Part I continues...


The literalization of the picture plane is a great subject. As the vessel of content becomes shallower and shallower, composition and subject maker and metaphysics all overflow across the edge until, as Gertrude Stein said about Picasso, the emptying out is complete. But all the jettisoned apparatus- hierarchies of painting, illusion, locatable space, mythologies beyond number- bounced back in disguise and attached themselves, via new mythologies, to the literal surface which had apparently left them no purchase. The transformation of literary myths into literal myths- objecthood, the integrity of the picture plane, the equalization of space, the self-sufficiency of the work, the purity of form- is unexplored territory. Without this change art would have been obsolete. Indeed its changes often seem one step ahead of obsolescence, and to that degree its progress mimics the laws of fashion.

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The cultivation of the picture plane resulted in an entity with length and breadth but no thickness, a membrane which, in a metaphor usually organic, could generate its own self-sufficient laws. The primary law, of course, was that this surface, pressed between huge historical forces, could not be violated. A narrow space forced to represent without representing, to symbolize without benefit of received conventions. generated a
plethora of new conventions without a consensus- color codes, signatures of paint, private signs, intellectually formulated ideas of structure. Cubism's concepts of structure conserved the easel painting status quo; Cubist paintings are centripetal, gathered toward the center, fading out toward the edge. (Is this why Cubist paintings tend to be small?) Seurat understood much better how to define the limits of a classic formulation at a time when edges had become equivocal. Frequently, painted borders made up of a glomeration of colored dots are deployed inward to separate out and describe the subject. The border absorbs the slow movements of the structure within. To muffle the abruptness of the edge, he sometimes papered all over the frame so that the eye could move out of the picture- and back into it- without a bump.

Matisse understood the dilemma of the picture plane and its tropism toward outward extension better than anyone. His pictures grew bigger as if, in a topological paradox, depth were being translated into a flat analog. On this, place was signified by up and down and left and right, by color, by drawing that rarely closed a contour without calling on the surface to contradict it, and by paint applied with a kind of cheerful impartiality to every part of that surface. In Matisse's large paintings we are hardly ever conscious of the frame. He solved the problem of lateral extension and containment with perfect tact. He doesn't emphasize the center at the expense of the edge, or vice versa. His pictures don't make arrogant claims to stretches of bare wall. They look good almost anywhere. Their tough, informal structure is combined with a decorative prudence that makes them remarkably self-sufficient. They are easy to hang.

Hanging, indeed, is what we need to know more about. From Courbet on, conventions of hanging are an unrecovered history. The way pictures are hung make assumptions about what is offered. Hanging editorializes on matters of interpretation and value, and is unconsciously influenced by taste and fashion. Subliminal cues indicate to the audience its deportment. It should be possible to correlate the internal history of paintings with the external history of how they were hung. We might begin our search not with a mode of display communally sanctioned (like the Salon), but with the vagaries of private insight- with those pictures of 17th and 18th century collectors elegantly sprawled in the midst of their inventory. The first modern occasion, I suppose, in which a radical artist set up his own space and hung his pictures in it, was Courbet's one-man Salon des Refuses outside the Exposition of 1855. How were the pictures hung? How did Courbet construe their sequence, their relationship to each other, the spaces between? I suspect he did nothing startling. Yet it was the first time a modern artist (who happened to be the first modern artist) had to construct the context of his work and therefore editorialize about its values.

Though pictures may be radical, their early framing and hanging usually is not. The interpretation of what a picture implies about its context is always, we may assume, delayed. In their first exhibition in 1874, the Impressionists stuck their pictures cheek by jowl, just as they would have hung in the Salon. Impressionist pictures which assert their flatness and their doubts about the Iimiting edge are still sealed off in Beaux- arts frames that do little more than announce Old Master- and monetary-status. When William C. Seitz took off the frames for his great Monet show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, the undressed canvases looked a bit like reproductions until you saw how they began to hold the wall. Though the hanging had its eccentric moments, it read the pictures' relation to the wall correctly and, in a rare act of curatorial daring, followed up the implications. Seitz also set some of the Monets flush with the wall. Continuous with the wall, the pictures took on some of the rigidity of tiny murals. The surfaces turned hard as the picture plane was "overliteralized." The difference between the easel picture and the mural was clarified.

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The relation between the picture plane and the underlying wall is very pertinent to the esthetics of surface. The inch of the stretcher's width amounts to a formal abyss. The easel painting is not transferable to the wall, and one wants to know why. What is lost in the transfer? Edges, surface, the grain and bite of the canvas, the separation from the wall. Nor can we forget that the whole thing is suspended or supported- transferable, mobile currency. After centuries of illusionism, it seems reasonable to suggest that these parameters, no maker how flat the surface, are the loci of the last traces of illusionism. Mainstream painting right up to color field is easel painting, and its literalism is practiced against these desiderata of illusionism. Indeed these traces make literalism interesting; they are the hidden component of the dialectical engine that gave the late modernist easel picture its energy. If you copied a late
modernist easel picture onto the wall and then hung the easel picture beside it, you could estimate the degree of illusionism that turned up in the faultless literal pedigree of the easel picture. At the same time the rigid mural would underline the importance of surface and edges to the easel picture, now beginning to hover close to an objecthood defined by the "literal" remnants of illusion- an unstable area.

The attacks on painting in the '60s failed to specify that it wasn't painting but the easel picture that was in trouble. Color field painting was thus conservative in an interesting way, but not to those who recognized that the easel picture couldn't rid itself of illusion, and who rejected the premise of something lying quietly on the wall and behaving itself. I've always been surprised that color field- or late modernist painting in general- didn't try to get onto the wall, didn't attempt a rapprochement between the mural and the easel picture. But then color field painting conformed to the social context in a somewhat disturbing way. It remained Salon painting; it needed big walls and big collectors and couldn't avoid looking like the ultimate in capitalist art. Minimal art recognized the illusions inherent in the easel picture and didn't have any illusions about society. It didn't ally itself with wealth and power, and its abortive attempt to redefine the relation of the artist to various establishments remains largely unexplored.

Apart from color field, late modernist painting postulated some ingenious hypotheses on how to squeeze a little extra out of that recalcitrant picture plane, now so dumbly literal it could drive you crazy. The strategy here was simile (pretending), not metaphor (believing): saying the picture plane is "like a ." The blank was filled in by flat things that lie obligingly on the literal surface and fuse with it, e.g. Johns's Flags, Cy Twombly's blackboard paintings, Alex Hay's huge painted "sheets" of lined paper, Arakawa's "notebooks." Then there is the "like a window shade," "like a wall," "like a sky" area. There's a good comedy of manners piece to be written about the "like a " solution to the picture plane. There are numerous related areas, including the perspective schema resolutely flattened into two dimensions to quote the picture plane's dilemma. And before leaving this area of rather desperate wit, one should note the solutions that cut through the picture plane (Fontana's answer to the Gordian surface) until the picture is taken away and the wall's plaster attacked directly.

Also related is the solution that lifts surface and edges off that Procrustian stretcher, and pins, sticks or drapes paper, fiberglass, or cloth directly against the wall to literalize even further. Here a lot of Los Angeles painting falls neatly- for the first time!- into the historical mainstream; it's a little odd to see this obsession with surface, disguised as it may be with vernacular macho, dismissed because of geographical misplacement as provincial impudence.

All this desperate fuss makes you realize over again what a conservative movement Cubism was. It extended the viability of the easel picture and postponed its breakdown. Cubism was reducible to system, and systems, being easier to understand than art, dominate academic history. Systems are a kind of P.R. which, among other things, push the rather odious idea of progress. Progress can be defined as what happens when you eliminate the opposition. However, the tough opposition voice in modernism is that of Matisse' and it speaks in its unemphatic, rational way about color, which in the beginning scared Cubism gray. Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture reports on how the New York artists sweated out Cubism while casting shrewd eyes on Matisse and Miro. Abstract- Expressionist paintings followed the route of lateral expansion, dropped off the frame, and gradualIy began to conceive the edge as a structural unit through which the painting entered into a dialogue with the wall beyond it. At this point the dealer and curator enter from the wings. How they- in collaboration with the artist- presented these works contributed, in the late '40s and '50s, to the definition of the new painting.

Through the '50s and '60s, we notice the codification of a new theme as it evolves into consciousness: How much space should a work of art have (as the phrase went) to "breathe?" If paintings implicitly declare their own terms of occupancy, the somewhat aggrieved muttering between them becomes harder to ignore. What goes together, what doesn't? The esthetics of hanging evolves according to its own habits, which become conventions, which become laws. We enter the era where works of art conceive the wall as a no-man's land on which to project their concept of the territorial imperative. And we are not far from the kind of border warfare that often Balkanizes museum group shows. There is a peculiar uneasiness in watching artworks attempting to establish territory but not place in the context of the placeless modern gallery.

All this traffic across the wall made it a far from neutral zone. Now a participant in, rather than a passive support for the art, the wall became the locus of contending ideologies and every new development had to come equipped with an attitude toward it. (Gene Davis's exhibition of micro-pictures surrounded by oodles of space is a good joke about this). Once the wall became an esthetic force, it modified anything shown on it. The wall, the context of the art, had become rich in a content it subtly donated to the art. It is now impossible to paint up an exhibition without surveying the space like a health inspector, taking into account the esthetics of the wall which will inevitably "artify" the work in a way that frequently diffuses its intentions. Most of us now "read" the hanging as we would chew gum- unconsciously and from habit. The walls' esthetic potency received a final impetus from a realization that, in retrospect, has all the authority of historical inevitability: the easel picture didn't have to be rectangular.

Stella's early shaped canvases bent or cut the edge according to the demands of the internal logic that generated them. (Here Michael Fried's distinction between inductive and deductive structure remains of one of the few practical hand tools added to the critic's black bag). The result powerfully activated the wall; the eye frequentlywent searching tangentially for the wall's limits. Stella's show of striped U-, T- and L-shaped canvases at Castelli in 1960 "developed" every bit of the wall, floor to ceiling, corner to corner. Flatness, edge, format and wall had an unprecedented dialogue in that small uptown Castelli space. As they were presented, the works hovered between an ensemble effect and independence. The hanging here was as revolutionary as the paintings; since the hanging was part of the esthetic, it evolved simultaneously with the pictures. The breaking of the rectangle formally confirmed the wall's autonomy, altering for good the concept of the gallery space. Some of the mystique of the shallow picture plane (one of the three major forces that altered the gallery space) had been transferred to the context of art.

This result brings us back again to that archetypal installation shot- the suave extensions of the space, the pristine clarity, the pictures laid out in a row like expensive bungalows. Color field painting, which inevitably comes to mind here, is the most imperial of modes in its demand for lebensraum. The pictures recur as reassuringly as the columns in a classic temple. Each demands enough space so that its effect is over before its neighbor's picks up. Otherwise the pictures would be a single perceptual field, frank ensemble painting, detracting from the uniqueness claimed by each canvas. The color field installation shot should be recognized as one of the teleological end-points of the modern tradition. There is something splendidly luxurious about the way the pictures and the gallery reside in a context that is fully sanctioned socially. We are aware we are witnessing a triumph of high seriousness and hand-tooled production, like a Rolls-Royce in a showroom that began as a Cubist jalopy in an outhouse.

What comment can you make on this? A comment has been made already, in an exhibition by William Anastasi at Dwan in New York in 1965. He photographed the empty gallery at Dwan, noticed the parameters of the wall, top and bottom, right and left, the placement of each electrical outlet, the ocean of space in the middle. He then silkscreened all this data on a canvas slightly smaller than the wall and put it on the wall. Covering the wall with an image of that wall delivers a work of art right into the zone where surface, mural and wall have engaged in dialogues central to modernism. In fact, this history was the theme of these paintings, a theme stated with a wit and cogency usually absent from our written clarifications. For me, at least, the show had a peculiar after-effect; when the paintings came down, the wall became a kind of readymade mural and so changed every show in that space thereafter.

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Copyrighted 1976 by Brian O'Doherty.
Brian O'Doherty shows at the Betty Parsons Gallery under the name of Patrick Ireland.


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