Mr Paranoia VII 20.10.72 (No. 106) 1972 1972 is a large, horizontally orientated work by the British conceptual artist Bob Law. The composition consists of a rough delineation of the outline of a rhomboid shape that has been drawn in black marker pen running close to the edges of the canvas. The remainder of the canvas is unprimed and unpainted, so that the composition largely consists of a blank central space. At the bottom right corner of the rhomboid, positioned along its lower edge, the work’s date has been written numerically in marker pen.
This work is one of a group of fourteen made by Law between 1969 and 1972 at his home studio in Twickenham, West London. Seven of the paintings in the series are entitled Mister Paranoia and seven are called Nothing to be Afraid Of, and each work consists of a black line forming an irregular rhomboid drawn close to the edge of the canvas, with the painting’s date written numerically on the bottom right (see Nothing to be Afraid Of IV 15.08.1969 1969, Tate T12144). The uneven quality of the rhomboid is emphasised by the blankness of the raw canvas and the artist explained his use of the shape in 1975, stating that the ‘rectangle was too perfect, while the rhomboid created a tension’ (quoted in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, Tate Gallery, London 1975, p.185).
Further tension is produced through the ambiguous nature of the work’s title, which reflects the uncertain status of painting in the 1960s. Law had attended the influential exhibition New American Painting at the Tate Gallery in London in 1959 that included the works of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, among others. Art historian Anna Lovatt has highlighted the impact of these American colour field painters, with their large, flat planes of solid tone, on Law’s work (Lovatt 2009, p.18). By the late 1960s, American art critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried – in essays such as Greenberg’s ‘Recentness of Sculpture’ (1967) and Fried’s ‘Art and Objecthood’ (1967) – sought to distinguish between the modernist painting of the 1940s and 1950s and the minimalist and monochromatic work emerging in the 1960s. As Lovatt notes, Greenberg suggested that the monochromatic paintings of artists such as Yves Klein and Ad Reinhardt had rendered the ‘look of void’ tame and ineffectual (Lovatt 2009, p.18). In his paintings and drawings of the 1960s, Law worked between the poles of fullness and emptiness represented by the colour field painters and the minimalist artists that followed. (See, for example, the juxtaposition between the empty form of his Drawing 24.4.60 1960, Tate T01774, and the filled-in composition of his Drawing 25.4.60 1960, Tate T01775.) As Lovatt concludes:
I am not suggesting that Law was engaged in an explicit dialogue with Greenbergian modernism, but rather that the anxiety latent in his work of the 1960s was symptomatic of a crisis in picture-making that characterised the art of that decade. The struggles that Greenberg articulated in his criticism – between the picture and the object, visual plenitude and the void – were played out visually in Law’s work of the same period.
(Lovatt 2009, p.18.)
The specific significance of the empty rhomboid is better understood in the context of Law’s overall artistic development. In 1958, while living and working in an artistic community in St Ives, Cornwall, Law was encouraged by British abstract artists Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon to abandon representational drawing in favour of abstraction, and as a result began making a group of works entitled The Field Drawings which were concerned with the complete physical, mental and spiritual immersion of the artist in his or her environment in order to produce the artwork. These are closely connected both formally and conceptually to the Mister Paranoia and Nothing to be Afraid Of series. Along with sharing a clearly articulated conceptual framework, the Field Drawings also feature a large irregular rhomboid shape drawn close to the edges of the paper and are dated on the bottom right (see, for example, Landscape VIII 1959, Tate T13318).
Law continued his preoccupation with the rhomboid form and numerical dating system when he returned to London in 1960. In 1975 Law described a series of similarly blank works as ‘mirrors’, explaining that they are
like a mirror to the viewer because of the physical emptiness – the viewer is suddenly aware that he is without reference points and his whole subjective reasoning collapses, he finds himself alone looking at a practically blank canvas – at this point he either rejects it or gets turned on by the Idea of the Idea in front of him. So in fact one only gets back from the work what one projects into it.
(Quoted in Lovatt 2009, p.19.)
Law’s work represents, according to Lovatt, ‘an alternative tradition of art and thought in which numerical series and blank surfaces are a means of grappling with metaphysical questions’ (Lovatt 2009, p.21).
Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert (eds.), Bob Law: A Retrospective, London 2009.
‘Bob Law in conversation with Richard Cork, April 1974’, reprinted in Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert (eds.), Bob Law: A Retrospective, London 2009, pp.33–9.
Anna Lovatt, ‘Drawing Degree Zero’, in Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert (eds.), Bob Law: A Retrospective, London 2009, pp.14–24.
Supported by Christie’s.