The following remarks are assembled in response to some of the issues raised in two recent articles on abstract critical by Stephen Moonie and David Ryan. Both essays challenge the romantic project implicit in many of the other contributions and comments on this site, telling instead a progressive story related to abstract painting that some abstract painters might not want to hear. Both texts are informed by a historical sense of the cultural crisis surrounding painting, usurped by tendencies set in motion by the rise of performance art, or visually outpaced by new screen based media. But they are not obsequies. Both writers seem to wish painting well, suggesting it has survived, but in an altered state: dispersed, fragmented, scattered or merged. Painting is not dead, but changed.
In ‘Painting and Performance’ Stephen Moonie notes how histories of the last fifty years commonly start with the end of painting’s long-standing hegemony or leadership of the visual arts. But he makes a flattering case for its afterlife, describing the dispersal of its proprietorial ideas ‘outwards’ into a ‘differentiated realm’, before concluding with an account of the art form’s present modality, namely operating ‘within an expanded field, across and between media’. Stephen Melville, who organised the 2001 exhibition ‘As Painting: Division and Displacement’, mentioned in the article, argued for what Moonie calls a ‘capacious’ use of medium-specific terms, proposing a definition of a medium that could include ‘its violations’ along with exemplifications of its autonomy.[i] Following this route it would be possible to classify an example of performance art or a Cindy Sherman photo ‘as painting’. However, Melville insists such new work should always be judged on aesthetic merit, or quality, ultimately underwritten by the ‘painting of the past whose quality is not in doubt’ as Fried puts it[ii]. In Melville’s version, a work needs to offer an aesthetic ‘experience that we recognise as continuous with what we know to be the experience of painting – for it to be a painting’.
It’s unusual for anyone to argue that painting could live on in value judgements. Anecdotal evidence suggests the art of recent times seems to be trying to escape aesthetic scrutiny, or to give it little to work with. Yet Melville’s emphasis on the aesthetic experience implicitly supports and extends the remit of abstract art, opening up the localised, formal aspect proper to the medium, to allow the enterprise of abstraction itself to advance further. This results in an interesting situation when considering someone like Gerhard Richter. Richter could be said to be a ‘conceptual painter’ in that his practice is predicated on painting as a category, and ‘categories’, like ‘universals’, are abstract. This makes him an ‘abstract’ artist, but anyone familiar with his oeuvre knows that some of his work is ‘locally’ abstract, while some is locally figurative. The incompatibility of the two ‘subject’ styles can be reconciled by seeing both in the ‘meta-linguistic’ terms of representation, or the activity of the signifier. However, if they are positioned within an advancing abstraction at the level of the medium, they can be seen ‘as painting’ in Melville’s capacious sense, ‘if they offer an experience continuous with what we know to be the experience of painting’.
This move away from defining painting through material norms or constants, (e.g. flatness and its delimitation) to one based on experience in the encounter with individual examples, echoes the distinction Moonie makes between essentialist and existential approaches to the question of performance. This may offer a useful reading of Richter’s divided practice, but still leaves the matter of what has changed in our understanding of painting, the continuity of experience notwithstanding, when the constants have been jettisoned. One answer to this might be that, when the essentialist criteria were downgraded, painting’s mythology was dispersed or dissolved. It’s the demythologising thrust of his practice that makes Richter a painter in tune with his times.
Everyone seems to agree that painting lost its privileged position as lead medium of the visual arts some time ago, and some may remember that rumours of its demise caused a certain excitement, even glee, amongst critics and artists working in other disciplines. I don’t recall anyone getting too triumphalist about the death of scraperboard or stone carving. But the glory of its past achievements could not easily be ignored or duplicated. It seems to me that, in the name of cultural justice and medium equality, the myth of painting, the afterglow of its achievements, had to be dismantled. To disperse its mythic power, rather like the river of which Cyrus broke the strength, the hegemonic mainstream of painting’s tradition had to be divided into a series of channels, which would have no ‘great name upon the earth’.[iii]
In the new post medium landscape it’s as if there is an unspoken agreement that no art form should ever achieve, or even seek, the kind of dominance which painting enjoyed. Many contemporary artists prefer to work across or between disciplines or opt for the hybridity of installation.[iv] But painters too seem anxious to operate without invoking their medium’s mythology, effectively admitting that its past pre-eminence is problematic and inappropriate in modern cultural circumstances. Currently they seem to adopt a policy of diversification and reticence, avoiding the possibility of producing a collective phenomenon that could be mistaken for a movement or school, and raise the old spectre of hegemony. For now anyway they see themselves pursuing painting as a multi-channelled practice.
Self-limiting diversification and reticence are signs that painting, in order to go on, has had to become increasingly critical of its own mythology in its quest for rehabilitation. This was illustrated quite clearly by the ‘Indiscipline of Painting’ exhibition of 2012, which was also in tune with the times.[v] It was a welcome opportunity to see a large number of abstract paintings without having to negotiate any irritating curatorial theme. What the work had in common was that it had caught the eye of the selector, Dan Sturgis, who went out of his way, in his catalogue essay, to avoid appearing to promote any agenda. That didn’t prevent him from having the usual pop at Clement Greenberg, but apart from that, he writes with the safety catch on, stressing ‘variety of different ways’, ‘personal choice’ and ‘levelling the marginal and the canonical’. The emphasis was on the single work, with each exhibit having a short essay appended to its reproduction, which carried through the notion of separation and differentiation. That the paintings were ‘abstract’, and each asserted its own stylistic singularity, amplified the scope of this differentiation. It would be hard to imagine that sense of individual diversity across the same number of figurative paintings.
It’s clear that an artist like David Reed is not interested in the myth of painting, whereas it’s equally clear that in the eighties, Julian Schnabel and Anselm Keifer, who are roughly the same generation as Reed, were interested in nothing else. By shrinking the demands of the medium in which it is set, Reed opened it up to the influence exerted by technologically richer forms of media that were beginning to dominate communication in the nineties, which David Ryan recalls in ‘Abstract Painting: The Screen and the Interface’. When writing on the subject myself I argued that the power of the screen was based partly on its identification with the future rather than the past. The problem was, as I saw it, that the screen was ‘the enemy of the surface, and the surface, and the painter’s interaction with it, is the very stuff of painting itself.’ But I also thought that painters who used heavy, all over impasto, like Gillian Ayres, were not promoting an articulate surface either, not the way Matisse did in works like ‘The Red Studio’[vi]. They were obliterating it, covering it in a protective, luxurious lagging which hid its complex function. The choice then seemed to be between having the surface flayed smooth to look like photography, or smothered with thick pigment, to resemble a multi-coloured quilt.
What’s interesting about the screen, from an essentialist standpoint, is that it shares its irreducible ‘norms’ with painting. The screen is the ‘tacked-up canvas’, fulfilling Greenberg’s minimum requirements for something to be a painting, namely ‘flatness and its delimitation’. Furthermore, taking the history of TV as an example, it could be argued that screens have been unwittingly involved in a modernist, medium-specific purification, as they have approached these norms, declaring their delimited flatness ever more brazenly in successive innovations. In the fifties screens were rounded, which is why television was nicknamed ‘the haunted fishbowl’, and seeing images swim across glassy swelling of the cathode ray tube was the foundation of the viewing experience up till fairly recently[vii]. With LED technology TV has come to the end of its modernist quest, finally to define itself as the medium of the electronic picture plane.
No sooner having defined itself in terms of vision, the flat screen suddenly became alive to touch. With the introduction of the tablet, the electronic picture plane can now function as a ‘surface’ of sorts, having lifted a long-standing taboo against the user’s tactile engagement.[viii] This current hardware has generated a new range of gestural behaviours. The interesting actions are those where the user passes her fingertips over the screen to scroll text up or down, enlarge or compress the image or change orientation. The fingers move, the contents react, but there is a gap between cause and effect. The gesture is more like miming or pretending, more graceful than pragmatic, though the results seem palpable. This opens up a space between touch and agency creating an uncertain relationship between felt, physical effort and its impact in the virtual world.
These new gestures are more ‘performances’ than true actions, such as pressing a button, so they take on a ritualistic or ceremonial quality[ix]. I’d also say that they are not loaded, or labour intensive. They influence events in the mock Newtonian universe of the virtual but they do not transfer the forces between subject and object directly. Yet they can create the effect of work, the signs of effort expended, like the abstract gestural paintings of Richter, constructed out of visible but uncaused expressionism.
There is obviously a wide existential difference between the haunted fish bowl of the fifties and today’s I-pad, but somehow the twin norms of flatness and its delimitation, which it shares with painting, remain relevant to our ‘continuous experience’ of the screen. One might say that the norms are part of the myth of the screen, following the definition of myth as ‘a truth with no material basis’. We value flatness and its delimitation, the containing rectangle, the proscenium, the window, the page, as devices that promise a concentrated and finite unity, a world apart. The important thing to remember is that painting, within this context, tends to deliver not unity, but the unity effect.
David Ryan dwells on the unity of pictorial space, contrasting it to the kinds of multiple spaces in the digital environment that might better chime with the way the decentred modern individual engages with reality. He quotes Greenberg’s distinction between pictorial space and the ‘ideographic’ space of cave art. Greenberg says
Pictorial space joins and contains, and by containing makeseverything it shows discontain itself and surrender to a unity, which in turn contains itself. [x]
Ryan also discusses the ‘interface’, the common boundary between two systems, but also the software supporting multi-simultaneous access for the user. I want to slightly misuse the term to mean something that goes on within a painting, rather than between viewer and work. I want to look at three paintings in order to make my point.
Sassetta’s panel in the National Gallery, sometimes called ‘St Francis gives his coat to a beggar’, ‘The dream of St Francis’ or even ‘The Whim of St Francis to be a Soldier’, gives a striking impression of unity. At the structural level there is a lot of compositional echoing and repeating of curves and verticals, there is a perfect fit between the components, the brush-marks are delicate and evenly distributed, the colour is pure and brittle, but holds together harmoniously in a luminous envelope. But what kind of unity is this? St Francis appears twice, as the figure on the left, gathering his lapis lazuli coat to hand to a grateful beneficiary, and again on the right, visited by an angel while asleep. In the sky above hovers a flag-bedecked building, attached to a plot of earth, which is what St Francis saw in his dream. So the picture is divided temporally, it contains a winged being only found in fables, and lays bare the images generated by the slumbering saint’s mental processes.
All the elements coexist, but belong to different realms and tenses, and varying levels of abstraction. They are not linked by ‘ideographic’ space, but a space that ‘joins and contains’. Elements are changed into ‘contents’, which bond with each other by virtue of being contained within the same field. But that field is able to accommodate elements from disparate ontological territories, from yesterday’s cloak, to last night’s dream, to God’s invisible messenger, while retaining its integrity as a field, which ‘in turn contains itself’.
The second example in the argument is Gustave Courbet’s very large canvas, ‘The Painter’s Studio’. Though stylistically very different from Sassetta, the work produces a similarly persuasive sense of overall unity, thanks mainly to a pervading semi-darkness, partly engulfing the thirty odd figures in the vast room. At the centre sits Courbet, behind him a partly clothed woman, nearby a small boy and a white cat. He appears to be working on a landscape painting, but things aren’t quite right. We see him in profile, on a chair sideways on to the viewer. His right arm is straight and extends in front of him, a brush in his hand. But his position is all wrong relative to the picture he’s supposed to be painting. His right leg seems to be in the putative scene of trees, rocks and sky. Both he and his semi nude companion are looking at something at ninety degrees to the observer, another painting altogether to the one at 30 degrees, which we can see.
The landscape, which lies behind Courbet’s shoulder and by which he is partially absorbed, begins to look problematic. Delacroix remarked that the sky seemed real or true (vrai) rather than painted, which suggests that Courbet deliberately created a zone of ontological insecurity in the middle of the painting. Where is the painter? Are all these people actually visiting his studio or is he just thinking about them, remembering or imagining them while he himself is in the country?[xi] Are they the figments of mental processes, like the hovering palace in the Sassetta? The answer must be that some are and some aren’t. In this allegory of painting, the figures are summoned from whatever ontological niche they occupy, including the here and now, to be put in front of the viewer, a matter not of ‘painting what you see’ as ‘seeing what you paint’.
The third example is Pollock’s ‘Autumn Rhythm (number 30)’. This was one of the paintings he made on the floor, but to be put on a wall. Pollock, like Courbet, was ‘in’ the painting he was working on, perhaps a foot or knee on the canvas, arm straight rather than crooked. About the style, it would not be out of place for someone, echoing Delacroix, to remark that in Autumn Rhythm the paint seemed real or true, rather than painted, composed of liquid, almost mimed, gestures determined not by pressure of the brush on the canvas, as with deKooning’s methodology, but by the pigment’s viscosity and quantity plus the speed and direction of the moving hand. The paint becomes the content of the space that it also constructs, connecting the field, which in turn contains itself.
At this juncture, it might be argued that, rather than presenting us with a convincing unity effect, like the Sassetta or Courbet, destined to gradually unravel during the experience of looking at the work, Autumn Rhythm is actually unified, and to an excessive degree. It might also appear to lack the ontological variety I have been insisting is present in the other two examples. Where are the equivalents to the angels or the visitors who might not be there?
It’s not too difficult to find the equivalent of the two figures of St Francis. The visibility of Pollock’s working process reveals the duration elapsed in making the painting, giving rise to the sense that it is the outcome of a legible series of actions carried out over time. But, like separate incidents in the life of the saint, the narrative is divided into episodes, each registered by a change in pigment colour. However, the later actions are superimposed on, but do not displace, the earlier. Except on rare occasions, such as the Tate’s ‘Summertime: No. 9A’, they are not strung out into a linear, time-based format or flow. The actions occur in the same space, but clearly belong to a different time, to a different tense, as also happens in the Sassetta.
Maybe this doesn’t go far enough, for it seems important to say just what is being summoned from its customary ontological niche in the Pollock painting, what is Autumn Rhythm’s equivalent of the angel. Again the answer is close by. The obvious candidate is the self, the modernist subject, something everyone knows and believes in, much the way that we once believed in angels. The structure of this self is, like us, divided along Freudian lines, into conscious and unconscious regions, which intermingle and affect behaviour. Behaviour in the canvas arena is what the series of drip paintings record, behaviour in the form of actions or gestures, combining in an activity that can be described, quite accurately, as ‘self-expression’. It is, perhaps, their connection with the ontologically unstable figure of the self that prevents these pictorial actions being wholly aestheticised, partly supporting Harold Rosenberg’s political interpretation of Action Painting that Moonie discusses.
In describing the operations of these three works I think it appropriate to borrow Ryan’s term, ‘interface’, albeit in a modified form. Either explicitly or implicitly it seems to me that each of these paintings contains an interface, a boundary between ontologically significantly distinct domains. In the Sassetta this is marked by the central pillar that divides the time zones (and maybe the secular and spiritual sides of the picture), but a further boundary is also suggested by the horizontal balustrade overhanging this column, above which is the imagined building of St Francis’s dream. The interface in ‘The Painters Studio’ lies in the middle, in the common boundary between the ostensible landscape painting, with its ‘true’ sky, and the unseen canvas that is the focus of attention of the central group. With the Pollock the interface is not explicit, though it is just as legible, lying between the plane of the floor, which supports the original action, and the wall, onto which that action is transmitted.
The unity effect provided by pictorial space intensifies the ‘interfacial’ relationships I’ve itemised that can be seen working within ‘standard’ paintings of settled dimensions. As the two illustrations of Ellen Hyllemose’s work, shown with Ryan’s article, demonstrate, it is relatively easy to unsettle the dimensions of painting,
thereby disrupting the unity effect, only to end with ontologically undifferentiated contents in each part of the multifarious work. Paradoxically, the non-standard multiple painting format forces a more problematic unity in order to hold its parts together, and I think that, as a consequence, it makes a less abstract offer to the viewer. In concentrating on the engineering of its support it loses sight of the fact that painting, whatever its ‘local’ allegiances, is an abstract art, one given to thought.
Although much artistic effort is presently diverted through a post-medium multi-channel system, cultural hegemony in the visual arts has not disappeared. It has passed to the group whose role is to gather these strands into something bigger or more imposing. These are the curators. With their dress code and eye-wear, their charm and their education, their hold on the institutions they inhabit, they have assumed the mantle of leadership and pre-eminence that at different times has belonged to sculpture, architecture or painting. As artists have demythologised their practice curators have mythologised theirs, with a vengeance. They are masters of what has become the most important medium of the 21st century, the art exhibition, the one big medium that has dominion over all others.
One medium however, on the borders of the visual arts, has retained its auratic status, not film but Cinema. The industry has always taken care to create and foster a permanent sense of cultural glamour and exceptionalism, continually feeding and promoting its own mythology, despite competition from cognate media. And this is part of our experience of the films themselves, an excitement we feel at the very start of every movie. Compare the emotions produced in the cinema when the opening credit sequence begins to those encountered on first entering an art gallery visiting an exhibition which explores issues around identity and exile.
The demythologising process is probably irreversible, though I suspect that the weight of a medium’s achievements must continue to count as part of its negotiable cultural capital. The current surge in painting and the need to build a community around painting, may be a way of trying to make it seem more serious and valuable and to re-capture some, but definitely not all, of its former mythic power. Choosing painting, rather than passively inheriting an ongoing tradition, or committing to a medium when it is perfectly acceptable not to, maybe signs of a movement towards re-forming the mainstream, or at least amalgamating some of its channels, under the auspices of a new, post Cyrus mythology.
[i] The exhibition ‘As Painting: Division and Displacement’ was at the Wexner Centre for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio. May-Aug 2001. The passages quoted are from the catalogue essay, Stephen Melville, ‘Counting/As/Painting’, pp. 1-28.
[ii] Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’ 1967, in Art and Ojecthood: Essays and Reviews, n.6, p. 169.
[iii] This comes from the last paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth.
Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Persian Empire. Eliot is referring to an incident in one of his campaigns where he ordered his troops to dig three hundred and sixty trenches on either side of the fast flowing river Gyndes. The river’s banks were then breached and the waters diverted into these channels. Cyrus issued this command after one of his favourite horses had been drowned while attempting to cross the Gyndes. He was punishing the river.
[iv] There is possibly one exception to this norm; the medium of Very Big Public Sculpture, like ‘Angel of the North’ and Hirst’s Ilfracombe piece. The Shard, can also be included in this category, being more like public sculpture than architecture. But these structures seem anomalous, and unconnected to the rhizoid visual culture that they bestride.
[v] ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’, 2011-12, Tate St Ives, Mead Gallery, Warwick. Quotes from Daniel Sturgis, ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’, Exhibition Catalogue, pp. 7-12.
[vi] David Sweet, ‘The Screen, the Surface and the Future’, Issues in Art, Architecture and Design, 1996, pp. 182-192.
[vii] I just wanted to mention the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, relating to the effects of communication media on human behaviour, that came to the fore around the same time as the concept of medium-specificity arrives in modernist criticism. It makes Greenberg’s emphasis on the differences between media seem at little less isolated. The experience of TV is central to McLuhan’s preoccupations. In the sixties he thought TV was ‘cool’ in that the information it conveyed was at a low level of resolution, demanding more from the viewer. With the developments of the picture it has now turned into a ‘hot’ medium. It struck me that maybe something similar is happening to painting.
[viii] I’m not talking about the idea of using the iPad as a sketchpad, as popularised by David Hockney. The taboo on touch was obviously practical.
[ix] I’m grateful to Stuart Bradshaw for pointing out the ceremonial aspect of Pollock’s practice.
[x]Clement Greenberg, ‘Detached Observations’ in Late Writings, 2003. (from Ryan’s essay) Even if you can’t stand Greenberg, you would have to admit that is a beautiful sentence.
[xi] For an extensive discussion of the central group in Courbet’s painting see Michael Fried Courbet’s Realism, 1990, particularly Chapter 5.