Early paintings.

Joost Meuwissen

Translated from Dutch by Peter Mason.

To rise above specificity, not in order to attain generality but for the sake of universal simplicity, without place or connection, demands abstraction in the figures rather than from them. There is a wild abstraction in nature, a universal reticence, a sublime unrecognizability in inner countability, which is painted by Marian Plug from the outset as frontality. Every object, every genre is still life, not a nature morte but a nature muette where the objects are present in number1. Scarcity is a link to be broken. Then plurality becomes a complicated extension of something simple, a concatenation, not a fabric, nor a structure or composition imposed from outside. There is depth, but no matter how much it may be arranged, it is the depth of the object, hardly – if at all – the depth of the gaze2. There is scrutiny without penetration, without the formation of concepts, without natural science. What is already understood, the tragically familiar, the figure, is stripped of its concept, like the 1948 Cologne vase in which the 1 Untitled (Primulas) stand – or rather, above which they seem to be floating. The absence of this ’stand’ is no compositional defect. The composition is simply a central one because the cluster of flowers on vase does not require any further organic significance. The vase is already familiar, but not the flowers. The vase is there for many flowers, but the flowers are only in the vase once.

1 Untitled (Primulas), 1948. Oil on cardboard, 17 x 23 cm.

The Cologne vase is a transparent grey, more transparent than the background; it is cut off by the lower edge of the cardboard as if barely allowed to take part; it is repressed as an object; it is reduced to a repoussoir – but none of all this plays a part in the liberation of the flowers. From the outset, the relation between vase and flowers is not painted. Once it has been made self-sufficient, the vase becomes a frame, resting on the frame of the painting. The vase is not represented as form, but as a collar for the painted flowers. The vase does not stand for the vase, nor the neutral background of the painting, but rather the miniature quality of the painting as interior, as an extension which is not determined from outside but only from the inside, as an absolute scale. Detached from their vase, freed from the force of gravity, emerging like a head from a collar, the primulas of 1 Untitled (Primulas) assume the form of a compact, almost circular volume which only fails to present a globular contrast to the neutral background because it is flattened out by a virtual surface of two intersecting, green lines of leaves. One of these – the leaves which most look like leaves – starts on the lower left-hand side, hanging on the rim of the Cologne vase (which in turn rests on the edge of the painting), rises toward the centre, then bends regularly toward a deep cavity in the upper right-hand corner of the floral surface. The other, starting from a different leaf in the upper left-hand corner, moves toward the lower right-hand corner, where the green forms a ground for the flowers by fanning out to the first leaf and the beginning of the first line, and even falling further downward along the right-hand contour of the Cologne vase. The first line curves as a line, the second fans out to a surface, to extension, but only within the clutches of the bouquet. The lines do not develop from their centre, but from the two green leaves. In its virtual continuation beyond the bouquet, the first delineates its contour and its place within the painting; the second is scattered in the inchoate leaf in the lower right-hand corner, where it fans out to form a ground to the bouquet. The first disappears in the background as exterior, the second disappears in the ground as interior. The green ground does not assume form in the two green leaves from which the lines emerge. These leaves are painted purely as a modelled surface and are not disrupted by the appearance of the green as a ground. But in the centre, the point of intersection, it is as if the ground comes directly to the surface; it rises to disturb the lines in a floral, hollow form, like a kind of ghost flower around which and out of which the flowers can blossom, unhindered by our gaze.

What is disrupted by the emergence of the ground is the diagonals. They are virtual, half-hidden lines, not clear-cut ones. At the same time, they are not compositional lines, but lines which flatten out a part of the painting – the volume of the bouquet – in order to lose themselves in it. In the composition they appear as a diagonal deviation or differential from the equally latent vertical and horizontal symmetrical axes of the cardboard, albeit shifted slightly to the right. The lines are only able to flatten out the volume that they transect because the diagonals intersect just as the symmetrical axes do: with reference to the surface of the cardboard, not to the painted background to the bouquet, nor to the ground of the bouquet itself. It is precisely at the point of their intersection, that of their geometrical determination of the moment of greatest inflection, that the diagonals are disrupted to form a ghost of a flower, a spatial form, but hollow instead of rounded, like a negative moulding – in architectural terms, an ornament. The appearance of the green hollow, a kind of navel in the bouquet, does not disturb the flatness created by the lines, but it destroys the lines at the point of their greatest compositional force, at the point where they are most in danger of forming a composition. What this ghostly navel destroys is not the flatness but the determination of this flatness by the intersection of the diagonals in its analogy with the symmetries of the cardboard. In turn, then, the hollow loses itself in the bouquet too. Both the diagonals and the spectral flower note the centre of the canvas as if everything was central. But at the same time they hide themselves, disguised by the surroundings which they themselves disrupt, like a spy, as pure, unadulterated intensive frontality, like a spider’s web to which you are stuck, without extension and without extendibility. It is not the image of the painting as a whole which is disrupted, only the image’s extension and extendibility. Because we know the relation between things and their components, there is no need for that relation to be made obvious, while the difficulty remains that of avoiding such a representation.

The diagonals do not relate the ´Primulas´ to one another; they separate them from one another, from the vase and from the ground. The diagonals are not the essence of the composition, for they make such an essence redundant. They do not mark an abstract portrayal of the bouquet, but they merely catalogue the flowers in number. Like the ghostly flower in the centre, which forms an obscure but determined intersection of the lines, the lines in themselves and in the four quadrants into which they divide the bouquet mark the flowers as clear but indeterminate number. Here too, in the differentiation of number, the diagonals play a decisive part. The three upper quadrants are mainly filled with red flowers, painted in gradual but uncontrived minimal gradations from the frontal blooms in the centre to the blooms in profile on the sides of the bouquet. However, on those sides, the hearts still try to look forwards, peering around the other flowers, which creates a certain rigidity in the floral bouquet. This architectural rigidity derives from a distaste for profile or silhouette in general – a tendency which is still cultivated in the later work – in favour of a frontal view, even of the contours of a figure. The lower quadrant, on the other hand, is occupied by a number of flowers of different colours. They are almost countable, ten or so. Here the leaning forward of the bouquet is only realized by individual flowers against a flat ground. Finally, the diagonal which runs from the upper left to the lower right and which disappears in the ground of the bouquet bears two large, frontal, white flowers; one is half-hidden behind the other, which is fully visible. The other diagonal, which runs more or less vertically and is dissolved in the background of the painting, ends in the upper right near the deepest recess in the silhouette of the bouquet with two or so yellow flowers in profile. They are at the same level as the two white flowers on the other line, creating a relation of symmetry. Instead of an arithmetical depiction of a number of flowers, there is an almost concealed arithmetical construction of their number, sustained by the elements of the painting: the lines, the ground and the disruption of the lines by the ground, a decimal and digital series which runs from the absence of the number one, in the spectral flower in the centre, to a presence of two, which appears twice borne by the two lines, in a symmetry of appearing and disappearing, once frontally in the white flowers to the left, once laterally in the yellow flowers to the right, once appearing in the bouquet, once disappearing into its border, to a series of ten, floating on the green ground below. The latter offers no pretext for the partly frontal, partly lateral position which the flowers take up in an assumed autonomy, in a certain freedom, independent of their belonging to a bouquet, and thus independent of their number. The series ends in a number above ten in the remaining quadrants. Rather, it ends in a decimalised two, a ten-plus-one, in the sense that two and eleven are both versions of one-plus-one. Here the flowers almost imperceptibly follow the invisible movement of the ground of the bouquet from frontal to lateral. Their stasis is at its most in this movement, since the flowers move but not their hearts. It is as if the last formed an integral of the formula of the bouquet as a number.

The number of the flowers is a formula, but this formula is in turn the image of the bouquet. The number is not composed as an image, nor is it overdetermined by the composition, such as through mere grouping of identical flowers. Neither image nor identity, the number is a singular and underdetermined combination of different series. It is like a chance result, in this case of colour, of position vis-à-vis the diagonals, of laterality and frontality, of flower and heart and decimal counting. The number one is ruled out because it is not a combination of series. The ghostly flower, the centre, the green, are pure destruction. But the number two opens up a virtually inexhaustible proliferation of duplications, a multiplicity of pairs as bisection or division, as a product of the diagonals and symmetries with and without axis. Only the colour red and decimals are still absent. On the upper left-hand side, one white primula is half hidden behind the other: the first is halved by the second, in a symmetry without an axis. The diagonal marks not the middle but the proximity or distance of reflector and reflected as a continuum without a beginning, as a double reflection, a reflection in a reflection, one with two mirrors where you stand in your own way, so that not the centre of the figure, but only a side, as a kind of echo, contour or profile, is reflected, though still frontally. This takes place within the upper left-hand part of the bouquet, as if the determination of the edges and sides was primarily an internal affair. On the upper right-hand side, the two yellow primulas are reflected in profile vis-à-vis their diagonal as a symmetrical axis but at the point where this has disappeared in the recess in the bouquet in the blue background of the painting, an endless continuum, an unfathomable, silent depth3. In this respect, in the case of the two yellow primulas the edge is not determined externally, but it is incorporated in the bouquet as the symmetrical axis of the flowers on its border. Here too, it is determined by the centre, though not a centre within the bouquet, but the centre of the whole painting in so far as the vertical diagonal is a differential of the vertical symmetrical axis of the cardboard. The two symmetries, viz. those of the white and of the yellow primulas, flank this vertical symmetrical axis. Moreover, each of these two symmetries is itself divided into two symmetrical, neutral, non-reflecting halves: in the appearance of the two right-hand flowers, the large white one and the shaped yellow one, caught up in an opposition between frontality and laterality; and in the two left-hand flowers, though this time in a halved form, a half eclipse, in which the opposition is reversed, since this time it is the half white primula on the left which becomes form while the second yellow primula becomes a formless patch of colour. Within this double duplication, the specular symmetry of the centre of the painting is restored through the polygonal form of the two central flowers and the lobed character of the two outside ones. All the same, left and right, the two sides of the ‘two’, the direction in which symmetry can arise as a sort of genesis, are themselves essentially asymmetrical in so far as the two yellow primulas reflect one another vis-à-vis the steep diagonal as differentiation of the vertical axis of symmetry, while the two white flowers move on the gently sloping diagonal as a deviation from the horizontal axis of symmetry of the cardboard, like a horizon which is entirely absent from the painting as a whole because it is absorbed by the bouquet as its gradient, its surface. Similarly, the horizontal diagonal fans out to a surface like a tablecloth, while the vertical diagonal retains its linearity like a reed in the wind.

The number two is a number in the making, but what is made is the number, not what it numbers. Counting results in a number, not necessarily in flowers. If the flowers are present as a number, then they form the genesis of this number, its formula. At first sight, one might suppose for convenience’s sake that, as regards the two large primulas on the upper left-hand side, seen from a westerly point of view, following the invitation of the slope and moreover the direction of the horizontal diagonal, the rear half comes first, as a step toward the second, which rolls out of it to appear fully. This way of seeing resembles that of the comic, or what John Berger, referring to futurist painting, once called “animated naturalism”4, in which speed (here development) is suggested by a background of echoes or series of contours. Seen in this light, the flower is taken to be moving in the direction of full bloom from its contour, its figure, its form or Gestalt, as a mental image, instead of the other way around, where its starting point is in the middle. Not just the left-handedness of the artist, but the entire disposition of symmetries, makes it reasonable to suppose that the flower is only cut in two in its duplication, in so far as a flower is the half of two flowers and the second flower represents the first as its half. Similarly, in the other series, that of the yellow primulas on the upper right-hand side, the second flower, being a flower consisting of two flowers, no longer has any form, or at least it no longer has the form of a flower and there is a likelihood that it may be taken for something else. To prevent this possibility and to ensure that the first flower is represented as a flower, the second represents the first as formless, it represents the first as its background. The flowers borrow a logic of numbers which eludes arithmetic. For the flowers, counting is a transcendental condition. It is not that counting is a reductive process of loss of image and identity, or that the flowers are spent in becoming number; the decisive factor is that they can develop in entirely different ways in the abstraction of their number. For instance, the second white primula in the upper left requires the shadow of the first to prevent its own white colour from blending with that of the other to form a single, large and formless white area with two hearts – a disturbing Siamese twin of a flower which would put an end to counting. But with this shadow, a modelling has entered the bouquet, which is otherwise hardly in shadow at all. This means that the second flower is always more form than the first, which appears purely as frontal Gestalt. This greater degree of form is not necessarily more naturalistic or expressive, as if it were a question of making half a flower look like a whole one by continuing to refer to the iconic Gestalt of the first flower. Once it has been modelled, the second flower can simply take on any form, even a form which does not resemble a flower or which no longer refers to a flower. The same process, but in a completely different direction, is followed by the two yellow primulas in the upper right. The second flower appears as a formless, directionless yellow surface which seems to match up immediately to the formless and directionless background, the blue depth of the painting.

But the space between flower and background is divided by a shadow; it is as if the two luminaries – the unfathomable and almost colourless blue of the background and the striking colour of the formless yellow flower – could not agree on whose contour was to separate them: the yellow flower in its attempt to become pure ground, or the blue background striving for form at this gap in the bouquet. The absent dividing line, the contour of “forbidden black”5, is half erased in the blue background, half broken by the joint effort of this background and by the ground-like flower. One part clings to the yellow flower, the other, its half, hangs beside it. This flower too has shadow, but this time it is not internal, within the flower, as in the case of the white primula on the left, but next to it. If the second yellow flower represents the first as if it were an illustration of the first as background to the second, then the shadow which the first flower casts over the second is a shadow which is cast by a background on a representation of that same background. The shadow is not cast over the second flower as it appears in its formless and directionless longing to be ground, in its longing for representation, but only as a representation of the first in so far as the second flower, including the shadows which cling to it, has the lobed form of the first. Although the second flower is more abstract, formless and directionless in appearance, it is more complex than the first flower, which only appears in profile. The complexity of the repetition lies in the fact that symmetrical duplication, as in a mirror, includes the background of the reflected object in its reflection at the same time. The result is that the shadow which the reflected object itself casts over the mirror image does not fall anywhere, neither over the bouquet nor over the background. It does not lose itself in the blue depths, but remains suspended somewhere as unsuspected form. The shadows are about to fall over something. In a situation of free fall, they could assume any form, but this is still a possibility. For the time being they cling to the yellow, abstract flower like drops of dew, one underneath, the other on the side. There is an essential passivity in the bat-like way the shadows hang. A hypothetical third shadow, a shadow on the upper surface, would not hang but simply lie. It would not be about to fall, it would not be on the way to its form, but as an indeterminate appearance it would be form from the very first, as in the modelled white half-primula on the left, but then as modelling without a model, as form without flower, as pure abstraction. The absence of such a third shadow is not due to a reluctance to abstract, but it is probably connected with the fact that there is no room for a third element in the proliferation and regression of pairs. ‘Three’ is formulated in a different way.

It is characteristic of counting that each number is lost in what is counted as if it were one of its attributes. Each number is understood as a self-contained formula, as finiteness and accomplishment. Each number is a perfection which offers what is counted an inexhaustible range of possibilities of form or non-form (the latter understood as the depth of a form)6. Counting comes to an end, but during the act of counting unsuspected infinities arise. ‘Two’ was the number of reflection and symmetry, of differentiation and integration. ‘Three’ is series, and that is the way it looks. ‘Three’ is the pure appearance of a number as series. It appears as thrice three, as both three series and as a series of three, as three series of three, indifferently lying on the green ground of the lower quadrant. It is as if the nine flowers took little interest in the ground of the quadrant because as a series they will develop an unfathomable depth and ground of their own in the form of their decimal character. ‘One’ is the green-black spectral flower in the middle of the bouquet. ‘Two’ is the duplications of white and yellow. ‘Three’ commences, this time from a westerly direction, with a series of three almost identical red primulas on the left. They follow the vertical axis of symmetry of the cardboard, arranged in a group of 1+2, a pair diagonally grouped above an independent red flower; pair and flower are connected by a thin, salmon-pink patch of colour that surrounds the other side of the flower as an aura. The second series, in the centre, has the colours associated with the number two – white and yellow –, but in mirror image in terms of the appearance of the pairs of yellow and white flowers in the upper part of the bouquet. The large Gestalt flower in the middle with its modelled bisection above it is now yellow, while the flowers on the lower edge are white. At first sight it is as if the latter are depicted frontally, but the centre of the formed white flower is green, as if the stalk poked through, as if the stalk were visible, in place of an orange heart. It is emblematically lateral, or at any rate less frontal than the large yellow Gestalt flower above it, whose frontal appearance is reinforced by a radial pattern in the same green colour. As a result of the white blob of the ambiguous fourth flower right at the bottom, this second trio seems to waver between ‘three’ and ‘four’. A second series of three is always more than three, but because it is unclear what effect a pair will have in the proliferation of threes, it is not certain – nor is it important – whether the number here is four, six or seven. Finally, to turn to the third series of three, on the far right, it consists of three colours: yellow, white and red. It consists of at least four flowers, which iterate the two previous series of three in their free form. Above we see a merging of roughly two yellow flowers with the white blob: in the third series, the second series disintegrates to become a formless, abstract conglomerate. Below, diagonally from above to below, come the frontally depicted but laterally conceived white flower with a green heart, an entirely formless red area, and a yellow flower whose surface and ground completely coincide. While the red flowers in the first series of three could still be counted in the painting, the situation in the third series of three is different: white and yellow are still reasonably countable, but red is not. Even if it only contained a single red flower, the formula for counting it would be at least ten, at least its reprise as decimal, as multiplicity. Secure in this knowledge, the red flowers free themselves from their series and its literal iterability as a second series, from the serial abacus in which they are framed, from the constriction of the lateral/frontal opposition which dissolves in the white flower with the green heart, and from the constriction of the form/ground opposition which dissolves in the last yellow flower. From here the red primulas spread out over the bouquet without centres or edges, without surface or depth, without symmetry or series, as the complicated extension of something simple.

What is important here is not the fact that 1 Untitled (Primulas) is an early work, tackling the drawing problems faced by eleven-year old children: where the representation of a meadow stops being the representation of blades of grass and where the meadow commences as area in the distance – Leibniz’s question at the water-mill or at the sound of the sea: do I hear the drops of water or the current? What is important is how Marian Plug responds to that question. Nowhere does she treat it as a problem of composition. She sees it purely as a problem of disposition or exposition, not in a logical but in a lateral way. In terms of composition, the question hardly arises in dealing with a floral bouquet. The early choice of painting, or at least of the visual arts, is connected with an ability to tackle a problem at the moment that it does not require representation. In a certain sense it is connected with the ability to think one painting in another, with the propulsion and desire for a continuous oeuvre in the visual arts as a whole. But this motive, as the artist herself would call it, has a special mode of operation in the works. Each painting is always more than one painting. In 1 Untitled (Primulas), it is by means of the two central lines, lines of force or diagonals, that the bouquet develops a background of its own from within its own centre. It is like a composition twice removed, or at any rate one not directly featuring in the painting as a composition once removed. The diagonals play a crucial role in the multiplication of the painting.

Both the angularity of the painting and the piling up of the flowers on the vase are deprived of their static, symmetrical character by the diagonals. The sheer central line, the dynamic axis of symmetry, fixes the centre of the painting to its upper side instead of to its lower side, thereby further disrupting the symmetry of the Cologne vase, which is placed slightly right of centre7. The only elements which appear to be symmetrical in their own right are the main ones: the polygonal flowers themselves, and both of the two-sided, fully formed green leaves with their central artery from which the diagonals begin. The two-sided symmetry of the green leaves with their central artery and sides reinforces the lines which emerge from them to form symmetrical, triple lines, consisting of the central line plus its two sides. The lines are thus determined materially instead of geometrically, or at least, as geometrical bodies instead of geometrical abstractions. It is not the lines which are abstract, but what they represent. But as material presence, they are also asymmetrical by definition. Their sides, their left and right, will not be the same. There is a dynamic or development, not so much in the length of the line as in its breadth, in the various stages from its left-hand side to its thickness, its épaisseur, and from that to its right-hand side. This development defines the line internally without the place of this development on the line being determined. At every point you are at the middle of the line. The curve of one of them and the fanning out of the other are thereby not determined externally, not from the composition or from the intersection of the two lines, but from their centre: in each case, it is as if each line’s own character is a development of its thickness in a simple and unambiguous way, one curving, the other fanning out. The line which proceeds from the central artery determines the composition in terms of lines and points. The lines proceeding from the right-hand side of the first leaf and from the underside of the second leaf determine the green as the ground. The line on the left-hand side of the lower leaf and the upper surface of the upper leaf only marks the leaf. In this respect, the tripling of the diagonals to underscore their presence is a case of overdetermination in the composition, but it is not so by virtue of signification. It divides form and content. It separates green of the leaves, which is always formed, from the green of the ground of the bouquet, which is always unformed. To put it another way, the central line of the triple diagonals, the arterial line, the growth line of the two green leaves, in so far as it is diagonal and purely compositional form, could be regarded as separatrix, as line of demarcation, instead of as a connecting line, as a diagonal in general is a line of demarcation rather than a connecting line. The sheer diagonal which alters the symmetry of the theme shifts it and indicates a new, non-naturalistic symmetry at the upper edge of the painting. This is an ideal symmetry: the painting does not stand in it, but it hangs from it. Or rather, the entire force of gravity is externalised, removed from the canvas and transferred to the point where the painting is hung. This, the most external point of the painting, a point that is even placed outside the frame, is the hook from which it hangs and which has remained clearly visible as a triangular form. It can also be seen as a return of the two diagonals, but this time outside the cardboard and even outside the frame. It is the uppermost level which appears geometrically but is never perceived as such, for it is not intended to be perceived. It is pure geometry as a removal of all geometry from both the interior and the exterior of the painting. It scores a symmetry where left and right are divided instead of joined, a symmetry which does not reflect but distinguishes. Essentially, it distinguishes the perceived from its perception. Thus the masterly quality of this floral portrait lies in the fact that each element is unambiguously determined – we could say underdetermined, ‘as’ in nature – and nowhere overdetermined. It eludes every attempt to confer significance on it.

As a formula, it leaves little to be desired in the way of clarity. Since you know that the flowers are standing in the vase, there is no need to depict the fact that they are standing. Since you know that the painting is hanging on the wall, there is no need to depict the hanging. An initial abstraction applies to the relations, the structure of a figure, not the compositional elements themselves. Such an abstraction is feeble and unformed, or at least, it is not understood and formed conventionally and a priori. Forty-four years later, the same formula is still explicitly followed, in the explanatory comments on the wood of firs beside the mountain wall in 202 Stream V.

202 Stream V, 1992. Oil on canvas, 170 x 180 cm. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Since we know that a tree has a trunk, it is better for a tree which is to be a tree and which is to extend to a wood to be painted without a trunk8. Or, in reverse, in the series ‘Palms’ from 1989 and 1990, only trunks are present, with barely any leafage, if at all. The appeal is not to an elementary quality of the things from which the figures originate as a mental image of a vase with flowers or a tree with roots, a trunk and a top. Not the resulting figure, but only the fact of the relation, is what is taken as read. The elements are not a pars pro toto. Their relation is certainly one of metonym and juxtaposition, even though in a vertical direction. It is as if the figure has different levels where different events take place, but only because the knowledge of their coherence does not require the further stage of being encapsulated in a form. It is like a New York skyscraper: the activities on the different floors have little connection with one another, but, in accordance with an unbending logic, the lift knows it all without having to understand or imagine, so that the forms, things or activities escape from their coherence, resulting in new, unnatural combinations9. It is a thwarting of comprehension in favour of a quasi-innate, quasi-instinctive knowledge, however conventional it may be, which can make do without mental images because, in a certain sense, it only needs to exhaust itself in activity, as the foundation of a self-sufficient thinking with, or rather in, the things, as their line of escape. “Abstraction” is the “thinking” part of a “figuration”10. But detached from such twentieth-century, ill-fitting categories – Marian Plug’s work could also be seen in terms of special engagement and general seduction11 – the question remains as to how representation as something universal gives direction to the represented in its simple becoming and in its continuing self-sufficiency. Accumulation leads not only to congestion, contamination, density, crowding, a sense of constriction which will increasingly impinge on the “space” of the paintings12, but once accumulated and divorced from their organic coherence, the things may develop their existing combination in the direction of something surprising. In a vase, it is not only possible to throw flowers together more closely than in nature, but the combinations of flower and leaf can also be made more unnatural and unique, without parallel. There is a second abstraction where the things, detached from their natural concatenation and therefore in search of an extension or superficiality of their own, make use of their internal differentiation – that of flower and leaf, of leaf and twig, of upper and lower part of a tree trunk, or of left and right – without implying a natural space. In a certain sense, they thereby attain an inner depth of their own, not as a relief in a natural space, but as a sort of unfathomability from which they will be able to extend. In this respect, an analysis of the interior of a bouquet, trunk or leafage will not be seen as distinguishing between one element and another, but as an inner affinity, almost as mutual mimicry, as sharing the same destiny, more or less as people even in evening dress eventually come to resemble their dog. Perhaps natural themes are so suitable because, once detached from their natural and natural historical setting, their taxonomy, their chemistry and their niche, they still do not tend to become anything else – one might say, because they are already the other. The 1991 painting 195 Divergent wood labels the basic divergence in nature.

195 Divergent wood, 1991. Oil on canvas, 170 x 160 cm. Centraal Beheer, Apeldoorn.

In this respect, there is little need for a ‘modern’ geometrical language of forms. Geometry is always only a part of a line. There is the dynamic of the line in its length, its curve or its differential which still contains a unique determination. And there is the stasis of the line in its width or thickness, its cross-section or integral which embeds it as a fold of its surroundings in those very surroundings, but always asymmetrically. There is the abstraction of a geometrical element as a geometrical phenomenon, but it still has both extension and intensity. If geometry is displayed as a pure geometrical element, however, frontally as ‘abstract’ square or sideways as ‘abstract’ triangle, then Marian Plug will almost always render it as a mode of representation of that which resembles it: architecture, but as a closed form, as

68 Left by the sun, 1965. Oil on canvas, 55 x 65 cm. Private collection.

a house, as the moment at which inside and outside no longer interpenetrate, whereby the interior of architecture marks “thinking”13. This is also where the difference lies from the conventional, ‘theosophical’ abstraction of modern art. At first sight, the latter does not appear to distinguish very clearly between geometrical appearance and the appearance of geometry itself. Furthermore, it strove to absorb the unfamiliar within its system of forms in accordance with a dynamic procedure which already incorporated the other as its opposite in the determination of an identity. Whether in the hands of Mondrian, Kandinsky or Klee, conventional abstraction was always dialectical. The reduction of every concept to an unformulated knowledge had only its own system as its objective in which the ‘other’ was generated as the negative so that universality could be realised through generality. A ‘modern’, schematic and often geometrical language of forms made every concept abstract, in terms of generality and without negating it in itself, or rather, through negating it by means of the ‘other’. Thus abstraction was made comprehensible as a language, not as a word – as a system, not as a form. There is unchanging content, which records that it is a matter of art, but in the forms there is an endless series of expressive potentialities which record that it is created in freedom. The expressive potentialities are at the same time possible ways of escaping from abstraction as a concept. In this respect, there was little difference between what Alfred Barr had called geometrical abstraction before World War II, and the abstract expressionism as dominant style during the period of Reconstruction and the Cold War in which Marian Plug began painting14. The abstract linguistic system could remain an unformed reference, an underlying structure, a virtuality or idea. As a system, language could remain unformed while still maintaining abstraction.

The virtualisation or realisation of such an abstraction, the utilisation of its fluidity as a distinction which remains obscure, as a breaking up of relations without the emergence of a new structure, as a striving for underdetermination, as a knowledge that is addressed as knowledge and not necessarily for the coherence which it is required to display in order to be knowledge – this could have originated in the Netherlands from a certain persistence of the De Stijl thinking within a provincial culture, the theosophical side of abstraction, but even more by regarding it as underlying composition. Marian Plug was a student in the Rijksnormaalschool from 1955 to 1961, in that airy, neo-Gothic building by the architect Cuypers in the garden of his Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, opposite the swimming bath, a setting which was certainly impregnated with art and its history. It was here, in the philosophy of art, that Mark Kolthoff required his students to abstract a still life to a few lines, to a pattern that in a certain sense could already work as a narrative composition without any further ado. It is the temptation of the constructivist tradition where the abstract elements all bear identity through their mutual determination. Mark Kolthoff’s own work reveals the direct aesthetic value of such compositional abstraction.

Mark Kolthoff, Composition, about 1948. Oil on wood, 26,3 x 35,5 cm. Marian Plug, Amsterdam.

The flowing, stylised figures, sometimes drop-shaped, always in motion but clearly defined, are present in their own quantity, as a dose, perhaps as latent volume15. There is a small but fine distinction between such a Kandinsky-like representation in quantity, in volume or mass, and the presence in number which Marian Plug explores16. The quantity of an element which already bears significance can be visualised simply as a geometrical determination. But an element that bears no signification, and that belongs to a composition which avoids signifying in order to be disposition rather than composition, can only be counted, as it were, and not weighed. It is the presence which counts, not the relations. Number is a presence, or rather a ‘present-ness’, not a relation. There is a third abstraction, that of presence in number.

In this respect one can understand why Marian Plug was a friend of Mark Kolthoff until his death in 1992, but had little affinity with the classes in oil painting composition given to the more advanced students by Jan van Tongeren. It was not out of anti-academism. Unlike most students since 1800, who, as fellow student Evert van Uitert later put it, “only attended the academy in order to be able to rebel against it later”16, her difficulty was the opposite: she learnt too little there. It was too much of an “amusement arcade”17. The seventeen still lifes from this course are all without exception thick and greasy, painted with almost dispassionate brush-strokes. She could not do much with Van Tongeren’s arrangements, which in a certain sense were overcomposed, there were too many species and different kinds – ‘bottle’, ‘flower’, ‘apple’. There was too much relation, and the elements coincided too closely with their significance. They were as dead as architecture. The whole offered too little, and the content that it did offer was always the same. It left her with a chronic allergy for the genre, including a deep aversion to the works of Giorgio Morandi. Reacting to one of Van Tongeren’s settings,

Still life with magnolia, wine bottle, two apples and books, 1958, from 10-26 17 still lifes, 1958-1960. Oil on cardboard, 60 x 70 cm.

a still life with a magnolia sadly shedding its blossom, a bottle, two apples and books or tiles (if they are books, they are painted like stone), she deliberately makes a different arrangement at home which has more to offer: seven water lilies in a washing up bowl on a light grey piece of material draped over a black-purple table leaf against a brown-grey background. In view of the year 1958, 27 Water lilies must have been a relatively early settling of accounts with Van Tongeren’s classes. The painting is unfinished. Once the flowers had been painted, there was no point in finishing it off18. The piece of material, table leaf and background are only sketched. Apart from the classes which drag on for a number of years, this is her last (floral) still life.

27 Water lilies.

Van Tongeren’s single, dying magnolia, on a dark bowl with a pedestal, is like a raised bier, surrounded by a sort of architectural space in miniature, a funeral chapel determined by pure volumes: bottle, apples, and books like gravestones. The objects are grouped in a different arrangement to the domestic one, and their number, roughly seven, is a sacred number. Marian Plug replaces this with seven water lilies, a number which can be recognized at a glance. They determine their own space, independently of the natural space and of the space of the painting, with a flower which can be both volume (above) and cavity (below), without dying, without Mondrian-like symbolism.

27 Water lilies, 1958. Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm.

With its sloping diagonals, restless centre (darker than the table leaf, which is darker still but smoother), the ´gap´ in the black in the upper right and the numerical presentation of the opulent flowers, the composition betrays a striking resemblance to 1 Untitled (Primulas) from ten years earlier. However, it is much less rigid. There is less lateral juxtaposition and more suppleness and flexibility in the determinations. The number seven is formulated in precisely the same way as the number infinity or more than forty in 1 Untitled (Primulas), but the starting point is now a recognizable number. It is a Kolthoff-like quantity in volume which appears as the fundamental composition but which is successively fragmented in the actual construction of the number to become plurality, as the inner disposition of a simplicity which extends. 27 Water lilies could be formulated as: from quantity to plurality. Overdetermined quantity is abstracted to indeterminate number, which will break down in the course of the counting. In this way the determinate number becomes underdetermined plurality.

While the Primulas moved from indeterminate to underdetermined plurality, the Water lilies, on the other hand, are transformed from determinate to underdetermined plurality. The difference is that, on the one hand, an indeterminate quantity itself can be regarded as a ground, without structure or texture, a ground that time and again interferes with the coming into being of the number. It does so by disturbing the appearance of the flowers, changing their duplications into bisections, squaring their series as if the ground as unfathomable depth were the exponential intensity of each number. On the other hand, a determinate quantity which remains recognizable as determination, if it were to be regarded as a ground, would have too much structure or texture and would therefore require another ground than itself for the formulation of its coming into being as number, or at any rate, must activate both its own ground and the surrounding background to that end. As in the other works, it is not the modelling of the lilies as a figure in a natural space, which is at stake in the Water lilies, but their autonomy on the basis of the modulation of their number, achieved in this case by a variety of means, including an eddying flow of backgrounds.

In the Primulas the light-blue background behind the bouquet could be neutral because an indeterminate quantity can simply appear frontally in its indeterminacy. The same applies to the series of portraits in 1966, where against an equally light or light-blue background other, more latent activities take place in the heads than in the jackets and waistcoats. The number of ideas in the heads is indeterminate; the portrait is in search of their number.

90 Portrait of August Willemsen, 1966. Oil on canvas, 80 x 65 cm. Loan Museum of Literature, the Hague.

Perhaps this is why these portraits proved intolerable to the subjects at the time, because the coherence, and hereby the resemblance, was not the result of empathy, communication or the life-giving gaze of the artist, but in a certain sense was itself conceived by the portrait heads. It would be wrong to ascribe the even more striking resemblance twenty-­five years later to psychological insight. The intense empirical gaze of the painter registered the extent to which the portrait heads saw themselves as individuals. The tortured expression is not existential, as in Chaim Soutine, but moral in nature. This applies not only to ideas in a portrait head, but to flowers and everything else. In a certain sense, ‘Primulas’ was already conceived as a portrait of this kind, but ‘Water lilies’ is a more complicated composition. A quantity which has been determined once and for all beforehand cannot simply be represented against such a neutral background without running the risk of being overdetermined.

It must rise from the depths already modelled, it must bear its ground with it in order to modulate the number from that position. That is why the background is already modelled before the ground of the flowers itself can modulate the flowers in its modelling activity. The modelling of the flowers arises on the basis of the modulation of their number. It pre­supposes that the ground that rises to the surface fragments the number so that the flowers can attain their individualities, but the result is that the ground in the whole painting jostles to the front, or rather remains suspended midway between surface and depth, between distance and proximity, at any rate remains constantly in the picture and can no longer be reduced to neutral background.

The result is that the representation of the natural space, no matter how flat and neutral it was in the earlier works, now disappears entirely from the centre, from the middle of the painting. It only plays a role at the upper edge, near the point at which the painting is hung, like an inverted footnote. Then there is a whole gradation of backgrounds which move toward the surface: from the brownish-grey, indeterminate and neutral background in the upper part; via the blackish-purple table leaf which forms the background to the rest of the image as a slanting, perspectival surface and whose perspectival gradient mysteriously coincides with the rear slope of the oval curve of the bowl with water lilies; to the light grey piece of cloth lying detached on the table, which only hangs over the edge of the table at the point of the same perspectival slope – a folded piece of material of which only the folds, not the texture or its textile quality, are painted in a dry, almost fragile, transparent way –; via the sloping oval, the dynamic egg-shaped form of the dark grey bowl that seems to want to deposit its contents before it, that has an uncertain depth in the barely determined perspective, and that at the point of the sloping edge of the table is overrun by the wild ground of the water lilies in the bowl; to this ground itself, a dark bundle of leaves and water which grips the upper flowers on the surface from outside by the protective leaves and turns them into formless volumes, so that underneath the flowers can only determine their form from within, from the heart. If the lilies close at night, all that is left of the image is the horizontal line of the mysterious piece of furniture on the upper left­-hand side. It indicates, not the natural position, but only the piling up of the various elements in the painting, their sequence, and the self-contained horizontal oval of the bowl, which hangs from this horizontal as from a hook on a shelf in the kitchen.

Nowhere do the sloping diagonals which intersect at right angles in the bouquet have the form of a line; they are completely overrun by the wild, unfathomable and dark surface of the ground of the bouquet. Through its deviation from naturalistic perspective, the diagonal X-shape of this ground also erases the only patent line of perspective, that of the table leaf in the upper right-hand part of the composition. It does so twice: once by duplicating it unnaturally in the X-shape of the diagonals; and once again because the X-shaped ground of the bouquet covers the line of perspective. The sloping line of perspective which is not present as a line would have been the only overdetermined line in the composition, since it would have added spatiality and depth to the brownish-grey background, and because this line would have been the coincidence of all the back­grounds – table leaf, bowl, bouquet ground – in a line. It is as if all the backgrounds develop from this line as their hidden surface, as their hidden depth, as what is hidden behind the perspective of the table as background, invisible, unfathomable depth. It is as if all the backgrounds are suspended from the same abyss, as different gatherings of a ground that is so deep that it simply can no longer appear, neither as surface nor as line. At any rate, the sloping line of perspective of the table leaf is erased from memory by the various gathered backgrounds which unfold from it: the ’spatial’ brownish-grey background, the horizontal line of the mysterious piece of furniture which, detached from the brownish-grey background, appears as an element of accumulation, of the gathered quality of the whole canvas, the literal, unpainted gathering of the light grey piece of cloth, the incomplete, downward hanging oval of the bowl with its impenetrable depth, and the diagonal X-shape of the ground of the bouquet. But the abyss which has disappeared from view, the ultimate ground which cannot be painted because it would destroy the painting, returns in representation as the hanging up of a memento, as a footnote, or rather a marginal annotation, in the vague brownish-black area to the right of the bowl, which may belong to the perspectival table leaf but is too isolated to be considered as such anymore. It is the only element in the painting that seems to be on its way to stop representing something. It merely stands for the abyss as an idea. The black area is neither surface nor space. It hardly develops from the line of perspective of the table leaf, nor as an expansion of what hangs down invisibly over the edge of the table, the hidden side, the literal abyss of the piece of furniture. The black area looms up as pure intensity in which the extendibilities of the various backgrounds are swallowed up. The backgrounds disappear into it in various ways: the brownish-grey, ’spatial’ background in its contour as a sort of darkness; the black, accumulating horizontal furniture line in an uncomfortable relation of symmetry which only emphasizes the difference between the blackness of the piece of furniture as an element of accumulation on the left, and the black­ness of the rather brownish-black area as a universal disappearing point on the right; the folded cloth, in the direction in which it lies, loses itself in the black of its surface; the contour of the bowl is literally flattened out in the black area; and the X-shaped ground of the bouquet passes into it asymmetrically. Only the hearts of the flowers remain unaffected. The brownish-black area is as large as the flowers. As in ‘Primulas’, it could be called a spectral flower, though this time it is not in the centre of the bouquet, but as the deepest background of a whole series of backgrounds. Their number coincides with the number of flowers: seven flowers, seven backgrounds. It is as if every flower had a right to its own ground: the abyss of the brownish-black area; the ’space’ of the brownish-grey background; the accumulating leaf of the mysterious piece of furniture; the gathered-ness of the piece of cloth; the oval of the bowl; the X-shape of the diagonals; and the visible or invisible heart of the flowers. Compared with the Primulas, you could say that figure and background are no longer implicated in a purely lateral relation in 27 Water lilies, that they are no longer the equally frontal inside and outside of a bouquet. This time, both figure and backgrounds come to the surface, while retaining the lateral relation between figure and background. The unambiguous determination of a series of backgrounds (abyss, space, accumulation, gathered-ness, oval, X-shape, and heart) produces a difficulty in that part of them that is determined by extension alone: space, accumulation and gathered-ness, unlike oval, X-shape and heart, do not belong to the intensity of the figure; unlike the absent, ultimate abyss, they cannot be represented as a sign, as intensity, in a mimic relation to the figure. Background, table and cloth could only be sketched because they remain mere extension in the composition; there is no programme for their detail. The dilemma was that once the ground, moving to the surface in stages, was involved in the shaping of the picture as determination of the number of flowers and their individualization, the ground itself could only be represented as a sign, as an index of its station as ground. It could no longer derive its intensity from the enigma of distance and proximity, from its spatial indeterminacy. It is of primary importance for the closest element, the folded silk cloth, which would have been pinned down as a figure had it been painted. While table and background play with their perspectival presence or absence in the upper right-hand corner of the painting, and while the half-represented oval, like the Cologne vase in 1 Untitled (Primulas), functions as a collar for the flowers, each line, each curve and each fold of the silk cloth is disturbed because the ground comes to the surface there and does nothing more. The gathered-ness of the cloth is the central one of the seven stations of the ground. The ground surfaces, disturbs the space, disturbs the perspective, disturbs the lines in the foreground, before fragmenting the number of flowers. Between the internal ground of the figure and the external ground of the canvas is a fourth abstraction, that of the unpainted canvas, that of the impossibility of representation. If the background comes to the surface together with the figure, then it comes more to the surface than the figure. Laterally, as an indication of depth, the background may present itself as a Goya-like, spectral figure, as negative painting, in the black area in the upper right; but frontally, in the silken folds in the foreground, negative painting is simply an absence, a denial of paint.

The artist herself was disappointed that the silk cloth had to be left unpainted after the flowers had been painted. For her, the painting was necessarily incomplete, but not deliberately so, because in another composition, without a ground surfacing in the foreground, it would have been the flowers which could not have been painted19. If one is painted as figure, abstraction has already been taken so far that what follows can no longer be painted as figure; it could only be abstract from the start. ´Water lilies´ marked the first time that the abstractions are taken so far – even though inconspicuously – that a splitting of figuration and abstraction takes place in the painting. This splitting itself, like the folded silken cloth, becomes a “field of tension” which is to become a programmatic point in her work from the late sixties, such as 114 Open box with things in a painting from 1969, and especially in 115 The membrane from 1970: “In the paintings I tried to bring together a kind of expressionism inspired by nature and an abstract, spatial element, far removed from nature (for me nature raised to the power of two, intensified, converged) in a single painting, separated by a field of tension which was called into being by the two different approaches. It was the latter point which was important”20. The result was that this “field of tension”, a sort of absence of painting, was filled with all kinds of materials and techniques, which varied both within the works and from one work to another. An exhibition hosted by Wies Smals in her Seriaal gallery in Amsterdam in 1973 included a mixture of oil paintings, collages, lithographs, serigraphs, photographs and transparencies, as well as comparatively secure in situ landscape drawings whose ‘academic’ quality was not comprehended by the critics21. The small paintings ‘after nature’, which Marian Plug started to make in situ from 1976, are in the service of the same breadth of medium.

Painted after her first trip to Spain – the first of many – with August Willemsen in 195722, 27 Water lilies is not only the last of the still-lifes from 1948 to 1958, but also the first of the ‘Spanish’ period from 1958 to 1963. Like Edouard Manet, she did not look for fold and abyss there; but she found them. The figures are subordinated to the folds of the land­scape, or at least, she seems to be investigating how figures arise from the folds of a landscape. As in the Water lilies, it is a latent process. It takes place without a fixed, perspectivally determined point of view as frontal proximity. From 30 City Reminiscence (View of Paris) from 1959 on, it is usually no longer in situ, no longer based on a model, but

30 City Reminiscence (View of Paris), 1959. Oil on canvas, 60 x 70 cm.

conceived as a mental image, as a “reminiscence”, as ideal appearance, as an abstraction which gradually becomes image, and not as an image that is abstracted in its representation. These landscapes are not abysses, but they are perceived from an abyss, from a completely uncertain point of view which only fails to appear as a bird’s-eye view because the perception is aimed at representing the most distant point as the closest proximity. Although the artist’s position is without a ground, it is not mobile; the gaze is fixed because the landscape, depicted frontally and usually surging forward in the centre of the canvas, is surfacing from the depths in order to determine for itself what is far and what is near.

35 Ronda, 1962. Oil on canvas, 75 x 55 cm. Private collection.

Distance and proximity may lie in horizontal layers above one another like a sandwich, both equally close, like the lines of a printed page, as in the enormous steepness of 35 Ronda from 1962, or the more conventional but no less abstract 52 From the shore from 1963;

52 From the shore, 1963. Oil, and sand, on canvas, 55 x 90 cm.

or like waves rolling over one another, like the ebb and flow of the tide in which distance rolls over proximity and is hollowed out in the process, as in the beautiful 50 Almuñecar from the same year. These relatively small-scale works share not only the high horizon of the series of large paintings from the late eighties; they also share the same cartographic impulse, as a simultaneous record of all that takes place, including the unexpected23.

50 Almuñecar.

50 Almuñecar does not even have a horizon at all. It consists entirely of primary, secondary and tertiary folds and gatherings. There is no distance or proximity, but only surface and hollowness, as if the canvas had been folded to become a painting without paint. The impression is further strengthened by the canvas-like colours of the rolling hills, the use of black as a non-colour for their hollows, and the dry, non-fat paint.

50 Almuñecar, 1963. Oil on canvas, 65 x 75 cm.

There is the large fold of the coastline against the light blue of the sea, curving upwards to the point by which the painting is suspended behind the hill at the back and straight down beyond the parallelogram shape of the virtually unpainted shore, which owes its geometry to the triangular hollow in the central hill, a hollow which extends on the shore to a grass-green, geometrical surface. The flat shore is a stairway for the descent of four black figures, abysses, cross-sections, through the folds of the hills, unfathomable hollows as endless receivers of the roaring of the sea: the shapeless one in the upper hill, extending from the large fold of the coastline; the rigid geometry of the triangular one in the centre, the representative of the canvas; the figure beside the lower hill, almost folded back into itself, as the appearance of supple geometry; and, finally, the entire landscape seems to be raising itself in an arithmetical abstraction of series of olive trees in the reclining figure from the dark area at the lower edge of the canvas, the foreground.


The first abstraction abstracts the relations on the basis of our knowledge of these relations. There is no left or right, upper or lower, there is only the difference between them, but there is depth and surface. The second abstraction allows the things extension on the basis of their own, internal differentiation. The things are in search of a surface to determine their own depth. This is the work of the diagonals in ‘Primulas’. But the depth is the depth of the flowers, not of their combination or composition as a bouquet. But there is a multiplicity in superficiality, a number which is abstracted in the third abstraction by making the multiplicity evident (as a plurality) but indeterminate (as a number).

To make a representation of an arithmetical abstraction, not in quantity but in number, is much more difficult than in the case of a geometrical abstraction. It is precisely the visual that an arithmetical abstraction shuns, in order to serve as the foundation, not of language, but of script. At any rate, where the ground rises to the surface and disrupts the lines in a ghostly way, it is understood as écriture, not as texture. In 143 Wood I from 1984, it is understood as a “calligraphy”24, where the obscurity emerging from the wood is given form. In 170 Salzkammergut VII (´Island´) from 1987, it is the ominous sign in the middle of the sky, right above the green island, in which the blue oppressiveness of all the elements of a Northern European landscape by which the island is surrounded – water, mountains, sky – are  transformed into a serpentine ‘S’ shape, explicitly referred to as écriture25.

170 Salzkammergut VII (‘Island’), 1987. Oil on canvas, 140 x 140 cm. Ahold, Zaandam.

Whatever affinity this sign may bear to Robert Graves’ ‘white goddess’26, it is explicitly not a part of the scene portrayed. It is like a shadow: it does not belong to the figure by which it is cast, but it is caused by something else; and in turn, if it represents something, it comes to stand for something else. The shadow of a hand is transformed into a dog. But if everything casts its own light, as may be the case when working in the material of oil paint, in so far as the grains of pigment are encased in a greasy film which absorbs the natural light from outside the painting, turning it into a universal irradiation within the painting27, then this is equally true of areas of light and shadow. Since a shadow casts its own light as well, the play of light and shadow is really a play of different intensities of light. In that case, every element is independent because its light shines from within and not from outside. The shadow of a hand was a dog all the time. Some writers have noted that none of the paintings indicates a source of light, whether from the sun or from a lamp28. This is connected with a certain predilection for night scenes, such as 85 Garden in St Dié from 1966, 157 Sea VII from 1986, 168 Salzkammergut IV, 166 Salzkammergut V and 170 Salzkammergut VII (´Island´) from 1987. The 1993 canvas after Rembrandt, 208 The stone bridge makes it clear once again that clair-obscur is replaced by pigment.

Darkness is not an absence of light. There is a fourth abstraction, that of the black, lateral, tendentially triangular geometry of the hollows beneath the folded surfaces and that of the unpainted, frontal, tendentially rectangular geometry of the holes in the paint, the boxes and the canvas of the canvas. Where there is no pigment, where the canvas is unpainted, there is no darkness, but only natural light which is undetermined and extends outside the canvas. Instead of the technique of clair-obscur, the image is caught in two transcendental relations: that of an extrinsic (clair) indistinct quality of the unnaturally radiant pigment to the indeterminate natural light outside the canvas; and that of an intrinsic (obscur) distinct quality of the distinguishable elements in the painting to what disturbs their distinction and thereby their countability, the deep obscurity of the canvas.

If the artist is concerned in general with the relation of elements inside and outside the painting, then every element is seized in a trans­cendental relation, a relation which goes beyond the canvas, but which at the same time arranges all the elements in a sequence of their own.

1  The abstraction is the abstraction of number. For the same phenomenon in Marian Plug’s serigraphs, see Joost Meuwissen, ´Paesaggi nordici´. Translated from Dutch by Laura van Gool, Marian Plug. Paesaggi nordici serigrafie ([Hilversum]: [Marian Plug], 1985), where natural elements are understood “not as qualities in space (…) but essenti­ally as non-associated, non-extensive numbers”, as “in­tensive natural quantities”. There are no numbers in the titles of the oil paintings, with the exception of 233 Three trees, although from 1984 onwards paintings in a series are assigned Roman numerals.
2  Kees de Haes, ´Sea Pressure. A Conversation With Marian Plug`, Marian Plug Paintings 1986 Schilderijen. Edited by Paul Draaijer, Joost Meuwissen and Tamira Tummers (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1986); Waterfront. Wiederhall 4. Edited by Paul Draaijer, Joost Meuwisen and Tamira Tummers (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1987), 16.
3  Kees Vollemans, ´Misschien kunnen we twee werken gedetailleerd bekijken …´, Marian Plug. Fodor 24. 7 november – 29 december 1974 (Amsterdam: Museum Fodor, [1974]) considers the same blue background in contradiction with the “expressionistic” figure, in the 1966 series of portraits, especially 92 Portrait of Marnix. He sees as a recurrent motif throughout the work the “absorption” of “the non-painterly”, the “incorporation” of the wildness of the figure in “the domain of contemplation”.
4  John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1965), 66.
5  Since black is a non-colour, it was forbidden by her mother, who had arranged the primulas. The reason was probably a didactic one, for in her own work Hetty Vermeulen made regular use of black and thick contours: interview with Marian Plug, March 29, 1993. Hetty Vermeulen was a great admirer of Jan Toorop: in the early 1920s she asked him for his opinion of her etchings. Marian Plug’s archive contains ten or so letters from Jan Toorop in which he gives her mother advice, thanks her for the flowers, and hopes to see her again, perhaps at one of his forthcoming openings. As for Jan Lauweriks, director of the Amsterdam Snelliusschool (the predecessor of the Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs, which in turn became the Rietveld Academy), who was admired even more, Hetty Vermeulen probably attended his lectures but was not taught by him. In 1922 she was admitted to the Rijksnormaalschool, an institute for training art teachers, which was then under the direction of Huib Luns. Training in applied art and art teacher training were not formally combined until the late 1930s, and only merged in the 1960s. See Kunstonderwijs in Nederland. Edited by Alexander Martis, Hessel Miedema, Evert van Uitert (Haarlem: Fibula – Van Dishoeck, 1980). Jan van Tongeren, a fellow pupil at the Rijksnormaalschool, later became a teacher there. Her mother’s friendship with Van Tongeren was one of the reasons for sending Marian Plug there. The alternative, the Rijksacademie, where students spent years doing charcoal studies, was regarded as archconservative in 1956. Hetty Vermeulen’s artistic activities came to an end when she married. Marian Plug, ´Finding the appropriate situation´. Translated from Dutch by Maudi Quandt, Marian Plug Paintings. Edited by Joost Meuwissen, introduction by Mariette Josephus Jitta (Amsterdam: Wiederhall Foundation, 2002), 73: “My mother had wanted to be a painter. Although it did not come to that, she bore authenticity and an intense way of looking at things. On Sundays she used to help my brother and me paint, each of us at one side of the table”.
6  Edmund Husserl connects the same processes with a conceptual, non-visual, non-psychological identity, i.e. with visual qualities of objects, such as colour, independently of their Gestalt: Edmund Husserl, Philosophie der Arithmetik, Mit ergänzenden Texten (1890-1901). Edited by Lothar Ely (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), 203-210. Consequently, if the objects are represented while the process of counting is on its way, a limitless array of formal possibilities is opened up, including completely unsuspected abstractions.
7  The artist connects this with her left-handedness: Marian Plug in conversation with the author, January 17, 1993.
8  Marian Plug, Request for a grant from the Visual Art, Design and Architecture Fund (Fonds voor Beeldende Kunsten, Vormgeving en Bouwkunst), Amsterdam, June 30, 1992 [Amsterdam: Marian Plug Archives].
9  Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York. A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978).
10  Marian Plug, Request.
11  Ineke van der Burg, ´The Art of Seduction. On Marian Plug´s paintings´, Marian Plug Oil Paintings. Edited and with an introduction by Joost Meuwissen, translated from Dutch by Peter Mason (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1993), 37-39.
12  Kees de Haes, Sea Pressure, 16.
13  The angular, closed house, for example in the heavy black contours of the rectangle on unpainted canvas in 68 Left by the sun (1965), is a “mental area” as a breeding ground for new ideas. “The rest is the surroundings”: interview with Marian Plug, April 9, 1993. Unpainted human thought does not take place directly in the landscape in the painting, but only inside a house set in a landscape.
114 Open box with things in a painting, 1969. Oil, and assembly, on canvas, 85 x 85 cm.
In the later paintings with ‘boxes’, 114 Open box with things in a painting (1969), 115 The membrane (1970), and 116 In front of the water (1971),
115 The membrane, 1970. Oil, perspex, plastic, and photograph, on canvas, 80 x 85 cm.
thinking in the interior of a house is represented as a natural birth, and the surrounding landscape has become an untrammelled, free, divergent abstraction of different kinds of modern painting.
116 In front of the water, 1971. Oil, and assembly, on hard-board, 95 x 95 cm.
14  Jan Frederik Groot, ´Landschap of Schilderij´, Marian Plug Paintings 1986 Schilderijen. Edited by Paul Draaijer, Joost Meuwissen and Tamira Tummers (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1986).
15  This refers primarily to Mark Kolthoff’s work from around 1950, and does not contradict the fact that he stood mainly under the influence of Cubism. See De kunst van Mark Kolthoff. Van realisme tot abstractie. Aspecten van het Nederlandse kunstleven in de periode 1930-1980. Edited by Evert van Uitert and Jacobien de Boer (Rijswijk: Sijthoff Pers, 1986), which also devotes some attention to his lessons in art criticism. According to Mark Kolthoff, Cubism made it possible to achieve “in the first place (…) the construction, not of nature, but of the painting” (“In de eerste plaats kun je sterk de indruk geven van de constructie, niet van de natuur, maar van het schilderij”): Het kubisme van Mark Kolthoff. Edited by K(ees) Kolthoff ([Laren]: [K(ees) Kolthoff], 1991).
16  “Die ´irgendwie´ zueinander stehenden Formen haben doch im letzten Grunde eine groβe und präzise Beziehung zueinander. Und schlieβlich läβt sich auch diese Beziehung in einer mathematischen Form ausdrücken, nur wird hier vielleicht mehr mit unregelmäβigen als mit regelmäβigen Zahlen operiert. Als letzter abstrakter Ausdruck bleibt in jeder Kunst die Zahl”: [Wassily] Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst. 10. Auflage, mit einer Einführung von Max Bill (Bern: Benteli Verlag, 1973), 120.
16  Evert van Uitert, ‘Faith in Modern Art’. Translated by Ronald van Erkel, Faith in Modern Art. Wiederhall 7. Edited by Joost Meuwissen and Vincent Verweij (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1987), 9.
17  Interview with Marian Plug, March 29, 1993. Perhaps also through the exaggerated expectations of Jan van Tongeren’s classes which was created at home: see note 6. On Jan van Tongeren’s work see Jan van Tongeren. Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden, 4/5-17/6/1979 (Leyden: De Lakenhal, 1979).
18  Interview with Marian Plug, January 17, 1993.
19  Thirty-five years later, the artist is still ashamed of not having been able to devise a solution for the problem of the unfinished state of 27 Water lilies: Marian Plug in conversation with the author, April 9, 1993.
20  Marian Plug, Finding the appropriate situation, 74.
21  Lambert Tegenbosch, ´Galerij der galerijen´, de Volkskrant, November 9, 1973.
22  There is a fine description of this trip in August Willemsen, ‘De zucht naar het Zuiden’, Maatstaf, Vol. 39, No. 11/12, December 1991 (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers, 1991), 20-36, and in August Willemsen, Vrienden, vreemden, vrouwen (Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, [1998]). Marian Plug gave the impression of barely taking notice of her companion.
With August Willemsen, about 1961. Photograph by Peter Monkcom.
Spain is in a certain sense a childhood landscape. Her father, an Amsterdam magistrate, offered assistance to the persecuted or at any rate illegal Protestants in Spain who regularly visited her parents’ home in Amsterdam. Cor Plug brought home from his many trips to Spain not only (cheap) shoes and rolls of linen, but also picture postcards and picture books. Marian Plug’s second painting, 2 Toledo I (1950) is taken from one of these picture books: Marian Plug in conversation with the author, April 9, 1993.
2 Toledo, 1950. Oil on brown cardboard, 29,5 x 24 cm.
23  “High horizon paintings” is the title of the exhibition hosted by Fenna de Vries in Rotterdam in 1985, where the series ‘Woods’ (1984-1985) was displayed. “Ground and shore” is the title of the exhibition in the Arnhem Municipal Museum in 1986, where both ‘Woods’ and ‘Seas’ (1985­-1986) were on display. The paintings in the latter series have an even higher horizon – which sometimes disappears altogether – like ‘Salzkammerguts’ (1986-1989) and ‘Streams’ (1991-­1992). On the cartographic impulse in Marian Plug’s work, see Camiel van Winkel, ‘Signalling the Surface’, Marian Plug Oil Paintings. Edited and with an introduction by Joost Meuwissen, translated by Peter Mason (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1993) (Wiederhall 16. Towards a Supple Geometry. Edited by Matthijs Bouw and Joost Meuwissen (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1994)), 24.
24  ´Uit aantekeningen van Marian Plug bij de Bosschilderijen (schilderijen met hoge horizon)’, Evert van Uitert, Marian Plug. Gronden van het schilderen ([Hilversum]: [Marian Plug], 1985).
25  Marian Plug, ´Notes on the paintings (1988)´, Marian Plug Oil Paintings, 28.
26  Kees de Haes, Sea Pressure, 18.
27  Marian Plug, [Dankwoord bij de uitreiking van de Singer Prijs, 26 oktober 1991 in het Singer Museum in Laren], typescript (Amsterdam: Marian Plug Archives, file “Dokumentatie Marian Plug 17-2-89 t/m 8-´94″).
28 Tineke Reijnders, ´Ambivalence of Painting´, Marian Plug Oil Paintings, 30-32.