On lngólfur Arnarsson’s Drawings and Paintings

lngólfur Arnarsson’s works suggest to me an expression of light, lightness and infinity. They give the fragile impression of Japanese porcelain and thereby protect themselves by making the spectator wary of touching them. Pristine delicacy is a characteristic of both his paintings and drawings. When I saw these works for the first time in March of 1990 they impressed me by their very inconspicuousness. Nothing about them demanded attention. They were so unassuming that it was easy to overlook them. I later found out this was one of Arnarsson’s first exhibitions of new works, consisting of white paintings on concrete blocks and pencil drawings, which marked the start of his career as an independent artist. I had therefore arrived in Reykjavík at precisely the right time, with the intention, in fact, to prepare a show by a group that I later invited to exhibit at the Kunstverein in Cologne the following year. Besides lngólfur Arnarsson, the group comprised Anna Gudjónsdóttir, Ragna Róbertsdóttir, Hreinn Fridfinnsson, Kristján Gudmundsson, Tumi Magnússon and Finnbogi Pétursson. A year later, in autumn of 1992, lngólfur Arnarsson went to Marfa to spend several weeks as artist-in-residence at the Chinati Foundation. At the end of his stay he exhibited two paintings and 36 pencil drawings which so impressed Judd that he kept them as part of the museum’s permanent collection. Since then, these works have been an inseparable part of the Chinati Foundation, on permanent exhibit alongside installations by John Chamberlain, llya Kabakov, Claes Oldenburg, Roni Horn, Carl Andre and Donald Judd.

The long, narrow exhibition hall measures 27 meters by 6 meters and is closed on three sides. Only one of the long walls is open with a row of windows and a door in the middle. Instead of striving to subvert this emphatic length, Arnarsson underscored it by mounting 36 pencil drawings directly onto the long wall facing the windows, as if in response to them, without frames or holders. Each individual sheet is scarcely bigger than the palm of your hand and they are mounted at strictly regular intervals. On entering the hall it is not immediately clear what is on the wall. Admittedly, grey rectangles can be seen straight away, but on first impression it is impossible to tell whether they are on the wall or holes in it. Only up close do they transpire to be drawings made from a mesh of fine lines, most resembling a spider’s web without a radial structure. Meshes of this kind cover the sheets of paper and are consistently spaced all the way out to the edges. In order to achieve this arrangement, the artist first draws on a marginally larger piece of paper then cuts it down to its final size. The web of crosshatching in all possible directions forms either tight or loose zones, variegating to the grey color with alternately lighter and darker patches that lend the drawings a slight touch of restlessness. The pictorial surface breathes; it is transparent like a veil. The 36 drawings are not arranged along the wall in a definite scheme, but rather according to an intuitive notion which takes into account the loose rhythms of the greyness.

Drawing has always played an important role in lngólfur Arnarsson’s work. It renders thought lucid and endows it with form through lines and cross-hatching. Although his style has changed in the course of time, features can be found in his earliest drawings which still characterize his work. Among the earliest examples are drawings that Arnarsson published in a small book from 1980 when he was still a student at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. They are so finely wrought and the lines so thin that their like has been seen only in Walter de Maria’s “invisible drawings.” In effect they are scarcely visible, merely hinting at what they are supposed to represent: landscape, something botanical or amor- phous. They have a concrete starting point but are well on their way to freeing themselves from it. Unmistakable landscapes are presented in  a number of drawings that lngólfur Arnarsson made later and published in a book in 1985. One of their characteristic features is to reject outlines and replace them with long parallel tracks made with a soft, broad pencil. Horizontal lines dominate vertical ones. The pictorial surface tends to be divided into areas whose borders are often soft or even vague. Their subject – a mountain, a valley – is woven into the chiaroscuro of the whole. Arnarsson’s drawings from 1987, printed in the book “Tvær bækur” (Two Books), show even more clearly a tendency to subjugate the concrete and conceal it behind a veil where one or more flowers is represented, as in a frottage. From here, it is only a short step before the drawings free themselves completely from concretion, as may be seen in the works on display in Marfa.

The Chinati Foundation installation also contains two paintings mounted on the short walls of the exhibition space, enclosing the long series of drawings. As is always the case with installations of such paintings, they are placed in the center of each wall, irrespective of its width. They consist of 4 cm thick concrete slabs measuring 60 cm high and 50 cm wide, a format which appeals to the artist because its proportions lie in equilibrium between a rectangle and a square. The concrete is covered with many layers of white paint and its surface smoothed to the extent that it is even, yet still possesses some kind of structure, like coarse paper. The edges are unpainted and a shadow is formed around the painting, raising the white pictorial surface, which almost merges with its white environment, clearly from the wall. There are hints of color on the edges, and in two or three corners he has applied a single brushstroke – pale yellow, green, grey, blue or red. The color has been thinned extensively, so that the difference between grey and blue is scarcely discernible. This is really a hint of color, almost its own shadow, a colorless color, so to speak. Arnarsson emphasizes the corners of the painting which thereby align with the corners of the walls and lend the painting a certain stability. Without this stability, the painting would hover and become more like Robert Irwin’s “dot paintings” and “discs.” Arnarsson is less interested in such phenomena than in concrete, tangible objects that are unequivocally linked with their environment.  This wall-space reference, is an important element in his works, and can be noticed equally in the drawings’ and paintings’ position on, in front of, or in the wall.

The newer paintings produced over the past few years are considerably narrower than their forerunners at only 20 cm wide. They too were conceived as a dialogue with architecture. These “strips” are mounted on the wall at irregular intervals to realize a certain rhythm. In these installations, the spacing of the paintings is just as important as the paintings themselves, and together they constitute the rhythm of the work. Such an installation is stabilized by the horizontally delimited lower sections of the paintings, which are watercolored and account for almost a quarter of their height. The whole series, viewed lengthwise along the wall, gives the impression of a horizontal line, and the pictorial surfaces act like a section from on inverted panorama, producing here, too, the ambivalent relationship to the wall that could be seen in his earlier works. In a completely concealed manner, echoes of landscape reemerge which, like the pencil drawings, contain much of the Icelandic landscape: sky, vastness, barren land and colorlessness. When I discussed with him the use of watercolors in his paintings, lngólfur Arnarsson said he often asked himself how he could apply watercolors in a modern way. In my opinion the underlying question is really how an artist can paint in a modern way. Although I cannot offer a comprehensive answer and definitely cannot speak for lngólfur Arnorsson himself, it seems certain that he believes that painting is no longer an isolated phenomenon but rather part of a context that must be seen in relation to its environment. Economical use of the medium, reducing it to its bare essentials, seems to be an additional motive. After all, art is also ethical expression, the expression of a standpoint towards life which in this case pays tribute to Iceland and its traditions. Of course I am reluctant to call lngólfur Arnarsson’s art Icelandic, because it is international, yet it is linked to Iceland in a wonderful and subtle way.

This essay was first published in lngólfur Arnarsson, Reykjavik Municipal Art Museum, 1996.  Transcription courtesy of Darby Hillman.