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Colour, Composition and Non-composition: New work by Virginia Coventry (2010)

Thank you to Dr. Susan Best, who has given us permission to reproduce her essay ‘Colour, Composition and Non-composition: New work by Virginia Coventry,’ published in conjuction with Virginia Coventry’s 2010 exhibition at Liverpool Street Gallery.

Explore Virginia Coventry’s work as part of the Drill Hall Gallery’s exhibition Lightworks, showing until November 29.

“Colour…is a kind of bliss…like a closing eyelid, a tiny fainting spell.” —Roland Barthes(i)

“I wanted to get rid of compositional effects, and the obvious way to do it is to be symmetrical.” —Donald Judd(ii)

The extreme sensuality of colour evoked by Roland Barthes and the austere forms of minimalism might seem, at first glance, to be irreconcilable opposites in late modern art. Barthes’ intense reaction to colour can only be described as a kind of romantic swoon, which is surely at odds with the literalism of minimalism. Minimalism, we know, intended to shear away associations and feelings, insisting instead that viewers grasp only what is there, a demand that is succinctly expressed by Frank Stella’s famous statement cum instruction: “What you see is what you see.”(iii) How can the rigor of minimalism, its ascetic anti-expressive qualities, be reconciled with colours that transport us? Remarkably, these two poles are brought together in the recent work of Virginia Coventry.

Her work, like that of many contemporary abstract painters, has had to contend with the long shadow of minimalism, as well as the rupture of conceptualism. These two decisive breaks are argued to be as important for the second half of the twentieth century as cubism was for the first half. (iv)Minimalism, in particular, with its relentless rejection of traditional aesthetic values—composition, expression, gesture and so forth—leaves little by way of formal means with which to conjure. What kind of painting can follow this massive disruption and respond to it in a satisfying manner? A recent reinterpretation of minimalism makes this task a little easier.

James Meyer has reopened the history of minimalism by including the work of Anne Truitt in his magisterial study: Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (v). Initially, I thought of the inclusion of Truitt as a political strategy on the part of Meyer, a contribution to the feminist recovery of neglected women artists. Upon reflection, and thinking specifically about the work of Virginia Coventry, the inclusion of Truitt in that history enables a different, dare I say, feminine path to be traced outwards from this seminal art historical moment.

Truitt, like Coventry, is an astounding colourist despite her use of reduced form and pared back compositional strategies. Truitt’s signature format, an industrially fabricated column-like wooden monolith, is the support for startling arrangements of colour. This sculptural presentation of painting enabled her to liberate colour, as she put it “the color is set free into three dimensions, as independent of materiality as I can make it.”(vi) Truitt juxtaposes colours that could be described as clashing, vibrant, lively, and atmospheric; the journey around the column allows these different colour sequences to unfold in space and time.

In Coventry’s recent work there is this same vibrant, vibrating and expansive investigation of colour but it is returned to the canvas, upon which it is just barely contained. The movement of paint outwards from the surface is particularly pronounced in five works in this exhibition, which, in turn, divide into a pair and a trio. In her trio of works—Untitled (pink/green) 2009, Untitled (violet/green) 2009, Untitled (pink/orange) 2009-10—the central luminous square of colour is at once a precise geometric figure, while also being just a little dazzling and hard to focus upon. The squares seem to hover somewhere between us and their material support. The precisely painted borders on the upper and lower edges of each frame serve to secure the canvas to the wall, allowing the central figures to float forward.

In the pair of works, Untitled (blue) 2009, Untitled (yellow) 2009 the optical effects are a little different. Both central squares have a swirling quality, produced by the mottled surface. The colours are like masses of fast moving cloud where it is hard to pinpoint the precise form or shape of any given section, even though the edges might be clearly perceived at a distance. The tessellated border of Untitled (yellow) tethers the square to the wall containing the floating, swirling feeling, while also oddly accentuating it.

The figure/ground opposition is clearly at work in all five paintings to create a tension, or a kind of torsion, between the movement of the centralised forms and the edges. This compositional device is missing from two of the earliest works in this exhibition, which are linked more closely to Coventry’s previous body of work, “In Place,” her exhibition of 2007 at the Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney. Untitled (white) 2007-09 and Untitled (red) 2010 also employ torsion but this twisting motion is more lateral, or at times, even circular. In other words, the border motif operates very differently in these two works.

In Untitled (white) the border or zip bifurcates the canvas horizontally, with the square forms appended to this central line like weights in balance, or an arrested see-saw motion. The diagonal force that the balanced squares introduce makes the strip seem dynamic: it becomes a propeller for the square blades and their imminent rotation. Or with a change of focus, and attention shifted to the opposite diagonal, the strip becomes the line of flight for the large white rectangles sliding along its surface. Untitled (red) conveys a similar sensation of contained movement. In this case, the borders on the left and right hand side of the canvas are poised to rotate, with a strong diagonal force put into play by the small lilac and red ochre rectangles in the top right and bottom left hand corners. The white borders also drift outwards to join with the wall, a compositional device favoured by the Brazilian Neo-concrete artist, Lygia Clark, in her quest for a moving or “organic line.”(vii)

The four remaining paintings in the exhibition also eschew the figure/ground opposition. These smaller canvases use bands of colour in a highly rhythmical way; movement here is more about tempo and sequence rather than the dazzling optical effects of the other paintings. These are quieter works, but with the same characteristic vibrancy and mastery of tone, composition and contrast.

The compositional strategies employed in all of these paintings are at once activating the colour, embodying it perhaps, and yet adhering to the reduction of bravura so well identified by Yve-Alain Bois as an important and recurrent modernist approach. Bois calls this reduction “non-composition.”(viii) Reducing the number of compositional decisions is intended to minimise the artist’s presence in the work of art, and to thereby efface the self. This approach is often associated with minimalism, however Bois shows the much longer history of this impersonal urge.

In Coventry’s paintings we can see another way of thinking about the interplay of composition and non-composition. In her work, composition is used in the service of colour. Her compositions enable us to lose ourselves in the transport of colour. The effacement of the self is achieved through composition. In other words, in the sensuality of colour there is another way of thinking about the impersonal aims of minimalism. In Coventry’s paintings, the literalism of minimalism, the need to attend carefully to what is there, is complemented by the absorbing power of colour and the exquisite feelings it generates.

Dr Susan Best, Art History, UNSW

(i)   Barthes quoted in David Batchelor, Chromophobia (London: Reaktion, 2000) 32.
(ii)  Judd in Bruce Glaser “Questions to Stella and Judd,” (1966) Minimalism: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkeley: U of California P, 1995) 150.
(iii) Stella in Ibid. 158.
(iv) See Lynn Zelevansky, “Sense and sensibility: women artists and minimalism in the nineties,” Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994) 7.
(v) Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven: Yale UP, 2001) 63-74.
(vi) Truitt cited in Kristen Hileman, “Presence and Abstraction,” Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection (Washington: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2009) 31.
(vii) Lygia Clark, “Conference given in the Belo Horizonte National School of Architecture in 1956,” Lygia Clark, ed. Manuel Borja-Villel (Barcelona: Fundacio Antoni Tapies, 1998) 72.
(viii)Yves-Alain Bois, “The Difficult Task of Erasing Oneself: Non-composition in Twentieth-Century Art,” Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton University, 7th March 2007.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.