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Close to fifteen years ago, stemming from a felt affinity between my work process and certain medieval Jewish mystical practices, and under the influence of conceptual artists like Roman Opalka and On Kawara, I committed to counting each mark on every painting as I applied it with my palette knife. I began at that time to keep ledgers for each painting. These consist of a swatch for each successive color that I use along with the timing for that color and the color’s total number of marks. More can be found concerning what this activity means for me in the “Texts” section. This site’s homepage gathers together the counts for each color from every painting.

My painting practice has come over time to be situated at a certain intersection between conceptualism and formalism. Certainly the formal criteria inherent in bringing a given piece to the elusive state of painterly resolution are operative for every work that I make. But, early on, a critical examination of what that practice and what that objective can mean pushed me to take my studio activity to an extreme, as I sought consciously to slow down the development of each work in order to simultaneously heighten my awareness of the work’s progression and of the effects that were produced within me thereby. This growing communion with studio practice led me more and more to concentrate my attention on issues relating to hermeneutics, that is, to the human interpretive predisposition, than more narrowly to art-making. The immaterial and conceptual substratum underlying the material richness that I employed became a preoccupation. It was to this that the counting and numerical tallies that came to underlie my studio practice pointed. My growing focus on such hermeneutics led to increasingly serious investigation and ultimately to a doctorate in the study of Jewish mysticism, which I received from New York University in 2008. In this study and in my published work, the interpretive activity of the (medieval, in particular) mystic, either in the encounter with a sacred text or with the content of his own psychic experiences, was my chief interest. For these mystics, the possibilities for interpretation (when governed by divine inspiration) were infinite. As I studied these, I noticed again and again the relative ease with which I could map these mystics’ interpretive systems onto my studio production, and how rewarding the results could be. New models would rise and fall endlessly as a seemingly relentless mental meaning-making reflex. The intricate internal dynamics governing the interactions of the ten divine echelons of medieval Jewish mystical thought, the sefirot, for instance, yielded insights, it appeared to me, into the relationships operative between the material stuff of paint, the immaterial content of a painting, and the engagement of the artist. Likewise, the techniques employed by Abraham Abulafia, an influential thirteenth century mystic who became the subject of my Ph.D. and subsequent book, emerged for me as a revealing analog to my studio practice of permuting color and counting my marks. Abulafia’s interpretive process involved the systematic recombination of Hebrew letters, whose numerical values provided the possibility of establishing revelatory connections between words, ideas and scriptural passages. In time, an awareness of the mental reflex to generate interpretation has to a certain extent overshadowed the specifics of each given hermeneutical instance, although the latter persist and continue to engage. Attentiveness to the ineluctably human act of meaning-making as well as to the intellectual products of this act, works of art in their own right, constitute the basis of my internal relationship to the triggers or stimuli that are the works of art that I produce.

robert@robertsagerman.com