Nancy Haynes

A Literature of Silence


by Marjorie Welish

Her paintings neither rest nor sleep but are decidedly devoted to an aesthetics of, as she says, "emptying out."

Certainly, in physical appearance, paintings by Nancy Haynes take heed of black. Black is the modernist sign of radicality. A utopian shade, black further entails the rhetoric of the tabula rasa, and indeed, the clean slate as support for painting once provided Haynes with the objective correlative she needed to make manifest her modern position.

Fundamentally, then, hers are black paintings, but with their black articulated in material and formal terms. Emptying out implies a withdrawal from color, the purpose being to concentrate the attention on the interior of the surface of the painting where there is much going on. Removal of any possibility of pursuing coloristic passions and attractiveness leaves these paintings understated yet not reductive, for frequently visible is an aurora borealis of gray. Indeed, a spectral range of black through white introduces a tonal chromaticism into the extremity of black, and into this modified contrast is further added a subtle play of warm into cool.

Black may be characterized as absence, the absence in consequence of all colors mixed in pigmented confusion; or in consequence of the withdrawal of light. Revealing optical as well as pigmented qualities, Haynes allows for the possibility that her gray paintings are those black canvases to which visibility has been brought. Interested in differences of factual light, Haynes started using luminous paint about fifteen years ago. Third Rail, (1984), for instance, displays four material differences of pigment, two of which, gold leaf and luminous paint, flank painted (black) and unpainted (linen) surfaces. Contrasting structural features were thus enhanced through the surface's severely polarized material differences. Technique has remained a preoccupation since. Yet the materialism of support-surface has also since entered into and been absorbed into a visuality more fluid, more yielding, than before. Sensually nuanced black readies the intellect for articulation. Putting it another way: with Haynes' spectral grays at her disposal, black is relieved of its dogmatisms. Just as light and dark interpenetrate in these recent works, so, too, do material and metaphysical content couple and uncouple freely (Once, 1990, Metropolitan Museum of  Art). Now one sees that the utopian state of Not Yet has been handed over to an Adornoesque measure of tangling with unfulfilled possibilities.

Culturally, Haynes may be initially situated where Ad Reinhardt triangulates Theodor Adorno and Samuel Beckett (Unfilled [Plus], Untitled [Minus], 1986, Brooklyn Museums). Ad Reinhardt's Idealist belief in painting-about-painting was manifestly heroic, and long after Suprematism had bailed out of subject matter and anecdote, decoration and ingratiating incident, his abstraction bore the conviction that only form is relevant. Haynes follows in this lineage. The tonal, textural epidermis of her paintings is not at all the same as drab decor:- it is dedicated to creating visual stringency.

For Reinhardt, like Adorno, a concerted negativity in theory and practice is a decidedly positive advocacy of resistance:. resistance to interpretation, resistance to commodification. For Haynes, as well, an aesthetics of negation and negativity expresses an ardent resistance to taste. In her work no "renditions" of brushwork appease an audience new to the tradition of modernity. For the burden is on the viewer as much as it is on the artist to become visually literate if the pursuit of art is desired.

Of war or other catastrophe, once internallized-this cultural consciousness entailed by the most stringent of the New York School is presupposed by Haynes even though her work does not manifestly express such concerns. As Newman's Onement and Reinhardt's cruciform compositions and Rothko's liminal spaces inscribed existential extremity in material and formal terms, they established a standard of seriousness analogous to the seriousness of their cultural situation. Silence and self-discipline in art characterized their style. The "withdrawal of recluse, rebirth in seclusion," noted Ad Reinhardt about the symbol of black. His diaristic notes see the symbol as spiritually commodious. In this sense he is more generous to its expressive possibilities than Beckett. In perpetually subjective encounter with catastrophe or of matter catastophically apprehended, Beckett recalls Pascal: nothingness is the lived proximity to death one sews into one's clothing.


No less real for being silent, the physicality of Haynes' painted surface is no mere universal category since becoming marked, textured, and distressed, as Adorno might appreciate. The surface of silence is both structured and inflected. In Untoward, 1990, for instance, nebulae of marks distinguish themselves into particularity, so that what results is calligraphy suggestive of, as the artist says, the East and the West on either side of a central spasmodic episode like "Turrette's Syndrome." Handwriting through which (psycho)somatic disarticulation always threatens to come about agitates the visual field.

Haynes' mark is the mark of the infinintessimal sensation. With surfaces so inflected, Haynes' art reveals the visual precision we associate with an etcher's mentality. Pitted surfaces vexed with all manner of painstaking decisions point to a scrupulousness of inscription. Haynes' visual fields, then, reveal the irritability by which one comes to understand expressive gesture at its most sensitized (Fort-Da, 1990-91 ).


A mark is a gesture at its most minutely signifying. Reliance on the singular seminal nature of the mark, touch or brushstroke, is at least, the radical assumption of New York School artists and their latter-day material proponents. Reinhardt's carefully adjusted early brushwork is a forerunner of even more carefully situated later planes within black. The painstakinglyadjudicated atmospheres of Arshile Gorky, Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko all suggest that in the best artists sensitivity of surface corresponds to closer and closer approximations of an issue, a question, an articulation of structure.

Slow apprehension of an integrally indiscernible space of painting may be seen in Haynes' work. Given the half-erased space being articulated, the brushiness seems to be procreative of as many doubts as clarifications (Naming, 1991; The Painting in Question, 1991). Whatever else it is, the mark is surely not in Haynes's art a conspirator of decor, merely habitual in its facility to render a surface intelligible. As with the divisions within Barnett Newman's visual fields, Haynes' mark or brushstroke signifies the artist's location of an abyss and, so, condition of a distant "there" against which the mark establishes a conditional "here." (With the psychoanalyst Jacques  Lacan advancing the notion of the subject caught between mark and a void, perhaps the Heideggerian coefficient of Newman's "zip" is the quality of the mark Lacan had in mind  [Brushstroke, for Michael, 1991 ].)

The structure of iterability may, in painting, take the form of a mark scratching that which can be said non-verbally, and repeated, tracing a regressive chain of nuanced incertitude. So in Haynes's work, the internal frames that indicate the inflected void of the canvas are themselves inflected and adjusted  reiteratively. One way or another, the visual intelligibility of field voices its hesitancy: shades of gray worry, apologize after the fact, speak in wistful selfaddress, manifest tendencies of approach-avoidance, and scenarios of revision (Referent, 1992;  Revisionist History, 1992).


Nancy Haynes has produced a series of breath-taking monotypes inspired by the work of Samuel Beckett. That her admiration for him is long-standing comes as no surprise to those viewers familiar with her painting. She is aesthetically in accord with Beckett's assumption of "the divine aphasia," or speechlessness, against which mark-making is inadequate (That Which Memory Cannot Locate, 1991-92). She evidently admires that same impulse toward (the Heideggarean) "inadequacy of language" in art other than her own (Robert Ryman's own homage to Beckett's, Ill Seen Ill Said, with its barely voiced "th" inscribed in illustration, for instance). Cognizant of Vladimir and Estragon's cosmic fretfulness, she conducts her own forays into elegant stuttering on the visual plane.

Haynes is by no means alone in remaining riveted by the paradoxical nature of black to expresses meaninglessness and meaning both at supersaturated strength (Seppuku, 199 1 ). From Beckett's bleak spirituality to Reinhardt's studies of spirituality informing Thomas Merton's silence, and from the West's fascination with the religions' of the Fast placing positive value on negativity to Existential void, the literature of silence remains a matter of conviction for a generation of artists. Certainly its terms of imploded bereavement yet also its positive valence define a domain familiar to Nancy Haynes. She has not been content to rest here, however, and among the artists working now she is singular in a visual intelligence which will not allow her to content herself with the habit of silence but which instead leads her to excavate it more and more inquiringly.

Marjorie Welish August 1993