Moral der Farbe: Erfurt Fen­ster[1]is a site-spe­cif­ic paint­ed instal­la­tion that Robert Tombs cre­at­ed in April 2008 at glass­box in Erfurt, Ger­many. Befit­ting the name of this con­vert­ed com­mer­cial space designed in store­front style,’ three of the four walls of the gallery are made entire­ly of glass. Using a housepainter’s brush, and black and grey latex paint pur­chased at the local OBI big box hard­ware store, Tombs hap­haz­ard­ly mixed vari­ants of medi­um grey paint direct­ly on all inside glass sur­faces such that his cov­er­age was rather patchy.

At first, Robert Tombs’s paint­ing instal­la­tion seems decep­tive­ly sim­ple, a work in the spir­it of min­i­mal­ist art: pri­ma­ry mate­ri­als, archi­tec­tural­ly bound, the­atri­cal,’[2]and focused on embod­ied expe­ri­ence. But while most min­i­mal­ism points to its object­hood as well as space, Tombs trans­forms sim­ple com­po­nents into some­thing approach­ing a sub­lime’[3]expe­ri­ence. Depend­ing on the weath­er and time of day, light would stream through the gaps in and between brush­strokes, cre­at­ing a daz­zling phan­tas­magoric effect for the view­er inside the space.  Not only does par­ing away an art­work to its essen­tials have a mod­ernist log­ic, but it can also have its unfore­seen epipha­nies, espe­cial­ly when they are exe­cut­ed at a par­tic­u­lar time and place, and take into account the cycli­cal rhythms of nature, social life, and bod­i­ly dis­place­ment. InEr­furt Fen­ster, these inter­sec­tions become cru­cial axes in the play of sig­ni­fi­ca­tion. They colour our per­cep­tion of what might oth­er­wise seem to be an autonomous artwork.

The recent dis­course around mate­ri­al­i­ty in art crit­i­cism has shed light on the short­com­ings of post­mod­ern inter­pre­ta­tion. Writ­ing by such the­o­rists as Bill Brown and W.J.T. Mitchell have drawn our atten­tion beyond the con­fines of lin­guis­tic sig­ni­fiers to the agency of things around us, to what an art­work might be say­ing to us through its very mat­ter and form—this is not at  the exclu­sion of his­to­ry, but rather a recon­sid­er­a­tion of how the art­work inter­acts with the world around it. Art­works can­not be pinned down by lan­guage alone; try­ing to engage the work with new eyes seems to be the way to go. In occu­py­ing a space out­side of the nor­mal course of mun­dane human and object life, art­works live their own time and his­to­ry, dif­fer­ent from that of nature and humankind. An ongo­ing becom­ing and wast­ing away is char­ac­ter­is­tic of most art; the image is alive—but also dead; powerful—but also weak; meaningful—but also mean­ing­less” W.J.T. Mitchell sug­gests.[4]What does it mean for the image (or art object) to be alive in a sec­u­lar ratio­nal world sup­pos­ed­ly no longer recep­tive to such prim­i­tive’ notions as animism?

In this light, such seem­ing­ly pas­sive ele­men­tal things as min­er­als, and the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of their assem­blage, might be under­stood to have not only a phys­i­cal influ­ence on their sur­rounds, but also their own sense of loss and mem­o­ry apart from more instru­men­tal human needs. They con­tin­ue to live, meta­mor­phose and even die accord­ing to andapart from human his­to­ry. The idea of a min­er­al intel­li­gence’ could be seen as a mod­el for think­ing of new forms of becom­ing.’ We are able to under­stand our place in the world, and how dra­mat­i­cal­ly life can change, based on the chance dis­cov­ery of fos­sils found between lay­ers of lime­stone and prim­i­tive tools unearthed after mil­len­nia of human evo­lu­tion­ary change. These find­ings trans­formed our way of think­ing. Human iden­ti­ty and sub­jec­tiv­i­ty are not fixed once and for all, but are in a con­stant state of becom­ing, large­ly due to the shift­ing net­work of mate­r­i­al forces affect­ing them. More recent­ly, the dialec­ti­cal and often ran­dom play between bio­log­i­cal and cul­tur­al forces sparked the devel­op­ment of new tech­niques and tech­nolo­gies with the aim of record­ing mem­o­ry, knowl­edge, ideas and feel­ings: ground pig­ment applied to plas­ter, words pressed in clay or engraved in stone, sil­ver deposits fixed on glass plates, sil­i­con chips record­ing a series of zeros and ones. Humans affect mate­ri­als, and mate­ri­als affect humans (per­haps more than they are will­ing to admit). And direct­ly relat­ed to this is the pow­er of the art­work. What could it be telling us?

Robert Tombs’s newest art­works (includ­ing Bri­gus Mark, 2007[5]and Empire, 2011[6]) are site-spe­cif­ic paint­ed instal­la­tions, cre­at­ed under the rubric The Moral­i­ty of Paint,” exper­i­ments with, and med­i­ta­tions on, paint in rela­tion to phys­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal space, bod­i­ly and opti­cal expe­ri­ence, and mem­o­ries of loss and death. His his­tor­i­cal­ly-informed approach to paint­ing often dis­plays a com­bi­na­tion of irrev­er­ence and enchant­ment, reveal­ing the nec­es­sary pres­sures placed on paint­ing by social and his­tor­i­cal change; the work deliv­ers to the per­spi­ca­cious view­er com­plex ques­tions relat­ed to the bur­dens and respon­si­bil­i­ties of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the West. There is noth­ing super­flu­ous in Tombs’s art prac­tice. Bear­ing the tem­po­ral stamp of its future decay, the work forces us to take a clos­er look at the very stuff of mat­ter, and how sleights of hand can call up entire his­to­ries of destruc­tion. While not all art is melan­cholic, most good art is. It takes upon itself the respon­si­bil­i­ty of reveal­ing a par­al­lel shad­owy world of loss and tran­sience beyond the amne­si­ac realm of decep­tive appear­ances. Per­haps since its ori­gins, art could be under­stood as leav­ing a trace of a loss, a neg­a­tive mode of pres­ence” as Der­ri­da describes it.[7]What is the nature of this lost presence?

A good place to start would be the nature of the work itself. In this case, site-speci­fici­ty directs our atten­tion to the phys­i­cal space of the gallery. In plac­ing space at the cen­tre of the work, there is an attempt to reveal some­thing over­looked or oth­er­wise unknow­able about it and its imme­di­ate envi­rons. To extri­cate the site-spe­cif­ic work from its spa­tial con­text would utter­ly change or deplete it. In the case of Erfurt Fen­ster, the work can­not be picked up and. Erfurt Fen­sterdoes not owe its exis­tence to a com­mod­i­fied sta­tus of porta­bil­i­ty, exchange­abil­i­ty, or col­lectibil­i­ty. It might go on to be doc­u­ment­ed, and become con­sumed as pho­to or video doc­u­men­ta­tion, but it is essen­tial­ly made to be expe­ri­enced for a lim­it­ed peri­od of time, in a par­tic­u­lar place. In this respect it has ties to the ori­gins of paint­ing, before the intru­sion of the easel, when fres­cos or trompe l’oeilwall murals were con­cep­tu­al­ized and exe­cut­ed with­in sacred or aris­to­crat­ic spaces. But unlike these, Tombs’s paint­ing is decid­ed­ly sec­u­lar and tem­po­ral, not meant to exist beyond the few weeks in which it was on dis­play for the pub­lic. In this way the work has aura” in the Ben­jamin­ian sense, in that its mate­ri­al­i­ty is attached to a here-and-now, a con­tin­u­ous his­to­ry, even if that his­to­ry is ulti­mate­ly inter­rupt­ed by era­sure. If the instal­la­tion could be said to con­found exhi­bi­tion val­ue” with cult val­ue”[8]it would be in the sense that Boris Groys dis­cuss­es it when he writes that the con­tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tion space has become the new church or palace. As the func­tion and char­ac­ter of art changes with new modes of pro­duc­tion and social upheaval, so does its posi­tion as a wit­ness to human his­to­ry change. Art comes to occu­py one of the few spaces of con­tem­pla­tion that exists freely and acces­si­bly to the pub­lic at large, rather than being reserved for a priv­i­leged few:

The con­tem­po­rary art space is a space in which mul­ti­tudes can view them­selves and cel­e­brate them­selves, as God or kings were in for­mer times viewed and cel­e­brat­ed in church­es and palaces … More than any­thing else, what the instal­la­tion offers to the flu­id, cir­cu­lat­ing mul­ti­tudes is an aura of the here and now. The instal­la­tion is, above all, a mass-cul­tur­al ver­sion of indi­vid­ual flâner­ie, as described by Ben­jamin, and there­fore a place for the emer­gence of aura, for pro­fane illu­mi­na­tion.” […] Our con­tem­po­rary con­di­tion can­not be reduced to being a loss of the aura” to the cir­cu­la­tion of rit­u­al beyond here and now,” as described in Benjamin’s famous essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­duc­tion.”[9]

Not only is Erfurt Fen­sterrespond­ing direct­ly to the site as its con­di­tio sine qua nonbut the exhi­bi­tion space itself also becomes oth­er. Through a sus­pen­sion of the habit­u­al attrib­ut­es of the archi­tec­ture through very sim­ple means, some­thing like a pro­fane illu­mi­na­tion” take place.

A passer­by notices a build­ing that he or she has passed by thou­sands of times per­haps with­out giv­ing it much thought or atten­tion any­more. But because its win­dows are white­washed, the view­er becomes once again curi­ous. Soaped win­dows usu­al­ly sig­nal a business’s clo­sure. But this occurs often enough in pub­lic space, and while this might be con­sid­ered unfor­tu­nate, there is per­haps noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly remark­able about this.[10]Pro­fane illu­mi­na­tion” is dif­fer­ent; it occurs because there is an addi­tion­al fac­tor that is unusu­al, not quite right. For instance, one knows from expe­ri­ence that this is not a busi­ness per se, but a gallery. But here the gallery seems to be treat­ed as if it were a busi­ness, and this is enough to stop one in one’s tracks. There is a break from the quo­tid­i­an. One expects to see changes here, but not that the gallery be closed down.

In the case of Erfurt Fen­ster, the grey colour of the paint changes with the time of day and depend­ing on what side of the win­dow one looks at it. From out­side the build­ing, the paint looks rather white. One is indeed remind­ed of the white­wash­ing of glass win­dows when busi­ness­es shut down or are in the process of ren­o­va­tion. The paint used to block out the glass is invari­ably slop­py and shab­by look­ing. But once inside one is hit by the daz­zling effect of light enter­ing between gaps in the paint. The term pro­fane illu­mi­na­tion” is appro­pri­ate. There is a marked con­trast between sub­lime effect and use of ordi­nary mate­ri­als. From out­side the gallery space is trans­formed into a closed-down busi­ness. From inside the paint appears to be a dark grey, almost black at times, trans­form­ing the gallery into some­thing quite spec­tac­u­lar. As demon­strat­ed by Josef Albers decades ago, colour is gov­erned by its own inter­nal decep­tive log­ic. Shifts in light inten­si­ty and adja­cent colour can change every­thing just as the place­ment of the view­er with­in ver­sus out­side the space also can.

Besides the site-speci­fici­ty of the actu­al phys­i­cal struc­ture of the space is the geo­graph­ic set­ting with­in which it is sit­u­at­ed. The impor­tance of the city as con­text is imme­di­ate­ly addressed by the title of the work, Erfurt Fen­ster. Then there is the fact that one invari­ably looks through the glass at the cityscape beyond in expe­ri­enc­ing the work. Glass­box, a gallery attached to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Erfurt (found­ed in 1392), was a for­mer GDR book­store, and its social­ist late-mod­ern archi­tec­ture reflects a real­i­ty that is now past but which con­tin­ues to echo across this for­mer East Ger­many city. The sil­vered appear­ance of the paint from the out­side has the effect of reflect­ing the city back on itself like a mir­ror, but it also reminds the pub­lic that the gallery space has under­gone sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tion of pur­pose and own­er­ship in the not so dis­tant past (from East to a unit­ed Ger­many, from book­store to art gallery). Erfurt expe­ri­enced far less destruc­tion dur­ing World War II than oth­er cities, there­fore sig­nif­i­cant mark­ers of its history—from medieval trad­ing town, to Pruss­ian city, to the Sovi­et occu­pa­tion and its present sta­tus as major cap­i­tal­ist city at Germany’s geo­graph­ic centre—are pre­served in its archi­tec­ture and streets. One could think of Erfurt Fen­steras a kalei­do­scope on the city itself. The empha­sis on Fen­sterpoints to glass being an impor­tant mate­r­i­al to con­sid­er, not only for its asso­ci­a­tion to the view onto  the city, but for its sig­nif­i­cance in terms of the his­to­ry of archi­tec­ture and paint­ing. Indeed, giv­en Erfurt’s 20-kilo­me­ter dis­tance from Weimar, a place where Albers began his colour exper­i­ments in 1920 at the Bauhaus—assemblages made from found glass, wire and ceram­ic paint[11]—or its role in syn­a­gogue burn­ing on Kristall­nachtin Novem­ber 1938,[12]glass seems a par­tic­u­lar­ly potent medi­um for Tombs’s installation.

In the his­to­ry of 20th-cen­tu­ry archi­tec­ture, glass has held con­no­ta­tions of utopi­anism, mys­ti­cism[13], progress, and democ­ra­cy. The Crys­tal Palace, for exam­ple, erect­ed in Hyde Park for the Great Exhi­bi­tion of 1851, was built using the lat­est tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped in the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion to cre­ate what had nev­er before been expe­ri­enced: a her­met­i­cal­ly sealed envi­ron­ment which, at the same time, was per­me­at­ed by a sense of open­ness and lumi­nes­cence, the con­ver­gence of out­side and inside, by the pre­dom­i­nant use of glass.[14]Indus­tri­al­iza­tion made pos­si­ble the expe­ri­ence of an archi­tec­tur­al space bathed in air”[15]via the max­i­mum use of frag­ile, trans­par­ent mate­ri­als with a min­i­mal use of cast iron. In 1918 Bruno Taut wrote the man­i­festo of the Arbeit­srat fur Kun­st(Work­ing Coun­cil for Art) in which he states: Art should no longer be the enjoy­ment of the few but the life and hap­pi­ness of the mass­es. The aim is alliance of the arts under the wing of a great archi­tec­ture.” The use of glass in sec­u­lar cathe­drals” would unite the mass­es in a new shared spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence.”[16]Archi­tec­ture became at once enlight­ened (ratio­nal) and enlight­en­ing (spir­i­tu­al) with the intro­duc­tion of glass. Fur­ther­more, metaphor­i­cal­ly bound to this mate­r­i­al was the idea of trans­paren­cy’ in the social­ist and demo­c­ra­t­ic sens­es of the term. Open­ing up the inside to view meant that what was occur­ring pri­vate­ly could be open­ly viewed pub­licly. This became a par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant con­no­ta­tion with the hous­ing of cor­po­rate offices with­in Inter­na­tion­al Style build­ings and skyscrapers.

One of the artist’s inten­tions was to use the glass-paint­ing tech­nique from the mag­ic lantern slide to trans­form glass­box into a translu­cent prism of gri­saille­brush­strokes through which to view scenes of actu­al Erfurt out­side.”[17]While gaps left between brush­strokes on the glass allowed for the view­er to peek out onto the sur­round­ing land­scape when his/her eyes were close to its sur­face, from a dis­tance the glass slide’ wall cre­at­ed form­less phan­tas­mago­rias’ with­in. The view­er no longer focus­es on the out­side but on what is occur­ring inside. There is a con­stant duck-rab­bit[18]effect occur­ring, a con­tin­u­ous shift in per­spec­tive between out­side and inside spaces due to this sim­ple opti­cal effect caused by paint block­ing out the win­dow. The out­side world becomes the light source of the appa­ra­tus. The view­er is in a sense trapped inside the glass lantern itself. The sense of motion in Tombs’s instal­la­tion results from the par­tial­ly obscured out­side world, the sun, clouds, peo­ple walk­ing, and cars and trams stream­ing past, but also results from the move­ment of view­ers inside the space.

The mag­ic lantern func­tions through an inge­nious fusion of paint­ing, glass and light, and could be under­stood as a pre­cur­sor to pho­tog­ra­phy and cin­e­ma. Unlike the cam­era obscu­raof the 17thand 18thcen­turies, which used the minis­cule aper­ture at one end of a dark­ened room as a mod­el for under­stand­ing how humans see, ground­ing vision square­ly with­in a fixed self,[19]the dark­ened room per­me­at­ed with irreg­u­lar aper­tures pro­vides a mod­el for a frac­tured, mul­ti-dimen­sion­al per­spec­tive of the world, fus­ing cul­ture and nature, fact and fic­tion, sci­ence, design and art. It is also impor­tant to note that besides being used to enter­tain and edu­cate the pub­lic, the mag­ic lantern became increas­ing­ly monop­o­lized by men call­ing them­selves magi­cians who, through hid­ing the mag­ic lantern behind a wall and hav­ing the light escape through a hid­den aper­ture, fright­ened the pub­lic through appari­tions of demons and ghosts as if out of thin air. The flip side of ecsta­t­ic illu­mi­na­tion then was the shad­owy appear­ance of dark forces. This is caused by the pres­ence of paint.

Glass could be con­sid­ered an ear­ly ref­er­ence for paint­ing as a con­struct­ed win­dow onto the world, but also as mir­ror (reflect­ing the city around it). While a min­i­mal­ist econ­o­my char­ac­ter­izes Tombs’s approach to paint, it is loaded with his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence. His paint­ing sig­nals the shift from opti­cal­i­ty to phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy in art—from the pas­sive faith in what the eye sees to the con­scious engage­ment of the body with the sur­round­ing envi­ron­ment. Also, despite the dra­mat­ic use of nat­ur­al light, the work could be under­stood as adding to the dis­course on mono­chrome paint­ing in art, a dis­course which itself shifts between spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and secu­ral­ism, puri­ty and absolute ter­ror of the void. Like the mag­ic lantern, the monochrome’s his­to­ry is bur­dened by invis­i­ble forces, unnam­able demons.

The mono­chrome was a kind of tabla rasathat changed con­text depend­ing on who paint­ed it and when and where it was paint­ed. One thing seemed to remain con­sis­tent how­ev­er: the mono­chrome rep­re­sent­ed the degree zero of paint­ing, a dis­till­ing down of paint­ing to the truth’ and/or puri­ty’ of mate­ri­als. It was at once a moment of clar­i­ty, a blind spot, and a void that one could stare into when deal­ing with the repressed trau­mas of his­to­ry. In the con­text of post­war Europe, the mono­chrome was for a long time in dia­logue with the atroc­i­ties and after­math of the Sec­ond World War and the impos­si­bil­i­ty of a con­tin­u­a­tion with the tra­di­tions of the past; in Amer­i­ca it tend­ed to be in dia­logue with the New World’s faith in progress and set­ting one’s sights on the future.

The colour grey is often asso­ci­at­ed with being a symp­tom of min­i­mal­ism and con­cep­tu­al art, as point­ed out by David Batch­e­lor: To this day, there remains a belief, often unspo­ken per­haps but equal­ly often unques­tioned, that seri­ous­ness in art and cul­ture is a black-and-white issue, that depth is mea­sured only in shades of grey. Forms of chro­mo­pho­bia per­sist in a diverse range of art from more recent years – in vari­eties of Real­ism, for instance, with its unnat­ur­al fond­ness for brown, or in Con­cep­tu­al art, which often made a fetish of black and white.”[20]Tomb­ss’ use of grey is not fash­ion­able how­ev­er, but his­tor­i­cal­ly melan­cholic. It is the colour of mod­ernist con­crete, ash and ruins; the grey paint obfus­cates the spir­i­tu­al con­no­ta­tions and prag­mat­ic qual­i­ties of glass as a kind of philo­soph­i­cal brood­ing. Buchen­wald is also in close prox­im­i­ty to Erfurt, and when the plague hit the city in the 14thcen­tu­ry, Jews were expelled from the town, sus­pect­ed of being the source of a mys­te­ri­ous sick­ness caus­ing excru­ci­at­ing death. This is not an arbi­trary asso­ci­a­tion, but cen­tral to the work’s con­text. The grey paint is pur­pose­ful­ly used to reflect this melan­choly mood.

In con­clu­sion, I would like to address the sub­ti­tle of the work: Moral der Farbe, the moral­i­ty of paint. Why moral­i­ty? Paint has had a lot of pres­sure placed on it due to its high sta­tus in the his­to­ry of art. In the 20th cen­tu­ry, paint­ing was large­ly den­i­grat­ed due to its asso­ci­a­tion with the high­er class­es. The avant-garde, the Russ­ian con­struc­tivists, pro­duc­tivists and Dadaists in the 1910s and 20s, then the neo-avant-garde art move­ments from the mid 1950s to the present, looked upon paint­ing as the medi­um of the ene­my. In light of the post­war peri­od, when paint­ing did reestab­lish itself, many artists had instinc­tive­ly or con­scious­ly inter­nal­ized Adorno’s dic­tum of no poet­ry after Auschwitz.” On the one hand Adorno posit­ed that art was impos­si­ble to make after the atroc­i­ties of the war, but at the same time it could not not be made. One had to address the sit­u­a­tion while resign­ing one­self to the impos­si­bil­i­ties of express­ing that.’ Art could not advance except through address­ing this inevitable fail­ure of exam­in­ing that which haunts it. One preva­lent reac­tion with­in paint­ing was a com­plete aban­don­ment of fig­u­ra­tion in order to find a way to use abstrac­tion to express the unrepresentable.

Adorno’s dic­tum also point­ed to the impos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion the artist found him/herself in; this relates to the impos­si­bil­i­ty of free­dom of expres­sion due to the absolute reifi­ca­tion of the sub­ject in light of a pol­i­tics of instru­men­tal rea­son, in the ser­vice of tech­no­log­i­cal progress, and due to the inabil­i­ty for autonomous cul­ture to resist the influ­ence of unfree­dom with­in the con­text of such a pol­i­tics (which invari­able con­trols all medi­ums of expres­sion via the dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy). Indi­vid­u­als are no longer able to tru­ly make their own choic­es when they are inter­nal­ized with­in the regime’s log­ic: pawns with­in a greater eco­nom­ic plan, using effi­cient means toward irra­tional ends. Reifi­ca­tion sig­nals the abne­ga­tion of sub­jec­tive free­dom let alone free­dom of expres­sion. So despite autonomous culture’s his­to­ry of resis­tance to rul­ing ide­ol­o­gy, in light of the avant-garde’s recline, mak­ing way for total­i­tar­i­an­ism and then hyper­cap­i­tal­ism, one could see noth­ing but fail­ure. In Erfurt Fen­ster, Tombs’s way out’ is to merge a site infused with his­to­ry with the optics and mythol­o­gy of glass while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dema­te­ri­al­iz­ing his paint­ing sup­port to the great­est extent pos­si­ble. In doing so, he iso­lates paint, propos­ing it as a medi­um whose accu­mu­lat­ed moral author­i­ty, dat­ing back to at least the altarpeces of the 11thcentury—whether con­struct­ed or not—cannot be diminished.

Pon­der­ing  Tombs’s approach to paint­ing and its rela­tion to the bur­dens of painting’s his­to­ry has led me to Adorn­ian pes­simism. How­ev­er, the ele­ment of light pierc­ing through the grey paint might allow for anoth­er spec­trum of thought that is not touched upon here. It is per­haps in the incor­po­ra­tion of tran­sience that paint’s moral­i­ty’ is best addressed in Erfurt Fen­ster. It records an end­less stream of pass­ing, and is itself part of this pass­ing. Words fall short but one can­not express oth­er­wise in giv­ing an inter­pre­ta­tion of the art­work. The para­dox of writ­ing on Robert Tombs’s instal­la­tion is that in attempt­ing to approach its min­er­al and spa­tial con­tent and spir­i­tu­al con­text, I have resort­ed to myr­i­ad abstrac­tions and his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences. One can­not but use every­day words in attempt­ing to unlock an artwork’s par­tic­u­lar lan­guage. In the process of writ­ing, I con­tin­u­al­ly felt I was miss­ing the tar­get; and then in oth­er attempts to mine the work, I failed bet­ter. These words might nonethe­less pro­vide a glimpse into how the art­work might allow us to tran­scend our human lim­i­ta­tions and, through pro­fane illu­mi­na­tions” of mate­ri­als and space, expe­ri­ence the world with a new­found awareness.


[1]Trans­lat­ed from Eng­lish, the title was orig­i­nal­ly The Moral­i­ty of Paint: Erfurt Win­dowalthough the Ger­man word for paint” is farbe.A more pre­cise trans­la­tion of far­be­would be colour.”

[2]In the Michael Fried sense. See in par­tic­u­lar his essay Art and Objecthood.”

[3]The mean­ing of this term has changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly since its use by Long­i­nus, Burke, and Kant. I would call Tombs’s work a melan­cholic sub­lime, com­bin­ing the sense of ruin and decay with illu­mi­na­tion, cre­at­ing a height­ened sense of spa­tial and his­tor­i­cal awareness.

[4]W.J.T. Mitchell, What do pic­tures want?: the lives and loves of images, Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2005, p. 10.

[5]Bri­gus Mark­was com­plet­ed dur­ing an artist’s res­i­den­cy in Bri­gus, New­found­land in July 2007. As a work, it com­prised the direct appli­ca­tion of four litres of black marine enam­el paint onto an exposed slab of silt­sone over­look­ing Bri­gus har­bour. Rather than being a land­scape paint­ing, Bri­gus Mark­was a paint­ed land­scape, one in which notions of the pic­turesque’ were undermined.”(artist’s state­ment, 2008)

[6]Empire(exhibited at Mod­ern Fuel, Kingston, Ontario, Novem­ber 2011) jux­ta­posed nine unique 1’ x 8’ striped colour-field paint­ings on stretched can­vas with a 1’ x 9’ stripe of gold leaf and tar paint­ed direct­ly on the gallery wall. As a site-spe­cif­ic paint­ed instal­la­tion, Empireac­knowl­edged acts of pre­sen­ta­tion’ as whol­ly with­in the over-arch­ing con­text of pow­er and death.”(artist’s state­ment, 2011)

[7]Jacques Der­ri­da, Ouria et Gramme” in Marges de la Philoso­phie, Paris: Les Edi­tions de Minu­it, 1972, p.76.

[8]Works of art are received and val­ued on dif­fer­ent planes. Two polar types stand out: with one, the accent is on the cult val­ue; with the oth­er on the exhi­bi­tion val­ue of the work. […] With the eman­ci­pa­tion of the var­i­ous art prac­tices from rit­u­al go increas­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for the exhi­bi­tion of their prod­ucts. It is eas­i­er to exhibt a por­trait bust than can be sent here and there than to exhibt the stat­ue of a divin­i­ty that has its fixed place in the inte­ri­or of a tem­ple. The same holds for the paint­ing as against the mosa­ic or fres­co that pre­ced­ed it.” Wal­ter Ben­jamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­duc­tion” in Illu­mi­na­tions, NY: Schock­en Books, 1968, pp.224–5.

[9]Boris Groys, The Pol­i­tics of Instal­la­tion,” e‑flux jour­nal#2, 01/2009,


[10]What is remark­able is that dur­ing the Nazi regime, Goebbels encour­aged Ger­mans to boy­cott Jew­ish-owned busi­ness­es. With­in a short time, stars of David and Jude” were paint­ed on the store­fronts, and even­tu­al­ly the own­ers were forced to close.


[11]In the ear­ly 1990s, Tombs com­plet­ed research for his MFA the­sis on Albers’s glass paint­ings” – a term coined by Albers – at the Josef Albers Foun­da­tion (now the Josef and Anni Albers Foun­da­tion), then in Orange, Con­necti­cut. These paint­ings” were orig­i­nal­ly assem­blages made from found glass, wire and ceram­ic paint but in the mid-1920s, his works evolved into uni­form con­struc­tions of sand­blast­ed flashed glass made by craftswork­ers at the Berlin fac­to­ry of Got­tfried Hein­ers­dorff, Puhl and Wagner.

[12]OnKristall­nacht (9–10 Novem­ber, 1938), the (Erfurt) syn­a­gogue was set on fire and the chapel at the ceme­tery destroyed. The Nazis arrest­ed and mal­treat­ed 197 Jews with ten men requir­ing hos­pi­tal­iza­tion Oth­ers were interned in the Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp.” Shmuel Spec­tor and Geof­frey Wigoder, The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Jew­ish Life Before and Dur­ing the Holo­caust: A–J, New York: New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001, p. 366.

[13]Look­ing beyond the famil­iar, large­ly com­mer­cial, use of vast glass halls for green­hous­es, train sta­tions and even the facades and atria of depart­ment stores, [Joseph Pax­ton] cel­e­brat­ed glass as a sym­bol of crys­tal-like puri­ty, an idea which con­tin­ued a long tra­di­tion of first medieval and then Roman­tic Ger­man mys­ti­cism.” Kath­leen James-Chakroborty and Kath­leen James, Ger­man archi­tec­ture for a mass audi­ence, Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2000, p. 47.

[14]Besides new tech­no­log­i­cal won­ders, the struc­ture housed trees, gar­dens and fountains.

[15]Detlef Mertins, Ben­jamin and the Utopia of Glass”, in Assem­blage, no. 19, MIT Press, 1996, p. 8.

[16]James-Chakroborty & James, p. 41.

[17]The artist’s descrip­tion of the work.

[18]The effect can best be illus­trat­ed by the stan­dard exam­ple which philoso­phers like to use in dis­cus­sion of visu­al inter­pre­ta­tion or see­ing as’—the noto­ri­ous rab­bit or duck?’ Take a blot of its approx­i­mate shape, use it for a vari­ety of pat­terns, and then sub­sti­tute the ambigu­ous fig­ure for it. Using it as a ser­i­al motif we can watch what hap­pens as we switch from one read­ing to anoth­er. Every inter­pre­ta­tion leads to a new sense of direc­tion. All the ducks look towards the left, all the rab­bits towards the right. What is hard—at least for me— is to swap read­ings in mid-course and read the design as alter­nat­ing ducks and rab­bits. The dif­fi­cul­ty con­firms the role which scan­ning for redun­dan­cies plays in the per­cep­tion of order.” (E.H. Gom­brich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psy­chol­o­gy of Dec­o­ra­tive Art, Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1984, p. 144.)

[19]Jonathan Crary explains: the cam­era obscu­ra was with­out ques­tion the most wide­ly used mod­el for explain­ing human vision, and for rep­re­sent­ing the rela­tion of a per­ceiv­er and the posi­tion of a know­ing sub­ject to an exter­nal world.” (Tech­niques of the Observ­er: On Vision and Moder­ni­ty in the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry, Cam­bridge: MIT Press, 1990, p. 27.)

[20]David Batch­e­lor, Chro­mo­pho­bia, Lon­don: Reak­tion Books, 2000, p. 30