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Part I


A recurrent scene in sci-fi movies shows the earth withdrawing from the spacecraft until it becomes a horizon, a beachball, a grapefruit, a golf ball, a star. With the changes in scale, responses slide from the particular to the general. The individual is replaced by the race and we are a pushover for the race­ a mortal biped, or a tangle of them spread out below like a rug. From a certain height people are generally good. Vertical distance encourages this generosity. Horizontality doesn't seem to have the same moral virtue. Far away figures may be approaching and we anticipate the insecurities of encounter. Life is horizontal, just one thing after another, a conveyer belt shuffling us toward the horizon. But history, the view from the departing spacecraft, is different. As the scale changes, layers of time are superimposed and through them we project perspectives with which to recover and correct the past. No wonder art gets bollixed up in this process; its history, perceived through time, is confounded by the picture in front of your eyes, a witness ready to change testimony at the slightest perceptual provocation. History and the eye have a profound wrangle at the center of this "constant" we call tradition.

All of us are now sure that the glut of history, rumor and evidence we call the modernist tradition is being circumscribed by a horizon. Looking down, we see more clearly its "laws" of progress, its armature hammered out of idealist philosophy, its military metaphors of advance and conquest. What a sight it is -or was! Deployed ideologies, transcendent rockets, romantic slums where degradation and idealism obsessively couple, all those troops running back and forth in conventional wars. The campaign reports that end up pressed between boards on coffee-tables give us little idea of the actual heroics. Those paradoxical achievements huddle down there, awaiting the revisions that will add the avant-garde era to tradition or, as we sometimes fear, end it. Indeed tradition itself, as the spacecraft withdraws, looks like another piece of bric-a-brac on the coffee-table- no more than a kinetic assemblage glued together with reproductions, powered by little mythic motors and sporting tiny models of museums. And in its midst, one notices an evenly lighted "cell" that appears crucial to making the thing work: the gallery space.

The history of modernism is intimately framed by that space. Or rather the history of modern art can be correlated with changes in that space and in the way we see it. We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first. (A cIiche of the age is to ejaculate over the space on entering a gallery.)An image comes to mind of a white, ideal space that, more than any single picture, may be the archetypal image of 20th-century art. And it clarifies itself through a process of historical inevitability usually attached to the art it contains.


The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is "art." The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself. This gives the space a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values. Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory joins with chic design to produce a unique chamber of esthetics. So powerful are the perceptual fields of force within this chamber that once outside it, art can lapse into secular status- and conversely. Things become art in a space where powerful ideas about art focus on them. Indeed the object frequently becomes the medium through which these ideas are manifested and proffered for discussion- a popular form of late modernist academicism ("ideas are more interesting than art"). The sacramental nature of the space becomes clear, and so does one of the great projective laws of modernism: as modernism gets older, context becomes content. In a peculiar reversal, the object introduced into the gallery "frames" the gallery and its laws.

A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall. The art is free, as the saying used to go, "to take on its own life." The discreet desk may be the only piece of furniture. In this context a standing ashtray becomes almost a sacred object, just as the firehose in a modern museum looks not like a firehose but an esthetic conundrum. Modernism's transposition of perception from life to formal values is complete. This, of course, is one of modernism's fatal diseases.

Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial, the space is devoted to the technology of esthetics. Works of art are mounted, hung, scattered for study. Their ungrubby surfaces are untouched by time and its vicissitudes. Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of "period" (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there. Indeed the presence of that odd piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion. The space offers the thought that while eyes and minds are welcome, space-occupying bodies are not- or are tolerated only as kinesthetic mannekins for further study. This Descartian paradox is reinforced by one of the icons of our visual culture: the installation shot, sans figures. Here at last the spectator, oneself, is eliminated. You are there without being there, one of the major services provided for art by its old antagonist, photography. The installation shot is a metaphor for the gallery space. In it, an ideal is fulfilled as strongly as in a Salon painting of the 1830s.

Indeed, the Salon itself implicitly defines what a gallery is, a definition appropriate for the esthetics of the period. A gallery is a place with a wall, which is covered with a wall of pictures. The wall itself has no intrinsic esthetic; it is simply a necessity for an upright animal. Samuel F. B. Morse's Exhibition Gallery at the Louvre (1833) is upsetting to the modern eye: masterpieces as walIpaper, each one not yet separated out and isolated in space like a throne. Disregarding the (to us) horrid concatenation of periods and styles, the demands made on the spectator by the hanging pass our understanding. Are you to hire stilts to rise to the ceiling or to get on hands and knees to sniff anything below the dado? Both high and low are underprivileged areas. You overheard a lot of complaints from artists about being "skied" but nothing about being "floored." Near the floor, pictures were at least accessible and could accommodate the connoisseur's "near" look before he withdrew to a more judicious distance. One can see the 1 9th-century audience strolling, peering up, sticking their faces in pictures and falling into interrogative groups a proper distance away, pointing with a cane, perambulating again, clocking off the exhibition picture by picture. Larger paintings rise to the top (easier to see from a distance), and are sometimes tilted out from the wall to maintain the viewer's plane; the "best" pictures stay in the middle zone; small pictures drop to the bottom. The perfect hanging job is an ingenious mosaic of frames without a patch of wasted wall showing.

What perceptual law could justify such (to our eyes) a barbarity? One and one only. That each picture was seen as a self-contained entity, totally isolated from its slum-close neighbor by a heavy frame around and a complete perspective system within. Space was discontinuous and categorizable, just as the houses in which these pictures hung had different rooms for different functions. The 1 9th century mind was taxonomic, and the 19th-century eye recognized hierarchies of genre and the authority of the frame.

How did the easel picture become such a neatly wrapped parcel of space? The discovery of perspective coincides with the rise of the easel picture, and the easel picture, in turn, confirmed the promise of illusionism inherent in painting. There is a peculiar relation between a mural- painted directly on the wall- and a picture that hangs on a wall; a painted wall is replaced by a piece of portable wall. Limits are established and framed; miniaturization becomes a powerful convention that assists rather than contradicts illusion. The space in murals tends to be shallow; even when illusion is an intrinsic part of the idea, the integrity of the wall is as often reinforced by struts of painted architecture as denied. The wall itself is always recognized as limiting depth (you don't walk through it), just as corners and roof (often in a variety of inventive ways) limit size. Close up, murals tend to be frank about their means- illusionism breaks down in a babble of method. You feel you are looking at the underpainting and often can't quite find your "place." Indeed murals project ambiguous and wandering vectors with which the spectator attempts to align himself. The easel picture on the wall quickly indicates to him exactly where he stands. For the easel picture is like a portable window that, once set on the wall, penetrates it with deep space. This theme is endlessly repeated in northern art, where a window within the picture in turn frames not only a further distance but confirms the windowlike limits of the frame. The magical, boxlike status of some smaller easel pictures is due to the immense distances they contain and the perfect details they sustain on close examination. The frame of the easel picture is as much a psychological container for the artist as the room in which he stands is for the viewer. The perspective positions everything within the picture along a cone of space, against which the frame acts like a grid, echoing those cuts of foreground, middleground and distance within. One "steps" firmly into such a picture, or glides in effortlessly, depending on its tonality and color. The greater the illusion, the greater the invitation to the spectator's eye; the eye is abstracted from an anchored body and projected as a miniature proxy into the picture to inhabit and test the articulations of its space.


For this process, the stability of the frame is as necessary as an oxygen tank to a diver. Its limiting security completely defines the experience within. The border as absolute limit is confirmed in easel art up to the 19th century. When it curtails or elides subject matter, it does so in a way that strengthens the edge. The classic package of perspective enclosed by the Beaux-Arts frame makes it possible for pictures to hang like sardines. There is no suggestion that the space within the picture is continuous with the space outside it.

This suggestion is made only sporadically through the 18th and 19th centuries as atmosphere and color eat away at the perspective. Landscape is the progenitor of a translucent mist that puts perspective and tone/color in opposition, because both contain, among other things, opposite interpretations of the wall they hang on. Pictures begin to appear that put pressure on the frame. The archetypal composition here is the edge-to-edge horizon, separating zones of sky and sea occasionally underlined by beach with maybe a figure facing, as everyone does, the sea. Formal composition is gone, the frames within the frame (coulisses, repoussoirs, the braille of perspective depth) have slid away. What is left is an ambiguous surface partly framed from the inside, by the horizon. Such pictures (by Courbet, Caspar David Friedrich, Whistler and hosts of little masters) are poised between infinite depth and flatness and tend to read as pattern. The powerful convention of the horizon zips easily enough through the limits of the frame.

These and certain pictures focusing on an indeterminate patch of landscape that often looks like the "wrong" subject introduce the idea of noticing something, of an eye scanning. This temporal quickening makes the frame an equivocal and not an absolute zone. Once you know that a patch of landscape represents a decision to exclude everything around it, you are faintly aware of the space outside the picture. The frame becomes a parenthesis. The separation of paintings along a wall, through a kind of magnetic repulsion, becomes inevitable. And it is accentuated and largely initiated by the new science- or art- devoted to the excision of a subject from its context: photography.

In a photograph, the location of the edge is a primary decision, since it composes- or decomposes- what it surrounds. Eventually framing, editing, cropping- establishing limits- become major acts of composition. But not so much in the beginning. There was the usual holdover of pictorial conventions to do some of the work of framing- internal buttresses made up of convenient trees and knolls. But the best early photographs reinterpret the edge without the assistance of pictorial conventions. They lower the tension on the edge by allowing the subject matter to compose itself, rather than consciously aligning it with the edge. Perhaps this is typicaI of the 19th century. The 19th century looked at a subject- not at its edges. Various fields were studied within their declared limits. Studying not the field but its limits, and defining these limits for the purpose of
extending them, is a 20th-century habit. We have the illusion that we add to a field by extending it laterally, not by going, as the 19th century might say in proper perspective style, deeper into it. Even scholarship in both centuries has a recognizably different sense of edge and depth, of limits and definition. Photography quickly learned to move away from heavy frames and to mount a print on a sheet of board. A frame was allowed to surround the board after a neutral interval. Early photography recognized the edge but removed its rhetoric, softened its absolutism and turned it into a zone rather than the strut it later became. But one way or another, the edge as a firm convention locking in the subject had become fragile.

Much of this applied to Impressionism. where a major theme is the edge as umpire of what's in and what's out. But this is combined with a far more important force, the beginning of the decisive thrust that eventually altered the idea of the picture, the way it was hung, and ultimately the gallery space: the myth of flatness, which became the powerful logician in painting's argument for self-definition. The development of a shallow literal space (containing invented forms, as distinct from the old illusory space containing Unreal" forms) put further pressures on the edge. The great inventor here is, of course, Monet.

Indeed the magnitude of the revolution he initiated is such there is some doubt his achievement matches it, for he is an artist of decided limitations, or one who decided on his limitations and stayed within them. Monet's landscapes often seem to have been noticed on his way to or from the real subject. There is an impression that he is sealing for a provisional solution; the very featurelessness relaxes your eye to look elsewhere. The informal subject maker of Impressionism is always pointed out, but not that the subject is seen through a casual glance, one not too interested in what it's looking at. What is interesting in Monet is "looking at" this look -the integument of light, the often preposterous formularization of a perception through a punctate code of color and touch which remains (until near the end) impersonal. The edge eclipsing the subject seems a somewhat haphazard decision that could just as well have been made a few feet to left or right. A signature of Impressionism is the way the casually chosen subject softens the edge's structural role at a time when the edge is under pressure from the increasing shallowness of the space. This doubled and somewhat opposing stress on the edge is the prelude to the definition of a painting as a self- sufficient object- a container of illusory fact now become the primary fact itself, which sets us on the high road to some stirring esthetic climaxes.

Flatness and objecthood usually find their first official text in Maurice Denis' famous statement in 1890 that before a picture is subject matter it is first of all a surface covered with lines and colors. This is one of those literalisms that sounds brilliant or rather dumb depending on the zeitgeist. Right now, when we've seen the end-point to which nonmetaphor, nonstructure, nonillusion and noncontent can take you, the zeitgeist makes it sound a little obtuse. The picture plane, the everthinning integument of modernist integrity, sometimes seems ready for Woody Allen, and has indeed attracted its share of ironists and wits. But this ignores that the powerful myth of the picture plane received its impetus from the centuries during which it sealed in unalterable systems of illusion. Conceiving it differently, in the modern era, was an heroic adjustment that signified a totally different world view, which was trivialized into esthetics, into the technology of flatness.




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