Catalogue entry

T04997 Untitled, Carona 23.VI.1973 1973 O.T., Carona 23.VI.1973

Red, yellow, blue and black ink on three sheets of newsprint, each 493 × 690 (19 1/2 × 27), affixed one below the other to muslin 1528 × 728 (60 1/4 × 28 5/8)
Inscribed ‘23.VI.73/1’ on top sheet b.r.; ‘23.VI.73./2’ on centre sheet b.r.; ‘M.R.’ and ‘23.VI.73/3’ on bottom sheet b.r.
Purchased from Galerie Stähli, Zürich (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Exh: Markus Raetz: Arbeiten 1962 bis 1986, Kunsthaus, Zürich, June–Aug. 1986 (84, repr. in col.)

This work is made from three sheets of newsprint mounted one below the other to a piece of muslin coated in PVA (polyvinyl acetate) adhesive. A small gap of approximately 5 mm separates the three sheets. The top sheet has areas of gently curving, parallel yellow lines at top left and bottom right, with a more varied pattern of lines and dots in the centre painted in red and blue ink. These markings are suggestive of turbulence in water or air currents. The middle sheet is dominated by a turbulent pattern of lines painted in red and blue, and has a red border. By contrast, the lower sheet is painted entirely in black and shows two female heads amid a pattern of varied marks. All three sheets have a box in the lower right corner which contains the date of execution, 23 June 1973, and the number of the sheet in the sequence. Like many of Raetz's works, T04996 is identified by the title ‘O.T.’, meaning ‘Ohne Titel’ or ‘Untitled’, and the place of execution, in this case, Carona in Switzerland.

In conversation with the compiler in London on 10 March 1994, Markus Raetz said that the paper in T04997 was newsprint taken from ends of rolls discarded by a printing firm. He was aware that this type of cheap paper yellowed with exposure to light, but he liked the fact that it was not precious and the way it absorbed ink (the edges of many of the lines have a feathery quality). Raetz confirmed that he had painted T04997 using only his finger (in many places his fingerprints can be clearly seen). This way of working naturally limited the range of effects he could achieve: the relatively small amount of ink held by a fingertip, for example, determined the length of the lines. In order to make the spaces between the lines an active part of the image, Raetz tried to make them more or less the same width as the lines themselves, creating a play between the positive and negative shapes that made up the image. Raetz's aim was to explore the extent to which mere fingerstrokes could be used to build an image, thereby confusing or undermining the conventional distinction between drawing and painting (the use of newsprint and ink underscores this relationship with printing and writing). This considered approach may be contrasted to the more expressionistic use of finger-painting and foot-painting practised by the Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer in the period 1973–6. A precedent for Raetz's interest in this technique can be found in some oils of the late 1960s by the German painter Gerhard Richter, but, again, the differences between the two artists' works are more striking than their similarities.

In conversation Raetz said that his use of the primary colours red, yellow and blue in the first sheet of T04997 related to constructions made from pieces of plastic-coated wire in these colours, which were knotted or otherwise joined together (see ‘Untitled’, 1971 and ‘Untitled’, 1974, both repr. Zürich exh. cat., 1986, nos.81–2, p.86 in col.). It also related, he said, to his use of these colours in such prints as ‘Main-tenant’, 1972 (repr. Rainer Michael Mason and Juliane Willi-Cosandier, Markus Raetz: Les Estampes; Die Druckgraphik; The Prints 1958–1991, Cabinet des estampes, Geneva 1991, no.140 in col.), as well as in such later prints as ‘Self-portrait’, 1977 (repr. ibid., no.165, in col., as ‘Selbstbildnis’) and ‘A Car and Some People on the Street’, 1977 (repr. ibid., no.167, in col., as ‘Ein Auto und einige Menschen auf die Strasse’). He explained that in such works he was interested in seeing how the three primary colours could create the optical illusion of a variety of shades when combined or juxtaposed.

In a letter to the compiler dated 9 May 1994 Raetz wrote that he had executed many such finger-paintings in the period 1972–3. ‘Some of them I destroyed. Many of them (A4 size drawings, preliminary studies for the larger drawings) I bound to books’. Two large finger-paintings are closely related to T04997. ‘Untitled, Carona, 21.VI.1973’ (repr. ibid., p.85, no.79) consists of three sheets of newsprint, drawn or painted with black ink, and affixed vertically onto a card support. The top image shows the upper part of a woman's face with abundant, gently curling hair floating upwards. The second sheet provides a closer view of the hair (the second sheet of T04997 can also be seen as offering a closer view of the turbulence depicted in the first sheet). The third sheet appears to show the same pattern of lines and volutes that had been used to indicate hair but, with no indication of a head, it suggests, instead, eddies in clouds or water, or, more simply, a purely ornamental design.

As its title indicates, it was executed just two days before T04997. ‘Untitled, Carona, 8.VII.1973’ (repr.ibid., p.85, no.80) consists of five sheets, again drawn in black and affixed to card. As in the previously mentioned work, each sheet has a date box in the bottom right corner. The top four sheets show different patterns of parallel and slightly undulating lines. In conversation Raetz explained how he created the illusion of a curved continuous surface in these works (the same technique was used to a lesser extent in T04997). The effect was achieved by allowing a number of parallel lines to fade into an area of plain paper. On the other side of this area, the lines appear to continue, growing thicker and darker as they moved away from the ‘light’. In fact, the lines did not continue, but were restarted from the other end, growing paler as they approached the ‘highlighted’ area. With this simple technique Raetz created the illusion of a projecting surface where there was only line.

In the same period Raetz produced a large number of serial works using a brush. ‘644 Profiles, 2, 31.IV.1973’ (repr. ibid., pp.80–1, nos.62–73), for example, shows groups of fifty-four profiles affixed to ten large card supports, each picture a development from the last, and all executed in a single night. ‘Four Rounds, 30.VI.1973’ (repr. ibid., p.82, no.74, as ‘Vier Runden’) consists of five sheets of newsprint affixed one below the other to card. Four images depict a motorcycle and rider, while the fifth shows a symmetrical pattern in which two faces can be seen amid what otherwise appears to be abstract marks. ‘Rats, 1.VI.1973’ (repr.ibid., p.82, no.75) has four disparate images of a motorcycle and rider, a group of rats, a man holding a telephone, and an abstract pattern of whorls and eddies. ‘Untitled, Carona, 13.VII.1973’ (repr.ibid., p.83, no.76) has two large sheets mounted one below the other on card, depicting together an image which appears abstract in part and resembles a landscape, with two small figures at the lower right.

In conversation with the compiler on 10 March 1994 Raetz talked about the sources of the imagery used in T04997. In the early summer of 1973 he had left Amsterdam, where he had lived for four years, and settled in the Swiss village of Carona in Ticino. Nearby, at Torello, was an eleventh-century monastery, and it was there that he noticed the carved volutes on the capitals of the columns. The closeness of these stone volutes to patterns in nature intrigued Raetz, and encouraged him to use the curving loop shapes in the two finger paintings relating to the pattern of flowing hair mentioned above. In his letter to the compiler the artist noted that he had already begun to paint using his finger before seeing Torello, ‘but these capitals gave me an impulse to go on’. Drawings dated 4.VI.73 in a notebook show the development of Raetz's interest in this pattern (repr. ibid., p.84, no.78). One drawing is a study of the volutes seen at Torello; another shows vertical parallel lines, branching off near the top into volutes, an image echoed in a number of the finger paintings cited above.

In this period Raetz was particularly interested in Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of patterns in nature, and recalled in conversation that he had studied a catalogue of the collection of such drawings held at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. A number of da Vinci's drawings of the eddies created by water passing over an obstacle show marked similarities to Raetz's stone volute or flowing hair motifs (see, for example, ‘Sheet of studies of water passing obstacles and falling into a pool, with notes’, ‘An old man in profile to the right, seated on a rocky ledge; water studies and a note’, ‘Mountain range burst open by water, the falling rocks producing enormous waves in a lake’, repr. Leonardo da Vinci: Nature Studies from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, exh. cat., Royal Academy 1981, pp.20–1, 23, nos.VIII, IX, XI in col.). These drawings are based on observation, but in them nature is transformed into imaginative structures. According to Kenneth Clark, they are ‘abstractions expressive of his feelings about the movement of water’, rendered in ‘symbolic form’ (ibid., p.11). In conversation Raetz noted that the way in which he had developed the two female heads in T04997 from a mass of abstract marks echoed Leonardo da Vinci's well known advice to students to allow their imagination to wander and ‘see’ naturalistic forms in naturally occurring cracks and stains on an old wall. In his letter to the compiler Raetz added, ‘In 1970 I read Merezhkovsky's biography on Leonardo. Since then his paintings, drawings + writings are important to me. At this time (1972–3) I admired his drawings for L.'s ability to bring together imagined or observed movements in nature with the possibilities of drawing’. The book in question was a German translation of Dmitri Merezhkovsky's The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, first published in 1901.

In conversation Raetz indicated two further sources. The first was Chinese and Japanese paintings and drawings. When he lived in Amsterdam, Raetz had been a frequent visitor to the oriental collections of the Rijksmuseum, and had particularly admired the apparently simple calligraphy found in Far Eastern art. In his letter the artist explained, ‘The oriental art I was interested in was technically simple (i.e. brush drawing, wood carving etc.), all traces of the tools remain visible, not like in european oil painting’. Just as the patterns of turbulence in T04997 recall some of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of eddies, so they also distantly recall the preoccupation with the motif of waves found in the works of such Japanese artists as Hokusai. Raetz's use of ‘date boxes’ is also reminiscent of the inscriptions found in much Eastern art.

The second, and perhaps more decisive, source was the illustrational style of certain contemporary American comics. In T04997 the presentation of the three paintings as a sequence, and the use of date boxes in the lower right corners, were inspired directly by such illustrations. The manner in which the two faces in the bottom sheet are drawn also suggests an affinity with comic caricatures (in conversation the artist said that there had been no particular source for the figures: they had simply emerged as he worked). Raetz had drawn comic strips in the 1960s, and according to the critic Holland Cotter, ‘the occupational skill of cartoon-making - specifically the skill of draftsmanly shorthand to create an instantly readable illusionistic image - is evident throughout his work’ (‘Disappearing Acts’, Art in America, Nov. 1988, p.150). In a number of works Raetz linked the conventions of comic illustration with allusions to the ways in which we perceive and interpret imagery. ‘Superman's Cousin’, 1967 (repr. ibid., p.45, no.24), for example, combines the figure of the American cartoon character with projecting rod shapes, which refer to the ‘rod’ cells in the retina. ‘Untitled’, 1968 (repr. ibid., p.44, no.23) is composed of quasi-abstract and quasi-mechanical elements, all drawn in a meticulous style associated with comic illustrations.

Recently Raetz has spoken of the importance of comics to his work, explaining that, like much oriental art, they depend on line:

I was never a great consumer but Tarzan and Nick Kirby really grabbed me. What interested me about comics above all was their draughtsmanlike quality which, in its formal solutions, is quite similiar to Japanese woodcuts and East-Asian brush paintings. But the moment of immediate recognition of a figure or a gesture, which allows itself to be read like a text, is a fascinating phenomenon. It can certainly be found in my work, especially, now that come to think about it, as I have produced a short comic story. Comics, like Japanese woodcuts, are built through contour lines which in the optical perception of the object are not actually present.

(‘Interview mit Markus Raetz’, Kunstforum,
Jan.–Feb. 1990, p.203)

Raetz's interest in contour has been likened by a critic, Max Wechsler, to the well-known imaginative concept of the eighteenth-century painter and draughtsman William Hogarth (‘Markus Raetz: Delusive Illusions’, Artforum, June 1984, pp.77–8):

In the ‘Foreword’ to his Analysis of Beauty (1753), William Hogarth describes a principle of perception according to which things would be conceived and imagined to consist of thin shells made up of a fine network of threads. This principle allows the ‘imagination’ to, in Hogarth's words, ‘naturally enter into the vacant space within this shell, and there at once, as from a centre, view the whole form within ...’. It is most unlikely that Raetz draws directly on Hogarth's theories, though he certainly values his ingenious wit and love of line; nevertheless, the image of a (fictional) world constructed of a network of lines seems to me an excellent approximation of Raetz's world view. However, what remained largely an artistic method for Hogarth - a method which, consciously or unconsciously, certainly also sharpened his satirical penetration of society's facades - becomes for Raetz a comprehensive cognitive tool which points beyond the production of images.

Describing how lines in Raetz's work function in a variety of ways, as both outline and contour, delineating both interior and exterior spaces, Wechsler (ibid., p.76) noted:

an ornamental network gradually becomes readable as an objective motif, or a succession of objective motifs dissolves into ornament. The various levels of meaning are shuffled together, forming complex overlays without relinquishing their original clarity. These metamorphoses do not so much follow an esthetic impulse as they result from an intellectual expedition into the realm of the visible. The visible becomes the point of departure for an associative process that leads, by way of a multitude of transformations, to insight in to the generally invisible aspects of the visible. In other words, Raetz's theme is the fiction of appearances.

According to the artist, the three sheets that make up T04997 were not mounted immediately. They were affixed to a piece of muslin, treated with PVA, by a bookbinder, Peter Rhyn, in Bern, possibly in 1974–5, or, more likely, the artist believes, in 1977. The reproduction of T 04997 in the 1986 Zürich catalogue shows the work, unframed and nailed to a wall, with much larger margins of linen than exist at present. In conversation the artist said that he had trimmed the support to its present size after the photograph had been taken. He said he was not disturbed by the slightly creased and undulating surface of the work, caused by the way in which the sheets were mounted. He liked the way this increased the ‘visibility’ of the work ‘as an object’.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

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