Miriam Cahn’s decision in the late 1970s to draw in black and white was a carefully considered one. It marked a deliberate departure from traditional notions of art. Instead Cahn developed a performative praxis that allowed her to combine private and public motifs, personal and political issues. For these new drawings she used fragile paper, heavily charged with materials that peeled away from the paper ground, creating a naive, childlike language of forms. She turned her back on the male cult of genius, working in huge formats and no longer striving to retain an overview of her own artistic creativity, resolutely refraining from making adjustments in order to avoid paying homage to the fetish of the “masterpiece.” Her aim was to create “womanly” works, in which—thanks to their intuitive making—unfiltered, innate knowledge would rise to the surface.
Having specifically explored the differences between the sexes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the mid-1980s Cahn started to work on series focused on the interrelationships between humans, animals, and plants. Nowadays this is a hotly debated topic in the philosophical discourse surrounding the Anthropocene (the age of human beings), but Cahn was already engaging with it at a time when Europe, more than ever before, was gripped by the fear that the Cold War could lead to a nuclear bomb being dropped, a time when the world suffered a number of terrible environmental disasters. Against this backdrop of unprecedented, manmade forces of destruction, Cahn created dreamlike inner images, but in her art she also warned against the political and ecological hazards facing humanity: the more tangible the threat posed by global politics, the more vulnerable and withdrawn the animals, children, and plants in her clouded, black charcoal drawings.
Since then she has taken her intentional loss of creative control a stage further by drawing with her eyes closed, or using her hands to conjure up figures from black chalk dust. She does this by activating her body memory, and as she concentrates on affinities between different beings, she herself temporarily becomes the fish, bird, horse, or tree that she is drawing. During the creative process her body recalls distant ages in the history of the natural world, and she associates the black dust that she rubs off blocks of chalk with the ancient strata of the Earth. Exploring relationships and affinities, Cahn also delves into the similarity between corporeal outgrowths and the energies that make plants grow. It is only chance that dictates whether this energy has a positive outcome in the spring-like burgeoning of shoots, leaves, and blossoms, or a negative outcome in a rampant ulcer. Cahn has written: “the work art as I understand it means relationship to nature rethinking, working and taking action what plant, animal, landscape is to me (i.e., everyone). my plant-being, my landscape-being, my stone-being, my animal-being are my political and public part, just as my woman-being is my political and public part.”(1)
(1) Miriam Cahn, WHAT LOOKS AT ME. SURROUNDINGS, trans. Claire Bonny, Darmstadt 1996, p. 21.