Part of the assignment is looking at the relationship of Allan McCollum’s ‘Surrogates’ and the monochrome painting that were created since Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, 1915.
I am not looking at monochrome paintings that are done with one or two hues only or the grisaille technique that was essential as part of chiarosuro and ‘illusionstic’ painting in art history.
Here we talk about the Modernist Painting in a Greenbergian sense of a category of ‘Monochrome’ paintings of avant-garde artists that was considered as response to Abstract Expressionism and to address. For my review I am referring mostly to the Michael Fried ‘Three American Painters’, Arthur C Danto ‘After the End of Art’ and Matthew Collings ‘This is Modern Art’.
Key characterstics of all ‘Monochrome‘ paintings are:
- self-referentiality of the painting and self-criticism
- embracing ‘utterly flatness’ and and inwards relationship of shape
- seeking for some kind of ‘purity’ in painting
- avoidance of figure/ground suggestion.
- no representation of things outside the picture plane
- pictorial space extending beyond the edges of the canvas.
And they are visual expressions as Greenberg expressed 1962:
‘the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimination of flatness; enough to create an object which can be experiences as a picture. Thus a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture, though not necessarily as a successful one. (Greenberg, 1995b, p.131)
The artists had various reasons why and how to approach the ‘monochrome’:
- A spiritual sense and feeling of tabula rasa, emptiness, tranquility through abstraction: Kazimir Malevich (the icon), Barnett Newman (the sublime), Robert Rauschenberg, Yves Klein, Agnes Martin, and
- A formal interrogation of ‘purity’ and reductionist approach towards form: Alexandr Rodchenko, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, Allan McCollum
- Later one can see artists approaching the ‘monochrome’ less in a Modernist optical sense but more as a tactile experience of a single medium: Robert Ryman, Jason Martin. Another approach to ‘Monochrome’ was coming from Korea in the 1970s in the movement of ‘Dansaekhwa’ (that means ‘monochrome painting’), a rather additive, layering approach with a relationship to nature compared to the reductionist Modernist approach e.g. Chung Sang-Hwa.
Main artists who addressed ‘pure’ monochromes:
Influential movements towards ‘Monochrome’ and the ‘Blank Canvas’:
Arthur Danto expresses the evolvment of Modernist Painting towards the ‘Monochrome’ in reference to american art historian Douglas Crimp as the ‘modernist narrative according which art progressively strives to achieve identity with its own material base’ (Danto, 1997, p.154). Color was continously subtracted and the emphasis was on form and shape as the medium to explore. The artists were going beyond the focus on ‘optical data’ alone (ebid, p. 158) and texture and gestural traces of the artist’s hand were more and more neglected.
‘Monochrome’ paintings have a long ‘tradition’ going back perhaps much earlier than the begining of the 20th centurry. However, I am focusing on key movements and artists from the last century alone, to understand better the context for McCollum’s ‘Surrogates’.
Suprematism (1913 – )
Suprematism was created as term by Kasimir Malevichin Russia. Focus were basic geometric forms and use of simple colors. One key driver was Malevich’s book The Non-Objective World, 1927 were he stated that ‘in the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square’. Related this to his ‘Black Square’ painting from 1913 (Tate, 2017). Other few artists and followers were: El Lissitzky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Malevich has found his ‘point zero’, a new beginning with his painting ‘Black Square’, 1915 (Fig. 1). This painting was exhibited the first time diagnoally at the top corner of a room, the place traditionally Russian icons had its place. By that placement he related his own work as an emblem, an icon. A metaphor of ‘tabula rasa’ and depicting a ‘non-objective reality’. Other paintings were done in whte e.g. ‘Suprematist Composition: White on White‘, 1918. With those paintings Malevich articulated the spiritual freedom, white could be even considered as ‘purity’, and he expressed his ideas of ‘purity of color’ and ‘the supremacy of pure feeling’ and the philosophy of Suprematism, 1919 (Malevich, 2003, p. 293):
‘It has become clear as a result of Suprematist philosophical colour thinking that the will is able to develop an artistic system when the object has benn annulled in the artist’s mind as a pictorial framework and a vehicle.” – Kazimir Malevich, 1919
Constructivist (1915 – 1920s)
Constructivsm as a movement was founded 1915 in Russia by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. Other artists were: Liubov Popova, Antoine Pevsner, and Naum Gabo.
Main ideas were the rejection of art as autonomous entity, art should reflect a social purpose and the modern industrial world. Aspects of dynamism and construction of artwork while emphasing the material characterstics. The artists were looking into ideas that possibly could be made by mass-production.
Constructivist Manifesto by Vladimir Tatlin, 1927 (Tate, 2017):
“The material formation of the object is to be substituted for its aesthetic combination. The object is to be treated as a whole and thus will be of no discernible ‘style’ but simply a product of an industrial order like a car, an aeroplane and such like. Constructivism is a purely technical mastery and organisation of materials.” – Vladimr Tatlin, 1921
I can see how Constructivist ideas of mass-production of ‘art ideas’ and the relationship to ‘no discernible style’ had some influences on McCollum’s ‘Surrogates’.
Color Field Painting (1950s – 1960s)
This kind of abstract paintings are characterized by large mainly flat single colored areas. Key artists were: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still.
Barnett Newman was embracing Modernist painting with his large scale monochrome paintings through creation of illusionary optical depth by color and shape alone. For him was the ‘assertion of flatness essentially a tactile characteristic’ based on the physical characteristic of the support. (Fried, 1998b, p.234) It is fascinating to follow the discussion on Newman’s work ‘The Wild’, 1950 (Fig. 2) and the question whether this painting, 243 x 4.1 cm in surface size, was supposed to be framed or not and what the impact of the frame as such is (Allan, 2013). The width is of simliar size as the depth. The sides clearly making it standing out. The lenght nearly room height. According to Modernist convention the painting is to be concerned with the inner relationship, flatness of the picture support and the rejection of associations with sculptural effects.
‘The Wild’ with the very narrow picture plane is hard to be seen merely as a flat picture. As the author states the work ‘activates’ the surrounding space, the pictorial space is thus extended beyond the support space. A frame around this painting would emphasize the flatness and refocus on the internal pictorial elements alone. By that the frame and the painting became the ‘intelectual and perceptual delineation’. In ths article Yves-Alain Bois argued that Newman’s work makes a ‘distinction between the pictorial and visual (or perceptual) field.’ and provides therefore a paradox in traditional perception of paintings towards a ‘wholeness’ (ebid, p. 91)
The discourse raises the question of whether Newman’s painting are closer to Minimal and Conceptual Art emphaszing the ‘objecthood’ of the piece (when shown unframed, in the the sense as M. Fried and C. Greenberg described ‘situation’ and ‘presence’). In summary one can see how Newman addressed questions of internal complexities and spatial intervention.
For me this work is adding an aspect in understanding better McCollum’s ‘Surrogates’ as a discoures of internal and external spatial relationship.
Another artist working early on with monochrome was Robert Rauschenberg. In the year of his first solo exhibition he started to work on his ‘White Paintings’ and ‘Black Paintings’ (Craft, 2013, p.23)
Contrasting to Newman the emphasis in ‘White Painting three panel’, 1951 was less on an optical and spatial perception of the relationship of internal and external spaces. And also not like Malevich on a ‘tabula rasa’ or new beginning. Rauschenberg’s painting was more about the subtely of the surface in resonance with its surrounding space. It requires special attention from the viewer to look closely and the disclosure of subtle changes in color, light and texture on the surface. John Cage referred to the ‘White Painting’ as an artistic engagement with the ‘ever-changing nature of their surrounding’ (ebid). What all three artists (Malevich, Newman, Rauschenberg) have in common is a certain spiritual concern. Their spiritual concern was a reflection of their time and ‘pressures of the faithless’ as Rauschenberg described his work. (ebid)
The works by the artists of ‘Color Field Painting’ were later refined in
Post Painterly Abstraction (late 1950s – early 1960s)
A movement that focused on more abstract art seeking for ‘purity’. Main artists were Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland. Focus was a further reduction and the elimination of any gestural application of paint or inner reflective painting style (contrasting to Rothko and Newman). The pictoral space was conceived as a ‘field’ that extended beyond the edges of the canvas. A perspective that I discussed briefly in the work by Barnett Newman above.
The term ‘Post Painterly Abstraction’ was created by Greenberg in context of an exhibition of thirty-one artists in 1964. The movement was characterized by a ‘rigorous approach to abstraction’ (Tate, 2017) focusing on basic geometric shapes and the medium itself without any reference outside the painting. A very formalistic approach around form, colour, texture, scale, and composition.
The extreme of ‘monochrome’, not only in respect of color but also as a conceptual idea of painting as art are Ad Reinhardt‘s ‘Abstract Painting‘, 1963 (Fig. 4). The last paintings by him were the square black paintings. For him they expressed the most neutral image possible. In the size of a Vitruvian man (152 x152 cm) is was the negation of all pictorial depictions: negating form, composition, color, contrast, gestures, external reference to surrounding space (no reflection). Some ghostly rectangles and squares were just visible through the pigment’ (Collings, 2000, p.156). The totality of this paintings without any illusion or allusion. Reinhardt’s statement that he was ‘making the last painting anyone could make’ (Danto citing Douglas Crimp, 1981 in: Danto, 1997, p.138) reflects back on Paul Delaroche’s earlier expression of ‘from today painting is dead’, referring to the rise of Daguerreotype.
Crimp was referring in his critique also to the conceptual works of Daniel Buren: ‘Stripes‘. Basically a fabric in monotone repetitions of colored stripes, a kind of ‘zero base’ that activates the surrounding space. The function of this ‘painting’ became ‘to reveal, through its placement, the characteristics of the site in which it is displayed’ (Guggenheim, 2017) . By replacing his canvases with standard awning fabrics, Buren also questioned the idea of a personal artistic style.
Minimal Art (late 1950s – mid 1970s):
Another turning point in painting, leaving Abstract Expressionism behind by articulating the ‘shape as the medium’ was Frank Stella’s work ‘The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II’, 1959 (Fig. 2), first exhibited 1959. Carl André summarized the subject matter as: no expression, no sensitivity, not symbolic, mere necessity of painting (Duve, 1990, p.245)
Fried stated in his essay ‘Three American Painters’ that Stella made with this paintings (Fried, 1998b, p.251)
“the most extreme statement yet made advocating the importance of the literal character of the picture support for the determination of pictorial structure”- M. Fried on Frank Stella
What Fried meant was the shift from an optical illusionistic painting that embraced the flatness of the support and with a disolving picture surface (Pollock, Newman, Morris) towards a structure based on shape (Noland and Olitski) with focus on the ‘primacy of literal over depicted shape’ (Fried, 1998a, pp.78-81) And further Fried noted that Stella’s new paintings unmake ‘the distinction between shape as a fundamental property af objects and shapes as an entity belonging to painting alone.’ (ebid, p.96). Fried relates Stella’s painting to sculpture when he states that ‘for the first since the late eighteenth century sculpture is in a position to inspire painting’ (ebid, p.96). And he goes even further in comparing sculpture’s surface with the all -surfaceness of painting and comparing painting’s literalness with the literalness of sculpture (ebid, p.96-97). Now it became clear that Greenberg’s Modernist notion of using ‘ characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself’ and through that to find ‘purity as th guarantee of its standards of quality’ (Greenberg , 1995, p.84-5) came to an end and the sharp separation between painting and sculpture was over
Other artists working mainly in monochrome between the late 1950s and later are:
Robert Ryman example ‘Untitled’, 1958 (Fig. 6). Ryman worked mainly on square format to ‘avoid the idea of a window or door’ (Collings, 2000, p.158) and for him ‘representation was illusion’. Ryman also rejected the idea of framing his paintings with the intention that the works may interact better with the surrounding space. In his works, similar to Rauschenberg, the surface and its interplay with light, became a dominant theme.
Yves Klein examples ‘IKB74’, 1958 (Fig. 8) created an iconic blue (IKB) as symbol for the ‘void’. (Collings, 2000, p.170) As for Malevich before, the immateriality of painting and the spiriual theme was considered by Klein as the ‘zero zone’. Or as Klein expressed it (Collings, 2000, p.170)
“Having rejected nothingness I discovered the Void” – Yves Klein
Klein played further with the idea of the ‘void’ and he the idea in 1958 to exhibit an empty gallery. For him the ritual and activity as process was an important aspect in art. This influenced later Conceptual Art and Performance Art. With Klein a movement towards materiality occured with an emphasis again on gesture and the artist’s body movement. In this respect one can see the work by Jason Martin ‘Untitled (jet loop paint #6)’, 1997 (in Collings, 2000, p.180)
Agnes Martin example ‘Drift of Summer’, 1965 (Fig. 7) Her works are compositions made of subtle, dynamic monochromes consisting of fine grids in pencil on square canvases. Her standard canvas size was 6 foot (around 180cm – man size). A main characteristic of her works are repetitive pattern of stripes and a serial working method, both typical feature of Minimal Art.
Overall, it seemed a logical step forward towards ‘Minimal Art’, a movement that broke away from the limitations of painting and moved partly or completely towards sculpture.
An ‘interal exhaustion’ of painting and where it could possibly move to. The ‘end of the Modernist narrative’ as Danto expressed it (Danto, 1997, p.141) The next move happened mainly in USA in 1960s and 1970s. The addition of the third-dimension allowed the artists to push the limits further. Main artists were Robert Morris and Donald Judd as the spokesmen who articulated the main aspects of Minimal Art in their writing. Other artists involved were: Anne Truitt, Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, and Agnes Martin.
Michael Fried was a key critic phrasing his main concerns against ‘Literalist Art’, as he dubbed ‘Minimal Art’, as they artists were looking at simple geometric shapes based (square, rectangle) and extending the idea of art having its own reality (the ‘objecthood’ as Fried expressed it) and not be a representation of imitation of things outside the art work. Frank Stella expressed it as ‘What you see is what you see’. Leaving the Modernist norm behind, Minimal artists were looking at the aesthetics of a purified form of beauty.
Minimal Art was characterized by focus in literalness of shape, repetition, seriality, and a ‘wholeness’ perception in context of Gestalt approach. The Greenbergian ‘condition of non-art’ was embraced in Minimal Art, at the end another kinf of art. Another key aspect was the situation, the spatial relationship between object and viewer (or subject) where the art object stipulates attention through its presence. And as T. Smith described once his work as ‘surrogates for a person’, a kind of statue, relating it to the size of his works similar of a person. Fried criticized Minimal Art for its ‘theatricality’. A notion that McCollum himself relates to in describing his ‘Surrogates’.
The movement was highly self-conscious in its attempt to overcome conventions of painting and sculpture and to reject a perception of art, thus the notion of ‘non-art’. It is related strongly to ‘Conceptual Art’ (1960s-1970s). Main argument was the way of how art was perceived and distributed. The elitist avant-garde notion from Modernism was challenged and related to a social class consciousness.
It became obvious that the support for monochrome paintings were often square. And they were often made in series, a repetition with slight variations. And in the white wall gallery of museum they painting were hanging with much space around each, craving for the viewer’s attention and seeking – in a sense of Minimal Art- to build a spatial relattionship as objects with the viewer as the subject (Fig. 9).
For Ryman it was ‘to avoid the idea of window or door’ and for Reinhardt the negation of form and composition. In chapter 9 ‘The Historical Museum of Monochrome Art’ Arthur Danto considers the discourse of monochrome paintings as ‘a model of how to think about criticism, once we realize that we have to think, however profound the resemblances between works of their individual histories … learn to read them in terms of the statements each makes …deciding whether they are mimetic or metaphysical, formalist or moralist.’ (Danto, 1997, p.169) and he concludes that ‘monochrome’ paintings are reflecting a ‘post-narrative period’.
Overall, I can see an evolution of painting seeking for ‘purity’ either in formal aspects or as a spiritual concern that eventually came to end end in embracing the flatness, the self-referentiality and self-criticism in Modernist terms. Escaping the literal flatness of the painting support as a convention in art history opened the doors for the third dimension. ‘Monochromes’ were the turning point of a ‘Modernist narrative’ and the way forward to exploration of spatial relationships beyond the picture plane. An extension towards and dialogue with the surrounding space, perceiving the ‘objecthood’ and the ‘presence’ of the painting and art as object in space. This acted than also as a reflection of external relationship in the social and cultural world. Eventually the viewer, not only as the beholder but also as thr subject in the relationship with the objects became an important aspects in art. Painting became a category in an inter-medium-specificity.
As Danto expressed the museum as external space was ‘no more the unique forum for the display of art than painting is the favored form for artistic expression itself.’ (Danto, 1997, p.172/3)
I can see better now how’ monochrome’ and Minimal Art relates to McCollum’s ‘Surrogates’. This was a fascinating, though intense, journey through Modernist art related to form, shape, monochrome, and spatial perception of painting as art objects.
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