Commentary: “I found out a few things …”


Barrick staff member D.K. Sole considers Untitled by Edward Renouf.

“I found out a few things about Edward Renouf, not very much. Unwrapping Untitled (1973) from half-translucent paper I thought he had painted grass. He hadn’t, he had made close-packed zig-zag scratches in a field of black paint. Each stroke exists inside a restricted field of its own, never more than an inch long, and if a line reaches the edge of the masonite rectangle then it bounces back into a gang of other lines. No lines leave, every line is different; each line belongs to the same species but it is an individual of that species.

And the rectangles themselves are like the scratches in that way — two of them on the wall like black shoebox lids — these collections of intimate similarities making two kinds of pattern, the double-rectangle-pattern and the grass-pattern, so that, by extension, more patterns of similar but different objects are possible.

The field-covering line must have been crucial to him in the 1970s; you can find more than a page of other examples on the Vogel Collection website, and if you visit the site of the Allan Stone Gallery you can see the Untitled method used on other canvases, one circular, one triangular.

Who was he then: who was he? It is easier to find out things about his daughter.

He was born in China. By the end of the 1930s he was a Surrealist in New York. How did that happen? Mystery. A gallery owner told him he should meet the Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen in Mexico City, so he travelled south and joined Paalen’s breakaway post-Surrealist group, Dynaton (the name from Greek, tò dynaton). He took on the job of co-editing Paalen’s art journal, DYN. Other artists were leaving Europe in its wartime; they gathered there in Mexico.

Paalen was a theorist; he considered the affinities between essences: quantum theory, cave-painting, totemism, biology, and so on, anything that smelt like a fundamental connection, he painted limbey tangled creatures in oil and with fumage, the application of smoke to the canvas.

Artists from New York came and went, Motherwell bounced back and forth, and DYN published work by Jackson Pollock and Alice Rahon. Renouf’s first illustration, Hellbird, appeared in the second issue. “Upon closer examination, the single bird appears to be multiple birds inside one another,” say the authors of the book Farewell to Surrealism: The Dyn Circle in Mexico (2012), “it is impossible to tell where one bird ends and another begins.” They compare it to Bird’s Hell (1938) by Max Beckmann. “Renouf’s painting is a more compressed, internal image.”

In a few statements the artist talks about “looking into” a hell or mirror. “Where hell yawns the artist looks into its jaws” (quoted in Mark Rothko, 2001, by Anna Chave, p. 81).

The index at the back of Amy Winter’s Paalen book (Wolfgang Paalen: Artist and Theorist of the Avant-Garde, 2002) does not mention him at all

DYN ended after six issues, Paalen self-murdered in 1959, and a chunk of of the artists who had visited him became the Abstract Expressionists. Renouf moved to Connecticut. Why? The Washington Art Association in the town of Washington Depot has two sentences about him on its website. “Edward Renouf was prolific and worked in a broad range of media. He was most noted for his assemblages.”

In 1950 he made a black steel object called Mahout’s Seat, now in the possession of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. In 1973 he made these zig-zag paintings. For the rest of the decade he drew and painted in-packed lines. Perhaps afterwards as well, but the Renoufs on the 50×50 site only run to 1980. In 1999 he died. The death records place him still in Washington Depot.

Did he work extensively in black, as his daughter Edda works extensively with single panes of color? She has two white works on our wall opposite her father’s diptych — dark Renouf face to face with light Renouf — but she changes. I think her works in Herb and Dorothy are red. “Demons look into mirrors and see angels, and angels see demons and I see you,” he wrote in DYN the year before she was born. She was the one who introduced him to the Vogels.

His assemblage on the Washing Art Association site looks orange-brown.

I thought of him in the middle of August when the art blogger Will Owen drew my attention to the bark painting category at this year’s NAATSIA awards. There, that all-over patterning idea, that horror vacui dynamism in Malaluba Gumana’s Dhatam. And the black lines of Nonggirrnga Marawili Mununggurr’s Yathirkpa were bouncing off the sides of the bark sheet and wrinkling back. I thought of him again when I found an article about the Southern Paiute petroglyphs that were found spread across the rocks north of Reno. (The art running from one rock to the other and all the way to the sides. The rock-faces treated like a single fenceless landscape that provokes you into movement.)

Pollock too, the all-over idea, outspreading getting into Rothko, Mark Tobey sprawling his calligraphy, largeness like an octopus, the graffiti in various people, Twombly, then later Basquiat, the possibility of scribble. Renouf scratches where Pollock drips; he doesn’t apply more paint, he takes away the paint he has, he interrupts his own substance. The bark paintings use line, the Paiute petroglyphs work with scratched incised line. Some schizophrenic artists have the horror vacui, Adolf Wölfl, but Renouf’s lines are not hectic, they’re small but they have sprawl, which Les Murray calls “the rococo of being your own still centre,” they arch a little, they’re not shifting from A to B along the shortest route. The individual lines are easygoing but he worked the mass: there it is throughout the Vogel collection, there are the lines inside a circle and triangle on the Allan Stone website, those double-humps of displaced matter infecting the flats of black.”

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