Friday 8 March 2019

Chess in Art Revisits 2. Tom Hackney

For the second of these Chess in Art Revisits, we catch up with Tom Hackney, about whom we have blogged frequently during his Chess in Art career (since 2012 in fact; see full list appended below). Back in January Tom was exhibiting at the London Art Fair, where we had a chance for a chat.

He was showing a variation (which we will come to in a moment) on his theme of the painted chess games of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp was, as you know, a profoundly influential conceptual artist, and a strong international chess player. His commitment to the game was such that it was said he gave up art for the game...which may not be completely true, but makes a good story.

Back in 2017 Tom had exhibitions in the States (pre-viewed here), including at the Francis Neumann Gallery (a Duchamp scholar and co-author of a fascinating book Duchamp's life, art and chess), and at the World Chess Hall of Fame where Tom - as ever thoughtful, and articulate - was interviewed about his work by GM Ben Finegold.

In the background you can glimpse one of Tom's signature black and white pictures, where - as he explains in the interview - you see the last moves of the selected Duchamp game. In this approach he paints the tracks of the moves on an 8 x 8 grid, starting at the beginning of the game, laying down each in turn (black/white) after the preceding move (that's variation 1 - my numeration, not Tom's). Because the white paint is translucent, up close you can see the faint imprint of earlier moves. The game is presented in retrospect - the last moves are on top. There is raw canvas visible here and there, indicating that no piece passed that way; the accumulating layers also build up a differential relief, adding further intrigue.

By contrast, variation 2, seen in the coloured-grid picture next to it, is in glorious technicolour. It uses hues derived from the Duchamp's own coloured-coded chess set: and here the last moves are painted in first, and the rest of the game painted 'backwards' with the end result that you see the game 'forwards' (as you would in reality). However, because here opaque paint is used only a little of the future of the game is apprehendable - just as in a real game, where you see the possibilities only through a glass darkly.

Unfortunately, the video clip doesn't show what I'm calling variation 3 (though I'm not sure that this numbering follows the order of conception, or public exhibition). This is the one-colour picture, in which all moves are in the same hue.

Chess Painting No. 101. Lancel vs. Duchamp, Brussels, 192348 x 48 cm | gesso on linen, oak frame | 2017

Here, the only visual highlight might be a cheeky peep of bare canvas. This enigma variation - where just the hint of a game appears - has been evocatively likened by one commentator to the registration of the 'pure thought' of the players. Here, then, the trace of the moves is effaced, as if relegated to some parallel symbolic universe. This variation invites you to remember that the moves are the product of the intangible 'rolling thought' (Tom's phrase) of the players. This gives them meaning: they are nothing in themselves. Another way of looking at it is to see variation 3 as the pictorial representation of blindfold chess.

In contrast to the mute minimalism above, there is the buzzy maximalism of variation 4. Here it is thought and comprehension that seem to be banished to the back of beyond: you are confronted by an apparent chaos of hieroglyphic marks.

Chess Painting No. 31
Michel vs Duchamp ,Strasbourg, 1924

When deciphered they reveal all the moves of a game shown graphically and simultaneously (though in their proper sequence): see this earlier post for an explanation.

So what then is this other variation on the theme (variation 5)? We did touch on it before when Tom got to his 100th Duchampian chess painting: but let's visit it once more. Incidentally, in the course of Tom's project to re-present all of Duchamp's games, his research - collaborating now with a student based in Germany - has recovered some new game scores. Moreover, when in the States,Tom was able to examine Duchamp's own copy of the book he co-authored with Halberstadt in 1932: Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled (on King and pawn endings). It has Duchamp's autograph notes and comments in coloured ink, and Tom has adopted these colours for the 'notation drawings' below. They use dilute ink on vellum, with the white moves are this side - recto - and the black moves verso, producing these delicate veiled images (and like snowflakes, no two would be the same).

Notation Drawing No. 6 
Duchamp vs. Lilienthal, Folkestone, 1933
34 x 34 cm | pigment ink on archival paper | 2017

Notation Drawing No. 11 
Kleczynski vs. Duchamp, Paris, 1924
39 x 39 cm | pigment ink on paper vellum | 2018Add caption

You are 'seeing the game' from White's point of view (not necessarily Duchamp's, nor that of the winner). This 'white at the front' is deliberate: to acknowledge the convention of white moving first (as Tom explained when I asked him about it). The effect of this method is to register how often a square is traversed by both sides. It provides a record of the footfall, of the traffic, in the game. As we might expect, the centre is the congestion zone.

The back-to-back disposition of the two sets of moves alludes to the confrontation in a game of chess. Black's and White's moves are separate but interdependent, in conflict at one level, but co-operating in some higher sense. They each have a life of their own, but need each other to make a game of it.

This is Tom's take: 'the vellum acts as a membrane which enables the interlocking/overlaying characteristics to be made visible'; and so we could try yet one more chessic correlation: in these 'notation drawings' you see the black moves, verso, through the veil of the white moves (and the sheet of vellum) - just as (supposing you are white), when you mentally register the moves of a game you see those of your opponent through the prism of your own....

I also asked Tom what was the motivation for the 45° twist suspecting that nothing in Tom's work would be accidental, nor - in his very rational artistic domain - done just for the look of it. Here is his explanation:
'Regarding the diamond, I’m interested in how rotating the square 45’ changes the dynamic. A regular square is very stable and static to look at, whereas the diamond format has a more delicate balance. The effect of this on the drawings is (I hope) that it animates them, emphasising the movement contained within, and where there’s movement there is also time. The drawings are concerned with the mechanism contained within the game, something like the mechanism of a clock.' 
It's an answer that appears to teeter dangerously close to the 'retinal' ('static to look at...delicate balance'), before stepping back from the brink on to the home turf of conceptualism ('movement contained within...something like the mechanism of a clock'). It is not so much about layers, but of interlocking parts that work together to provide a concrete indicator of an abstract notion: as in clock and time, and - by analogy - chess moves and chess ideas... But better not try and push the analogy too far: the wheels may fall off.

As in any analysis of variations, some selectivity is involved, and I have omitted many of the cross-overs and meldings that you can see in the examples displayed on Tom Hackney's excellent website.
Back to that interview with Ben Finegold: Tom mentions that he played chess as a junior, but stopped playing when having to use a chess clock took the fun out of it. He said to me that he is currently finding again an interest in playing the game. Maybe he might be tempted to join a club, and living in that eponymous borough in North East London you can guess which one would be most convenient.... 

Previous Tom Hackney posts:
It's The Thought That Counts
He Might Not Have been Amused IX
Hackney in Clerkenwell
Hackney Seen in Clerkenwell 
Hackney Seen Again in Clerkenwell
Nette and Tom (and Diana Makes Three)
Chess Art in Our Time
Hackney Seen in New York
Hackney Seen in St. Louis etc
Hackney Hits a Hundred

Chess in Art Revisits 1. John Ruskin; 3. Dorothea Tanning
Lost in Art  
Chess in Art 


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