Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Painting Must Die (Part 2/3): Framed.


Laocoön and His Sons (160-20 BCE), Frank Stella, Newburgh (1995) 

As counter-intuitive as it is to think of sculpture as painting, that is in fact the steady state; the status quo, not the exception. In her book, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Rosalind Krauss quotes the the 19th Century theorist Adolf von Hildebrand, who writes:
All separate judgements of depth enter into a unitary, all-inclusive judgement of depth. So that ultimately the entire richness of a figure's form stands before us as a backward continuation of one simple plane, whenever this is not the case the unitary pictorial effect of the figure is lost.
The sculpture of Giacometti and David Smith were conceptualized as series of profiles, essentially easel paintings in the round. So-called masterpieces, like Laocoön and His Sons, or Michelangelo's David were held up as masterpieces because they were said to have no ‘dead’ profiles. (One imagines that that this idea of pictorial effect is what has been driving Stella's experiments in sculptural paintings for the past couple decades.) Consider Greenberg's endorsement of Anne Truitt - who he championed and used as a bludgeon against the minimalists:
Her stepped boxes, ranging in size from that of a footlocker to that of a chiffonier, immediately posed the question of whether they were art, only to solve it in the next instant with their painted surfaces, which acted and yet did not act like pictures.
 Frank Stella, Harran II (1967); Robert Lazzarini, Brass Knuckles (2010)


This pictorial error is not unique to the Modernists however. One imagines the Venus of Willendorf was conceptualized as a cave painting in the round. Likewise the postmodernism of earth art is little more than a HUGE shaped painting. Walter de Maria explains how he and his fellow earth artist Michael Heizer started out:
We had a lot in common; we knew the whole situation so that gave us something to talk about and from that point it became interesting that he would change from shaped canvas painting to sculpture, and I was at the point of changing from steel sculpture into the land sculpture.
The "whole situation" was painting. Even a decade later the aura of Greenbergian criticism and the prescriptions of black paintings remained intact (that is all shaped painting was). It is not meaningless that  Robert Smithson's proposal for Spiral Jetty opens with a block quote about the color red. The Great Salt Lake was chosen because its bacteria laden waters turn red - Smithson was aiming for an "unitary pictorial effect," albeit a aerial one. Pointing out that sculpture should be judged by a different "historically bounded" context than painting is not an rearguard appeal on my part for purism or a separation between artistic disciplines founded on material essentials (that was Greenberg's schtick about painting). It is just to say that sculpture appears to lag because it is so rarely considered on its own terms. If it is difficult to name what those terms might be, it is because painting is blocking the view.
Frank Stella, Adelante (1964) Michael Heizer, City (1972-2010)

With the Expanded Field, Krauss (once a protege of Greenberg, but by this time she had been thoroughly alienated from his critical camp for years), was attempting to provide a view on the post-minimalist art (she called it postmodern - but in hind sight it was a very limited postmodernism) in terms of its own unique historical context. Her essay proposed that at the end of the 19th century sculpture came unmoored from its public utility of marking specific sites; of cleaving particular historical moments and public meaning. According to Krauss modernist sculpture emerged out of this crisis as a distinct class of artistic production - if still entangled with the "logic" of its 19th century precursor.  
Krauss argued that the late l960s, as minimalist art began to morph into post-minimalsit art, was the end of modern sculpture. Years later her protégé, Hal Foster, would argue that minimalism was the "crux." He extended Krauss's ideas of minimalism as an opening on to postmodernism, believing that minimalism was "a modernist epitome... but it it no less a break with it." He argued that the minimalism rejected "the anamorphic basis of most traditional sculpture (still residual in the gestures of abstract-expressionist work), but it also refuses the siteless realm of most abstract sculpture. In short, with minimalism sculpture no longer stands apart, on a pedestal or as oure art, but is repositioned among objects and redefined in terms of place" 
Krauss was writing in 1979, well after the intellectual progeny of the Minimalists had began to bulldozed, video, and perform sculpture, but still well in advance of the wide variety of activities that now fall under the rubric of postmodernism. Already however Krauss was complaining that, 
Nothing, it would seem, could possibly give to such a motley of effort the right to lay claim to whatever one might mean by the category of sculpture.
Luckily sculpture has not become any more focused as a term (one need only visit the Sculpture Center to experience first hand how malleable the term remains), and despite Krauss best efforts, it is no less entangled with painting.
Mary Miss, Tallest Tower (1970), Frank Stella, Chinese Pavilion (2007)

For Krauss sculpture "is a historically bounded category and not a universal one." She writes that, "the logic of sculpture... is inseparable from the logic of the monument. By virtue of this logic a sculpture is a commemorative representation. It sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place." Krauss concludes that sculpture became modern only as the “logic of the monument” collapsed. according to Krauss:
There is nothing very mysterious about this logic; understood and inhabited, it was the source of a tremendous production of sculpture during centuries of Western art. But the convention is not immutable and there came a time when the logic began to fail. Late in the nineteenth century we witnessed the fading of the logic of the monument. It happened rather gradually. 
This gradual culture-wide failure explains the transition from pre-modern to modern because, the traditional logic was, according to her, "a marker at a particular place for a specific meaning/event." For Krauss innovation was “siteless” monuments. Krauss writes of “an absolute loss of place… producing the monument as abstraction, the monument as pure marker or base, functionally placeless and largely self-referential.” It is this homelessness that sets the stage, for Krauss, for the appearance of modern sculpture:
Through its fetishization of the base, the sculpture reaches downward to absorb the pedestal into itself and away from actual place; and through representation of its own materials or the process of its construction, the sculpture becomes depicts its own autonomy.
Marcus Aurelius (176 AD), Brancusi, Torso of a Boy (1912), David Smith, Cubi XIX (1964)

It is this nomadic “fetishization of the base” that is key for Krauss. In her schema the convention of the pedestal are simply formal structures that “mediate between actual site and representational sign.” Need a glass of water? Certainly these are dry topological terms. For Krauss the pedestal is nothing more than a generic verb mediating the relationship of a generalized subject and wholly abstract object. The process of fetizhizing the base is a bit more fun. 
One imagines that the historically bounded conditions of possibility allowed the “equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius… set in the center of the Campidoglio,” its brass horse and rider; machined and buffed down to the essential mirror polished form of a cylindrical crotch, and the imperial grandeur of its dressed stone plinth reduced to a plain block of marble. Krauss takes us from official Roman statuary to Brancusi by way of Rodin. According to her scheme Modernist sculpture was an attack on inherited conventions, but not a long lived one. The “negative condition of the monument” was, according to Krauss, a limited vein of investigation and “it began by about 1950 to be exhausted”:
It began, that is, to be experienced more and more as pure negativity. At this point modernist sculpture appeared as a kind of black hole in the space of consciousness, something whose positive content was increasingly hard to define, something that was possible to locate only in terms of what it was not.
Here one begins to get a sense of the death surrounding the modern project: the abstracted torso of a boy was reduced to the absolute abstraction of a black cube and then that cube was flattened into lead plates on the floor. Tony Smith’s Die and Carl Andre’s “plains” are, it would seem, all nomadic base fetishization.
Tony Smith, Die (1968), Carl Andre, Copper Square (1969)

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