The Wing of the Wind of Madness is a large abstract painting on an unstretched canvas that is pinned directly to the gallery wall when displayed. It features an extremely loose composition consisting of a range of gestural marks, including thick, sinuous black lines, stain-like smudges, thin, spidery lines and scattered spots of paint, most of which are concentrated around the central portion of the rectangular space. Some hints of representation are present in the work – for example towards the top-right there are what appear to be the body and wings of a bird in flight, moving towards the middle of the composition. The painting has a muted palette that is largely dominated by black, grey and brown tones, although there are also hints of yellow and pale blue. The canvas remains clearly visible between the painted areas and in many larger parts it has been left almost entirely bare. Due to its dynamic and gestural appearance, the work looks as if it may have been executed quite spontaneously.
This work was made by the British artist Avis Newman in 1982, when she was living and working in London. It is one of a group of works that she began in 1981 and made throughout the 1980s that consist of large, unstretched, unframed canvases that are intended to be attached directly to the wall (see also Scenes 1982). All of these paintings are largely abstract with some hints of figuration, and all involve gestural strokes and share a similar palette.
The title of this work is taken from a journal entry that was written in 1862 by the French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) and first published posthumously in 1909 within a collection of his writings titled Intimate Journals. Discussing his concerns about his mental health, Baudelaire wrote: ‘today, January 23rd 1862, I received a singular warning. I felt the wind of the wing of madness passing over me.’ This text has been translated from the French in various ways and it is unclear whether Newman took the precise English phrase she that used from an existing translation or decided to alter the translated text herself, swapping the order of the words ‘wing’ and ‘wind’ in the sentence. In his writing Baudelaire often compared madness and artistic creation, since he saw them both as forms of thought that stand outside rational logic. In adopting this text as the title for such a chaotic painting, Newman may have been comparing her own seemingly disorganised creative process with the loss of reason. Baudelaire’s metaphorical reference to wings also seems to be taken up in this work through its outline of a flying bird. However, birds commonly feature in other paintings by Newman from this period in works such as Scenes.
The art historian Jean Fisher has argued that despite their hints at representation, Newman’s works of this period primarily emphasise ‘the process by which marks and stains accumulate’ on the surface of her canvases, rather than any figurative reference points (Jean Fisher, ‘On the Margins of Forgetfulness’, in Lisson Gallery 1987, p.8). In this particular work, the gestural nature of Newman’s marks and the chaotic dynamism of the composition could be seen to draw attention to the activity of making. Newman discussed the significance of process in her work in 2003. After stating that she has always primarily seen her work as drawing rather than painting, she explained:
I have always understood drawing to be, in essence, the materialization of a continually mutable process, the movements, rhythms, and partially comprehended ruminations of its mind: the operations of thought. Drawing by its nature suggests an intimacy of engagement where the eye of the beholder, tracing and following the hand of the drawer, is forever caught in the spaces of action and event.
(Newman in Avis Newman and Catherine de Zegher, ‘Conversation: Avis Newman / Catherine de Zegher’, in Drawing Centre 2003, p.67.)
Fisher has noted that Newman’s works on unstretched canvases acknowledge ‘the reality’ and ‘material presence’ of the support (Fisher 1987, p.23). Whereas canvases are generally made tense by being stretched over wooden frames, here the material is pinned up as a flat sheet and also left fully visible in many areas between the paint. Discussing framing in 2003, Newman stated that ‘The unframed interferes with any anticipation we might have of ordered limits or completion, and suggests the possibility that something is missing and will always elude our attention’ (Newman in Newman and de Zegher 2003, p.167). This suggests that her use of unframed canvases may also have been designed to heighten the work’s evocation of an open-ended creative process.
In 2003 Newman stated that she has ‘long been fascinated by the abstract images found in Paleolithic cave drawings’ (Newman and de Zegher 2003, p.73). The fragmented images of animal-like forms as well as the earthy tones and simplified marks used in this work can perhaps be understood in light of this interest.
Avis Newman, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 1987.
Avis Newman, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 1996.
The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act, exhibition catalogue, Drawing Centre, New York 2003.
Supported by Christie’s.