FROM THE ARCHIVE: David Row, faith, and a letter to Valerie Furth

Signification is the contradictory trope of the-one-for-the-other. […] My responsibility for the other is the for of the relationship, the very signifyingness of signification, which signifies in saying before showing itself in the said

Emmanuel Levinas

David Row- letter from David Row to Valerie Furth(1)

Not only the survival of harrowing tragedy or the accomplishment of great artistic practice, but also the very act of observing a painting, for artist David Row, constitutes a form of witnessing, engenders a form of testimony.  In a 1992 interview,* the artist states, “Painting is a social act where the viewer is not just a receiver, but also an interpreter.  If metaphors are to be drawn it is here, in this space between the painting and the viewer”.  The organic, abstract imagery of Row’s Spina (1986) (detail above), employing an elliptical repetition, does not, according to the the artist, motion towards a determinative referentiality; rather in position of the ellipsis itself–as that which marks in grammar that which is left out, indicating an omission, but also creating a space within a text–such geometry invites an understanding of abstraction as the production of a place of viewing, even a demand that the spectator must also be a scriptor–(the position of the reader, rather than author, or in this case artist, as creator of meaning described by Roland Barthes in his text “The Death of the Author”)–in the setting of a scene, in a space of opening or omission, of the oblique, of the other, and of an ethics of abstraction–even the scene of a crime.

Like Barthes, Row heralds, “the oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”**–or paints.  Or more acutely, if there is an absented subjectivity, it is that of authorial sovereignty over the production of meaning, inaugurating a responsibility to the other and of the other in the positioning of meaning of a work outside of or beyond the act of creation. The artist, for Barthes as for Row, “must accentuate this gap […] his hand, detached from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin”**–or an origin, which lies elsewhere, in the space, body and scene of the viewer, as interpreter/scriptor. Describing abstraction as the contemporary and persistent language of painting, even in the post-modern era, Row follows, “I am convinced that abstraction is the language of this time […] This language is innately mutable.  It has the ability […] to generate a myriad of subjective responses much in the way a street crime would provoke different interpretations from various witnesses”.  Here, Row not only describes the production of meaning in painting in terms of what he calls later the “legitimacy of subjective interpretation”, but also the position of the viewer as witness–as socially bound to an ethical imperative to performatively produce–to testify to–signification in the face of the scene of painting and its relation to their experience.

[Painting] has the ability …  to generate a myriad of subjective responses much in the way a street crime would provoke different interpretations from various witnesses

David Row.

Such an ethical demand of the viewer doubtlessly formed the basis for the mutual admiration between Valerie Furth and Row.  In a letter found among the collector’s papers, the artist writes, in the now seemly antique epistolary tradition, a letter to Valerie upon receipt of her book Cabbages and Geraniums (link to the letter above). Herein, Row writes, “I’m sure that revealing these memories and scars does not receive the personal suffering that accompanies them.  But I wanted you to know that by reliving them through your work you have given us all a great gift of humanity […] you have revealed a deep common humanity that brings us all closer together”.  This sentiment invokes the value of the social act of bearing witness both in art and in writing, which at once marks Valerie’s experience as collector and survivor and Row’s practice of the persistence of abstraction in the cultural rain shadow of what is known as the linguist turn. For Row, however, it is not that meaning and cultural signification has dissolved into a morass of relativism in the wake of that supposition that, in vulgar terms, all meaning derives from a received and socially constructed grammar or language–including and especially that of non-representational painting; rather, for the artist, the very social nature of the act of this construction and reconstruction of meaning as such insists that the creation of meaning is also a social responsibility.  A responsibility to bear witness.  And even the face of great great tragedy, to, in his own words, which could be Valerie’s as well, “keep the faith”.

Above: detail from David Row. Spina (1986) Oil on canvas (60 x 48″) Provenance: John Good Gallery

Part of the Valerie Furth Collection

* This interview appeared in Tema Celeste Art Magazine (Jan-Mar 1992), or here

** These quotes are from the Roland Barthes text, ‘Death of the Author’ available in its English translation in Image–Music–Text (1977) or here

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