The enterprise of painting was in question, was "under erasure". I use this term of Derrida's(2) to denote a state in which painting appeared to be no longer relevant, not quite right, and yet the only possible activity for one who has been or is a painter, an artist deriving satisfaction from painting, drawing, the ordering of space,sensibility directed to pencil, to materials. But there was no dialogue, no discourse. It was necessary to turn inward, to the means of art, the materials and techniques with which art is and has been made. Artists still interested in painting began an analysis- or deconstruction- of painting, turning to the basic question of what painting is, not such much for the purpose of defining it as to actually be able to give it new energy by beginning over again. That question led to examination of the discipline of painting, the taking apart of it as an activity. It led to a restatement of what we already knew along with an investigation of that in depth. We pretended in a certain way that we didn't know anything about painting. We studied and rediscovered it for ourselves.
This pretending resulted in akind of supra-consciousness, a looking in from the outside since of course we did know but we were not longer "involved" in painting in sense of the "engagee", but now saw clearly what we were doing from an exterior position, an attitude appropriate for an interim period of work which some saw this to be.
The ides that this was the last painting was not difficult to hold. This greater consciousness could allow parody and a summation of painting, the idea of the actual possibility of its discontinued relevance. Art could merge with the disciplines of science and religion and cease its life as an independent acivity. The idea of the end of painting had been around for a long time, even before Ad Reinhardt talked about the one size, the one color... With the invention of photography in the ninetheen century the need for painting as representation had been brought into question. In 1921 in Russia Rodschenko had shown three "pure color" monochromatic paintings and had stopped painting. Tarabukin declared that this step meant the "death of painting" and the "suicide of the painter". Fifthy years later one still aske if an analysis of painting might lead to mere footnotes and the its end.
And opposing idea, however,gave the new york strength and that was a belief in abstraction and the knoeledge that in its short history this had been the form of much significant work. Non-objective painting had existed for us only since about 1910. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, had led toward abstraction searching for ways to be expressive in paint through its own materials and devices, breaking up color and separating color and form from function. In 1910 Kandisky painted his first abstract improvisation attempting to use painting means as ends in themselves much in the way time and sound are used in music. Picabia, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Kupka, Morgan Russell, Arthur Dove, Leger, Modrian, Klee, Macdonald-Wright and others were working with non-representational abstraction. In 1915 Malevich showed a painting consisting of a black square on a white ground "...in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity..."(3) A great deal of non-objective painting has been made since then: De Stijl, Informel, Abstract expressionism,Post-Painterly Abstraction and more. The abundance of work of quality which has been produced in so short a time constitutes evidence of the validity of non-representational work. To mind the significant art of this century has been abstract.
Painters confronting the question: "What is Painting?", in large part worked in an abstract or non-objective mode. They were not interested in using the medium to express messages, but examination of the essences of paint materials and methods was expected to release new subject matter. The wark was frequently monochromatic or of an undivided surface. Placing colors side by side produced shapes and relationships, but all these shapes had been exhausted. The figure had moved off the ground; now painting itself was a figure on the ground of the world around it. An early example would be certain paintings of Ralph Humphery who in 1957-60 was involved in that analysis of what paintings is and though he modulated the paint of his one color paintings to varying aspects of a given coor, he did not divide the surface because he found the energy of the shape of the canvas itself to override any interior shape. The insistence on no internal division was not new. I have mentioned Malevich's black square and Rodchenko's single colors. A little know Russian, Strzeminski, who was prominent in Polish Constructivism, may have been the next to use a field of one color. In his Unism in Painting Strzeminski wrote: "Two colours, hitting one beside the other, break the unity of the picture by their contrast... Rather than contrast, it is the unity and the means aiming at producing it that ought to be the standard of picture's from now."(4)
A monochrome is a painting or drawing in a single hue (Webster's). Many of the paintings I am talking about, however, though they may have an undivided surface, are not merely a one color, undifferentiated plane, one painting exactly like another. With examination of some further thinking and of certain areas of specialization it will be seen just how dissimilar two monochromes can be and how much and what sort of imagery they can encompass.
Strzeminski with his "unism" painted seemingly one color surfaces which were usually divided up into very small untis, closer to what we think of as "all-over". Yves Klein in France, in an art related gesture, produced thick pocked surfaces of what he called his "Universal Blue". Klein was related to surrealim; white materials, but actually concerned with non-color. He was not interested in surface, did not use paint, but was making a statement (as part of the Azimuth group including Enrico Castellani who did make his white paintings) toward the un-individual. We can all make art, everything is art.
Robert Ryman paints his surface using white because that color does not interfere with the paint, allowing paint quality and incidentto be made clear. His concern has been with the paint surfaces and the application of the paint, with the ground, the support for the canvas, and the means of attaching the painting to the wall.
Stephen Rosenthal does not stretch his canvas, but etches, then subtly dyes it or vanishes it and scratches into it along the lines of the threads of the canvas. The final appearances of the work grows out of the characteristics of the canvas itself.
Dale Henry has made canvas paintings covered with transparent material. One of his primary concerns here was the interaction between the work and light; often incident in one of his works is discernible only through the action of light.
Doug Sanderson has painted layers of color over each other finally producing an apparently monochrome surface affected by the underlying coats. Jerry Zeniuk prepares stretched linen and paints it with layer of alternating complimentary colors arriving at a luminous neutral surface which remains undivided except for brushing incident and the intimation of the many underlying colors.
Rodchenko called his monochromes "Pure Red color", "Pure Yellow Color" and "Pure Blue Color" which I would contrast with my use of "Cadmium red medium", "Cadmium yellow medium" and "Ultramarine blue", among others. The specific color replaced the theoretic color and is seen in its pure physical state, the brush strokes significant as brush strokes.
From examining these differences it becomes apparent that the goal has not been the depersonalization of the painting and that in fact one work is very different from another both between artists and in the works of any one artist.
What are the elements to be focused upon in deconstructing painting. The first, most obvious area is that of material. Decision are to be very consciously made regarding each aspect and entire work has been made using one or more of these elements as subject.
The essential material components are the ground and its support, coloring material and the tools used to apply it, the artist's hand and the circumstances under which the work is to be seen.
The ground is what is drawn or painted upon. It can be canvas or paper or other and includes its preparation with undercoating or the lack of it. The support is the stretcher or other device for maintaining the ground flat and which also aids in hanging the ground on a wall. Choice here has taken on unprecedented importance determining in major part the form, the essence of the work. It goes without saying that this choice is made in conjunction with overall intentions and any further decision will have to conform to this initial selection. Most often this work has been carried out on the rectangle of a strechted canvas or on another rectangular ground. The rectangle presents a neutral given from which solutions are worked out. Attempts at shaping the canvas eccentrically have not been particularly sucessful and have not formed a continuation in the line I am discussing.
The next decision in regard t the ground is size.If we eliminate all precedents, on the basic of what criteris would the decision as to the size of a painting be made. Abstract Expressionsm influenced by the mural scale used a size larger than that common in Europe at the same time. Ellsworth Kelly had in some cases made an environment of color. Starting from scratch new reasons existed for the choice. A small convas was sufficient for seeing a color in a medium on a ground. A larger scale provided an extended experience. A very large painting would have to have a reason for being that size which might be concern with the mural or wall space.
Coloring matter or means for alternation of the ground is varied even when we exclude the illusionistic capabilities of color (including black and white), light and shade, gradations in tone and changes wrougt in color through juxtaposition with other color, relationship. Within traditional media such as oil, watercolor, tempera, pencil, ink, crayon, etc.,powered pigment is amalgamted with the specific vehicle. The medium itself will determine methods of use and application, mixtures and overlays expand the range of color; choice of ground will have been made with the coloring materials in mind, and it too affects the appearance of a color.
Though the work may have been determined to be monochrome certain drawing decisions concerning the edge immediately arise with the idea of applying paint to the canvas. Where is the paint going to stop? The paint may run up to the edge of the support, around onto the sides, or may stop within the canvas edges. If the paint does end within the front surface it probably will from, roughly, a rectangle slightly smaller than the supporting canvas; otherwise it would make a discrete shape on the ground. A neutral solution has been to stop the paint at but not beyond the edge of the front surface.
The tool used in drawing or painting may be a pencil, a brush, a pen... and becomes the mediator between the artist and the ground. The tool chosen leaves its very specific marks influenced by the way it is used. It is chosen for its appropriateness to the medium and for its capabilities in regard to it.
Construction, by which I mean the way elements are brought together, extends from the decision necessary in preparing a support and ground through the distribution of paint or marks on the prepared surface including any other inventions by the artist on the materials. The act of working in cnjunction with the chosen materials produces an esthetic, or internal ethic. An inherent logic manifests itself through the use of materials and from this a set of values arises. These values derive from the necessities associated with the material in question. The work is determined through the observation of the materials and techniques chosen for a given project or body of wor. Rather than changing material to fit one's needs it is left to a larger degree integral and the art is drawn from it. The qualities of the materials and tools, the nature of the discipline, from the choice of the work with it. Rules emerge derive from the material and methods in question and results become the desired end product, the image searched for more than simply what happened. With this integrity even the smallest decisions take on great importance; an interrelated consistency is produced among all the elements of the work creating a viable means of getting in touch with more profound areas of intuitive meaning. The artist determines how, where, how much and so on, but the nature of the materials is respected and it plays its part in determing the final result. The artist works within givens of the materials.
Choices in these areas are made without references to a known exthetic, each decision being weighed in itself taking into consideration the material and the desired end, the specific process. Often these are traditional paint producers being used, again the artist re-stating, investigating as though for the first time, the use of materials that have been long known to art. Thedifference is in the kind of cosciousness focused on the details of these decisions, not necessarily a new focus but one that had not been used for a while, that of seeing the material and its use for itself rather than for what it can do.
The hanging of monochromatic painting is of prime importance. Since the painting is an object to be related to directly its position with respect to the viewer indicates something of what that relation is about. The painting may be placed low on the wall and thus be brought into our own space or placed higher in which case it becomes to a degree removed from us. It is most often hung alone on a wall. A monochromatic painting does not hold a thight focus, its own energy spreading out to areas currounding it, one of the reasons why walls now are white or neutral avoiding the color harmony automatically set up between painting and a wall color.
A reduced rectangle on a wall stes up a composition with any other paintings which may be on the wall, with the rectangle of the wall itself and with any other physical elements present. Rather than being a surface which holds figures on a ground the painting itself has become a figure and is put on the ground of a wall. In placing one or more of these objects on a wall one confronts the inevitability of their composing that wall. It has become necessary both in hanging and in making the work to acknowledge the concrete and delimited space of the wall and its relation to the concrete object placed upon it. This may be done by using the entire wall either as a ground or as a given area determining size and location of work, by accepting the relation set up between painting and wall, by hanging paintings as groups, perhaps even by ironing the wall and locating the painting in the room. Ryman placed his Varese Panel on blocks in the gallery. I have made stretched canvases whose size was determined by the wall or even painted the entire wall in order to eliminate composition by making the painting congruent with the wall. A small monochrome painting, which many of these works tend to be, frankly accepts the relation to the wall.
Most often a painting is to be seen alone or in a group of similar though discrete paintings though Brice Marden has combined panels of color as has Kelly. Merrill Wagner lets the work pass though stages and we are presented with three or four phases of the process it goes though. One reason realist representation is generally rejected is that we are not content with one single image. We are used to seeing multiple images in movies and on TV and one still image in a painting seems insufficient. Photographs are often shown in groups or pairs for this very reason. Monochrome on the other hand is open and receptive and 'empty', it is non-specific and changing according to time, location, the viewer. A monochromatic painting does not need to be supported by the presence of other paintings and in fact is best seen alone.
When we are seeing that one painting, however, we need a clue to the painting: knowledge of other paintings by the same artist and of painting of a similar kind by others. We are also aided by awareness of the artist's intention, though ultimately of course it is the work that speaks.
Paintings had been seen as surfaces on which to create an illusion, to represent real life, or they were seen as the 'flatbed plane' on which to place objects; now they exist (perhaps since Suprematism) to be related to as to other objects in the world. The experience of seeing such work is very different from the earlier way of looking. The eye Stopps on the surface where once it expected to go within. Where we virtually read a surface ignoring the material it was made of, we now look at that very materiality. This work accepts the objectivness of the painting. No illusion is created in terms of three dimensions; associations outside the object are almost non-existent. Though it is an object, it is painted like the particular kind of object it is: a painting. The paint is applied by an artist and the brush strokes are visible. The surface is painted but not the edges; but a frame is not needed to seperate this thing from space around it, we accept its material limits. In fact the edges are left unframed in order to allow verification of the kind of object it is.
The close-up focus implied by one-color painting is consistent with the enlargement of scale within a format which has taken place throughout this century until finally one brush stroke, one color, can make up the entire painting. Artists working in depth on limited aspects of painting or exploring the various attributes of it one at a time have, inadvertently or consciously, put together an informal catalogue or inventory of art materials and techniques. An early example from sculpture would be Carl Andre's table of elements in which he catalogued metals which could be used in sculpture rather than making a sculpture of them, but at the same time did make them into s sculpture. Dale Henry showed an eighty piece work in which he catalogued methods of drawing and painting in relatively colorless materials, outlining areas of work he planned to investigate. Lucio Pozzi's drawing have ade subject matter out of the various processes of drawing: addition, removal, etc. I have examined the prgments used in making paint as well as formats, media and mixes, and have used those separatly in making paintings in order to make visible the qualities and attributes of a specific pigment color in a specific medium and format.
Much of what I am talking about has had to do with the emtying of the field of work. A surface apparently without incident reveals to the artist the impossibiltity of eliminating it altogether and gives to the viewer the experience of seeming emtiness and the option of dealing with her/himself in that emptiness. Waht is there is very little to see? One turns away in disappointment or one faces the power of what that very little opens up, becomes. Painting has long flirted with emptiness. Think of Malevich, Humphrey, Reinherdt, Marden, Ryman. We could not say of any of these painter's work that everthing alse but one color has been removed. It is not a difficult task to distinguish between these 'empty' paintings. The removal of known subject matter opened the way for other content to enter in. A painting without interior relationships of color and shape is not empty.
Though in these new explorations decisions are limited, one painting being very much like another, perhaps the same with minor changes, a differentiation should be made here between repetition and series. In order to go into one area in depth the artist my indeed repeat work knowing that repetition leads to a similarity and not to the same. This is very different from extending permutations, working in series. Every painting is complete in itself and rather than being a variation on earlier work is more like the earlier work than it is different. The desire is not to work out all the possibilities so much as to refine central decisions, not to search for the new and different so much as to move towards the one.
With the elimination of drawing on the surface the painting is freed from the structural necessity so felt in the 60's of relating shapes to the outside edge. The painting is the shape and the horizontals and verticals of the canvas shape relate to the space it is expected to be seen in, but the surface is in a sense free. The use of the grid in the 60's also represented that kind of rigid structure, though used with a certain purity and a retaining of the personal at least by Agnes Martin. In relation to the new work, however, the grid as well as ist atomized expression, the all-over, represents a contral far too structural for the acceptance of integral image that is now searched for; it is too easy a way to divide things into manageable chunks. It is now too know.
This work which insists on a restatement of the essentials of painting was begun with the idea that quality might be in some way definable, that at least painting must have meaning, must have credibility to our present way of seeing. The issue of 'quality' has been discussed at length in recent years andI do not want to go into the entire question now. The quality which is felt to be defnalbe here consists in a wholeness in the work existing through an integrity of the factors involved in ist making and is measurable by the criteria set up in the work itself. Though this work is not pushing a message the meaning inherent in it is crucial to its viability and on some levels at least is very direct.
Painting can be understood on at least four primary levels. First the painting exists physically, as an object in the world which can be directly responded to. It is visual, tactile, retinal. Secondly, technical factors exist in the making of the painting, inherent qualities of material determine method, formal aspects of the work can be examined and understood and therefore must stand up to certain criteria. A painting exists as an historical statement. It is made at a particular time and represents the artist's view of the state of painting at that time, whether conscious or not. And the painting represents a form of thought, indirectly reflecting the world view of the artist and the time, and transmitting philosophical and spiritual experiences.
While it may be possible to speak of universal meanings it is doubtful that content is communicated solely by eye contact. Primitives do not understand our photographs, as we have learned to do. Meaning is communicated non-verbally, but is at the same time a relative phenomenon, learned by experience as one learns to read, by looking and by familiarizing oneself with the problems attacked. The body of work of one artist provides clues to the meaning of a given work as the works together of a group of artists have meaning in relation to each other. Massaccio's painting was significantly meaningful in relation to the work which preceeded it and that contemporary with it. At any period in history various works have enhanced the meaning of each ither, and this is certainly true now.
There is a certain passivity evident in much of the work. Size is often small, there is no attempt to overwhelm or to change the world. Decisions go with rather than against the givens of a location or a chosen material. Considerations of construction take precedence over taste; necessities in the making of a painting direct ow it will be made and the final appearance is a result rather than a predetermined element. The work is built from the inside out. In this way form results from necessities inherent in the bringing together of elements and an opening is set up into which unknown and unexpected images become active. Interior logic allows a distancing of the esthetic judgment of the painter. Different from previous aleatory work decisions derive from materials themselves, foreign content is not brought in. With this defining of inherent rules the content of the work which originates in the physical aspect is transferred from the material worked on to the artist. The real subject become the experience of making the work, the information derived from the work, the set of values interconnected with and refined through the work.
As the experience becomes a prime activity the time in the studio is given greater attention. The preparation of materials is as important as the use of them. Grinding paint or preparing canvases is an equal activity with the application of the paint. Time must be arranged in order not to be interrupted; the extention of time required for work is as much to be desired for itself as for the purpose of accomplishing something.
Related to that is a certain focus of attention to one detail, one form, counteracting the fragmentation of the world around us. Eating banana is different from eating banana and reading a book. As a society we use our minds in McLuhan's 'mosaic manner; we deal with several subjects at once trying to read the news while having full page clothings ads compete for our attention. We keep our minds on any one subject for a very limited period of time, interposing another subject, then returning to the first, but the time span is always broken. We infrequently read an entire article from start to finish. Life demands pull up from one subject to another. If mediation helps some reexperience a focus, certain work carried out by artists perfoms a similar function. Both in life and in art these artists attempt to give attention is divided nothing is experienced completely. The artist can communicate that intimation to the viewer.
The work I am talking about is involved with the experience of being. It begins with givens. The material exists; decisions are made as to format, combinations of materials, tools, arens. Given one choice others are made on the basis of that. A certain integrity pervades the whole. The artist is involved in being as a way of doimg in letting be, developing, the materials worked with. The experience is one that few other activities allow us to know: the possibility of direct action in work with final materials, of seeing what was visualized materialize itself in our own hands. In that search for present, for perception of being, the artist discovers a wholeness, a means of deriving beauty from within the area set out, from the nature of materials and the techniques and human attributes chosen to be dealt with.
I use the word beauty cautionsly. One wonders if the term is valid, if it any longer has meaning, but we do need some way of indicating the psychotropic action of visual stimuli. It is undeniable that an effect is felt in the presence of certain phenomena, an awe, an excitement. That can be as simple as a reaction to a landscape undergoing the change of autumn colors, the sense of grandeur felt in the face of dramatic mountain scenery. The courtyard of an Islamic mosque can provoke that feeling as can a simple bowl with a calligraphic inscription. We respond to the ingenious economies of Shaker furniture, and to present work in similar ways.
This work is quiet, contemplative, as I have suggested, even meditativ.This is a most difficult quality to discuss. We are used to talking in terms of materials and formal elements, but not of subjective content. Perhaps we feel that too much discussion dissipates the fact of it; we are trying to talk about an experience which is essentially personal. All monochromatic painting has something of this in it. Other work one might think of is that James Bishop or Susann Tanger.
Recent monochrome has been caled Minimal or Reductivist. Because of apparently reduced surface it has been easy to relate this work Minimaism, however, the recent work is not involved in modules, Fabrication or industrial finish. This differentiates it too from Suprematism and Constructivism when the goal was to eliminate the marks of the hand. The new painting accepts the marks of human touch and ideosyncrasies of the artist in conjunction with the varying results abtainable from given materials.
From Process art the work took ist tendency to set up a procedure and accept the results of carrying that out. Conceptual drawing too works this way: rules are given and the ork carried out. The product is the result of that action though here personal content is allowed to enter. Arte Povera contributed another concept, that of using simple methods and materials rather than difficult and costly ones. A term to consider is esthetic primitivism, one from Robert Goldwater's Primitivsm in Modern Art which Carter Ratcliff says, "appears whenever an artist of any period intends to work with fromal "essentials", either to established the fundamentals if his medium ot to engage perseption at the deepest levels".(5) Both of these intentions are basic to recent work.
There have been in Europe in recent years such shows as Fundamental Painting,La Peinture en Question, Analytische Malerei, Bilder ohne Bilder, Pittura. The Support/Surface group and related artists have analysed the materials of painting and, more than American painters, have written and theorized about their work. Claude Viallat has made work out of the elements of canvas, the stretcher,color, location. Dezeuze elaborates on the components of the stretcher. Louis Cane last year showed paintings in which elements even from figurative art were abstracted and incorporated in his previously flat color surfaces. Work shown in Italy, Holland and Germany as well as the work discussed here grew more out of a rejection of color field painting and ist atmosperic quality, and in relation to the French tends to put elements together into a whole rather than opposing them, is less involved in binary opposition, Structuralism.
The artist I am talking about then keeps work whole and within the vision of one outhor rarely using an assistant, ordering work from a factory or working in a group. Painting has been able to gather new energy by throwing things out and starting afresh. Though much of it has seemed to continue reduction it more precisely has been involved in a deconstruction, an analysis of painting itself. Belief remainging in the potentialisties of abstraction and in reaction to the apparent exhaustion of painting, artists cited above and others began the inventory, the cataloguing, the examination of parts I have spoken of. Painting became demonstrative, conceptual, a thing to be examined, more passive than it had been. But the artist was making personal work and thus certain changes came about. The format became generally smaller. Color became opaque, seen for itself rather than being used to create an illusion of to express. Line was used for itself rather than to delineate shape or form. Personal touch was readmitted; the sign of the brush and the artist's hand was again visible. These are elements of painting.
One phase of this analytic period appears to be concluded now, although much about painting remains to be investigated. The whole area of relational color and shapes has barely been touched upon. Devices for creating illusion and the history of paintings itself could provide further subject for study. Indivual artists will decide whether of not this is necessary. But there has been through this analysis a reaffirmation of the strength of the nonobjective means of artistic expression. If it is this period of analysis which is coming to an end, we may be ready to enter still another phrase of abstraction, a synthetic period.
1) Max Kozloff, Painting and Anti-Painting: A Family Quarrel. In: Artforum, September 1975.
2) Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 1974, John Hopkins Univ. Press.
3) Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World, trans. Howard Dearstyne, 1959, Paul Theobald and Co.
4) Constructivism in Poland 1923-1936 BLOK Praesens a.r. , p.92, Catalogue prepared and edited by the director of the Museum Sztuki in Lodz, Ryszard Stanislawsi and his collaborators Janina Ladnowska, Jacek Ojrzynski and Janusz Zagrodzki, transl. by Piotr Graff and Ewa Krasinska.
Wladylaw Strzeminski, Unism in Painting, Praesens Library, Warsaw, No.3, 1928.
5) Carter Ratcliff, On Contemporary Primitivism. In: Artforum, November 1975