Jan van Eyck

#101. David Sweet writes on ‘O’, ‘G’, ‘D’ and Flat Painting

George Stubbs, ‘Ringwood’, 1792

I wanted to try to say something about space in abstract painting. Not the sort of abstract painting that is crowded with marks and visual events, so numerous they almost force the retina to see ‘depth’ as a coping strategy, but rather paintings that employ relatively few, relatively simple elements: Paintings that look flat.

Generating pictorial depth is fairly easy. It can be controlled and directed towards a descriptive goal, as in figurative painting, or it can spontaneously emerge from random movements of worked pigment. However, on its own, depth makes little difference to an individual painting’s ‘quality’.

When pictorial depth is generated it usually has to be anchored to a two-dimensional construct, the surface and/or the picture plane. Giving enough emphasis to this two dimensional feature in the total experience of the work is more tricky. If successfully negotiated, unlike the production of space on its own, it does add value.

The Impressionists were the most successful in negotiating the surface/depth tension. Each dab of the brush was tethered to the surface and linked to the next mark in the passage, but the whole integument was able to convey an account of the natural world, glimpsed but not forensically examined, with its legible spatial cues, its phenomenology addressed to perception.

The Impressionists influence on the practice of painting is hard to overestimate. Michael Fried’s comment sounds reasonable when he writes that ‘the basic formalist-modernist view – enshrined in Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” – that paintings consist essentially in flat surfaces conjoined with a sheerly visual or optical mode of spatiality amounts to nothing more nor less than a theoretical rationale for the Impressionist picture’.[i] Add to that the practical demonstration of the value of the Impressionist picture taken as far as it would go in the late Monet ‘Water Lilies’ acquired by the Museum of Modern Art from 1955, means that the identification of painting itself and the modernist enterprise is hard to deny.

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