Blots, Spots, and Improvisation in the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries

After seeing the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern, I was speaking to the British sculptor and Royal Academician Michael Sandle about the spot paintings, which – with a few exceptions – are produced by Hirst’s assistants. Michael Sandle made a compelling point about what is problematic about these paintings. It is not that they were produced by assistants – after all, that has been common workshop practice through the centuries – rather they fail to reflect the master reacting to the materials in the moment of creation. An assistant, following the boss’s orders, cannot take the liberty to react to the painting as it’s developing; the resulting work of art is a foregone conclusion. Part of the greatness of Michelangelo’s sculptures, for instance, is that they resulted from creative decisions he made in response to the materials as he chiseled away at the stone. Possibly, this is a useful way to distinguish artistic decisions from intellectual ones. To be clear, as much art results from the latter analytical approach as from the former intuitive one, but it is the intuitive approach I want to discuss in this post.

For centuries, the artistic process has included strategies for improvisation. Somewhere along the way, however, we began to associate intuitive markmaking, indeterminacy, and chance exclusively with modern and contemporary art, and earlier traditional pieces that exhibited such qualities were viewed as anomalies. In particular, this has been the case with an 18th-century treatise by the English artist Alexander Cozens entitled, A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1786), where he describes how to use ink blots to compose a landscape drawing. This piece of writing has been viewed as eccentric and out of step with its times, and has long been compared to surrealist developments and mid-twentieth-century abstraction. Charles Cramer, however, points out in his article ‘Alexander Cozen’s “New Method”: the blot and general nature – painter’, the fallacy of this anachronistic interpretation of Cozens’s treatise: ‘The displacement of Cozens from his classicizing culture is symptomatic of the tendency of modernism and modernist historiography to arrogate all formal innovation to itself and its privileged history, leaving academic classicism an improbably stale and spent art form for much of its life. My reconsideration of Cozens in this article will center on the importance of what I will call the “techniques of generalization” proper to classicism in the context of eighteenth-century empirical epistemology (the theory of knowledge)’. Cramer further explains how this method is wholly a product of eighteenth-century thinking and art practices borrowing from ideas found in the philosophy of John Locke and the literature of Laurence Sterne.

Since Cramer has generously posted substantial excerpts from his research about Cozens and his ‘blot method’, I am keeping my comments brief and encourage you to refer to his well-written article.

About a half- century later, Francisco Goya devised an idiosyncratic technique for painting miniatures on ivory, which bears some similarities to the ‘blot’ method. Antonio de Brugada, a painter friend who witnessed Goya at work on these compositions described his process: ‘He blackened the ivory plaque and let fall on it a drop of water which removed part of the black ground as it spread out, tracing random light areas. Goya took advantage of these traces and always turned them into something original and unexpected’. Several years ago the Frick Collection exhibited ten of these ivories and more information about them is found on their website.

To varying degrees, artists in all time periods use intuition and improvisation. As Cramer rightly reminds us, it is necessary to look at the historical and cultural contexts of works in order to understand the motivation for such an approach. Otherwise, we fall into the fallacy of lumping art works together based on a superficial reading of styles. As early modern artists like Marcel Duchamp began working with principles of chance and accident, the intellectual and cultural climate was vastly different from that of his eighteenth and nineteenth-century forebears. Each artist’s process must be gauged according to the specific time and contemporary culture in which it was devised and practiced.