Pictorial Provocations

"A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not com ein, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall. The art is free, as the saying used to go, 'to take on its own life.' The discreet desk may be the only piece of furniture. In this context, a standing ashtray becomes almost a sacred object, just as the firehose in a modern museum looks not like a firehose but an esthetic conundrum. Modernism's transposition of perception from life to formal values is complete. This, of course, is one of modernism's fatal diseases...

Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial - the space is devoted to the technology of esthetics. Works of art are mounted, hung, scattered for study...Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of 'period' (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there. Indeed the presence of that odd piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion. The space offers the thought that while eyes and minds are welcome, space-occupying bodies are not - or are tolerated only as kinesthetic mannekins for further study. This Cartesian paradox is reinforced by one of the icons of our visual culture: the installation shot, sans figures. Here at last the spectator, oneself, is eliminated. You are there without being there - one of the major services provided for art by its old antagonist, photography. The installation shot is a metaphor for the gallery space. In it an ideal is fulfilled as strongly as in a Salon painting of 1830" (O'Doherty 15).

Embankment by Rachel Whiteread is an extra-large installation at the Tate Modern. The artists is said to have waited to accept the invitation for an installation until she was certain she could fill the space provided by the curators. The stacks of white boxes evoke a multitude of experiences and formalisms. On the one hand, they conjure up packing. On another, read against O'Doherty's description of the modern gallery space as a white cube that renders the viewing subject inconsequential, they conjure up a database of white cube galleries, stacked uniformly and part of a logical system. The name, Embankment conjures up a topography.

On the level of image, this accidental or intentional frame of the exhibit captures an erosion, through the stepping of white cubes and their organization into discreet masses, and the interspersion of darkly clad visitors within the composition. On the level of content and context, the subject of the exhibit also constructs the exhibit space by virtue of its scale. Its whiteness contrasts the dark walls of the hangar-like space of the Modern, and the wall-like vertical sides of the clusters of white cubes invite a modernist interpretation of the installation - alla Brian O'Doherty. On the other hand, the slightly accidental placement of each cube evokes a tactility that almost invites the visitor to shift the wall's composition. The objecthood of the white cube vacillates in Whiteread's installation and questions itself through the act of haphazard packing.

Keeping an Eye on the Rome Prize

Ironically, the Rome Prize was responsible for the undoing of the classical tradition in the Academie des Beaux Arts. When the artists who would become the Impressionists were students in the Academie, the Rome Prize for landscape was abolished. This led to the legitimation of a multitude of styles in landscape painting. Even in figurative painting, the ebauche, or the practice of using a thin layer of paint to quickly capture the nude with a focus on highlights, took primacy. The sketch, or the esquisse, became a requirement for the Rome Prize in 1816.

As usual, popular demand dictated these measures. The French Revolution had inspired a new emphasis on individuality. The Academie had been created under Louis XIV to improve the status of the artist in France and to bring French art under the King's control. The revolution produced a new conscience, which reflected itself in art. Classicist revivalists such as Jacques-Louis David and Ingres did not leave successors in the Academie. The number of reputable art students grew with the improved status of the artist, and the education of the artist became a quantifiable social value. All these social developments led to the erosion of traditional values in art and to their replacement with an emphasis on technique.

Outside the Academie, Thomas Couture encouraged his students to maintain the formal characteristics of their first impression in their work. He advised them to work quickly. Despite his position as an outlier, in relative terms, Couture was still a Classicist. His work focussed on Classical themes, but did not engage the ever-popular myth of the nobility of the classical form and classical culture.

In his painting Les Romains de la Decadence, he captures a composition, that at first glance resembles Rafael's The School of Athens, but depicts the decadence of Roman culture.

Although his master Couture eventually came to see his pupil Manet as deviating from Classicism and his own teachings, there is a striking resemblance to Couture's subversion of the established notion of the nobility of Classical themes and figures in Manet's irreverence and subtle mockery of the Classical nude by placing her in an unlikely modern setting.

Lucio Fontana slashes a white canvas with a razor blade. His so-called solution to the Gordian Surface has assumed a central role in the interpretation of the status of the picture plane. Fontana's treatment of the picture plane as surface and material suggests the implication of space in his allegedly revolutionary act. This interpretation works very well with a white canvass, which calls to mind high modernism and the plasticity of surface as sculptural mold.

What happens when we see a similar treatment (by slashing) on canvass to which the artist has applied color?

What happens when we compare Fontana's red painting to Matisse's Dance?
Two central elements of the creation and display of art are space and composition. In his seminal 1976 book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Brian O'Doherty makes that claim that Matisse's later work elegantly solves the age-old tension between the centrality of composition in traditional, framed, and illusion-dependent painting and the fleeting edge of 19th century painting, which literalizes its own reality by engaging subject and medium on the level of abstraction.

Matisse referred to his cutouts of the last 14 years of his life as Painting With Scissors. He began using scissors and pins, textiles and paper to compose his later works, which bear a striking resemblance to today's computer-generated graphics. Was he already starting to "paint with scissors" when he composed Dance? In the cutouts, the edge of the compositional elements is no different than the edge of the surface of the canvass. He uses color to define compositional intensities in a white field, but internal treatment is not different than the internal treatment of the canvass. The density of pigment and level of detail are the same. He actually had his assistants saturate the white paper he would use for his compositions in Linel gouache paint. He produced his painted cutouts from a white medium, which was not paint and infusing his material with pigment, the same way an Old Master might apply paint to a canvas to create a visual illusion. Matisse is not creating a visual illusion but a material through his process. 

No comments:

Post a Comment