Recently, I have become interested in spaces of practice - particularly the artist's studio, the writer's study, the art gallery, and the psychoanalytic consulting room. I am curious about the different processes that take place in these spaces - making, writing, curating, talking, thinking, daydreaming, being anxious, etc. At the same time, I am intrigued by the various stages through which our work develops: for instance, how do we begin a work of art or a psychoanalysis? How do we know when to finish, or end a piece of writing? When has the process of curating an exhibition turned the corner and the show resembles what we had in mind for it? Or when is it that we realize that what we are working on has failed, and what happens after that failure is recognized? How do we move on?

In this short text, I examine the images or ideas we have of beginnings, blankness and detours as three such stages by considering one painting, one essay by a literary author, and one psychoanalytic case history.  I argue that together these images or iterations of practice make the following four propositions: first, we never begin a work of art, a piece of writing, a psychoanalysis at the beginning. Second, there is no such thing as blankness, a new beginning. Third, we are always taking a detour – away from one thing and towards something else. And finally, we are always in the midst of it. 

Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings: Detour as Difference

Joanna Morra #1

In an interview with the art critic Calvin Tomkins, the American artist Robert Rauschenberg states the following about his practice in the early 1950s:

‘I couldn’t really emulate something I was so in awe of. I saw [Jackson] Pollock and all that other work [by the Abstract Expressionists], and I said, Okay, I can’t go that way. It’s possible that I discovered my own originality through a series of self-imposed detours.’ [1] [Italics mine.]

During the Summer and Fall of 1951, while studying at Black Mountain Art College near Asheville, North Carolina, Rauschenberg produced a series of white paintings. Made up of varying numbers of mathematically calculated canvases (1, 2, 3, 4, and 7), the White Paintings are remarkable in many ways. They are made with household paint and a roller. There is no use of brushes, no gestural work, no mark, no figure, no ground, no frame; they are quite simply large expanses of singularly articulated white canvas.

With the White Paintings, Rauschenberg had, in art critic Henry Geldzahler’s view, ‘wiped out the history of painting;’ in effect the artist had produced a tabula rasa. [2] This is obviously an exaggeration by the art critic, but the point should be taken: the White Paintings enabled Rauschenberg, and artists coming after Abstract Expressionism, to distance themselves and differentiate themselves from what came before them. Through a ‘series of self-imposed detours’ the White Paintings represent the process of beginning as difference. These works show us that all beginnings mark out, and are marked out by, a moment of difference.

The White Paintings enabled Rauschenberg to dislodge himself from the burden and force of the history of painting, more specifically, to differentiate his work from the painting that was being produced around him at the start of his career. As Rauschenberg put it, in the early 50s, he ‘“start[ed] every day moving out from Pollock and [Wilhem] de Kooning, […and this] is sort of a long way to have to go to start from.”’ [3]

If, then, the issue at stake is how Rauschenberg was to make the necessary shifts, take the detours which mark out difference, in order to do something other than move out from an artistic history, inheritance, and influence as formidable and present as the one in which he found himself, then the White Paintings should be understood as a negotiation of this genealogy. For the art critic Geldzhaler, the paintings are just that, because they are a determinate negation of these art practices and histories: they are a ‘wiping out [of] the history of painting.’

I would like to propose that these paintings are also something a little more complex than a simple negation. I would like to suggest that the White Paintings are a type of ‘beginning’. Something akin to Edward Said’s understanding of beginning as the combination of the ‘already-familiar’ and the ‘novel’, but, also slightly different. [4] I would characterize these paintings as a beginning that is made up of both a fidelity and infidelity to what Rauschenberg inherited. On the one hand, the paintings are unfaithful because they are a negation and critique of what came before them. They are a wiping away of the work being done by the most important artists of the time: Pollock, de Kooning, Albers (Rauschenberg’s teacher at Black Mountain College), Newman and others. On the other hand, they are also faithful to that inheritance because they are engaging with similar ideas around the limits of painting. The White Paintings are dealing with what it means to empty content out of painting, to make abstract works of art that deal with painting as experience for both the artist and the viewer. In the case of Pollock, de Kooning, Albers and Newman, the experience should be a transcendental aesthetic one. What Rauschenberg’s White Paintings did was related to this, but also different from them.

When you stand in front of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, they do something quite remarkable. They become the ground upon which, as John Cage noted, your ‘shadow’ is cast. In front of them, you can see your shadow, you can see what is going on in the room around the work, and this was quite an exceptional experience. [5]

As the artist Allan Kaprow said when he first saw them,

[… the] white paintings were an end to art and a beginning. Once a man’s shadow gets into a painting for a moment, everything becomes possible and the conditions for experimentation are thrust upon the scene. Possibility, artists know, is the most frightening idea of all. [6]


The Blank Page, or the Anxiety of Memory

The English author, screenwriter and essayist Hanif Kureishi starts his essay ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’ with the following: ‘My father wanted to be a writer. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t want this.’ [7] With this essay, Kureishi constructs an autobiographical narrative about his relationship to writing that is intimately connected to his father’s failure to become a writer. Although his father wrote many books and plays throughout his life, none were accepted for publication. Working in conflict with his father’s failure, where Kureishi found success, and against the wishes of the extended family – who simply did not understand or value the importance of intellectual labour – Kureishi persevered and became a published author.

In this image of the author’s life and work, Kureishi establishes a genealogy for his writing outside of himself. He suggests that his desire to write preceded him: he was born into it. Like psychoanalysis’s conviction that we are born into culture and language, that they precede us, beginnings are always already culturally and linguistically determined, history precedes us, even if our desires are possibly novel constituents of these antecedents.

However, even within, or perhaps because of these historical, cultural and autobiographical antecedents, the blank page – whether it is a canvas, strip or roll of film, the white space of a gallery, or the blank screen (all of which are always already full of their own antecedents) – brings with it conflict and anxiety. As Kureishi informs us, ‘To begin to write – to attempt anything creative, for that matter – is to ask many other questions, not only about the craft itself, but of oneself, and of life. The blank empty page is a representation of this helplessness. Who am I? it asks. How should I live? Who do I want to be?’ [8]

In the midst of these questions, while both knowing and not-knowing what we are doing, sitting alongside that blank page, chaos looms. It can propel us forward or create a standstill. While looking at that blank page, those notes, scraps of ideas, and images, one searches for a magnet around which things will gather. With this hope and intention in mind, eventually one looses oneself in what Kureishi and others call the pleasure of play, those ‘long periods of absorption and reverie’ [9] wherein we imagine and make, we work to create, something else.

What we learn from Kureishi is that the practice of writing, and here I would also say art making and curating, is a process through which a narrative of the self is in Laplanchian psychoanalytic terms, ‘constructed’, ‘deconstructed’ and ‘reconstructed’. [10] Bringing together our autobiographical, psychological, social and historical formations, we begin our creative practices in the midst of chaos. And each time we begin, we attempt to plot a course through that chaos, so as to bring about something new.


Beginning in the Midst of Chaos

Joanne Morra #2

So, let’s think about this image of chaos through which we search for something to say, to write, to make, to exhibit, to curate. Perhaps we can appreciate the productivity of chaos in a different manner, when we consider its relationship to the unconscious. For Adam Phillips, the English psychoanalyst and writer, the mess that is the unconscious is a fertile ground for creative practice. The practice of psychoanalysis either idealizes this mess, or wants to bring order to it. Whether the psychoanalysis that one practices wants to tame the disorder or champion it, Phillips sets up a relationship between disorder and creative practice in his text ‘Clutter: A Case History’, which relays the psychoanalysis of a young, mildly agoraphobic painter. [11]

The question of space and creative practice becomes remarkably important for both the case study, and for creative practice more generally. It is necessary to have, make, create, name and inhabit our workspace - whether it be our study, studio, a gallery space or the psychoanalytic consulting room. In the case of the painter under discussion, Phillips wants to remind us to take into account the spatialization of another frame within which some of us work, that of the blank canvas. And here, I would like to add, that of the blank page, or the gallery space. For many - Kurieshi sitting in front of a blank page, or Allan Kaprow in front of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings - the blank page brings with it fear, the threat of the unknown, and anxiety; but it also constitutes the possibility of play, pleasure and something new.

For the artist that Phillips worked with, we are informed that as an adolescent, the painter read an interview with Francis Bacon where Bacon talked about his ‘un-technique’. This is in reference to how Bacon often messed up the blank canvas with random painterly gestures to mark a necessary difference in beginning a work of art. After reading about this, the painter in psychoanalysis also began to clutter his canvasses. But for our young artist, rather than it being a positive and productive chaos within which to work, it was a means of averting his fear of the unknown – ‘to stop what he thought of as the real painting happening’. [12]

With this case history, Phillips is able to begin to unravel the patient’s symptoms, as well as to ask more general questions about the relationship between clutter and the unconscious, clutter and creative practice, clutter and psychoanalytic practice. As Phillips writes,

It is perhaps one of the most useful, indeed pleasurable Freudian insights that the way we defend ourselves tells us, in disguised form, what it is we desire. If clutter was the obstacle to desire, it was also an object of desire. In clutter you may not be able to find what you are looking for, but you may find something else instead, while you are looking for it. [13]

What interests me about Phillips’s interpretation is the way in which clutter is theorized as a prohibition that necessitates a detour, and that in working around the mess, in averting one thing, we find something else. This is exactly what Rauschenberg did, took detours to avoid the work of Pollock, de Kooning and others, so as to make something new.

Phillips ends his essay with guidance taken from the English analyst, writer and amateur artist, Marion Milner’s book entitled On Not Being Able to Paint, Phillips writes, ‘Milner counsels us to be wary of the pre-emptive imposition of pattern, of the compulsive sanity of reassuring recognitions. Of what we might be doing when we are too keen to clear up clutter. Clutter, that is to say, may be a way of describing either the deferral that is a form of waiting, or the waiting that is a form of deferral. Our eagerness for recognition can be a self-blinding.’ [14]

Through these images of our working processes, in our spaces of practice, beginnings are always constituted by conscious and unconscious acts of waiting, of avoidance and deferral, of action, detours, and decisions, and of waiting once more. Born into our historical, cultural, and autobiographical antecedents, we always begin in the midst of it all. By making a mark on, for instance, the blank page or the white canvas, we define possibilities within ourselves and our practice by simultaneously abandoning one route and taking another. We have begun.


[1] Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1980), p. 63.
[2] Henry Geldzahler, ‘Robert Rauschenberg,’ Art International, 7 (25 September 1963), p. 65.
[3] Robert Rauschenberg, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, ‘Bob Rauschenberg’, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde (New York: Viking Press, 1962, (repr. 1965)), p. 213.
[4] Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (London: Granta Books, 1985 (1975)), p. xxiii.
[5] John Cage, ‘On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and his Work,’ Metro, 2 (Maggio 1961), p. 43.
[6] Allan Kaprow, ‘Experimental Art,’ Art News, 65 (March 1966), p. 79.
[7] Hanif Kureishi. ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’, Dreaming and Scheming: Reflections on Writing and Politics (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), pp. 1-24 (p. 1).
[8] Ibid., Kureishi, p. 10.
[9] Ibid., Kureishi, p. 12.
[10] Jean Laplanche. New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans. David Macey (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989 (1987)).
[11] Adam Phillips, ‘Clutter: A Case History’, Promises, Promises (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), pp. 59-71.
[12] Ibid., Phillips, p. 64.
[13] Ibid., Phillips, p. 64.
[14] Ibid., Phillips, p. 71.