I recently had the honour of visiting the studio of Petrus Maree in Berlin for a private viewing of his new series of twelve paintings collectively entitled Threshold.
As Petrus removed each painting from its crate, I sensed something Duchampian in the aesthetic relationship between the meticulously crafted crates and the paintings. The paintings are individually titled Note 1, Note 2 through to Note 12. The late afternoon spring light provided perfect conditions for what I can only describe as a revelation.
If forced to describe these works in one word, I’d use the word minimalism. The longer I looked at Maree’s paintings, the more convinced I become that he has managed to distill something profoundly complex into something profoundly simple, ineffable, and beautiful. This is minimalism at its unequivocal best. These works are visually intelligent and courageous. But to really appreciate them we need to understand the true meanings of Minimalism, and yes, I use the plural ‘meanings’ very intentionally.
On the one hand, Minimalism, as a proper noun, refers to the Modernist art movement driven by theorists like Clement Greenberg, Richard Wollheim, and many others in New York in the 1960s. Greenberg’s reductionist strategy, underpinned by his Modernist philosophy, decreed that the systematic and progressive stripping down of painting (and sculpture) would eventually yield a final, irreducible and axiomatic result, namely the Truth in painting. The mantra in 1960s New York studios was “Less = more = good!”.
Ironically, as the paintings became flatter, emptier and devoid of anything, there was an inversely proportional torrent of rhetoric, often verbose and difficult to understand, trying to fill the void. At best, the theories were sometimes interesting. The art became cold, excessively cerebral, and sterile. I am convinced the reason for this is that Greenbergian Minimalism was largely driven by quantitative criteria – and not by qualitative criteria; hence so much of the work looked cold, excessively cerebral, and sterile. When I look at Petrus Maree’s work, I see none of this.
Another feature of Greenbergian reductionism, ironically, was the increase in size, with many paintings eventually reaching such monumental dimensions that they could only be accommodated in extremely large gallery and museum spaces. The male dominated politics of the New York art scene back then, and the national posturing during the Cold War, “America does it bigger!”, leaves a rhetorical question: To what extent was scale directly proportional to ego? When I look at Petrus Maree’s work, I see none of this.
On the other hand, minimalism, used as a common noun, refers to an aesthetic theme that can be seen in many different cultures. It also has a very long history. We see it in timeless artefacts from the Edo period in eighteenth century Japan, in the geometric sophistication of nineteenth century East African sculptures, in the early twentieth century paintings of Kazimir Malevich and across the entire span of human culture. It is in this latter context that I see Maree’s work.
The overarching title ‘Threshold’ describes the series concisely and eloquently. And naming the individual paintings ‘Note 1’, ‘Note 2’, etc. fits perfectly. The semantics are faultless. From the very beginning, when the paintings were being unpacked, I could see that every aspect of their conception and execution had been considered. The twelve paintings each measure 34 x 55cm. They are all white, not achromatic white, not the kind of generic sterile white (around 4000 degrees Kelvin) we see with mass produced polymers, but a white that resonates with the subtlest degree of warmth (probably closer to 3000 degrees Kelvin). Since the beginning of Maree’s career he has been obsessed with that aesthetic interface where light, colour and matter become one. We’ve seen this consistently in his photography and painting.
The surfaces. Closer scrutiny immediately reveals a contradiction. What at first appear to be twelve mechanically repeated and featureless blocks are in fact twelve immaculately conceived paintings. Creating something this refined and subtle requires great skill, visual intelligence and a lot of labour. The surfaces are exceptionally smooth, not the smooth of automotive paintwork but the smooth of polished ivory or the finest porcelain, opaque and translucent at once, what happens when layer upon layer is worked, processed and reworked until perfection is attained. The surfaces resonate with process and intent. Nowhere is there a single square centimetre that feels arbitrary or overlooked. Everything matters. The idea of a minimalist palimpsest may sound like a contradiction, but somehow Maree has achieved this in these immaculately conceived planes. In the same way that Leonardo Da Vinci advised artists to seek beauty in the patina of old walls, Maree’s photography and prior painting provide a perfect context against which to appreciate these Zen-like panels. Ultimately, the surfaces become the diaphanous threshold or plane through which we engage with the work.
When viewed sequentially, twelve paintings titled Note 1 through to Note 12, I couldn’t help remembering Mozart’s twelve variations on a French folk theme. The recurrent vertical central line which bisects the paintings is evident in varying degrees, and strangely absent in certain paintings. But it is this line, or rather variations on the line, which dominates the series. As a painter I often struggle with the semantics of painting. What is a line? Is it a schematic indication of an edge or contour? Is it a boundary? And if it is a boundary, can it have two edges? How can a line not have two edges? Can a line and an edge be the same thing? In mathematics a line is continuous extent of length without breadth or thickness, in other words it is an abstract idea. Where the molecular composition of one thing changes to become something else, we cross a threshold. When we transition from one plane to another, we cross a line or a threshold. When something is bounded by edges, we have thresholds. When you’re painting and engaged in a creative struggle with complex visual phenomena, you quickly realise how woefully inadequate words and language can be.
How do we experience Maree’s individual Notes and the lines? Given the way we experience gravity, by association, we tend to experience an exactly vertical line as stable and balanced, differently to the way we experience a horizontal line. The horizontal line seems passive. The vertical line appears upright, balanced, and thus has the potential to tilt diagonally through varying degrees and to end up lying down, completely passively, horizon(tally). Diagonal line also has associations with ascending or descending, depending on which direction our eyes scan such a line, from left to right or vice versa. Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, published in 1925, remains one of the most illuminating expositions on the complexity of line in pictorial space, not unlike the discreet potency of Maree’s Notes, singularly or collectively.
One line is rendered with fine silverpoint, a traditional Renaissance technique which leaves a line that oxidises and darkens with time. Another ‘line’ is not actually a line but an edge transitioning between two planes, one slightly elevated above the other with light reflecting from the miniscule, raised step onto the adjacent lower plane. If this painting were to be illuminated directly from the front, we wouldn’t see this step. The absence of chromatic and tonal forms, the presence of physical incisions, and low relief steps from one plane to another take us into the realm of low relief modelling, the realm of sculpture. Each Note is different. The paintings become three-dimensional objects occupying our space; further confirmed by the painted surfaces extending around onto all four sides of the of the panels, reasserting the objecthood of the paintings, to use Wollheim’s term.
There is so much more that can and should be said about Threshold, but in the end these are extremely contemplative objects, conceived with painstaking attention to detail. Absolutely nothing is overlooked. Maree’s investment of visual intelligence, patience, time, uncompromising process and relentless reworking of these Notes is akin to distillation. The beauty of these works is in their depth and stillness.
A well asked question can often give so much more than a well given answer. Threshold does exactly this: the Notes quietly open fissures.
And then there’s the paradox: how can something so austere be so seductive?
I hope I’ve done justice.