Window, Brick, Wall, Field

by cjdown

Johannes Vermeer, View on Delft, 1661

Johannes Vermeer, View on Delft, 1661

There are various ways of creating space in a painting such as linear perspective, diminishing size, and occlusion. In the Renaissance tradition, these systems were used to turn the surface of the painting into a ‘window’ or transparent plane through which viewers could perceive the illusion of depth; a space that receded from this plane to a distant horizon which implied a boundless pictorial realm.

Painters that we today consider modernist, took this space apart and turned it inside out, slowly compressing the illusion of a space ‘behind’ the window of the picture plane until it was co-extensive with the literal surface of the painting. The most extreme examples of this tendency are monochromes – paintings that have either done away with most of the markers of illusionistic space or reduced them to such subtle nuances and variation that they are barely visible.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1917

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1917

Monochrome paintings tend to be “non-objective” (i.e. not deriving from a preexisting source in the objective world) and so they occupy actual space, like sculpture, rather than presenting a pictorial illusion of space. However, there are differences in the way different monochrome paintings engage actual space. The sixties and seventies produced many painters for whom this was an issue, and I have found it useful to compare four that have had a particular impact on my thinking about painting.

Robert Ryman, Archive, 1979

Robert Ryman, Archive, 1979

In my previous post I wrote about Robert Ryman’s white paintings, which he refers to as ‘realist’, in the sense that they are real objects and not illusionistic pictures of a ‘real’ subject or using naturalistic techniques. Instead, he uses a combination of material elements: paint simply as a material, the support and its specific relationship to the wall, the context of actual light falling on the surface. The experience of these elements together is the content of his work. They sit on the wall with the subtle obstinance of a brick.

Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959

Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959

Frank Stella’s early paintings used monochrome palettes (e.g. the “black” or “aluminum” paintings) and industrial paint to reinforce the literal qualities of the painting surface. This reductive strategy was summed up with his pithy statement, “what you see is what you see”, a deflation of the expressionist rhetoric of the earlier generation of New York School painting. The stripes in these early pieces were a reiteration of the framing edge of the painting, emphasizing their lack of pictorial depth. As the edges of the paintings became more convoluted (the so-called shaped canvases) and the stretcher frames deeper (sometimes 4 – 6 inches) they became more like objects or impassive adjuncts to the wall.

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

Ad Reinhardt was a contemporary of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and was at first seen to be allied with the colour field wing of post-war American abstraction. However, his view of art was deeply ascetic, and he claimed that his black monochromes were “simply the last paintings that could be painted”. His vision was that of a monk seeking perfection through endless repetition of form. It was also aligned in many ways with the “end of painting” strain of modernism that I referred to in an earlier post.

Brice Marden, The Seasons, 1974 - 75

Brice Marden, The Seasons, 1974 – 75

Brice Marden’s monochromes seem to align more closely to the objective world. The colours, the proportions, the waxy skins of the paintings all have correlates in concrete reality. So, even though they also have the object quality of other monochromes, they also reveal more traditional, symbolic layers of meaning.

All four of these painters have been very important to my work and my thinking over the years, even though they are in many ways conceptually incompatible with each other. They highlight for me the fundamental differences that accrue in the meaning of a work through different conceptions of how it functions spatially, even when they have superficially similar visual qualities. The reduction in these works represent both a minimum threshold of what might be construed as a painting, and an opening onto an expansive field of possibilities.

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