13.05.11 'The Great Process — Sam Messenger, the Grid and the Vortex' by Matthew Poirier

“In the great process, in the sum total of the outward being of all living things our work is insignificant, infinitesimal and insignificant. This must be realized.” Agnes Martin

How do you account for the wide-reaching influence of artists such as Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, François Morellet and Richard Wright amongst contemporary artists? This influence is all the more surprising when considered against the propensity for colourful, superficial and reassuring images that defines the relationship between art lover and artwork as a response to the pace and anxiety of modern life. Perhaps it is precisely because the restraint seen in their work sets them apart from the world of objects and images. Perhaps it is also because the unobtrusiveness of their making serves to intensify, through contrast, the aesthetic feeling they arouse in attentive viewers, in those who allow themselves to be caught up in these visual systems.

Sam Messenger (born 1980, London, where he lives and works) has been producing works on paper for several years now which appear to be pursuing this path towards perceptual abstraction , one which appears arid but is, in fact, so much more engaging than the horde of chatty, insignificant work frequently found on the walls of contemporary galleries. This somewhat unusual preoccupation with an experience on the fringes of drawing is founded in the artist’s solid training, first at Camberwell College of Art and then the Royal College of Art, where particular emphasis was given to graphic design, technical drawing and printing processes. It was at this time that his formal and chromatic vocabulary, similar to the informal language of Tachisme, became increasingly essentialist and abstract, the conciseness and precision of his tools proving crucial to his exploration of the dynamic bases of vision and perceptual forces. Interestingly, his works often take him weeks if not months to create, using a meticulous manual process that excludes all technical assistance other than a ruler and a compass. This fact, together with the size and slow pace of the task, immediately bring to mind the making of Buddhist mandalas – those geometric, symbolic representations of the universe intended to lift both their creators and viewers to higher meditative spheres to disconnect with the conscious state. As with Sol LeWitt, Messenger’s lines are drawn, often in their thousands, with the lightest, almost immaterial of touches. Nonetheless, the radiating, pulsating patterns created by numerous superimpositions endlessly belie the apparent flatness of the support. It is worth noting, in this regard, that target patterns are found alongside spiral patterns, evoking on the paper’s two-dimensional surface the silkscreened, immobile imagery of Marcel Duchamps’ hypnotic Rotoreliefs (1935). Similarly, in an unusual examination of the density of visual matter, the optical vibration of closely drawn lines not only forms a halo but, when linked with concentric forms, generates a swirling current, otherwise known as a vortex which, here, is neither liquid nor electrical, but entirely optical. As with traditional engraving – one naturally thinks of Albrecht Dürer – variations in the density of hatched lines make the space rounded or hollow by strengthening this palpitation, or flutter, inseparable from Duchamp’s Optics.

This focus on the sensory, temporal and processual, together with the exploration of an ambiguous space, begun by Piet Mondrian, creates a link between Messenger and Sol LeWitt as well as François Morellet, whose rigorous use of rulers and drawing pens he has revived. Messenger’s freehand work, however, minute and numerous, with its inevitable approximations, places him more in the camp of Richard Wright or Henri Michaux with the strictly-speaking seismographic line of the latter’s famous Dessins mescaliniens (Mescaline Drawings). Depending on the modalities used, Messenger’s drawing resembles a weaving or an interlaced design – a spider-like network permanently wavering between orthogonality (the grid) and circularity (the target), between order and chaos. While one immediately thinks of the translucent, vibrant grids of Francesco Di Savio’s Filtri (from 1959), some of Vija Celmins’ hyper-realist drawings also spring to mind, especially those in his recent series Veil (begun in 2002), where pale spiders’ webs emerge from charcoal-blackened backgrounds. Furthermore, like Celmins, Messenger works upon breaking down an image, albeit abstract, and its reconstitution, continually concerned to keep his distance with the subject – one that, paradoxically, is in inverse proportion to the degree of the artist’s physical involvement in this rigorous process. Thus, the motifs that he fragments and recomposes (like, for example, a target, the Union Jack or one of Bridget Riley’s multi-coloured canvases ), echo Celmins’ Moon Surface (Surveyor I) (1971-72), where the moonlike motif referred to, before being reproduced by hand, was in fact a composite photograph composed of several shots put together in a rough grid. This play on after-image and its dislocated echo is found, not surprisingly, in almost all the grids drawn by Messenger. Tipped up and superimposed, they bring out motifs that are as simple in concept (targets, disks etc.) as they are unearthly and almost ghostly in their phenomenal appearance. By forcing the viewer to constantly re-adjust his vision, these elements take up, in the unexpected form of a mesh of lines in complementary colours, the sfumato of Leonardo Da Vinci or Mark Rothko, or even the pointillist atmosphere of Georges Seurat. Incidentally, this aesthetic quality of perceptual floating, the trübe (or blurriness) formulated by Goethe, reveals Messenger’s heightened awareness of the variability of the real – nothing is stationary, the smallest particle or star in the sky being in constant motion.

Messenger’s oeuvre forms part of a long line, begun by the Impressionists, upheld by advocates of the psychology of perception (from K. Koffka to M. Merleau-Ponty), and developed by the avant-garde of historic abstraction, then by the supporters of Op and Kinetic Art. Both analytic (bringing to light the structural skeleton of form) and hypnotic (capturing and holding the viewer’s attention), Sam Messenger’s work provides an unusual interpretation or original incarnation of this particular understanding of the real. If, under the misleading guise of a simple drawing on paper, a reassuring grid, Messenger’s thoroughly subverted perspectives lead the eye, it is in order to let it wander in their non-Euclidean spaces, engulfing it in their vortices.

About the Author

Matthieu Poirier is an art critic and curator. He teaches History of Contemporary Art at the Sorbonne University in Paris.


1. Martin, Agnes, “The Still and Silent in Art” [1974], Writings, edited by Dieter Schwarz, exh. cat. Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1991, p. 89.

2. The expression “perceptual abstraction”, initially coined in reference to optic and kinetic works of art, was first used by William Seitz in the catalogue to his exhibition “The Responsive Eye” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

3. “The drawing is done rather lightly, using hard graphite so that the lines become, as far as possible, a part of the wall surface, visually.” (Sol LeWitt, “Wall Drawings”, Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yale University Press, no date [1999], p. 375.)

4. Krauss, Rosalind, The Optical Unconscious, MIT Press, 1994.

5. Through a process of mise-en-abyme, Messenger also reproduces, freehand and in great detail, these rulers, industrial objects and tools which serve, precisely, to counter the imprecision of the hand-drawn line.

6. From his British counterpart, Messenger also adopted the desire to confine the visual experience to the two-dimensional nature of the plane, refusing to exploit real movement or three-dimensionality.

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