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'In art things are either necessary or superfluous'

By Fernando Zobel / April 4, 1984



Fernando Zobel's comments on his own art have helped us in looking at contemporary art in general. He speaks from the perspective not only of one of Spain's leading painters but of an art historian and founder of the Museum of Abstract Art in Cuenca. A longer version of these remarks can be found in ''Zobel: La Serie Blanca,'' by Rafael Perez-Madero, published in Madrid.

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I was trying to learn graphic techniques at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1955 when two things happened that changed the whole course of my painting.

First, I saw an extraordinary exhibition by Mark Rothko that completely dazzled me. In a theoretical sense I knew it was possible to paint abstractly, but Rothko's demonstration convinced me. Almost at the same time I discovered photography's ability to preserve the image in a manner, I felt, far superior to the resources of painting.

I felt obliged to paint, but I had abandoned the need to ''represent.'' This left me in a kind of vacuum. A vacuum that turned into two years of experiments and into a huge pile of destroyed paintings, until I found my theme in the technique that led to series of ''Saetas'' (directly translated as ''arrow'' but meaning a variety of usually improvised flamenco song). You might define the ''Saetas'' as drawings in thin lines against a field of color.

During those two years of work I gradually came to the conclusion that my use of color was becoming meaningless. Its function appeared to be merely decorative. Any two colors, as long as they produced a certain vibration, seemed to work. None of them were really necessary. This bothered me. I believe that in art things are either necessary or superfluous. At that point I started using less and less color till finally I ended up using only black lines against a white back-ground.

Limited to black and white, I tried to find a substitute for the vibrations formerly produced by contrasts of color. I managed this to a certain extent by using a dry brush to blur some of my lines; blurs and streaks that changed the linear nature of the ''Saetas'' and instead suggested direction, changes in tempo, effects of light, a sense of volume, etc.

Inevitably, when painting begins to suggest light and volume, and to the extent that it does, it stops being abstract. At any rate, my paintings were beginning to turn into ''something else,'' something more suggestive and less abstract (the ''Black Paintings'').

There are references to the immensity of landscape or, by contrast, to the smallnesss of an insect or a still life though, in fact, I really wasn't painting still lifes or landscapes. The real subject matter of these paintings is movement. ''Movement'' in a very wide sense of the word; in the sense that you might say a landscape or a chair ''has movement.''

In Oriental art we speak of paintings despite the fact that these paintings are technically ink drawings or watercolors painted on silk or paper. In other words the medium employed doesn't stop us from thinking of them as paintings, and quite correctly so. In the same sense I think that my ''Black Paintings'' are paintings. It all has to do with intention, with the artist's intent to produce a finished and complete statement, irrespec-tive of technique.

In another sense, however, we may feel, as I do, that the real distinction between painting and drawing lies in the use of color, again regardless of technique. In this sense I would have to admit that almost all the works included in the ''Black Series'' are really large oil drawings. I say ''almost all,'' because towards the end of the series black is used in certain paintings in a way that suggests color. In fact, in those cases, black is a color with all that the word ''color'' implies. The ''Ornitoptero'' would be an example of this.