Raimund Stecker: Searching for the Little Patch of Yellow Wall

On Painted Pictures without Certainties by Dirk Salz

In our western culture, the View of Delft is the quintessential view of a city – which is to say, it is not only a view of Delft, but of a city per se. In 1660/61 the painter Jan Vermeer created this painting of his birthplace, and since then it has become synonymous for cityscape painting. In general we assume that this great masterpiece of our “construed” (1) western-European history of art “may in some ways be classified as being in the tradition of topographical painting” of the kind “that harks back to those city panoramas that frame the great maps of the Netherlands”. (2) Accordingly then, in the case of Vermeer’s View of Delft unquestionably it is also at least about the fact that due to his veduta, the topographic, physical, and, as it were, faithfully realistic View of Delft is recognizable, or maybe even only first becomes recognizable, and thus identifiable by those who approach the city.

Hence, the view of the city constituted the precedent-model picture for the painting View of Delft – and in this context it has also turned out to become the “subsequent picture model”. This state of “before-and-after picture” of course led to the fact that ultimately the view of the city was no longer identifiable as the pictorial reality of Delft and thus, when changes occurred in the external pictorial reality over time, a comparison caused the painted picture to take on an aspect of the eternal. (3)

By means of and beneath its painterly-factual surface, Vermeer’s View of Delft reveals an illusionistic perspective view to the expanse of the city panorama of his native city as a prototype view of a city veduta. The Renaissance notion that the picture foreground depicted the section by means of an imaginary monocular visual pyramid celebrates its zenith in this paragon of a cityscape. And this appraisal holds regardless of whether or not the little patch of yellow wall Marcel Proust thought he discerned or else perhaps made up, the one purportedly “so finely painted that it was on a par with a precious Chinese work of art”, is actually to be found in the painting. (4)

How different the painted “pictures” by Dirk Salz are that we will be dealing with here. They stay put and keep the viewer with them. They do not hijack our gaze to a comparison between internal and external pictorial reality, to one that primarily motivates us to oscillate, to sweep back and forth between the given painting and its precedent external model. Nevertheless however, they do reflect to their insides an outside environment whose presence stems from their respective external surrounding. (5) It is as if they draw our gaze and the places from which we view the works into a pictorial world that only exists there within their own interiors.

In the case of Dirk Salz’s painted “pictures”, we are dealing with colorful “basso continuos” that contain geometrically formed structures lying hidden beneath their surfaces – as if “under water”. These are extremely shiny, reflective even, sealed with varnish on the outside, and thus, at the same time, they translocate both environments and viewers to their insides. They do reflect their surrounding – but this is determined by what is inside them.

The works hang on the walls in veritable aloofness. Their surface skins, at once protective and insightful, enclose them like safety mirrors, even beyond their multiplex side edges. The drop formations running to the backs of the paintings attest to the fact that these works were created using thin resin fluids as they lay in a horizontal position. The thickness of the individual layers sometimes dwindles to the point that it is impossible to distinguish it from the carrier material. These pieces call for mounting at a distance from the wall since the drops are part of the paintings as objects.

Beneath the painting surfaces, light and dark constructive seeming geometricisms emerge. These rest beneath the “picture skins”, the mirror-smooth painting surfaces that conclude in the direction of the viewer. Thus, not only is there an illusionistic painting depth, there is also a factual one. This constitutes a reversal, so to speak, of Vermeer’s view of his native city. Whereas with Vermeer, the “flatness of the canvas [… has] bound together with the depth perspective” (6), with respect to the works by Salz, the conventionally inherent flatness of the painting surface is undermined by layers actually located precisely there in the factual depths of the painting.
Beneath the surface we recognize horizontal and vertical stripes, oblong and upright rectangles, and squares situated in the middle and towards the edges, just as we detect over- and underlayerings. Lighter and darker, of different colors and in shades of tonal values, these shine up to the painting surface from the picture’s ground. Simply put, visually they pretend to both shine up from below even as they pitch into the darkness and disappear.

What is seen, what reveals itself, is something a viewer would inevitably like to assure himself or herself of. Works by Salz challenge this. An imperative “Look!” is inherent to them. And this command of course mainly directs us to perceive them “by seeing” – though “not only” through this means, but also by experiencing them as a whole. They demand, so to speak, the addition and summation of successively following perceptive experiences. Comparable to a viewer performance, their perception unfolds – in a factual and spatial moving about before the “paintings”:
To gaze from the front as well as from the sides, from above to below and from below to above, to look at and into it sideways as well as search out the ground beneath the superficial skins, to detect the side edges and desire to get down to the sedimentary layers of paint material, to long to penetrate in a non-invasive way and feel, as it were, a visual-stethoscopical urge to look inside – Dirk Salz’s painted “pictures” incite us to all of this. Indeed, although it is not actually allowed, we even want to touch the painted works of art, to “grasp” them in the sense of Johann Gottfried Herder (7), which addresses that tactile understanding of things that comes about by grasping them.

But even all of this doing and looking and perceiving as a whole fails to create any empirical certainties. (8) What is to be seen, what reveals itself, remains in a positive sense mysteriously ambiguous and indifferent, since it is ultimately empirically unfathomable. The surface closes off what is below it, what lies deeper, what grounds it. The geometricisms rest subcutaneously and shine through as such. Just as they seem to disappear in the ground, they also appear to push upward to the surface. Consequently, precisely where it is these lie, in what layer, will ultimately always remain unresolved.

These uncertainties lastingly determine the picture notion of painted “pictures” by Dirk Salz. Co-determine perhaps? Yes, co-determine! And pictures? Yes, at least the picture notions we have of his painted “pictures”.
The works discussed here – whether they are actually “pictures” or not will be dealt with in a moment – certainly do not exhaust themselves either by understanding what they proffer in terms of seeing and perceiving or by comprehending how they were made. (9) The picture notions of Salz’s painted “pictures” that form inside the viewer are not in toto unequivocally determinable, and in terms of their process of becoming pictures, not only are they dependent on the respective conditioning of the viewer – this is, in fact, the case of every painting we know – they are also profoundly dependent on the respective given location in which they are situated.

It follows then that painted “pictures” by Dirk Salz provide neither a perceivable image of something previously known outside of the picture – such as we assume to be the case in the historical reproduction relationship between the view of Delft and Vermeer’s painting – nor is this a picture that may objectively outlined, one which may “only” be regarded as being a picture in itself, such as we know from so-called “non-objective” art. With these paintings here, there is rather an already seemingly insurmountable chasm between seeing what is actually the given and seeing what it effects. With respect to these “pictures”, regarding the phenomena they evoke, it is not possible to speak about them reliably if the viewer is not actually standing before them in place and time. They may not be unequivocally explained because their factual insides always correspond with what is reflected to the inside, and this is indeterminate, varying from situation to situation. Consequently, Salz’s pictures initiate something to be gazed at but in addition they intend to create “pictures”, to achieve, to catalyze, to generate them…
Hence, the hypothesis arises: a painting that does not stem alone from facts created by the artist, something we can see which is not merely intellectually effective beyond its given fact but is thus already visual, cannot be simply referred to as a “picture” without further comment.

A glance to the history of sculpture may serve to clarify what is meant here. In the years from 1922 to 1930 László Moholy-Nagy created his “Light Prop for an Electric Stage”, which has come to hold a firm place in the history of 20th-century art as a Light-Space Modulator. (10) This piece consists of an arrangement of chromed and perforated disks, of bars and glass spirals, colored bulbs such as headlight bulbs…

We might only refer to this as a “sculpture” or “a plastic work” if we ignored the fact that the essence of this piece consists in its turning as a whole, its parts being movable and due to the various sources of light its also becoming a light projector for and in its environment. But to ignore this would be to misunderstand the relevance of the work. It would be like calling an automobile a “thing” because of its design and hence, not primarily understanding its “instrumental-ness” (11) as a means of transportation.
What is essential about the Light-Space Modulator by Moholy-Nagy is that, for one thing – as the name already points out – it “modulates” light. Thus, it no longer understands light only as a medium, as it were, as a means for making something visible, but rather light is itself a material, which is to be formed and dealt with artistically. And, on the other hand, due to its chrome surfaces and parts, it also evokes in the always at least slightly dusty environments a mysterious interplay between light and dark such as at its borders, on the walls, where an ephemeral-image play of reflections and projections takes place.

In terms of sculpture, Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator may no longer be designated only as a plastic art (the adding of material) or a sculpture (the removing of material) – in like manner, works by Salz also cannot be regarded as being “mere” painted “pictures”. Neither the Light-Space Modulator nor Salz’s works reveal any longer only the materials the artist has brought into form, i.e. wrought or created. Instead, both go beyond this to display something that is specific only to them, something that genuinely attracts: unique and always situation-specific attractions!

Thus, Dirk Salz’s works are to be understood both as being pieces that owe their existence to their process of creation but also as being works that stand in close correspondence with the results of this process – and this is emphatically specific to them! – namely, as the initiators or catalysts of reflections of their surroundings. They are at once both created paintings as well as generators of effects that may only ever be perceived ephemerally, of pictures that shine through or have been evoked. Consequently, gazing at works by Dirk Salz is something which may only be realized in a constant back and forth between looking at what has been created and at what has been obtained through effect.

Therefore, in terms of how they were conceived they unquestionably stand more in a sculptural and installational tradition rather than in a painterly-pictorial one – of a kind that is committed to the ideas of Concrete Art (12). In addition to Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space-Modulator, comparisons come to mind with spaces created by the ZERO-artists, but also with works by Christian Megert and Adolf Luther, Otto Piene’s Light Ballets, Gotthard Graubner’s Fog-Space, Ulrich Erben’s Halogen Object or Werner Klotz’s Perception Instruments.

Salz is not “satisfied” with relief-like pictorial forms of expression, however. In this respect, his works are only at first glance reminiscent of pieces by Herbert Hamak, Harald Schmitz-Schmelzer or even Renate Wolff, all of these being artists who likewise powerfully “build” their “pictures” in order to allow the perception experiences they offer to oscillate between picture and spatiality. The strength of their works, however, consists in the fact of remaining as themselves and binding our gaze into them. Their insides harbor secure contents. But programmatically, they reflect nothing that is external, so to speak, to the inside. They do not reflect their respective surrounding space, their respective complex environment, as an element that constitutes our impression of the work, unlike the way the “pictures” by Dirk Salz do.
The closest analogy to works by Salz might be the wall objects by Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi. Also entering into the space relief-like, reflecting the respective environment, these works open themselves up as well. And they accomplish this suggestively, mainly using dark green. But even Haraguchi’s wall objects are less complex than those Salz creates.

Subsequent to the documenta 6 in 1977 where he showed Matter and Mind 1.2.3. (housed today in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran) – Haraguchi created a work for the wall and floor, concentrating on a monochrome color, about which David Galloway writes that it takes as theme “the reflective behavior of oil” (13) – and which triggered a contemplative enthusiasm among the show’s visitors. Certainly at first glance similar to works by Salz – his works also reflect their respective environment due to the oil’s surface reflections. But, fundamentally different from Salz’s works – because of their both superficially and factually deep monochromy, however, they avoid any codetermination of our perceptive experiences that would result from inevitable outside influences by means of subcutaneous geometricisms.

Thus, the painted “pictures” by Dirk Salz not only prove to be complex per se, they are also even “overly complex” in comparison with the aforementioned positions introduced here. Salz’s works do not allow our viewing to come to rest; they prevent our gaze from making a decision between looking at the picture as a picture and looking at the picture as the thing that reflects to the inside something yet beyond itself. The same way the sea, ceaselessly, never stopping to rest, ultimately still nevertheless somehow calmly reaches the shore only to leave it again is much the same way the viewer feels before and because of Salz’s “pictures”. The question as to whether there is a yellow, or maybe even the “little patch of yellow wall” inside them, will forever remain unanswered!

Raimund Stecker, in May of 2017
(Teaches visual arts at the HBK in Essen)

(1) Max Horkheimer refers to a “Konstruktion des Geschichtsverlaufs (construction of the course of history”, and thus of the fact that every historiography is always a construct by the author and can never be a reconstruction of what actually took place. See Max Horkheimer: Traditionelle und kritische Theorie (1937), in: idem: Traditionelle und kritische Theorie. Fünf Aufsätze, Frankfurt am Main 1992, pp. 205−259. Quoted in Sven Ellmers and Philip Hogh: Warum Kritik? Zur Einleitung, in: idem: Warum Kritik? Begründungsformen kritischer Theorie, Weilerswist 2017, p. 10 (English translation, EV).
(2) Ben Broos and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. (1995): Catalogue, in: Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. (ed.): Vermeer. Das Gesamtwerk, Exhibition Catalogue, Stuttgart/Zurich 1995, p. 120 (Retranslation into English, EV).
(3) Just where such precedent model relationships might lead is demonstrated by the cityscape vedute Canaletto painted of Dresden, which are similar to Jan Vermeer’s painting. After the destruction of Dresden in World War II, these works proved useful when restoring the architectural reality of Dresden according to the pictorial reality handed down in the paintings, i.e. in a picturesque manner.
(4) In addition to the translations of the complete editions, see also, among others, Eric Karpeles: Marcel Proust und die Gemälde aus der Verlorenen Zeit, London 2008, quoted in the German edition, Cologne, p. 234 (here translation from the German, EV).
(5) To “reflect to the inside” means that an outside and external environment surrounding the viewer of the works penetrates what is being viewed – not only in the way a mirror reproduces and reflects – but in such a way that it affects and codetermines the view of the painting. What so to speak becomes a painted picture in the “eye of the beholder” as a result of the viewing experience of the work thus surpasses what is supplied to the eye by the actual material of the given work.
(6) Michael Polany: Was ist ein Bild?, in: Gottfried Böhm (ed.), Was ist ein Bild, Munich 1994, p. 155.
(7) On the notion of “grasping”, see Johann Gottfried von Herder: Plastik. Einige Wahrnehmungen über Form und Gestalt aus Pygmalions bildendem Träume, Riga 1778.
(8) On the notion of “certainty”, see Ludwig Wittgenstein: Bemerkungen über die Farben, Über Gewissheit …, Werkausgabe vol. 8, 1st edition, Frankfurt am Main 1984.
(9) See Roland Barthes: Die strukturalistische Tätigkeit, in: Kursbuch 5, pp. 190–196, reprinted in: Günther Schiwy: Der französische Strukturalismus, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1969, p. 153ff.
(10) See Hannah Weitemeier: Licht-Visionen. Ein Experiment von Moholy-Nagy, Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin 1972.
(11) On the concepts of “thing” and “instrument” see Martin Heidegger: Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, Stuttgart 1960
(12) Concerning the concept of the “concrete”, see Theo van Doesburg, Otto Gustaf Carlsund, Jean Hélion, Léon Tutundjian, Marcel Wantz: Manifest der Konkreten Kunst, in: L’art Concrete, 1930. Reprinted in: Gesammelte Manifeste, édition galerie press, St. Gallen, undated, p. 1143 ff.
(13) David Galloway: Der flüssige Spiegel: Noriyuki Haraguchis „Mätter and Mind“, in: SPIEGELBILDER, Catalogue for the Exhibitions at Kunstverein Hannover, Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum der Stadt Duisburg and Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, 1982, p. 174ff.