What I say to myself— who says it? Who does he say it to?
—Antonio Porchia, "Voices"
In his current show at the Peter Blum Gallery in Soho, Rudolf de Crignis presents two groups of works, one essentially blue and one essentially gray. For de Crignis, like Yves Klein, ultramarine blue is his primary vehicle, but unlike Klein he uses it with other colors. Series of gray paintings emerge from a dialogue of complementary colors. A modest brochure details what information you need in order to be able to see the work. Everything has been done with an eye to precision.
Last spring I saw Rudolf de Crignis’s installation of monochrome paintings at the Bonn Museum in the former capital of West Germany. The conditions for viewing them were just right, though I would never have known that until I found them there in a light that enabled me to see into the particular depth of their surfaces.
These paintings are made by building up layers of semi-transparent paint in glazes until a kind of membrane-like surface is achieved that is permeable from both sides. In just the right light, a natural light preferably, you can sense a penetration through the discrete layers that bounces the light back from the original grounding layer and informs you of the depth and density traversed. Once seen this plastic experience becomes a memory that makes the membrane visible in any other light.
In the world of these experiences the object becomes a paradigm of the act of seeing it and so it raises the question of which came first, your knowing of it or your seeing of it.
Seeing de Crignis’s work in Bonn immediately evoked a memory of a mental image formed some years before when I was reading Delueze’s reading of Leibnitz. He is describing the imperative for the body in relation to mind in the experience of knowing/perceiving. I envisioned this complex interaction of the inner and outer worlds as a membrane permeable from both sides with an infinity of monads pressing forward to negotiate the transition. Whatever effected one side was inevitably reflected on the other, however it was being mediated by the interpenetration of the monads. It was possible for me to see in de Crignis’s painting a subtle and precise rendering of this delicate membrane since I already knew of it.
In the spacious room of Blum’s gallery there are moments when the light reflecting back through these interior layers of colors make the resulting grays seem quite luminous. This challenge to Wittgenstein’s proposition that "Whatever looks luminous does not look gray. Everything gray looks as though it is being illuminated" can be reasoned in several ways. Though these gray paintings seem to be both gray and luminous— they are not. The gray is composed of discrete layers of color. And rather than being luminous, they are being illuminated by light reflecting back off the grounds the color is layered upon.
Yet these paintings look gray and luminous. It is only through reasoning we know that they are not. In setting appearance at odds with substance, de Crignis confronts the eye with the mind reminding us that the relationship between knowing and seeing is a live one.
There are not really any new concerns here; the concerns de Crignis raises are old ones. When I first recognized what they were it struck me with what courage such delicate and fragile work must be transported to the world.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.