Love at First Sight

Michael Gitlin

By Arturo Schwarz

There is a profound unitary will that runs like a fine thread through all of the different aspects and stages of Michael Gitlin’s work. This will is prompted by the ancestral monotheistic impulse, but also by the more modern fragmentary character of our vision of the world, which produces “a longing for harmony, for a unified vision which will embrace the entire cosmos, integrating all its parts into a perfect whole” (Tacke 1986,10). The thread is composed of several intertwining strands, especially the one best expressed by what the kabbalists called tikkun (repair). Gitlin is haunted by the idea that this imperfect world of ours has to be deconstructed in order to be rectified, reconstructed, and healed. The metabolism of his art is thus founded on twin catabolic and anabolic processes. In the artistic context, Gitlin obeys the dictum of Sanskrit poetics for which the artist should “reconstruct our universe to the dimensions of his dream” (Agni Purana 334:10).

The mirror relationship between a work of art and the world is emphasized in one of the oldest treatises on poetics, the Natyasastra of Bharata, which says that the arts, as well as theater, should be a mimesis of the world and its motion. This is exactly what Gitlin is trying to achieve in each of his creations that aspire to be an (optical and mental) reflection of the ambiguities and contradictions of our society.

The dynamics of Gitlin’s reconstructive project rests on the dialectic transcending of antinomies; this is in conformity with the kabbalist methodology according to which the extremes must be integrated and balanced in a third form. This new form is not a static synthesis but rather a novel dynamic equilibrium which draws its vitality and strength from the energies of the opposites it has integrated. Many of the critics and curators who have studied and admired Gitlin’s work have noted how predominant is his constant desire to abolish basic polarities by elevating them to a level where they will no longer be in conflict but rather will become complementary.

“Gitlin’s work is governed, in terms of both form and content, by a principle of dualism, a series of oppositions between order and disorder, stillness and motion, the positive and the negative, closed and open form, color and the absence of color. In addition to the formal dualism one detects a set of conceptual dichotomies: between showing and hiding, the visible and the invisible, understanding and knowledge, seeing and feeling” (Fath 1989, 7-8; see also Kronjager 1989, 20-24).

Yigal Zalmona, in his appropriately titled essay “Co-existence of Opposites,” listed some of the contrasts he saw as essential to Gitlin’s work, which he described as “statements that seem non-statements,” sculptures that are also paintings (and vice versa) present “contrasts of meaning based on different axes of significance” nature as opposed to culture, for example” (1990, 14). Zalmona also noted that Gitlin’s works, though they are the outcome of a stubborn aesthetic will, possess an “intentionally ‘non-artistic’ character” (ibid.). Michael Brenson, reviewing Gitlin’s exhibition at the John Davis Gallery in New York, noted that his works are “gestural and graceful as well as raw” (1986, C. 26).

Yona Fischer has drawn our attention to “the dual nature of Gitlin’s work ... between drawing and sculpture [since] it combines the treatment of material in drawing (folding and tearing) with conceptual attitudes in regard to space (Carl Andre) and perception (Richard Long)” (1977, n.p.). Gitlin’s desire to bridge the gap between painting and sculpture may be derived from the desire to transcend the opposition that exists between these two creative activities for Minimalist artists. This opposition was expressed by Robert Morris when he remarked that “the concerns of sculpture have been for some time not only distinct from but hostile to those of painting. The clearer the nature of the values of sculpture become the stronger the opposition appears” (1966, 223).

Even the classical antagonistic relationship between an object and space is nullified by Gitlin since space, refusing to be merely a passive context for the sculpture, becomes am active component of the work. As Yona Fischer said, “the object and the space define each other.” Fischer also noted that the distinction between “work” and “creation” ceases to exist for Gitlin, as “the activity itself also has an expressive quality of its own” (Fischer 1972, n.p.). The dichotomy between work and creation did not exist in the ancient classical languages. Thus, in Hebrew “works of creation” are denoted by the expression ma’ase beresheet, while the semantic equivalence between creation and work is expressed by the word yetseera. In Sanskrit the word karaka denotes both the creator-artist and the maker while kausala means both the ability to create and to fabricate. The Greeks used demiurgos or technites not only for those engaged in creative activities such as painters, sculptors, musicians, and poets, bat also for craftsmen and doctors. It is therefore most gratifying that Gitlin has, with his inventive gesture, superbly restored the full creative aura of the physical artistic praxis.

Sue Heinemann has noted another dual aspect of Gitlin’s work which “hides nothing and yet retains its mystery” (1977,18). Barry Schwabsky wrote that “Gitlin uses paint both to display and to conceal the object’s structure, just as he uses the structure both to display and to conceal the use of paint” (1987,107). Maia Damianovic, in a most insightful exegetic essay, has also drawn our attention to this subtle dialectic play between veiling and unveiling that characterizes Gitlin’s works and explained how they “drift clandestinely between semantic clarity and obscurity that foils attempts at interpretation” (1991, 12). She then quoted Roland Barthes when, referring to Gitlin’s “certain anonymity of semantic evidence dispersed between vagueness or opaqueness and specificity of the sculptural body,” she observed that it is “precisely the ambiguity of the world that disrupts the fluid continuity of narrative (Roland Barthes).” Damianovic added that Gitlin is “caught up between the ethical obligation of representational clarity and the deductive appeal of the obscurity of the sign” (ibid.).

The underground relationship between an allegoric and an uncoded representation is also evident in Gitlin’s sculpture which, according to Damianovic, “seems to testify to the difficulty of a clear link between didactic representation and allegorical withdrawal, of a simultaneous ‘exteriority’ and an ‘inferiority’ of communication” (ibid.). Meir Ronnen, reviewing Gitlin’s contribution to Documenta in Kassel (1977), pointed out Gitlin’s ability to seize “on both the intrinsic smoothness and roughness inherent in his material” (1977, 12).

Several paired qualities of Gitlin’s sculptures have been singled out by Gil Goldfine, who noticed that Gitlin’s “ruptured planks and sheets of plywood served, simultaneously, as volumes and linear elements” and “tied together two and three dimensional art.” He added that “his works also embody some historic precepts such as negative-positive, tension and stability” (1981, S).

Margaret Reeve has noticed yet another aspect of the dual realities of Gitlin’s sculptures which, at first glance, may appear to comply with the Surrealist’s affirmation of the objet trouve, but are actually the product of well-considered aesthetic thinking. “There is a strong sense that vital natural processes have formed the pieces, now cut adrift from their environment and isolated on the gallery wall. Yet the sculptures do not look like found objects. The artist’s hand is always in evidence; he adds color to a surface, shapes a joint, models the plaster and sawdust ‘glue’ all with a certainty of touch” (1987, n.p.).

Damianovic has pointed out several other apparently contradictory facets of Gitlin’s thinking and working. For example, “Michael Gitlin’s sculptures simultaneously remember and forsake formalist concepts” (1991, 12). This reminds me of a remark Man Ray once made to me, “if you want to break the rules you must first learn to obey them.” Annelie Pohlen has drawn our attention to the dialectic relationship between the visible and the invisible which also leads us to the polarity between sound and silence that is another subtle opposition inherent in Gitlin’s works. She has noticed that Gitlin has “long been interested in the notion of an implied visual presence. That is to say, the color/shape of part of a work which exists but cannot be seen” (1988, n.p.).

The antinomy between sound and silence becomes visible with Gitlin despite its tonal nature. Just as the silent pauses determine the flow of melody, the absence of rhetoric, so characteristic of Gitlin’s works, governs their aesthetic drift. Michael Maier, the seventeenth-century alchemist, called for “silence after the clamor” (silentium post clamores) and it is high time, as Gitlin has perfectly understood, to oppose the silence of an intimate expression of humble materials to the din of sensual shapes, screaming colors, and oversized surfaces.

In the esoteric literature, silence is the necessary prelude to revelation, and in the Egyptian Coffin Texts, the adept declares “I am a god who has been judged worthy to be :?signed to the garden of the silent” (chapter 111); the Book of the Dead even more aptly clarifies that it is in the land of silence “where the mysterious rites which create the shapes are accomplished” (chapter 64). The Zaddik Menahem Mendel of Warka’s “silent shout”
- also Gitlin’s mode of speech; the elements he so skillfully assembles enter into a timeless and motionless dance.

Damianovic has pointed out this dialectic sound-silence relationship in both Minimalism and Gitlin’s approach. In the case of Minimalism “the ‘solicitude silence’ and the sublimation of referential clarity. . . enforced an interior monologue. . . to the disadvantage of indication and communication,” but for Gitlin “‘silence’ as a referential sublimation can also solicit another profound type of reader-work relationship” (1991, 9).

Here it appears that Gitlin shares Duchamp’s point of view when the latter professed “It is the viewers who make the painting” (Duchamp 1957, 143). Christine Tacke noted, “The majority of Michael Gitlin’s sculptures consist of fragments, which are open to, and indeed require, augmentation by thought on the part of the spectator” (1986, 10). Stephen Westfall, discussing Gitlin’s Nostalgia (1985), an installation composed of heavy rectangular wood columns bound together, each with a piece cut out of it and laid out in the same room, noted that it is up to the spectator to “recreate the original unviolated block” (1986, 17).

Gitlin’s sculptures defy the law of gravity and Euclidean geometry in an effort to combine the rigor of the square with the smoothness of the curve, the straight line with the discontinuity of forked lightning, fragmentation with wholeness, the wobbling of surfaces with the motionless quality of the plane. Damianovic said, “Gitlin’s sculptures contrast the repetitive authority of formal and plotted geometric logic with fragmentation, specificity and variability. . . Gitlin’s sculptural figures. . . proceed from indivisible ideality to multiple individuality” (1991, 8). Another typical trait of the “wandering Jew” that characterizes Gitlin’s philosophical demeanor is his nomadic artistic itinerary. This phenomenon was noticed by Damianovic, who pointed out “the hybrid visual errancy in Gitlin’s recent pieces [and] the errant character of the work [which] paves the way towards a semantic multiplicity” (ibid., 13).

Gitlin has opted not to give an answer to the many questions that recent developments, from Modernism to Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism, have posed to artists, but rather has decided to endlessly interrogate the logos and praxis of art by suggesting, through his own achievements, what I would dare to call a “work in constant progress.” The object of his creative thinking is not an object frozen in the Kantian “thing in itself,” but is dynamically projected onto a metaphoric reality that changes according to the viewpoint of the observer and the moods of its creator.

All in all, Gitlin’s art is motivated by an irresistible ethical drive that induces him to try to “repair” the world that his sculptures represent allegorically, but also prompts him to understand it in order to better represent its contradictions. Gitlin is well aware that only a libertarian state of mind can save us from the dogmatism of the commonplace and allow us to see through what habit and laziness have hidden from our senses. In a letter, Gitlin clarified, “If I had to think of a cohesive theme which runs through my work from 1970 on, it would be the falling apart of a rational, constructed, forced, authoritarian premise. The sculptures and drawings deliberately attempt to embrace ambiguity, doubt and loss as a given condition of our collective contemporary social experience” (Gitlin to Schwarz, 5 January 1995).

Our review of the conceptual background of Gitlin’s creations will help us understand the multiple dimensions and profound implications of his works, as well as the logic that has determined his evolution from an etcher fond of drawing beautiful and sensual feminine nudes to the powerful creator he has become.

In a most interesting conversation (King 1990, 5-11), Gitlin provided precious information about the different phases of his development. He studied at the Bezalel Academy, whose teachers, refugees from Europe, were deeply influenced either by the conceptual commitment of the German Expressionists or by its antithesis, the formal interest in the visual, Duchamp would have termed it “the retinal,” of the School of Paris. Gitlin, who never studied sculpture, was first trained as a printmaker and painter. He was personally affected by the “sublime, elitist cultural pursuit represented by Newman, Rothko, and the Action-Painters Pollock, Kline and de Kooning. . . Pollock in particular, interested me because of his combinations of energy and abandon based on an absolute grid-like logic” (ibid., 5). Gitlin’s preference for these artists reveals his love of paradoxical choices. While Newman and Rothko represented in Abstract Expressionism what Harold Rosenberg termed “painting of idea’s idea” and thus an essentially conscious and rational approach, Pollock, Kline, and de Kooning preferred to rely on the unconscious to produce what Harold Rosenberg correctly termed Action Painting, the outcome of an essentially instinctive impulse.

It is not surprising that Pollock interested Gitlin so much; the Action Painter’s approach to the creative act was based on the same reconciliation of the intuitive, automatic-spontaneous gesture and the rigor of rational aesthetic thinking. The importance of both of these contradictory creative factors, the involuntary and the voluntary, is such that Gitlin often pointed out to his students that Pollock’s paintings, which seem to be the outcome of an activity ruled by what the Surrealists called “psychic,” or in this case, “pictorial automatism,” were actually the result of conscious decisions. “When he chose his colours, he chose them very carefully. When he placed them on top of one another he did it logically and very coldly” (ibid.).

Returning to Gitlin’s earlier phases, we notice, however paradoxical it may appear, that his work with two-dimensional paper contained the bases for his three-dimensional sculptural work. Gitlin’s experience as a draftsman and etcher led him to use paper as a sculptural material in his torn paper works, such as Drawing of a Tear (1973). However, as he stated, “within a year paper was too thin for me. I was searching for a more solid material, capable of existing three-dimensionally. I very naturally moved to plywood, which is inexpensive and less arty than paper. I needed something substantial enough to bite into with an axe" (ibid., 6). What seduced Gitlin was the technical similarity between Action Painting and hacking at wood, while the use of the axe implied "a transmission of energy through the use of a tool" (ibid).

However, the ideological motivation for the plywood sculptures and for all the following ones was the previously-mentioned desire to repair (tikkun) the world, allegorically represented by the plywood. Wood is an archetypal mother-symbol, and also stands for the primal matter of the world (the Greek hyle means both wood and the primal matter). Still, in order to repair, and thus reconstruct, one first has to destroy. Furthermore, the "repair" or reconstruction, to be effective, has to be operated conceptually by the viewer who, according to Duchamp's dictum, is the one who "makes the painting."

Thus in his 4'x8' series (1974-77), Gitlin used a standard sheet of plywood which he hacked with an axe, placing its broken fragments against the wall of the exhibition room for the viewer to reconstruct. However, as he observed, "particles of wood at the breaking point are lost so that, physically, one cannot 'return' the components and make up the original unit" (1977, n.p.), which is another way of saying that "repair" is beyond human capability.
From the 1980s, the relationship between the parts and the whole become ever more complex. In the earlier works the principle of linear subtraction predominated, as Gitlin cut one part off from the whole, displaced it, and asked for the viewer's cooperation in restoring, conceptually, the unity of the divided fragments. In the 1980s the opposite additive and organizational principle governed the construction of highly complex
elaborations. The plain black-painted geometry of the plywood sheets gave way to composite constructions made of heavy and sturdy wood blocks with rough-hewn colored surfaces.

In addition, while the plywood works need not be seen from different perspectives, these new sculptures seem to comply with Heisenberg's axiom that the observer's viewpoint actually changes the object seen. Gitlin's constructions offer a completely different image as the point of observation is changed. He stressed that his concern for the plurality of vantage points from which his sculptures are to be seen was motivated by his wish "to deal with experiences that are contradictory, or ambiguous, the notion of perceiving and grasping a piece from one point of view wouldn't work. The fact that one must walk around a sculpture is very important" (King 1990, 9).
It is precisely this compelling desire to involve the viewer that led Gitlin to use ever more elaborate techniques in the construction of his works; the blocks of wood, cut with an axe, are assembled in highly complex configurations, using as mortar a mixture of sawdust, plaster, and acrylic colors. In a letter, Gitlin explained that because of this desire to involve the viewer, from the 1980s on, "color and malleable materials, such as plaster, found their way into the work, which was intuitively based and attempted to engage the viewer on a visceral and emotional level" (Gitlin to Schwarz 1995).

Gitlin's works in the 1990s appear to follow Hegel's concept of dialectic development which is governed by double negation. Hegel postulated that the primary stage contains within itself the seeds of its own internal contradictions. When negated it reappears as a higher manifestation of what was negated; its evolution thus has a spiral ascending rhythm.

Just as the linear monochrome simplicity of the shapes of the 1970s was rejected in favor of the complex and colored assemblages of the 1980s, the latter were rejected for a return to the severe primary shapes of the first stage. However, this time the works are loaded with the memory of the previous phases and contain and emanate a powerful lyrical energy that may not have been as moving in the fragmented plywood sheets.

Two pieces, both in the Israel Museum, well represent this latest development. Tributary (1991, no. 76) is a simple combination of two superimposed monolithic clean-cut wood blocks of contrasting natural colors and Meeting and Passing (1992) is a solid rectangular basswood beam, progressively warped midway and fixed to the wall. This new style recalls Brancusi's superb simplicity, which speaks louder than any rhetoric.