Spanning over 1.5 metres in width, Watercolour V (1979) is a meditative large-scale work by Bob Law, the foremost practitioner of British Minimalism. Not in fact a watercolour, the canvas has been painted in gesso, creating a flawless expanse of warm, blushed white that Law conceived of as something like a mirror: its perfect emptiness, framed by a grey-blue border, acts as a receptacle for thought. Watercolour V’s destabilising and faintly suggestive title is typical of Law’s work, as is its human scale, which he intended to roughly match the size of a person with their arms outstretched. The work is designed to foster an absorbing, disorienting and almost bodily dialogue with the ‘idea’ of painting. ‘In this type of elemental painting’, Law explained, ‘I try to eliminate all signs of struggle with paint and surface prettiness. I want to cover my footsteps as I do so that you can’t see how the painting is done (no blood stains). This way the viewer has no way into the painting via reference points or paint passages. I want the viewer to see the painting as a total experience, to be feeling it as an idea about an idea. What can happen is that while the viewer is looking intently for a clue, he gets temporarily lost in time for a few seconds. One way of looking at it would be to say that I want to avoid the art of painting. Painting being the only medium or vehicle presenting the idea. Paradoxically at the same time the idea could not be presented in any other medium’ (B. Law, ‘Some notes on the essence of my work’, 1977, in Bob Law: A Retrospective, London 2009, p. 138).
Fascinated by palaeontology, philosophy and alchemy, Law brought a distinctly mystical edge to his work. In the late 1950s he lived in St Ives, where he learnt from the potters Bernard and Janet Leach, and the painter Peter Lanyon. His early works – sheets of paper with delicate pencil borders and tiny, schematic trees and buildings at the margins – were inspired by the experience of lying on his back in a Cornish field, gazing at the sky. As he began to experiment with large, modulated fields of black and white, his work remained rooted to an almost magical understanding of landscape, nature and time. In 1959, he saw the exhibition New American Painting at the Tate Gallery, which featured the works of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. These vast, profound canvases, on a scale similar to his own, encouraged him to take his work further. ‘I was really working alone when I did the early work in Cornwall,’ he said, ‘and seeing the Americans’ great expanses of pigment correlated with lots of my ideas. Maybe not philosophically, but there was an identification with these huge expanses: Newman, Rothko and later on – although he wasn’t in this show – Ad Reinhardt’ (Bob Law in conversation with Richard Cork, April 1974, in ibid., p. 35).
While there are formal similarities between his work and that of some of his American contemporaries, Law worked in an uncompromising and witty Minimalist idiom that was entirely his own. To experience a work of art, Law believed, was to enter a great, seamless continuum of human thought and creation that stretched back to the first cave paintings: Watercolour V, with its paradoxical play of absence and presence, is less a physical object than a philosophical portal. ‘The hunter artists drew the beast so that it could be seen and meditated upon when it was not actually present’, he wrote in 1967. ‘In the same way we write a book or make an equation because we are not yet advanced enough to hold it in our heads. That means once you draw a line around your hand and then take your hand away the mark where your hand was exists even though your hand is no longer there. What does exist is an imprint and that is the beginning of art, in there being nothing which is something. Art is the result of thousands of years of thinking how to think’ (B. Law, 1967, quoted in ibid., p. 78).