Summary

Untitled 1.5.87 1987 initially appears to be a black monochromatic painting with a thin border, delineated by a ruled pencil line, painted a much darker black around the edges of the paper. However, closer inspection shows that this apparently black surface is the result of a large number of layers of different colours that have been painted over each other. Through the 1960s and 1970s Law painted a number of black paintings – in acrylic paint on canvas – layering different colours in a similar way to arrive at a sense of black (see, for example, No.62 [Black/Blue/Violet/Blue] 1967, Tate T02092). The later group of watercolours of which Untitled 1.5.87 is a part, offers a reprise of the impulse that lay behind these earlier paintings. Law explained at the time:

I did this series of black watercolours – which include all the colours – red, yellow, blue, green and purple – layers and layers and layers of thin watercolour built up until you get this blackness with all the depth of the colour in it. I did a series of about sixty over a period of eighteen months. More or less the same technique only watercolour instead of acrylic.
(‘From an interview with Bob Law [1989]’, Bob Law, exhibition catalogue, Newlyn Art Gallery 1999, p.8.)

A comparison of this work with another of the watercolours from the series, Untitled 29.8.87 1987 (Tate T05041), is indicative not only of the ways in which Law executed these paintings, but also reveals how the process of painting washes of different colours on top of each other leads to an expression of blackness or darkness that is intensely various in its effects. The later painting, dated 29 August, is much darker overall than that painted in May, but with areas of blue, yellow and red appearing to bleed in from the darker painted border. The final wash for the earlier Untitled 1.5.87 does not fill the central area and so greater areas of bleed or ‘bloom’ of the different colours are more immediately visible and emphasise how grey, as opposed to black, the central area is – the white of the paper still partially acting on the translucent washes. The assessment of the critic Adrian Searle was thus only partly correct when he wrote that the:

usual transparency and luminosity [of the watercolour medium] are gone, replaced by dense, evocative darkness. Only faint glimmers remain. Nuances or imperfections, tide-lines left by the drying paint, variations in the absorbency of the paper (which was subjected to layer after layer of wash in different hues) – all contribute to this effect. The surfaces are a donnish black, a corpse of a colour framed by an edge of even heavier black stained deep into the handmade paper.
(Adrian Searle, ‘Bob Law’, Artforum, May 1988, p.161.)

Art historian Tony Godfrey’s view that ‘these works have an appeal to romanticism: the void or the sublime glimpsed through a temperament’s nuances’ (Tony Godfrey, ‘Alan Charlton at Victoria Miro, Bob Law at Karsten Schubert’, Art in America, June 1988, p.170) is in this sense more sympathetic to Law’s aims. Law wished his black paintings to invite profound contemplation by the viewer. For Law himself they were about his own ‘self-discovery, the discovery of my relationship with nature … I thought of the black paintings as having no beginning and no end; the complete object’ (‘Bob Law in conversation with Richard Cork, April 1974’, in Bob Law Black Paintings 1965–70, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art Oxford 1974, unpaginated, reprinted in Saltoun and Schubert 2009, p.39). Just as the painting might be ‘the complete object’, so Law also wanted ‘the viewer to see the painting as a total experience’ (Bob Law, ‘Some Notes on the Essence of My Work’ [1977], reprinted in Bob Law Paintings and Drawings 1959–78, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1978, unpaginated).

Bob Law made a significant contribution to the growth of the languages of minimal and conceptual art in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. His work emerged in the late 1950s in the context of the impact of the New York School on British art by 1959, and the related desire among many British artists of that period to tackle the subject of landscape through an abstract idiom ultimately derived from American sources. Law aligned himself with the Situation group of artists who brought an urban sensibility to such a project, even if Law stood rather apart from many of the artists associated with this group in that his interests were more concerned with the adequate presentation of ideas and the play of philosophy through painting.

Untitled 1.5.87 was first exhibited in Bob Law Black Watercolours at Karsten Schubert, London in 1988.

Further reading
Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert (eds.), Bob Law: A Retrospective, London 2009.

Andrew Wilson
October 2011