Blog posts   << Previous post | Next post >>
Marian Plug, Sasla Place Jussieu, Paris, 1966. Oil on canvas, 70 x 90 cm.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, The blue runner, 1966. Oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, Rijswijk.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, Blue, green, looking, 1967. Oil, silk, paper, on canvas, 70 x 85 cm.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, Evening view, 1983. Oil on canvas, 180 x 150 cm. Private collection.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, The green stalls, 1983. Oil on canvas, 160 x 170 cm. Municipality of Hilversum.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, Stang Zu, 1983. Oil on canvas, 100 x 115 cm. KPMG, Amstelveen.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, Car in a wood, 1983. Oil on canvas, 160 x 180 cm. Municipality of Hilversum.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, Ring road, 1995. Oil on canvas, 160 x 160 cm.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, Park I, 1995. Oil on canvas, 150 x 140 cm. Private collection.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, Two trees, 1996. Oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm. Private collection.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, Meadow, 1997. Oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm. Private collection.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.
Marian Plug, Car II, 2010. Oil on canvas, 90 x 110 cm.
© Photograph by Pieter Boersma.
Marian Plug, Car III, 2010. Oil on canvas, 90 x 90 cm.
© Photograph by Pieter Boersma.
Marian Plug, Car V, 2010. Oil on canvas, 90 x 105 cm. Private collection.
© Photograph by Pieter Boersma.
Marian Plug, Pond (Water III), 2000. Oil on canvas, 130 x 120 cm. Museum De Lakenhal, Leyden.
© Photograph by Tom Haartsen.


Posted 30 Apr 2012


Joost Meuwissen, ‘Abstract affairs’. Translated from the Dutch by Mark Speer, Marian Plug vijftig jaar olieverf op doek 50 years of oil on canvas. Edited by Joost Meuwissen, with a foreword by Rudi Fuchs, translated from the Dutch by Beverley Jackson, Michael Latcham, Beth O´Brien, and Mark Speer (Heerjansdam: Bergarde Galleries, 2012), 66-72.

Abstract affairs

Joost Meuwissen

Marian Plug sees her work as abstract. The image only “aids the perception of the painterly activities going on in [...] the painting.”[1] She sees the art of painting as an event, not as a habit or skill. As much as she masters it, it refuses to become a craft. Painting ‘happens’. Now. This happening is in line with twentieth-century modern art and pop art. It encompasses both Kandinsky’s abstract art and Rauschenberg and Warhol’s ‘emblematic’ reproduction of things.
Abstraction is seen as a form of ‘thinking in painting’. “The content of abstract affairs can only be thought about.”[2] An image can depict something or not, but abstract affairs detaches the content from the image with which it nonetheless corresponds, and as a result an image – something that represents something, is better off being conceived abstractly. The painting invites it. However intense the image may be, it ensures that subsequent thought about it will be free of constraints. That is why its expression does not need to go beyond the art of painting.
In the introduction to the 1986 Hilversum catalogue, Jan Frederik Groot describes this phenomenon as follows: “While she paints, Marian Plug is completely conscious of the discourse of modern painting, in which the qualities of the medium itself are meticulously explored. There was no longer any place for representation in this discourse – the medium no longer surveyed another world; rather, the painting as a medium was deliberately dismantled. It is the discourse of a self-referential medium, which ceased to exist because it lacked any mediating role whatsoever. Marian Plug’s work has elaborated on this discourse and is simultaneously an inversion of it. The notions of modern painting are her point of reference. Nowhere does she hide the notion that a painting is a two-dimensional surface with paint on it, and viewers are unable to get around this notion either. But at the same time, a subject does break through this flat surface, its content sinking its talons into the viewers’ cognitive capacities. Marian Plug applies all available painterly resources to seduce the viewer. This seduction uses the discourse of modernity – the exploration of the essence of painting. Painting has lost the uncertainty and innocence of experimentation.”[3]

In 1910, Wassily Kandinsky’s notion of modern art still leaned towards the spiritual, or at least the cognitive, depending on how you interpret the title of his 1912 essay On the Spiritual in Art. This general theory on the inception of abstract art essentially pertains to Marian Plug’s work, albeit without the idealism, or, more accurately, with the idealism but then inverted. A red tree, Kandinsky says, can still signify ‘autumn’, but to set “a red horse [in a] normal, naturalistically painted landscape […] would produce such a discord […] that no feeling would follow from it, and it would prove impossible to fuse these elements into a single unity.”[4] It can be painted, but the meaning can only be constructed outside the painting. “An attempt was made to constitute the picture upon an ideal plane, which thus had to be in front of the material surface of the canvas.”[5] In paintings such as Evening view (1983), Marian Plug simply puts the ideal plane – the hawthorn or historical turbulence of the painting – into the material plane itself. This is possible because the façade is depicted lengthwise at a quarter of a turn, making the hawthorn an ideal plane – Mondrian’s shrub – that turns and moves with the painting. En passant, the ambling shrub is made to be emblematic, not realistic. As an ideal plane, it therefore does not enter into the realm of the abstract. It is already a symbolic form. It does not need to be refined any-

more on top of it all to work effectively. At any rate, the hawthorn is used as an abstract kind of painting. The painting does not derive any meaning from this convergence of circumstances.
The twentieth century did not tolerate this kind of absence of meaning. It is possible, says Kandinsky, “to split up the entire picture, to indulge in contradictions, to lead [the spectator] through and to build upon any and every sort of external plane, while the inner plane remains the same.” No matter how the horse is placed in the landscape, as art it has to produce meaning, and because the meaning is expressed outside the image, it has to remain constant. Otherwise it will be lost. That is why the ‘inner plane’ is presented as something immutable. “The elements of construction of the picture are no longer to be sought in terms of external, but rather of internal necessity.”[6] As a result, Kandinsky had to keep searching for immutable, universal painting techniques. Influenced by pop art, Marian Plug inverts this production of meaning: something can always be improved in a painting, but apart from that, there is an inner need at work as well, and the main concern is to give the freedom associated with this inner need the opportunity to crystallize.
Marian Plug’s way of phrasing it almost follows Kandinsky to the letter, but it is not likely she was directly influenced by him. It was in the air. “Kandinsky, it’s all inherent. It’s not literally present, but it’s what you’re given to work with.”[7] Her mother, Hetty Vermeulen, who admired the lectures of Jan Lauweriks and the works of Jan Toorop, as well as the appeal of the spiritual in general, managed to keep her own work unsymbolic and unaesthetic; it does suggest a pursuit of abstraction but not – or just barely – of form. In addition to her mother’s lessons, Marian Plug must have mainly learned about Kandinsky’s theory during Mark Kolthoff’s art criticism course at the art teacher training institute that she attended from 1955 to 1961 (incidentally, she would never use her secondary school teaching certificates).[8]

Art criticism
In Amsterdam, the teacher training college, called the ‘normal school’ at the time, had a fairly unique position, which was cherished for a long time by teachers and students. They reacted against the Royal Academy, particularly against the applied arts education they fell under in 1938. Despite attempts by Mart Stam, director of the Institute of Applied Art, later the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, design had no place whatsoever in the curriculum. Art was neither autonomous nor applied for these future drawing teachers. It was a medium and a form of communication, and the question was how to communicate with students using a medium that was self-referential. This notion was far ahead of its time. In the art criticism course, Mark Kolthoff had his students analyse artworks as isolated objects, detached from context, but he also warned them of approaching it too subjectively. In search of a system that united analysis and thought, he recommended the philosophy of symbolic forms developed by Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer.[9] The latter was carefully read, as Marian Plug’s pencilled notes in Problems of Art shows. “Somehow in perceiving the work,” writes Susanne Langer, “we see it not as having an expressive form, but as being one. If we see with an artist’s eye, as appreciative people do, we see this concrete entity abstractly.”[10]
Art is a language that is almost exclusively spoken by artworks but which can be understood by anyone. So these works must have a grammar that is more universal than any given individual work. People don’t have to understand the grammar to understand the work of art. If that is the case, then the themes in Marian Plug’s works can be viewed not only as subject matter but more as a symbolic form of the artwork as a category. The symbolic form in the painting is an artificial construction. Hence the notion that it can emerge as ‘a painting within a painting’, or, as Boudewijn Bakker refers to it here, an ‘inner painting’, like the hawthorn in Evening view or the neighbour’s bay window that you look at and

through, or the road in the painting Ring road (1995), which Rudi Fuchs calls “almost an abstract triangle”: “I’m still lingering over the theme of distance. It’s a sort of traditional, classical theme. The theme is almost in itself basically abstract. It’s the kind that everyone can paint. It’s almost no longer a clever idea.”[11]
In the first academic year, Mark Kolthoff required his students to abstract a still life to a few lines, to a pattern that in a certain sense could already work as a narrative composition without any further ado. It is the temptation of the constructivist tradition where the abstract elements all bear identity through their mutual determination. A symbolic form is not necessary then. A geometric reduction could detect the logic or the equilibrium in an arranged still life, in all its variety. The lines on the paper represent what Kandinsky would have called the ‘inner plane’. Often, the paradox of the challenge must have been to abstract the still life ‘sur le motif’ as a natural phenomenon, but one that in its turn simulated nature. The idea was to graphically unravel the arrangement as an anonymous phenomenon by means of reduction or abstraction. The idea was not to analyse the person who had arranged it. It was important the lesson did not turn into a psychoanalytic exercise – which partly explains Marian Plug’s sympathy for Mark Kolthoff and her strong aversion to Jan van Tongeren’s later still-life painting classes: it was not so much the assignment itself but his arrangements that were objectionable.[12]
The composition was not interpreted as a creation but as a reconstruction that tended towards anonymity. Mark Kolthoff’s own work reveals the direct aesthetic value of such compositional abstraction. The flowing, stylized figures, sometimes drop-shaped, always in motion but clearly defined, are present in their own quantity, as a dose, perhaps as latent volume. The shape of the forms suggest volumes, but the voluminous itself is not presented, nor is the relationship of the volumes between themselves. They all remain equally flat. This is because both – i.e. the separate forms and their union in the painting – have the same geometric order or, in Kandinsky’s words, the same ‘inner plane’ or the same ‘inner necessity’. Geometry, as an order of the painting, disciplines the individual forms, which all still have to prove that they belong in the painting. As everywhere in society, this kind of geometric abstraction in painting can be interpreted as a kind of urge, of order and transgression.[13] The painting or drawing’s surface is dominant, despotic. It always has a compositional equilibrium that prevents an object from being intensified or becoming independent as a painting within a painting. There is no place for the red horse. A simple and obvious solution to Kandinsky’s problem would of course have been two red horses in a landscape, because then they would have had a bond with each other.

Symbolic forms
The quantity of an element which already bears significance can be visualised simply as a geometrical determination. But an element that bears no signification, and that belongs to a composition which avoids signifying in order to be disposition rather than composition, can only be counted, as it were, and not weighed. It is the presence which counts, not the relations. “These ‘somehow’ related forms,” writes Kandinsky, “have a fundamental and precise relationship to one another. Ultimately, this relationship may be expressed in mathematical form, except that here one will perhaps operate more with irregular than with regular numbers. In every art, number remains the ultimate form of abstract expression.”[14] But this number no longer says anything about the geometry of the amount that was counted. In other words, there was no reason to treat the painting’s surface as a surface or to stop at its edge. A geometric form like a rectangle or a square that covers the entire canvas could therefore better be interpreted as a figure or a presence of that figure than as an arrangement. Marian Plug used ‘presence’ as the central tenet when incorporating the collage

technique of pop art into her work around 1970. In addition to Robert Rauschenberg, the main influence on her work were the graphic art and books by Dieter Roth, which she saw in the Municipal Museum in The Hague in 1972, and whose studio she visited in Iceland a year later. ‘Presence’ also sums up the function of all symbolic forms.
Geometry, for example, becomes a figure like all others, though the figure is eminently suitable as a symbolic form to give the art of painting a presence in the painting. In her early works, a rectangle could become a house, a kind of inversion of the painting within the painting, or a box-in-a-painting, but with the consequence that the arrangement of the painting was still one composed of various kinds of figures, geometric and ungeometric ones, both in terms of landscape and architecture, and the arrangement of the painting itself as a whole could no longer be geometric or, at least, had to be measured differently. Instead of a geometric arrangement by way of ‘composition’, something “constructed, cultivated”[15] emerged: “A landscape painting is something to be seen but they are self-conceived, construed landscapes, and function as doorways or recognizable entrances to other territories.”[16] With Marian Plug, a landscape is a disposition not a composition. A window emerges, but the view is the same as when the window is closed. “It’s exactly those huge differences in the arrangement of the painting that I’m looking for.”[17] It is a condition, an exposition, a plea and not a discourse, not mannerism.
Released from geometry, the symbolic form does not necessarily fill the entire surface. It forms “a sort of centre that was often determined by the abstract: an area that made something in the distance move, e.g. a bush. This abstract centre, however, was just as filled as the things surrounding it.”[18] The art of painting can be ‘present’ in the painting and absorb every kind of form, including the form of a car, of water or the colour yellow. They are abstractions or concepts that can be pursued in several paintings, as ‘car’ and ‘yellow’. The point is to determine the most suitable symbolic form to present a painting as a work of art. That can be anything. If it’s about a car, then it is a car. It can be something else too.

A car “becomes disengaged from its motif.”[19] As a symbolic form, ‘car’ can essentially occur outside the painting as well, for example on the motorway, and nonetheless still represent the art of painting. In Car II and Car III from 2010, the extended, six-door Cadillac from 1977 is by nature so already so stretched that it no longer could have worked as a painting within a painting, and therefore it was painted itself. While the decoded limousine can no longer be a painting within a painting on the motorway, but it is on the canvas, but then portrayed as something flashy and ‘fiery’. The painting betrays the fact that the car in the painting defines the art of painting. It is so long because it will not completely fit in the painting and that is the only reason it is shown driving. It drives into the painting, where it has to come to a standstill. But the main reason it is so long is that this allows it to be proportionately smaller in breadth. The car is painted en profile in both paintings, like an emblem, almost flat. The front is scarcely discernible lengthwise, as a result of which the passenger window essentially provides a double view through the other side of the car, like the bay window in Evening view, but it also provides a double reflection, which solves the issue of the potential driver and passengers. As a painting within a painting, the passenger window of Car II is more artificially construed than the windows of the yellow house behind it, and the simplicity of this image stands midway between a through view and a reflection. Both the passenger windows and the windows in the house are framed like a painting. While these relationships in Car II are depicted like a tableau, creating a scene that evokes the Renaissance, Car III corrects this excess of mutual determination

by creating a symbolic form out of the windscreen instead of the passenger window. The twin renaissance windows in the Veronese house that looms up behind the car is a recurrence that dispenses with the double passenger window in Car II, the previous canvas.
The difference with Kandinsky is that the symbolic form – art as a whole – does not convey meaning in itself as something quantifiable, and therefore it can mean anything. As a theme, symbolic forms such as ‘car’ or ‘water’ recur, but the meaning is separate, and therefore highly significant. The same is true of the formats. A format is chosen that is most suitable for the painting: “You feel you’ve done everything that you wanted to in that one piece, and if it were longer or wider that wouldn’t contribute anything to it. […] It doesn’t need to be bigger in my opinion. But because the space does continue, that kind of frame is an intervention, a measure. And it adds something. It’s not just any frame. But the most important thing is to choose a format that you are completely at home with.”[20]

The format that one feels completely comfortable with is rarely that of the symbolic form, which usually turns out smaller (‘I did everything in that one piece’) or larger (‘because the space does continue’). Marian Plug’s themes in the 1980s – forest, sea and the overlapping combination of both gliding above each other in the series of paintings entitled Salzkammergut – were conceived as constructions of images and therefore more or less overlapped in a fortunate manner on the painting’s surface. Despite their brutality, they remained congruent. The concepts are therefore no longer mimetic. ‘Water’ is really a symbolic form that can stand for the art of painting, and is described as such because water itself is not flat. It is not even an image. It does not even have form. It transcends the surface of the painting and as a concept gradually begins to move beyond the scope of constructivist idiom. The physical power of water, present in earlier works, such as the silk-screen Water (1982), as a waterfall or breakers, was still a kind of romantic force, a wall of water, a splendour of water that gradually bursts to pieces so it can no longer be grasped in a single image: “Water was a recurring element in the paintings: In the sea paintings, in an occasional waterfall, as a foreground for a forest or as a rain. Often, there is no horizon. For example, in 2000 when I moved into my new, high studio in the Mesdagstraat in Amsterdam […], I began examining a different concept of space within a framework. Simultaneously fixed and mobile. It started, for example, with the foundation, the base. A layer of water above it. With a certain depth. Surface tension makes reflection possible. As a result of the reflection, the outside space is incorporated in the visible part. Indirect light. Leaves on the surface need not be real leaves. Scattered forms in one area appear to be decorative. They were individual forms that are sharply defined, have an interaction, are lying on top, determine the viewer’s distance to the physical space.”[21] A painting such as Pond (Water III) (2000) only reveals a few of the many available possibilities implied by the construction of the image. It no longer concerns a real ‘construction’, but one that makes it clear that there is more to construction than only a presence. The surface of the water, as befits a surface, only carries images other than its own. The leaves of the water lily on and under the surface suggest a surface of water that has not been painted. The grove against the sky only hangs upside down because it is a mirror image on a surface that is only suggested by the water lilies. Their number does not depend on the surface. As an iconic monad, every leaf can therefore be different. Detached from each other, they each create their own world. Together they barely form their own surface. Hence the water. As a symbolic form, ‘water’ is not painted in the painting but given a presence by a double reference: the leave on it and behind it, and the landscape behind and therefore on it as well. The one cannot exist without

the other, just as Kandinsky’s ‘red horse’ needed a second. The painting Tulips (2006) derives its effect from the same plan, but without having to make any other references to ‘water’.
The ‘construction’ of the symbolic form ‘water’ makes the dominant surface of the canvas completely disappear, but this does not make the image indirect but rather more direct than direct, realer than realistic, without mediation of a given painted surface. In retrospect, the painted surface almost becomes an excision, a detail that says everything and therefore does not need to be larger. It does not yearn for a larger whole. It is sufficiently layered in itself. The somehow constantly active ‘construction’ has a surface of its own, a depth, an inversion or a curvature. The ‘reflection’ on the water bends the image into all conceivable directions. Just as in Evening view, the ‘through view’ is bent into the surface but in Pond (Water III) it is even less certain what the focus will eventually be. It is all about “layers of images and reducing this experience to easily perceivable images that offer a potentially rich experience.”[22]

[1]  Marian Plug, ´Notes on the Paintings (1988).` Translated from the Dutch by Peter Mason, Wiederhall 16. Towards a Supple Geometry. Edited by Matthijs Bouw and Joost Meuwissen (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1994), 28.

[2]  Marian Plug, Dankwoord bij de uitreiking van de Singer Prijs, 26 oktober 1991 in het Singer Museum in Laren [Words of thanks during the presentation of the Singer Award, 26 October 1991 in the Singer Museum in Laren]. Typescript (Amsterdam: Marian Plug archives, file ‘Documentation Marian Plug 17-2-89 to 8-´94’).

[3]  Jan Frederik Groot, ´Landschap of Schilderij [Landscape or Painting],` Marian Plug Paintings 1986. Edited by Paul Draaijer, Joost Meuwissen and Tamira Tummers (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1986).

[4]  Wassily Kandinsky, ‘On the Spiritual in Art.` [Translated from the German by Peter Vergo,] [Wassily] Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art. Edited by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo ([Cambridge, Mass.:] Da Capo Press, 1994), 201.

[5]  195.

[6]  202.

[7]  Kees de Haes, ´Sea Pressure. A Conversation with Marian Plug,` Waterfront. Wiederhall 4. Edited by Paul Draaijer, Joost Meuwisen and Tamira Tummers (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1987), 14-19.

[8]  Joost Meuwissen, ´Marian Plug. Catalogue: Introduction.` Translated from the Dutch by Peter Mason, Wiederhall 16. Towards a Supple Geometry. Edited by Matthijs Bouw and Joost Meuwissen (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1994), 6-15.

[9]  De kunst van Mark Kolthoff. Van realisme tot abstractie, aspecten van het Nederlandse kunstleven in de periode 1930-1980. Edited by Evert van Uitert and Jacobien de Boer (Rijswijk: Sijthoff Pers, 1986), 95-96.

[10]  Susanne K. Langer, Problems of Art. Ten Philosophical Lectures (New York: Charles Scribner´s Sons, 1957), 30.

[11]  ´Surrounded by green. Rudi Fuchs in conversation with Marian Plug.` Translated from the Dutch by Maudi Quandt, Marian Plug Paintings. Edited

by Joost Meuwissen, introduction by Mariette Josephus Jitta (Amsterdam: Wiederhall Foundation, 2002), 306-315.

[12]  Joost Meuwissen, 10.

[13]  Peter Halley, ‘The Crisis in Geometry,` Peter Halley, Collected Essays 1981-1987. Edited by Cheryl Epstein (Zurich: Bruno Bischofberger Gallery, 1988), 74-105.

[14]  Wassily Kandinsky, Complete Writings, 209.

[15]  Marian Plug, De laatste vijf jaar. Dertig schilderijen (na Zonder titel II Rembrandt III). Typescript (Amsterdam: Marian Plug archives).

[16]  Marian Plug, ´My Work 2002-2006.` Translated from the Dutch by Mark Speer, Marian Plug Paintings. Supplement 2002-2006. Edited and with an introduction by Joost Meuwissen (Amsterdam: Wiederhall Foundation, 2006), 63-69.

[17]  Marian Plug, Dankwoord bij de uitreiking van de Singer Prijs. Words of thanks during the presentation of the Singer Award.

[18]  Marian Plug, My Work 2002-2006, 64.

[19]  64.

[20]  Schilderij en onderwerp. Joost Meuwissen in gesprek met Marian Plug, 11 mei 1986. Typescript (Amsterdam: Joost Meuwissen archives, file “86”).

[21]  Marian Plug, My Work 2002-2006, 64-65.

[22]  65.

Tags for this post:
plug marian

0 comment(s)
Blog posts   << Previous post | Next post >>