Painting as Process
With his nonrepresentational paintings, Marc Schmitz takes a position emphatically distinguished from the prevailing trends in current painting and, at the same time, picks up a tradition that started at the beginning of the last century and has evoked controversial disputes up to the present. Ever since Kasimir Malevich set his Black Square on a white background – in his words, “[…] the naked icon of my time […] What is royal in its taciturnity” – artists with various motivations have made attempts to place the hegemony of color above mimetic depiction. Malevich’s assertion that every painterly surface was “more alive than any face containing a pair of eyes and a smile. The face painted in a picture is a miserable parody of life and merely a hint at, a reminder of what is alive” is the culmination of a stance that began in Gustave Courbet’s work; by ennobling everyday subjects, Courbet made it clear that there must be no limits in regard to the “substantive” conception of a depiction. The 20th-century avant-garde’s turn away from representation in painting ultimately led, since the 1950s, to an artistic research program on the part of abstractly working artists who methodically took as their theme the materiality of the picture and the diverging processes of its production. The American Color Field painters – for example, Jules Olitzki and Larry Poons – and the painters who were introduced under such terms as Radical, Fundamental, Analytical, or Essential Painting were interested in various ways in a reduction to essential elements of the medium, i.e., the substance of the paint and the manner of its application, its organization in the interior space of the canvas, and the character of the surface to which the paint was applied. To turn this flat surface that, to speak with the painter Maurice Denis, “is covered with colors in a specific order”, into a painting, it must become clear (if we follow Clement Greenberg’s doctrine of modern painting, which postulates the negation of illusionism) that the “the proper and true subject of every […] art is precisely what is exclusively inherent in the essence of the respective medium.” That means that the conveyers of expression themselves embody a picture’s particular nature, its “content”, and its “idea” and that their effects want to be experienced in their function as object of depiction.
Mark Schmitz is equally interested in the demonstration of the body-like presence of paints, their consistency, their emotional aura, and their mutual influence. He applies them over each other in many layers, observes the behavior of each layer, and then modifies their appearance with renewed intervention until the result expresses his idea. The unequal covering capacity of viscous or thin paint mixtures has the result that, up to the conclusion of his work on the picture, the superimposed layers can shine through or appear as minimal traces at the edges. These shimmering transparencies – sometimes produced by adding turpentine – constitute pulsating vibrations and cloudy, burgeoning formations on the paint-soaked surface and relativize the initial impression of homogeneous-seeming levels. The monochromatic thickenings of the “skin” of paint are broken up, providing variety: over central passages, Schmitz pours small amounts of paint or turpentine whose dripping or splattering patterns owe their formation and extension to guided randomness. Such additions influence the pictorial space as independently effective structures, as do the limited painterly interventions with which the artist exerts influence on their atmosphere. He places minimal signals like points and dashes with colors deviating from the basic color of the surface and he constructs complex draftsmanlike systems with figurative allusions; he scribblingly hints at repetitive, enciphered lines of writing; and he notes with hurried brushstrokes short sentences like “I am still alive” or “change your life”, as if he were not composing a painting, but conceiving graffiti for the wall of a building. With such fragmentary additions, Marc Schmitz interferes with the reserved stillness of what happens in the picture by leaving behind personal traces that go beyond the delicate chromatic reworkings that are the primary shapers of the surfaces. This design is determined by a considered, unpretentious disposition of the paints. Horizontal or vertical, sometimes blended or optically impenetrable solid masses of brushstroke sequences allow the viewer to deduce the painterly activity, which aims to reshape the material surface into an immaterial pictorial space.
A regular, harmonious rhythm in the use of the brush organizes the coloristically thrifty texture; the intentional but seemingly incidental interweaving of small but compositionally relevant details – like a small error that counteracts the overall impression, a supposedly inattentively executed scraping, or streaks in a contrasting color integrated in the course of a thick brushstroke – convey a feeling of controlled spontaneity in the context of a strictly rationally designed all-over composition. By directing the viewer’s attention to confusing details of the pattern, Marc Schmitz underscores the influence of a processual approach that integrates the unforeseen and ultimately leads to the result. And thus, a black poured from the upper edge across the white of a canvas piles up, then streams in disorder in narrow, tapering paths over the vertical surface (#72 Bogdo Khan). These divide the space into segments and display the meaning of the white priming coat as an independently effective color component. This is also true when Schmitz lets these segments stand in the vibrating spaces between the broad stroke of vertically extended dark paths or when light stripes assert themselves in the lower zones, rhythmically separated, vitalized, and brought into contrast with the dominant hermetic zones by fibrous drips of paints congealed on their descent during the work process.
Marc Schmitz’s ability to make not only the material conditions, but also the painterly gesture at least hypothetically traceable adopts the viewer as an active partner, from whom he demands patience and empathy, but at the same time enables to sense aesthetic qualities and to participate in his own individual idea born of experience and inspiration, an idea whose energetic potential manifests itself in a manner that can be physically experienced. Schmitz confronts the viewer with a kind of painting that tells us about itself, the concrete inherent life of its ingredients, the criteria of its sensitive and mutable materiality, and its manipulability, a kind of painting that expands the field of perception by provoking the senses. In the interplay of coloration, luminescence, and structural qualities, the essence of a work is characterized and the statement formulated. Information on the changeability of color tones – for example, by applying patina – and a balancing nuancing of tonality that lets the picture surface breathe, as well as legible indications of Schmitz’s planning and realization of the act of painting (of the temporality of his intuitively traceable gestures while applying the substances and washes and composing cold and warm contrasts) converge as knowledge about the work itself. In the attempt to approach Marc Schmitz’s work, a remark of Samuel Beckett’s about a painter he esteemed, Bram van Velde, could be helpful: “He asserts. He notes. His means have the special quality of a speculum, they exist solely in connection with their function. He is not interested enough in them to question them. He is interested only in what they mirror.”