Kees Visser exhibition in Arion Bank

The Enigma of Vision

Seeing is not a specific way of thinking, or a specific presence in itself: it is a means that I have recieved in order to be absent from myself, to live from inside a specific division of being, which leads me at the end back into the self.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The Dutch artist Kees Visser has been active in the Icelandic art-scene since the seventies, at the beginning through his acquaintance with young Icelandic artist studying in Holland at that time, and then moving to Iceland in 1976. He was one of the founders of The Living Art Museum in Reykjavík 1978, and participated in numerous exhibitions and activities until he moved back to Holland in 1992. Since then he has been a regular visitor in Iceland and his ties to the Icelandic art scene have never been interrupted. One of his most memorable exhibitions was his one man show in The Living Art Museum the year he moved back to Holland, where he presented a systematic investigation of some fundamental elements of visual arts like color and form, realized in so called wooden and coloured  „bar-works“ where questions concerning how our visual and tactile perception of colors and forms relate to our thoughts and our spoken language. After moving to Holland, Kees Visser‘s investigation into  language of forms and colors  has radically deepened so that he is now to be considered among the foremost  artists in his field.

When overlooking the career of Kees Visser you can‘t miss the relationship between his artistic investigation and the investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein concerning the relationship between our color-perception and the words of the spoken language. Wittgenstein’s investigations are always dealing with the relationship between rational thought and perception, where the perception of color and the name of the color become the key to philosophical questions about relationship between language and reality in general. Wittgenstein’s conclusion was basically that semantic discourses follow different rules than perception, and that the words we use for example about colors are a matter of consensus, but have little or no relation to our perception as such: the word “yellow” means the color yellow if the majority of a linguistic community has agreed on that equivalence, not because the equivalence is real. The rationalistic discourse of language ends up in a formal tautology if we want to make a direct connection between the word and the phenomenon it is supposed to mean. At the end language is self-referential and outside this self-referential world we have silence. Wittgenstein remains always trapped in between this impasse of words, perception and things. One of his conclusions is anyway that after all it is “experience that gives meaning to the words”[1].  That means that the experience of the color  yellow  gives the word “yellow” its meaning.  That conclusion leaves open one question: what kind of experience gives meaning to the word “experience”?

These questions of  Wittgenstein come easily to our mind when we look at Kees Visser’s works,  but through closer look we can see that the visual artist is approaching these problems from quite a different experience and using quite different methods than the artist of linguistics we can see in Wittgenstein. To simplify,   we can trace Visser’s investigation back to his “bar-works” from his exhibition in 1992, where the natural approach of the visual artist widens and deepens the semiotic discourse of the philosophical approach by connecting the colors to their form and the perception that does not rise from words but from the physical approach of the perceiver and the object perceived.  After his return to Holland Visser’s investigations have deepened and left us ever more clear statements where the silence that Wittgenstein found outside the realm of language as the world of the unspeakable, is shouting toward us in a variety of systematic series of works that lead us far away from the semantic enigma of the words to the real enigma of vision itself and the visible, which has its roots in our bodies and the being that never can be separated from its physical context. If words do nothing but describe language, then colors and forms have a direct and immediate connection to the perceiver in the paradox that makes what is outside the reach of our hands and our words become inside ourselves as a new visibility that has its intrinsic logic and magic beyond all syntax and semiotics of the words.

The series of paintings by Visser are all extremely simple in their appearance, and might at first seem to eco the tautology of words that many followers of Wittgenstein introduced in conceptual and minimalist art of the last decades of the 20th century. Those artists maintained that just as the word does no longer mean anything but itself, the same would do with form and color.  But as we look closer at Visser’s images, those series who appear at first glance to be monochrome squares or stripes, we are caught by an unfamiliar stimulus: the squares are not “perfect” and the colors proof to be more complicated and deeper than at first sight, they have a rough surface of pure pigment, and looking at the surface we see the light reflecting in various ways and the color dissolve at the edges, all depending on our distance and direction of perspective. Suddenly we are directed into a world of color and forms  whose reference is outside the spoken language aiming directly into our bodies,  where not only the eyes but the whole body receives a message in the form of a new visibility that dwells beyond the words. We experience the most subtle variations in rhythm of forms and colors that call for our deepest attention. Visser is unafraid to show us his working processes and his systematic way of proceeding, exposing his working papers as  musical manuscripts with lines and measurement standards designed as scores for form and colors. Here we discover that behind all the simplicity in the appearance of the work lies a complicated theoretical work,  aimed at provoking the perceptive stimulus  that slowly becomes an illumination: the color isn’t just color and the form isn’t just form and their context results to be a conclusion of complicated calculus that provoke harmony in our perception, similar to what we can find in serial music where the notes are arranged according  to certain arithmetic rules.

The characteristic of language is that we use words to discern things and ideas in order to master them. That kind of discernment is often implicit in language as almost an unconscious act. We often say for example:  “I can’t believe my own eyes!”  By using that phrase we have distinguished the eyes from ourselves and distinguished our body from the self and our consciousness, as if it was a crystal clear and immaterial thought. But everybody should know that our eyes are not sufficient means for seeing. In reality we do not see with our eyes at all, as they are a part of an opaque and complex  net that makes our body and being in its totality. Often this misunderstanding is supported by the way language discerns our perception of what we see from “the thing in itself” as if we were dealing with two different entities. But as Maurice Merleau-Ponty has pointed out, our perceptions in general, and especially our visual perception is a reciprocal cross-action based on  communion  and identification of the perceiver and the perceived. Besides Merleau-Ponty has doubted if things have a being “in themselves” as if things were given a “self”[2].

Instead of investigating the relationship between color-perception and language, as Wittgenstein did,  Ponty studied the relationship between the colors and our body: the fact that color can affect the motorial intentions of our body. Thus we know that yellow and red colors have an “expanding” and exciting effect but blue and green have the opposite effect.  These simple phenomena do not tell the whole story, because we can experience how the colors in Visser’s works change according to our physical position and movement.  Our distance from the object and our movement have a direct effect on our perception. The same goes for the subtile variations in forms that we find in his works, we perceive them according to our own physical movements. In the end our perception of these works is not conditioned by our understanding of the complex  systematic preparatory calculus, prepared by the artist as a basis for our understanding of his work;  what happens is the contrary: these variations in colors and forms create an echo in our bodies, and this echo becomes a new experience which is not based on a calculus or a system, but rather on direct perception without words and without logical analysis. In the same way we can understand the work from the point of view of the artist: the strong and systematic framework that he creates is not there to block the expression. Certainly we are not seeing traditional expressionistic brushstrokes or formations, rather we perceive  suspension magnified by the strict rules set to expression. Every brushstroke in these works  eliminates the underlying one and creates layers or sediments of  the artists efforts to stay within the restraints. The same goes for the formal variations that affect us at closer looking and creates an echo inside ourselves as if listening to music.

As Kees Visser’s art has been strictly abstract from the very beginning it comes as a surprise that recently he has been showing, along with his strictly geometric abstract works, images of flowers  which  appear at first glance to be of the most simple kind: a single flower opened up on the middle of the  canvas with different shades of gray color in the background. At first sight they look like normal photographs, but at closer watch we see something strange. The depth and sharpness of the image doesn’t fit completely with the distance we are used to see between the digital or analog image and its object. We feel some uncommon physical closeness in these color-images which almost brings the flower itself into presence. By closer investigation we discover that these are not traditional photographs, but images made through direct hyper sensitive electronic scanning process transferred into a digital print. Beyond all debate on “abstract” and “figurative” imaging,  Visser is here dealing with similar problematics as in his abstract paintings, a problem that Merleau-Ponty called the enigma of visual perception:

This shows us that the question of figurative or abstract art is badly proposed: it is true, and not a contradiction, that no grape has ever been what we see in a painting, also in the most figurative painting, and it is also true that no painting, however abstract it might be, can never be withdrawn from Beeing, and that Caravaggio’s grape is the grape itself. These statements make no contradiction. The preference we give to what is, against what is seen or shown, the preference we give to what is seen or shown, against what is, is vision itself.[3]

Ólafur Gíslason (November, 2011)

English translation: Sarah Brownsberger


[1] L. Wittgenstein: Remarks on color, 1977

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenologie de la perception, 1945

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty L‘Œil et l‘Espirit, 1964Image