By David Ryan

Marja Bosma - Conservator moderne en hedendaagse kunst, Centraal Museum, Utrecht

Part of an interview with Twan Janssen
From ‘The Nature of Painting’

By Bert Steevenz
From Metropolis M, 2001

(Parts of an) interview
with Bert Steevenz
Out of ‘Early Monograph/Martijn Schuppers’

Mieke Bal
Out of ‘Early Monograph/Martijn Schuppers’

Wolf Guenter Thiel
Out of ‘Early Monograph/Martijn Schuppers’

Bert Jansen
From the ‘Holland-Schweiz 3:2/Zeitgenössische Malerei’ catalogue

Martijn Schuppers
Out of ‘Early Monograph/Martijn Schuppers’

By David Ryan

Martijn Schuppers: Surface and Incident

Out of photography [...] there emerges, I think, a contemporary sublime made out of photography’s intractable scrutiny, its foundation in empirical reason, and its realization in and as technology. [i]
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe


Painting #10931 (2009): a work that unfolds itself through a surface that is both simultaneously continuous and yet shattered, broken. Likewise, colour: from contrasting harsh green and reds through to violet greys and mauve pinks; what was ‘pure’ becomes an admixture. And form: this could be a still of a video overlay, depicting activity, a violent activity: the rupture of land, its transformation into other forms of matter, the breakage of mass, and the volatility of all material being. Yet after this fantastical excursion, worthy of a latter day John Martin, we are brought back to its very nature: paint. This is paint as a figure of matter, that is, being itself it points to an endless analogous reformulation of things other than itself.

Base Camp

Martijn Schupper’s artistic origins lie in the aesthetic of European and American so-called ‘fundamental painting’. Within this we might cite Robert Ryman’s explicitly materialist approach to making work or Gerhard Richter’s mid-period deconstructionist explorations (the grey paintings and the inpainting). Schuppers’ early work identifies strongly with this approach to painting: in jettisoning, as it did, any outside content and concentrating on the bald facts of making, production and reception. This might be exemplified by his early monochromes, such as NY 34 (1994) where a vertically brushed field is interrupted by a single broad horizontal brushstroke forming a band across the surface. Paintings such as this one appear as the bare bones of Schupper’s art. And in this sense it provides a purposive reflection on both the possibilities and the limitations of fundamental painting, which were to become clear as his works unfold. In the mid 1990s his problems focused on the realism of such approaches to painting, highlighting the material base of paint, surface and the activities that meld these together as a coherent and cogent representation of the process. Concreteness, here, positions the work as an object/form that bears the traces of its own making, and that – as a fundamental painter might say - is complex enough. But it didn’t seem enough for Schuppers, as his work in the late 1990s shows a dialectic constantly staged between concreteness and, for want of a better term, image; eventually finding the means to produce such an ‘image’ without compromising the realist concrete set of procedures that bring the work into being. This in itself was, as the artist himself suggests, brought about by accident:

One day I painted over an old problem with a new coat of transparent paint. I was unhappy with the result so I threw some turpentine over it which resulted in part of it dissolving. One would then usually pick up a cloth to remove the paint. This time I did it with a brush out of laziness, from left to right and top to bottom, and so the process was born. [ii]

Art history is littered with such happy accidents, where a ‘mistake’ leads to a newfound fecundity of endless variation. Schuppers’ accident would appear to have enabled him to see his work in a different light. In particular his approach to surface – always clear and meticulous – and what that surface can hold. Previously, the work veered between specific ‘form generators’ or, in the monochromes, the embrace of the physicality of paint almost as an end in itself, as primal matter almost. The series Tatort (2000) breaks out of the frame and uses the studio or other situations as an installational backdrop for this play of the materiality of paint. This fascination with its physicality of returns again and again with Schuppers’ practice, and in his earlier work it might bring us back to the body in a phenomenological sense. But the Tatort pieces are a good example of how the work straddles this phenomenological approach and a more mediated position. Tatort 3, for example, uses paint to cover the history of traces left in the studio by a previous inhabitant, allowing a predetermined template for the situating of its events, which consist of clumps of paint functioning as both covering and obscuring. Like Borges’ famous map the paint highlights what it conceals, creating a meta-reality.

James Elkins, the American art historian, is one of the few commentators on painting to give priority to the life of paint and consider its continuing allure and yet seeming unfailing intransigence. “Substances” he says, “occupy the mind profoundly, tethering moods to thoughts, tangling stray feelings with the movements of the body, engaging the full capacity of response and concentrating on unpromising lumps of paint and colour. There is no meaning that cannot seem to flow from the paint itself.” [iii] Elsewhere, he suggests, “It is the paint that is so absorbing, so deeply attractive, that a life spent in the studio can be a bearable life.” [iv] Schuppers, too, wants to explore the substance of paint in its manifold expression, curious in his manipulation of its flow, or its recalcitrant behaviour. In Tatort 3, however, he adds another twist, lighting the scene with UV tube lights, and creating yet another kind of contradictory, illusionistic surface for the viewer. This moves the scene from one of incident to surface; a surface that has the correlative of creating an uneasy relationship between the viewer’s body and the surface beheld. Rather than the presence of the viewer that is confirmed by the ‘body’ of paint, here, the opposite is the effect: the seeming disappearance of the body within the gleam of surface.

After the discovery of “the process” and within the main trajectory of his work we find a subtle inversion of what Tatort 3 actually does. The surface, generally, becomes, through the process, the bearer of incident. It is here that Schuppers does several things: concreteness is translated into illusion, process becomes image, and blankness becomes analogy. Each of these manoeuvres are not transformations per se, but held in contradiction. The monochrome, as Schuppers has always insisted, still persists as a ground for these paintings: it haunts them. Paintings such as the recent series #1110 (2010) show the results of such procedures. Intensification of the colour gives these a heightened technological feel – in #1110 – III, complementary greens and reds hustle for attention at the top which coalesce into cyan blues and reds converging into oranges at the bottom. Probably the ground of this painting is a smoothed gradation from the intense emerald like green through to the blue. Overlays of reds and orange are disturbed through interventions (with splashes of turpentine, various tools such as large broom-like brushed) – but always returned, through the systematic brushing from left to right, top to bottom, to the surface. Held in perfect contradiction, both incident and surface serve to create different registers of illusion, opening out onto the chain of analogies ‘this is like...’ Yet this is never clear, pinned down or settled as a representation: is this a microscopic enlargement or a vastness seen from a great height or distance?. Here, the technological becomes invoked at these different levels: general connotation (as in the colour, surface and what they bring to mind as experience) and, interconnected, various modes of depiction (the photographic, video or film). As in Richter’s photo paintings (which also have a secret link to the monochrome), such technological invocations are held in a taut positioning ‘between’ photographic and painterly logics. They are paintings not photographs, and yet Richter has referred to his abstractions as photographs, that is, a technological apparatus for seeing; a position that might well be shared by Schuppers. If Richter’s paintings are highly mediated (Schuppers: “Nor do I think that one, these days, can have an unmediated, purely painterly view of the world” [v]) then they do so by attempting to escape the essentially incremental, heterogeneous nature of traditional painting so as to embrace the instantaneous continuity of the photograph. This is their simultaneous articulation and denial of how these mediums create their own legibility.

Legibility and Indeterminacy

If Schuppers walks this tightrope between surface and incident, between form and formlessness, and between painting and it ‘others’, then each painting becomes a gamble between the excess of the incidental (drawing/form) and the continuous fluidity of surface (formlessness). Each are held, contained, by the process of painting and repainting, and by reconstituting this overarching surface. This might also relate to a condition of both inscription and its ‘breaking’. Here, I’m alluding to some comments that Jean-Francois Lyotard made later in his career. If we see this inscription as bound up with the expectations of a medium (what it is expected to ‘do’) and what, as Lyotard states, amounts to, “putting into traces, on the one hand – because it is ‘legible’ (decodable if you like) – opens a public space of meaning and generates an community of users and producers and [...] produces it as available, presentable and reactualizable memory.” [vi] Then this puts painting in a relationship both within, and to, the development of the technological. Which is another keynote in thinking through Schuppers’ work. Yet, for Lyotard, it is the fascination with the potential shattering of this smooth space of the storage and communication of both intellect and sensation that is persistent. Such a breaking process, it should also be noted, thankfully, does not necessarily belong to what might be identified as either modern or post- modern modalities. It could be found in either, but nor is it the prerogative of the avant-garde necessarily. Rather, it is an independent grating upon the development of ‘communicative systems’ and market forces which demand legibility.

Lyotard points to the classic Zen texts by Dogen for an appropriate metaphor, and latches upon that of the mirror. This is, of course, the classic signifier of self-reflection and the consolidation of the subject. Dogen, however, suggests the facing of a clear mirror against another mirror (the latter an analogy for the viewing of a presence, and this facing resulting in the possibility of a non- presence). This what both Dogen and Lyotard call a ‘breaking presence’. Stretching this perhaps, it could also position Schuppers’ approach to form, and his strong allegiance to self-referential processes: “My painting is about painting about painting which I then paint.” [vii] Painting process and painting as techne figures strongly in his work as already suggested. With Schuppers it is an industrialised process but without the prescribed legibility that such an industrial process might suggest; likewise it is as though the paintings must sustain difference – this creation of the fluidity of the surface and the specific interruption of incident. This is also figured in the making of the work: viewing on the wall, inhabiting and negotiating the painting on the floor, table or tressles, and through the processes of dragging, smoothing, intervening, interrupting etc.

Lyotard’s reading of Dogen leads to an insistent theme of his later writing, and one that is relevant to Schuppers’ ongoing development: that of indeterminacy. “indetermination” Lyotard writes, “is so threatening, that the reasonable mind cannot fail to fear in it, and rightly, an inhuman power of deregulation.” [viii] This philosophical indeterminacy is perhaps too complex to do justice here, but it alludes to a constant dialogue in Lyotard, of two sides of ‘the inhuman’ (as opposed to ‘humanism’) – firstly, the technological progressive development (which has long separated itself from any sense of the enlightenment project) and its concurrent systems, that which, through the onslaught of technological ‘development’ itself, is promised. The other: the indeterminate, unknown blankness of unpredictability and openness (that which has to be suppressed by the system, although the system itself must be seen to simulate both these characteristics - as in consumer choice). This lies at the heart of Lyotard’s aesthetics, and explains why he championed the experimental arts. The event of the artwork was such that it opened out possibilities that could potentially be transformational as to how we situate ourselves, our thoughts, and in fact nothing short of an intervention in how we construct our reality. For Lyotard this was the political dimension of indeterminacy. But on a more modest level, Schuppers’ paintings reveal such a dialogue: the relationship between technologies, and the indeterminacy of the image. Mieke Bal speaking of Schupper’s earlier work points to this in a comparison with American painter David Reed:

The colossal difference between Reed’s erotic art and Schuppers’ inquiry into the wonders worked by matter, receives its clearest shape in the opposition between Reed’s movement forwards, into the space of the viewer and Schuppers’ pulling back. Starting at the totally flat picture plane, where whatever might have been imagined to have protruded appears to be cut off by a giant razor blade, the viewer must enter the field of vision, for the softness that attracts the touch recedes backwards. But this backward movement is by no means like depth, for the valleys of the moonscape are utterly shallow. Thus, as illusionistic as these secret valleys are, with their shadow effect, due, again to the colour modulations, they can neither be mastered nor penetrated. They are phantoms. [...]

These phantoms can be ‘configured’ as, “Wild nature, bare outer space, food, vegetation: matter at any rate unsettles us, as subjects accustomed to mastering nature.” [ix] The phantom as a figure or even myth, as we know, is disembodied, and has no reflection in the mirror; de-substantalized or de-subjectified. This returns us not only to nature and art “as friendly companions”, as Bal has it, but also to technology. This short circuit or break in representation within Schuppers looks at painting’s technological means – as matter that represents matter. For Schuppers this means to create a situation where fundamental painting looks outside of itself (that is, broaching a space outside) only, in fact, to be forced back in on itself. Similar to Bal’s description of this retraction of space, and withdrawal of stability, in terms of how we connect, as viewers, with those recognitions; we are not so much pointed to a grounded representation in these works, so much as caught in a generative loop that only exists as a mirage and cannot sustain embodied representation. I would say that Schuppers’ paintings – while acknowledging the limits of their own technology - provide an ‘adjacency’ to other technologies, whether photography, video or film. Such adjacency also provides us with gaps between, a kind of dissensus, as much as a friendly companion. On the Nature of Painting, a series of ink-jet prints produced in 2005, underlines this adjacency of the different technologies for his practice. These literally magnify paint drops in such a way that, as Schuppers himself explains, “Show the paint as cells, organic entities, a life which is zoomed, where highly advanced techniques are needed to show this hidden life.” [x] Paint, here, quite literally seems to conjure up life, in fact not unlike the intravenous journey in Richard Fleischer’s1960s sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage. This represents a journey into the body, as Schuppers represents a journey through and within paint globules. With fluorescent intensity, these works conjure up both the screen surface and the distanced collapse of distance that paradoxically underwrites the scientific image. Likewise, a more recent series, entitled Zoom Inside Out (2010?) creates the opposite condition, rather than a microscopic perusal of space, these works appear to conjure the almost indeterminate space of movement itself: a vacation of presence, but a registration of its motion. Similarly, some recent paintings reflect this approach to the surface, #1103, #1106 and #1109 each share the horizontal orientation of left to right motion (which may contradict the actual way they were made, and like the earlier paintings this is as much about our perceptual apparatus or habits than the inherent form of the paintings themselves). I have already mentioned that the colour and light in Schuppers’ work is technological. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, the American based critic a few years back suggested that,

Painting, I should say non-representational painting, can nowadays only refer to the colors of plastic/color photography/video (all the same thing), either affirmatively or by ignoring them. Their presence is implicit. Having replaced the colors of nature, they are the naturalized intensities that now constitute the colours of everyday life. [xi]

If Schuppers paintings face this intensification head on, then a parallel might be construed in the extremities of viewpoint that the works suggest. His purely, and unapologetically, retinal approach to work accentuates the links we can make with video or film. We move form the ‘inner body’ of the Nature of Painting to the large expanses, the plateau-like reaches, of #1014 1-V, a seeming cockpit eye-view of a terrain, which maybe more familiar from film in their framing of vastness.


There are several key moments in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that allegorize the relationship of the human to the technological. One such scene depicts astronaut Bowman’s journey ‘beyond the infinite’ through prismatic abstracted motion and then onto granular, solarized landscapes. Kubrick’s and Aurthur C. Clarke’s metaphysics aside, these images seem to locate the duality of the alien quality of technology and its capacity to absorb, integrate and transform. Bowman’s journey, on the other hand, is immersive, occasionally focussing on his perceiving eye or face inserted within this freely abstract section to remind us that our perceptions of these mind-bending abstractions are also his perceptions. At the end of the sequence, the eye remains blinking, shocked, and undoubtedly registering a deep transformation. Both these aspects of technological alienation and extension are tackled from the perspective of very different viewpoints in this scene – in one, the position of static distant observer; in the other, almost invasive and yet split between ‘inhabiting’ Bowman’s perceptions and simultaneously those of an exterior onlooker, observing the astronaut’s traumatic passage. Extremities, then, are represented in both these sequences: of technological ‘otherness’ and total assimilation. Coolly framed, as throughout the film, Kubrick knowingly plays with these aspects, implicit as they are, within the specific technology of cinema itself. Schuppers’ work also exemplifies something of this, from the vantage point of another medium, the dialectic between distance and immersion, between rational analysis and the fantastic, and, between the deadpan and the spectacle.

[i] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, Allworth, New York, 1999, pp.23-4

[ii] Martijn Schuppers, Artists Only (duty is in the Eye of the Beholder) an interview with Twan Janssen’ in Martijn Schuppers: The Nature of Painting, Stedelijk Museum Scheidam, 2006, unp.

[iii] James Elkins, What painting Is, Routledge, London and New York, 2000, p.193
[iv] James Elkins, What painting Is, Routledge, London and New York, 2000, p.192

[v] ‘Artists Only (duty is in the Eye of the Beholder) an interview with Twan Janssen’ in Martijn Schuppers: The Nature of Painting, Stedelijk Museum Scheidam, Scheidam/Amsterdam, 2006, unp.

[vi] Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Logos, and Techne, or Telegraphy’ in The Inhuman, Polity Press 1991, pp.47-8

[vii] Schuppers, The Nature of Painting, Op. Cit.

[viii] Lyotard, ‘Introduction: About the Human’, in The Inhuman, Polity Press, 1991, p.5

[ix] Mieke Bal

[x] Martin Schuppers, ‘Journal’ in The Nature of Painting, 2006 unp.

[xi] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, p.34