WHAT IS EXPERIMENTAL DRAWING?
"...that awareness of means should stimulate areas of the imaginations not otherwise accessible"1
Stanley William Hayter, founder and
director of the internationally famed Atelier 17, introduced the artists who came to work
with him in his print workshop to a multitude of experimental drawing methods. What then
is "experimental drawing"?
It is drawing in which one follows a certain process without being able to anticipate the consequences; indeed, the results obtained are essentially determined by the process itself. It is somewhat like performing an experiment in science, where you know how to proceed but do not know what will be the outcome. (in science, however, unlike experimental drawing, it is precisely those results which are not artifacts of the adopted experimental process which are of significance.) In this book we shall examine some of these processes - or "games", as Hayter preferred to call them - playful processes, ranging from the most conscious use of coordinates to imply various dimensions of space to the most unconscious (but not random) ways of drawing that yield, in an almost involuntary way, quite novel outcomes.
You can therefore, freely invent your own games - as an endless activity leading to unforeseen consequences - sometimes chaotic, sometimes unforseeably precise.
Two previous formulations of experimental drawing methods have been written in the twentieth century in Europe -- both being published almost simultaneously and both originating from members of the Bauhaus -- one by Paul Klee, the other by Kandinsky. Paul Klee expressed these with precision in his 'Pedagogical Sketchbook', but they were more richly reconstituted by his students after his death and published under the title of Das Bildnerische Denken(Thinking in Images) later translated as Thinking Eye. This publication contained his students own notes of what they could remember and Klee's own poetical, but rigourous writing. Wassily Kandinsky, on the other hand, encapsulated his ideas delicately but with mathematic rigour in his workfe Point Line to Plane, published in 1926 by the "Bauhaus Books" (edited by Walter Gropius and Moholy-Nagy) which was itself a rigorous development of his better known Concerning the Spiritual in Art, providing stimulation to many later artists reading it. Perhaps not too surprisingly - since the Bauhaus was conceived as a training ground for craftsmen - a prolific new generation of painters did not appear, although the publications themselves were already deeply illuminating and still are.
The third draft was provided by S.W. Hayter in the late fifties, his ideas only having been published in a very much abbreviated form as single chapter of the now out of print book, New Ways of Gravure. The principal mode of transmission to the many hundreds of his colleagues (who included Picasso, Miro, Giacometti, Viera da Silva, Tanguy, Dali, Chagall and such people as Motherwell, Rothko, Jackson Pollock and many others in New York), was rather by living example - a demonstration of the ways one's eye , one's hand, one's relation between conscious and unconscious can be developed in playing serious games with Art. Accordingly they all knew something of his methods of drawing, a few of the multitude of which are elaborated here in this book. They were encouraged to choose only one or two operations which they then developed in one hyper-intense, revelatory week. A different aspect thus became embodied in the work of each colleague; unfortunately, however, these have never been collectively recorded in a single publication before now.
Thus while two of the three treatises were incorporated in books, Hayter's subsisted within a living, active, ever-changing group of artists who didn't necessarily know each other,(the atelier location having changed several times during the years), but who shared a kinship in expanded expectations. One might say that Hayter was in a way like Socrates whose involved dialogues suggested that philosophy could not be written but must be experienced and communicated directly. The dialectic interaction between Hayter and his colleagues was comparable. To carry this philosophical parallel even further, we are analogous to Plato, in writing down, elaborating and extending his ideas.
All of his associates started with the
experimental plate 2 (to acquaint them with etching and with his radical transformations
of it) whose operations will be reformulated in terms of experimental drawing. These ideas
went back to the Surrealists - and their investigations of the unconscious. Although
formulated in the fifties, these avant-garde ideas prefigured, in some respects, both the
spiralling D.N.A. in biology, and certain aspects of literal reflections in physics,
revealed by the discovery of parity violation in fundamental particle physics. An art was
thus formulated which could feel itself at ease both in the unconscious (in fact in
several types of unconscious) and with creative scientists, who plunge with dynamic
mathematicaly control into the unknown. There was, in the Atelier, an astonishing
atmosphere, even a stratosphere of search, research, discussions and anticipations not
knowing what would arise next but accepting it as the given and illuminating.
One might be tempted to think that the art of the twentieth century began with the concentration on the picture plane itself, rather than on the three dimensional illusory spaces lurking behind it.
Klee, and Kandinsky in his later period, regarded it thus, Kandinsky even calling his later book Point Line to Plane. Hayter, however had a much more dynamic relation to space - regarding it both as two dimensional planes evidenced in his graven traces (which rise slightly above it), but not denying the claims of three, or perhaps four dimensional extensions, even the systematic but dizying oscillations from concave to convex which give one the impression of a stomach - jerking ride on a roller coaster. These will all be illustrated in the course of this book, the spectator's mind being involved with creation of spaces, even being trained to see gradually through what looks at first sight to be only a pattern, glimpsing the spaces slowly emerging from it. It will be perceptual, a violent exercise. Get ready! Be prepared for the new ambiguity of space and the elegant manipulation of dimensions created by interlaping co-ordinate systems. In contrast to Klee and Kandinsky, Hayter is more dynamic - his spaces visually curve, oscillating inwards and outwards, involving the spectator in the very machinations of the extended fields themselves, involving him in mirror-image inversions, topological transformations, and even in the physically impossible (but mathematically imaginable) gradual transformation from left continuously into right (a mirror can, of course, do this only discontinuously!). He plunges us into systematically controlled chaos and leads us out again in his etchings, drawings and writings on experimental drawing.
While settling in Paris, he was first involved with the artistic preoccupations of the Surrealists (see Epilogue by David Gascoyne), gaining his images from his own dreams or the dreams of others rendered concrete in myths. He later developed a more continuous relation with the unconscious, not one waiting for dreams or external reference to mythology, but one which originated in the eye and hand's movements. Sometimes his dreams or a mythological creature appear also in his later work but then suffering the distortions of a superimposed space. The unconscious in this dream-sense is no longer exclusive. In fact, his deep knowledge of science sometimes influenced his own unconscious.
Many of these approaches merge in each of his drawings, but for the purpose of simplicity, we shall identify separately the main sources which infuse his thoughts.
Baroque music - Bach and Vivaldi - in which one can hear the independent melodies and disentangle them from their simultaneous coherence in chords, provides several precise analogies: in melodic line and graphic line, in counterpoint, in rhythm and in interpenetration of melodies leading to chords.
In music counterpoint refers to a melody added as an accompaniment to a given melody played in a specific relation to it, - changed into another key, played slower or faster, inverted, or raised or lowered in pitch.
There is, however, a certain coherent3 relation between these melodies which are not totally independent. Analogically in drawing, the line - corresponding to the melody - is changed coherently in relation to its initial statement - perhaps repeated or reversed in mirror-image or expanded. Graphically one has many possibilities of making several counterpoints out of the first line which remain in some way related and which can coalesce in chords. It is a response, a carefully thought out move as in chess.
Rhythm can be defined as a repetition of similar elements at regular or recognizably related intervals - somehow connected in a coherent whole; - for example, - the pulsations of beating drum, or an electric current oscillating from negative to positive, or a pendulum swinging to and fro. This will be illustrated by the rhythmic repetitions of straight lines at various intervals but also, more complexly, by curves where certain types cannot be seen as simply lying on the surface but must be understood as convex or concave relative to the observer. The spectator can himself, by a trick of perception, change this convexity into concavity, thus generating an in-and-out lability.4
As a necessity for expanded researches the geometrical form of mathematics, (rather than the algebra which generated it), was communicated to his students ( here they are students) through playful and concrete ways of constructing figures such as hyperbolas, spirals, parabolas and the curved lines which, when systematically drawn, represent curved dimensions of space. All the possibilities of turning, reversing, as well as the impossibilities of transforming into a mirror-image - however much one may turn and twist -strech the brain.
III. Natural Sciences:
The intrinsic aspect of various types of fields - both geometrical and physical - rather than the isolated interaction of one object with another, was considered to be mediated via the fields. Hayter's many curved coordinates which systematically intersect each other simulate a kind of Riemannian space which, according to Einstein's four dimensional space-time, is continually being modified by matter and which, in turn, modifies the matter itself. One can actually "imagine" oneself in such a space - being pulled in differing ways by varying, dynamic distortions. Hayter could immediately grasp what scientists were in the process of doing.
Indeed it coud be said that he anticipated visually certain developments in both physics and biology: in the latter, for example, his investigations into the perceptual directions of the spiral prepared him mentally for the double-spiralled nature of genetic material. Avant-garde science and avant-garde art understand and propel each other.
IV. The Unconscious is not ignorance nor is it the absence of mental faculties but it is the unknown operation of the mind which influences our activities even our ordinary drawn lines in an unexpected but rigourous way. It appears in different guises. Being associated with the Surrealists, Hayter used their techniques of allowing the unconscious to be manifested in works of art, using his own dreams, the dreams of others, and even mythologies as an inspiration for his own paintings and drawings. The spectrum between the unconscious and the conscious is here manifested in the conscious use of the unconscious dream or myth. The interplay between the random and the unconscious is suggested here in 'decology' - a random ink drop being pressed between two pages to produce a very suggestive symmetrical form. Through this the artists might find their way into their own unconscious, not as Rohschach did in suggesting that one tells stories but visually. Another possibility was "collective drawing" in which the paper was divided into the number of the participants present each seeing only the edges of their neighbours' drawing. This could scarcely lead to coherence. After that diverging from the Surrealists, he developed a sort of figurative drawing, involving looking intensely at the object and drawing without ever giving a glance to the hand involved, so that a coherent but quite different sort of line emerged. This could then be drawn upon, if one wished, while looking at it and at the hand drawing it. Later, when he had transformed the picture plane into a coherent field, he developed more elaborate controllable techniques using different ways of actually looking. This is what is referred to as an 'unconscious drawing'.
This a foretaste of what will now be elaborated at length - a host of suggestions - a subset of an infinite series of processes which can be added to by the reader.
1 S.W. Hayter 'Orientation,
Direction, Cheirality, Velocity and Rhythm.The Nature and Art of Motion' (edited
by Gyorgy Kepes). Studio Vista, London and New York, 1965.
2 Experimental plate: on a zinc plate each new member of the atelier carried out certain operations: from the unconscious but controlled through to conscious counterpoint developed from it, to inversion of the space to the final operation using colour.
3 'Coherent' here has two applications which function simultaneously: the one grammatical - 'consistent' 'making sense' - and it combines the meaning with the second more physical - 'having a definite relationship between parts so the system as a whole acts in concert; ordely as distinct from turbulent.
4 'Lability' unstable.