#18. David Sweet writes on “Palaces, Pollock and Pixar”.

Jackson Pollock, "Out of the Web", 1949

Jackson Pollock, “Out of the Web”, 1949

Palaces, Pollock and Pixar

Inside Out, the recent Pixar movie, contains a scene I found overwhelmingly, hysterically funny. The action is set mainly inside the mind of Riley, an eleven year old girl, which is occupied by five figures personifying her emotions – ‘Joy’, ‘Anger’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Disgust’ and ‘Fear’. In the scene, two characters, Joy and Riley’s ‘Imaginary Friend’, take a short cut through a region called ‘Abstract Thought’, despite clear warnings that they are entering a dangerous zone. As they travel through it, the processes of visual abstraction transform them. First their anatomy is fragmented and re-organised in a non-naturalistic formation, they lose volume and depth, their outline is simplified, they become flatter and flatter. Just at the point of extinction they reach the exit and their figurative integrity is restored.

The scene is a highly edited and compressed account of pictorial abstraction’s evolution, familiar from university art history modules on the subject. What’s interesting is the panic that overtakes the two characters as they approach pure abstraction, and the relief they feel when they return to their familiar pixel-based environment. Even as an abstract painter, I felt it difficult not to share this sense of relief.

Scene from the Pixar movie "Inside Out".

Scene from the Pixar movie “Inside Out”.

Dealing with the topic of abstract art within the format of a popular animated feature is pretty unusual. But the collision between the illusions of the computer generated image and the reductive processes which lead to non-representational painting reveals something that maybe worth reflecting on to do with ‘space’.

Pixar space is pictorially remarkable. It is an extension of the space in which most of us live. It’s post-cinematic, even post-photographic, in the sense that it does not require the camera as an organising principle or mediating apparatus. It’s not modernist because, unlike all the methods of filmmaking that involve camera work or technique, it does not draw attention to its own processes of facture. It’s almost not a medium. Instead it is a fully ‘public’ space.

Historically, the cultural take up or success of pictorial space has depended on paintings offering themselves as extensions or extrapolations of the different spaces that the viewer occupies; not just generalised, quantitative depth. In Las Meninas we encounter the space of the palace and that frames our experience of the work. The space in the Ghent altarpiece reflects the religious conditions of the church or chapel for which it was made. So the space in Velasquez’s painting could be said to be ‘palatial’ while in Van Eyck, it is ‘ecclesiastical’. In Fra Angelico, the space is monastic.

Diego Velázquez, "Las Meninas"

Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas”, Prado Madrid.

The space in landscape painting reflects our experience of ‘outside’. It’s made up of the ground plane under our feet, receding from foreground to the horizon until it meets with the immeasurable depth of the sky above; The city, the street, the landscape, the palace, the church, the monastery, all have characteristic spaces. Moreover, these are essentially public spaces. There are no restrictions limiting the viewer’s access. In the case of the domestic interior or still life, the viewer’s unrestricted right of admission is that of the invited guest, visiting the rooms, freely inspecting the objects, fruit, flowers, people and furniture that they contain.

Abstraction, as fairly depicted in Inside Out, does not offer a public space. ‘Geometric’ abstraction especially operates best in the foreground, near to the surface, leaving the picture plane intact. It can produce a sort of depth experience, around push/pull, colour space or optical space. There’s nothing wrong with that, but optical space or colour space, as I understand the terms, are not public. Given the history of pictorial art, that is against the run of the play.

The public space of Pixar is constructed not photographed. It operates like Sienese painting, where the painter, if they wanted a tree, would have to paint three roots, the trunk and (say) three branches dividing in two, then two again. To represent foliage they would have to paint a finite but large number of individual leaves. You couldn’t flash in a wristy, scumbled depiction of greenery, and add a few quick ‘leaf’ dabs because that wasn’t how the Sienese pictorial economy worked. You couldn’t allude to a tree. If you didn’t paint it, it wouldn’t be there. As in Duccio, everything in Pixar is intended.

As Inside Out triumphantly shows, the Pixar system can conjure any kind of space, objective or subjective, either grounded in the world or in people’s skulls. Everything is stylised or exaggerated, but like the Sienese tree, fully convincing. Yet there’s no entry point, no rite of passage to negotiate in order to enter the illusion. From the start the viewer is immersed in the spatial experience as one is immersed in ‘real life’. Hence, as I said, it seems to reflect all the spaces in which we spend our waking moments.

The process of abstraction illustrated in the film’s scene, followed on from the changes that occurred in European painting around the 1860’s, which had already reduced publicly accessible pictorial space. Painting became gradually shallower from Manet to Impressionism, Cézanne, Early Cubism and then to Late Cubism. Developments after Cubism propelled matters further towards flatness and frontality. The painters of the sixties took their line from the planar abstraction of the sort practiced by Newman and Still and Rothko, sealing any slippage or misalignment between forms that stayed close and parallel to the picture surface in the colour field genre. But everyone wanted to distinguish between extreme flatness, which implied design or decoration, and a kind of flatness that could be mitigated by some memory or suggestion of dimensional interplay. The experience of non-illusionistic ‘depth’ in the context of planar abstraction is usually a result of advancing or receding colour of the sort described by Hans Hofmann, caused by chromatic exchanges between abutting elements, or differing densities within an area of the same hue. These, and other material events, create a space that Greenberg famously called ‘optical’, which is ‘accessible to eyesight alone’.

The problem is that such a space is specific to painting. It reflects a space that is the property of the medium defining itself, deliberately withdrawn from other everyday experiences of spatial situations. Just as we need to have been in a palace to appreciate that the space in Las Meninas is palatial, or a church to feel the ecclesiastical character of the Ghent altarpiece, we have had to have a meaningful exposure to a lot of painting to value the depth of opticality. This is fine for anyone committed to the art form, well informed on the subject of its history and interested in connoisseurship. But these are preconditions, and to some extent, restrictions which prevent optical space being a public space. ‘Eyesight’, as Greenberg describes it, is different from the more routine powers of visual perception that might occur in the general population who don’t look at a lot of paintings. Another problem is that the sixties geometric ‘colour field’ works, before which the optical approach was a reasonable strategy, have almost entirely fallen out of critical favour.

In the early fifties planar abstractionists, like Newman and Rothko, stuck with their hard or soft geometry formats, working beyond the constructive devices of cubism and setting the agenda for the next generation of American painters, the sixties high modernists. The efforts of Stella and Noland and especially Louis could be usefully linked to Jackson Pollock’s post cubist output of the late forties, particularly his canonical drip paintings of 1947-50. But around this time Pollock and de Kooning decided to take a more revisionist position. They went back to slightly outdated, still broadly cubist ways of putting a painting together, re-introducing more overt imagery and mobilising the methods of drawing necessary for images to emerge in the process. Significantly they revived their profile as ‘abstract expressionists’, a label that never really suited Newman or Rothko. They were committed to emotional force, to painterly gestures that channelled inner feeling, the corniest concept in art’s repertoire.

The less ‘advanced’ style adopted by de Kooning in his ‘Woman’ series and Pollock in the black paintings offered an emotional or expressionist space that was accessible to more than eyesight alone. It was personal, but not private. It was built out of elements that are highly dynamic and seemingly directly linked to the painter’s individual agency. It displays the fluidity of the material and pigment’s ability to register the exact amount of physical energy used in mark making. I think this expressionist space is publicly accessible in the way optical space is not.

It is not a simple as that, of course. The everyday manifestations of emotions, negative and positive, have an accompanying gestural vocabulary. Someone who feels angry can show anger in their movements, posture, facial distortions and so on. They may do a painting in which that anger is evident, and made public. However, the key component of Abstract Expressionist theory, especially for Pollock, is the ‘Unconscious’, and that complicates matters. Believing that the source of art lies in something hidden from us calls for techniques that look capable of making it visible, ‘optical’ one might say, but not concrete or palpable. Pollock’s solution was to cut away parts of the visual field, as he had done in Out of the Web (1949), or draw attention to the lacunae or gaps in the black lattice where the canvas shows through to suggest some emergent if indecipherable mythopoeic alphabet, as in the black pours.

Pollock, I think somewhat reluctantly, makes these things public, presenting them in an accessible cubist setting, but entering the space is more problematic because it is, if not private, then highly personal. The viewer might feel that they are delving into Pollock’s stuff rather than visiting his loft, even though the Jungian archetypes are supposed to be part of everybody’s collective subconscious and therefore not strictly speaking, private property.

In the black paintings Pollock produces a personal space to which the viewer can relate in gestural, expressionist terms. However, the role of the unconscious works against autobiographical explanations, even though there’s plenty of life events to support any number of iconographic interpretations. This keeps the space vague and non-definitive, like ‘optical space’, but opens it up to viewing strategies that engage with the imagery as well as material properties of paint on canvas. The paintings are personal. They are not just ‘by’ Pollock, but they also ‘belong’ to Pollock, and that is part of the spatial experience they offer.

The corny idea that art can come from something hidden and personal has been out of fashion for some time. Models of creativity supported by post modernist practice depend on bringing together things that are openly circulating within the cultural archive, from anywhere and from any time. Based on the belief that nothing is new, innovation comes from the surprise selection and juxtaposition of recognisable visual material, maybe adding a touch of irony for good measure. The central creative event is something like the image of in vitro fertilisation, the moment of conception taking place in a glass Petri dish as a result of the manipulation of genetic material.

At a time when rearranging the archive may have become less rewarding, Pollock, from late in his day, suggests an alternative, in utero model of creativity that is highly suited to the medium of painting. Painting uses simple technology, direct methodology, immediately responsive material and is a cheap and unthreatening art form many people practiced reasonably well when children. The levels of skill involved can be modest, yet the results can be impressive, avoiding the necessity of virtuosity and the problem of alienation. So the painting belongs to the painter. The space is personal, but accessible. But the gynaecological metaphor has to be followed through. The beginning of the creative event is hidden from us, so the model needs a component like the unconscious, though it doesn’t have to be branded ‘Freud’, ‘Jung’, ‘Lacan’ or whatever.

The personal, the lack of distance between the painter’s actions and the painting, is maybe why the medium is still being taken up by younger practitioners as an alternative to other forms of image making that flourish in our age of mechanical reproduction. The personal may be more obtainable than the ‘auratic’, that special un-reproducible quality attributed to the art of earlier periods. I’m partly thinking here of the Turps Banana graduate show, which I’ve not seen, but on the screen, appears to be striving for something like the aura of the personal. They certainly don’t seem to be ‘quarrelling with Michelangelo’ or trying to catch the attention of art history.

That might imply that at the moment painting is settling for cult status, with abstraction a niche enterprise placed with in it. As a genre, ‘personal’ may sound defeatist, lacking in ambition – heartfelt and committed perhaps, but ‘unelectable’. However, because it comes down to individual practitioners, working with elements from partly unconscious sources, the results of such an enterprise, either in quality or wider audience appeal, are impossible to predict.

When I say ‘painting’ I mean the proper sort that stays within its bounds to maintain its function and possibilities, not that breaks down and becomes preoccupied with itemising its own elements – ‘flatness’, surface, canvas, stretcher, staples (staples was a joke). It’s only when these elements are bundled or packaged together that painting is interesting, that it has spaces; palatial, monastic, optical, personal.

September 2015.


  1. I have read this excellent article several times now and I find the historical overview most informative – especially in terms of the various kinds of ‘space’ that pictures relate to.

    The Pixar space/technology for constructing ‘realities’ is fascinating, particularly as it reminds, or enables, us to realise that all visual languages are constructs of a sort and a notion of ‘realism’ (which maybe, at one time, we thought photography provided) and representation are always framed by cultures, signs and signifiers, aided and abetted by technologies – whether the ‘space’ is overtly public, political or more psychological/personal.

    Manifestations of non-illusionistic, planar abstraction with a constructive (make it up yourself?) relationship to literal space on the canvas does seem to pertain to painting in an enclosed, formalistic kind of way (but is still contextualised by the historical period of course). A ‘pure’, non-referential, abstraction existing in its own mini-universe of opticality may well be specific to painting – though I am not personally convinced of this as I cannot see how our visual, tactile and experiential engagements ‘in the world’ cannot influence so-called abstract content in some way.

    Perhaps visual ‘flatness’ and opticality, as it pertains to painting, now has a counterpart in the smoothly planar, digital screen: negotiated by the mobile (cell) ‘phone, computer and HDTV screens that increasingly intervene and control our lives?

    Do we live our daily lives in a digital simulacrum? (Note to self – I must get out more)


    1. It might be misleading to talk of „flatness“ here. Screens and photographs can be perfectly flat but they have a bland, uninteresting and to all intents and purposes invisible surface. The eye ventures into the pictorial space of a screen or photo and has no retreat or escape, short of looking away.
      Good painting (whether figurative or abstract) allows the eye to wander smoothly backwards and forwards between a material surface and the immaterial, pictorial space. Photos, monitor screens and even Pixar cannot do this.


  2. ‘Non-representational’ painting is a myth. All 2D surfaces represent form, one cannot escape form representation, try as you like, like Lasker, it’s never going to happen.

    It’s such a basic fact, perhaps that is what the Pixar film is addressing, literally the world of the ‘abstract’ where nobody would want to go.


    1. Definitely. There’s also the dilemma of the criteria of judgment, because one can’t really tell what one is looking at.

      If one couldn’t draw and paint from life, any such person may admire Sargent and attempt to paint the facility as a thing in itself, without the pain and hard work of the figurative task, but if Sargent had done it, his informed talent would shine through.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree that ‘abstraction’ is not adequate for describing all the manifestations that the pursuit of abstract art has seen (and continues to see), ‘non-representational’ however,seems to me a specific and fairly self-evident term to use for art that is not mimetic either in origin or result.

    Perhaps abstract has to be capable of escaping the ‘representation’ of form in a positive way by taking on the presentation of form (therefore not actually seeking to escape anything) and maybe not being able to tell what one is looking at is in essence a good measure of what some abstract artists are aiming for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. it’s inevitable that one cannot fully see what one is looking at, because of one’s identification with appearances, whatever one’s intentions, form is represented, merely as a geometric fact of shape representing form. The artist can kid themselves otherwise, in fact it’s normal, it is the norm.


  4. It seems to me that good abstract art will ease the difficulty around ‘identification with appearances’ by studiously avoiding them. That way the viewer can fully focus on what they are seeing..


    1. I wonder if an “identification with appearances” might be subliminal – even for ‘non-representational’ imagery. (Actually, the term ‘imagery’ suggests some kind of pictorialisation). I recall a Melvin Bragg interview with Patrick Heron some years ago; and after flying over Eagles Nest (Heron’s home in Cornwall) he realised that the apparently abstract colour-shapes in his paintings related to the surrounding landscape.

      Not sure about Malevich’s Black Square though!


      1. I can’t help thinking that whatever you do with abstract painting or sculpture, somebody somewhere will be able to identify something or other in it that they can plausibly say it looks a bit like. Heron is only one of many who realised that flattish abstract shapes on a canvas look a bit like maps or aerial views (there is a thematic show on somewhere about this, isn’t there, with Lanyon and Davie and other glider enthusiasts?). But so what! I think it misses the point that the abstract/visual value of a painting is a separate issue from what it looks similar to, or even whether it is abstract or figurative. I agree with Terry that a good abstract artist will ‘ease the difficulty’ by avoiding some obvious pitfalls (like aerial views, horizon lines, cooker hob designs etc.), but that does not speak fully to the issue of quality. The ambition of ‘abstract-ness’ is identified almost entirely, in my mind, with transcending what is literal/literary/representational. Good figurative artists have done this; not all so-called abstract artists do it (see my comments on Carl’s Caro essay).

        I would agree with the original point that all painting is essentially illusionistic, spatially (and sculpture too?), so you could say that it remains always representational. But I think that is pedantic, even by my standards. If you have a need to see literal/figurative/symbolic stuff represented in art, even abstract art, all of the time, then the visual coherence and meaning of a thing – which I rather hopelessly but optimistically call ‘abstract-ness’ – will count for little or nothing with you. And you will not be that interested, I presume, in pushing on for yet more of that quality, which is what, presently, advanced abstract painting and sculpture has the potential to do, rather more so than any contemporary figurative art that I can account for at the moment.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s hard to get past the appearance of Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ because it’s the ultimate 2D shape. There’s the appearance of ‘abstraction’ to get past, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I just watched the latest Brancaster Chronicle. I still see Laocoon and his Sons in Mark Skilton’s sculpture.

    So what?

    Just a minute.

    I also see drawing not unlike Mercedes Matter’s (in Mark’s sculpture). (You can see some of Mercedes’s drawings here: https://www.google.com/search?q=mercedes+matter&rlz=1C1ARAA_enUS517US517&espv=2&biw=1024&bih=679&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0CJABEIkeahUKEwir1sK9r_fIAhWIez4KHa0JAZg#imgrc=_.) And I think of the way Louis Finkelstein wrote about Mercedes’s drawing: “. . .themes: of radiation from, or circulation about a center, or of unequal thrusts into space, or the balance and imbalance of small and large, of a container and a thing contained, of rhythms which unite and rhythms which are broken. Then the establishment of a particular point of view gives to these general proposals a more rigorous specification. The coherence of what physically exists with the sense of sight of the viewer, what in landscape we would call a “scene” is what stamps the relation as a motif, the meeting of an inner feeling of meaningfulness with the world of separate facts. . . ”

    I also think of Leland Bell, another painter/New York Studio School teacher—and what Andrew Forge used to say about Leland. You can see Leland’s work can fairly be described as representational: https://www.google.com/search?q=leland+bell&rlz=1C1ARAA_enUS517US517&espv=2&biw=1024&bih=679&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0CH0QiR5qFQoTCKeAn_Sw98gCFUI6PgodGbkNVg. But Leland never talked about the representational dimension of his work or the work of any other painter—and Leland was a wonderful talk-talk-talker. All that mattered to Leland was “abstract.” Leland also believed all art historians should be tortured and shot. Andrew felt it was not unreasonable to allow art historians to talk about art. Andrew also kind of gleefully talked about the sexual content in Leland’s paintings.

    So what?

    Not much. I’ve started watching that Brancaster Chronicle for a second time. It’s clearer the second time through. I’m beginning to start to kind of follow the talk, beginning to get some kind of grip on Robin’s hopeless/optimystical “abstract-ness.” (I am not yet able to connect Pixar with Sienese painting though.) I don’t want the talk to stop, but maybe the wisest words are Sam Cornish’s about geometry not being NOT abstract, but being too abstract, too simply abstract.


      1. You want the image to embody as represented form in your mind as you perceive the image, do you?

        Abstraction is a simulacrum of this inner achievement, where if one wants to see that other-worldy mind object, then one must paint with nothing in mind, destroying any areas in the subjective mind of the viewer that might have verisimilitude with known phenomena, EXCEPT… the female form. That’s the buzz object, art aims to advance beyond, via abstraction, on the off-chance that if one painted nothing, then a representation of something other, would occur based on the logic of ‘If it’s not that, then it must be something else, hopefully the else beyond all one’s conceptual limits. That’s how abstraction can be a simulacrum, a tactic of appealing to luck, if not talent.

        De Kooning saw it, but went mad trying to discover the ultimate structure of aesthetics, behind the big tease.


  7. Knowing, and accepting, that one does not have to reference a “literal/figurative/symbolic” type of content (illusion/allusion?) in a painting or sculpture feels like a kind of freedom-from-externalising experience. But it’s quite a challenge to get to this point as I am making (a fairly uninformed*) assumption that, from birth/very early childhood, the human brain constructs visuality from the colours, shapes, textures, light & dark contrasts (etc) from the visual aspects of the environment inhabited and experienced. If so, an abstract (or any other) category of image, must be linking to some part of the brain that has stored those visual experiences.
    * I am not a psychologist, so I could be writing rubbish here.

    However, I would agree that what Robin calls “abstract-ness” is spot on.

    Anecdote: A family friend once remarked that she could see a fish in a non-figurative painting I had made. I could never look at this painting again without seeing that damned fish! I conveniently lost the painting some time later.


    1. Just looking for a moment at David Sweet’s description of abstraction as seen in the film “Inside Out’, what he describes is a well trodden route where, put simply, the artist begins with recognisable source material,a figure, a landscape,an object, and so on, and then subjects it to a series of visual transformations, disintegrations even. before a final work emerges. Contrast that with starting a piece of work from no visual reference and you have an altogether different ,dare I say it, kettle of fish, which as you suggest offers an extremely liberating prospect but also a very difficult task on the practical level, Another difficulty as you have already mentioned is the inadequacy either around the word abstraction and words that contain ‘abstract’ or (more likely) how they are used. For me the process that David Sweet describes is that of abstraction ie. removing characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essentials. Abstract-ness as Robin interprets it is something else altogether that can be found in both figurative and non-figurative art. Abstract art has nothing to do with abstraction but might if we’re lucky or very good have something to do with abstract-ness!


      1. What’s the big kick of this ‘abstract-ness’? There’s no such thing in the universe, do you mean ‘something beyond my ability to describe’? And the term for all that might be ‘beyond’ is ‘abstraction’? The problem is that there is an overly-deep conceptual furrow that if it’s not abstract it’s figurative and vice versa, or the even worse phenomenon, semi-abstract.


  8. Ad Reinhardt’s cartoons pushed the ideas behind advanced abstract art directly into a very public realm in a very positive, if satirical way. He used them to suggest that abstraction has a very relevant and social role to play in critiquing and analysing western cultural values. In this respect abstact art is not simply the sophisticated visual pleasure available only to a highly cultivated few. Instead of perpetuating this closed and rather negative class based reading of abstract tendencies in art, one could say that by studying the forms that art takes one might develop a set of critical tools by which to analyse visual cultures of all kinds, hopefully going some way to cultivating a proper socially and historically based “quarrel with Michelangelo” etc.

    It is suggested that Pollock’s art is beholden to rather ill-defined notions of the ‘personal’ or the ineffable ‘unconscious’. But was his art, not also, a highly accomplished and complex synthesis of visual traditions in art making that are much wider than the few western conventions set out as known spatial structures (palatial, monastic or then cubist, planar push/pull colour field or ‘optical’ et al)? I was also interested by David Anfam’s convincing argument about the influence on Pollock of war photography and specifically high altitude reconnaissance imagery and photos of night bombing raids readily available in periodicals throughout and at the end of WW2.

    I wonder how much abstract painting’s renewed popularity might be based on a rather flimsy set of hopelessly class ridden cliches as to what the personal and private in art actually might really mean. My fear is that in the realms of what is becoming a rapidly privatised and atomised education system ‘abstract painting’ could so easily be set adrift from its social history, reduced to a group of restricted linguistic codes and visual contrivances that do little more than reiterate the monied class’s obsession with ‘expressing itself’ via expensive higher education ‘products’ that become little more than vanity projects.

    If ones identity as a person and as an artist is not held in some kind of dynamic and critical relationship with the wider world (and I don’t mean just the constant surveillance and hysterical criticism of the perceived underclasses) then ‘society’ and it’s cultural production remain oppressive tools by which to define status and augment the monied class’s unquestioned superiority in matters of ‘culture’ and beyond.


  9. However abstraction has entered the consciousness of art, those social ‘entrances’ are nothing more than random history, something not to believe in at all, but that there was some intrinsic ‘something’ to visual data of that type and we’re all still wondering what that is.


  10. The boundary between figuration and abstraction may be blurred, and contemporary painters may feel empowered by the fading of the distinction. My view is no doubt influenced by my art education in the sixties, where Diploma requirements centred on acquiring competence in figurative genres. So I’m from the generation of painters who were baptised figurative and later converted to abstraction. This personal experience emphasised the difference between the codes, and the practical contrast between the ‘languages’.

    However, when converting to abstraction under these circumstances, you carry over skills from a figurative context, and hopefully develop new ones. Therefore, despite significant differences, there’s an element of continuity linking abstraction to the art of the past through that skill set. The modernist historical narrative, which argues against a rupture with the past, suits this situation rather more than theories that see abstraction as belonging to a radically new social order.

    But that was then. Now maybe abstraction and figuration appear as equal options for younger painters because the art educational system’s support via medium specific skill acquisition has collapsed. The state of affairs where the differences between them could be experienced, as traditions are handed from one generation to another, no longer exists. Yet, like cut flowers, severed from their roots, the codes may flourish as genres, which can still be marketed even in a very competitive cultural environment.


  11. I think it is perfectly possible to see abstract art as not representing a rupture with the past but still offering an exciting opportunity to ‘do’ things in a way that hasn’t been seen before. I do accept however that there is something of the ‘having your cake and eating it’ about that point of view. Perhaps the crucial point here lies in what significance is placed on the relationship of any given social/political order to the art that emerges contemporaneously with it.
    When we look for example at Vermeer we might or might not have an understanding of the social, political and economic climate of his time and of the evidence of this that might be contained in an example of his work. Even if replete with such knowledge though, it will not tell us what is exceptional and special about a painting such as ‘The Painter in his Studio’. The enduring greatness of this work lies entirely in the visual experience that it presents which is freely accessible outside of considerations such as the type of cultural and social order within which it was produced.


  12. Maybe we should add ‘the grid’ to our set of spatial structures….

    “In the early part of this century there began to appear, first in France and then in Russia and in Holland, a structure that has remained emblematic of the modernist ambition in the visual arts ever since. Surfacing in pre-War cubist painting and subsequently becoming ever more stringent and manifest, the grid announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse. As such, the grid has done its job with striking efficiency. The barrier it has lowered between the arts of vision and those of language has been almost totally successful in walling the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality and defending them against the intrusion of speech. The arts, of course, have paid dearly for this success, because the fortress they constructed on the foundation of the grid has increasingly become a ghetto.”

Author: Rosalind Krauss
 Source: October, Vol. 9 (Summer, 1979), pp. 50-64 Published by: The MIT Press

    ‘The Painter In His Studio’ might not be beholden to them but is it “hostile” “…to literature, to narrative, to discourse….” in the same way as high modernist art?

    Krauss has a point about a certain kind of ‘modern art’s’ ghettoisation though. To step aside from the ‘gestural’ and cliches around spontaneity and the unconscious in painting for a moment, then geometric, systems and hard edged art are also riddled with their own cult- like absurdities, surely? The Visual Scene- Playing It Cool is available on BBC iplayer at the moment. It was first broadcast in 1969. It left me considering just how far these forms of abstraction have developed in any meaningful way since- yet they remain such a visual mine of endlessly repeated props and tropes in contemporary abstract art. They’ve gone from being ghettoised to being fetishised. Stella is the one who has unhinged the constructivist tradition from within and has turned it inside out.

    I like the metaphor of the cut flowers but I’d prefer something with strong roots that will grow through the cracks in the concrete.


    1. John, I’d like to offer a more positive view of ‘exclusive visuality’ than that presented by Rosalind Krauss. I see an emphasis on ‘exclusive visuality’ (ie. art that does not rely on accompanying interpretive material) as very positive and democratic, producing art that is there to be seen by all.
      Far from having a ‘walling in’ effect, an emphasis on ‘exclusive visuality’ (at least as I interpret that term) seems to me to be essential for rolling out new and clear possibilities for painters, sculptors, print-makers etc. that are not made obscure by considerations that are particular to other media.
      Unless makers are prepared to be continually inventive and embracing of change then all approaches that are driven by something other than visual considerations will eventually run the risk of becoming, if not ‘riddled with their own cult-like absurdities’, then certainly devoid of any ability to surprise, excite and delight.


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