Footnote Number 6: Art and Objectness
In 1951, Wallace Stevens gave a talk at the Museum of Modern Art titled “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting.” In it, he did not offer a universal Pythagorean theorem of the transcendent divinity in a numerical correspondence between poetry and painting, nor did he give an abstract analysis of the structural identity of the two art forms. Rather, he proclaimed that there is a universal poetry that is reflected in everything, and one could become a painter after one becomes a poet. Sayings about paintings have value for poets, Stevens said, “because they are, after all, sayings about art.” Stevens’ remarks are well within the character of his later work—which gave him the reputation as a philosopher of aesthetics—in which he argues for the primacy of the creative imagination. He also stands in a long tradition of writers on comparative aesthetics, from Gotthold Lessing’s “Laocoön” of 1766, all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics.
What we have in the tradition of this comparative understanding is a deeply entrenched syncretic belief system. It is a system that mixes two different forms together, like the uniting of early Christian religion with Roman law to produce the Roman Catholic Church. The art of painting has been married to the structure of language since the early church declared painting acceptable as the visual bible for the illiterate. This system unites “painting”—a site-specific material-based form of art—with “language”—a form of communication that is separate from what it signifies, and defers materiality to the category of mere craft. This syncretic system interprets all the arts as being language-based, and this justifies the art of painting as a picture-language. Picture-paintings tell a story.
The origin of the concept of a scholars’ library for the study of the arts comes from the nine daughters of Zeus, the first four of which are forms of poetry, two of theater, two of music and dance, and the ninth, astronomy. These muses preside over learning and the creative arts. There is, in this tradition, no muse of the material arts, no muse of painting or sculpture.
Writers on the comparison of the arts were, of course, looking at picture-paintings, and most of them readily admit that they are not actually referring to painting per se, but rather to the visual image in general. Lessing, in his introduction to “Laocoön,” states clearly that by “painting” he means the visual arts in general, and by “poetry” the arts whose composition is progressive in time. The problem inherent in the belief that painting is a picture-language can be played out in the Galilean drama of seeing versus perceiving. In 1632, when Galileo presented his support of the Copernican heliocentric model of our solar system, his argument was based in part on his direct observations of the planets through the new technology of his telescope, and this was done against the fixed authority of the established theory. Now consider that Maffeo Barberini, who was schooled in the traditional Ptolemaic geocentric system, could have said to Galileo, “Everyday I see the sun rise in the East, move across the sky, and set in the West. I observe the sun revolve around the Earth.” His argument would not only have been backed by 1,400 years of tradition, but also by what he saw. Had Pope Urban VIII made this argument in 1633, he may not have understood that his interpretation of what he sees in the sky was not evidence of the sun revolving around the earth. The reason we think we see the sun rise is not that the sun revolves around the earth, but rather that the earth rotates on its own axis. The problem lies in perceiving the power of the earth’s turning. When looking at a picture-painting, do you perceive the power of its material? If you don’t recognize the painting as a material object, you might as well be looking at a photographic reproduction. The reproduction (adjusted to fit the format of your screen) will also give you the information of the picture. It too tells the story.
There are now more reproductions of the visual arts in the world than there are original works, and these reproductions are an established educational tool that serves a very useful function (as any art historian will tell you). But keep in mind, the photographic reproduction of the visual work of art is to the original object what pornography is to sex. The actual painting is material-based, and therefore motivated by sensibility. Everything else is virtual reality.
We think of a painting as a picture-language not as a dismissive pejorative, but rather because of our fundamental belief that a painting is an image rather than an object, and that its energy is derived from the viewer’s imagination. Our concept of image separates the image from what it is an image of, and what we defer is our attention to materiality of the image. The questions we often hear asked about abstract painting—what does it represent, or what is it trying to express?—are seeking to know what its identity is abstracted from.
In the visual arts, our understanding of image is based on the Greek concept of mimesis, and is derived in part from Plato’s concept of ‘eikonos,’ icon, which is defined by shadow and reflection. The concept of image has only a resemblance or an allusion to a prototype, and the idea of re-presentation. So our sense of the unity of the picture-painting is dependent on something outside the sensibility of the actual paint material.
The invention of the camera allowed the separation of the binary coupling of picture and painting, and like Galileo’s telescope, which helped the science of astronomy to divorce itself from the ninth daughter of Zeus, painting no longer had to represent itself as a theater tableau to be judged by the standards of some other form. So its successful realization now does not depend on the establishment of the supreme fiction of its own nonexistence as an object on the wall. In the pursuit of modern art, we should recognize that not only do we have a habit of speech that informs our method of discovery, but also a belief system that paintings, no matter how abstract, are composed like a language. They are understood as tribal images that convey meaning. So many of the questions we ask are seeking a criterion of correctness, some Rosetta Stone that will allow us to interpret the inferences and shared beliefs of the culture the painting represents.
You can trace the liberation of painting from the structure of a picture-language by simply following the gradual removal of the picture frame from the practice of painting. Through the 20th century, it is a transition out of the composition of a picture-form and into the structural identity of the painted-form, a paradigm shift from pictorial representation to concrete actualization.
By the time Michael Fried published “Art and Objecthood” in 1967, this transition had been in development for over 50 years and was beginning to take on a life of its own. Some painters were investigating the materials of their practice, not in terms of the craft of the painting’s making, but rather in recognition of the force with which those materials affect the viewer. It was to bring into the conscious forefront of the experience of the painting considerations of the conditions of application, boundary, color, scale, and presentation.
There was also an acknowledgment on the part of some art world intellectuals that in order for something to be understood as a modern painting, it required the recognition of certain unalienable conditions of the painting itself. This notion questioned issues such as the construction of the support, its relationship to the wall, its shape and surface, and how the fact of its materials could identify the object as a painting. It brought to the forefront of the discourse on modern art the body problem, not the fictitious body of the image, but rather the concrete actuality of the painting on the wall as an object, and by extension, what is required for it to be recognized as a successful painting.
Many of the painters and writers on modern painting at that time tried to imbue the work with the rhetoric of mystic transcendence or psychological expression, because once you begin to address the body problem of the painting itself, it immediately raises the more fundamental and deeply rooted question as to what then motivates that body and what is the effect of its power.
It is clear that our concept of image and our understanding of language are compatible theories, in that neither is dependent on the specificity of the material’s visual sensibility. All the paintings that Wallace Stevens makes reference to in 1951 are also pictures/images, and in his view, they are motivated by the imagination. Today his remarks about painting might also apply to television, movies, and computer games, which are all forms of picture-language. And would Lessing now have to classify those forms of image-making in the category of poetry, because their composition is progressive in time?
This change from a concern for the relationship between the arts, in which all the arts come under the umbrella of language in order to neutralize the material difference between them, to the acknowledgment of the discrepancy between the image and its materiality, seems to center in the visual arts on the investigation of the specifics of each art form’s physical identity. By the mid-20th century, the subject of modern painting was, at least in part, the recognition of the painting itself as a sensory object on the wall. This, of course, raised questions about the independent nature of sensory experience, and its relationship to understanding.
In 1962, Clement Greenberg published an article in Art International titled “After Abstract Expressionism,” focusing on the materiality of modern painting. This came after his 1955 article in Partisan Review, “‘American-Type’ Painting,” in which he embraces the work of the abstract expressionists, and his 1960 essay, “Modernist Painting,” in which he presents the rationale of (but does not advocate for) modern art. Greenberg’s critique of modern art in part comes from his understanding of Kant’s “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.” The aesthetic condition of art, Greenberg believed, should be valid solely on its own terms, and so as a guarantee of its quality, the art needed to distance itself from the culture in which it was produced. This meant that it had to dispense with any unwanted conventions in order not to dilute the intensity and seriousness of its art. The art was to maintain the continuity of each form, while at the same time discarding all the unrelated stuff from that form. The enterprise of painting was subject to the self-critique of its own practice.
Greenberg proposed in “After Abstract Expressionism” that “by now it has been established, it would seem, that the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness.” For the art of painting, he concluded, “the observation of merely these two norms is enough to create an object which can be experienced as a picture: thus a stretched or tacked up canvas already exists as a picture—though not necessarily as a successful one.” This proposition about the irreducible essence of pictorial art became somewhat axiomatic in the account of modern visual arts. It is easy to imagine yourself standing in a room with two other objects, a sculpture on the floor, and a painting on the wall. The question is then posed as to their unique difference. It was no longer about their common identity as works of art—it was, rather, what sets each form apart from the others. For Greenberg, in this instance, it is simply the fact of them as physical objects.
Greenberg argued that “to achieve autonomy, painting has had above all to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture.” He rejected color as an essential element specific to painting, because sculpture and theater also have color. He acknowledged that paintings are material objects in the world, like sculpture, but unlike sculpture paintings have this particular quality of flatness as an object: a “two-dimensional entity in space.” His acknowledgment of painting as an object, albeit a flat wall object, is to the history of painting what Copernicus’ recognition of our solar system was to the history of astronomy. It is the recognition that a painting is not just a surface wall decoration, in the same way that a sculpture is not just an extended gargoyle of a building. A painting is an object that has a relationship to a wall in the way a sculpture is an object that has a relationship to a floor, and these are related but different functions. This acknowledgment, that the recognition of the physical body of the painting is essential to our understanding of painting as a modern work of art, is crucial for the understanding of the transformation that the practice of painting is making towards its own actualization.
One of the things about the history of the easel form of painting that is often overlooked is that the painting itself became independent of architecture and could be transported from one place to another. However, the painting’s physicality was understood merely as making it possible to transport cultural cargo through time and space. Most of the art historical theories focused on the cargo, not the vessel. For Greenberg, it was a particular condition of painting as a vessel that distinguished it from sculpture: “flatness and the delimitation of flatness.”
Greenberg defined modern painting to be independent of other art forms, and stressed the development of painting’s uniqueness as being only accessible to sight. As he said, the experience of the painting is “one of purely optical experience, against optical experience as revised or modified by tactile association.” This seems to me a clear rejection of the now-fashionable art-world reference to Freud’s notion in “Sexual Aberrations” that seeing is “an activity that is ultimately derived from touching.” While that may be true for pornography and photographic reproductions, consider the fact that if I put a painting into the hands of a blind person, they could tell you that it is a flat object. What they cannot tell you is what color it is. So again, imagine yourself in a room with two other objects. This time, a chair on the floor, and a flat-screen TV on the wall. The question again is posed as to their unique difference. Since they do not share the common bond of being works of art, the tendency is to think of their use-function. Their difference is that you sit down in the chair to watch images on the television. But should we now also consider the flat-screen TV to be a painting, albeit not a successful one until it is turned on? The problem, of course, is obvious. Not only did Greenberg have a habit of speech in referring to paintings as pictures, but he conceives of the art of painting as a picture-language, and for image-making, his axiom about “pictorial art” seems essentially true.
The art historian Rudolf Arnheim points out in his essay “The Expression and Composition of Color,” in reference to picture-painting, that “the medium favors a basic flatness, like that of the surface to which it is applied…Left to its own devices, the medium discourages overlapping of shapes, because it cuts off parts of objects, and it prefers frontality because oblique positions squeeze the objects.” His argument, it would seem, is that a picture is flat for reasons of clarity and full disclosure of subject matter. This seems essentially true for static images. But Greenberg states that, “a stretched or tacked up canvas already exists as a picture.” This is understandable only if you believe that the function of the flat plane is to have an image put on it, so that in the imagination, a blank movie screen, television or computer screen already exists as a picture.
To those schooled in the traditional reading of picture-language, the focus on the physical properties of a painting may seem a meaningless exercise of technique because they define the materials only as property to be used in the free enterprise of their imagination. The modern painter, however, is seeking the unalienable conditions of the painting itself: i.e., the integrity of the painting as a material object and the autonomy of its material to affect the viewer. Henry Staten points out in “Clement Greenberg, Radical Painting and the Logic of Modernism,” that the crucial philosophical reference for this tradition would not be Kant but rather Aristotle, “the original theorist of art as tekhne who is much more plausibly considered the predecessor, even if not the actual inspiration, of the modernist idea of the specific medium.”
Greenberg set the parameters for the understanding of modern art and put the investigation of painting squarely within modernism’s attempt to overturn the hierarchy of western civilization. For the art of painting this meant stripping away the cultural cargo from the vessel and examining the unique character of the vessel’s form. The problem is not in recognizing the flatness of the vessel. It is in the conclusion that that is somehow its essence. In the end, Greenberg gives us a conclusion for the experience of an empty vessel. We are left sitting in Plato’s cave, waiting for the next movie to begin.
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In 1967, Michael Fried published an essay in Artforum titled “Art and Objecthood,” in which he offers a correction to Greenberg’s axiom. This came after Fried’s essay in 1965, titled “Three American Painters,” in which he states that it is the responsibility of the modern critic to assume the same burden of self-critique that the modern painter must have and they may also call attention to the formal issues that demand to be grappled with. In footnote number 6 of “Art and Objecthood,” this is exactly what he does.
Like Galileo’s support of Copernicus, Fried says that Greenberg in his broad outline is undoubtedly correct—with certain qualifications, however. He suggests that, “flatness and the delimitation of flatness ought not to be thought of as the ‘irreducible essence of pictorial art,’ but rather as something like the minimal conditions for something’s being seen as a painting.”
Two things are immediately evident. First is the obvious shift in terminology from “pictorial art” to “being seen as a painting.” Second is the shift from flatness as a conclusion, some sort of endgame, to that of its use-function within the game. This seemingly simple shift in understanding is of major importance for the development of the art of painting towards its new paradigm.
In the body of his text, Fried rails against the literalism and theatricality of presentation of the objects that were beginning to emerge out of the minimalist intervention in the American art world. These non-art objects, fostered by the idea of the “found object” (readymades) that could be seen as art by simply placing them in an art-world context, or the “specific object” that supposedly existed in the space between painting and sculpture, were, in part, reflections of a vast wasteland of products in a post-industrial society. These “objects of art” could be made by anonymous workers on a factory production line. They are conducive to the mass production of multiple lookalikes and are unrelated to the artist’s intimate working of material. This idea appealed to the growing middle class that was entering into the art world, because it seemed as though anything could be a work of art, and anyone could be an artist. All you needed was to tell a story about the object. The theater of this was embraced by Generation X, which produced artworks commonly labeled “mixed-medium.” In the contemporary art world, it was a wholesale rejection of traditional forms, and seemed to negate the problem of self-critique in maintaining the continuity of a form. All of these forms of “installation art,” as many of them came to be known, are essentially sculpture, and Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” is often cited to explain, justify, or negate such works.
In footnote number 6, however, he directly addresses Greenberg’s axiom, and the specific condition of painting. There is a sense in it of an intuitive recognition that for the enterprise of modern painting, Greenberg had the cart before the horse. We know the horse is in front of the cart because the pulling function of the horse is attached to the steering mechanism of the carriage. Greenberg, in this instance, like Joshua Reynolds, seemed more concerned with the status of the carriage, that is, painting as an Art, than with its use-function. What we can glean from Fried is that flatness and the delimitation of flatness is a functional mechanism of the art of painting, and was, at the time, steering the direction that painting was going in.
We can understand that in the tradition of easel painting, the rendering of perspective to create the pictorial illusion of objects in space requires a flat surface, because the particulars of the illusion would be distorted on a three-dimensional object. Pictorial space needs a degree of flatness for clarity and full disclosure of the illusion. Does this mean, then, that the condition of flatness is merely something left over from the death of easel painting, and rightfully understood as a condition taken up by the movies? A kind of found condition accepted by the modern bourgeoisie because it is related to the flat, poster-like images of the everydayness, the ordinariness, of the bourgeois’ idea of culture, as T.J. Clark would argue? The flat plane itself represents their condition as subject matter. If so, then it is precisely the flat plane as subject matter that allows movies to be the dominant art form of the bourgeoisie, as it doesn’t seem to matter as to the quality of the movie so much as it does the fact that they are moving pictures telling a story. But, as Michael Fried points out, movies, by their very nature, escape the tension of theater and by their very nature provide a refuge from modern art. In that regard, for the bourgeoisie, the flat movie screen already exists as a pictorial art.
According to Fried, the problem for modern painting and all the individual arts that are explicitly concerned with the conventions that constitute their respective essences, is that their survival had become increasingly dependent on their ability to defeat theater. This requires that you embrace the internal construct of the painting itself; the only story to be told is the one concerning the very nature of its own form. Modern painting is a very specific and difficult form to achieve, and the important issue for modern painting is to visually perceive the power of its own being. Its understanding requires the recognition that the art of painting turns on its own material axis. This means the questions about its condition of being are related to the function of the materials, and with Fried’s claim that recognition allows for the most obvious question of all: If painters no longer need to create an illusion of an image in space on a flat surface, why do paintings still need to be flat?
Greenberg’s axiom that a stretched or tacked-up canvas is in itself a painting does not take into account the reason for laying out the canvas in the first place. To consider that something could be a painting without having any paint on it flies in the face of common sense—at least for any practitioner of the art. The reason the surface is presented is that it is to-be-painted. After all, the art of painting has the medium “paint” in its title. Fried’s claim suggests an interconnectedness of the elements of painting so that the condition of flatness has to be understood in relationship to the application of a paint medium, its articulation in relationship to the delimitation of flatness, and finally, the actual function of the medium itself. Ultimately the question this line of thinking is seeking is the one embedded in Greenberg’s broad outline. What is it about the condition of flatness and its delimitation that we can experience in a painting but that we cannot get in any other art form?
Fried’s claim in 1967, that flatness and the delimitation of flatness ought to be considered a condition for something’s being seen as a painting, presented three basic options for understanding the abstract construct of a painting.
One: The paint medium is used as a drawing substance to leave a mark on a flat surface. This invites a close reading of the surface with a mimetic tendency to repeat the gesture of the performer. It is about locating the surface and has no objective of establishing boundaries. You can easily consider the expansive blackboard paintings of Cy Twombly, from the mid to late 1960s, as examples. The paint medium is used for the specific performance of the mark. This is an understanding of painting as primarily a drawing form.
Two: The paint medium is used to fill in the delimitation of its flatness. There is a tendency to back away from the surface to view the whole object. It is about determining the boundaries of the surface and shape differentiation within the object. There is no objective of an intimate working of the paint medium. You could consider the interlocking shapes of Frank Stella’s powerful “Irregular Polygons” from 1966 in that regard. This is the recognition of painting as a compositional form.
Three: The relationship between the flat surface and its delimitation is determined by the application of the paint medium. This means the type of medium and the tool used to transfer the medium to the surface will in turn affect the delimitation of the plane. It is about locating the limits of the surface within the reach of the paint application. You could consider, for example, the very large horizontal spray paintings of Jules Olitski from the mid to late 1960s, as a balanced relationship between paint medium, tool of application, surface receptacle, and scale of object. This is a painterly form.
Fried set the conditions for understanding the body construct of abstract painting: flatness in its delimitation is a condition for seeing something as a painting; not its irreducible essence. His implicit recognition of the interconnectedness of the elements has allowed for the further clarification of painting that leads us to the recognition of its structural identity as concrete painting. It is an approach to painting somewhat analogous to the Socratic dialectic on governance. If the art of painting is no longer based on the traditional hierarchy of a picture-language, and is now seeking the full realization of the unalienable conditions of its own form, then how are we to understand it as a work of art? You can’t answer the question as to the purpose of a painting, per se, until you have established what kind of object it is. And you can’t determine that until you know the function of its materials.
So just briefly consider for a moment Greenberg’s rejection of color as an essential element specific to painting because sculpture and theater also have color. This seems odd when you consider that for the art of painting, color is generally thought of as a condition of paint. You can only reject color if you have already rejected the paint medium and don’t understand the actual material function of a medium itself. It is not a question of the fact of color, nor how the paint medium can be used. It is first a question of the function of the paint medium, and then its relation to flatness and its delimitation.
While the paint medium can be used as merely fluid property to express the poetry of the artist’s imagination, its actual function as a material substance is to carry pigment; a paint medium is the binder that adheres the pigment to a surface. The pigment divides light; it hold some wavelengths and reflects back others. That light is revealed to us as color. A three-dimensional object reveals the direction of the light source by the shadow of its form. Its color is seen in relationship to the form and movement of the object, as in sculpture and theater. So the particulars of its color, and their understanding, are altered by the dimensionality and movement of the object the paint medium is attached to.
Unlike a sculpted three-dimensional object, paintings, as two-dimensional entities in space, have a specific function for color. In relation to the flat plane, the pigmented paint medium is seen as an open membrane of divided light. The flat plane of painted color allows us to see the inner movement of the light itself. Light is the energy that activates the pigmented paint, and is the radical opticality of the painting. It is not derived from or verifiable by touch. So the painting is flat for visual clarity and full disclosure of its color. We are all immersed in light, most or all of our lives. Painting’s delimitation is to see a particular moment of the light. So that, in the architecture of concrete painting, function follows light.
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I have labored the point of Fried’s qualification to give some idea of where it fits into, and its historic importance to, our understanding of modern painting. In the midst of the transition that painting has made through the twentieth century, Fried separated the enterprise of painting from the imaginary world of the muses, and like Galileo, opening our solar system to the new science of astronomy, Fried opened the pathway to understanding the new paradigm for painting. Today, we seek to reveal the essence of the art, and this is rooted in the tekhne of painting’s practice. The pressing questions are related to the function of an art whose objectness is a moment of light. The painting’s stance is for acquisition. We are indebted to Michael Fried for his insight into this form. One of the difficulties for the contemporary art world is that this art of painting is a form of communication that is not language-based, and this might be part of the reason they have been mute on his point for the last 50 years.
The irreducible essence of the art of painting is its moment of light. Light is the arbitrary constant within the parameters of the form, and is the energy that motivates the body painting. In Aristotelian terms, it is the soul of the form. Presentness is grace.