Moral der Farbe: Erfurt Fensteris 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,’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’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.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, 2007and Empire, 2011) 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.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”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.”
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.“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—or its role in synagogue burning on Kristallnachtin November 1938,glass seems a particularly potent medium for Tombs’s installation.
In the history of 20th-century architecture, glass has held connotations of utopianism, mysticism, 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.Industrialization made possible the experience of an architectural space “bathed in air”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.”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.”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-rabbiteffect 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,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.”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.
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.”
In the Michael Fried sense. See in particular his essay “Art and Objecthood.”
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.
W.J.T. Mitchell, What do pictures want?: the lives and loves of images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 10.
“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)
“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)
Jacques Derrida, “Ouria et Gramme” in Marges de la Philosophie, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1972, p.76.
“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.
Boris Groys, “The Politics of Installation,” e‑flux journal#2, 01/2009,
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
Besides new technological wonders, the structure housed trees, gardens and fountains.
Detlef Mertins, “Benjamin and the Utopia of Glass”, in Assemblage, no. 19, MIT Press, 1996, p. 8.
James-Chakroborty & James, p. 41.
The artist’s description of the work.
“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.)
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.)
David Batchelor, Chromophobia, London: Reaktion Books, 2000, p. 30