Is the space of painting made by abstraction, illusion or the sculptural qualities of the canvas?
When I first read Working Space – Frank Stella’s 1983–84 Charles Elliot Norton Lectures at Harvard – back in the late 1980s, his call for a consolidation of modernist aesthetics seemed an appeal from the past. Just as postmodernist painting was diversifying by drawing on expanding image technologies and channels of information transmission, Stella was positioning himself as a partisan modernist, armed with a manifesto for the spatial expansion of formalist abstraction. The most influential painters of that era – Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke – were German. Both were thoroughgoing relativists, atomizing the categorically linear cultural perspectives which Stella was propounding. His emphasis on claiming an art historical lineage for the work of 20th century painters – with himself at the helm – that stretched back to the Renaissance seemed perverse at the time, given how many of these painters had treated the claims of art historical tradition with scepticism, if not contempt. Working Space was a formalist tract, and after the conceptual transformations of the 1960s and ’70s, formalism in the late 1980s was still seen as synonymous with self-indulgence and decorative aesthetics. It was a dirty word.
Twenty-five years later, it seems we have come full circle. Following a decade in which formalist painting and sculpture have regained their credibility and currency, paintings are being asked to reflect, or at least comprehend, the contextual spaces on which they find themselves contingent: the art market, the production which feeds it and how paintings circulate within these fields. I would like to explore the parallels and contrasts between the ‘working space’ Stella was advocating in 1984 as a means of exploding the flat geometries of rarefied 1970s formalist painting – in his words, ‘the refined surfaces of recent abstraction, inertly pliant and neatly cropped cotton duck’1– and the ‘working spaces’ which younger artists are referencing in order to aerate the insularity of formalist art of the past decade, and transform it into a functional conveyor of narrative.
Stella’s challenge, in Working Space, to the existing spatial parameters of modernist abstraction had already taken artistic form in the rupture and realignment in his own artistic development, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. The crisis hinged on whether painting should reject or cultivate its capacity to create pictorial space. Stella’s minimal stripe paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s – monochrome stripes of enamel paint of a uniform width, modulated by a two and three quarter inch brush – rejected illusionism by emphasizing, on the contrary, a painting’s objecthood, its condition as the residue of a physical process, a set of measurements, a realization of scale. In their symmetry and serialism, they conform to the anti-compositional ‘oneness’ which Donald Judd prescribed for Minimal art. Judd’s essay Specific Objects (1965) approvingly describes Stella’s shaped paintings of the early 1960s as involving ‘little or no space’2. The ‘little’ that remains consists of diagrammatic traces of illusionism: a kink in the stripes, a diagonal configuration, a maze structure which might intimate spatial recession, but only by inference, and seems designed merely to designate the work as ‘specific object’ in the form of painting rather than sculpture. What signification remains is confined to the beefy H and Vs of the shaped canvases, and they are more geometric monoliths than linguistic signs. Then, in the late 1960s and ’70s, just as early Conceptualism was opening up new spaces for art outside the traditional boundaries of the stretcher frame, Stella’s painting expanded, as though in sympathy, into many-faceted relief – multicoloured, compositional, explicitly gestural and spatially diverse.
It is ironic, therefore, that Stella’s influence on recent painting – for example, on the work of Wade Guyton or Ned Vena – is mostly limited to that of his minimal stripe paintings, which are being interpreted as mechanically divided surfaces representing their own production. Guyton, for example, uses an enlarged version of an ink-jet printer to progressively blacken primed canvases. The bands of ink – a technical feature of the ink-jet print – become an image of striped formalism, a rarefied ghost of Stella’s wobbly-edged tracks of black enamel. Slippage in the printing suggests the humanistic imposition of compositional values onto a remorselessly uniform technological field. They register, with metaphorical weight, as apertures onto white light, glitches in the drawn blinds. In their imposing scale and ‘all-overness’, Guyton’s ‘paintings’ resemble US late modernist abstraction, and cultivate that association, but they prove to be ‘blinds’ in both senses of the word – false leads and screens. Where we expect to find modernist autonomy there is instead a graphic design idiom which frames painting as a Warholian metaphor for its own production and reproduction. Reductively, but with ruthless consequentiality, Guyton casts the seduction of the black monochrome not as the transcendental void (as with Kazimir Malevich or Ad Reinhardt), or the autonomous painted object (Stella’s black striped paintings of 1959 – The Marriage of Reason and Squalor II or Zambezi), but as acquirable design decor. The solipsistic space of the painting cedes to the spaces in which it will be produced, collected, owned and displayed.
Paradoxically, it is Stella’s later work from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s when he diverged from the premises of his early minimal work, which directly tackles the spatial problems confronting younger artists such as Guyton: how to overstep the insularity of formalistic painting. The early striped works are poised between Stella’s embrace of modernist assumptions – along with modernism’s sense of historical entitlement – and his rejection of those assumptions for a ‘literalism’3 which wields the workaday materialist application of paint to a canvas support as a form of historical erasure. In surviving studio images, it seems he is methodically blocking out the canvas – and the past it implied – with his broad housepainter’s brush. Michael Fried’s essay Art and Objecthood (1967) is a seminal articulation of the fundamental incompatibility between the modernist and minimalist viewpoints. Here was a modernist critic outraged by Minimal art’s conversion of discrete modernist pictoriality into an objecthood promiscuously open to interaction. In Working Space, the early Minimal works are situated on an art-historical axis, the past definitively reclaimed, and with it a ‘cinemascopic’4, three-dimensional pictoriality which commandeers the space the viewer is occupying.
Stella may have seen this spatial ideal as a personal solution to his own artistic development, but viewed as an objectively applicable theory, it seems as idealistic and wishful as his art historical canon is idiosyncratically personal. His thesis is predicated on a distinction between illustrated space (which he calls, in the interview in this magazine, ‘depicted illusionism’) and abstract, pictorial space (which he calls ‘pictorial illusionism’). The former is mimetic and referential; the latter transformative, and thoroughly embodied by pictorial dynamics. The nature of the constriction he was striving to overcome is innate to the medium, and is emphasized the more formalistic and the less representational the idiom. In all the ways that it alludes to a world beyond its materiality, painting is indirectly fictive, rather than directly causal like photography. It is always a form of interpretation rather than evidence, except as it constitutes a causal trace of the painter’s gesture and touch. Formalistic abstraction, which does not strive to reach out, even in this indirect sense, to a represented subject – and, by doing so, to claim the space it might inhabit – is the most self-referential of painterly forms.
Working Space addresses the question of how painting might breach this self-referentiality. For Stella, Caravaggio is distinguished from the painters who preceded him by his ability to create an illusion of space between his figures which we feel we could inhabit. The contemporary response to the constriction Stella was resisting has been to make of painting a language of signs either for its own materiality and methodologies – if the medium critiques its own procedures, it seems to establish a spatial distance from them – and for the cultural and social spaces which surround it. Context, in the form of reference rather than pictorial embodiment, is pitched as spatial extension. Stella was proposing, alternatively, an elaboration of abstract painting’s pictoriality that would not betray the vital indirectness of its adumbration of reality, and avoid converting the medium into a set of sign posts to a world that it does not embody but merely signify.
How recent art has come to adumbrate contextual spaces has been chronicled by critics such as Boris Groys and David Joselit. In his 2008 essay Politics of Installation, Groys claimed that installation art has blurred the boundaries between ‘private space’ (in which an artist dictates all the rules of engagement, i.e. the canvas’s rectangle) and ‘public space’ (everything beyond that privileged clearing, i.e. the gallery, the institution, the art world, the commercial market in which the art work is trafficked)5. The gallery, and the wider reaches of publically accessible space, are subsumed within the artist’s territory, and there is no longer any unambiguous line between where the viewer is asked to submit to an artist’s terms of engagement, and where socially established rather than artistically contingent laws prevail. David Joselit, in his 2009 essay Painting Beside Itself 6, suggests a related spatial conceit. He describes recent US and German painters as being concerned with producing what he calls ‘transitive’ painting, which seeks to demonstrate its role within the art world networks in which it is circulated and interpreted.
The artists Joselit references – among them Cheyney Thompson, Jutta Koether and Merlin Carpenter – produce paintings which comprehend extra-painterly spaces – art market dynamics, webs of supporting cultural references, or how painting might be performatively mediated by the artist. Thompson’s Chronochrome paintings (2009–ongoing) are both images and performances of their own materiality and production. The woven structure of a painting’s canvas support is represented in colour phases which signify the times of day at which a painter-assistant was working on it. Thompson condemns what he exploits, biting the hand that feeds, by designating the painting process as wage labour. His paintings are self-effacing loops which describe and perform their production, only to circle back on their naming of themselves as art objects. Having been critically and conceptually objectified, they are symbolically cast out as ciphers within a narrative of production and circulation.
Art as critical self-description – as in Thompson’s Chronochromes – typically provides cues for the viewer-as-critic to latch onto. A painting will be tricked out as a legible code which a viewer in-the-know should be capable of cracking. The act of viewing becomes a mutual acknowledgement of shared criticality. Monika Baer has developed an iconography of signs for the spatial access which painterly illusion has traditionally provided, and she arranges them in combinations which function as facets of a critical puzzle which she sets for the viewer. Whereas Thompson’s paintings deflect us towards the context of production, Baer’s motifs signify the potential of expansive illusionistic space at the same time as denying it. A cycle of spatial release and withholding theatrically enacts painting’s limitation to connoting rather than denoting its subject. Baer’s motifs are continually being relinquished to non-signifying, or self-signifying material facture, gestural subjectivity, minimal monochromy. The effect is to designate painterly facture as a sign that complements an alternative order of signs for the duplicity of illusion – chains, brick walls, spiders’ webs, keyholes. These two orders of signifier are continually phasing into each other and claiming the one for the other, as denied pictorial space cedes to a critical space which ruminates on that denial, and judges it.
In one corner of Baer’s Untitled (2010), a gridwork of red bricks gels into focus out of a gestural abstract colour field. It is as though the brushstrokes have dissolved the wall, leaving one corner intact. Two nebulous brown forms straddle the contrasting painterly registers: against the brick foil they are dirt smears; against the red wash, rain clouds. The painting functions as a highly efficient critical mechanism to reflexively rebound between these two perceptual poles – abstraction and signification – each qualifying and denying the other, each interpreted by the other as a legible signifier. The wall, symbolically bricking in the illusionistic window of the painting, critiques the relatively transparent atmospherics of the colour field. Of course, the mimetically painted wall is the only depicted illusion within this binary, so illusionism either blocks itself out or defaults to casting the colour field as another form of illusionistic transparency. Baer plays on the viewer’s innate desire to see into a painting, and discover space. The polarity between admission and denial, between sensuousness and ratiocination, between the communication of signs and the solipsism of abstraction, generates a moralistic dynamic. Painting’s access to the spaces it alludes to is posited, only to be judged sentimental, trite or manipulative, and therefore to be denied. Alternatively, the brick wall of signification registers as a straightjacket which requires the release of illusionism to make it bearable. Contemporary ‘critique’ painting is underwritten by the critical targets it assumes, such as that of a coercive market context, or the capacity to seduce the viewer through illusionistic space. Correspondingly, Stella’s post-Minimal work is underwritten by his belief in a universal modernist tradition. These various support structures are deployed as workable spaces which might be accessed through signification or allusion. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Stella was engaged in an attempt to stretch the illusionistic capacity of abstract painting to vigorous extremes, as though asking himself how much ‘working space’ painting could embrace without content succumbing to context. And yet context is never entirely banished: the paintings are both in and out of their time. The peach/yellow/brown/caramel/scarlet palette of the Polish Village series (1970–73) assimilates aspects of 1970s design decor. Similarly, the referentiality of the paintings’ titles is ironically ambivalent: the Exotic Bird series (1976–80) is indeed florid and brilliantly coloured; the Circuit reliefs (1980–84), titled after European racing tracks, are circuitous; but in both cases, the titles of individual pieces – such as New Caledonian Lorikeet (1977) or Long Beach XXIII (1982) – indicate what is not signified by the works they name. The Polish Village series, titled after the locations of Polish wooden synagogues destroyed during the Second World War, assumes a loaded historical/political narrative which it accesses only tangentially, or via tenuous formal correspondences between painting and architecture. Stella has spoken of an analogy between the ‘interlockingness’7 of the architectural elements and the structure of his compositions, but the titles operate primarily as a foil which emphasizes that the autonomy of Stella’s abstraction does not permit historical associations to become references. His method implies that when painting is asked to undertake the role of a functional vehicle for paraphrasable meaning, its vital capacities are diminished; and that the medium does its most telling work in the unquantifiable gaps between what is being said and how it is being said.
As its title implies, Basra Gate (1967), from Stella’s Protractor series (1967–71), is a painting on the cusp of the transition between the Minimal Stella’s rejection of illusionism and his subsequent acceptance of painting as a potential spatial portal. A three-metre-wide semi-circular canvas – hung as though rising like a sun from its horizontal axis – is divided into three colour zones: two broad outer stripes, black then cream, follow the painting’s edge, and frame an inner aperture of cerulean blue, like a scaled-down monochrome version of the entire painting. The flatly-painted stripes of light and dark acrylic give onto the transparent and loosely-brushed blue field, as though – as in Baer’s Untitled – the release of painterly gesture were the liberated transparency of pictorial space. One of Stella’s earlier shaped monochrome striped paintings seems to have succumbed, after a couple of stripes have been completed, to a window onto clear sky. Stella’s trademark narrow lines of bare cotton duck, visible between the zones, posit a materialistic space in contradistinction to the blue’s pictoriality. There is a painterly argument being enacted between painting’s cultivation and rejection of illusion, but it is not didactically schematised into signifying binaries. Stella does not court critique, he comprehends it. Basra Gate hints at what is beyond its material parameters – its resemblance to an opening eye, rising sun or curved architectural aperture – but those associations are held in check by a more predominant abstract pictorial sign, which functions as an insistent image that cannot be disassociated from the painting’s autonomous material structure.
‘Interlockingness’, suggesting integration and autonomy, summarizes a relationship between painting’s content and context which is empathetic but independent. In his lectures, Stella’s eccentric, even esoteric, concept of a pictorial ‘working space’ which offers ‘cinemascopic depth’ while remaining contingent upon a tenaciously abstract idiom, is best read as an attempt to comprehend a body of work – the reliefs from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s – which ultimately resists his own conceptualizing. The lectures are now most notable for the intransigent energy Stella brought to shoring up a viable future for an idea of deterministic modernist progress that must have seemed to be disintegrating around him. Yet his assertion that painting ‘gains its own working space by eluding the spatial dictates of the real and the ideal image’8 may suggest a tantalizing middle ground between solipsistic materialism, insular formalism and contextual signification, evading the limitations of each. If we seek contemporary realizations of his concept, we are forced to transpose pictorial space into contextual space, either in the form of the ‘critique’ painting I have discussed; the related field of referential painting – such as that of Laura Owens or Glenn Brown – which becomes contingent upon the art-historical or pop-cultural references it transforms into painterly material; or in the form of painting-as-installation – as in the work of Katharina Grosse – which diffuses the painting support across the entire gallery, but only by exchanging pictorial space for real space. For Stella, ‘by shaping its own space, painting makes itself incompatible with architecture, competing directly with it for control of the available space.’9 To take a cue from his phrase ‘cinema‑scopic depth’, it may have fallen to art filmmakers such as Paul Sietsema or Hilary Lloyd to fulfil Stella’s project, outlined in Working Space, of investing pictorial space with the dimensional flexibility of real space: not by transforming architecture into a painterly support, but by dissolving it into the abstract pictoriality of the projected image, or by collapsing the literal space of sculpture into pictorial space by rendering it as a filmic image. So much for the lectures. Perhaps the ‘working space’ suggested by Stella’s reliefs of the 1970s and ’80s is still awaiting its painterly inheritance.
1 Frank Stella, _Working Space_, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England, 1986, p. 51
2 Donald Judd, _Specific Objects_, in: _Art Yearbook_ No. 8, 1965
3 ‘Literalist art’ is Michael Fried’s term in his essay _Art and Objecthood_, in: _Artforum_, June 1967
4 Stella, p. 4
5 Boris Groys, _Politics of Installation_, in: _Going Public_, Sternberg Press, Berlin 2010, p. 50
6 David Joselit, _Painting Beside Itself_, in: _OCTOBER_ 130, Fall 2009, pp. 125–134
7 William Rubin, _Frank Stella 1970–1987_, The Museum of Modern Art New York, New York 1987, p. 40
8 Stella, p. 167
9 Ibid., p. 6
First published in Issue 6