Supports/Surfaces: Critiques of Modernism Conference paper.
Courtauld Institute, Saturday February 27, 1999.


Supports/Surfaces offered an alternative as well as a riposte to the logic of modernism that was dominant in the seventies but which still bears examiniation from the perspective of the present. The fact that Supports/Surfaces necessitates a discussion around issues about painting is perhaps one reason why it fell so quickly from prominence in the seventies as well as the reason of an increasing interest in it toward issues of contemporary practice.
Supports/Surfaces primarily challenges the logic of medium specificity which eventually sidelined painting, seeing it as merely one step on the path to a more developed idea of extended practice in an extended field. Greenberg's articulation of this in terms of painting provided a field day for the literalists who dismantled every degree-zero quality of painting as being subject to the logic of other, constructed, mediums. Minimalism in the hands of an artist like Robert Morris seemed not only to be a critique of Greenberg's thinking in general but more particularly of a logic that Greenberg centered mainly around questions of painting.
Supports/Surfaces seems to stand critically in the space between the hegemony of Greenberg and what was to become the future hegemony of Minimalism and its inevitable development into Conceptual practices.
Put another way Supports/Surfaces could not sanction the specificity of painting in Greenberg's terms but neither could it agree with the logic of Minimalism where extended practice had dissolved the distinction between mediums as if they were like genetic deficiencies to be surpassed by cultural natural selection.
The progressive ideology latent in both the Greenbergian view as well its Minimalist successor is short circuited in Supports/Surfaces by the use of distinctions and practices which are put to work to un-earth and excavate that which can be said to subtend those structures which otherwise seem like the natural phenomena of beholding and perception. This in itself implies that the formalist impulse at work within Supports/Surfaces was powered by ideological formations and beliefs that put even further distance between its practices and what was happening in the States. However to ascribe the structural, and constructive idea of painting that Supports/Surfaces seemed to be pursuing, simply into a political/ideological frame, placing it, topically, into the epoch of the late sixties and early seventies perhaps obscures a deeper French cultural context which goes to the heart of the operational idea of Supports/Surfaces and which still seems relevant and intriguing today.
Before Supports/Surfaces was really underway, critical readings were being made of painting that could be argued prepared the ground for their practice. Damisch's accounts of Dubuffet's work are worth noting in this context. He deploys two terms which seem key to an interpretation of not only Supports/Surfaces but to a much more extensive French artistic practice particularly relating to painting. In 'Retour au Texte' first published in 1962 and later an essay in Fenêtre Jaune Cadmium, Damisch enters in to an account of a painting by Dubuffet where he uses l'épaisseur, or thickness, as a key term implying such a richness in its evocation of painting that it must stand as a rival to Greenberg's flatness as painting's specific limit.
Damisch accounts for Dubuffet's strategy thus:

"Such a programme supposes that all the means employed in the making of a tableau remain apparent and that the painter sacrifices nothing to a quest for effect, which always implies some idea of dissimulation or surprise All the same Dubuffet recognized here not only a moral imperative but , very concretely - the principle of an aesthetic. For this painter took on board the whole area that painting worked hard at keeping secret, starting with the underlayers in which it is so rich. If Dubuffet did not appreciate working in flat planes, it is because the observor of Dessous la Capitale and the geologisit he became after that, liked working in the thickness of the ground - I mean of the tableau - to reveal what is beneath: scratching the paper, incising and beating up substance, skinning it and whipping it up to reveal layers below, all this gave him intense satisfaction and the reference to him as bringing alive the landscape (mettre le paysage "à vif") was not simply a nice image. But what does that mean? Would Dubuffet in turn succumb to the illusion of other worlds? Isn't he satisfied having attained the foundations, 'le fond' , rock bottom? Does he have to dig deeper still - beneath the ground to the sous-sol, under the ground?"

Thickness here really does open up the possibilities for thinking through painting - the notion of work in relation to the surface adds up to an idea of excavation of the tableau as well as the painting. Damisch's reference to the geologist that Dubuffet was to become ,is an early echo of the sense of what the surface of painting, epistomologically and as the objet de connaissance, was to become for many French artists and particularly those associated with Supports/Surfaces. Damisch's description of the working of this surface as a material entity in itself, throws into question the the flatness of painting as being in itself a specific limit of the medium as well as an a priori condition. Greenberg's centering of specifity around flatness and the subsequent hyperrealization of the optical illusionism that he claimed was inherent to painting, shut down the possibilities of materially working painting in terms of surface as a 'thickness'. Supports/Surfaces in a restricted sense was a demonstration of just such possibilities where the material manipulation of the surface was seen as a site of inscription in painting that undermined ideas of ground and field that were at work in the USA.
Damisch's use of thickness throughout a number of texts from the early sixties on is accompanied by an oscillation of its relationship with painting (peinture) and the wider term tableau. The use of tableau in lieu of painting is highly significant, as well as complex, in relationship to French critical thinking. To note that there exists a distinction between peinture and tableau is perhaps at least one of the keys to an understanding of Supports/Surfaces. It can be seen that in Dezeuze's work and writing tableau takes on a more important significance than painting
In 1970 Dezueze writes about:

"the false opposition tableau/non-tableau (that is to say, the subtle but closed combination of formalism on one side and "objects" of anti-art on the other) have not up until now permitted a consideration of the tableau as a grammatical (logocentric) and geometric (Euclidian) category that is historically constituted. This entity, accepted as ready made or rejected out of hand too quickly, has thus remained un-analysed, un-decomposed and therefore un-generated".

The implication here is clearly the squabble between Greenberg's fetishization of the format and the anti-art assertion of objecthood by artists like Morris, which was threatening to throw out the baby with the bath water. Painting under American formalism was too literally defined and thus too easily subject to the literalist, avant-garde, sleights of hand of Minimalism.
Dezeuze is posing here a logic of the tableau that through its de-construction throws into question, historical, cultural as well as ideological conditions that have built up like layers of sediment to constitute and generate that which is naturally assumed to be of the condition of the pictorial. Again with Dezeuze we find a logic that looks to what subtends that which is assumed whole and of itself. The tableau at its grammatical and geometric level supports structures such as the net, the grid and the window which become mechanisms of the tableau through which material is circulated and is one site of signification. All these pictorial tropes can be seen to be at work in French painting around the time of Supports/Surfaces; the nets and knots of Viallat, Dezueze's grids, Buraglio's windows. Through such thinking one can trace an Althusserian model; the Institutional State Apparatus where ideology is seen as material as it circulates through the structures of the apparatus. With François Rouan's tressage paintings of the sixties and seventies the literal weaving of strands of pre-painted canvas extended the possibilities of the operation of the surface as a trope. The literal thickness of the tressage and its echoing of the support invited psycho-analytical readings. The sense of the surface being a void where only half of its material is visible due to the action of the tressage spawned literaire interpretations including one essay on Rouan's tressage from Lacan himself. This sous-sol sense of the surface as ground brings to mind the French word combler which has been used in conjunction with the work of painters such as Rouan and also Monique Frydman. 'Combler' to fill in and more especially fill in a hole suggests a relationship to the ground as a type of void as well as implying an operational strategy toward the working of the tableau's material. The weaving of tressage with Rouan has a parallel in Frydman's work where paint is rubbed, as a paste, into the picture surface. Within the strata of this layering she has often used the imprints of rope bringing to mind a further strategy of the tableau. It is perhaps worth noting that Frydman like Rouan has an affinity with Lacanian models of thinking.
With Christian Bonnefoi there is perhaps the most comprehensive as well as the most complex interrogation of the issue of the tableau and Supports/Surfaces served him well as a demonstrational model. Bonnefoi's participation in the group Ja na pa in the late seventies came in the wake of Supports/Surfaces and in those early works a strong relationship can be seen to the work of Dezeuze. With Bonnefoi there is conjunction with other strands of the context that surrrounded Supports/Surfaces that is worth noting. His studies were academic rather than artistic. Most notably he studied under Hubert Damisch and a fellow student as well as sparring partner was Yves-Alain Bois. Both Bonnefoi and Bois were key components of the journal Macula of the 1980's which marks another chapter in the unfolding of the ideas already discussed here that were circulating in France from the 1960's until the present.
Bonnefoi can be seen in his writing as well as his painting to develop from Dezeuze's position. Tarlatan, a type of netting was attached to frames in works like Hyperion and the Ja na pa of the late seventies. These works are negoiations between the underpinning structure of the tableau and that which is literally pinned on top of it, thus marking the movements which otherwise constitute a singular inscription. Again as with Dezeuze the critical watershed is the refusal to view the tableau as an exhaustable object resulting in a rejection of the tableau as painting.
In Bonnefoi's own words:

"the question of the location of the work of art has nothing to do with the space of its realisation. The contemporary trouble comes from what happens between abstract expressionism and minimalism, between a limitating and idealising (sacralisant) interpretation of the picture by formalist interpretation and a reduction of the latter to the simple status of object by the subsequent movement. Painting was and is derided in a derisory, positivist and simplistic manner (...)It was not noticed that concepts of the plane and limits for example, were fictions for the painter and that this being so, the painter can abandon them once their function has been materialized. No one realized that the tableau is not an object but a location, that it thus has no history but is the support for a history of its constituants; its categories and its substance".

Bonnefoi's rejection of the tableau as either an object or as a space but viewed instead as a site or location again throws into question the axis of American Formalism and Minimalist practice. It is perhaps worth noting that a version of the model of the tableau, as a type of implicit critique of Minimalism, was used by Bois in 1983 in his essay A Picturesque Stroll around Clara-Clara. Bois focuses on Serra's observation about the framing of Smithson's Spiral Jetty into the gestalt reading of an ariel photograph. This amounts to a denial of the Jetty as a location, and the possibility of it being experienced as such Instead its reduction to an image in a photographic plane inscribing it as shape and as subject to instantaneous recognition. The co-option of Smithson's as well as Serra's work into readings that agreed the protocols of Minimalism, through the gestalt qualities of shape and their instantaneous reception obviously posed a problem for Serra. Serra himself spoke of the experience of his pieces as working against such gestalt effects. Bois in discussing this critical aspect of Serra's work accounts for the sculptor's strategy in terms of employing a parallax effect and this would link Serra to the tradition of the Picturesque Landscape Garden. The sense of seeing site specific work in terms of a location or more exactly a series of locations as oppossed to the endless spatial aporia of Minimalism is an illustration of how the tableau as an idea was at least operational in the mechanisms of Land Art. It also demonstrates its critical angle in relation to Minimalism and questions the wisdom of subsuming particular mediums into an integrated category of the work of art in terms of the assertion of objecthood.
From the vantage of the 1980's and the increasing presence of Bois within an axis of a Franco-American critical context it is curious that French models of thinking through the tableau, in the way demonstrated through Supports/Surfaces, have bot been brought into a critical proximity with American Formalism and Minimalism. Even in Bois book Painting As Model it is very curious that Supports/Surfaces does not appear once in its index,, that Bonnefoi only appears in the acknowledgements and Rouan's presence seems to be only needed in the books final chapter as a vehicle for discussing Damisch's writings. A further irony in what seems to be a masking of the full picture of the value of the French context in casting a critical shadow over American hegemony is that Painting As Model as far as I know has only appeared in English and at the other end of the spectrum, Damisch's Fenêtre Jaune Cadmium has yet to appear in an English translation.
When looking further at how some of the issues that have been discussed are applicable to other contexts, it is worth once more considering Dezeuze's idea of painting in terms of its grammatical interface (or perhaps its tableau de bord). Much of the activity in painting since the eighties, that has found a high profile, has depended upon the use of rhetorical structures using American formalism as a model of High Modernity's exhaustion. This is perhaps most evident with artists like Peter Halley. The essentialist traps of American post-war art are reinforced by its incorporation into an allegorical narrative that situates the ideological and the social at a syntacical level. Stella's shaped canvases, under Halley, are expressions of a type of socio-technological anxiety which Halley then updates with a 'state of the art' over-haul. Here shape as the subject of a crisis in painting fails to become a genuine issue outside of the allegory. There is the prospect here that if the wider French context is brought into line with the syntacical abstraction so prominent since the early eighties there might be fresh ground from which to evaluate these species of second order representation which could even include the work of Gerhad Richter.
However in the States there are signs of working through painting outside of these syntacic strategies. With the work of James Hyde, Polly Applebaum and Laura Lisbon there seems to be signs of movement toward a question of painting through a strategy akin to that of that tableau. It is worth noting that in the case of Lisbon she is working in terms of a real knowledge of Supports/Surfaces and the wider French context.
In France itself the Villa Arson art school in Nice has become important in building a generation of artists who while having an identity independent of Support/Surfaces seem to be engaged with painting at a level other than that of the syntacical. Noel Dolla's presence as a professor at the Villa Arson is undoubtebly a key reason for the Villa producing in recent years artists like Figarella and Pinaud.
However outside of these scant examples it is difficult to locate real parallels to Support/Surfaces in other contexts. For this conference I was asked to consider what British parallels there might be to the subject in hand today. As a painter who was at art school in the seventies I remember few parallels that could serve as examples. In fact a memory that came back to me was reading an article in the English magazine, Artscribe by Paul Rodgers titled Contemporary Painting in France; the subject and the subject's space. This article was a good and thorough account of what was then at its zenith and publically prominent in France. Intriguing though my first exposure to Support/Surfaces was, it was a very remote world from that which could be said to be English painting in the mid to late seventies. Greenbergian logic was either slavishly adhered to, which was giving rise to an abstract lyricism which seemed to many even at the time as a bland mannerism, or painters were working in a 'no-problem' mode, as types of pre-Greenbergianites. The latter was to be cashed in a few years later as the zeitgeist's 'new spirit' formally de-problematised painting letting it loose as various brands of nationalistic wild beasts across the international institutional circuit. The lack of any critical edge in England at the time was brought home to me when I was recalling the few artists who indeed did seem relevant to this discussion. Mick Moon's taurpaulins and Noel Forster's paintings came to mind. In the case of Forster's work, that bore many parallel with Support/Surfaces, an article, also in Artscribe, on his work by Stephen Bann hit the mark of what divided France and England during that epoch. In the article Bann made a comparason with a context that could be seen to be general in Britain at the time. Bann speaks of a general rhetoric of imagination being predominately used as a vehicle for packaging abstract painting and its artists of the time. The purpose of which as Bann says :
"is to promote an image of the artist which depreciates the role of discourse in relation to the act of inspired imagination".
Bann later goes on to contrast such a situation with the presentation of the exhibition Tendances d l'Art en France , curated by Maurice Pleynett hat took place at the Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris in 1979. I think it is worth quoting here at length as it usefully illustrates just how wide the divide between the two cultures was. As Bann says of the exhibition :

"But one simple feature of the display is worthy of note. In the centre of the gallery, and throughout the whole exhibition, was a series of glass-topped showcases, hardly obtrusive but attracting the spectator's interest from time to time. These show cases contained (possibly from Pleynet's personal library?) a broad selection of the leading works in philosophy; anthropology, literary criticism and psycho-analysis published in France over the past two decades or so: in other words, as a nucleus, the published works of such thinkers as Derrida, Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Lacan and Foucault. Next door to them in showcases were of course, many additional books and magazines - those by Pleynet himself and his fellow members of the Tel Quel group, those initiated by some of the very painters whose work was on view. The whole operation might appear, as I describe it, to have been quite unbelievably pretentious. If it was not so, this was simply because the purpose was to represent, almost as a necessary concomitant to the exhibition, the image of a total culture."

From my perspective Stephen Bann's observations are as true today as they were some twenty tears ago. The ground rules may have changed but there still seems a reluctance in Britain to acknowledge painitng as a deeply discursive and often complex practice.
Finally, my reflection on the issues discussed in this paper have come through my own practice as a painter. It is through painting as well as living in France since 1991 that Supports/Surfaces and a wider context of French painting has forced me to review my relationship to my own practice. The ideas set forth in this paper, I must acknowledge, are part of an ongoing discussion in France. I have mentioned the artists Dezeuze and Bonnefoi in this context but it is also important to note the work of the art historian Tristan Trémeau who through his writing and curatorial work has greatly advanced this discussion and brought much of the territory covered in this paper to my attention.