Contemporary Visual Art Magazine (N°20), 1998.
"Half or more of the best new work of the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture."

Donald Judd 1965

That an installation can be experienced and thought of in terms of the condition of painting has been an ambiguous but key aspect of Jessica Stockholder's work (which was recently shown in Young Americans 2 at the Saatchi Gallery in London). Objects and 'stuff' are abundant in her work but not as elements which are abjectly cast down. Her work sits uncomfortably in the category of 'scatter art'; the material she puts to work seems to operate within a schema. As one moves around and within one of her installations there is a sense that a series of frames are determining the encounter. Stuff becomes dematerialised due to undeniable compositional forces that lead the viewer through a range of 'picturesque' encounters. Each meeting marks a slow unfolding of the environment she has created, the full knowledge of which is obscured in any single position. Movement around a piece amounts to building up a picture of its totality through an experience of it. Her practice may not be painting in the conventional sense but it seems to embody conventions of painting in terms of how the work is made and viewed. Stockholder would find it difficult to lay claim to a tradition that meaningfully articulates this, because of the critical apparatus that was built up around Minimalism. Minimalism polemically opposes the two key elements of Stockholder's work; painting and an extended sense of artistic practice, which in essence her architecturally inscribed installations are. The writings of Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Michael Fried brought into question Clement Greenberg's critical apparatus especially in terms of ideas such as medium specificity. The dispute between Fried on one side and Morris and Judd on the other was played out on the claims made by each as to the viability of painting. The reductivist logic set in motion by Greenberg himself meant that literal qualities of painting became blurred with the concerns of sculpture which in turn were supplanted with issues relating to materiality and the object under Minimalism. The force of this transformation of critical positions and artistic practices has for some time, precluded the possibility of addressing in other ways the problems that were at work in that period. 

With this in mind a historical survey of French art of the sixties and seventies, Les Années Supports/Surfaces (a recent exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris), offers some ways of thinking that are pertinent to work currently being made such as Stockholder's.

Between 1970 - 1971 the name Supports/Surfaces was coined for a group of artists, predominantly from the south of France, who since the mid-sixties seemed to share a set of concerns. There were just four group exhibitions of their work culminating with Nouvelles peintures en France at Saint Etienne in 1974. To rationalise Supports/Surfaces as a coherent movement is unwise. Between the players associated with it (Arnal, Bioulés, Buraglio, Cane, Devade, Dezeuze, Dolla, Grand, Jaccard, Meurice, Pagés, Pincemin, Rouan, Saytour, Valensi and Viallat) there was anything but a front of solidarity. Despite his inclusion in the Jeu de Paume exhibition, François Rouan for example and because of apparently similar artistic concerns had by the seventies distanced himself from the ideas of the group. Around Supports/Surfaces there were other related manifestations of artists considering the problems of abstraction In the case of a group like B.M.P.T. (the initials of the artists Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni) there were many disagreements. The factional nature of their disputes mirrored the atmosphere of the time. For although Supports/Surfaces was addressing theoretical and practical questions as to what constitutes painting, their activities were further contained within the ideological formations that were emerging around '68. It is this political dimension that can be seen as the divide between American and French abstraction of this period. The broad span of American formalist criticism saw art as an autonomous sphere with each medium developing qualities specific to itself. Even though Minimamism sought to destabilise the tenets of Greenberg's formalist position, it retained a tendency to essentialise certain concerns within a persisting sense of the autonomy of art. This was all played out within an arena where progressive ideas were privileged. Robert Morris and Donald Judd repeatedly established their ideas around a logic that positioned their respective practices as having surpassed painting and sculpture as specific mediums. This logic is in stark contrast to practises in Europe and particularly France in the same period. Supports/Surfaces was typical of a tendency which while involved in a radical critique of artistic mediums, remained suspicious of the ideological implications of progress in the arts where a medium becomes obsolete and superseded by a new upgraded product. The intellectual atmosphere that surrounded the events of '68 in Paris provided a broad intellectual base for these artists. Barthes and Althusser were particularly relevant for many in the group. Through such thinkers, Marxist terms such as infrastructure and superstructure were transformed into tools for analysing the components of painting and the borderline between it and sculpture. As an art questioning the forces of abstraction, Supports/Surfaces was close in several ways to Soviet Constructivism perhaps most profoundly in the sense of Eisenstein's argument that "form is always ideological". 

Whether Les Années Supports/Surfaces is an alternative or an appendix to the issues addressed by Minimalism in the nineteen sixties and seventies is difficult to assess. What is apparent though, is the contrast of approaches from two different national/continental perspectives to related issues. By '68 phenomenology, particularly through the writings of Merleau-Ponty was having an effect on Robert Morris's practice and thinking. His use of the gestalt properties of simple shape and form were an attempt to establish a perceptual experience of the work within in a type of primacy where instaneousness was a valued quality. By '68 the logic of some aspects of French thought generally regarded such frameworks in theory and practice, as idealistic and even as a form of naturalism. Supports/Surfaces as a representative of European Formalism was materialist in character and opposed by definition to idealism. Yve-Alain Bois has indicated the delicate distinction between American and European Formalism. He said; "If I insist on this issue it is precisely to invoke the possibility of a materialist formalism, for which the specificity of the object involves not just the general condition of its medium, but also its means of production in its slightest detail."

The broadly materialist preoccupation of Supports/Surfaces in many ways prefigures the reappraisal of the tropes of abstraction that was happening in New York in the 1980s particularly with Simulationist work. Beyond the similarity of appearance of the work of Marc Devade and Peter Halley, these two artists share the status of being (perhaps notoriously) the practicing theoreticians of their time. Their work are demonstrations of how signification can be seen to operate within formal systems. Whereas Halley pessimistically propagates the circuit as the inevitable and irresistible system of simulacra, Devade's work looks more optimistically toward structures that can effect a 'detournement' of such forces. Contemporaneous with Guy Debord's 'Society of the Spectacle' Devade was working toward a model of practice that recognised and was committed to opposing forces such as globalisation in the economic and social spheres.


The artist Daniel Dezeuze was also active as a writer and thinker of the group. His work in some ways is a literal dismantling of the components of painting. He presented a bare stretcher as one of his pieces. The stretcher bars were transformed into repeated grid structures in his later work. Rouleau de Bois Teinte is one such piece. It is a continuous flexible wooden grid that can be stored as a roll. When exhibited the grid is unrolled and attached to the wall - the rest remains on the floor. Its contact with the wall recalls the open grid of a bare stretcher and thus its relation to painting. Its descent to the floor amounts to a dematerialisation of the work's claim to be a support for painting. The potential endlessness of the grid within the roll contrasts with its identity as it enters the pictorial field of the wall. Such a work can be compared to the cut felt pieces of Robert Morris that referred to similar forces. Morris's works' however, pointed toward the idea that painting was structurally a function of sculpture. Dezeuze implied something quite different. Pictorial mechanisms are indicated as being at work not only in painting but also within three dimensional mediums. 

This strategy of using wall and floor to enunciate the conceptual structure of painting (which could be thought of as the 'work of painting') is shared by many artists of the group. Louis Cane's Sol-Mur addresses aspects of Greenberg's logic of optical illusion. The work has no physical support except for the wall and the floor. On the wall is tacked an unstretched canvas. It is dyed rather than painted in blue that fades from dark near the floor to a lighter tone at its highest point. It is framed by a border of mid tone blue canvas. The border touches the floor, and from this point an area identical in size to that on the wall stretches out and repeats the fade from dark to light blue. Fold marks create a grid within the unstretched canvas. These vestiges of folds act against the optical mirage created by the blue fade. The floor canvas further destabilises the optical condition of the work as 'a picture'. 

Floor and wall, folding, printing, weaving and dying are consistently working strategies for Supports/Surfaces. The questioning of the productive forces of painting as a medium recalls the distinction that can be made in French between components of its structure. Tableau, pictorial, peinture and facture are sites of operation and signification in the thinking and the practice of a tradition of French art. Matisse's paper cut-outs come to mind with much of this work. He regarded cutting into colour as a sculptural act and the cut-outs stood as a synthesis of his former practices as sculptor and painter. A term like tableau in Supports/Surfaces can be reread in terms of a concept like Althusser's 'objet de connaisance'. Bound up in the structures and conventions of a medium, are deeper mechanisms that are not reducible to an idea of medium specificity. 

François Rouan's wove the picture surface into a tressage. The picture as an optical field is supplemented by its tactile condition. The viewer's eye is met by an optical field that has a physicality, a thickness to it. The weave of the pictorial field also presents the structural fact that one is looking at a surface where half of the fabric that makes it up is concealed. The tressage is turning one face of the picture toward the eye of the spectator, while another is obscured from view. The whole work is thus not merely a product of its pictorial qualities but is equally dependent upon its structural logic. With Rouan the voided elements of the painting are constitutive and productive in terms of an experience of it as a whole. This in some ways accounts for his work being articulated within a Lacanian psychoanalytic discourse as the seventies unfolded.

The Jeu de Paume's reappraisal of Supports/Surfaces at this moment is particularly significant. American artists like Jessica Stockholder and Polly Applebaum are working in ways that raise similar questions. Supports/Surfaces is valuable in articulating and questioning such artists' practices. It is perhaps not by chance that the reception of Stockholder's work in France has been both enthusiastic and perceptive as the conditions for that reception are within an already established criteria. The failure of groupings of artists like Supports/Surfaces, B.M.P.T. and Ja Na Pa to find audiences outside of France is curious. The products of French intellectual culture by contrast are at the heart of much of the critical theory industry that has proliferated internationally in the last twenty years. Episodes like Supports/Surfaces serve as instructive demonstrations of such theory in practice and thus should become increasingly relevant to contemporary artistic issues. 

Jessica Stockholder was in Young Americans 2 at the Saatchi Gallery, London, 10 September - 22 November 1998.

Les Années Supports/Surfaces dans les collections du Centre Georges Pompidou was the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 19 May - 30 August 1998.

Mick Finch is an artist who lives in France. He is also the Subject Leader in Painting at Kent Institute of Art and Design, Canterbury. His last solo exhibition, plus près que vous ne le croyiez, was at galerie Art et Patrimoine, Paris during September of this year.