Form Takes Effect.
Fine shades of behavior. Why are they important? They have important consequences.
–Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations IIxi
Contrary to a commonly held belief, a painter’s satisfaction is not in the therapeutic release associated with scribbling, staining, or smudging a clean canvas. Whenever a painter applies a brushstroke, a color, a figure onto the support’s surface, he/she does it so that the materials may generate a plastic effect—an effect nonexistent just prior to their manipulation by the painter and publicly accessible right after. This exercise in visual demiurgics matters, because there is no release for the painter if the painting doesn’t work––and when we say it “works,” we refer to the plastic effects generated in its appreciation. A plastic effect comes into being as it is being seen and is seen as it comes into being. Thus a painting is formed inasmuch as it takes effect.
I will address here a peculiarity implied in the perception and appreciation of plastic effects in painting: Painting’s plastic form materializes in the same measure as its pictorial plane gets articulated, becomes consolidated, and takes effect. In a painting—either figurative or abstract, realist or expressionist—there is no plastic effect without a pictorial plane, nor is there a pictorial plane without a plastic effect. And to eradicate the suspicion of there being a sophism here, it should be remarked that the terms “pictorial plane” and “plastic effect” are far from synonymous. Their foremost contrast lies in the fact that a plastic effect is visible by definition, while, as I will suggest, the pictorial plane is not an object of vision but a condition of our pictorial vision, as well as an implicit platform for every plastic effect.
I’ll start by showing how it was that the critic who was most notably involved with these issues, Clement Greenberg, did not foresee the relationship described above, insofar as he claimed to conceive the occurrence of a pictorial plane without a plastic effect. Let’s examine some of Greenberg’s well-known writings where the idea of flatness is proposed as the ruling norm of modernist painting. In “After Abstract Expressionism” (1962), he wrote: “. . . By now it has been established, it would seem, that the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness; and that the observance of merely these two norms is enough to create an object which can be experienced as a picture: thus a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture—though not necessarily a successful one” (The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 3, p. 131).
Greenberg seems to subscribe to the idea that the pictorial plane is concomitant with a surface’s flatness, that the fact that a delimited flatness exists is enough for that physical flatness to become, ipso facto, pictorial as well. This outlook is consistent with his interpretation of the development of modern painting as he had delineated it twenty-two years before in “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940):
“ . . . But most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas” (Ibid., vol. 1, p. 35).
Given this position, Greenberg’s predilection for the work of Morris Louis is perfectly understandable. Rather than painting his canvases, Louis stained them, such that he literally assimilated the colored pigments to the physical surface embodied by the canvas. If Greenberg had been right about Louis––as he was about Pollock––Louis’s work would have similarly withstood the test of time. However, today the novelty of Louis’s paintings looks more rhetorical than anything else. I believe Greenberg’s mistake with respect to Louis lies, precisely, in his offhanded identification of the pictorial plane with the physical surface of the work.
Because of his peculiar formulation of the notion of flatness in “After Abstract Expressionism,” Greenberg is forced—against his better judgment—to accept the inclusion of the minimalist monochrome within the field of painting, but he points out succinctly that this inclusion doesn’t make the monochrome a successful painting. In “Modernist Painting” (1960), he described the requirement for the success of a modernist painting: “. . .The flatness towards which Modernist painting orients itself can never be an absolute flatness. The heightened sensitivity of the picture plane may no longer permit sculptural illusion, or trompe-l’oeil, but does and must permit optical illusion. The first mark made on a canvas destroys its literal and utter flatness, and the result of the marks made on it by an artist like Mondrian is still a kind of illusion that suggests a kind of third dimension. Only now it is a strictly pictorial, strictly optical third dimension . . . .” (Ibid., vol. 3, p. 90).
Hence, Greenberg advocates the quality of a modernist painting as being circumscribed by two parameters: the condition of flatness and the illusion of a strictly pictorial and optical third dimension. Greenberg’s positing of this type of illusion probably was meant to answer the patently anti-illusionistic works that Frank Stella produced, to instantaneous acclaim, beginning in 1959. However, Greenberg’s neo-illusionism literally runs against his own 1944 essay, “Abstract Art,” where he affirms that “. . . The deeper meaning of [painting's transformation] is that in a period in which illusions of every kind are being destroyed the illusionists methods of painting should also be renounced. . . .” (Ibid., vol. 1, p. 203).
Such conceptual conflagration would have been less annoying (although not entirely resolved) had Greenberg avoided the notion of illusionism altogether and instead called forth what we understand as “plastic effect.” The plastic effect that Greenberg had in mind––at the cost of naturalism and for the sake of abstraction–– is what he calls “the heightened sensitivity of the picture plane.” As a consequence of the identification of the picture plane with the work’s surface, the heightened sensitivity of this surface is not compatible with the plastic effects of naturalist painting. In a certain way, the attention focused on the surface’s flatness may distract us from the represented image. However, even granting the antithesis of surface and image, if we did not assimilate the picture plane to the physical surface of the work, we would not be compelled to derive from it the antithesis of picture plane and image, nor, therefore, the condemnation of naturalism. In fact, my intention goes beyond negating the Greenbergian identification of plane and surface: I mean to suggest that picture plane and image are mutually dependent, that there is no picture plane without image, and that a fittingly reformulated pictorial scheme would not have to reduce painting’s capabilities––as Greenbergian modernism did––but would allow room for painting’s creative development even as it paid heed to formal strictures.
In order to untie the pictorial plane from the picture’s surface, we must begin by undoing the argument that assimilates one to the other. The Greenbergian notion of flatness is built upon the idea, spelled out in “Abstract Art,” that our visual experience has “an essential bidimensionality”, a trait that must be ingrained in a painting in order for it to remain faithful to visual experience. The argument may be attacked from different flanks, the most effective being reductio ad absurdum: If visual experience were essentially bidimensional, anything we would paint on a canvas would also be perceived as essentially bidimensional without regard to its degree of naturalism—it would be just as essentially bidimensional as the rest of our extrapictorial visual perceptions. An epistemology that held what we “really see” are color patterns bidimensionally projected on the retina would immediately cancel the notion of picture surface. Our perception of surfaces in general would be mistaken, as well as any notion of picture plane: we would find no justification for supposing a plane beyond the retinal plane.
We could recall Descartes’s anatomical studies in his Optics, Kant’s categories as applied to perception, or even G. E. Moore’s Defense of Common Sense in order to affirm that our visual experience is intrinsically three-dimensional, that we can plainly see the surfaces of objects, and that among those objects, that occupy an extension of space and possess density, there exists a class we call “paintings.” No one in his/her right mind can deny our ability to see the surfaces of paintings. What would be senseless, on the other hand, is to think that surfaces could be perceived bidimensionally. Indeed, in order to figure out what the act of “perceiving bidimensionally” would amount to, let us imagine some being inhabiting a flat, bidimensional universe. If that being were able to perceive visually in some sense, it would perceive successions of points on a horizon with no amplitude, and in such a case it would be rather far-fetched to speak of spatial perception. Our own perception of such a bidimensional environment seen from the vantage of our three-dimensional one could be immanent, like the idea we have of God’s immanence in our space. But just as God, in his immanence, does not perceive at a distance (for He sees it all at once), neither would we humans perceive bidimensionally a bidimensional universe. This is not to say that we cannot conceive of the notion of bidimensionality: it is precisely what we do when thinking of the picture plane as a conceptualized projection of a bidimensionality that is suggested by the painting’s surface but not embodied by it. The picture plane is not physical but it wholly enters within the representational domain. Hence, the perception of a painting simultaneously implies perceiving a real three-dimensionality that sustains the existence of a pictorial object as well as an imagined bidimensionality that allows for the perception of pictorial representation.
Having disengaged the pictorial plane from the work’s surface, we may proceed to look into the symbiosis generated among plane and image in the representational domain. Greenberg ignored such phenomena, as did the established theories of representation of the day. Both Wittgenstein and the art historian E. H. Gombrich proposed that the gaze through which we make sense of the scenes seen in paintings, photographs, screens, damp walls, and clouds is sustained by a type of attentiveness called “seeing as.” Resorting to the duck/rabbit optical trick––where a drawing can be seen as either the description of a duck or the description of a rabbit––the theory maintains that the representational gaze oscillates between attending one aspect or another of the same object, but it does not focus on both aspects at the same time. Remaining respectful to this schema, Greenberg assumed that our attention to the picture plane would be incompatible with attention paid to the represented image. He spells it out thus in one of the most pompous passages in “Modernist Painting”: “. . . Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first. This is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture . . . .” (Ibid., vol. 4, p. 87).
It may be all right to apply the notion of “seeing as” to the duck/rabbit trick, but it is ultimately wrong to extend its application to all of our perceptions that are triggered by pictures. This has been shown decisively by the philosopher Richard Wollheim in essays published since the 1960s and culminating with his 1987 book Painting as an Art. According to Wollheim, when we look at, say, a painted portrait, we do not alternate between seeing a painting and seeing the subject portrayed; rather, we see it as a painted portrayal. Wollheim came up with the term “seeing in” in order to describe how it is that we see a picture—seeing the portrayed in the picture. Wollheim asserts that our perception of an object is manifold, in the sense that we perceive various aspects of the same object in one single experience. For instance, when we see a top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz passing by in the street, simultaneously we see an expeditious means of transportation, an elegant design, a luxurious commodity, and (in Latin America) a target for kidnappers. Therefore, it shouldn’t be hard to accept the twofoldness of our perception of painting, a twofoldness that includes two irreducible aspects of the same visual experience: the material aspect inferred from the object and the representational aspect triggered by the image.
Greenberg was plainly mistaken in maintaining that we first see what’s in an Old Master painting and afterwards see it as a picture, because it would be impossible to see what’s in a picture without seeing it as a picture from the very start. But what exactly is required to see a picture as a picture, or a painting as a painting?
The question is relevant inasmuch as both a figurative sculpture and a suggestive cloud produce the perceptual twofoldness described by Wollheim: we see the David in the marble chiseled by Michelangelo, just as we see the animal in the vapors of a cloud. The answer lies in the fact that to see a picture as a picture, “seeing in” must be triggered by the mediation of the pictorial plane. I agree with Greenberg’s requirement—also pointed out in “Modernist Painting”—that a successful picture must articulate a sort of visual spatiality. Extrapolating from Greenberg, I would add that a picture articulates in terms of fictive spatialities perceived due to the mediation of the picture plane, which in turn is conceived of as bidimensional; its necessary immateriality allows for the delimitation of real dimensionality and fictive dimensionality within a single visual experience. Thus the pictorial image and the picture plane empirically coincide.
Most of what I’ve said here regarding the pictorial plane holds as true for images projected through photography, film, and video as it does for paintings. The perceptual effect of depictions produced through these means of mechanical reproduction rests on minimizing the reflecting surfaces’ tactile qualities whether emulsion-infused paper, a reflecting screen, or an LCD sheet. Still, it would be worthwhile here to consider the latest holographic and 3-D technology, where the trompe-l’oeil effect crystallizes itself in direct proportion to the obliteration of the picture plane so that the differentiating factor between real dimensionality and fictive dimensionality vanishes.
While such technological advances seek to approach perceptual simplicity, painting consolidates itself by adding extra levels of complexity through its handcrafted material condition. This handcrafted materiality is a necessary condition for painting, just as is the articulation of a picture plane. In this sense there is no painting (at least no painting in the relevant sense) without the hands-on manipulation of the medium, nor without the engagement of a picture plane. One may play up or play down the ways in which the materials are manipulated in painting, but one cannot avoid materiality itself. Greenberg can once more be used counterpunctually to shed some light on the matter. Just as Greenbergian flatness hinges upon the purported perceptual incompatibility of surface and image, it also depends on a purported semiotic irreconcilability of the material and the literary, of medium and literature: “ . . . The purely plastic or abstract qualities of the work of art are the only ones that count. Emphasize the medium and its difficulties, and at once the purely plastic, the proper, values come to the fore. Overpower the medium to the point where all sense of its resistance disappears, and the adventitious uses of art become more important” (from “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” ibid., vol. 1, p. 34).
Greenberg seems to have in mind Victorian and salon painting, the Pre- Raphaelites as well as Gérome and Bouguereau, and he wants to trace the literary excesses of those painters back to the saccharine naturalism that was so popular in the nineteenth century. However, literariness in painting cannot be blamed on this or that style. Here is Greenberg himself writing in 1947 about the patently materialistic works of painter Rufino Tamayo:
. . . Tamayo, like Picasso in his weaker moments, localizes the excess of emotion—the emotion that his artistic means is not yet large or strong enough to digest—in gestures, the grimace on a face, the swelling of a leg. . . . This amounts in the last analysis to an attempt to avoid the problems of plastic unity by appealing directly, in a different language from that of painting, to the spectator’s susceptibility to literature, which includes stage effects. . . . If so good a painter [as Tamayo] can make so crude a mistake, then painting in general has lost faith in itself (Ibid., vol. 2, p. 133).
Greenberg’s formula proposing that “the less the resistance to the medium in a painting, the more emphatic its literalization” does not hold. But this is not due to the inconsistencies in Greenberg’s own applications of the formula, but rather to the incongruence of the idea of the resistance of the medium. The medium, that is, paint, does not possess any intrinsic plastic qualities: it is nothing more than pigment and binder whose plastic potential is exploited, or not, according to the will and abilities of the artist. The medium is not a medium if it does not mediate: the painter decides whether to dissimulate or emphasize the brushwork, whether to polish or roughen the picture’s surface, whether to mimetize or distort the color relations of what he/she means to depict, whether to generate a shallow or deep pictorial space. The medium was not designed with the purpose of resisting one or another of these pictorial strategies; it is meant for the painter to take advantage of its potential use as the embodiment of pictorial articulation.
The medium is to depiction in painting what the picture plane is to the image. We have seen that the picture plane/image function does not limit itself to painting, just as representation embodied in paint is not necessarily a pictorial articulation. Think of the painted texts of Christopher Wool or On Kawara, works expressly made with the purpose of avoiding the articulation of a picture plane, following the dictates of late-modernist taste. To call or not call these works “paintings” is merely a semantic issue of little substance.
I expressed at the beginning of this essay that painting’s plastic form materializes and simultaneously takes effect in the articulation of a plastic effect. Finally, the efficacy of a plastic effect requires the conjunction of the picture plane working as the conceptual vehicle for the image and the medium as the material vehicle for the depiction. As we have seen, none of these factors is disposable, nor may we give more weight to one over the other. The painter’s satisfaction lies precisely in finding, through his/her labor, concrete manifestations of these formal strictures translated into plastic effects. In this we will not find the final aims of painting, but merely its beginnings.