It is often the simplest line that leaves the most lasting impression. Josiah McElheny’s A Painter’s Life letterpress prints, along with his Imaginary Paintings (colored glass sheets in antique frames) provided the capstone to a remarkable year of exhibitions at the Donald Young Gallery. Young asked a wide-ranging group of contemporary artists to create work that responded to the writings of the Swiss modernist Robert Walser (1878-1956). The exhibitions included work by Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Moyra Davey, Thomas Schütte, Rosemarie Trockel, Mark Wallinger, Tacita Dean and Rodney Graham, as well as first editions of Walser’s books, facsimiles of his microscripts and historical photographs. (A book including fresh translations as well as reproductions of 50 works of art made for the project will be released in April.)1
McElheny’s letterpress edition, A Painter’s Life, converses with Walser’s 1916 short story of the same name and offers an elegant, nuanced reminder of the impossibility of the absolute. For Walser, and for McElheny, knowledge is relational—we can only know a thing by placing it against something else. McElheny gives us a few small signposts for understanding A Painter’s Life, but no more. His edition offers a title page for Walser’s story, followed by seven paginated illustrations on deckle-edged paper. The page numbers increase in spurts, 47 to 57 to 61 and so on, drawing us into the middle of an ongoing narrative. Each “illustration,” however, consists simply of an imperfectly drawn dark grey line framing an empty rectangle (each is of distinct proportions.) grounded by the painting titles Walser cites in the story—“Bözingen Mountain,” “The Sick Woman,” “The Dream”—set in delicate, capitalized Granjon type on the bottom of the page. Along the left hand edge of the page, tiny holes and an almost invisible crease suggest the lost stitching of a book binding.
As obtuse as this appears, McElheny is in fact doing justice to Walser’s beautifully meandering prose. In the 1916 story, Walser writes of the maturation process of an archetypical modernist painter, lyrically charting his trials and travels. Walser evokes fleeting impressions of this painter’s production, referencing color and subject matter with a fluidity that denies any lasting comprehension, but begs for repeated reading. For instance, Walser habitually weaves the painter’s evolving persona into his descriptions of the works of art, disregarding distinctions between subject and object:
What he painted now had the tone and charm of the unfamiliar, an earnest character, and, if you like, depth of mind. Side by side with a certain searching and questioning manner, one that is doubtless uncommonly delicate, but nevertheless unmistakable. Something at once thoughtful and sensual has set its mark on them. Dreaming, musing, fantasizing flow as green, gold, and blue, into the painting.2
Of the hundreds of paintings presumably created over the course of this ideal painter’s life, Walser reveals the titles of only seven, and these unknowable masterpieces become the subject of McElheny’s suite of possibilities.
The viewer is asked to insert his or her own narrative between these almost-blank pages. Just as Walser points to, but never completely reveals, the artist’s life work, McElheny indicates that these works of art exist, but offers nothing more. A fragile grey mark delineates the edge, the printed letters articulate a name, but without content we find that these paintings are both present and absent. The image is not for us to know, for just as the painter is an archetype, so, too, are his paintings. All that is bequeathed to us is the frame.
Much in the spirit of Balzac’s famous 1831 story Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) about a master painter who reveals his final production to be a painting so overworked that it is unrecognizable and empty, McElheny gives us the story of a painter’s life work that exists impossibly without color, subject or even paint. Donald Young Gallery closed at the end of October, six months after the death of its founder, and McElheny’s eloquent articulation of presence and absence was the final exhibition. I remain haunted by it.
- A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser by Robert Walser, with an introduction by Donald Young and an afterword by Lynne Cooke. 170 pages, 50 color illustrations. Published by New Directions (April 25, 2013). $35.
- Walser, “A Painter’s Life” (1916), 133.