The Remarkable Art of Idris Khan

There are two essentially different ways of appreciating a figurative painting. You may see it as a representation of something— a landscape, a person or a mythological scene. Or you may look closely to see how the representation is made. A great deal of traditional aesthetic theory is concerned with analysis of the relationship between these two ways of seeing. Thus in the mid-sixteenth century Giorgio Vasari noted that Titian’s late paintings were painterly works in which the subjects only came into focus when you stepped back. In the mid-twentieth century Ernst Gombrich’s great treatise Art and Illusion constructed an entire history of European art dealing with these ways that pictorial markings are translated by viewers into visual images. And for a century now, commentary on the development of abstraction has reworked this basic dualism, asking that we see pigment both literally as paint and metaphorically as expressive of spiritual values.

Idris Khan (1977- ), an English artist who is having his first American museum show in Milwaukee, offers a remarkably original way of theorizing this traditional concern. At the start of his career, twenty years ago, he developed a very simple, truly dazzling conception which turns out to have legs. Consider what happens visually, when we layer images, texts or musical scores. Khan has employed such diverse sources as images of Caravaggio’s late paintings, texts by Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud and other writers, and musical scores like those of some late Schubert Sonatas. What then happens visually is very interesting. After this layering, no longer is it possible to see the original images, texts or scores. Thus in every…William Turner Postcard from Tate Britain ( 2004) you see a vaguely Turneresque seascape immersed in the layering of pictures. Any images, texts or scores can be given this treatment. Thus every…page of the Holy Qur’an (2004) treats that sacred text in the same way as the secular writings. In every repeated text, black and white reverse. And so the ‘gutter’, that is, the white space at the center of the book page, becomes a heavy black line down the center of his photograph. (Most of these works are as big as large paintings,) But although you cannot read the source texts, or identify the source images or musical scores, yet each comes out looking different.

Imagine some viewer of this exhibition who doesn’t know how Khan’s artworks are made. What they see in the first rooms are some marks on photographic emulsions. This spectator is like someone who, standing very close to a late Titian, cannot tell it apart from an abstract painting. Or, if you will, like someone who can only see a Mark Rothko abstraction as pigment on canvas, and not as a deeply expressive artifact. The renowned philosopher Arthur Danto developed a whole aesthetic theory around what he called indiscernible, objects that looked identical but had very different status. He was interested, for example, in the distinction between Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) and a physically identical Brillo box. Warhol made a famous artwork, an important Pop artwork, while the Brillo box was just a container for Brillo. An exactly similar point could be made about Idris’ earlier artworks. Imagine, if you will, someone who, wanting their own Idris, but unable to purchase one of his photographs makes their own by hand. Their large photographs which don’t have his sources could be visually indistinguishable from his artworks. And yet, they would be entirely different, for they would lack the sources of a proper Khan.

It’s revealing to consider the first work Khan admits to the body of his art. (It’s not in this exhibition. You can find it in Idris Khan: A World Within (Berlin, 2017)) White Court (2001) looks like a white surface marked in black paint with repeated marks. In fact, as he has explained, this is a photograph with a 20 minute-long exposure of the wall of a squash court. But it looks like an abstract painting. That’s what I thought until I read his commentary. In the spirit of Danto’s aesthetic, one might imagine an artist who made a painting visually indiscernible from White Court and then went on to have an entirely different career.

More recently, Khan has developed some new ways of extending this basic way of working, a story which really is the subject for another, more extended essay. It would not be appropriate for me to review “Idris Khan: Repeat After Me,” at the Milwaukee Art Museum, April 5–August 11, 2024, for I have an essay in the catalogue, which is forthcoming in June, 2024. But I hope (and expect) that other art writers will consider Khan’s remarkable achievement. In my forthcoming essay I discuss Idris’ to Islamic artistic tradition. As the son of an emigrant Pakistani doctor and a Welsh nurse, who identifies himself as a non-practicing Muslim his art employs some ideas from the Islamic visual culture in a resourceful way that’s remarkably fruitful. And so it’s unsurprising that right now his art is attracting attention.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.