'In art things are either necessary or superfluous'

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.

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.

Historically, the ornithopters were a class of early flying machines meant to fly by flapping their wings. Obviously, they never left the ground. The subject of the picture is their intent and its frustration. The technique is black line on a white background. The background remains inert. Its purpose is to set limits, suggest scale, and offer a field of action. The blacks, on the other hand, carry the message. By using the classic vocabulary of drawing, they suggest speed and, at the same time, deny it. Additionally, the range of blacks employed suggests color. And, in fact, in the paintings that follow the ''Ornitoptero,'' color comes frankly into play.

In ''La Vista XXVI,'' which comes years later, I return to monochrome. In a sense, color has been abandoned. Actually, though, what has really disappeared is the background. The idea of a painting as black form against white background. Form and background are now fused. Everything has become background , or, if you prefer, everything has turned into form.

Movement as a theme has also gone. The subject of ''La Vista'' can be several things: a certain quality of light, a certain scale, a remembered moment in time. Where the ''Ornitoptero'' explains, ''La Vista'' suggests. Those light gray masses vibrate and suggest color; in fact they are color, though it is the kind of color that stays within the boundaries of what we call gray. The final effect I want to achieve is that of a light clear space suggestive of a lyrical, somewhat unreal, metaphorical mood. A space that attempts to organize the memories of the spectator. With nothing but white and gray? Why not?

''La Vista'' is based on the view through my window. When I look at it I see all sorts of things that don't really interest me very much: houses, roads, colors, birds, etc. You might call them the anecdotes of the view.

So, what is it that really interests me? Finding out makes the history of a painting. The process is one of elimination; the removal of anecdotes and other distractions. As I remove houses, trees, roads, I find that the view increasingly becomes my view. Finally nothing is left but a structure and a certain light. The light of the painting, not the light of a moment in time.

In other words, nothing is left but my view, the one that exists in my memory. And here comes the strangest part. If I succeed in giving shape to my memory I find that I have also given shape to the memory of the spectator. It becomes his view as well as mine. I'm not sure that I really know how it works, but these pictures seem to draw something from the spectator's own memory and resources. Does it sound like a lot of nonsense?

The series devoted to flutes started when I tried to learn to play the flute. Inevitably I began looking very closely at the shape of the instrument. You might define the shape of a flute as two parallel lines animated by reflections. It is a shape so simple in itself that it can suggest almost anything.A horizon, for instance. And that is the way I began to use it, by neglecting its proper scale (that of a still life) in order to suggest the scale of a landscape.

I haven't consciously tried to paint an abstract painting since the ''Saetas, '' or a figurative one, for that matter. I simply try to paint pictures. If the spectator recognizes something in one of my paintings, I suppose that makes it figurative; if not, it's abstract. I couldn't care less. What I do care about is communicating what Cezanne called his ''petite sensation.'' I would like mine to find an echo. That's what it's all about.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.