Naomie Kremer: Drawn In

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NAOMIE KREMER DRAWN IN March 9–April 24, 2021 | Modernism Inc. | San Francisco


March 9–April 24, 2021

MODERNISM Inc. | 724 Ellis Street | San Francisco, CA 94109

Feather River I, 2006, charcoal on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 inches previous page: Untitled II, 2007, charcoal on paper, 77 x 61 inches (detail) cover: Feather River Nude II, 2006, charcoal on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 inches (detail)

Eternal Returning By Jonathon Keats

In the beginning, before the first painting, before even the first drawing, was Genesis. Learned from her father in Hebrew, when she was a young girl in Israel, Genesis was what Naomie Kremer knew first, and, in the beginning of Genesis, there was nothing but tohu vavohu—the pure promise of an embryonic universe—not yet woman and man, nor even heaven and earth. Trying to become a painter in the early ‘90s, failing to find her footing, Kremer was reminded of tohu vavohu, and compelled to enter into it herself. For a full year, she set aside canvas and brush. She unfurled seven-foot stretches of paper, pinned them to her studio wall, and, with the most basic implements, began making marks. She listened to music, minimalist compositions by Steve Reich, and stroked in time with the drumming. She did not attempt to comprehend what she was doing; she tried NOT to understand. She thought of tohu vavohu as “a space of formless mass where everything is potential and everything is already there, but it hasn’t yet emerged.” Her work in those early drawings was to bring it forth. Genesis is a book of miracles, of dream coats and great floods, and yet creation in the Torah does not come across as miraculous so much as laborious: On the seventh day, God rested. Kremer’s early drawings are likewise the product of great labor, not quite as arduous as God’s cosmic composition, but strenuous enough to physically exhaust her. The sheer density of drawing in This Much and Blue (1993), the quantity of pastel, ink and acrylic, impresses first, followed by the overwhelming detail. In these drawings, Kremer has not built specific structures, but has established a firmament, from which can be extruded, over the days and years of her career, seasons and oceans and beasts: in brief, anything that her art could ever want or need.


To her credit, Kremer did not see these drawings in such lofty terms, preferring more homely analogies such as “knitting.” She described the work to her early mentor Dennis Leon as “a fabric... that could have no holes in it,” and later told art critic Amei Wallach that she wanted the work “to have such a level of detail that up close it was as infinite as when you were far away, so that it wouldn’t start to disintegrate at a reading range.” A scientist might point out that she was describing an essential quality of fractals. And a mystic might point out that the apparent fractal nature of the universe, which we experience as seamlessness, is its most wondrous quality. In Genesis, the transformation from tohu vavohu to firmament is absolute, impermeable, and soon enough, after altercations with Noah and Moses and Job, God effectively accepts his position as jealous spectator. Kremer’s relationship to tohu vavohu was of a different order. Not only did Kremer create a virgin world in her drawings; the experience of making the drawings created her as an artist. As she would retrospectively explain to curator Cathy Kimball, these works gave her “faith that the continuous, repetitive activity [of making marks] would eventually achieve the presence, the reality, of a finished whole.” Certainly her sophistication with color and composition has grown over the years, yet the faith formed through the act of making those drawings in the early ‘90s remains at the core of her practice, and accounts for her willingness to experiment in painting and video and, most recently, stage design. While a latter-day Picasso might tackle such pursuits as lord and master, the humble strength of Kremer’s faith in art-making lets her approach her art as an equal. She and her art are truly of one another. The implications of this come through in her relationship to figuration, which intermittently enters into her drawing, and especially her painting. For instance, at the center of the otherwise abstract painting, Venus Envy (2002), the observer discerns a figure with the thighs and breasts of a fertility goddess. Elsewhere in her oeuvre, Kremer has

This Much, 1993, pastel, acrylic & charcoal on paper, 74 x 95 1/2 inches Collection of the Arkansas Museum of Art, Little Rock


Venus Envy, 2002, oil on linen, 47 x 47 inches, Private Collection.

found imagery ranging from the Arc de Triomphe to a soccer ball. And found is the right word here, for these depictions are not intended. Kremer compares them to volunteers, the plants that occasionally blossom in gardens where a piece of plucked fruit has accidentally dropped and the seeds have taken root. Uncontrived, these figures do not signify or symbolize. They simply belong to the realm of possibility that can emerge from tohu vavohu, as part of the structure of her abstract world. This stands in telling contrast to the attitude taken by many mid-century Abstract Expressionists, who’d weed all figurative volunteers from their painted gardens, as if abstraction were a negative quality, defined by what does not exist. Kremer accepts the paradox that the greatest abstractionist is nature, and while she is wary of any figures that she has forced into her pictures, she is

Feather River I, 2006, charcoal on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 inches

keen to draw from life as a source for abstract forms. Even a cursory glance at her recent Feather River series of drawings, sketched when some friends offered to pose nude in the countryside one summer afternoon, reveals the rich vocabulary to be taken from brambles and bodies. And yet these drawings also betray an essential change in the artist who began by creating world from void, or at least show a wrinkle in her initial faith: the belief in the all-encompassing potential of laborious mark making. Painting her way toward a hybrid between gesture and observation, Kremer discovered that no world is seamless. Even God couldn’t abrogate the laws of quantum mechanics; even the finest fabric has holes in it. Kremer responded with openness. The stretch seems to have originated inside her tohu vavohu, under the strain of creation. Polyglot


Feather River Nude II, 2006 charcoal on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 inches


Kremer could not be contented with just pastel or oil paint. Even her 1992-3 drawings are truly mixed media creations, and by the time she began working on her Pass series at Joshua Tree National Park in 1999, she was pressing rubber stamps with letters of the alphabet into her compositions. Her paintings, meanwhile, combined wide-ranging brushwork with surface manipulation using unorthodox materials such as bubble wrap. Kremer believed that mastery would stunt her work and sought to check it by adding new techniques which she compared to languages: “My native tongue is Hebrew. I learned English when I was eight and French in high school, and my parents spoke Yiddish. In college I studied Arabic and Hindi. There were always many languages and many alphabets around me when I was growing up, so I feel more comfortable having that in my work. The mixture of materials feels more real than one language.” Her tohu vavohu grew into a tower of babel. As every reader of Genesis knows, that could have been catastrophic. Kremer’s art could have become increasingly insular and unintelligible. A suffocating realm of smothering detail. Instead, she let the fabric breathe. The languages she’d taken in—for instance the letterforms of rubber-stamped alphabets—became vernaculars for negotiating the importation of external sources. The barrier between art and life became porous.

Ink II, 2007, India ink on paper, 9 3/4 x 12 5/8 inches


Over the years, Kremer has used as a compositional foundation for her paintings everything from scenery observed on vacations to the documentary photography of Gilles Peress. She often draws from life, as in the Feather River series. “I look to information from the real world as the starting point for everything,” she says. “The variety you get from observing nature is much greater than what you get from going inside your head.” On its own, this is hardly a revolutionary idea. Great abstractionists from Ellsworth Kelly to Brice Marden have worked directly from nature, often through drawing. Kremer takes the idea a crucial step farther, though. She also looks at her own paintings as potential information for abstraction. “I’m very interested in the back-and-forth in a painting where I intend something and the painting gives me back something different,” she says. “I can work with that. Every action creates a consequence, and that consequence is in the real world, and it creates new information.” This way of looking at her art seems to have had its genesis in her fractured tohu vavohu. The hybrid nature of her paintings gives them a peculiar ontological status: The images simultaneously occupy their own world and our larger universe. They can be held up as mirrors to themselves. In this respect, they have the quality of strange loops, introduced by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach. As Hofstadter describes them,

Untitled II, 2008, India ink on paper, 8 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches


Untitled II, 2007, charcoal on paper, 77 x 61 inches

Blue Streak, 2003, oil on linen, 80 x 65 inches


“strange loops arise when, moving up or down through a hierarchical system, one finds oneself back where one started.” In other words, strange loops are self-referential, as in the case of the liar’s paradox and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Hofstadter also compares strange loops to what you see if you connect a television camera to a screen and set them face-toface. “You get a vortex of images of the frame and surround, spiraling into what might as well be infinity,” Hofstadter observes. “There are very rich patterns in the loop.” Kremer attempted something akin to pointing camera at screen when she started transforming her paintings into video works in 2003. Her process was to digitally deconstruct a painting into hundreds or thousands of layers that could be individually manipulated, and to show them breaking apart and coming back together again. In Rudimentary Moves, for instance, she created a three-and-a-half minute loop in which her dazzlingly complex 1999 painting Rudimentary Pixillation appears to shatter and then to piece itself back together. The way in which this happens is significant: Kremer has found shapes in the painting that evoke, for her, a man on a bicycle, a couple dancing, and other figures that seem to move into the painted plane of their own volition, watching the work form and unform around them, only to find themselves part of it, also forming and unforming. In other words, looking at the abstract markings of Rudimentary Pixillation as real-world information, Kremer allows them to become literally autonomous. In a strangely loopy way, they constitute their own picture. Kremer considers Rudimentary Moves to be her version of “a mini philosophical treatise,” and it resonates with Hofstadter’s conception of the self as a self-made strange loop: “The self is a hallucination hallucinated by an hallucination.” Which is not to say that the animation happens independently of Kremer. As art critic Kenneth Baker observed several years before Kremer began working on Rudimentary Moves, Rudimentary Pixillation is too richly detailed to be viewed definitively. “Could any two people see a picture such as Rudimentary Pixillation in the same way? Where would comparison begin? How could it ever end?” While the information in Rudimentary Moves constitutes the picture, Kremer determines the information. The process could quite easily spiral into infinity. As Kremer describes it, her motivation for reentering paintings through animation is to return to the world, so alive with possibility, as she was working the canvas in the first place. “After

Rudimentary Moves, 3’44” loop animation of painting, Rudimentary Pixillation, edition: 6. Rudimentary Pixillation and Rudimentary Moves are in the collection of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum.


making a painting, I look back at the structure,” she says, “and I realize that I’m not finished with it. Starting with the same givens, I realize that it could have been something else.” In her most recent videos, Kremer explores the endless permutations of elements by allowing layers to drift on-screen for ten minutes or more—an open-work fabric, hovering on the horizon of countless alternate realities—before reconstituting as she originally painted them. In this process, there are qualities of Nietzsche’s eternal return: As he argued in The Will to Power, the world “does not aim at a final state.” For Nietzsche, the prospect of eternal return is potentially paralyzing. For Kremer, it can be invigorating. Even more than her video loops, her 2006 series of Untitled drawings investigate this potential. Each Untitled drawing begins as a slide projection of a painting, rapidly traced onto paper with loose graphite, the work of a couple of hours. These light gray marks, as faint as shadow, then serve as the undergirding for a new work created in pencil and charcoal without additional reference to the original. By shifting from painting to drawing, and dropping out color, Kremer excavates structure, which she uses to inform the development of new figures. The results often have formal overlaps with the original paintings, as can be seen in Untitled V, based on Port of Call (2003), and Untitled I, based on Kremer’s philosophical touchstone, Rudimentary Pixillation. (Notice, for

Untitled IV, 2006, charcoal & graphite on paper 54 x 79 inches


Port of Call, 2003, oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches, Private Collection.

instance, some of the gridding, transformed from positive to negative space.) Other drawings, such as Untitled II, have departed so far from their source that Kremer herself is at a loss to identify them. This is as it should be. While it is tempting to play a game of compare-and-contrast with these works, or even to use Untitled I as a précis for addressing Kenneth Baker’s question about viewership, there is nothing derivative about the drawings. They are as authoritative as the paintings, as autonomous. They are also as open to multiple viewings. They are as alive with possibility. Nearly a decade-and-a-half since she first stepped into her own tohu vavohu, Naomie Kremer has turned around and recognized the strangest loop knit into the fabric of her art: Every work is potential ground for an infinity of new worlds.

Untitled V, 2006, charcoal & graphite on paper, 58 1/2 x 78 1/2 inches


Coda Genesis is not the only human origin story. Torah is not the only authority. According to other sources, we evolved from earlier species. Evolution made us human. And the earliest human culture evolved with our mastery of fire. Our first known art is found deep inside caves, where drawings of animals and other human markings would originally have been animated by flickering flame. In 2009, several years after she completed her monumental cycle of Untitled drawings, Naomie Kremer combined a later charcoal from that period with some video footage that she’d captured while developing her first stage set for the Berkeley Opera. Filming birds and foliage, then processing the footage to a level close to abstraction, she introduced color and shimmering motion. By projecting this imagery onto the drawing—and reworking the charcoal in response to the video—Kremer created a flickering hybrid work evocative of the earliest torch-lit cave drawings. Hybrid Hive added a new layer to Kremer’s engagement with drawing, building on both her video deconstructions of paintings and the strange loops she’d been creating when she drew on projections of them. But in another sense, Hybrid Hive accentuated what had been there all along, the quality that Kenneth Baker described when, writing about her painting Rudimentary Pixillation in 1999, he observed that no two people would ever see it in the same way. In every artwork, Kremer strives to achieve such complexity that even she doesn’t see the work in the same way from day to day, a quality she compares to looking into a fire. Kremer has recently returned to drawing after a decade hiatus, enticed in part by the experience of living with one of her past drawings. For several years, Untitled VI has hung in her living room. “When I look at it, it’s like somebody else made it,” she observes. “I can’t figure out what led me to do what I did.” Like the first intentional flame­—Let there be light!—the fire of creation is generative. Kremer’s newest large-scale charcoal drawing, created in 2021, was started by projecting a 2016 painting called Flock, and then building new forms on the found structure. As was the case with her 2007 series, the process has led to a work that echoes its source, stands on its own, and evokes infinite alternatives, each as distinct as one day from another, as independent as the perspective of a different viewer. In fact, any work can be the genesis of another, generated in any order. Kremer has recently be-

Untitled VI, 2006, charcoal & graphite on paper, 58 1/2 x 79 inches


Flock, 2016, oil on linen, 30 x 40 inches

gun to experiment with video footage as a source for new drawings. Projecting video onto paper, she captures fugitive forms in charcoal. These works may be completed by illuminating their surface with loops of the original video. As animated as fire, these new “hyper drawings” promise to be as numinous as torch-lit cave paintings. Strangely looping the latest technology into the deep past, they signal a new beginning. Jonathon Keats San Francisco Eternal Returning was first published in Naomie Kremer: On Paper in 2008. The Coda was written in 2021.

Untitled Drawing I, 2021, charcoal & graphite on archival paper, 60 x 80 inches


Untitled VIII, 2007, charcoal & graphite on paper, 53 1/4 x 78 1/2 inches


Untitled VII, 2007, charcoal & graphite on paper, 53 1/4 x 71 inches


White on Black I, 2003, white ink on archival black paper, 8 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches


White on Black II, 2003, white ink on archival black paper, 8 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches

White on Black III, 2003, white ink on archival black paper, 8 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches


Palm Drawing I, II, III, 2020, ink on paper, 9 x 6 inches each


Maui I, II, III 2020-21, ink on paper, 9 x 6 inches each


Untitled I, II, III, 2009, oil on linen, 81 1/2 x 26 inches each

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