At first these new paintings by Markus Prachensky, their colllective title is Cinque Terre, looked certainly gestural. In that sense they conform to the method the artist has employed for decades now. But that was when they showed me photographs.
Cinque Terre, 2003
When some months later I saw the paintings in the real in the Viennese studio, it came to me (slowly, while looking and comparing) that the word gestural is shallow and somehow too common for what I was looking at. The word did not fit well; with these paintings in particular the word felt awkward. The notion of gesture, or slashing and whipping with broad and swift strokes the image together, is too close to the idea of craft to do these deeply thoughtful paintings any justice. Let me explain.
Over the years, mostly in Vienna, I have seen work by Prachensky – here and there, in galleries and exhibitions and sometimes in private homes. I liked them, but with a certain detachment and caution. Maybe now, after having leasurely seen the masterly Cinque Terre series, I begin to understand my previous hesitation. Some earlier paintings, late fifties and early sixties, had a certain rambling looseness in their, indeed, gestural morphology. The curving slashes of red paint looked slender. They drifted in the white expanse of the canvas somehow trying to support each other. There was courage, I think, in these paintings in which Prachensky seemed to take his leave from the denser and rougher and more hectic imagery of a previous style. I am not a particular connoisseur of his work but in what I saw in his painting then, around the year 1960, was actually an attempt maybe to get away from the impulsive emotion of the gestural – literally, I think, by making the image as sparse and stark as possible. The gestural brushstrokes looked like skeleton remnants of gestures. There was something unresolved in the paintings then. That possibly bothered me – even though one also sensed that Prachensky’s art, as it soon turned out, was strongly on the move.
For one like myself who observed things from some distance Prachensky was often seen in fairly close association with his colleagues Mikl and Hollegha (and, earlier on, Rainer as well). I have always wondered whether some form of mutual competition did play a part in the development of all three – as if they circled around each others like birds. What I want to suggest then (if I dare) is that the new robustness and the new broadness of brushstroke, also a stronger intensity of colour, as it began to make its way in Prachensky’s work , could well indicate a growing and more profound awareness of individual purpose and focus. Away from the group. From what I have seen, that conscious robustness still established itself only slowly in his art. Prachensky had to move, and did so, from gestural capricious brushwork to a more straightforward and controlled handling; and he got there gloriously by 1980 with the brilliant Etruria paintings. He was almost sixty years old by then – which is the age one either settles down in a routine or one reinvents onself; Prachensky became a new painter. Of course the old agility was still there and the brushwork was as forcefully abrupt as before – but there was now, also, a sense of slow introspection. By that I mean that, in my view, the paintings became less impulsive; and the new Cinque Terre paintings, as I saw them, struck me as the least impulsive of them all. Instead of the brushstrokes criss-cross interfering with each other, maybe hoping for the accidental miracle, they actually accompanied and followed and even hugged each other – to a point of tenderness. I believe that, in the recent paintings especially, Prachensky is guarding the movement and the pace of the brushstroke more closely then he did ever before.
That is why the word gestural, the boring catchword for his art, no longer fits. As the word became common in tachist art in the fifties (which is of course Prachensky’s background also) it implied an element of chance and the unexpected. But now Prachensky employs the gesture as a controlled method. It has been always his trusted manner of applying paint to canvas just as, for instance, Cézanne used small squarish brushstroke to construct a triangular mountain. By now, after so many years since he began his career, this method was no longer romantically defiant or even scandalous as it once was. Markus Prachensky now employs the gestural stroke with the exceptional deftness of a true master; and precisely then it attains a new refined subtlety wich is wonderful and exciting to see.
With the Cinque Terre paintings, so open and so intensely luminous with the glowing red image on the soft black ground, I feel an urgency to find out how such a painting was made and how it came together. I am convinced that Prachensky with an eagle’s eye watches his hand and brush make the first brushstroke. Even if the movement is fairly swift and decisive, he watches it from start to finish: the usual splashes of paint as the brush first hits the canvas and then the blurry ending. Then he might wait for a bit. He has always uses acrylic paint that can be diluted without loosing intensity of colour – and which dries quickly. So maybe he waits for the stroke to dry to prevent colours soiling each other. Take, for instance, the splendid and stately Cinque Terre XI. I think it was straightforwardly made from left to right. From the overlapping of the movements one can deduce with movement came first and second and so on. It is easy to see. But then, when I have satisfied my typical non-artist curiosity, and even begin to imagine that I have found some insight in the painter’s working method, I still understand nothing at all. Exactly that is why I love great art: for the sheer and bewildering mystery of it. What is even more reassuring is that Markus Prachensky has no idea either.
In am sure of that. In a catalogue I read that wherever he goes he carries a reproduction of Jan van Eyck’s Marriage of Arnolfini (1434) with him, possibly the most minutely detailed picture ever painted. There the couple stands in the room: everything is detail but at the same time the details are invisible. They are unbelievably absorped by the painting’s haunting monumentality. I believe that Markus Prachensky looks at the Van Eyck as he looks at his own paintings: in wonder and disbelief. Of course he remembered what he did with this or that brushstroke: what its pace and intensity was. His hands remember that as well. But there is no way, in the end, to know mysteriously why the black spaces in between the red brushstrokes would behave. Yet there is where art happens.