PAINTING BEYOND FLATNESS
In 1965, Giorgio Kaisserlian gave a talk in Milan on Lucio Fontana that raised the possibility, held to be impossible at the time, of an oil on canvas without a canvas to paint on. Everything, in fact, started from the canvas – the obstacle that needed to be overcome in order to proceed towards infinity; the impediment that needed to be “shattered” in order to arrive at a new artistic dimension, as had already been foreshadowed by Spatialism. As the critic from Milan clarified, the slashed canvas had become body and form of the work of art, beyond the usual way of thinking that saw it as a simple, passive support for the paint, as a “perspectival” surface or two-dimensional precondition upon which the artist organised his or her work.
With Fontana, the painting had been zeroed out: the traditional mentality, tools and activity of the painter needed to be seen as elements of a knowledge that was by then no longer usable. This transition was legitimised by the logic of innovation. While peculiarities proper to painting persisted in some of Fontana’s works, especially the ones most to do with matter, this only served to highlight the sharp difference from everything that was known and used to define painting and sculpture as such. One also needed to avoid misinterpreting Fontana as closely dependent on Duchamp. It needed to be kept in mind, Kaisserlian stressed, that everything started from the “naked canvas”. To go beyond the painting it was necessary to deal directly with the painting: pass through the canvas. Fontana had also torn a glossy sheet of metal. But this was not about working with a ready-made, as it would have been in the case of Duchamp, but rather matter, a final, residual resistance, found in the new space that had opened up after the first fissure, the first “hole”.
Fontana had created a radically new situation, since the old categories and usual artistic means had been surpassed in the dynamic of his innovation – a journey forward that allowed no repetitions. Starting in 1958, with the Attese, all of the painters found themselves without a canvas.
It was no longer possible to paint or be painters, unless one found a way to do so without a canvas – which would have meant being capable of creating an oil on canvas without having a canvas to paint on.
When this happens, Kaisserlian observed in conclusion, we will find ourselves before an event that, while not encroaching on Fontana’s primacy, will unquestionably be seen as an innovation, at least starting from the assumption that artists would no longer be able to create forward-looking art using the traditional painting support.
2. The Crux
2.1 The heart of Kaisserlian’s reflection was, obviously, the meaning of Fontana’s innovation, characterised, in virtue of its “universalising value”, as a deciding act between that which was relevant, in terms of originality, and that which instead remained tied to tradition.
Innovation implies the dynamic of surpassing, for which, with Fontana, painting came to find itself in a blind alley from which, if one accepted the conditions that had been laid down, there was no escape. Hence the concept/limit of the oil without a canvas, since, eliminating almost all possibility of valid response to Fontana from within the sphere of painting, it unambiguously clarified the reach of the turning point ushered in by Spatialism. In fact, understanding Fontana’s position means identifying the conditions of meaning that this concept takes on in relation to its implications: it means, in other words, knowing “what happens” if one considers the work in question valid.
2.2 The possibility foreshadowed by Kaisserlian, however, was not simply a consequence of Spatialism, but was, seen from a broader perspective, in many ways compatible with Greenberg’s interpretation of modernism as a process towards total flatness expressive of the culminating moment of painting, by that time aware of its own essence. And in fact, the progressive elimination of all of the features that are not proper to it rendered the painting aware of the specificity of its own means, which thus became the main and legitimate constituents of the work of art.
2.3 The discovery of two-dimensionality was therefore the result of critical reflection internal to the painting, which, all form of illusionism having been eliminated, had to yield to the physical nature of the medium. It needed to recognise the, first and foremost material, flatness that identified its peculiarities and its own horizons. The issue of medium is inescapable. The painting as critical process cannot help but recognise the fundamental role of medium as material support on which to reflect.
2.4 Consequentially, the modernist path could not help but lead to an encounter with the limit. The conception of the painting as a “window onto the world” now shelved, all that remained for the painter to work on was “a more or less opaque window pane.” But the same modernist logic also told us (and this was its fundamental discovery) that we could make these same limits recede “indefinitely”, before a picture ceases to become a picture and becomes an “arbitrary object” (C. Greenberg).
2.5 In 1921, Rodchenko presented three monochrome surfaces, aiming to take these ideas to their farthest conclusions. It was the end of the painting: each plane ostensively showing itself as a plane. But all of this still remaining within the boundaries of the usual pictorial space. The breaking of the support (by Fontana) led to the definitive surpassing of the painting, starting from inside the specific medium and creating a new situation. Being painters meant, at this point, being so without having a canvas to paint on (Kaisserlian).
3. A Few Clarifications
3.1 It needs to be stressed that Fontana created an object, an artefact (he “discovered” or “invented” the canvas-form). His intention took concrete form in the slashed canvas; it did not stop at the state of need, the simple declaration of intent. Nor did the idea exhaust itself in the gesture, as if it were possessed of an overriding ontological value, independent of the result obtained with reference to the support.
3.2 On the other hand, to establish the end of the painting in principle, it would have been enough to formulate a theoretical model, the paradigms of which would have legitimised, as their consequence, the surpassing of the oil on canvas. But nothing prevents conceiving alternate paradigms that, unlike the first, permit claiming what was denied in the opposing conception. Generally speaking, this is not only possible, but also legitimate. We could in fact hold that the fact of art is characterised by a body of information, usually expressed by the corresponding statements of poetics and structured in accordance with specific principles and content, to which one adds the creation of the work of art, in such a way as to make what has been claimed on the level of poetics possible or, better still, in such a way as to be its condition of “satisfiability”. The statements of poetics would thus be assimilable to unsaturated constructs that are satisfied by specific artefacts, the singularity of which should correspond to the artist’s intention. In turn, we could always construct, as metalanguage, a superior system of assertions that not only has the scope of interpreting the poetics in question but also of providing the basis for establishing their acceptability, including aesthetically. Various poetics, multiple interpretive possibilities and, therefore, varied and, at most, corresponding strategies for legitimisation – subject to the principle of innovation, in the above-indicated ways, precisely because they represent the fundamental guarantee that the “artistic position” taken into consideration is “certain” and real.
3.3 In this case, however, when we tackle the possibility of the concept-limit of the “canvasless painting”, we need to coherently reject the exceptions (or advantages) noted in 3.2. In brief, one renounces the possibility of a “possible world” where the painting, as commonly understood, is legitimate, in spite of Spatialism and the implications of modernism. The conditions that define our itinerary are necessarily highly restrictive, since they accept, first of all, Kaisserlian’s arguments that lead with Fontana to the surpassing of the painting.
3.4 From this perspective, Kaisserlian’s observation about the difference between Duchamp and Fontana becomes important. The slashed canvas cannot be simply seen as a variant of the ready-made, since Fontana’s aim required working in large measure within the painting, accepting at least in part its basic rules, which constitute far more obvious limitations when compared with a strategy that is almost exclusively conceptual in nature. But, beyond the “philological” reasons that may or may not corroborate the validity of this observation, what interests us here are the procedural implications that derive from it. These first and foremost concern the condition of artefactuality that, as argued above, is far from superfluous when defining something as a work of art with the linked “restrictive conditions”, which define the horizon of meaning of a determinate artistic project. The inevitable reference is George Dickie’s by now classic interpretation, which recognised the overriding, not to say exclusive, character of relational and institutional attributes in comparison with the (displayed and perceptible) representative properties of the artistic object, starting with the Duchampian ready-made, insofar as an everyday object elevated to the “condition of aesthetic appreciation” (and so turned into a work of art merely by the artist’s decision to put it on display). On this basis, however, the procedural and institutional theories of art, from Dickie to Danto, which substantially eliminate structural specificities in favour of “undisplayed properties”, revealed the difficulties in distinguishing the field of art from other extensional spheres, without falling into the vicious circle of self-referentiality. In this case, the all-but total adoption of poetic statements possessed of totalising range (Dickie writing about Duchamp) translated into theoretical constructs based on self-predicable, and therefore fundamentally circular, assertions. And this is one more reason that leads us to recognise the validity of the principle that no property can be exemplified unless the work of art has some kind of perceptible physical property (J. Margolis), in relation to what is claimed on the theoretical level.
3.5 In any case, there were numerous circumstances in which the focus returned, after Fontana, to working on the canvas in its full range, demonstrating how difficult it is to do otherwise without breaking up the issue of the artefact in the context of “undisplayed properties” and “pure” concept. Examples include the proliferation of “eversion” works in Italian art in the early 1960s as well as, more generally, Stella’s shaped canvases and the decontextualisation and recontextualisation of Buren’s tissus rayés, not to mention Pop Art’s return to easel painting and, more recently, the Transavantgarde conception of the canvas as the “privileged site” of the artist.
4. Focus on Canvas
4.1 A very narrow range of possibilities led, between 1947 and 1958, to the canvas/form and the consequential concept/limit of the oil on canvas without a canvas to work on. An obligatory step (from the perspective of surpassing), but (reasonably) held to be impracticable.
4.2 The semantic density of new research lies in acceptance of a series of restrictive conditions that make the execution of the proposal highly improbable, instead a prefiguration of purely theoretical solutions or possible worlds by virtue of which one can act making an exception to the imposed restrictions.
4.3 The references in section 3.5 above are or presuppose more or less explicit attempts to face the limit. They therefore become good and contextual reasons for giving concrete form to something retained impossible.
4. The Artefact
5.1 On Friday, 28 June 2019, at the conference Focus on Canvas held at the Spazio46 in Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, Paolo Bensi and Sandro Ricaldone presented three works of art by Marco Almaviva that have the structural features of the “artefact” theorised by Kaisserlian.
5.2 The Artefact is a painted surface similar to an oil on canvas. The painting, however, precedes the formation of the support.There is no pre-existing area or physical extension upon which to apply the paint. Of course, the transition from the verticality of the painting to the horizontality of the flatbed picture plane enhanced the potential of a new space that established itself as a “solid”, “durable” receptive plane, a “real” field upon which artistic creation is given concrete form (L. Steinberg). But, in the logic of the Artefact, the opposition between verticality and horizontality is totally surpassed. The elimination of the plane implicates the absence of the fundamental form of anchoring that, in practical and, most importantly, mental terms, distinguishes the pictorial work, both in its more traditional forms and those characterised by horizontality.
5.3 Since there is no pre-existing surface, the conditions that make it possible to conceive and produce a painting in terms of compositionality are also absent. The past attempts at a form of “literal” art, based on transferring “found forms” onto the picture plane (E. Kelly), inevitably clashed with the a priori fact of the surface of the support. In this type of work, rather than composing the equilibriums internal to the picture, the artists divided and organised the extension of the canvas, but always ended up, in one way or another, thinking in the same way as a painter who entrusts himself to the (pre-existing) plane that is to be divided. The entire operation can in fact be reduced to a transfer from one surface to another: from the choice of the real (or flat) “window”, organised in accordance with predetermined relationships, to the flatness of the canvas. The very existence of the plane/canvas is the premise of compositionality. The literal nature of the artefact is what led to this conclusion. The need to destroy the usual references of painting, with the elimination of all residual relationship between figure and ground (F. Stella) is what brought the image to coincide with the support. In this case, the painting is in effect “what one sees”. It is a real object, firstly, for its physical structure and the method used to produce it. But if we are talking about painted surfaces, the figure and ground procedurally represent distinct fields and, therefore, still remain separate from one another.
5.3.1 On the other hand, minimalist reductionism aspired to use “hybrid objects” (halfway between painting and sculpture) to eliminate, once and for all, all reference to pictorial illusionism, through the location of the artefact in and its engagement with real space. Three-dimensional forms in which the various surfaces, often exalted in their iconic flatness, stress, to their detriment, the compositional nature of the work: as much as one appeals to the Gestalt unity of the artefact, it is its inevitable planning that one formulates according to the combination of basic surfaces (whole planes) into a unified structure.
5.3.2 In a different way, one can always appeal to the dialectical ambiguity between the represented form and the literalness of the artefact, attempting to resolve the contradiction phenomenologically and in terms of pure “opticality”. When trying to weaken the physical component of the medium, one can have recourse to the dematerialisation of the paint: dilute the colour using the methods of Morris Louis to obtain substantive equation between the paint and the fabric of the canvas. But, perhaps, never as in this case, the colouring/priming of the canvas requires, at least at the local level, the (horizontality pivoted) planarity of the support in order to permit the flow of colour. And, as a consequence, the practical distinction between the plane and the painting renders the equation of the colour with the canvas more symbolic than real.
5.4 Whereas in the case of the Artefact, the basic conditions of compositionality dissolve precisely because, at root, they lack their practical precondition. The method necessary for creating the “new painting” is what blocks it. It is not possible, for example, to move from central zones of the work area to peripheral ones (or vice versa) or to modify parts of the Artefact during its making. The act of painting cannot have recourse, with a view to information, to the past phases of the work precisely because, in its becoming, the process cannot count on parts where the paint has already been applied, even provisionally, or where there are traces of references.
5.5 Its structural features block clear separation between the painted area and the support. The process is such that the created work of art presents the recto and the verso as symmetrical parts, both painted, closely corresponding to one another and inseparable from the structure of the Artefact. The distinctions between figure and ground and opposition between the properties of the support and the features of the painting are thus resolved at the root.
5.6 But then if, in its making, the painting is independent from the extension of the picture, everything that is constructed after is not intrinsically tied to the nature of the act of painting. And the internal relationships and the organisation in terms of compositionality thus become secondary issues. The peculiarities of painterliness and the rigours of geometric formalism fade in their contingency. They can be there or not. If (in the end) they emerge, they will be the subject of aesthetic/perceptive reflections, but not such as to condition the process of the painting.