In the black painting, the ambivalence of the monochrome approaches its breaking point. Certainly, this is how New York artist Steven Parrino, a contemporary of Ratcliff who died in a motorcycle accident on the first of January 2005, would like us to think of his work when he writes, “The idea of painting a painting is basically the same as painting a fender. Simple and clean.”2 These words conform to a Constructivist ideal of anti-art efficiency, but then Parrino is also prone to a much more Romantic, even religious, order of explanation: “I have personal reasons for repainting certain paintings BLACK, reclaiming them like so much dead, bringing them power, honor…”3 Between these two statements, the Rodchenko/Malevich argument is resumed and to an extent resolved, because, apparently, it is possible to paint a painting like a fender for “personal reasons.” As Parrino admits further on, he aims to “save” works that “were fucked up in some way” by repainting them black.4 Existing paintings are “blacked out,” but even if nothing was under there, black paintings are always repainted. Parrino in no way refutes the historical arguments that bring painting to its teleological end, but rather accepts that its ground is from the first moment a burial mound, and hence a site to be honorifically commemorated. Black is painted over a history of forms once living, now dead; it declares them dead, but in a way that restores their “power.” “Facing [his] newly risen zombie-abstraction,” the once pure painter of monochromes reemerges as a necromancer, a craftsman of rot.5
Although Parrino’s writings are hyperbolic, to say the least, this redefinition of the monochrome not as the last cry (le dernier cri) of painting, but as one that echoes back from the other side, remains provocative. The pursuit of a singular, grounding truth at the end of the reductive process here gives way to an embrace of radical heterogeneity, or, in Parrino’s words, to “something that is deflated, debased, distorted, contorted, distended, dislocated, removed, bent.”6 A death that will not stay put at the end serves rather to mark a midpoint between material formation and deformation, investing the work overall with an apocalyptic scope.
Parrino tortured his paintings—puncturing canvas like Lucio Fontana or twisting it up like Simon Hantaï—and the results exude both cruelty and a louche downtown glamour. His works are inarguably stylish and play on a connection between monochrome painting and fashion design that also has a long and vexed history. From Rodchenko’s “production clothing” jumpsuit to the Cecil Beaton Vogue spread of models posing in dresses color-coded to the Jackson Pollock paintings behind them to Fontana’s own artfully gouged evening wear, the equation of an aesthetic of essentializing reduction with high-end frivolity has always proved troublesome. Parrino embraced this as well with his distressed, all-black wardrobe, a “look” no less explicitly referential than his repainted monochromes. In fact, in his writings, he furnishes us with a full list of sartorial inspirations that proceeds from Lou Reed to the members of Suicide to the No-Wave bands of the eighties. “All of what I’m writing about here contained a stark kind of minimalism and did not shy away from the dark side,” he adds. “As a matter of fact they [both the artists and the musicians] were into blackness in a big way.”7 Alluding, in the same breath, to the black paintings of Frank Stella and to black leather, Parrino conflates the white cube of the gallery and museum with the sweatbox of the underground club scene. The analogy is visual, but these visuals respond to an aural stimulus. The positing of an intimate relation between visual art and music via the exchange of tone-colors and color-tones is a crucial factor enabling the historical emergence of “pure painting,” and Parrino recapitulates it with a characteristically negative spin. Black, the absence of color, is linked to the atonal realm of feedback. His monochromes are the outcome of an addiction to noise music and the style that comes with it; by his own admission, this artist is a “distortion junkie.”8
The equation of the colorless monochrome and aural distortion is taken up more recently in the category of Black Metal, which has managed to gain a lasting foothold in the art world. This abysmal variant on synaesthesia is acutely registered in the output of the group Sunn O))), for instance. Formed in 1998, their consecutive albums of sub-base drone, White 1 (2003), White 2 (2004), and Black One (2005), could well be riffing on Robert Rauschenberg’s transition between white and black paintings in the early fifties. As it happens, Rauschenberg also reached his zero-degree while bending an ear toward a destruction of the tonal system, under the direction of John Cage, at Black Mountain College. In turn, Cage cited Rauschenberg’s evacuated canvases as the inspiration for his breakthrough anti-composition 4’33”, from 1952, but by this time the linear, cause and effect narrative of American modernism had already begun to unravel toward the hinterlands of post-media.9 And in regard to current musical and artistic production, the question of who got there first is almost irrelevant. Rather, it is the simultaneous emergence of a complex aesthetic sensibility within two distinct registers of sense perception that stands out. What is heard and what is seen is at once stripped down, “simple and clean,” and excessive.
- Steven Parrino, No Texts, 1979–2003, (New Jersey: Abaton Book Company, 2003) 21.↵
- Ibid., 37.↵
- Ibid., 21.↵
- Ibid., 32.↵
- “When I saw those [Rauschenberg’s white paintings], I said, ‘Oh yes, I must; otherwise I’m lagging, otherwise music is lagging.’” John Cage, quoted in Douglas Kahn, Noise Water Meat (Cambridge, MA, and London, England: MIT Press, 1999), 168.↵