Bob Law Untitled 29.8.87 1987

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Artwork details

Artist
Bob Law 1934–2004
Title
Untitled 29.8.87
Date 1987
Medium Watercolour on paper
Dimensions Support: 562 x 763 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by Edward Lee through Karsten Schubert Ltd 1988
Reference
T05041
Not on display

Catalogue entry

T05041 Untitled 29.8.87 1987

Watercolour on handmade wove paper 562 × 763 (22 1/4 × 30)
Inscribed ‘Bob Law 29.8.87’ on back b.l.; embossed with the artist's stamp ‘MIND ROPE CO.’ b.r.
Presented by Edward Lee through Karsten Schubert Ltd 1988
Exh: Bob Law: Recent Works, Karsten Schubert Ltd, Feb.–March 1988 (no cat.)
Lit: Adrian Searle, ‘Bob Law’, Artforum, vol.26, no.9, May 1988, p.161; Tony Godfrey, ‘Alan Charlton at Victoria Miro and Bob Law at Karsten Schubert’, Art in America, vol.76, no.6, June 1988, pp.169, 171

This work is one of a series of watercolours known as the ‘black’ watercolours which the artist began working on in 1987. It consists of a central rectangular area painted a matt greyish-black with a darker black border of about one inch in width all around. On close examination, small areas of bright colour - pink, yellow, green and blue - can be seen in places through the black, particularly at the edges of the paper and at the point where the painted border meets the inner rectangle. The border extends to the edges of the paper so that no area is left unpainted.

In an interview given on Australian radio on 25 March 1989 (‘Gotham City Gossip’, 3RRR-FM, Sydney), the artist explained that he had produced approximately sixty black watercolours over a period of some eighteen months. Of these, not all were successful and a number had been destroyed. In conversation with the compiler on 7 December 1994, Karsten Schubert, the artist's dealer, said that he thought there were in fact only about thirty-five extant. The majority of the surviving water-colours date from between February and the end of November 1987. Fifteen, including T05041, were exhibited at Karsten Schubert Ltd from February to March 1988. An installation photograph showing four of these works is reproduced in Artforum, May 1988, p.161.

During the 1960s Law had made large black paintings on canvas in which layers of colour were gradually built up, one on top of the other, until a black surface was produced (see T02092, ‘No.62 (Black/Blue/Violet/Blue)’ 1967, repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976–8, 1979, p.105). The history of these works is documented in an interview with Richard Cork, published in the catalogue of Law's solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1974. In this interview the artist talked about his black paintings:

They're black, or blackish, because that's the pigment which works. It makes a big pool, it sucks the light in rather than out, and you can't quite focus on the pigmentation because the eye is trying to find the right wavelength, the pupil oscillates in its attempt to get the right colour vibration. It can't quite make it, and so you get this hovering hole.

(‘Bob Law in Conversation with Richard Cork’ in Bob Law: 10 Black Paintings 1965–70, exh. cat.,
Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1974, [p.6])

The black watercolours followed on from these early paintings. In the 1989 radio interview cited above Law explained: ‘A lot of people wanted black paintings and there weren't any left - they had all been purchased. So I did this series of black watercolours which included all the colours - red, yellow, blue, green, purple - layers and layers and layers of thin watercolour built up until you get this blackness with all the depth of colour in.’

In conversation with the compiler on 3 April 1990, Law described how he made T05041 and the related watercolours. He worked on them flat on the white floor of his studio. Sometimes he would arrange the sheets of paper side by side and work on them together. Different colours would be sluiced over the paper, flooding it, and then brushed out before he began using another colour. He experimented with different types of handmade papers since these reacted to the water in different ways and rejected those with a distracting texture. The edges were always painted last in a deeper black to separate them from the central area of paint. Discussing his early black paintings in the 1974 interview with Richard Cork, Law described this process of working on the edge and the field separately: ‘I developed a system, overall on the first coat, then doing the field, then maybe doing the field again, and then the edge. You alternate it, always bringing in an overall coat which brings the middle and the edge together ... One set of pigments feeds the other’ (Oxford exh. cat., 1974 [pp.9–10, 11]).

This preoccupation with the separate areas of ‘field’ and ‘edge’ has been at the centre of Law's work since 1959. His early ‘field’ paintings had been characterised by areas of colour separated from the edge of the canvas by narrow borders of a different colour. These paintings were all later destroyed and are not reproduced. In 1960 he produced a group of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ drawings, two of which are in the Tate Gallery's collection. ‘Drawing 24.4.60’ (T01774, repr.ibid., [p.8]) is an ‘open’ drawing in which a roughly-drawn, rhomboidal outline defines a central area, which is left clear, and acts as a boundary between this area and the edges of the paper. By contrast, ‘Drawing 25.4.60’ (T01775, repr. ibid.) is a ‘closed’ drawing in which the rhomboidal outline contains an area which has been filled in with dark pencil shading, while the edges are left blank.

The ‘open’ and ‘closed’ drawings culminated in large ‘open’ paintings executed in 1969–70. These consisted of a line of black paint, again in the form of an irregular rhombus, drawn close to the edges of the unprimed canvas. At this time, Law was convinced that the irregularity of the rhombus was preferable to the symmetry of the rectangle: ‘the rectangle was too perfect, while the rhomboid created a tension’ (quoted in Tate Gallery Report 1972–4, 1975, p.185). However, when in 1987 he made T05041 and the other black watercolours, he had returned to the ‘purer’, less dynamic rectangle form for his ‘fields’.

Writing about his painting in 1977, Law pointed out that he disliked surface texture, which he felt distracted from the experience of viewing. By eliminating references to the surface, ‘the viewer has no way into the painting via reference points or paint passages ... What can happen is that while the viewer is looking intently for a clue, he gets temporarily lost in time for a few seconds’ (‘Some Notes on the Essence of my Work’, quoted in Bob Law: Paintings and Drawings 1959–78, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1978, [p.3]). When T05041 and related watercolours were exhibited in 1988, it was noted that the glazing on the works made them appear like mirrors unless inspected at very close quarters (Godfrey 1988, p.171). As a result, the viewer was forced to stand close to the work and to focus intently on the field of pigment. This invitation to treat the work as a contemplative object can be related to Law's own practice of sitting before his black paintings and meditating on them for hours on end (see ‘Gotham City Gossip’ radio interview).

It has been the artist's practice throughout his career to stamp many of his drawings on completion. T05041 is embossed in the bottom right corner with the words ‘MIND ROPE CO.’ in a circular arrangement. In conversation with the compiler of the catalogue entries on T01774 and T01775, the artist explained that around 1970 Nicholas Logsdail, who was then his dealer, had given him an old embossing stamp which bore the words ‘GAMINDER PROPERTY CO. LTD’. The artist had had the idea of filing off parts of the words to leave the lettering ‘MIND PROPERTY CO.’ which is stamped on T01774 and T01775 (see Tate Gallery Report 1972–4, 1975, p.185). Before stamping T05041 and other more recent drawings, the artist filed yet more letters off the word ‘PROPERTY’ to result in the words ‘MIND ROPE CO.’

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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