Sorry that I’m late again. My next idol will surprise you less: Vincent. More than anybody before him he brought painting to the third dimension. He did not hide the materiality of paint, he celebrated it. How liberating this must have felt, despite all his agonies.
Magritte said that for him, the decisive moment that lead him to becoming an artist is when he saw a magician perform his tricks. And it’s true, all art is kind of a magic trick. But I felt that art had to be more than an illusion. Its power had to come from its material, sensual presence. Magritte, by using paint for classical narration, albeit with a twist, betrayed in my eyes the liberation of paint; in my youthful dogmatism, he was an enemy.
Well, not really. He seduced me. Over time I came to see how powerful his ‘twist’ was. He became one of my favorite artists. But that was later.
As a young man in the 70’s, my favorite painters were Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and Antoni Tapies. Tapies, in my view, did it the best of all, create paintings as real ‘living’ objects.
I wanted to create like him. In the meantime, hundreds, if not thousands of painters did so, with mixed results. Frankly, Tapies himself made quite a few inferior works later on, imho. But he was very influential for me. The works I loved the most looked like walls that had witnessed ages. There was drama, softened by the passage of time. The rich, subtle coloration seems to be the result of the complex history of the textured surface, rather than being a layer painted on it. It’s all trickery of course.
These painters also taught me that there are other things than paint to work with. That everything potentially is art material.
Which brings me to the subject I was going to write about, oxidation. In the ‘80’s I met an Hungarian painter, Thomas Nonn, who was showing his work in a gallery in Soho. Here he is, next to a recent work, which is not that different from what he was showing at the time:
I was struck by his paintings, especially by how they looked transformed by time. What was his trick? He explained to me that he worked directly with metal, in powder form. Mostly iron. He mixed it with water, and a bit of acrylic medium to make it stick to the surface, and then used different acids to obtain different oxidation effects. Did he invent this technique? I’m not sure. There was another art teacher at the CUNY college where Nonn taught, a French sculptor whose name I forgot, who claimed he invented it. I don’t know. In any case, I don’t claim that I did. The three of us bought iron powder in bulk and divided it. I still have some left. We each went our way, artistically as well. We were friends for I while and then lost touch.
Nonn calls his style “material abstraction”, which I think is a bad choice of words, but I understand what he means. He almost always works on canvas, incorporates other surfaces (such as driftwood or lead) and builds up the surface with acrylic emulsion, resins, sand, marble dust etc, not unlike Tapies. (Tapies in interviews refused to reveal the materials and techniques he worked with, reflecting his petty-bourgeois mindset, jealeously guarding his possessions. We’re all in this together, Antoni! You have invented nothing that did not come from those before you, you just helped to push the enveloppe further. I am a starch opponent of artistic property, of the concept of property in general really. But I digress. If you want to read more on my objections against intellectual property, I wrote on that in a blog I participate in, “Salon van Sisyphus”:
Back to Tom Nonn. After building up the surface, he uses washes (lots of water, a little medium) of metal-powder (iron, some copper) and, to a lesser extent, washes of raw pigment, merging with the former. Then he oxidates.
The oxidation processes are hard to control and thus hard to predict. That would be a nightmare for the artist who wants a perfect execution of his preconceived idea. This technique is only for those artists who like to be surprised by what their artwork does. I happen to be one of them. I worked a lot with oxidation and even after all these years I cannot see any rigid rules. For those who would like to try it themselves, I can offer a few loose rules.
1. The mixture. You need a medium to make the powder stick but if you use too much you protect it from the acid and thus from oxidation. It’s a tricky balance but it’s generally better to err on the unsafe side. A little medium goes a long way. You need water to carry the metal over the surface. The way it runs creates patterns of where it deposits the metal and thus patterns in the rusting. These can be delightfully unpredictable and rich. There is no formula for the mixture. It also depends on the surface and the kind of oxidation you want.
2. The acid. There are many different acids, from household items like vinegar and lemon juice, to heavy stuff like sulphuric acid. The latter surely should be used with lots of water and in moderation, or it will burn a hole in your canvas. They all produce different colors but it’s hard to establish more than aproximate rules. Vinegar tends to turn iron brown, sometimes violet, while lemon or salted water will turn it more orange, and so on.Island (1987) Iron, copper, pigments on found objects. 43 by 35 by 8 inches
3. The metal powder. Iron has a beautiful range from dark reddish brown to pale orange. Copper has an incredible range. It can go black, white, green, even bluish and pale yellow. Or it can stubbornly stay copper colored. You never know what it’s going to decide. You can increase the range further by introducing other components, like iron sulphate. And pigments. Raw pigments work better than paint from a tube or can. The more variation you create in how all these components are spread and in how the are affected by the acids, the more variation in shades and patterns of color you can obtain. In the example below, a detail of a work I may show later, the colors, except for the dark background, are mostly oxidated copper, some iron. Remember, the more complex your mix of components, the more you don’t know what’s going to happen. It may be disappointing or exhilarating.
4. I don’t want to exaggerate: there is a certain predictability in how the oxidation will turn out. Enough to use the metal powders almost like paint, which I sometimes did, like in the work below in which most of the color comes from the oxidation of iron and copper.
5. Don’t only add, take away too. Sandpaper is one of my most important tools. Sanding and oxidation are what time does. By visiting your work again and again and allowing different processes to take place on it, it acquires a history. Knowing when to continue –to spot the potential that is still there- and knowing when to stop is crucial. Sometimes, it’s good to destroy but sometimes one destroys too much.
6. Will the metal keep on rusting? How will the work look in x number of years? I’m not sure. I think there is still some very slow change going on but when I look at my older work, I find it hard to spot. I think it’s because of the medium that holds it. But don’t kill the rust by varnishing the surface. You can sand it if you have used too much medium. I also sometimes use anti-rust to draw lines in the rust.
7. Washes on a flat but textured and already colored surface are the easiest way to make the oxidation bloom. But I find it at least as interesting on more three-dimensional objects.
Oxidation is but one of the transforming techniques I use. That’s one of the joys of making art today: everything can become art and everything can become an art technique. There are many other things to play with. But I still use oxidation quite often. Such as in this piece, which I’m currently working on. I have been offered an exhibition in a space with a very high ceiling and an open staircase. With that in mind, I am working on a number of pieces to be hung from the ceiling.