Ingo Nussbaumer the notion of the gaze

One has to place the world in the subject, so that the subject is for the world. (1)
Gilles Deleuze

"… all, however, let painting emerge from the shadow of a person drawn with lines" (2) This is how Plinius the Elder describes the way the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans envisioned the origin of painting. In another passage, he cites a fable which is later referred to as the story about the invention of painting. This remark is necessary, as the fable does in fact describe the invention of sculpture. The episode on painting appears to have been thrown in for good measure:

But enough and more than enough about painting, as sculpture has yet to be added. The product of the same earth (3) prompted the potter Butades of Sicyon to form similar shapes from clay in response to his daughter’s initiative. Out of love for a young man who went abroad, she drew the silhouette of his face lit by a light on the wall with lines, whereupon her father put clay on it. He put it in the fire with the other pottery to harden it and finally he exhibited it […] (4)

This fable of Cora (5), the daughter of the potter Butades, was sometimes also stylized as the myth (6) of the origin of painting so that certain passages in the story could be interpreted as having more meaning. For instance: it is "a love threatened by separation and want that leads to the invention of painting." (7) In whatever way this story is grasped, as a fable or a myth, it describes a mimetic configuration of painting, when Cora used a slate-pencil to scratch the contours of the silhouette into the wall and reproduced them, as it were. The discovery of the mimetic structure in connection with light and shadow and – so to speak – the urge, to follow this trace or this inscription of light and shadow, reflects a conditio sine qua non of painting. By contrast, the heuretic (8) configuration of painting, i. e., the one that is inspired by inner images of ideas, found much more expression in a conceptual discourse already beginning in classical antiquity. (9) It underscores the spiritual character or the origin of painting in anticipatory ideas (notiones anticipate).

In the 17th century, Zuccari (10), for instance, introduced the concepts Disegno esterno (drawing after an external model) and Disegno interno (drawing after an internal model) which allowed him to contrast the mimetic and heuretic nature of art. The Disegno interno was described here as having various characteristics. It is something imagined, an inner concept created in the mind. The object of the intellect (and not the object of sensuality); order, rule and divine spark (11) The decisive aspect of Zuccari’s art theory is the emphasis of the ideal dimension of art. But it was always bound to a notion of painting as objective art even if emanating from the mind. This – as I put it – bound (as opposed to free) heuretic configuration of painting was dissolved by the time painting moved to abstract forms.

Some other symptoms and transitions can be described to illustrate the difference between the older heuretic configuration and the modern one. In this context, the juxtaposition of disegno (drawing) and colore (color) certainly plays an important role. (12) In older art theory, scores of representatives of one or the other movement were engaged in a struggle over the predominance of color or drawing. Historically speaking, this culminated in the debate of the Poussinists and the Rubenists on the strictly linear and the free style of painting. The Rubenists held the view that the sharply delineated contour linearism (on which antiquity’s model of sculpture was also based) was to be discarded, especially since it was impossible even in nature to find sharply delineated lines of a drawing. (13) Only after Delacroix, in the 19th century, drew a conceptual distinction between a contour drawing (dessin par le contour) and an (internal) volume drawing (dessin par les milieux) certain ideals of traditional drawing were shattered by the polarization of disegno and colore. "Delacroix draws and paints in a comparable way. He paints the way he draws, by subjecting painting and drawing to quite similar principles, the point always being to proceed from something undifferentiated to a differentiated form[…]. Matter[…] is, in Delacroix’s understanding, something primal, with which and from which design emerges." (14) Here forms of thinking and production (poietic configuration) (15) are anticipated, resulting in a modern heuretic configuration, which not only distinguishes itself through a new negation of a simply mimetic configuration. It also represents a specific way of thinking and dealing with the object to be formed, with the material and forms, also by unbiassedly accepting its intention. (16) This not only involves following a trace, an inscription of light and shadow, brightness and darkness, as said above, but a resolute creation of traces, a heuretic poiesis of artistic form.

This means that the bounded heuretic configuration of the older version of painting is confronted with a free one in the new version. Yet even here controversies on painting and drawing remain. Frank Stella, for instance, commented on abstract expressionism, in particular of Pollock and de Kooning, as follows. "Despite everything it was basically drawing with color that defined twentieth century painting. The way I developed my painting, drawing became more useless. But this was exactly what I didn’t want to happen. I didn’t want to draw with a brush." (17) Stella wanted to say that his way of thinking distances itself more and more from the polarization of drawing and painting. It is a neither-nor of artistic form, an athetic and non-synthetic configuration, even though he makes use of the element of the line and the element of the color in his work. "Not the elements are new, but the way they relate" (18)

I introduced the expression ‘athetic’ to demonstrate this neither-nor in a certain way. Speaking in terms of propositional logic, the widely used neither-nor is a rejection or negating conjunction, i.e., the statement (made by this combination of nei-ther-nor) holds true precisely if and only if both parts of the statement are not true and not applicable. As this statement deals specifically with the two terms ‘drawing’ and ‘painting’, a combination of these two terms is excluded, that is, it is denied that there can be a synthesis (combination) of these terms in a quasi higher conceptual unity. Simply put, the matter to be assessed does not lend itself to being satisfactorily subsumed under these terms. I call this relation athetic, because these two terms express arguments that are neither opposing nor corroborating. This way ‘either-or’ as well as ‘both-and’ are omitted as candidates for elements normally used in thetic-antithetic and synthetic wording. Regarding the terms used, something different than a mere classification in conceptual terms or their standardization is called for. They are supposed to produce a different sort of delineation, the main function being not to render irrelevant the elements connected with the respective term. On the contrary, they call for a new positioning. Thus, for instance, the line as an element of drawing as well as color as an element of painting must be reconsidered and reconfigured. A new configuration, a new kind, or new term, comes into being which need not be verbalized but deciphered anew as to the elements constituting it. As a rule one of these two terms of expression comes to bear when applied formally. It is given an attribute of ‘the new’ (unspecified or specified), for example, ‘new painting’, ‘new drawing’, ‘wild painting’. I call a procedure athetic when it follows the principles mentioned here.

The athetic procedure is frequently applied in art theoretical discourse – without resorting to the term only introduced by me here – and deliberately used to differentiate. To illustrate what I have said here, let me cite two artists. Barnett Newman: "The new painting is neither abstract nor surrealist, even though it uses abstract shapes and imaginative subject matter. Neither is it both, as many claim, who see in it a fusion of the abstract and surrealist, particularly Miró’s style. It only stems from these two movements. It is a new form that is creating a new kind of plastic expression." (19)

Donald Judd: "At least half of the best new works created over the last years can neither be called paintings nor sculptures. As a rule they have ben ascribed more or less directly to the one or other field." (20)

Although Peter Wechsler has made the line his favorite element, resolutely employing it in his work, inscribing it with the pencil on primed and pigmented paper (21), it is not simply drawing, or deliberate drawing. In keeping with the original meaning of drawing, it is a "depicting with lines or strokes”, an "expressing, indicating, reproducing by means of signs" (22) which shows that there is a certain mimetic term of depiction linked to it. This, however, would be no reason to reject the term of drawing on the grounds of its use only, as it can be defined anew any time. Here we should instead say that a line is being used in a certain way, resulting in a dense structure whose overall impression keeps us from calling it a drawing. The line is used in an ongoing process of condensing, meshing, spatial intertwining, out of which spots of concentrated material crystallize. Thus the emergence of a graphic form or a mere disegno is prevented. The challenge, for Wechsler, is the resistance of the material towards the medium (hard lead pencil/rough paper) and vice versa, pursuing it like an explorer of material and pushing the resulting inscription to a subtle, utmost limit of material obstinacy. The surfaces thus created not only shine and shimmer, this process also reveals parts with a velvety look. A characteristic style emerges in this dense structure which declares itself neither strictly as drawing nor clearly as painting, even though the element of the line and the material is used to the full, that is to say, the elements become an athetic configuration.

The artist himself describes the way he begins a painting as follows: "Everywhere at the same time, that’s how it begins with the lines. The hand jumps to every point of the surface, with preferred directions developing in the process of intensified density." (23) A geometry of the hand comes to the fore, leading on to further linking and meshing. Peter Wechsler’s work is an organic construction that does not evolve externally according to a (mathematical or natural) pattern, but internally according to "an image of an overall impression that is to be expected" (24), that is to say, it is prospective.

In some respect, Wechsler’s work could be described as "radical painting" in the sense of "having reached the utmost limit of the medium" if this term had not already been used to describe the position of some painters of the ‘80s. However, the visual metaphysics evoked in the theoretical conception of these painters seems philosophically intolerable. In the text "Outside the Cartouche" that accompanied four exhibitions of Joseph Marioni and Günther Umberg in 1986, radical painting is described as a nearly exclusive object of sensation: "Radical painting is an object of sensation, not a vehicle to transport information..." (25) This position culminates in the sentence: "The sensation that painting is, does not represent, re-present or transfer anything other than itself. It is the thing-in-itself. It is not abstract, it is not a language. It is a primordial sensation, active and actual." (26) This quotation clearly alludes to a sensationalist essentialism that ascribes the meaning of the thing-in-itself which a work of art should be, that is, of the True and Real of painting itself, to the sensual perception. This attitude is both philosophically naive and inacceptable from the position of art theory.

We do not claim that there is no room for sensual perception. On the contrary, it is one of the essential meanings of the work, but only one. Meaning is thus reduced to only one aspect. In this respect I agree with Cézanne. "You have to ponder, the eye is not sufficient, thinking is called for. The work and deliberation must develop a feeling for color." (27) ‘Thinking’ with material, be it pencil or color, is an essential prerequisite of the artist’s work and the artwork so that it does not become trivial. Concrete thinking and doing informs the senses, enhancing sensual perception. A purely sensational approach renders thinking abstract and non-concrete vis-à-vis things. At some other point I have introduced, in this context, the term perceptual act, (28) indicating that the artistic understanding of the creative potential of material and forms, i. e., the objective understanding of certain skills, is always linked with thinking and doing.

In Peter Wechsler this context seems to be a matter of fact, as there always has to be thinking beside doing in order to obtain the desired manifestation of the inner image. This is expressed not only in his careful selection of material, the decisions he makes regarding the directions taken by the lines in the sequence of perceptual acts and the expected overall image. It is evident in particular in his avoiding any automatisms, be they psychological with associative chains of images, be they those of the hand moving in an absent-minded way without any sensation. There is also no automatism that, by producing certain conditions, leaves the material to react in its own specific chemical-physical way, stylizing the artist as a distanced observer and speaking of avoiding the formalistic-subjective criteria. We can say that in a seemingly objective way the category of formal and material density figures significantly in Peter Wechsler’s conception of art.

This leads me to another issue that deals with two terms interchangeably, a condensed notion of art and the idea of the gaze. Together they constitute the athetic function of drawing and painting. Lacan and Bryson provided a first account of the idea of the gaze, (29) dealing with the disrupted position of the subject from an anthropocentric point of view. The idea of the gaze implies the idea of the Other looking back. However, it does not mean ‘that the object becomes an anthropomorphized subject." (30) Peter Eisenmann tries to follow this up, using the term fold (31) coined by Gilles Deleuze. "For Deleuze the fold expresses a new relationship between the basic categories of the traditional way of looking, for example, between the vertical and horizontal, figure and ground, inside and outside. Differentiated from the space of the classical way of viewing, the idea of folded space transcends the fixation of perception in favor of a temporal modulation. Through folding the planimetric projection is no longer given preference. There is a variable curvature instead. Deleuze’s idea of folding is much more radical than Origami’s, since the folding contains neither a narrative nor a linear sequence. It has the quality of the non-seen in relation to traditional spatial viewing" (32), which is paraphrased with the Moebius strip where there is a continuous connection between inside and outside.

Undermining traditional categories of stratification and fixations of viewing results in a dissolving of the usual subject orientation. "One no longer covers up, letting something rise, pile up, build up, overlap, fold. This is a rising of the ground..." (33) The elements are not simply being spread over the surface and the spatial image but intertwined, crossed. It seems necessary to subject them to a process of curving and irritation so that they are not merely placed or distributed in a composition but instead form a dense network of spatial tensions and easing of tensions. "The matter of folding is a matter of time... To be brief, provided that folding is not juxtaposed to "unfolding", it is a tension – easing of tension, contracting-expanding, compressing-exploding." (34)

With Wechsler, the planimetric way of viewing is disrupted to a large degree, the spatial image is creased and folded through the material concentration (materialization), and the inside and outside are somehow softened. As the topside and downside, inside and outside (sensual perception – matter) are disturbed in the meshed, intertwined, knotted network of lines, the handwritten is erased, the open closed, the closed opened, the scattered collected, the composed scattered. The eye gives up its habitual way of viewing and becomes drawn into the tension of the object, into a loop of seeing and being seen. All these factors play with an element of time. It is important to note that Peter Wechsler’s works are created over a very long, labour-intensive period of time. Time fades into space." The lines are supposed to appear solidified in a concise form." (35) "Let me say something about the fact that I sometimes need a lot of time to finish a work. I cultivate an anachronistic attitude towards time. Intertwined in the network of space, grown into knotted points there are: point of beginning = last stop = point of aim = midpoint of lines = peripheric center = respective center = starting point = last stop = full stop." (36)

The idea of viewing would not stand any chance of developing for Peter Wechsler, if he did not follow a specific configuration of density and the specific qualities and possibilities of the material: paper, priming coat, color, pencil, and if all these elements combined were not pursued to the point of auto-poiesis or self-renunciation (Selbstentäußerung) in the Hegelian sense. The condensing reveals qualities and creative potential of the matter not limited to the subjective possibilities of creativity. At the same time, expressive desire is not restricted to a renunciation of material itself through its physical objectivation. The dense understanding of art includes a concept of material channeled into a poietic configuration, while taking into account creative potential. Material given form in Peter Wechsler’s work thinks, as it were. This a decisive point. In this respect the artist’s work is also radical.

Translated from German into English by Camilla Nielsen.


Gilles Deleuze, Die Falte, Leibniz und der Barock, Frankfurt am Main 1996, p. 48 back
Cajus Plinius Secundus, Naturgeschichte, book 35, V, Stuttgart 1856, 31. volume, p. 3953 back
The author means earth in a straightforward sense. back
Ibid., XLIII, p. 4019 back
In Athenagoras (leget. Pro Chist, c.14) the daughter of the potter Butades is named Cora. back
The historical transformation from fable to myth would merit a separate study. The same could also be said of an aspect that has yet to be considered, namely the category of "gender", since we are dealing with a woman here who is ascribed as "being the inventor of painting". back
Michael Wetzel, Die Wahrheit nach der Malerei, Munich 1997, p. 22 back
The juxtaposition of "heuretic – mimetic" was taken from Ewin Panofsky’s conceptual repertoire, cf. Idea, Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunsttheorie, Berlin 1989. back
Cf. Ibid. back
Federico Zuccari, L’Idea de’ Pittori, Scultori et Architetti, Turin 1607 back
"It is often, but always in the same sense, defined as cosa immaginata, as concetto interno formato nella mente, as oggetto dell’intelletto, as ordine, regola, even as scintilla della divinità..." Max Imdahl, Farbe, Kunsttheoretische Reflexionen in Frankreich, Munich 1987, p. 36 back
cf. in addition to Max Imdahl (ibid.), Lorenz Dittman, Farbgestaltung und Farbtheorie in der abendländischen Malerei, Darmstadt 1987 back
Cf. Max Imdahl, ibid. back
Ibid., p. 90 back
The expression "poietic" is derived from the Greek word "poiesis" which generally refers to poetry. However, its original meaning was "production, creation, manufacture". In Plato and Aristotle it was used in a different context, referring to the tripartite division of science in theory, practice and poeiesis, i.e., the conceptual or mental view, practice, and production. back
Cf. my notion of intentional design and the notion of intention the usual meaning of which has been altered in: Ingo Nussbaumer, Malerei als Proposition, Konzept (– Intention –) Dimension, Vienna. Intention is understood there as the specificity or directedness of an empirical object in terms of its potential capability. The latter is present in perception though a special way of intuitive apprehension and can be actualized though an act. back
Bruce Glaser, Fragen an Stella and Judd, in: Minimal Art, eine kritische Retrospektive, Basle 1995, p. 45 back
Ibid., in this interview, D. Judd, p. 41 back
Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews, p. 150, NY 1990. back
Donald Judd, Spezifische Objekte, aus: Minimal Art, Eine kritische Retrospektive, Dresden-Basle, 1995, p. 59 back
"inscription" here alludes to Derrida’s notion of "inscription" which is to be read in a more universal sense as the mere "generating of a character". back
Duden, Das Herkunftswörterbuch (Etymological Dictionary), Mannheim 1963, p. 777 back
Peter Wechsler, Notizen für einen Freund, 1977, unpublished. back
Ibid. back
Joseph Marioni/G. Umberg, Outside the Cartouche, Zu Fragen des Betrachters in der radikalen Malerie, Munich 1986, p. 10 back
Ibid., p. 12, emphasis, italics new back
Conversations with Cézanne, Zurich 1982, p. 115 back
Ingo Nussbaumer, Malerei als Proposition, Wien 1997 p. 18 back
Norman Bryson, The gaze in the expanded field, in: Hal Foster, Vision and Visuality, Seattle 1988, 104 ff, taken from Peter Eisenman, Aura und Exzeß, Zur Überwindung der Metaphysik in der Architektur, Vienna 1995, p. 208 back
Peter Eisenman, ibid., p. 210 back
The fold extending into infinity is a characteristic of the Baroque age. First, it differentiates in two directions, in two infinities, just as if infinity possessed two stages: the folds of matter and the folds of the soul." Gilles Deleuze, Die Falte, Leibniz and der Barock, Frankfurt am Main, 1996, p. 11 back
Ibid., p.211 back
Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guatarri, Was ist Philosophie?, Frankfurt am Main 1996, p. 231 back
Gilles Deleuze, Die Falte, Leibniz und der Barock, Frankfurt am Main 1996, pp. 17-18 back
Peter Wechsler, notes to a friend, 1997, unpublished. back
Ibid. back