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So simple a child could have done it
nicholaseastaugh · March 16, 2024
So simple a child could have done&nbsp;it

Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvas art sparks debates about simplicity and significance. While some view it as deceptively simple, in reality, it embodies profound ideas and demands sophisticated analysis. Similarly, artists like Albers and Pollock put meticulous effort into their seemingly straightforward creations. The authenticity of such works lies not in a single defining trait, but in a multitude of intricate details.

Lucio Fontana, master of the slashed canvas, once recalled that “A while ago, a surgeon came to visit me in my studio, and he told me that he was also very capable of making ‘these holes.’ I responded to him that I too can cut off a leg, but I also know that the patient will die of it. If he cuts it, however, it’s a different situation. Fundamentally different.” [Fontana, 1966]

It’s a charge that has been rolled out often enough: artworks so seemingly simple in design that the creative effort involved would apparently not challenge a 5-year-old (or a surgeon, apparently). At the same time, some of these works are considered to be among the world’s greatest paintings, hanging in important museums, or up for sale in major auction houses with eye-watering price tags. Clearly there is more to it than facile technique, but what, exactly? One thing is undoubtedly that these works are innovative, the first to use that apparent simplicity to communicate what proponents would argue are profound ideas. I’d argue though that they are also often remarkably sophisticated in their creation, exhibiting a complexity that tells us much about the artist and their struggle to achieve their vision. Copying the surface appearance might be straightforward, but to capture the deeper structure can be startlingly hard.

I’m sometimes asked what sort of painting I prefer working on, which I think generally means what artist or school do I like the most. Instead, I will often answer ‘complicated ones’. The reason is simple – what generally makes my life as an art analyst easier is having more features that I can use to work out when, where, and by who, the artwork was created. So, materially speaking, objects like drawings are much more problematic because you have relatively little – often just the paper and the drawing medium – to work with. A painting on the other hand has lots of different components such as the pigments to characterise and find dates for. Consequently, a painting that has a simple design might look to present less for me to work with, like a single colour rather than a complex palette. In practice though this doesn’t really happen, and these artworks are often highly complex – it’s just that it’s all behind the scenes. Going in search of this complexity has taught me a great deal about artists and their uniqueness.

The candidates for the ‘so simple’ label are well-known: simplified forms such as the inset squares of Josef Albers’ Homages, the slashed monochromes of Lucio Fontana’s spatial conceptions, or even the drips and dribbles of a Jackson Pollock expressionist abstract are all seemingly beguiling in their apparent ease of production. Cue an endless stream of wannabe Albers’, Fontanas, and Pollocks with their precision-painted squares, sharp slashes, and exuberant dribbles and splashes to the fore, emulating the manner of the artist.

However, an artist like Albers was deeply concerned about so much more – wanting to control every aspect of the creative process – so that with (say) colour, he would look for exactly the right paints to use. This meant not just having a habitual palette but trying out products from multiple manufacturers before selecting and executing the final work. He would also document his final choices on the verso of the painting. For an analyst like me this is absolute gold dust – not only can we compare the materials on the front to what is written on the back as part of authenticity studies, it also provides named and dated samples of different manufacturers products for studies of other mid-20th century artworks. And there is plenty more with Albers: exactly how was the support prepared, how did he construct the squares, what was the precise physical application of the paint, and so forth. Careful examination can reveal perhaps 50 or more features that we can potentially document for comparative analysis with other works. Copyists and imitators may get some of these materials and techniques right, but it is unlikely that they will get enough of them to match a true Albers creation. Fontana, Pollock, et al, are in principle pretty much the same, each artist with numerous identifiable quirks that make the job of a pasticheur incredibly hard to pull off in practice.

We can start to see, then, an interesting strategy when we come to tackle those thorny authorship questions. Rather than looking for the One Big Thing that separates genuine from fake, real from tribute act, we build up a rich profile, lots of little things, where the collection of foibles present is ultimately large enough to allow us to make a secure classification.

In future posts I want to explore some of the implications of all this a bit further, such as what sorts of discriminating feature we actually use when looking at authorship questions. I’ll elaborate on topics such as what the size of a painting can tell us, what counts as a ‘quirky’ feature that is worth systematically documenting, and how we can combine these disparate features into a more objective measure of authenticity.

This article was originally posted on Vasarik's Wordpress account. You can view it here.