Forget Me is a large painting with a white background that depicts a woman in a black dress standing next to a television set, with three sections of text set into the composition to her right. One of these consists of the work’s title, which is written in the lower right portion of the canvas, while two longer passages of writing appear towards the top, presented in blocks surrounded by thick, wavering black lines that occlude some of the words. At various points among the words in these paragraphs, traces of a fainter layer of text can be seen through the white background. Aside from the woman’s dress, which is depicted using a solid area of black paint, both she and the television set are represented using thin black lines. The woman’s head is not visible from the jawline upwards and her toes consist of very pale lines. The television set is old fashioned, comprising a screen encased in a rectangular box on four legs, with two large dials embedded in its front.
This work was made by the Portuguese artist Julião Sarmento in 2005, while he was living and working in the town of Estoril near Lisbon. It is painted on a commercially primed, heavy cotton duck canvas on a bespoke wooden stretcher. Sarmento first covered the primed canvas with patches of white paint, distributing them unevenly across the work so that in some areas the primer remained visible. He then screenprinted the two longer sections of text onto the top right of the painting using glossy black oil-based inks, after which he painted over these letters with more white paint before screenprinting a further block of text over each passage. The thick black lines surrounding the text were then applied using paint and the woman and television set were drawn on in graphite, which Sarmento partly erased and smudged in places.
Sarmento’s paintings often feature words or excerpts of texts, both in their titles and as part of their compositions, that are deeply evocative while also remaining ambiguous (see, for instance, Intellectual Lullaby 2004, private collection, Italy). The two passages of text towards the top of this painting are taken from a 1963 essay by the French theorist Michel Foucault (1926–1984) called ‘Preface to Transgression’. The text was originally written for a special issue of the journal Critique dedicated to the French writer Georges Bataille (1897–1962) and the quotation in the second, lower passage comes from Bataille’s work. The primary focus of Foucault’s essay is the concept of trangression and its relationship with ‘the limit’. Foucault argues that transgression ‘affirms the limitless into which it leaps as it opens this zone to existence for the first time’ (Michel Foucault, ‘Preface to Transgression’, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Ithaca, New York 1977, p.35). While the uppermost passage of text in Forget Me comes from a section in Foucault’s essay that discusses the use of language in philosophy, and the lower section relates to a segment on Bataille’s employment of the eye as a recurring motif in his writing, both relate to a major thread in the article about how ‘fissures’ within perception and language can serve as examples of transgression. This idea seems to be echoed in visual form in Forget Me by the presence of various ‘fissures’, including the omission or erasure of the woman’s head and toes, the black lines that break up the flow of the text and the words printed under the layers of white paint that can be read only partially.
Women shown with their heads or other body parts missing have featured in many of Sarmento’s paintings since the early 1990s (see, for example, Emma (18) 1991, private collection, Lisbon, and Doppelgänger 2001, collection of the artist). In 2003 he discussed these figures in a way that resonates with the suggestive but mysterious quality of the texts he uses in his work, claiming that they do not ‘represent’ anything, but do evoke an ‘atmosphere’ (Louise Neri and Julião Sarmento, ‘Floating World: A Conversation’, in Louise Neri, Julião Sarmento, Barcelona 2003, p.119). Perhaps referring to the women’s absent body parts or the paucity of texture and detail in his representations of them, in the same interview Sarmento said of these works that
the subject is what is not there … I am interested in open rather than closed images ... I think of the negative space, the space outside the frame, as being the active space, a dynamic space of possibility. After all, to be human is to desire, to constantly imagine or create what we cannot see or experience.
(Sarmento in Neri and Sarmento 2003, pp.119–20.)
Julião Sarmento: Withholding, Works 1994–2006, Fundación Marceline Botín, Santander 2006.
Julião Sarmento: Guest or Host?, exhibition catalogue, Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas 2014, p.22, reproduced p.99.
Julião Sarmento: White Nights: A Retrospective, Serralves Museum, Porto 2014, p.99.
Supported by Christie’s.