There are fifteen of Keith Tyson’s History Paintings. Three are large, and there are twelve smaller ones. This dozen, all of which are the same size, are of fixed arrangements of identically sized vertical strips held within a frame. The strips are aluminium, powder coated with one of three colours – black, red or green. The frames, also aluminium, are the same green. The colours are those found on a roulette wheel, and when the paintings were composed the colour of each strip was arrived at by successive spins of the wheel. If the ball ended in a black number, the strip was black, and so on. There are 49 pieces in each painting, giving to the works the look of advertising hoardings made from many, three-sided rotating panels, and this is especially so given that the colour of each vertical band has been determined by chance. There is no discernible pattern in any of the complete paintings, so the temptation is to think that somehow the strips have been turning and have got out of sync, leading to the reds and blacks and greens getting a little muddled up.
The twelve smaller paintings are a kind of calendar, each being associated via its title with a month of the year. Along with a month, the titles contain a place name. The names are from all over the world – Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America – and in searching for some rationale that might bind them together, we see that they are not consistent, including as they do cities, resorts, districts, and geographical landmarks. This variation holds out the possibility that the references are specific, even if that specificity is not immediately apparent. We read January Sun City and wonder whether, say, there was a particularly contentious concert given in that month by a sanction-busting pop star more interested in money than the struggle against apartheid. July San Salvador might prompt us to think that perhaps an especially memorable event subsequently discussed in analyses of liberation theology occurred there in some year or other. And does February Belgrade provide an index to an incident in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s? All of this conjecture is fine, and is the kind of interpretative behaviour that Tyson would expect us to indulge in. It does not, however, explain anything about the titles, since what actually connects them is the fact that they are all places in which one can find a casino.
The number of constituent panels, Tyson says, was chosen to have as little significance in itself as possible. But then having decided upon it, he remembered that the UK lottery uses 49 balls, so it is a number embedded in the public consciousness as one associated with chance. It is also a perfect square, which gives it another kind of special quality. There again, for any individual viewer it might be someone’s age, or the number of their house, or their birthday – 4/9, September 4th. Actually, it is; it’s my mother’s birthday. If she happened to be American, of course, it wouldn’t be. Age, address, birthday – these are individual possibilities, and for that reason would usually be considered as trivial. Equally, though, if they did turn out to accord with the facts of our existence we might be forgiven for concluding that there really was a deeper pattern to things. And that way lies the darkness of obsession and paranoia.
History painting is, anyway, a somewhat strange term. It is usually taken to refer to an approach to art making that involves an examination not only of the social and political forces at work in any given historical conjuncture, but also of the interests that determine the way in which that event is represented and interpreted. One classic example of the genre is Manet’s repeated paintings of the execution of the Emperor Maximilian, drawing on Goya’s depictions of the Napoleonic campaigns in Spain, and incorporating ‘improvements’ as he gathered more factual material about the incident. Do we, as we consider these successive versions, see Manet drawing closer to some truth about the event? Is the historical moment increasingly fleshed-out, the more fully he is able to demonstrate his repugnance at what he considered to be France’s culpability in its unfolding? Looked at from our perspective as viewers, are we able to say that any perceived congruence between our own knowledge of the execution and Manet’s representation of it really serves to strengthen our certainty about how things were? In accepting that the answer to that question is probably no, we accept also the twofold nature of the term history painting itself: it is both an attempt to render that which has happened, and an act by means of which the historical record is constituted. Aristotle’s argument in the Poetics that art says more about humanity than history ever can – because the historical event is particular, in the past, and therefore necessarily circumscribed, whereas art is universal and is endlessly open to the future – is thus paradoxically confirmed by history painting. David commemorating the murdered Marat, not as the physically debilitated figure he was, forced to take to his bath by a troubling, chronic skin complaint, but as the brother to Michelangelo’s dying captives, contributes to, as much as it records the French Revolution.
The three larger paintings have the same number of panels, but differ from the smaller works in that their sequence is not fixed. Each time they are shown the roulette wheel has to be used to determine a new arrangement of strips. There is a mathematical possibility, of course, that one could end up with a monochrome. Just as John Cage recognised that music written as a series of points at which one is instructed to play or not to play according to the throw of a dice introduces the idea of a completely silent work, Tyson’s roulette ball could conceivably land on, say, a red every time. He mentions that the world record for successive occurrences of black in a casino is over 70, and is currently held by an establishment in Sheffield. It is more likely, though, that the painting will be a mixture of more or less broad alternating bands of black and red with an occasional Newmanesque green zip.
The three unfixed ones have titles that refer to a place and a year. Once again, each place has a casino, although that wouldn’t be the first thing that would normally come to mind in association with these cities, especially as the conjunction of place and date in their titles suggests particular, momentous points in history. Paris 1796: the Terror is two years in the past, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon and the others are dead, and Napoleon assumes the role of Commander in Chief of the French army. Is that what this is about? St Petersburg 1905: the Winter Palace is stormed on Bloody Sunday in January, and this action in the first, ultimately unsuccessful revolution ushers in the Karensky government. Or should we think of Dostoevsky and his Gambler? But whichever road to interpretation we choose to go down in search of meaning and significance, we find ourselves accompanied by the shadow of utter meaninglessness. In the end, the painting is the outcome of chance factors, and this is so not just of its arrangement of black, red and green bands, but also of the bodies that encounter it and the circumstances under which they do so. As is usual with Tyson, the point at issue in the work is the degree to which we are able to rationalise a relationship between any particular historical conjuncture understood as a concatenation of forces, ideas and interests pregnant with significance, and the same moment understood as the unplanned meeting of myriad physical and biological vectors. The body, and the mind that thinks itself as that body, is above all the meeting point at issue –or even, maybe, at stake – here. Looking at Tyson’s History Paintings is to face the distinct prospect of the arbitrariness of existence being all there is. In their presence one feels the siren call of the abyss: what there is, is there by pure accident; there is no meaning. The struggle, then, is to maintain, against the seductive appeal of oblivion, some sense of purposive engagement with all that chance and happenstance throws in our way. Couthon’s agonised screams, as they lifted his crippled body from the wheelchair on 10 Thermidor and tried to straighten his limbs so that he would lie properly under the guillotine blade, do not disappear into the void. They reach us because there is some surface, sufficiently hard and non-absorbent, off which they can bounce down to us. And there is some comfort in that.