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  • Lyotard’s Dance of Paint
  • Leon Phillips (bio)

What to Paint?

I recently experienced a difficult creative block, which led me to switch my painting medium from acrylic to watercolor. For many years I had poured acrylic paint as part of a process-oriented method of making paintings. That is to say, the use of the human hand was minimized, the paintings allowed to “grow” on their own. But I had become bored with this method and felt limited by my technique. My question became: what to paint? At some point I turned to Gerhard Richter’s paintings and Jean- François Lyotard’s writings on the painters Christiaan Karel Appel and Sam Francis. I began to see new possibilities and directions. Taken in tandem, the works of Richter and Lyotard helped me reaffirm my belief in the importance of color and gesture and hence the viability of painting as a medium in a hyperdocumented information age.

Lyotard: Color and Gesture

The two books by Lyotard that I began reading were Karel Appel: A Gesture of Colour and Lesson of Darkness. The first is a collection of twenty-four essays on Appel, and the second consists of forty-two poetic reflections on the work of Francis. Both books expand upon and extend the examination of painting as a medium during a period when it was eclipsed by other media. Although these two painters differ in terms of their style—Francis’s work is characterized by large, loose areas of color and thin applications of paint, Appel’s by sculptural paint massing and defined shapes—for both, color and gesture are important. [End Page 219]

In Karel Appel: A Gesture of Colour, Lyotard outlines his concerns about the sublime, chromatic intensity, and the powerful pairing of color and matter. He also continuously refers to gesture, describing Appel’s work as an archive of many gestures: “The painter is the first dancer of his work” (Lyotard 2009a: 47). With his reference to the “painter’s paw” (Lyotard 2009c:189), Marcel Duchamp’s derogatory term (Tomkins 1965: 24), Lyotard by contrast suggests that the painter-mind inhabits an animal state, the creative process precluding language and concept. Hence Appel is a large animal laying its paws everywhere (Lyotard 2009a: 43), engaged in the dance of paint taking place at the end of the painter’s paw (Lyotard 2009c: 189), while color comes from that “which is there before form and concept” (Lyotard 2009c: 159).

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Figure 1.

Nest 1, 2011. Watercolor on watercolor paper, 15 × 20.5 inches (unframed).

In the dialog between Color and Thought in section 17, “Without Appe(a)l, Trance of Colours and Thoughts,” Lyotard best describes what gestural painting can be in two different passages. Color states: [End Page 220]

The film on Pollock showed that very well: the dance of the whole body inscribing itself on a flat support, by means of drops of paint. Dance . . . is not mediated by a concept, images, schemas, memories. It is colour itself . . .

(Lyotard 2009c: 179)

So according to Lyotard, color, paint, and gesture are equal players in any given painting event, and he petitions the painter to surrender to the physical involvement of the body. To Lyotard, this act of painting is contingent upon a condition of nonverbal creative activity that lies well outside the filters of theory and language through which contemporary art is conventionally viewed and experienced. Furthermore, color and gesture for Lyotard are intimately connected to the physical “matter” of paint. When painting, “colour enters matter as what vibrates,” and it is this “matter-colour”—a “gestural matter”—that comes out of the artist’s body (Lyotard 2009c: 159, 177, 187). Lyotard goes on to describe color’s physical presence: “Colour itself, liquid-thin or paste-thick . . . dances” (2009c: 179). He asserts that contemporary painters are not lighting technicians like the impressionists, who were attempting to borrow from nature or simulate natural light. Rather, for a painter such as Appel, it is the “chromatic matter” and the “chemical paste” of paint that concerns him (Lyotard 2009b: 71).

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Figure 2.

Expand 5, 2012. Watercolor on...


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pp. 219-226
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