Thursday, July 8, 2010

Painting Must Die (Part 3/3): The Final Solution

Frank Stella, Detail of notes for Pratt Lecture (1960); Tony Smith, Die (1962)

When Rosalind Krauss wrote that sculpture was "a historically bounded category not a universal one" her aim was to establish territory for the new art work that had developed out of minimalist "practice." She was not however being entirely honest intellectually. If she had been, she would acknowledged the full dept minimalist art and post-minimalist art owed to painting. She would not have defined sculpture in terms of "artistic practices" - an expanded, but still finite field. If Krauss had been totally honest she would have been forced to consider sculpture in terms of a much larger field, artistic reception - an admittedly far more difficult set of relationships to chart within a Klein group.

Luckily the feminist art historian, Anna Chave, leaps in where Krauss fears to tread. Chave argues that Frank Stella's black pinstripe paintings are "cornerstones and touchstones of Minimalism." For Chave this is not a just that the minimalist worked from Greenbergian logic system as handed down by Stella, but that the minimalists traded on the sinister associations Stella made  with the titles of his black paintings (and famously denied: "What You see is what you see."). In her essay, Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power she wrote:
"As for that big steel cube, Tony Smith's Die, a six-foot black cube done in 1962, has emerged with [Frank] Stella's pinstripe paintings, as another of the cornerstones and touchstones of Minimalism. Like Die Fahne Hoch, Die was symmetrical, unitary, and made of commercial materials. More than Stella's painting. however Die set the stage for what followed in being an object with almost none of the standard signifiers of a work of fine art, except for a title... Die(!) is also a verb form, constituting a command - the cruelest command the empowered can issue to the powerless: a murderer to his victim, a judge to a convicted criminal, or a soldier to his enemy captive. The blackness sealed state, and human scale of Smith's cube helped reinforce this reading of the title, which - considering that the command is directed at the viewer - renders the work a gruesome gesture: a bleak crypt presented to the viewer with succinct instructions to perish. ‘Six feet has a suggestion of being cooked. Six foot box. Six foot under,’
Carl Andre, Cedar Piece (1959); Frank Stella Die Fahne Hoch (1959)

In Minimalism and Biography Chave quotes Eva Hesse, on Andre’s plains, “It does something to my insides. His metal plates were the concentration camp for me. They were those showers that they put on the gas.”  If Hess’s judgment seems excessively harsh, keep in mind that these are the sorts of associations many of the minimalist artists themselves were flirting with. Stella had set the tone when he evoked the Holocaust with the titles of the black paintings. He titled the first group, Riechstag, Die Fahne Hoch, and Albriet Macht Frei. The titles allude to the German capital building destroyed by a fire that sparked the rise of Nazis to total power; the motto over the gates of Auschwitz; and the first line of the official marching song of the Nazi party. Andre associated his breakthrough work to those paintings (the two images above appear side by side in a 1977 catalog of Andre's work). He wasn't alone. Donald Judd saw the black paintings in terms of specific objecthood:

Frank Stella says that he is doing paintings, and his work could be considered painting. Most of the works, though, suggest slabs, since they project more then usual, and some are notched and some are shaped like letters. Some new ones, painted purple, are triangles and hexagons with the centers open.
Stella did not disagree. “My whole way of thinking about painting has a lot to do with building.” he said, “I enjoy and find it more fruitful to think about many organizational or spatial concepts in architectural terms.” Because Krauss was not more honest about painting's procedural  relationship to the art she was advocating for (on procedural grounds), it did not occur to her that the connection had to be broken - much less how it might be broken. For Chave the connection is a given, a part of the more sinister relationship she is critical of. Chave takes the minimalists to task for the cruelty of many of  their titles, reading them as threats directed back at art and its audience:
The Minimalists effectually perpetrated violence through their work-violence again at the conventions of art and again at the viewer-rather than using their visual language to articulate a more pointed critique of particular kinds or instances of violence.” 
Bernini, Conversion of Constantine (1670), Frank Stella, BMW Art Car (1976)

Chave is a helpful and a needed curative for what ails Krauss's Expanded Field. Chave discusses paintings and sculpture as a single twined inheritance. As it turns out Krauss's "historically bounded category" is just as bogus and artificial as Greenberg's "universal one." What is key about Chave's critique is that she does not treat sculpture or painting as ways of seeing. Both are conceptualized as objects with meaning and context. There is no better example of this, than a sculpture Krauss herself chose to focus on:
Bernini's statue of the Conversion of Constantine, placed at the foot of the Vatican stairway connecting the Basilica of St. Peter to the heart of the papacy is another such monument, a marker at a particular place for a specific meaning/event. Because they thus function in relation to the logic of representation and marking, sculptures are normally figurative and vertical, their pedestals an important part of the structure since they mediate between actual site and representational sign. 
Consider that the old testament includes an explicit prohibition against the Israelite kings going into Egypt for horses. This is not a mild prohibition, this is a full on THOU SHALT NOT (Deut. 17:16). The historical import of a man on horseback was not just an image of overwhelming force, it was the image of overwhelming force. Krauss reduces the importance of that historical reality to mild mannered formula. To hear Krauss tell it, "meaning/event" was nothing more than a "sign" to be mediated. Had Krauss been more intellectually honest,  sculpture's sitelessness may resemble John Berger who gets us there (but of course it is within a discussion of painting):
Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated Wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth - which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money.
Here sitelessness is cast in a very different light. It is no longer a formal mater of autonomy, it is a quality of wealth. Berger goes further: 
We are arguing that if one studies the culture of European oil paintings a whole, and if one leaves aside its own claims for itself, its model is not so much a framed window open on the world as a safe let into a wall, a safe in which the visible has been deposited.
If Berger is correct (and I believe that he is), the the "new character... inhibited by the survival of various medieval artistic conventions" was a modern self image, a new self image of personal wealth at odds with aristocratic tradition. The patricide of painting - killing it as a way of seeing -  exposes a deeper more profound, and ongoing, regicide that lies that is modern sculpture. 
Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor (1959); Robert Morris, Untitled (1965)

The minimalist artist Robert Morris, who was a close friend of Krauss's, wrote a series of Notes on Sculpture - these essays were polemics. The Historian James Meyer writes that, "Later asked how he came to write Notes on Sculpture, Morris recalled the essay had begun as  a parody of formalist criticism. Only at [Barbra] Rose's urging did he transform the text into bona fide formal analysis." But as Meyer also makes clear, these are not parodies, these are the some of best (I think they are hands down the best) writings on minimalist art. In Notes on Sculpture, Part 2 Morris wrote that "The range of useless three-dimensional things is a continuum between the monument and the ornament. Sculpture has generally been thought of as those objects not at the polarities, but falling between." Morris formal analysis of sculpture is in terms of reception:
The quality of intimacy is attached to an object in a fairly direct proportion as its size diminishes in relation to oneself. The quality of publicness is attached in proportion as the size increases in relation to oneself.
In the elevated language of the formalist criticism, he had set out to lampoon, Morris described the "better new work" as avoiding all "intimacy" and addressing its audience in "public mode"  - but he further observed that, "Beyond a certain size the object can overwhelm and the gigantic scale becomes the loaded term." According to Meyer, with the publication of Notes on Sculpture Morris transformed himself from a second string minimalist, into a heavy weight. Berger, Chave, Krauss and Morris are unlikely bedfellows, but together they are a critical theory super predator providing us with the terms we need to kill painting.
Killing painting as a way of seeing requires following Berger's lead and setting aside the conceptual "framed window" that unnaturally cleaves painting and sculpture. Looking plainly at what Krauss calls "the logic of the monument... centuries of Western art" does not reveal another wall safe, that is an intimate thing. Instead what is revealed are objects firmly attached to the quality of publicness. Sculpture is not a wall safe it is a treasury. The "new character" of sculpture is not a creature of private sitting rooms. Sculpture is a show of wealth, not on the intimate scale of a private home, but instead on the scale of  the “equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius… set in the center of the Campidoglio.” This is no longer a difference of quality, it is a difference of kind. As Chave makes clear in the case of Die, sculpture is "the empowered" addressing "the powerless." Sculpture is not a way of seeing, it is a trove; it is a throne; a barricade; a rampart; it is a triumphal arch; it is a gate. 
Auguste Rodin, Gates of Hell (1890), Frank Stella, Arbeit Macht Frei (1967)

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