Jacques Palumbo







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Oeuvres / Le Génératif / Aquagrammes



Ars Canada February/March 1978

To add a band of color to one already on the paper, you have two choices: adjoin it to the existing band, doubling the area covered, or superimpose it directly on the existing band, deepening the colon Jacques Palumbo's additive process does both at once, up to nine rimes.

The placement of the colored bands mi their equal-height areas (or "divisions," to use the artist's term) is clearly a cœsistent procm with nothing capricious about it; the bands that increase in area grow up from the bottom of the division, the bands that increase in density move down the division stepwise to the bottom. This is not an inevitable arrangement; Palumbo used a different one in an earlier watercolor series; it's a matter of choice. The prescrit arrangement has the advantage that the void area is always at the top of its division (except in No. 9, where it's nowhere), guiding the eye to the otherwise invisible break between divisions, helping us to sort thern out. We need this help when all the nine divisions are brought together, one on top of another, to make a single watercolor picture.

As shown in linear numerical arrangement from i to 9 this is only the raw material, the matrix, for the actual watercolors. The number-play in thern is not a matter of simple permutation, but the real, aesthetically based, creation of form.

How is it done? The nine divisions in the matrix above are arranged into equations, presented vertically, one above the other, in cach watercolor. How can they bc made into equations when the sum of the numbers from 1 to 9 is 45, an odd number? One of the numbers from i to 9 has to bc left out cach rime, and is placed between the two halves of the equation like a fulcrum, or to use the artist's word, a "pivot."

Here 3 + 7 + 8 (reading from the top down) equals 1 + 2 + 4 + 5 + 6, with a pivot of 9 between thern.

Obviously the pivots have to be odd numbers, since only odd numbers can divide the remainder into equal halves. And since there are five odd numbers betwecn i and 9 inclusive, the number of groups of equations possible altogether within this systern (one group per pivot number) will be five.

How many possible equations are there within each of the groups? Not as many as we would think, for the artist imposes another limitation on his process, as fat as 1 can tell a purely aesthetic one. The individual numbers in cach equation are allowed to appear only in increasing order. Example: 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 8 = 6 + 7 + 9 (the pivot 1, coming where the 5 equal sign is), or 2 + 3 + 8 + 9 = (I) = 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 are both included, but 7 + 6 + 2 + 4 + 3 = (I) = 9 + 5 + 8, for example, "Just a permutation," says the artist in a tone indicating that's not enough to interest him) will not be. The visual consequences of this are one of the first things the eye spots when looking at the watercolors. Since the higher numbers mean the broadest area of color, and, in the additive narrow bands, the heaviest color as well, it follows that there will be an increase in visible weight as the eye moves downward from the top to ust above the pivot, and again from just below the pivot to the bottom of the picture. A tip of the hat to gravity, which, like the descending-stair arrangement of the narrow growing in intensity band within cach division, helps at cast subliminally to keep them from looking arbitrary or irrational.

Limited in this way to number-increasing addi-tive equations grouped around an odd-numbered pivot number, there are six possible equations for cach of the pivots 1, 3, 5, and 7, and there are seven equations possible when the pivot is 9. This seeming irregularity no doubt demonstrates some arithmetical law with which Jacques Palumbo is familiar; I spent an hour working it out by trial and error and can attest that it is so. This determines the size of the show, then (Galerie Gilles Gheerbrant, Montreal, May 3-21, 1977); there will be five series of watercolors, one series pet pivot number, and cach series will consist of six individual pictures except the fifth, which will consist of seven. As exhibited, it filled the room not counting the window wall, from the left of the door all the way around to the right of the door, like the Pythagorean heaven, a space wholly constructed out of numbers.

It isn't number the viewer first thinks of on entering the room, though; it's colon The areas that are left white in the diagrams above are actually colored in the watercolors, equal in opacity, though in a contrasting hue, to the palest (one layer) of the bands of colon Palumbo measures this equivalence with laboratory precision, using a densitometer. The result is that the watercolors cannot be shown in black-and-white reproduction, as the first stage of the additive nine stages of "color," and its adjacent "void," do not appear as differentiated stripes; reflecting as they do the same amount of hght, unless they are shown in color.

This is a perceptual coup in two ways. Because of the adjacency of the two different hues, we observe color by contrast at a fainter level of opacity than is theorctically said to be possible. But more amaring still, the identical color of the "colored" bands in one series is used as the "voids" in the following series, so that the color we sec up to nine layers deep, in différent arrangements, on one wall, is seen again, but never more than one layer deep, in contrast to a différent color, on the next wall. And here we really have to take the artist's word for it, for out eyes won't let us admit that what is pale sea green in one sequence (against pink voids) is the sarne color as the pale ice blue voids against bands ofyellow in the next. At its palest like this, color is only knowable by the company it keeps, unless, as here, measuring instruments are brought into play. The percentages of light reflection, and their inverse, the percentages of opacity, are all tabulated and posted on the wall outside the exhibition room.

Their presence suggests that there may be right ways and wrong ways to approach art of this kind, and that the right ways will include the data sheets. Montreal, with its belief in its belief in reason, has already shown itself, in the writings of its art critics, abler than we who work in English-speaking Canada are likely, in out more hit-or-miss fashion, to be. The ideal critique in either language would pay more than lip service to the sciences behind the art, specifically serniotics, linguistics, and cybernetics. The link with semiotics is easy to see: Palumbo's earlier work includes a set of serigraphs called "Signes ouverts," and even carlier and more accessible are the "red series" of drawings which take for subject a sign such as a right angle, or three sides of a square, and put it through a variety of - probably all possible - paces, turning it upside down and backward, opposing freestanding and combinatorial presentations, the latter including mating the sign with itself in various love positions, anchoring thern all into pictorial form by means of an ascending diagonal and producing works of considerable charrn, partly because the medium is red ink, and partly because the sign itself, the right angle or whatever, is drawn freehand so unrigidly that it gives a relaxed and spontancous look even to a closed form. "The force of a sign," Palumbo wrote in 1973, "depends not on its semantic value, but rather on its relationship to neighboring signs."

With the recent watercolors, I have a complete outsider's hesitation about seeing them in terms of the semiotic vocabulary, though. The numbers on the data sheets are themselves "signs" - they and the watercolors cach represent the other, and what I think the viewer actually witnesses is an endless reverberation between two communication systems, which makes me reluctant to call cither one «significant" or "signifié," when both seem to be both. Both, that is, are abstractionsjust as both are visual presences in the gallery: the real excitement is in the relationship, the mirroring unity- in-duality. Each explains the other, though each can stand alone, and after a while it is their dialogue that seems the profoundest thing about them. This mirroring givcs them the sanie increased eloquence that has already been noted in the word-painting relationship in Eric Fischl.

As for cybernetics, even for those of us who can't handle the higher math, thcy offer us spiritual, notjust technical, hclp in dcaling with art of Jacques Palumbo's kind. There are valuable rationales to aid anyone who finds this work too selfcontained and who is threfore tempted to dismiss it as arcane, all through The Human Use of Human Beings: "Communication and control belong to the essence of man's inner life, even as they belong to his life in society," is on the first page I opened to at random, and underlying Norbert Wiener's thinking cverywhcre, of course, is the image of the truc artist in the vanguard of the war against entropy. But we can also find our rationales in the writings of non-scientists, evcn in the older type of liberal humanist, in fact. Here is E. M. Forster in phrases which still ring after more than 30 years. "Art is valuable not because it is educational (though it may be), not because it is recreative (though it may be), not because everyone enjoys if (for everybody does not), nor even because it has to do with beauty. It is valuable because it has to do with order, and creates little worlds of its own, possessing internal harmony, in the bosom of this disordered planet. It is needce at once and now. It is needed before it is appreciated and indepentietit of appreciation. The idea that it should not be permitted until it receives communal acclaim and unless it is for all, is perfectly absurd. It is the activity which brought man out of original darkness and differentiates him from the beasts, and we inust continue to practise and respect it through the darkness of today."

It is perhaps significant of the difference already noted -between Montreal and English-speaking Canada that we feel a need to find rationales for this kind of art at all. Here we're in territory where painters - good painters - title their exhibitions "Passion Over Reason," and where emitient critics seem objective description. What justification is there then for lesser fry like the rest of us to approach art by means of descriptive analysis at all?

And yet, for dealing with artists who combine igor with invention, nothing less docs them justice, whether it makes one a target for cries of "formalist!" and worse, or not. The American critic who calls Alfred Jensen "he kind of abstract painter who feels a great need to have a definite, if hidden, subject for his work, but the work itself only succceds in keeping that subject securely beyond our reach," is preserving the amateur standing of criticism in the visual arts, but lie is shedding no light on a great painter who deserves more help from writers than this. It's time to bury the notion, shared by thoughtless young and thoughtless old alike, that to sit down and think about a work, with bcnt brows if need be, until we find out exactly what the artist is doing - a familiar and honorable sport in literary or musical criticism - would be, for a writer in the visual arts. Just too unspontancous somehow. With Jensen, it's the only way to get beyond the obvious beauty and physical presence of his paintings to a realization that the critic's label "abstract painter" applies to him only in a rather narrow sense. With Jacques Palumbo, it is the only way to get beyond seeing his watercolors in terms of neth Noland and minimalisim, which François Gagnon has rightly warried us against. (The conjunction of these two artists' names is not quite random, by the way. There is an early Palumbo typed number spiral, which 1 assume is a computer work, where the progression from the edge to the centre is a precise numerical equivilent to the similar motion of abstract signs in Jensen's The Sum of the Square of the Houses.)

We must also pause before calling Palumbo's art "inhuman" because it involves mathematics. This again is probably more of a danger in English-speaking Canada than in Montreal. The artist's own conversation is that of a man perfectly at home with his tools, but at the same time not at all impersonal. He will be describing one of his recent prints in relation to the Sieve of Eratosthenes one minute (I had to check this in rriy mathematics dictionary afterward; you may need to do the same), and the next will be telling you that the bands of densest color in the watercolor series shown here reflect the same amount of light that human skin does, and that this was deliberately intended. The word "humam" in fact, occurs with striking frequency in Palumbo's talk. It's his term for the scale of his work, which like Fischl's is satisfyingly small in relation to the content - or is it that much other art these days is too large? The Modulor of Le Corbusier, Palumbo observed at one point, for all its numbcr relationships, is in the shape of a man.

It's only critics who feel threatened by nurnberbased art anyway. For most artists themselves it has always had a fascination, and always will have. "He who never looks for number in anything, will not himself be looked for in the number of famous men." In a large group show like the Museum of Modern Art's Drawing Now two years ago it was fascinating to see the varicey of roles played by numbers, from specifications in mechanical-drawing-format works (the sort of thing also done by Cariada's Murray Favro) to Bruce Naurnan's My Last Name extended Vertically 14 Times, which wouldn't bc the sanie thiiig at ill ifit weic called M), Last Name Greatly Extenderd Vertically -, some of the pleasure is in this specified number mesurment, which we can try tu gauge with our own eye when the look at it. In all the arts number has recently been a frequent and dynamic generator of both content and form. I think in particular of modern dance: the changing digital clock numbers designed by James Seawright as part of the costume and part of the structure in Mimi Garrard's Six, and 7; Twyla Tharp's The 100’s: -Two dancers perform 100 11-second phrases separated by four-second pauses, side by side in unison; then five dancers each perform 20 of them simultaneously; then 100 recruits rush on and perform one cach in 11 incredible seconds." (Deboralh Jovitt's description.) I find nothing arcane in this, but the point is that number is central to these works, they don't exist without it, and it’s a mistake to try to define thene without it. Try to rewrite Deborah Jowitt's sentence without the numbers - you'd be like the Alexandrian pedant who rewrote the Odyssey without using the letters.

In Canadian art, the additive process (one to sixteen) of Michael Snow's Morning in Holland is only one type of work whcee nomber is essential to both description and appraisal; there are the gridded works of Gerry Grey, the time-limit paintings that Ron Martin used to do (specific lengths of time being only expressible by number), numbers as personae in the perforated paintings of Pat Martin Baltes (The Star of Eight Consents to Nine, Eight Dances on High), the variety of works by Dave Rimmer, Don Druick and Taki Bluesinger in the Vancouver Art Gallery's A Show, of Numbers - but the list is endless. I have only one final example, not Canadian, to get in, demonstrating that number isn't essential only as a cohort of, and symbol for, intelligence, though that's where we find it most frequently and it is in that connection that it most needs defending. But for a change of pace, try this:

Hera began reproaching Zeus for his numerous infidelities. He defended them by arguing that, at any rate, when he did share her couch, she had the more enjoyible yime by far. "Women, of course, derive infinitely greater pleasure from the sexual act than men," he blustered. "What non sense!" cried Hera. "The exact contrary is the case, and wcll you know it." Teiresias, summoned to settle the dispute from his personal experience [as both inan and woman], answered: "If the parts of love-pleasure be counted as ten, Thrice three go to women, one only to men."

Ah, the Greeks. Even sexual pleasure needs number to discuss it properly. This tale is recommended to all critics who find number-related art dry, and who hope to disguise their own dryness by belittling it. It's really as rich a world as any thcre is, perpetually new as subject matter, perpctually new as a source for form, and artists like Jacques Palumbo who know this give us a kind of pleasure unobtainable elsewhere, but which is still also saying human things with hu-man voice, still also acutest speech.

Peter Perrin is a composer and the director og The Alliance for American Songs in New York

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