Part Two – Exercise 2.3: Utter Flatness

What would count as examples of ‘utter flatness’. List five things an artist might do to exploit the idea. In other words what kind of things might one put on a gallery wall that could pass for an abstract or figurative paint but also reveal themselves to be everyday objects?

Painting ‘devices’ that a painter can exploit to create ‘utter flatness’ paintings.

Greenberg himself gave already some examples in his essay ‘Modernist Painting’ on how to ‘alienate pictorial space from the literal two-dimensionality’ which according to him is the baseline for the painting’s ‘independence as art’ (p. 88).

  1. Suggestion of a recognisable object that trigger associations (in the viewer’s mind) e.g. partly depicted forms, shadows, partly concealed objects, blurred objects that convey a sense of form by looking from a distance.
  2. Applying fragmentary silhouettes of figures and objects that act as an optical trigger and the form is getting completed  in the viewer’s mind
  3. To enforce the optical experience of a painting e.g. the way pointillism placed colour blots side by side in order to create a mixed colour perception. And by that an illusion of form.
  4. To avoid any shading or modelling (‘illusion of relief’) and trompe d’oil (‘illusion of deep space’), aspects that for Greenberg are specific for sculpture and on should refrained from it in painting.
  5. To paint in cubism approach with flatness of pictorial plane with hardly recognisable images
  6. To reduce the perceived distance between foreground and background so that the latter nearly collapses with the first one (like an opaque window surface)

My gallery of ‘flat’ paintings:

  1. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres ‘Madame Moitessier‘, 1851 => flattening of picture plane and pulling background forward, silhouette like figure
  2. Paul Gauguin ‘Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)‘,1888 => symbolic use of colour to avoid association with illusionary visual depth and flattering the picture plane
  3. Vincent van Gogh ‘Girl in White‘, 1890 => flattening the picture plane by use of abstract background that interacts with the figure mere a by colour contrast, tending towards decorative
  4. Georges Seurat ‘The Lighthouse at Honfleur‘, 1886 => optical separation with single dots that only in the viewer’s mind are associated with local colours and form
  5. Henri Matisse ‘Red Room (Harmony in Red)’, 1908 => flattening colour use, single marks are triggering the association of form and visual depth in the viewer’s mind, tending towards decorative
  6. Pablo Picasso ‘Ma Jolie‘, 1911 => flattened and avoidance of modelling and shading
  7. Piet Mondrian ‘Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow‘, 1937-42 => colour and line embracing the limitations of the canvas and enhancing its perception
  8. Jackson Pollock ‘One: Number 31, 1950‘, 1950
  9. Barnett Newman ‘Onement I‘, 1948 => juxtaposition of colour and ‘zip’ with purely optical effect in the viewer’s mind
  10. Morris Louis ‘Alpha-Phi‘, 1961 => a few coloured lines running over the canvas, demonstrating Greenberg’s statement that ‘the first mark made on a surface destroys its virtual flatness’ (Greenberg, 1995b, p.90)
  11. Kenneth Noland ‘Gift‘, 1961-2 => abstract colour rings that trigger pure optical illusions
  12. Jules Olitski ‘Instant Loveland‘, 1968 => colour field Painting that works by mere optical sensation of depth
  13. Jasper Johns ‘Flag Above White with Collage‘, 1955 => flat multiple layers painting without depth perception



Greenberg often cited essay ‘Modernist Painting’ (Greenberg, 1995b, pp. 85-93) is a very condensed and conscious exploration of the continuity of art history and its cumulation in ‘Modernistic art’, a term shaped by Greenberg. His works was of much influence to the art practice and critique of modern art for nearly half a century. Despite of one’s own opinion, modern art as an avant-garde movement with connotations of ‘high culture’, radical and elitarian attitude was mainly influenced by Greenberg.

I was wondering about the rationale for the evolution towards abstract and modernistic art. In his essay ‘Towards a Newer Laocoon’ (1940) Greenberg argued with the importance to get rid off the ‘idea’ in painting as painting ‘degenerated’ since the 19th century. He is referring to Courbet as the ‘first real avant-garde painter’ who tried to ‘reduce his art to immediate sense data by painting only what the eye could see as a machine unaided by the mind’ (Greenberg, 1988, p.29). Greenberg is applying here a similar ‘innocent’ approach as before him J. Ruskin. A key argument for Greenberg was to address the ‘problems of the medium’ (p.30) as raised by Manet. He found in the ‘purity’ of music as an ‘art of “pure form”‘ the argument to translate this to painting. Music can communicates and can be experienced only by the ‘sense through which it entered the consciousness’ (p.31). For painting this meant to stick to the visual sensation only.

Greenberg mentioned later as the main reason for a change in artistic attitude in making modern art was/is to avoid ‘to be assimilated by entertainment’ and ‘entertainment that became assimilated by therapy’ while giving religion as example of failure (p.86). The consequence laid therefore  in its self-criticism and self-definition ‘in a vengeance’ as a question of practice and as the aim of  ‘personal’ painting. With that approach one would aim for more ‘purity’ and guarantee a standard of quality. From his approach, I understand that it is better to criticise oneself than by external instances. Because of my own art therapy practice I feel a bit surprised in Greenberg’s notion of ‘therapy’ as the bottom end.

According to him modernistic art is the artistic endeavour of  narrowing down the area of competence, concentration on the medium specificity, in a self-critical and self-referential approach to the artwork.

The essence of modernism lies in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself

The uniques feature in the discipline of painting that differentiates it from sculpture or theatre are the flatness of the support and the limitations of the shape/frame. And Greenberg referred to the stage when was stating 1954 (Greenberg, 1995a, p.190)

From Giotto to Courbet, the painter’s first task had been to hollow out an illusion of three-dimensional space. This illusion was conceived of more or less as a stage animated by visual incident, and the surface of the picture as the window through which one looked at the stage. But Manet began to pull the backdrop of this stage forward, and those who came after him – Impressionists, the Neo- and Post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, etc. etc. – kept pulling it forward, until today it has come smack up against the window, or surface, blocking it up and hiding the stage.

The reference to theatre stage brings up a memory.  I still remember the first play I’ve seen in my life as a kid at school and the impressive three-dimensionality perception of the theatre stage that absorbed me totally. Quite the opposite to ‘flat’.

Guiding principles for ‘utter flatness’:

In summary one can describe Greenberg’s guiding principles to embrace the flatness in modernistic painting as:

  • To ‘divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture’
  • Focus on optical experience versus the traditional representation by illusion ‘in name of sculpture’
  • Optical experience avoids a tactile sensation (e.g. Ingres portraits: spatial and anatomical distortion) as in illusionary pictures on can ‘walk into’ versus in modernistic painting only the ‘eye can see into’
  • Focus on ‘the norm of the picture’s enclosing shape, or frame’ and to see this as an advantage
  • Focus on norms of finish and paint texture
  • Focus on colour value and colour contrast
  • To keep the aim of the artistic endeavour personal
  • Make it an empirical exploration and not a demonstration of theory
  • To distinguish between pictures and images. Making pictures means  ‘deliberately creating or choosing a flat surface’
  • To ’emphasise the illusoriness of the illusions’ i.e. to use illusionary devices to flatten the different planes together

I believe a key argument is Greenberg’s statement that ‘the flatness towards which Modernist painting orients itself can never be an absolute flatness’ (p.90). The goal is not to avoid illusion of space but to avoid a sculptural illusion or ‘trompe-d’oeil’ effect. This is the key difference between painting and sculpture and what I described further above. Thus the main goal is a restriction to a sensual experience that derives merely from optical sensations, and where the human mind is associating and building its own reality of objects and scenes. A mimesis or illusionary representation of visual depth would keep the association of a reality outside of the human brain.

Points of critiques against Greenberg:

  • He argues with authorities e.g. the certificate of quality, and “purity”  as the guarantee of its standards of quality. (Although one should notice that Greenberg himself put the word purity into quotation marks.)
  • Relate modernistic art with its similarities to science and convey an importance as ‘historical facts’
  • Placing facts and norms as guiding principles hard to challenge from an individual modern artist perspective. However he argued that those norms were tested and revised and re-revised. And that it is about pushing the limits defined by the ‘norms of a discipline’
  • For me the question why to distinguish illusionary experience of visual depth from optical experience of visual depth? I find Greenberg’s limitation to the sense of sight only not only to restrictive and dogmatic but also from a human brain perspective and considering phenomenological Gestalt approaches (whole body felt sense) as articulated by Merleau-Ponty and T. Kulka ( ‘the spectators respond to the gestalt of what is depicted, not the representation as such’, in: Davies ed al, 1994,p.394) as too theoretical and formalistic, and actually not reflecting the real experience of a painting in front of a viewer.
  • The reducing to flat abstract patterns moves the picture towards decorative art. Greenberg distinguishes between decorative and ornamental art. The latter he rejects. A balance between a pictorial reality of colours and the decorative elements of line need to be found.
  • Greenberg did not mention photography at all. According to A. C. Danto painting was so much influenced by it that it became an ‘artifact of another medium namely photography’ (Danto, 2013, p.110). He mentions how Manet’s paintings of the execution of Maximilian was informed by the camera view. And how the telescopic picture by a camera that let the pictorial planes collapse together can be considered as the essence of modernistic painting. This is an area that I need to look at separately in my blog.
  • An important limitation Greenberg made is the limitation to stay within and to emphasise  the shape of the support, i.e. the painting need to be seen as one entity within the frame. What restricts any extension of the picture plane behind the frame. By that the painting can not be seen any longer as a small window through one sees the world (Albertian view). But what it restricts also is a further development of painting after having extensively interrogated the rectangle shape.  


  • Danto, A. C. (2013) What art is. New Haven: Yale University Press
  • Davies, S., Higgins, K. M., Hopkins, R., Stecker, R. and Cooper, D. E. (2009) A Companion to Aesthetics,Blackwell companions to philosophy, 2nd ed. Malden, MA; London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  • Greenberg, C. (1988) Perceptions and Judgements,1939-1944 The Collected Essays and Criticism,(4 vols). Vol. 1. Edited by O’Brian, J. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Greenberg, C. (1995a) Affirmations and Refusals, 1950-1956, The Collected Essays and Criticism,(4 vols). Vol. 3. Edited by O’Brian, J. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Greenberg, C. (1995b) ‘Modernist Painting’, in O’Brian, J. (ed.) The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press,  pp. 85-93. 18.
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