Productions of chance
October 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
I first came across Alexander Cozens in the first art history course I ever took, during my first semester of college. Our survey text, which otherwise gave very short shrift to British artists, somehow saw fit to mention him in passing in the chapter on Romanticism, illustrating one of his ‘blots’ and commenting on the surprising modernity of his work in both its appearance and method. I was intrigued, but where was I going to find any of his drawings in St Louis? Well, nowhere at all, as it turned out.
Over the past year, I’ve been working on a show that includes one of Cozens’s fully worked up blot drawings, and in the course of my research I visited the British Museum print room to look at some of the blots themselves.
They are astonishing. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d never guess they were produced nearly 250 years ago, the ink laid on with such rough vigour and spontaneity that the strokes only just, with much squinting and imagination, coalesce into something recognisable as a landscape. They look as if they ought to be the work of Jackson Pollock or Zhao Wou Ki, not of an eighteenth-century British artist who toiled in semi-obscurity as a drawing master.
A lot of writing on Alexander Cozens emphasises his modernity, how much he was ahead of his time, a precursor of the Surrealists or one of the fathers of abstraction. That only tells part of the story, though, and thinking of Cozens as a proto-abstractionist will give you a very skewed view of his art. What’s so fascinating about him is how much he was a product of his own time – namely, of the eighteenth-century tendency to see the world in terms of systems that could be decoded and set out for all to understand. The ‘blots’ aren’t Cozens just messing around with ink and a brush (although one of his peers contemptuously dubbed him ‘Blot-master General’). In the 1760s he first devised a system of creating landscapes (which he would spend the rest of his life refining and elaborating) from a fixed series of such blots. The aspiring draughtsman was meant to lay a thin sheet of paper (made transparent with turpentine varnish) over a blot, make a tracing of what he or she perceived as the contours of a landscape, and work it up into a finished drawing.
The amazing aspect of this apparently rigid approach – in the first version, Cozens only provided eight blots to serve as foundations for drawings, later expanding to a more generous sixteen – is that it could produce infinite variety. Formal constraints paradoxically freed the imagination.
Cozens referred to his blots as ‘a production of chance with a small degree of design’. Deliberately creating conditions in which chance flourishes – maybe it’s fairer to say that instead of Cozens being ahead of his time, what the Surrealists did two hundred years later was actually a bit… old-fashioned?