBC. But as we learned from the five decades of work on view in this exhibition—to accompany which Thomas Dane Gallery republished Fogle’s text—nothingness was not something Law chased after, but something he simply found in what was already there. Rather than the outcome of a teleological idea of progression, it was a way of being in the world.

In the 1950s, Law lay down in a field in Cornwall, UK, and watched the world follow: From a horizontal perspective, the landscape is a plane of sky with trees or houses or the perimeter of your eyes lining its edges like embroidery. One result of this exercise was Drawing 29.4.59, 1959, a rectangle drawn in pencil on paper and subdivided into three fields. At its center, what is perhaps a single stalk of wheat leans toward one side; the sun is a basic circle studded with rays, just as the trees and houses that frame the scene are of a reduced, hieroglyphic character. In Ikon Drawing 17.7.65, 1965, just the rectangles remain—this time four—and in Nothing to Be Afraid Of V 22.8.69, 1969, Law used a laundry marker to draw a single oblong that traces the edge of a nine-by-seven-foot canvas, with the date inscribed in the right-hand corner. To the question of how many ways it is possible to draw a picture of nothing, Law’s answer is: as many as there are dates in the calendar.

Law’s meditation on nothing took other forms as well, such as the dense dark voids of his monochrome paintings, or the simple yet impressive dialectic between landscape, pattern, and architecture developed in his drawings: A single line is a field; add a perpendicular one and it’s a flag, another and it’s a building. Elsewhere, empty chairs were offered partly as invitations to rest while contemplating the paintings, but perhaps more as figural replacements for the human body. Two chairs, both 1984, were dedicated to Vincent (van Gogh) and Paul (Gauguin), while a third, titled simply Blue Chair, 1982, perhaps was for Law himself. The Shakeresque wooden structures had the patina of driftwood. Brimming with character, they were not minimal in any sense—not empty at all.

With the chair works, we began to see that Law’s sparseness does not stem from a sense of defeat at the end of history, or from the postmodern “waning of affect” that Fredric Jameson diagnosed. In a bronze maquette titled The Last Supper, 1984, thirteen chairs stood around a long table. The one in the middle has a pediment—the sign for “house” found elsewhere in Law’s oeuvre, now recognizable also as a cross. Two chairs left of center, a broken backrest represents betrayal. Law is clearly not shy about grand narratives. But more than that, encountered on this road to nowhere, every form is reduced to a point of equivalence with any other, and all stories, all lives, come back to this, the most epic narrative of all, just as any horizontal line describes the place where the earth meets the sky.