Hiding behind simple things: the iconography of the Everyday in the work of Randolph Hartzenberg

POSTED ON: May 31, 2021 IN On Artists, Word View

by Thelma Mort

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I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me;
if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things,
you’ll touch what my hand has touched,
Our hand-prints will merge.  

Yannis Ritsos, “The Meaning of Simplicity” [1]

Randolph Hartzenberg’s work — encompassing painting, drawing, printmaking, installation, sculpture, performance and video — spans several decades. Prone to working in series, and exploring a theme with intense subjectivity over a span of a few years, his output can be described as extensive and varied. Despite this, common threads in themes and iconography can be found running through his work. 

Hartzenberg is an enigmatic artist, who defies easy placement or categorisation. Born in 1948, he grew up in Cape Town, and has deep roots with many of the city’s most significant artists. He met Peter Clarke (1929–2014) and George Hallett (1942–2020) through the Athlone based collective ArtCom in 1968. [2] Hartzenberg recalls, “I was probably the youngest member and I was doing my Art Teacher’s certificate at Hewat Training College under the mentorship of Amos Langdown (1930–2006) who had studied with Peter Clarke in Holland at one point … We had an exhibition of paintings, prints, photographs and drawings at the Argus Gallery (as in Cape Argus) in St George’s Street Cape Town in 1968.” [3]

After qualifying as a teacher, Hartzenberg had a long association with Alexander Sinton High School in Athlone, [4] before being appointed as a lecturer in the School of Design at the Cape Technikon (later the Cape Peninsula University of Technology), where he worked for seventeen years. [5] Alongside his roles as teacher and lecturer, Hartzenberg was associated with the Community Arts Project for many years, and was one of the members of its mime group that participated in the Culture and Resistance Festival in Gaborone in 1982. Drawn equally to the performative and the visual, he studied both drama and fine arts at the University of Cape Town, graduating with a Masters in Fine Art in 1994.

Much of Hartzenberg’s life has been marked by a proximity to activism and an involvement in the cultural side of the anti-Apartheid struggle. Of this political awareness and involvement and its relationship to his art work, he says that he tries to “temper my political awareness in ways which are personal and that is what makes each artist different. There are other issues residing (hiding maybe) in the shadows of the overtly political. In my work I want to point to other aspects of life alongside the political and be more inclusive of statements that are not obviously controlled by the need to please a particular persuasion … The tables can be overturned in subtle ways to introduce an alternative way of seeing and making art as I do for example in my performance work.” [6]

The subtlety in Hartzenberg’s work is complemented by his tendency to work away from the crowd. In recent years he has been working in a small studio in the turret of a historic building with soft whitewashed walls and sash windows that open to the sky and trees. In his own words, “No one sees my work.” [7] On relistening to our interview, I was struck by the sound of the birds. Possibly, this is because Hartzenberg is a quiet person. He is erudite and thoughtful; our conversation is full of pauses as he considers his words. 

Hartzenberg’s working process entails doing small drawings which he regards as “containing the prototype of the potential painting.” Frequently working on three or more paintings simultaneously, his process is intuitive and iterative — returning, revisiting, and overlaying — his works assuming the quality of palimpsests. Some works are double-dated. They are numbered chronologically rather than titled individually. 

Preparatory drawings (Photo by the author)

Hartzenberg’s recent body of work is a series of small black, white and grey paintings, which he has “worked on … for about five years, alongside other works.” [8] He explains, “The series is still on-going. At present there are about twelve works but this is a series in progress.” He describes the works collectively as a “network of images” which are “very much process-related in that the individual paintings are connected to each other.” The word ‘network’ underscores their relationship to each other, a kind of philosophic dependence and shared energy of ideas. The works are similar in size, if not quite uniform in dimension. [9] These paintings, while being apparently abstract, incorporate figurative elements which introduce elements of realism. 

Working mostly with a variety of black and white acrylics, as well as oil stick Hartzenberg says, “I wanted to simplify things … To make sharp contrasts … I haven’t given up on colour, it has just developed like this.” His earlier work, notably the Domestic baggage series (1992–94) shows a luscious and visceral enjoyment of colour. He notes that “limiting [colour] does not take it too far from drawing,” and talks about the “immediacy you don’t want to lose.” As a viewer, one of the first points of connection with an artwork is through the treatment of the surface. In Hartzenberg’s work there is a real enjoyment of a lively surface, and a strong sense that to retain a freshness through application is of great importance. Certainly, it keeps labile the viewer’s relationship with it. 

In interpreting Hartzenberg’s recent work, it is useful to focus on words, arrows, and compositional elements that resemble or reference structures or plans. Through the intersection of these elements, we find that, as he puts it, “a range of related concerns namely existential, philosophical, relating to memory and life experiences” can be revealed. 

Untitled #6 (Photo by the author)

Hartzenberg speaks very specifically about “words as images” in his work. Many of the paintings in this series have words in them. Untitled #6 contains the lines, written down the side of the cardboard surface of the painting, almost as a poem: 

What are we/ doing/ here/ driving/ night blind/ like a train/ through/ drowning harbours

Several of the words that appear in this series denote fixed tangible nouns, easily known and familiar. Untitled #8 includes the words ‘stone,’ ‘bread,’ ‘nails,’ ‘dust’ and ‘salt’ — things which have been familiar to people for centuries. These are substances which are simple and also foundational to our survival. They also have both biblical and existential resonances, and recur repeatedly in metaphors and poetry.

Salt has been used not only as word, but also as a material in some of his works, such as his performance I want to hear my brother (2000). He also made extensive use of salt for an installation, Salt tower (1997), at St Mark’s Church, District Six. Hartzenberg reflects, “When people moved away from District Six, they were also moving away from what was familiar to them … and the familiarity of certain sounds, like church bells. I stacked salt bags up around the bell tower, around the bell, as a way of saying the sound has been cut off. It was a signifier for the absence of sound. Salt was about thirst, it was also about salt in the wounds, which one could see as a remedy but there is a certain amount of pain that goes with that … In this work Hartzenberg uses the everyday material of salt to create metaphors, but above all, by connecting it with sound (as in the case of the church bells), by placing it as a stoppage against the very sound expected to be made, he creates a silence which embodies a feeling of unease. 

It is this sense of disquietude which Hartzenberg creates with consummate skill by manipulating the everyday and the familiar — from his use of familiar words which denote mundane objects or materials to the use of these materials and found objects in his performances as well as in earlier works such as Blanket and Pillow (both part of the Domestic baggage series).

Untitled #7 (Photo by the author)

Untitled #10 (Photo by the author)

I ask him why he uses the word ‘exile,’ which appears in Untitled #7 and Untitled #10. He describes this as “The person outside society.” With regard to the words ‘beggar’ and ‘thief’ which occur in Untitled #9, Hartzenberg says quietly, “I was looking at those people on the edges of society, and sometimes the artist exists in that space.”  Plato’s idea of banishing artists from society, from the polis, surfaces. However, ‘exile’ and ‘beggar’ describe people in alternate states — dispossessed or alienated, or morally alienated as in the thief. The familiar words now placed in their collective correspondence in the ‘network’ of artworks create Hartzenberg’s trademark sense of unease, or doubt, prompting and provoking thinking and questioning.

Untitled #9 (Photo by the author)

There is another type of writing which occurs in the artworks, and that is dating. While dating canvases is commonplace, with dates usually tucked discretely into the bottom right near an artist’s signature, in Hartzenberg’s work dates appear large, as though the numerals are meant to assume a larger importance or become part of the iconography of the painting. Thus, the date writ large also points to a preoccupation of the artist with time and, sometimes, revisiting and revising his works. 

A repeated compositional device is the angles of things, such as the depiction of planks at a diagonal. These suggest something either makeshift or still in the process of being built. This is also suggestive of structures which are faulty. 

Untitled #5 (Photo by the author)

In Untitled #5, the composition is centrally dominated by a triangle which is divided by a hard, dark, central line, making for an uneasy composition. For the viewer this creates tension. On the right-hand side of the triangle, a disembodied upside-down head sucks up something, or is fed something, through a straw from the apex of the triangle. On the left-hand side, an arrow points inwards, towards the triangle. An initial reading of this is that the structures are uneasy, and feed the individuals.

In Untitled #10, the arrangement of shapes is suggestive of large machinery. In this work the diagonal is made by a hammer-shaped object coming forward onto a Duchampian contraption of a bottle with a straw/sucker going down its middle. The work speaks of systems, and of them not making any apparent sense.

A recurring theme in his work is that of shelter, or the lack of it. This reflects a quiet contempt for, and horror at, the broader social structures that cause homelessness, dispossession and the disintegration of communities, threatening the social fabric.  One of the repeated motifs in his works is that of a dark staircase, or a flight of steps. 

Untitled #3 (Photo by the author)

In Untitled #3 and Untitled #4, the staircases offer no safe landing or viable destination. In Untitled #4, a large void interrupts the steps, making them hazardous. An arrow with the word ‘salt’ points to this void, to an absence or a loss. The staircase in Untitled #3 also fails to reach a viable destination. 

Untitled #4 (Photo by the author)

The use of uneasy angles to evoke movement points to a directionless, or toppling society. If this movement corresponds to that of the displaced, of the homeless, it is characterised by a sense of listless, frequent but limited movement occurring in short spaces. Similarly, some of Hartzenberg’s compositions seem compressed. This from the outside appears to denote a life in which no meaningful work can occur, as no fixed abode means a kind of rootlessness, an inability to get on to be settled, to build a future.  

Hartzenberg’s concern with homelessness and displacement draws on his own experiences of forced removals and the displacement of people. He has repeatedly revisited these themes in his works. In several of the works in his new series, diagrammatic drawings suggestive of housing plans and arrows occur, as well as box-like structures which might indicate the packaging of objects for moving houses, or even temporary shelters. These are commonplace or everyday experiences in the nation’s memory. Hartzenberg says that his childhood was marked by the forced removals of the Group Areas Act, a fate which his family narrowly escaped, but which wracked his community, cruelly dividing and destabilising it.  

“We were always in fear that at any point the axe could fall, and that you’d have to pack up and leave. I grew up in Athlone, more Belgravia Road, then we moved — my grandfather had a house in Woodstock, and we were there for a very short time before we packed up again and he found a place in what became Rondebosch East and just 200m from where we lived, people had to leave. Just up the road from us. Friends of ours had to pack up overnight … they had to leave. We fortunately were allowed to stay. That’s why I say, when you had to move, ‘there’s no time to read the distance’ — you just have to go.” The words “no time to read the distance” feature at the bottom of Untitled #1. The compositional elements evoke movement, but without a sense of purpose or clarity of a destination.

Untitled #1 (Photo by the author)

Hartzenberg’s recurrent use of arrows provide another point of entry for interpreting these works.  Arrows are an integral feature of everyday signs, found in roads, on maps, site plans, and all kinds of graphic instructions, such as those compiled for the assembly of products. However, Hartzenberg’s arrows seem contradictory, a parody of rational instructions. The arrows ask the viewer to pursue a direction, but make no logical sense. They act as directions into and through a world in which sense has been lost, in a Dadaist way. 

Where arrows typically describe movement or indicate that movement needs to take a specific direction, Hartzenberg’s arrows indicate contrary movement, a to-ing and fro-ing, such as in Untitled #6, where the poetic lines, “What are we/ doing/ here/ driving/ night blind …” occur. In this painting the arrows elicit more questions than answers. Some of these questions might be about the validity or usefulness of movement. Or, is the following of instructions senseless? And, if we do follow, where are we to go?  Are those who follow such instructions blind?  Is there a difference between following instructions and being blind?

Such questioning of the commonplace — for a sign is at once ubiquitous, urban, workmanlike and public — brings to mind its relationship to both the contextual and the causal. This is especially significant in relationship to the rest of of his work, which is largely abstract.   

Untitled #8 (Photo by the author)

In Untitled #8, arrows occupy the limited two-dimensional space of rough architectural plans, indicating small spaces of unlikely construction, where through-movement is difficult if not impossible. In this work the words ‘bread,’ ‘nails,’ ‘dust,’ are written in a near-vertical line down the right-hand side of the painting, alongside dark lines on a white painted surface, the type of lines which are indicative of counting, or of measuring time in a trap or a cell. In this work there is another double-layer of arrows where Hartzenberg has scratched a vertical box in graffito on a white surface. He has then similarly scratched arrows pointing to and from an outline of a prone head with the word ‘stone’ above it, alongside another prone head beneath the word ‘salt.” The arrows, here, serve to connect the box with the words ‘salt’ and ‘stone.’ Why is the head drawn prone and disembodied? Does the head need a shelter, a structure like a box, as basic and simple (and as necessary) as stone or salt? Is there an equation between the words and the structure? Do these three things — structure, salt and stone — feed off each other and/or are they dependent on each other?

Hartzenberg does not intend to be easy or to create neat meanings in his work but, rather, to surface doubt. While he may verbalise his concerns, he is explicitly not using his work to “illustrate these issues. Nor am I representing them. I have doubts re representation in this regard and the doubts are a driving force for me to work in the way I have chosen with the sense of doubt constantly providing the impetus.” He says, “My paintings amplify questions, they do not supply answers.” Then, drily, “One sees so many signs and they stop having meaning after a while.”

The sense of constant movement brought about by arrows and structures and references to plans, brings to mind displaced people. “That’s where the suitcase comes in,” Hartzenberg says. Hartzenberg has drawn suitcases, and used them in performance art. The presence of a suitcase is ubiquitous as a sign for travel, and movement.

Hartzenberg’s recent series works and reworks the familiar. These include signs, plans and structures, as well as words which signify everyday objects and materials. The juxtaposition of these elements creates multiple potential meanings which do successfully “throw doubt.” Through this iconography, Hartzenberg speaks to the dehumanising inadequacy of everyday social structures, the displacement of people, and the everyday stories of people living with the “loss and absence in our social fabric which has its roots in the historical loss of land, destruction of homes, attempts by the regime of the time to obliterate people’s presence, humanity. But moreover, their presence.” 

Untitled #2 (Photo by the author)

Thelma Mort is an artist, writer and researcher. Dr Mort is based at the University of Johannesburg.


[1] Yannis Ritsos, “The Meaning of Simplicity,” Poetry (August 1970): 292, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=31670.

[2] According to Hartzenberg, the Art Communications Society (ArtCom) “was started by a group of like-minded people under the leadership of Alice Jacobus [at her] home [in] Oliver House, Lawrence Road, Athlone in 1968.” Other members he recalls include Kenneth Baker, John Fisher, John Sampson, Trevor Stone and the poet James Matthews.  Email communication, 8 August 2019.

[3] Hartzenberg recalls that Langdown and Clarke encouraged him to exhibit, and that he showed a woodcut and a linocut.

[4] Hartzenberg taught at Alexander Sinton from 1969 to 1995, with leave taken for studies at various points (1982, 1986–1989, 1991–1994).

[5] Hartzenberg was at the School of Design from 1996 to 2013. 

[6] Email communication, June 2019.

[7] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from an interview with the artist, June 2019.

[8] Hartzenberg’s new series was in progress and untitled at the time of writing. Titles used here are provisional.

[9] These works range in length from 38 to 56 cm, and width from 40 to 54 cm.