Tabula Rosa emerges from my attraction to certain mysteries that can be suggested through the color red, almost always starting with the bright and dark pigments cadmium red and alizarin crimson.
Precedents for the series go back to 1969, when I completed my first serious oil painting, “Apple & Sky,” in my junior year at Johns Hopkins University, where I was studying history and English.
Then, as now, I was self-taught; I hadn’t touched oils since a few experiments when I was 15. I had no idea what I might be able to do. When I got to the point of painting the apple, the process felt familiar and almost predetermined.
William Van Doren, APPLE & SKY, oil on canvasboard, 12 x 16, 1969.
Later, while working in a Manhattan literary agency, I painted at night, including a piece begun in 1970, “Vase & Wall.” The vase began as robin’s egg blue with a normal vase shape. I wasn’t happy with the painting until 1974, in L.A., when I finally repainted the vase into a strange form, and red.
William Van Doren, VASE & WALL, oil on canvasboard, 14 x 18, 1974
In the decades that followed, the “progress of red” in my work continued, often in the form of some slash or spot I felt compelled to add to a picture. In 2000, I exhibited a series of 21 small red paintings as part of a solo show at the Downtown Art Space in Charlottesville. I knew I had to do these paintings, but the process still felt somewhat unanchored, as if I didn’t yet have a feel for where they were coming from or where they might be going.
William Van Doren, 2000 SERIES #4, oil on canvas, 14 x 15, 2000
I began the Tabula Rosa series in late December and early January 2010–11, the first dozen paintings to be shown in a gallery adjacent to my exhibit of the sunsets of 2010. Somehow the impulse, memory, or knowledge behind this strain in my work had come to a point where I knew what I was doing, even if I didn’t know exactly what it meant.
Naturally I see the possible references to blood, sex, birth, and prenatal experience in these works, and sometimes these astonish me even as I’m painting them. But, after all this time, I seriously doubt that these references are the real or ultimate content of the canvases. “Tabula rosa” is more than a cute play on words, for I believe I really am unconsciously accessing something like the blank slate of my existence, which in this case happens to be represented in red.
I suspect the apparent biological forms here are analogs for experiences that are more of the soul than of the physical self. It occurs to me that the “dark tunnel” in some of these paintings could be the opposite, or complement, of the famous tunnel of light reported by those who have died, and that this may approximate the experience of those about to enter physical form.
Recently [March 2013], in reading neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander’s profoundly important and revelatory new book Proof of Heaven, I have tentatively identified these paintings with what he describes as a ruddy red-and-brown “earthworm’s-eye view” of a realm just beyond ordinary human experience. I already felt that I was dealing with a different level of experience, but had assumed that my use of red might be arbitrary. This is pure conjecture, but my reds may be luminous, as opposed to Dr. Alexander’s “muddy” environment (although I do use a great deal of sepia brown!) because the view comes from a different perspective.
No matter what their origin or meaning, I do these paintings with complete joy and confidence, even when I have no idea what they are. For me they’re a mystery and a certainty.