How Luminous Can Black Be
Ofer Lellouche in Conversation with Mordechai Omer
Mordechai Omer: Let us start with the question of all questions: Why prints? Printing is usually considered a medium that is characterized by the ability to reproduce, duplicate and serialize. In your case, the opposite is true - most of the series are small, and some of the works never achieve serialization, remaining as monotypes. What is the dialectic in your work between the single original and the print's serialization?
This also has to do with the question of the print's uniqueness as a medium, vis-a-vis other media such as sculpture, painting, or drawing. In the nineteenth century the art of printing flourished, and a tradition developed whereby the artist makes a record of his work by means of prints. A great artist like Turner made etchings, using them to create his artistic archive (fig. 1). Between World War I and II, there was an inflation in printmaking, and then a withdrawal from it. The sculptures, drawings and paintings of the New York School artists, for instance, are based on a very direct, spontaneous, sensual touch, seemingly an antithesis to print.
Today, with the exception of two or three great artists who still innovate in this media, like Jasper Jones or Jim Dine, print seems to have died. The activity in print workshops around the world indicates the devaluation of the print, not only in its monetary value but also in its status as a medium, as a language. One of the reasons has been an incorrect use of print, now used mainly for the creation of reproductions. We are an generation of reproduction, of replication, and this has become a symptom of the age. So why do you need print alongside the other media in which you work?
Ofer Lellouche: I fell in love with etching, with the technique itself, already during my first year of studies with Tuvia Be'eri at Avni Institute. The magic of etching evoked in me an almost childish infatuation. You take a smooth plate and work on it, then you take a paper - and suddenly, the paper is printed. What is it about this activity that makes it so magical? Perhaps the very act of replication, the narcissistic yearning for cloning. But the most important thing is that there's a sort of distancing in etching. You can write a text in pencil on paper, but only when it is typed and printed can you actually tell whether it's any good. That's how I feel about printing. When you're in the process of work, you're emotionally involved; but once you see it printed, a certain distance is formed, a separation, it becomes somewhat strange. I think that this is what scares off quite a few artists.
— Are you referring to the loss of control?
— Yes. I have a feeling that this is one of the reasons why Alberto Giacometti, who drew beautifully, was not a great etching artist. I believe that this option, the need to cut off the umbilical cord at some stage, did not sit right with him. He even tried to make his cast sculptures unique by distinct touches. The uniqueness of printing, its magic, stems from the possibility of distancing yourself from the emotional quagmire that sometimes attaches itself to the creation of art. This quality, which scares off many artists, is the very reason that I like this technique so much.
Some people do not like or understand prints. Some artists are highly responsive to sculptures, oil paintings, drawings (which are, to me, the highest art form), while viewing prints disparagingly. Perhaps they cannot stand the fact that the print is not an original artwork, that there are others like it; it is possessiveness of sorts. Or maybe they view this technique as a cheap effect.
— Perhaps we should distinguish the sense of magic from the sense of cheapness. You perceive both at one and the same time - regarding the print as magic but also, at the same time, as inferior to exalted drawing. In the print a certain distancing is created. For a while, it is not the artist who controls the work but the plate, or the printer, or the machine. As long as you're working on the plate, the work is your own, but once it goes to the printing press, and weight and intensity and sensitivity and power are brought to bear on it, it becomes the product of team-work. At a certain moment your creation comes to depend on the mercy of paper humidity and whatever conditions the studio and the printer provide you with. Of course water-colors, pencils or charcoal are also technical means that affect creation, but in prints the shift from artist to printer is part of the work process. Here I would like to introduce another notion, which also has to do with the magic of prints - the element of surprise.
— Even before the surprise - an etching develops through various stages. First, the etching is drawn, then it is bitten by acid, and then it is printed. When making a drawing, for instance, I can draw in a very expressive hand, the pencil may wound the paper or its tip may break, and this will be discernible in the final drawing. When creating an etching, however, I can draw expressively but bite subtly into the surface, or make a fine drawing and by exposing it to acid for a long time achieve deep, strong lines. It's a duet. In one voice I express myself through my handwriting, and in another I alter it by acid biting. Rather than play one instrument, I play several. Rather than be a soloist, I conduct a whole orchestra. The end result is always complex.
— I would like to return to the process and the magic, because magic is a very significant aspect of etching. Lifting the paper and looking at the end result - it is a moment of surprise, of expectation, of birth; all these beautiful words, signifying the pinnacle of the creative process. Do you expect to surprise yourself? I know that many printers and artists know in advance exactly how the final print will look.
— One never knows how a print will finally turn out. It is a surprise that stems from the distancing I've described.
— The distancing means the disruption, the participation of another's hand, of the machine, of the acid bath or the printing press. As long as the artist stoops over the plate, it is his territory, but in the following moments one enters a different territory, even if the artist activates it.
— The surprise comes all at once, unlike drawing or painting. The paper is seen at once in its final state - this is the magic. Some of the surprise is created by "accidents", and these are often the point of departure for a new development. Sometimes the accidents are not interesting, but sometimes they are. For example, in the 1980s I drew the Judea Mountains in oils and water colors, and I was in despair. Each time anew it seemed to me like a Provence landscape - too gentle, colorful and pastoral, instead of the luminous light of the Judea Mountains. One day, I forgot the plate inside the acid. The result was black, and it was then that I discovered how luminous can black be. An accident or a surprise can result in illumination.
— Mark Rothko said that an artist must surprise himself. As long as he is guided by existent structures, he is limited. Only at the moment of surprise, of giving in to the unknown, only then does something happen. The only medium similar to printing is cast sculpting. There, too, the artist works and works, but only once the sculpture is cast the entire work is revealed all at once, and it is always a surprise. I think this is what connects your love of sculpting to your love of printing - that "time out", which is a part of both.
— There is another point of similarity between prints and sculptures. In the work process of both these media one can print or cast at any given moment, and then continue to work. Since there is a product, a memory, nothing is lost. This gives you great freedom. I can pause - print or cast - and go on working. And if I ruin it, the former stage has been preserved. In painting, however, I cram so much into it, that sometimes a single painting contains the layers of ten or fifteen paintings. In print it is possible to preserve all of these stages, and each stage can stand on its own. The distance between the stages is preserved, and sometimes this is much more interesting than the end result.
— I would like to ask you about the format. Yours keeps getting bigger…
— And smaller!
— The great achievements are in the large format, both in prints and sculptures. For instance, the reclining or upright larger-than-life female figure, or the large head you're now making for The Israel Museum in Jerusalem (ill. 4). You also showed large formats at the Sao Paulo Biennial. How have you actually arrived at these large formats, and in general - how is the format determined?
— The intermediate format, a sheet or half a sheet, is the most difficult for me. I feel most comfortable with the very small or very large formats. It's a relational matter. When I look at a small etching, I have a feeling of great proximity, I'm alone with it. When I look at a large etching or sculpture, I'm also alone with it. The things around it do not enter my field of vision. The intermediate size, however, always seems to be alongside other things, and this is the most difficult thing for me - in canvasses, too. And another thing: when a figure is greatly enlarged or reduced, details are lost and there's a sense of something impersonal, distance and anonymity are created. A portrait, and even more so a self-portrait, must be impersonal, almost anonymous. When the work is very large, one must reduce the number of details in order to make it more anonymous. If you sculpt the details in a large figure, what you get are sculptures of Stalin or Mussolini. Once you take off details, the work becomes anonymous, it becomes art.
— Much like the format, there is the question of color. Most of your work is in black. Occasionally, you feel the need to add manual touches to the print, but even then, you usually choose other, lighter blacks, sticking to types of grays. Even when you use color - it is a monochromatic brown. This is not only true of your etchings, but also of your drawings, which also brings them closer to sculpture - which is a substance that while being receptive to tonality remains monochromatic. This may also have to do with your painting. What I mean to say is that etching serves you because it's in the spirit of your color gamma.
— I have gone through the opposite process. When I first started out as a painter, I tried to achieve color but saw that the etchings were much better. Gradually, I stopped using color in paintings. Etching taught me to paint without colors. In a color etching the colors resemble water colors, unlike silk-screen, where color is at its most powerful and is very aggressive. I have used color in etchings as an addition to monotypes, over black-and-white drawings, and more as ground than actual color, in order to avoid the paper's whiteness. This, more or less, is my use of colors. There are color artist and black-and-white artists. I guess I'm a black-and-white artist.
— Does this have anything to do with the classical tenet according to which contour is much more important than color?
— It is an art that is closer to classical traditions, and it is more tonal. In the history of art there are few artists who can hold color. Sometimes I don't understand why Giacometti or Picasso had used color. Mostly, color is just an addition to tonality, and many works lose very little information in black-and-white reproductions.
I started painting at a time when everybody was declaring the death of painting. I felt that painting, in order to survive, must condense itself, be more concise. I hardly ever use color in paintings or etchings, and I believe that's how I am at my best.
— I would like to address the process of destruction that informs the print. The copper or iron plate goes through a chemical process that harms the surface, wounds it. These are actually open wounds in a wholeness that disappears in the process of working on the plate. Your work, paintings and sculptures alike, is very much characterized by exposing these traces. The image is always flawed, imperfect, wanting. The question is, at what point do you stop the destruction, the biting of the metal surface by acid. I asked myself that question when facing the six sheets of Judea Mountain landscapes and seeing how the acid had bitten into the plates, and how you stopped it at the very last moment. One more minute and it would have been destroyed, erased; it would have lost all traces.
— Do you mean to say that there is something violent in this process?
— There is something violent and wounding in it, but there is also a moment when the violence is stopped. Without it, there is no good plate and no good print, and I believe that in your work there is also no good painting and no good sculpture without that moment. In the sculptures that I like there is a momentum of "half built, half ruined". It makes room for urges, for imagination and completion of the image, enabling the viewer to become an active participant in the creative process.
— A propos violence, let me tell you a story. I once met with Aldo Crommelynck, the legendary etching printer who had worked for the great masters of the twentieth century. I asked him how he explained the fact that Giacometti had never really succeeded in his etchings. And he said: "I would meet him every day and ask him: 'Alberto, when are you coming to work with me?', and he would reply: 'I've got a pencil and an eraser, and the eraser is even more important, and this is sufficient for me'. I believe that most of the great etching artists were very physical people - Picasso, Jim Dine, strong people with a measure of violence, and Giacometti wasn't like that. He was gentle and fragile, and his touch was very gentle. I think that an etching artist's physical traits are much like an athlete's".
I also believe that there is something physical, violent, in making an etching. As to stopping the process, I maintain that the process of work on a plate is practically endless. There are some plates with which I went through 24 stages. At any time you can take a disc and polish the plate, achieving an almost new plate. At the stage of printing you can decide to print only part of the plate. All of these options allow this "violence" great freedom, because actually there are hardly any limits to what the plate can take. As long as you haven't made a hole in it, there is still hope, there is still a future.
— All the same, one cannot go on forever. One must also know where to stop.
— I actually feel that I have had the greatest success with my most battered plates. Even when you erase all traces of the previous stage, the plate always remains charged, it has a history, something goes on from one stage to another.
— That must be the most beautiful thing - the history, as the stages come together, leading to something else. So it's an endless process?
— Pretty much.
— What is it that finally makes you stop?
— The stop is also temporary.
— Have you ever regretted anything?
— There's a print, a memory!
— Are there any themes that bear a greater proximity to etching? From any number of themes that you're working on at any given time, do you choose a particular one for etching? Is there a method to choosing the subject-matter?
— There is a method. A subject is selected for etching when it is ripe. When working on a landscape, once it develops within me and I feel enough confidence and familiarity with it, it goes to etching. There's concision in etching. It does away with much of the details and it must be approached with more confidence, with clearer decisions, removing the "fat", whatever is superfluous. Eventually, the print is often more concise, leaner than the original works on which it is based.
— Is that the end of a process?
— It is the end of a process, providing the next process with a point of departure. The conciseness that I achieve in etching is on the one hand a conclusion, and on the other an outset. For me, etching is a catalogue raisonne of sorts. Almost every theme I have dealt with has eventually been etched.
— Does your disdain for replication, for printing a series, stem from its being an extension of a process rather than a self-contained unit?
— I do make series, I always have, but nowadays I make small ones - of single, a couple, possibly six or seven prints. The purpose of making series is to disseminate the work.
— And dissemination is of no interest to you?
— No, there's no need for it. Nowadays, there are other means, such as catalogues, discs, the Internet. Only a few people understand etchings and wish to purchase them. Love of etchings is becoming rarer and rarer.
— Earlier, you mentioned the intimacy of the small etching - being in great proximity to the body, close to the eye, its watching resembles book reading. You have published many books - on particular subject-matter, such as the Gordon swimming pool, or a particular author, such as Stephane Mallarme. What distinguishes a book from a single etching?
— The book on Mallarme is unique. I first came across his texts thirty years ago, and they changed my life. I think that everything I have ever done, not only in etchings, is somehow related to these texts. I have internalized them to such an extent that they has become my own. When Uzi Agassi, the publisher, asked me to illustrate a poet's text, I told him that any work taken out of my drawer can be seen as related to Mallarme, since I have actually been illustrating his texts all my life. Finally, I chose some strong moments in my work and by arranging them consecutively turned them into a book about him.
The power of Mallarme's poetry is in turning everyday, intimate reality (from the description of a room to his son's death) into a concise, cosmic, unsentimental, elliptic work. He started off by observation, but he aimed beyond it - to a vision of the universe. I believe that the entire twentieth century learned something from this outlook: one eye turned to banal reality, and the other to exalted matters.
On the other hand, in the series of small landscapes published by Gottesman [?], I definitely set my sights on more quotidian, even sentimental subjects. This series is, first and foremost, a declaration of love for this country and its landscapes. The Gordon Pool series starts off as rather illustrative and ends with a close-up of the water and swimmers - much like the black Judea Mountain landscapes. A landscape usually starts off as a landscape, but often turns into something that is much greater.
— I would like to talk about the dualism in your work. For instance, a figure seen both from a frontal view and a side view. What is it that happens when you look at the same thing twice, from different angles - once frontally, and once in profile. What are you looking for there? You have been dealing with this for the past three years; what is it that interests you in this duo - is it the wish to deal with the same model from two viewpoints?
— There's a lot of tension in the photos of criminals, which are taken both frontally and in profile. The idea was born when I visited in 1991 the Sao Paulo Museum where I exhibited. I met a restorer who was working on Gauguin's last portrait. He took an X-ray picture of the painting, and excitedly invited me to see that underneath there were two other portraits. It is well known that Gauguin didn't make corrections, so it was a surprise to discover images in the layers beneath the portrait. The first image seemed to be a portrait in profile, rather typical of Gauguin, and over it there was a frightening frontal portrait, with the incredible intensity of a man that seems to be looking at himself in the mirror before dying. It seems like this portrait alarmed him and then he painted the portrait in three-quarters, which was his last painting. The three of them together were an awesome display!
This has left a strong impression on me, but it took almost fifteen years before I started working on it and figuring out how I wanted to treat it. There is something timeless in the profile. I call it the "him". In a frontal view there's an "I" or "you", and a three-quarters portrait is another story altogether. To me, the tension between the "I" or "you" and the "him" is remarkable. It opens up options to me, which I still cannot formulate in words.
— You are fascinated by mathematics. Is this also a mathematical game - one plus one, a logic of addition?
— What's one? Is two a one plus one? Or is a duo one? Giacometti painted one, he painted a solitary one in a frame. He is the champion of oneness. Picasso made duos - one plus one, or two. This already creates tension. Art and mathematics are related to each other. Rhythm, numbers, geometry, tension - these are all mathematical notions, and they are at the basis of painting, as well as music.
— The dialectic between one and two also exists in any other subject-matter. For instance, is a self-portrait one or two? When art seeks to observe nature, to refer to it, immediately differentiation and distinction take place. It wants to be one with the object, which still remains an object. The schizophrenia of likeness and difference has been at the basis of art since its beginning, it is at its very origin. A girl paints her beloved going to battle - is it him, or just his likeness on the wall? In art there is always a dialectic between imitation of reality and its preservation.
— In the final analysis, life matters more than art. The sculpture "A Gravestone for Narcissus" [?], created in the 1970s, was my first "Credo". It consisted of two parts: a randomly chosen rock, and a clay sculpture which was a portrait of that rock. The clay was supposed to crumble in time, while the rock, nature, would remain. To me, art is a tool that allows us a different look at life, not vice versa. Art is only a means of changing life, making it better.