A discussion about painting and
time raises the question; 'what is the time of painting?' This
question suggests, in itself, that what could be discussed are
qualities of temporality that are conditioned by the specific
characteristics of a particular artistic medium - not sculpture,
not installation, not photography but painting. That some how
painting is (at least potentially) distinct from other artistic
mediums and that it some how works differently. The complex
historical grounds of such a discussion has been opened up by
Yve-Alain Bois in Resisting Blackmail , his introduction
to Painting as Model (1). Here he attempts to break
down the false opposition between formalist and antiformalist
positions and instead to map out differences between American
and European formalism. Medium specificity under American formalism
was conditioned by ideas of aesthetic autonomy. An alternative
view would use the limits of painting as a model for tackling
wider questions. One such question is how time is material to
painting in a way that conditions spectatorship, and this can
be seen to be distinct from or displaced by other mediums. Implicit
within this alternative view is that painting is not merely
positioned to demonstrate or even worse, illustrate these models.
In the thirty years since Michael Fried's essay Art and
Objecthood (2) was written it has remained a contentious
critical position. As a critique of Minimalism and as a defence
of painting it remains tainted by Fried's uncompromising support
for a high modernity that even in 1967 was for many unconvincing.
But to dismiss the essay because of vagaries of taste would
be to avoid the main thrust of Fried's argument.
The response of Art and Objecthood to what has become
generically known as Minimalism, was to Judd and mainly Morris's
credo that the concerns of sculpture could be said to be not
only distinct from painting but actually hostile (3)
to it. If Fried did not agree on the outbreak of hostilities
between painting and sculpture he considered that painting and
Minimalism (or as he dubbed it literalist art) were at least
at odds with each other. We may be healthily suspicious of oppositional
arguments, but even so it may be useful to re-examine the main
distinction that Fried makes between painting and Minimalist
Fried accused literalist art of being theatrical, a
term which seems to have confused rather than clarified his
argument. By theatre Fried was simply referring to
the confusing of the space between a work of art and the spectator.
In a Minimalist installation the spectator is confronted by
an entire situation where even the spectator's body is involved.
Temporally such a work operates in terms of an 'inexhaustible'
experience, and an endlessness based on repetition and the serial
unit. Fried noted that this 'presentment of endless', or
indefinite, duration' 'persists in time' (4) and he goes
on to say that:
'(the literalist preoccupation with time) is paradigmatically
theatrical: as though theatre confronts the beholder, and thereby
isolates him, with the endlessness not just of objecthood but
of time; or as though the sense which at bottom, theatre addresses
is a sense of temporality, of both time passing and to come,
simultaneously approaching and receding as if apprehended in
an infinite perspective....' .. (5)
Fried notes that painting is unable to function within this
duration of experience, as at every moment a painting is:
'wholly manifest,....a continuous and entire presentness,
a perpetual creation of itself that one experiences as a kind
of instantaneousness'. (6)
Fried's positioning of painting positively and Minimalism negatively
led to a constraint within Art and Objecthood. He felt
obliged to develop theatricality as a concept in some detail,
and in so doing left the detail of what painting might be in
relation to this, open to some speculation. While offering an
extraordinary account of the operational conditions of Minimalism
Art and Objecthood leaves painting to flounder in a
somewhat theological half-light most famously epitomised by
his final sentence - 'presentness is grace' (7).
In Absorption and Theatricality: Painter and Beholder in
the Age of Diderot (8)Fried looked further into terms opposing
theatricality. Within the context of 18th century painting theatricality
could be applied to those figures within a composition that
directly address the space or the presence of a would-be beholder.
The painting thus presents itself not as a painting but as a
continuum of the beholder's space. It is as it were making a
statement that addresses the beholder as if to say, 'I am not
a work of art, but like you I am real ' Absorption
on the other hand depends upon what is depicted not addressing
the viewer in this way. The scene and characters depicted are
'absorbed' within their own world-view and time. The viewer
thus has to negotiate the picture primarily as a work of art
that is removed from the space of the beholder, or more specifically
as a representation and not as something 'real'. Absorption
in this historical sense depends on an internal mechanism of
painting that perhaps can be seen as an internal tension of
opposites. For the painting has to simultaneously maintain itself
as a painting while presenting a pictorial schema. This can
be described as the viewer having to reconcile the work objectively
and subjectively, as he or she encounters both its status as
a work of art and its potential function as an image. Fried's
description of 'absorption' in terms of 18th century painting
did not serve his argument in Art and Objecthood .
It also conflicted with his assertion of the strength of the
painting he was supporting in 1967. It also fed the attack that
Minimalism was mounting upon painting. Pictorial schema in 18th
century painting brought with it illusionism through perspectival
space as well mimeticism. These were aspects that fell outside
the canon of in high-modernist abstraction. The survival of
painting after Minimalism could be accounted for, however, in
terms of the capacity it has to engage the spectator within
an oscillation of forces much like those set out as 'absorption'
by Fried. However the complexity is such that the terms need
to be re-defined.
Shape was a determining factor in both Fried and Robert Morris's
support of their respective critical positions. Fried maintained
that shape was common to both painting and sculpture. The tension
between what he called 'depicted shape' and 'literal shape'
brings about an operation that aligns with his description of
absorption. In his essay Shape and Form (9) he says:
And in fact there is no distinction one can make between
attending to the surface of the painting and to the illusion
it generates. To be gripped by one is to be held, and moved,
by the other (10).
The oscillation between literal and virtual recalls absorptive
effects but the terms 'depicted shape and a subsequent illusion
only lent power to Morris' argument. For him the gestalt effect
of simple shape pulled the mind toward an instant recognition
of form and canceled out the need to negotiate the form internally.
Instead viewing could be structured externally in a spatial
and temporal field. For Morris gestalts effectively canceled
out absorption.. However for Morris, the relationship of shape
to gestalt effects involved a suppression of how shape systematically
works in pictorial terms. Fried's use of the term 'depicted
shape' in terms of illusionism precluded all possibility of
countering the force of the literalist argument.
Frank Stella and Elsworth Kelly used shaped canvases, which
were often four-sided, which could be described as rhomboids,
distorted rectangles or squares. Such distortions are subject
to pictorial systems broadly known as projections whereby a
solid is transcribed onto a flat surface in a way that can crudely
be described as tracing the shape of an object cast as a shadow
onto a surface. While at times this resembles perspectival systems
such an indexical representation is not viewer-based. It is
rather object-based as it is account of an object's properties
and not dependent upon a particular viewing position. An axionometric
drawing represents specific aspects of an object and not how
an object appears to a spectator from a fixed position. The
frequent tension between literal shape and depicted shape in
Kelly's and Stella's work results from shape being read through
an object-based projection system. Perhaps it is not by chance
that Elsworth Kelly's photographs which relate directly to his
paintings are of the shadows cast by objects. The point here
is to distinguish qualities of shape when they are placed within
the vertical visual field; squares and rectangles can hold a
gestalt in the way Morris described but irregular figures cause
the mind to switch between potential readings(11).
In his essay 'A Picturesque Stroll Around Clara - Clara'
(12), a discussion of Richard Serra's work by Bois, some of
the issues found here are identified. Although a sculptor and
for many a Minimalist artist, Serra actively criticised many
of the tenets of Minimalism. What he was most vehemently opposed
to was gestalt properties. He remarked that Robert Smithson's
Spiral Jetty had become best know through an aerial photograph
which he considered denied the true temporal experience of the
work. He said:
"Photography produces a gestalt reading - reconstructs
it around a compositional a priori...... most photographs take
their cues from advertising where the priority is high image
content for an easy gestalt reading." (13)
He was also unhappy about the wider use of gestalt effects in
environmentally based art which he considered extended an idea
of the planar space in advance and pre-emptied an experience
of it. Serra's sculpture is constructed so that the multiplicity
of views cannot be ascribed to a gestalt reading but rather
as an unknowable entity. The viewer must be vigilant as to the
shifts of reading in a Serra, to its changes, and not expect
the serial and regular mode of a gestalt effect (14).
Theatricality and absorption at the time of Fried's Art and
Objecthood were easily dismissed as formalism in its high modernist
phase scoring technical points of little relevance. Indeed Fried's
formalism at that time was intrinsically American in the way
that Yve-Alain Bois describes in his book Painting As Model.
Bois points out that the apparent divergence between formalist
and antiformalist positions are contained within a false polemic.
With formalism questions of meaning are deployed in terms of
quality as content, and with antiformalism questions about form
are rejected as out of bounds. Bois instead asserts an older
European formalist model mostly developed in revolutionary Russia
which regarded form as inherently ideological. The key distinction
here is between an art that reflects or mirrors an idea of transformation,
and an art which can be critically regarded as transformative.
With the Russian example art in a reflective capacity spawned
'socialist' realism which was no more than an illustration or
an expression of a socio-political tendency.
By introducing questions of ideology in reference to Art
and Objecthood I do not just want to go over well worn
ground mapping the structuring of the individual through abstract
expressionism or the rhetoric of control that is implicit in
Minimalist art. What is more pressing is to look at theatricality
and absorption as structures or mechanisms that have a far wider
implication than Fried was able to develop at the time. Perhaps
the most efficient way for me to present this, if not the most
academically sound, is to switch the terms. If instead of 'Theater',
'Spectacle' is used and instead of 'absorption', 'lived time'
is used then Art and Objecthood changes complexion in many ways.
These replacement terms are derived from Guy Debord's work the
The Society of the Spectacle (15) which coincidentally
was written around the same time as Art and Objecthood.
The key premise here is that capitalism in its drive toward
consumerist globalisation needs new structures within which
to construct its active subject. The mechanisms of the spectacle
have much in common with Fried's idea of literalist theatre
- the space of the beholder and that of the work of art (or
representation) is compounded and confused usually in the name
of the active or increasingly the interactive spectator. Time
is subordinated to an endless successive and objective sense.
The duration of the experience in spectacle or theatre submits
the beholder to as Fried says:
' the endlessness of not just objecthood but of time.'
This time could be named the time of the world, objective time
or perhaps global time. Debord describes the subordination of
the beholder to this aspect of time in terms of a new species
of alienation. He says:
"The spectator's alienation from and submission to
the contemplated object (which is the outcome of his unthinking
activity) works like this: the more readily he contemplates,
the less he lives; the more readily he recognizes his own needs
in the images of need proposed by the dominant system, the less
he understands his own existence and his own desires. The spectacle's
externality with respect to the acting subject is demonstrated
by the fact that the individual's own gestures are no longer
his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them
to him. The spectacle feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle
is everywhere." (16)
A theatrical aspect of the spectacle can be sensed here - the
confusion of the stage presence of objects in an Minimalist
situation with that of the spectators finds an echo with Fried's
when he says:
"It is a function, not just of the obtrusiveness and,
often, even aggressiveness of literalist work, but of the special
complicity that that work extorts from the beholder. Something
is said to have presence when it demands that the beholder take
it seriously - and when the fulfillment of that demand consists
simply in being aware of it and, so to speak, in acting accordingly."(17)
Theatricality, in Fried's, account seems to exclude contemplation
as being important to the viewing condition of literalist art.
Instead, the beholder is simply aware of the effects within
the situation according to which the viewer then acts.
Robert Morris endorses this reading and attributes its effects
to the gestalt workings of the primary forms used in Minimalist
work. Morris's external dynamic of gestalt effects constitutes
an active sense of spectatorship. This is pitted against the
internalised order of a painting which he implies is passive
in comparison .
Passivity here is open to question as what Morris is identifying
is perhaps not passivity but what Fried called absorption
or Debord called contemplation . The relationship of
Minimalism to consumerist forms of production and the commodity
was always strangely positivist. Serial form and industrial
processes were embraced as the natural territory of an artist
in a way which could be described as uncritical.
For Debord spectacle precludes the possibility of critical distance
and an art which places itself and a spectator in an endless
succession of consistent relations would seem to also exclude
the possibility of just such a distance.
Thus painting if it does have a capacity to 'defeat theatre'
is strangely ideologically positioned to question dominant forms
Art and Language saw these avant-gardist strategies as compromised
and rejected conceptual art practice in favour of painting.
Art and Language's textual work testifies to their thorough
understanding of what they named the 'beholder discourse'. In
the series Index: Now They Are the viewer is at first
confronted with monochromatic painting which are under glass.
Close inspection reveals the faint trace of another painting
and an image. What lies underneath is a copy of Courbet's 'l'Origin
du Monde'. At the centre of the canvas is written 'Hello'.
These paintings are structured at once seemingly to address
and to deny access to the viewer. This structuring of the painting
plays into a range of historical fields but sits squarely within
Richter's painting of Betty is a picture of somebody absorbed
within a state of looking. Perhaps it is only with knowledge
of the painting that the fullest sense of this is appreciated.
She is in fact looking at one of Richter's own glazed monochromes.
And thus she is looking at painting which is also a reflection
of her own image. Our viewing of the painting could further
be described as looking at a painting made from a photograph
of a person looking at a painting and at the same time her own
image. The shifts in such work of states of consciousness constitute
the need for the viewer to be questioning and vigilant as to
the workings of the painting.
The border war between painting and sculpture and the subsequent
development toward an extended field was played out in very
different way in France at the same time as Minimalism was emerging
in the U.S.A.
Support-Surface was concerned with literal questions of support
in painting and a relationship to something which was not painting.
Support-Surface was distinct from Minimalism in one major sense.
It did not see painting as a function of sculpture; as merely
conditioned by the literal and physical properties of its support.
It instead sought to interrogate the relationship between painting
and three dimensionality in a bid to reset the terms of how
painting can be made. Pictorial space and extension in space
are questioned in much of the work of that period. There is
no question of progression between pictorial space and an extended
field but only of a tension between them. This tension as I
have indicated before is the necessary ground upon which painting
can be made. In thinking through such issues Bois owes much
to Hubert Damisch who offers a powerful model for painting (18).
As Bois says in Painting As Model:
Damisch's thesis is rigorously anti-Sartrean: in opposition
to the imaging consciousness which necessarily has as its purpose
the constitution of an image, he sees in Mondrian's canvases,
in Pollock's, in Picasso's Portrait of Vollard, each with its
own modality, "an ever-reversed kaleidoscope that offers
to aesthetic perception a task both novel and without assignable
end...the 'meaning' of the work consisting precisely in this
swarming appeal". Or again: "If the painter has chosen
to prohibit the imaging consciousness from giving itself free
rein ... it is for the purpose of awakening in the spectator
the uneasiness with which the perception of painting should
be accompanied". Now, this task of the painter is the stake
of his art; it is what makes his canvases a specific theoretical
model, the development of thought whose properly pictorial aspect
cannot be circumvented.'
1. Bois, Y. A. (1990)Painting As Model, pp.xi-xxx
2. Fried, M. (1967) 'Art and Objecthood', Art in Theory, pp.
3. Morris, R. (1966) 'Notes on Sculpture 1-3', Art in Theory
p814. "To begin in the broadest possible way it should
be stated that the concearns of sculpture have been for some
time not only distinct from but hostile to those of painting."
4. Fried, M. (1967) 'Art and Objecthood', Art in Theory, , p.832
5. ibid., p. 832
6. ibid., p. 832
7. ibid., p. 832
8. Fried, M. (1980) Absorption and Theatricality: Painter and
Beholder in the Age of Diderot.
9. Fried, M. (1966) Shape As Form, Art in Theory, pp.775-778.
10. ibid., p.777.
11. With a parallelogram the mind will switch between reading
it literally and how it can potentially be seen as a rectangle
or square within an inclined plane. The latter 'illusion' is
not however perspectival. This type of figure, which arises
in axonometric and parallel drawing systems, is a shape generated
by way of a projection much in the way the shadow of a three-
dimensional object is cast on a surface in elevation. Strangely
a distinction often used in the USA between perspectival and
systems like obliques, axonometrics and isometrics is viewer
based or object based systems.
12. Bois, Y. A. (1983) 'A Picturesque Stroll Around Clara -
Clara' October. The First Decade.
13. ibid. p.344
14. Serra talks about this in terms of thinking of sculpture
in terms of elevation rather than through plan. To think of
shape in terms of elevation in order to generate a parallax
effect is to acknowledge pictorial qualities.
15. Debord,G. (1967) The Society of the Spectacle (trans. 1994,
16. ibid., p.23.
17. Fried, M. (1967) 'Art and Objecthood', Art in Theory, p.
18. Damisch's distinctions between tableau, pictorial and peinture
offer a manner of thinking about painting which is difficult
to translate into english which is perhaps the reason why Fenêtre
jaune cadmium is still only available in French. A sense is
implied in Damisch's writings that schema, be they object or
viewer based, operate (or oscillate) between the tableau and
the pictorial. This has been the main thrust in my thinking
for this essay.
19. Bois, Y. A. (1990)Painting As Model, p248.
© Mick Finch 1998