Mats Bergquist: An oration to white, to black, to the cut that separates.

Bruno Corà


En art il ne s’agit pas de reproduire ou d’inventer des formes, mais de capter des forces. C’est même par là qu’aucun art n’est figuratif.

Gilles Deleuze


I retreated to the same place and sat at the same table where twelve years ago, during August 2000, I laid my hands on the first written reflection on the work of Mats Bergquist. I return to his work and therefore to my own steps as well, now that both are not as they used to be, despite various aspects appearing to be the same as before. This will be just one of the interesting arguments on which to linger in order to demonstrate essential differences and variations. For this new hermeneutic exercise one must maintain that the artist is not the same as before. Like everything else, he too is subjected to the most general impermanence, experience after experience.

At the basis of all successive considerations we must ruminate on some recursive elements of Bergquist’s work, which I would define as being structurally connected to his formative and aesthetic action. These elements include manual hard work; conscious elaboration of the materials employed; aniconism; the relations of measure internal to each work and between the works, as well as with their congenial setting; an exercise essential to monochrome – or bichrome – even though the colour used from time to time should not be considered uniform; the attention to the spatial relations of contiguity, adjacency, and distancing between the works; the depth, the rounding off of surfaces, and the number or elementariness of parts; the research for morphological and chromatic equilibrium.

Lastly, though not less essential than the rest, we must consider the attitude towards the action of transforming material at a level qualified as masterpiece, such as the constant concentration of the distinguishable artistic act of the ancient monastic mode of ora et labora.


Painting is praying

There are numerous aspects to contemplate. First among these is thinking Bergquist’s work relative to the essence of the image. In his work the image does not bear effigies. Devoid of any mimetic quality, the image within Bergquist’s practice is the result of a ‘doing’ that involves multiple factors. The most fundamental and inevitable of which is the invisible entity that, resulting from the intricate transformation of a living piece of wood into the shape of a curved panel, manifests and fixes itself over it through the intimately prayerful action of the artist.

On more than one occasion, Bergquist has argued that ‘Each painting must be a prayer’, adding a famous quote by Goethe according to which the artist should work and not talk. Therefore, when he sets about to create an artwork, besides developing a preparatory phase similar to that of the painter of icons, and through practices appropriate to the work’s fulfilment, he also induces himself into a state of concentration very similar to that required and achieved in the state of prayer. The purpose of such concentration is the attainment of energy, of a strength that is transmitted to the artwork. Some concentrative practices are aroused by the very same mystique of those techniques employed in the elaboration of the wooden panel that mutates the form and structure of the ancient icon.

The choice of wood, the preparation of the panel, the stratification of the other materials superimposed on it, the warming up of glues, the encaustic application of colour: everything contributes to increasing the will of flowing energy and generating the interior strength capable of giving birth to the desired image over the already prepared medium.

The high level of commitment displayed by Bergquist in this practice consists in a preliminary action performed on himself, an exercise used to empty the pressure of the senses and to allow him to attain a state of sincerity, consistency and simplicity – indispensable qualities that must be reached first in order to be eventually transmitted to the artwork, together with the temporal entity. Contrary to that of ‘narrative’, ‘figurative’ and ‘decorative’ painting, the elaboration process in this instance is a stripping down, turned towards obtaining a simplification of the image through a subversive action, triggered over wooden surfaces with simple black or white, or in some cases white and black, monochrome, not uniform but opaque, and penetrable by long patient gazes that concentrate  on the work to the same extent as the artist who produced it.

But what does a gaze perceive when facing an artwork that shows neither signs nor figures, but just colour – colour that is not even pure?


The image


Bergquist’s work invites reflection over the nature of the image, its establishment and its function. This is not the place to conduct a thorough examination of this topic, but it is sufficient to sketch the question’s complexity. Remember that numerous exhaustive studies have been dedicated to the concept of the image and the imaginary, which include psychological analysis of perception, phenomenology and the phenomenological psychology of Hume, Husserl, Messer, Meyerson, Bergson, Leroy, Freud and many others, up to Sartre and Nancy.

In his phenomenological psychological study of the imagination, Sartre immediately raises the following question: ‘What will we say of the image? Is it apprenticeship or knowledge?’  The philosopher’s answer is that ‘in the image, knowledge is immediate (…) an image is not learned (…) it is a given whole, for what it is, in its appearance’.  Therefore, he assumes that consciousness cannot learn anything from an image that it is not already known, and that the image is not a solid and concrete state, but pure consciousness, sui generis. Sartre considers the image an analogon: ‘an act that aims in its corporality at an absent or nonexistent object, through a physical or psychic content that is given not as itself, but in the capacity of analogical representative of the object aimed at’. Of course, the matter utilised for the realisation of the image would never be able to become image alone, but it is ‘knowledge’ that conducts it to the quality of analogon of the entity to be represented.

Motivated by other interests and separated by about a half century, Jean-Luc Nancy later states that ‘the image is always sacred’, hastening to define ‘sacred’ as something that is separated, that remains at a distance and that cannot be touched: in one word, the distinct.  Yet Nancy clearly states that the image is not identifiable with what supports it; rather, it differs from it, intimately forming itself out of impulse, energy and strength, and as Bergquist himself affirms, why not also out of ‘honesty’, ‘simplicity’ and ‘passion’?

Here we are on the right track! If the sacred lies in this ‘distance’, then it also has always been a strength, as intense as the image and art itself, which is an intangible distinction. As Nancy posits, ‘a portrait touches, (…) [w]hat touches is something that is borne to the surface from out of an intimacy. (…) Every image is in some way a ‘portrait’ (…) because it draws (…) it pulls something, an intimacy, a strength’.  Bergquist’s artwork is charged by the evocation of ‘honesty-simplicity’, perceived and distanced to the same degree as the hierophantic image, in which the sacred is shown.


A generative cut


Bergquist’s action is therefore a continuous and unstoppable search for simplicity in order to reach a revealing clarity through the image’s serenity. The assiduous practice of ‘removing’ began to take hold of Bergquist during his youth, through his observation of the excessive ornaments present in churches, in the vestments employed in the religious cult, in the frescoes’ decorations and in the very same icons from which, not without drama, he subtracted every representation in order to achieve the sole white or black-coloured images, which are both reminiscent of the golden shadow constitutive of ancient boards.

This practice became an act of poetic and spiritual purification, not without the risks that others comparable to him decided to take, from Rothko to Lo Savio and Klein (just to mention a few protagonists of the struggle between immateriality and image’s absolute). But the potentially dangerous ‘dead end’, towards which radical monochromatism would have sooner or later led (towards which even Bergquist had already began to set about and which he has yet not entirely ceased to practice), was suddenly discovered in recent years before his act, with a saving and regenerative intuition, which most probably even became the resolution of the rest of his artistic journey. In order to derive from the very bosom of his panel-icons, as in parthenogenesis, through a ‘separating cut’, parts that, though distinct, keep providing imaginific and spatial quality, as well as being compositional to the artwork, the act performed by Bergquist is one of those precise and identifying gestures, otherwise definable as a ‘linguistic jump’, or a turn into a koinè, like that developed so far by this artist of Scandinavian origins.

In the chapter ‘Working with Clear Vision’ – which reports the teachings of Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), founder of the Zen Soto School and one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers – Dogen’s masterful interpreter Kosho Uchiyama Roshi highlights a significant passage: ‘For every grain of rice to be eaten, supply one grain. In dividing one grain, the result may be two half-grains, or possibly three or four. On the other hand, one grain might equal a half-grain or perhaps two half-grains. Then again, two half-grains might be counted as one whole grain. You must be able to see clearly how much of a surplus will be created if you add one unit of rice, or whether there will be enough if you take away one unit’.

This quote can be justified within the broader topic of ‘life’s necessary calculations’, especially for the one who had to prepare the meals for a community of up to two thousand monks: the tenzo, the monastery chef. Bergquist’s ‘discovery’ of ‘dividing’ his boards in order to obtain two or more parts concerns ‘life’s necessary calculations’, in the sense that it solves dilemmas that are seemingly of little importance, but whose solution becomes decisive. As Bergquist himself states: ‘Four or five years ago, after I made the cut, a world opened up. I can compose, I am the master of the white surface, the cut is the drawing. Instead of using the brush, or the pencil, I cut’.

From the separative gesture accomplished in his first paintings, Bergquist realised he could transfer the image’s arousing action from painting to sculpture. The relief of his panels is articulated in parts, it moves spatially, it tends to detach from the wall and declare a self-substantive plasticity. The artworks emphasise their respective surroundings. The shadows between them become drawings. Such is the outcome of Untitled (pag.34), where the simple gesture of juxtaposing two panels in a misaligned manner, with white and rounded surfaces, generates the effect of a small shadow, as if it were in movement. Alongside the compositional dynamic we are seeing innovation in the realm of form. Therefore, if in the artworks Broken Monochrom (pag. 37), T (pag.39), and H (pag. 38) the dialectic of cuts – carried out in squared or rectangular shapes drawn with the proportion of 4/4 in base and 4/5 in height respectively – generates adjacent squared or rectangular shapes, which in turn are arranged in proportional relations rigorously derived from the basic constructive measurements, thus maintaining the artworks’ shapes essentially analogous to before the cutting, in other cases the shapes mutate profoundly.

In fact, artworks such as Convex / Concave  (2010), Architrave (2010-2011), Via Lattea (2010-2011) or Venus (2010-2011) appear as such. The latter comprise, together with Bethlehem (2008), a repertoire of distinctive, active shapes, collocated in the environments of the Köln Kunst-Station Sankt Peter, whose naked, gothic form essentiality enhances the individual works, which generate new spatial relations and heighten the harmonic and luminous properties of the ancient building.

Bergquist’s painting, which itself discloses a new plastic dimension, has also generated a formal quality due to the separating cut, which, not unlike a monochrome, must be able to maintain an absolute essentiality. Similarly to the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), whom Bergquist admires, where the emptiness of the environments and the absence of trappings render their spatial quality ‘dreamy’, in the new artworks of Bergquist, shape is wholly justified by the radical elementariness of the separating cut. Indeed, this act arouses the ghost of impartiality and fragmentation, evocative of a unity sacrificed in the name of the possible continuity of the ‘prayer’. Each new volume, born from the separation of parts gained from the formal unity, summons the residual difference of an intact organism, at once cathedral, road, cemetery, but also niche or bowl or joined hands that convey something. The evocative and hierophanic value of the artwork, which in Bergquist’s action appears to be sought and often reached, also seems to be able to construct a rationale fully motivated as much by monochromatic exercises as by the separating cut. Had it been just for the simple possibility that by now he is allowed to affirm: ‘I know how to make a white painting, I am master of a white form’.


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