The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue

Irma Blank: Painting Between the Lines

Irma Blank, <i>Ur-schrift ovvero Avant-testo</i>, 1999. Ballpoint pen on canvas, 15 x 13 5/8 inches. Courtesy Luxembourg & Dayan, New York and London.
Irma Blank, Ur-schrift ovvero Avant-testo, 1999. Ballpoint pen on canvas, 15 x 13 5/8 inches. Courtesy Luxembourg & Dayan, New York and London.
On View
Luxembourg & Dayan
May 2 – July 3, 2019
New York

In 1979, for her first one-person exhibition in New York, at O.K. Harris, Irma Blank showed a multipart installation, Trascrizioni, Twelve silent chapters (1977). A black-and-white photograph that accompanied Carrie Rickey’s feloniously uncomprehending review in Artforum at the time documents the work: hundreds of seemingly printed sheets of paper, aligned corner to corner and edge to edge, arrayed in three tiers that wrapped around three walls. Notwithstanding its evocation of a Hans Haacke installation, the work was not printed, not typed, and not data-rich. Using india ink to inscribe row upon row of diminutive lines on parchment-like paper, Blank had rendered a dense but wordless and letterless “transcription” of the pages of an unnamed book. She called, and continues to call, her work “writing.”

Irma Blank, Trascrizioni, Ultime notizie, 1974. India ink on parchment-like paper, 22 1/4 x 15 1/8 inches. Courtesy Luxembourg & Dayan, New York and London.

New York remained largely indifferent to Blank’s art for decades, though she exhibited regularly throughout Europe and beyond. Since 2011, a trio of galleries (first P420, Bologna, then Gregor Podnar, Berlin, and Alison Jacques, London) has steadily expanded the Milan-based artist’s visibility with solo shows and art fair appearances. Inclusion in the 2017 Venice Biennale capped the momentum. Arriving 40 years after the first, Blank’s second solo exhibition in New York is currently on view at Luxembourg and Dayan. The gallery’s narrow townhouse lends itself to an orderly introduction to Blank’s principal series (she began organizing her art in series in 1968, suppressing whatever had been made before), but at the cost of omitting any hint of Blank’s important forays into alternative formats, from the book to the large-scale installation.

The show opens with works from the “Trascrizioni” series (1973 – 79) and one example of the “Radical Writings” (early 1980s – mid-1990s), the remainder of which occupy the second floor. The earliest titles combine German (Blank’s native language) and Italian, which she learned after moving to Sicily as a young woman, in 1955. English soon followed. Two of the “Trascrizioni”—one slyly titled Trascrizioni, Ultime notizie, or Breaking news—reference newspapers. Trascrizioni, Della critica I e II (1975) is framed as a diptych of 96 small pages, the sheets pinned to foam core in a grid. Long and short pen strokes with little peaks and cursive waves inch across the paper. The lines of Blank’s unreadable transcriptions obey the source’s columns and paragraph breaks, and observe the customary placement of publication details, page numbers, and footnotes. It might seem that Blank sought to murder meaning while keeping its ghost close at hand.

For the “Radical Writings” (early 1980s – mid-1990s), Blank turned to oil, acrylic, and watercolor, limiting her palette to shades of pink, rose-violet, and blue. Narrow, horizontally serried bands of color supplant penmanship. Each band is a single brushstroke, applied in one gesture that lasted as long as one exhalation of breath. Judging by the works on view, she appears to have ranged more freely with her pink spectrum—the colors run from tart to meaty—compared to the serene and stately blues, which came somewhat later. The bands of pink paint often produce a jagged margin; strokes halt and begin partway across, introducing saw-toothed curves and waves, and exposing triangular bits of the unpainted support. (By comparison, certain blue works appear to have a unifying blue undercoat that masks the support.) The watercolor pinks, in which some strokes of paint nearly merge, offer the most fluid and seductive effects. In the example of the richly colored Radical Writings, Doppia, pagina dal libro totale N-1 (1985), the handling of paint manages to suggest seams and shadows, like a topographic map.

The pace quickens when circular lines make an appearance in the “Avant-testo” series (begun late 1990s). With multiple ballpoint pens, held in both fists, Blank unleashed a whirlwind of writing that coils, wheels, and spirals across canvas and paper. Each presents a central rectangular density that evokes an extravagant tangle of fibers. Relaxing toward the edges, particularly on canvas, the lines individuate like tendrils or stray hairs.

In the final gallery, the exhibition breaks the artist’s chronology, a liberty that deftly consolidates the entire show. Here, works from Blank’s first series, the “Eigenschriften” (1968 – 73), or “Self-writings," face works from the latest series, "Gehen, Second Life” (2017 – ongoing). As a newcomer to Italy, suffering what she has called “linguistic inadequacy” and cultural alienation, Blank found refuge outside of language, in the “Eigenschriften,” conceiving her own alphabet and writing herself into being. Central blocks of infinitesimal, cryptographer-baiting marks in pastel—the staccato lines like fine needlework—are poised within generous fields of bare paper. Fifty years later, following an illness that has hampered her mobility, Blank began the latest series, applying wavering rows of horizontal lines in marker across sheets of transparent paper. The writings of the “Gehen, Second life” series would never be mistaken for printed pages. They are as vulnerable and direct as the “Eigenschriften” are guarded and hermetic.

Throughout her career, Blank has been included in group exhibitions variously dedicated to drawing as writing and writing as gesture, conceptual art, artists’ books, and feminist art. Unsurprisingly, she dismisses critical and curatorial classifications as reductive and circumstantial. But she did disclose one enduring creative affinity in a late addition to the “Trascrizioni” series that she calls “an absolute exception” to the rule of anonymity for her textual sources. In 1994, Blank made the artist’s book No words, in which passages from the first edition of Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography (1937) are reproduced on pages that face Blank’s transcriptions of them.

The exception is an open tribute to Stein, who shaped her poems on the page as visual compositions by decimating punctuation, opening gaps between words and lines, and repeating phrases to the point of confounding reading. There is an echo of Stein’s revolt against literary convention in Blank’s proud claim that, with the “Trascrizioni,” she had “freed writing from the servitude of meaning.” As Blank dispensed with words but retained the structure of the printed page, so Stein disrupted the printed format while exasperating the sense of words. The literary scholar Ulla Dydo might well be describing Blank’s art with her characterization of Stein’s poetry: “the passage makes an insistent visual design before it makes sentences and sense. … The eye ends up asking what it is seeing, how it is seeing, what reading is, what knowing is.” Blank’s art doesn’t deprive writing of meaning. Rather it prolongs that otherwise fleeting experience of seeing before knowing, when meaning is ripe with potential.

Irma Blank, Radical Writings, Pagina I, 2 giugno 1986, 1986. Acrylic on canvas, 21 5/8 x 17 3/4 inches. Courtesy Luxembourg & Dayan, New York and London.


Marcia E. Vetrocq

Marcia E. Vetrocq is a writer, editor, and educator based in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues