Black is the New Black: Vincent Como

This post is written by: Matthew Evans Teti

"Dark Matter"
Vincent Como, Dark Matter, 2007, 116 x 75 in. overall, Gouache and ink on paper w/ framed footnotes.

Postmodern endgames in art began with the aptly mythic work of Marcel Duchamp. It’s not hard to imagine Duchamp’s influence looming large in 1950s New York, especially amongst the artists mentored by his disciple, John Cage. For the Abstract Expressionists, notably Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, and Mark Rothko, all of whom created monochrome black canvases around the mid-century, there was certainly a bit of Duchamp’s conniving manner at work. One could also argue that there was a bit of the machismo for which the New York School is renowned at work in the creation of all-black paintings (1). But, at base, the so-called Black Paintings of the AbEx artists were an exercise in armchair phenomenology.

In the introduction to her much-needed and admirable exhibition Black Paintings at Haus der Kunst, Munich (2006), Stephanie Rosenthal states that the creation of these paintings “revolve[d] around not being able to see (anything), or focus[ed] on the inwardly directed gaze of the viewer or on the artist’s own existential state” (2). The latter critique is a rather disinteresting reading, which posits a textbook Modernism at the heart of these works, whereas the AbEx artists, although militantly interior, at the same time expressed a complete meltdown in the face of the Modern alienation (what Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, in reference to the monochrome paintings in the Rothko Chapel, call a “suicidal narcissism” (3)). The former references a phenomenological reading of Black Painting, which is, in its elucidation, more of an obfuscation of phenomenology, rather than an engagement with it. Indeed, Bersani and Dutoit bring this non-engagement full round to re-focus it on the artist himself, whose “aggression toward the viewer […] depend[s] on a prior self-aggression, a prior self-maiming” (4). So much for phenomenology.

In the 1940s and 1950s, on the other side of the Atlantic, another impresario of the Black Painting was getting his start: Pierre Soulages. Soulages is the Black Painter par excellence. Despite the dearth of critical attention the artist has received outside of France, he is one of the most important living French artists, with a museum dedicated to his work set open in 2012. Unlike his American counterparts, Soulages’ use of black is oft characterized as a celebration of light; a celebration of vision, rather that its negation. Also unlike his American counterparts, Soulages has, over the last 50 years, spoken eloquently about his work and initiated a studied philosophical, psychological, and phenomenological dialogue surrounding it. This intellectual engagement is inseparable from Soulages’ prestige amongst his countrymen, to which the output of francophone criticism and appreciation of Soulages is a testament. More than any other artist, Soulages has studied Black; he has made it his master and, in time, he has become the master Black Painter.

Vincent Como, Untitled (Reinhardt), 2001, 60 x 60 in., Ball point pen on paper.

Back in New York, the young American artist Vincent Como has likewise embarked upon a course in Blackness. Como has set out to study Black in all its facets and he has established a career surrounding the exploration of Black in many media: painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, and installation. In approaching Como’s work for the first time, it may appear that he is engaged in the same endgames of his AbEx predecessors; that his work smacks of the vacuous irony that plagues contemporary conceptual art. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Whereas the Abstract Expressionists referenced the limits of vision, Como’s work in Black unmistakably heralds the infinite potentiality of vision. When he creates a work in series, such as Blackspace (2009, a series of 100 monochromatic Black Paintings with original boxes), it does not play on the notion of the ostensible sameness of Black Paintings, rather it is geared towards the highly personal and variable reception inherent in monochromatic Black Paintings. His message is palpable in the fact that in this serial creation, each work is, in fact, unique.

Vincent Como, Blackspace, 2009, 10 x 10 in., Acrylic on canvas over board w/ cardboard box. Edition of 100.

An authentic phenomenological approach to Black Painting does not privilege the seizure of the faculties in the face of the work. Rather, it very simply wonders, what is there to see? And, given that I do see, upon what do I chose to concentrate? In a sly manifestation of this modus operandi, Como’s “History of Painting” series (2006) looks at the canon of academic painting and takes away from it only the frames in which the paintings are housed. He shows us that Black Painting is not only an inward, personal, or even spiritual medium, but that a sort of Black Vision can be taken an applied to the outside world. Blackness here is not a form of erasure, as it may seem. Rather, it is a blank slate, like the frame, which could hold any number of different contents.

Vincent Como, History of Painting, 2006, 8.5 x 11 in., Gouache and ink on paper.

In a similar manner, death, oft the metaphor read into black and darkness, is treated by Como not as an end, but as a means. In his recent exhibition Black Mass at Proof Gallery in Boston, Como exhibited Untitled (Trans Dimensional Vehicle) (2010), an installation containing a pine coffin stained with Perylene Green-Black, the same industrial pigment used to shield the Stealth Bomber from radar. At base, death as a vehicle references potential travel and movement, not stasis. Shrouded in a stealth black, Como’s manifestation of death has the potential to go anywhere, undetected. Once again, Como has transcended the boundaries and limits of perception. At the point where the stealth coffin eludes vision, it creates a depth that is at once visual, dimensional, and psychological.

Vincent Como, Untitled (Trans Dimensional Vehicle), 2010, 78 x 25 x 16 in., Pine, Perylene Green-Black Pigment, Furniture Wax.

Vincent Como’s work triumphs on three levels: it is embedded with a studied meaning, it is imbued with the trace of a master craftsman who has honed his skills, and it is beautiful and complex to view. Like Soulages and Reinhardt in last years of his life, Como has dedicated himself to making Black Work. He is the next generation of a school in which there is much work yet to be done and many dark corners yet to be illuminated with vision.

See more of Como’s work at http://vincentcomo.com. And his recent exhibition at Proof Gallery here http://www.proof-gallery.com.

All images courtesy of Vincent Como and Proof Gallery.

(1) See David Sylvester “Newman-II (1994),” in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 (London, 1996), 397; and Stephanie Rosenthal, “Black in Art—Art in New York,” in Black Paintings, catalog of an exhibition at Haus der Kunst, Munich (Munich: Haus der Kunst; Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2006), 13.

(2) Rosenthal, “Black in Art,” 14.

(3) Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 1993), 128.

(4) Ibid.

2 comments

1 JasonNo Gravatar { 06.11.10 at 10:11 pm }

Vincent, this all looks great! I think I took a trip in the Trans Dimensional Vehicle one dark night last summer. Keep Up the good work!

2 James FarisNo Gravatar { 10.25.15 at 3:43 pm }

Great work! I also work only with black.

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