Untitled 1998 by the American artist Ellen Gallagher is a large, mixed-media painting measuring over three metres in height by almost two and a half metres in width, that combines geometric abstraction, paper collage, and hand-drawn representational elements. It is part of a small group of imposing all-black paintings that were executed by the artist in 1998 as a direct response to the critical reception of her first mature body of work from the mid-1990s that included the work Paper Cup 1996 (AR00066). For Untitled the artist covered the entire surface of the painting’s stretched and primed cotton canvas with squares of paper, followed by an additional layer of geometric paper shapes. This textured paper collage was then covered with many layers of black oil paint, built up to achieve a highly reflective sheen on the painting surface. This application of heavy black paint was followed by the incorporation of repetitive detailing, executed in silver enamel paint, which was laid on top of the raised paper shapes following narrow, angular forms. The writer and curator Claire Doherty has analysed the composition of this work and these structures in detail:
Sealed within the impenetrable blackness of this painting are six bow forms, built up to slight relief from several layers of gesso. The bow forms mutate from one another and grow out across the canvas insinuating a hidden heraldry. Upon this surface silver lips are printed and plotted, connecting forms into a musical score that evokes the disruptive cadences of blackface minstrelsy. Unlike other works, this painting’s unyielding surface deflects detailed investigation. The mechanism of reduction in the creation of the stereotype is parodied in the negation of individuality.
(Doherty 1998, p.13.)
Some of these silver ‘lips’ were hand-painted, while others were stencilled onto the painting surface, blurring as the wet enamel paint was overlaid in tight clusters. The motif of the bulbous and cartoon-like ‘lips’, referencing a racist and outdated idea of blackface physiognomy, is a device also used in Paper Cup, where the biomorphic, semi-abstract forms fill rows of penmanship paper that creates a minimalist grid through collage. The curator Roxana Marcoci has noted that: ‘Gallagher’s work disrupts the idea that race and identity are predetermined or fully fixed, and through parodic repetitions and inversions she reintroduces taboo aspects of history to question if core assumptions have changed.’ (Marcoci 2007, p.19.)
The density and complexity of the layered paint surface in Untitled creates an impact that is reminiscent of the grandeur and solemnity of the late series of black paintings by Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967), such as Abstract Painting No. 5 1962 (Tate T01582), while the stretched canvas, at over three metres tall, sets up a juxtaposition of scale with the tiny individual ‘lips’ elements. The artist has commented on this issue of scale within her large, carefully mapped surfaces, explaining: ‘I wanted the paintings to be just larger than human scale. When you stand in front of one, you can’t quite see around it. That keeps you measuring the difference between distance and closeness, between information up close versus what you get when you stand back.’ (Quoted in Doherty 1998, p.23.)
Returning to the artist’s desire to use Untitled and the wider series of black paintings as a turning point within her work, it is necessary to consider the conceptual pulse that the rich materiality in Gallagher’s painting technique purposefully obscures. In conversation with the curator Jessica Morgan, Gallagher discussed her own interpretation of the black paintings, explaining:
I’m really interested in this idea of a black inscrutable. The black paintings were in a sense a reaction to how people were reading or misreading the work … I really see the black paintings as a kind of refusal. Even when reading them – if you stand in front of them they go blank and then if you stand at the side you see only a little. They are also about memory in Bebop. And Miles Davis’ omission of notes that leaves a ragged disembodied line.
(Quoted in Morgan 2001, pp.26–7.)
Claire Doherty, Ellen Gallagher, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 1998, reproduced p.16.
Jessica Morgan (ed.), Ellen Gallagher, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston 2001.
Roxana Marcoci, Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2007.