Paul Carey-Kent
Serious Play

At first glance Richard Schur's work looks pure and beautiful. But is it that simple? What kind of artist is he?

Maybe he's really a practical joker – yet another heir to Martin Kippenberger. Consider the titles. Some come from the light of a place: 'Malibu', 'Morongo', 'Suburbia's Sunsets', 'Sahara'. Some are little jests: 'Neon' obviously isn't one (though there is a yellow bar) and 'Idol' lacks the representation to be graven. But others are way out there: 'Pepsi', 'Chiquita Blues ', 'Billy Idle', 'Piet's Coffee', 'Mondrian's Afternoon': they all feel like titles poking fun at how they could have been given just as well to any of Schur's paintings. 'If some painting evokes for me a feeling of jokiness then it can still be serious' he says: 'good comedians are very serious artists.' (1)

Is he, rather, interested in place? His recent work responds to ten weeks in California, during which he was immensely productive. And colour and light influences do seem to feed in: Schur feels 'the clear and bright Northern Californian light is very different from the hazy LA brightness or dramatic Munich'. There are more bright oranges, light blues, violets and turquoises than typically came to Schur in Munich. He sees some resemblance to Hockney's Californian palette, though clearly the contrast between 'European' and 'American' colour is much less marked in Schur's case.

But what Schur is doing follows on very closely from what he was doing before. He is taking that deeper and refining the details: for example the use of blocks so fine that they could be called lines is recent, enabling sharper contrasts between blocks and playing with the ways in which different colourfields are defined. The visibility of raw canvas is increasing. But there's no sudden lurch towards, say, gesture or simplicity. And while he seeks a particular mood for each picture, that feels like more of a reflective inner drama than a direct response to the specifics of place.

Or is Schur, deep down, an architect? After all, although Mondrian is an obvious influence – indeed, he was Schur's first painting hero in his teens – Schur isn't a minimalist who reduces the world down to its bare bones. Rather, he is a constructivist who builds up simple elements into a whole. And those elements have loosely architectural feel, being constructed from flat panes of roughly rectangular color on a plane: they could be irregular bricks in a wall. Consistent with that, Schur pays close attention to the material and form on which he paints: 'I consider carefully the fabric I choose and in the USA I continued making special little stretchers myself, because they are thinner and have sharper edges than the industrial ones'.

He works on a picture on the wall and the floor, turns it around and about and yet the outcome is always a building the right way up. You feel the stability of a building is there, however far Schur seems to be from architectural sources. An ordered feeling persists, no matter how complicated those building blocks become – and the range is wide from simple four-block constructions to virtual cities of interacting planes with up to a hundred elements. That wide range of comparative complexity allows Schur to 'tune' a painting very flexibly: on the one hand 'to go deeper and deeper and thus split the colourfields up and up into more and more pieces', on the other 'to go back and overpaint areas where it gets too busy with – for example – a neutral colour, to come back to a simpler composition'.

So is it rather that he sets out to seduce you? The paintings are striking in reproduction, but the appeal is much stronger when you're faced with the sheer creaminess of the paint in the flesh. It's openly alluring stuff, the way Tiepolo works on the ceiling, all sky blues and pinks luring you in. Perhaps its a painter's equivalent of Vito Acconci's 'Theme Song' video. In that, Acconci is seen close-up, lying on the floor. With a disturbing assumption of intimacy he manipulatively, hypnoticall attempts to seduce his viewer in between singing along to The Doors and Van Morrison: 'Don't you want to come in here? Sure… Why not?... Come in close to my body… I need you to need it too… we both need it', riffing on this theme for half an hour before eventually admitting pathetically that 'I'm only kidding myself...You're not here.' For an oddball way of looking at Schur's paintings, imagine that they are videos and ask yourself what they would be saying. Schur doesn't come over pathetic, but at the same time the seductiveness is ultimately something of a tease: this is, after all, just paint. The same can be said of Tiepelo, of course, but there you have atmosphere and corporeality, too. In abstraction the material facts seem that much closer.

So he's a formalist. 'Everything is certain, everything is decided, everything is in its place', says Schur. No wonder Mondrian is his big influence. This although he is not too pure about width or straightness of lines and divisions, nor about maintaining an undeviating exactitude to the underlying horizontal and vertical. Nor is Schur inclined to suppress the signs of the brush in the flat style of American minimalism. Indeed, the application of tape and the seeping and bleeding of paint can have a happy-go-lucky approximation to it. He has a reason for that: 'it's like a person: often a face is more beautiful if there are some marks.'

As Schur says 'this grid system comes out in the result, so it's very messy and then the time and the process gets it the structure.' He doesn't go quite so far as to use diagonals, but there is a hand-guided, slightly approximate feel. If Schur is to be a Mondrian, he is very much a Mondrian with his hair down, a Mondrian with enough hair to let down!

Or are his paintings all about emotion? They don't come from ideas but from feelings. Yet, though the contrast of inner turmoil and beauty achieved can hardly be at Rothko's level of extremity, Schur says that 'very often people say to me 'you must have been very happy when you painted this picture'. And I was in my darkest moment when I created the happiest painting.' But, equally, he says of his recent American trip that 'having a reasonable proportion of good times can't be bad for someone whose job is to transform the beauty of the world into artworks.'

So the source of the emotional charge can be played either way – but what doesn't seem in doubt is the very positive vibe which Schur's work gives off to the viewer. What causes that? Partly the colour, partly the apparently happy-go-lucky touch to their construction, the cheerfully ramshackle take on the grid. But the grid is there. The result feels reliable, but not out of control. This isn't a world in which anything can happen, any subconscious horror could well up. They are reports from an organised but not constricted, luminous but not over-threatening, can-do kind of world.

You can, I think, read all these things into Schur's work, but he doesn't take any of them too far, he's too much of a playful free spirit for that. And the truth is that I'm teasing you in just his manner.

For surely colour is his main concern. In essence he is a non-purist, who flirts with restrictions… but applies only one: don't do anything which distracts from the colour! Schur himself says his paintings 'are all about colour, precisely said about what colour evokes: the visual space in my paintings opens the door to another, transcendental space. Exactly there lies what interests me. One could say, my art starts where rationality, where the descriptive words end. Somewhere out there lies the mystery of painting.'

And so colour is what hits you first in front of the paintings. That's what you're bound to come back to. And, to do just that, I suggest that choice of colour is key, and that there are three main approaches to that: the random, systematic and the intuitive.

Schur is not deliberately random in way that has become a well-practised conceptual strategy as a means of removing the artist's subjectivity – as, say, Francois Morellet is in using telephone numbers decide his colour placement ('Random Distribution of 40,000 Squares Using the Odd and Even Numbers of a Telephone Directory', 1960) or as Gerhard Richter is in his distribution of '1,024 Colours' (1973). Though yes, the random can play its part in an intuitive approach: 'sometimes I kind of close my eyes to take steps into unknown territory - to maybe open new doors'. There is something of Helen Frankenthaler's preference in this: she would 'rather risk an ugly surprise than rely on things I know I can do ' (2).

The systematic use of colour typically works by applying rules (like using any one colour once only, as in Hirst's spot paintings) or a theory such as the balancing of complementary colours. And indeed, if one looks at 'Wai', one sees Schur applying this to an extent. 'The overall impression', he says 'is a dominant kind of venomous, yellowish green, cool contemporary mood, but when you start analysing it, the principle is a dialogue of three pairs of complementary contrasts of the primary and secondary colours, yellow to violet, orange to blue, red to green.' Yet that classical harmony is somehow not the mood evoked, which is the clever bit down to intuition.

And typically one does feel that Schur is simply intuitive, keeping the process as open as possible in order to have the widest range of possibilities. Not for Schur the limited palette applied in a systematic way by several contemporary painters, or of course by Mondrian again. Indeed, while Mondrian completely avoided green, Schur sometimes seems especially adept at sneaking in a range of greens which might have seemed too acid or sweet in isolation but somehow take on a different quality in their multi-colour contexts. He steers clear of even the much wider restrictions used by Joseph Albers or Donald Judd. That infinite range comes with a price, as the more options there are, the easier it is to choose the wrong one. As he says, 'there has to be unity at the end, every little bit, every colour has to have a function in a good painting'. But in what does such a unity consist?

Joseph Albers' didn't restrict himself much: he used only paint from the tube, but bought tubes obsessively in order to maximise his range of found colours. He focused on the relational nature of colour, and his own paintings of squares derive their effects not from the mixing of the individual colours but from the mix of colours within a picture. And this is very much the case in Schur's work, too: he does mix colours if he needs to, but thinks more about how to combine colour tones: 'the impression of dominating, fully saturated colours is created by the support of less saturated or less pure, mixed colours. It works by that contrast of pure and impure. The fine tuning is very important!'

Judd restricted himself more: to a couple of dozen automobile paint colours, even in his late multicolour pieces. I rather like his stated aim for those works: 'I didn't want the combinations to be harmonious, an old idea which is the easiest to avoid, or to be inharmonious in reaction, which is harder to avoid.' (3) That seems to chime with what Schur is after: 'if the colour combinations of a painting looks dissonant or unusual at first sight, but then immediately very natural, like a new pair of shoes that fits as if well-worn as soon as you walk around in them – that's the ideal case'. A newly surprising form of harmony within each painting would be something to achieve!

Another effect of Judd's choice of an industrial paint range was to emphasise an urban and artificial feel rather than 'natural' colours. This is not an unusual approach - Peter Halley, Gary Hume and David Batchelor provide current examples. But in Schur, the natural is very much present along with the more chemical-looking elements: 'Osaka Dream' is an example. It's a balance which may be influenced by place – real or imagined. In LA, says Schur, he 'saw a lot of classical primary and secondary combinations; whereas Holland's colours feel more 'chemical' and like pop art's; and in Germany last year, earth colours, blacks and greys seemed to be quite dominant'. This interplay between different colour types is another important part of the balancing act which adds the dynamic streak to his particular intuition.

That fine tuning and intuition also has to work towards another end: that the colourfields in combination create a visual space. If they work well together, the eyes keep moving. You may drift away and feel you could get lost, but you're always able to get back. The overlapping of colour elements and the varying thicknesses and textures of paint help the push and pull between colours which animate the space – added to which the support is itself an object in space which is allowed to peek through and establish its presence in the colourfield. This amounts to a rich range of effects to help achieve a sense of visual space, but not a range which leads to it automatically. It is easy to use all those approaches and still end up with a feeling of flatness – but to set down in advance the means to prevent this is not so easy. More intuition, more learning from experience.

It turns out that Schur is playing with colour, too. He does what he likes. But there is a difference: with place, architecture, seduction, formalism, emotion and even his jokiness itself, I feel that Schur is teasing a little because to put too much weight on those factors would distract from the centrality of colour. For in the case of colour, it is serious play. Back to Donald Judd, perhaps: 'Material. space and colour are the main aspects of visual art…. For one hundred years the most powerful aspect has been colour. The one hundred years of the primacy of colour is still only a beginning.' (4)

So much for attempted explanation. But also turns out that none of all the above is what I think when I see his paintings at their seriously colourful play. No, what I think is 'Oh but they are beautiful!' Can that be enough?


1) All Richard Schur quotes from conversations with the artist, 2008

2) From Helen Frankenthaler in conversation with Henry Geldzahler, Art Forum Oct 1965

3, 4) From 'Some Aspects of Colour in General and Red and Black in Particular', Donald Judd, 1993