Walter Leblanc: A master in the play of motion, light and vibration
Leblanc’s so-called “informel” painting is the result of a tension, an interaction of strict rules and creative freedom. He maintained a system which was in a certain sense very rigid, but unceasingly sought to exceed it with inventiveness. His work constantly appeals to the flexibility of the limits of the frame, and the limitations are modified to become possibilities. It is precisely this somewhat “laborious” way of working that led Walter Leblanc to create a disturbing, ever-intriguing body of work in which rhythm, order, and the desire to play with series, light, and human perception occupy a central place. I admire the perseverance, motivation and extreme logic that Leblanc applied to his work over the course of many years, which fluctuates between abstraction and figuration.
The way in which he managed to reconcile the severity of formal structures and his enthusiasm for free expression, akin to poetry, can therefore truly be called unique. This artist has indirectly proven that logic and a systematic approach need not necessarily be clinical and sterile. He created a form of “interactive” art before the term even existed, in which the spectator, who may contribute (consciously or otherwise) to the recreation of the work, plays a crucial role.
Light is an indispensable element in the discovery of Leblanc’s creations, although its presence has a merely structuring role. The refraction, vibration and action of shadows and chiaroscuros change according to the spectator’s position in front of the canvas. After applying the threads or torsions, Leblanc gives his canvases a monochrome tone, usually black or white. He paints by means of light, without using any pigments. When the spectator finds himself in front of the canvas, it vibrates as if activated by the spectator. The action of the shadow and the torsions of the threads give the canvas a tactile value and show the materiality of the work.
Walter Leblanc: Sensorial Geometries
Belgian artist Walter Leblanc was a cardinal figure in post-war European art, whose importance is gradually receiving greater international recognition. This exhibition brings together a series of highly significant moments in his work from the 1950s to the 1980s, to cover the key decades of his creative career. Leblanc unquestionably stands among the masters of what could be called the “back to zero” approach that developed in the late 1950s, within the ZERO movement and its international network in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, and elsewhere. With creative practices based on pared-down concepts, an interest in phenomenology, and an experimental outlook, this creative context engendered a radically new vision of art, seen as an all-encompassing experience of the world that transcends geographic, methodological, disciplinary, and behavioural boundaries. Many of the artists who were active within it, like Leblanc, focused their investigations on the structural aspect of the image, laying aside traditional notions of painting and sculpture and exploring it through a range of unusual materials such as nails, mirrors, metal, and plastic. Situating Leblanc among these pioneers of contemporary artistic practice, we can describe his work not in purely formal terms as geometric abstraction, but in a more phenomenologically complex way, as sensorial geometry, driven by a constant urge to experiment with diverse, unorthodox materials (like cotton, string, latex, PVC, and metal), as well as a constructional bent and a specific interest in the dynamic potential of light.
I had arrived at a white painting with just a single white point, hoping that it would become a painting of mine. I’ll explain. Having brought to paper and canvas the impersonal drawing and painting of the academy, and then the problems and investigations of other painters, I wanted to paint in a way that had a minimum of drawing (the point) but a maximum of personality and originality. To give the maximum of myself with the minimum of means. I put everything into question. I developed the idea of the point; I tried to give the greatest possible expression to the point; after the point it was the turn of the straight line, and then the curve.
At the same time, points and lines became relief. Relief implied the need for light; to capture the maximum of light, I painted my canvases in silver or gold.
The line allowed more expression than the point, and I pursued my investigations along those lines. To add clarity to the relief, I put a thick thread, then several threads onto the canvas. The relief became even more interesting. I started using doubled thread, and [then] when it was fixed in place with the help of a needle, the two parts became slightly twisted; and that was the birth of my first Torsion in 1959.
Straight lines were followed by curved and the varying twist of the thread determined the degree of relief. […]
In working so hard on my new discovery, I’m beginning to realise the enormous possibilities of the purely optical character of the torsion. As I create them, the ideas bubble up in me at such a rate that it is impossible for me to put them into practice. Unable to do everything at the same time, I draw up a plan of work, to make sure I don’t miss out any of the potentialities… To give you an idea of some of the problems: there is the interpenetration of the zones in which the different colours reverberate, the moving points of light that shift with the viewer’s movement in relation to the painting, and the way that the painting’s composition gradually changes according to the viewing angle.
Letter to Michèle Jacob, 29 April 1968, Walter Leblanc archives
My monochrome paintings originate from a meditation on a single idea.
Thus, they are not a game of chance, but an exteriorisation of an inner reality.
The production unfolds in three stages:
- the imaginary projection of the painting-soul, achromic, on a screen: the blank canvas;
- the visualisation of the imaginary achromic projection, in:
- maximum light: white
- minimum light: black
- or colour tones: colours;
- the enhancement of the light, to reach the perfect crystallisation of the painting.
It is this third stage, which, in a pictorial realisation, implies that a monochrome painting is a multicoloured painting whose colours are brought together in one dominant colour.
Monochrome Malerei, Schloss Morsbroich, Leverkusen, 1960
The term brings together works of various trends that have surpassed the stage of 'normal painting'.
A painting, which, by means of optical and physical phenomena, pervades the space without being a sculpture.
Having another dimension, it measures itself in variations, motions, vibrations, light.
Having emerged from new experiences, it is neither figurative nor abstract.
'Figurative' and 'non-figurative' lose their antagonism and conflate in an undeniable classicism.
The act of elevating a common, vulgar object, a colour, a material to a supreme place in art is the power of the inventor/creator.
Anti-Painting, Hessenhuis, Antwerp, 1962
On the Subject of Mobilo-Static
A field of action divided into zones of contrasting ripples.
A constructed art, non-formal, whose relief is animated by light and mobility, by the spectator's movements. As s/he moves in front of the work, the spectator unwittingly participates in its recreation, gradually modifying the pictorial relations of the given structure.
A mobile structural game takes place between the brain and the heart and establishes a balance between reflexion and intuition.
The structural animation furthers the dematerialisation.
Overloading a colour by mixing light into it and integrating it into the structure so as to blot out the material.
Variation of rhythm in a succession of identical elements allows for a controlled mobility.
Animation is created through the succession of different rhythms.
Interdependence of the alternating rhythmic zones confirms the aesthetic structural unity.
Light is the frivolous sister of space and time. By playing in the traps of my reliefs, 'she' shows the diversity of her splendour.
Modulations should be concentrated in a determined zone, while respecting the unity of the succession.
Why talk of painting, sculpture, music, poetry? All of it is needed to create.
The Responsive Eye, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965
A pictorial, exclusively functional element of a helical form, creating a virtual motion and determining, through the specific nature of its structure, the changeability of the aspect of the work of which it is the main component.
Torsion = unity.
Leblanc: Torsions, Kunstverein, Freiburg, 1968
… Zones of light, zones of shadows
fields of action under perpetual tension.
The absence of any chromatic nuances within one field of action leaves the predominance to the modulation of the contrasting zones.
The theme of my work is purely the plastic force.
It corresponds to the methodical proceedings of a pre-established programme.
Grouped into sequences of logical or systematic successions, my work is about serial formation (the repetition of elements that are similar in nature).
My pictorial aim is not anecdotal, it manifests itself through changing power relations in a quest for balance between the subjective and the objective.
Walter Leblanc: Stringfields, Galerie Charles Kirwin, Brussels, 1977
My work is abstract, and therefore bears no relation to nature...
Constructed – which means that everything is consciously and deliberately applied to the canvas, that coincidences are eliminated and that the image on the canvas is composed of geometric forms or rectilinear figures.
Serial – which means that an element selected for the construction of a work is used several times in the same work.
And optical – which, in the terminology of art criticism, means that the work has to do with light and movement, with optical illusion. An optical illusion obtained because the eyes work faster than the brain, provoking illusory vibrations, reflections and movements.
Letter to Marie-Josée Jacobin, 9 May 1970, Walter Leblanc Archives
A Movement of the Mind
I want to know all the possibilities [of my investigation], I want to know everything that can be done, from A to Z. All the calculations, all the parameters, and in every kind of material, to see where the idea can take me. When it’s finished, it’s time to stop. […] The most important thing was the pleasure of having done it. […] The joy of creation is something you can’t explain.
The movement extends beyond the confines of the single painting… the movement is outside the canvas, it’s a movement of the mind. It’s not just seeing, now it’s a matter of seeing and understanding.
Walter Leblanc, transcription of a recording by Marie-Jeanne Stallaert, date unknown
Equilibrium between the rational and the irrational...
In my work, this form of rational reflection has always been coupled with the emotional character of my mode of expression, a feature owed in great part to my academic training.
This poetic aspect is extremely important to me, as it is what guarantees the equilibrium between the rational and the irrational that I have always sought.
Without this emotional charge, serial and programmed art would be reduced to no more than commonplace bookkeeping. But systematically programmed serial work is rather a source of creative riches, the work of art being finished only when the whole series of images representing its distinctive iconographic possibilities is complete.
Walter Leblanc, date unknown
By the notion of Art, I mean a human creative activity that is of the highest importance, for it reflects, in its different disciplines, the spiritual and aesthetic concerns of a number of gifted individuals whose works have a tangible effect on the evolution of thought, on states of mind, on behaviour.
For me, art is the differential collaboration of intellect, sensibility and talent, the conjunction of rigour and poetry, free expression reduced to the essential in the aesthetic intention.
Letter to Monika Bauer, 22 June 1981, Walter Leblanc Archives
By methodically bringing together the three primary forms: the triangle, the square and the circle, as well as their derivatives: the rectangle and the ellipse, new interpolated figures appear, formally carrying the same meaning as the intermediary hues in the world of colours.
They serve as catalysts between the juxtaposed contrasting elements, each possessing a specific autonomy.
In the series Archetypes, these transitory forms emerge through the primary figures themselves. The triangle, the square and the circle fragment one another to form a new conglomerate with its own expression, and able to manifest itself in a similar manner, both on the plane and in space.
Rapports Plan-Espace, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 1986