TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1968

On Frontality

IN 1964 KENNETH NOLAND PROPELLED the symmetrically ranged tiers of color in his chevron paintings off axis. And this departure from lateral symmetry was greeted with some excitement by the audience committed to his art and convinced of his growing importance as a major painter. The excitement was obviously generated by the paintings themselves; but it was linked as well to a rhythm of response that is extended by each new experience with ambitious painting. Before a group of works which mark a real departure from a previously established format, one faces more than a new look in a painter’s style. Often one feels that the conceptual basis, from which art itself makes meaning, has profoundly shifted. In registering the sense of newness most of us felt in Noland’s asymmetric chevrons, some writers spoke of the “effortless buoyancy” of color in the new pictures and the resulting “gain in freedom and unpredictability” or the effect of “an extra-dimension of expressiveness.” The structural eccentricity was characterized as “even more radical” than the previous symmetrical deployment of color about a central, vertical axis. But probably none of us, writers or readers, felt that these judgments were commensurate with the quality of our experience before these paintings, with what we saw dawning in them. And, too, there were questions which the judgments themselves raised but didn’t seem to answer.

Why should asymmetry be liberating? Obviously it represents a liberation from symmetry, but that merely begs the question; for in a kind of abstract painting in which color has no longer to do with the depiction of natural objects, why is symmetry a confinement? Furthermore, how can we speak of an increase in weightlessness or buoyancy in this kind of painting? Does symmetry itself produce the sense of more weight? If a release from symmetry is more radical—in the sense that it makes self-evident the dependence of the color-structure on the immediate physical boundaries of the painting itself, simultaneously making clear the need to acknowledge this dependency1—then are the diamond-shaped paintings which follow the eccentric chevrons less radical? For they return to symmetry (although to a horizontally rather than vertically oriented kind). I doubt that anyone would assent to this; what one might say is that symmetry here is not an issue the way it was for the earlier work. But why isn’t it an issue? Is there a real difference between horizontal and vertical symmetry, and if there is, what is the difference?

Four years after the works in question were painted, I feel more rather than less need to understand the actual difference between the centered and eccentric chevrons. The difference between them seems more crucial and the questions this raises more important. This has something to do with repeated experience with these paintings, from which the eccentric chevrons seem to emerge as more consistently successful paintings. It also has to do with the course of Noland’s art in the last four years. But even more, it stems from my experience of the art of Jules Olitski over the same four years and the issues raised, with increasing insistence, by his spray paintings. Specifically, the spray paintings allow me to see the two stages in Noland’s chevron pictures as more than the difference between symmetry and asymmetry; rather there seems to be an opposition between frontality and obliqueness. Why that should be a different difference and what its meaning might be for painting, I take to be the import of Olitski’s recent work.2

The sprayed field of Magic Number, a canvas roughly 15 feet long and 7 feet high, approaches monochrome, as do most of the recent paintings by Olitski. The yellow expanse, heated slightly by orange, moves from a fine mist of color at its upper left side, to a dense film of pigment at its center, and finally to a kind of opacity at its lower right in which the paint froths into small points of color actually pulled or raised off the surface. These points are not experienced as tactile elements or even as texture; rather, they seem to be a residue from the extreme saturation of paint sprayed into canvas. Extreme saturation normally presents a physically swelled amount of color, color at its greatest intensity. In Magic Number, however, saturation comes to mean something else. For even as one recognizes the raised points as the extreme statement of the color of the monochrome field as a whole—a statement approaching a materialization or literalization—one finds here only a cooler version of the molten yellow of the major part of the field. Green has been insinuated into the thicker paint, and so what one sees in the heightened areas is not the physical substance of the major color, but—somehow—its shadow.

This illusion, that color itself can cast a shadow, radiates from another illusion which the painting projects: the illusion of what can be called the dimension of color within a single point of the surface. One looks at colors that is to say, not as they spread or flood across a two-dimensional plane, but as they seem to lie behind each other along a single line or point of vision.3 Like sighting down the surface of a painting from a point at its edge, the colors seem stacked up or telescoped. This sensation of looking along or into the color at every point is allied to the vision of objects seen obliquely, at an angle—things seen as foreshortened.

If this sense of obliqueness has a further importance, it is because in this newly created angle of vision one at last realizes the surface of the canvas. Because the seeing of the surface is tied to the perception of a kind of color which so opens and expands that surface toward the viewer that it might be characterized as foreshortened, the very seeing of the painting in all its literalness poses a question about where the surface is. To see Olitski’s color means to see the surface itself as elusive and unaligned; for the color which permeates that surface has the capacity to destroy its identity as inert, discrete, locatable, and objective.

In this peculiar intersection between surface and color, Olitski enables one to see an aspect of the painting of Pollock and Still, and finally of Monet, that now looks partial, whereas before Olitski’s achievement this aspect of their art may have looked complete.4 In Monet, the quality I am referring to is most compellingly stated in the late waterlily canvases, although it is present in almost all of his paintings from the 1890s on.

Monet’s vision of the dense floral pools which he constructed around him in monumental walls of paint was a vision which conflated three separately given objects of sight into a single interlace of pigment. In the long strokes of divided color which coupled on the plane of the canvas, he conveyed the sky which he felt above him; the reeds and stems growing from the bottom of the ponds; and the physical support for both the lily pads and the sky’s reflections, which was the surface of the pool itself. Lines of blue, white and green, lying close knit on the plane of the canvas not only allowed one to focus on that plane but expanded it as well—wrenched it apart to include a deep and luminously refractive i world. Monet’s approach to the surface of the painting was similar to his approach to the surface of the pools themselves; his pictorial vision instituted one as a metaphor for the other. Simply in order to see the physical plane of the water stretching away from him, Monet’s point of view, as I will explain later in this essay, had to be oblique rather than frontal. If the water’s surface remained frontal, it remained transparent; it could not bind together Monet’s experience by making surface and depth mutually informant, one becoming the visual fruition of the other. Only insofar as the water’s surface was tilted could it register this resonant sense of space, because only then would it register itself in one’s vision; only then would it be apparent. For Monet the picture surface was literally present in every detached brushstroke that was laid upon it. But it was made, in the very act of seeing it, elusive, illusory, oblique: a surface whose flatness was forever unattainable because forever splayed.

In Monet this internal expansion of every point of the picture’s surface had still to do with the identification of different colors with different natural entities, although this identification was made increasingly diffuse and ambiguous. In Pollock’s art the internal expansion of the surface was carried on not by an inherently representational kind of color but by line. The dripped lines of paint of his 1947–50 canvases do not allow a falling away of the surface of the painting, but rather an experience of surface opened and expanded—seen, because it was seen, at angles indeterminate to the spectator’s point of vision. In Greenberg’s words, Pollock reached for “a kind of corporeality by which he could wrest the picture surface, as surface, away from itself,”5 instead of permitting that surface to run like water between his fingers, dissolving into an infinitely permeable zone of color.

Olitski’s art makes it possible to see how different the kind of coloristic openness achieved by Pollock is from that achieved by Newman. In the light of the frontality of Newman’s paintings, the color cannot be felt simultaneously as spatial and as present on or in the surface. One either sees the flatness of the surface, or the transparency of the color. The color cannot inform or make sensible the literal plane of the picture. This is precisely what color in Olitski’s art can, and does, do. Greenberg has described the peculiar openness through color of Olitski’s surface:

Together with color it contrives an illusion of depth that somehow extrudes all suggestions of depth back to the picture’s surface; it is as if that surface, in all its literalness, were enlarged to contain a world of color and light differentiations impossible to flatness but which yet manage not to violate flatness.6

It is as if the density, weight and fullness, the dimensions of natural objects, have permeated the surface of the painting and have been made apparent through the foreshortening of the color: color slanting away from view.

This obliqueness, in every part and in the whole of the color in Magic Number, acts as if to lift the picture’s surface off the wall on which it hangs and turn it at an angle toward the viewer. This description is of course something of an overstatement; the kind of turning away from the eye that it suggests is actually possible only to a physical, free-standing object. However, the metaphor does suggest the way in which the sprayed surface seems more present, more actual, than the heavy strokes of thick color that are brushed along two of the painting’s edges. Although the bands of color at the bottom and right side of Magic Number are placed on top of the sprayed field, the sense of contact that the viewer has with the field itself drives the ribbons of chalky blue, white, orange and acid green back into fictive space. And because these densely painted but ambiguously located bands appear as restatements of the actual edges of the painting, their own illusionistic character rebounds onto the presumably objective shape of the canvas itself. Olitski’s ability to state the framing edge of the painting as illusionistic, as drawn, “[to displace drawing] from the inside of the picture to its outside . . .”7 derives from the color’s power to register the surface of the painting as palpable by and through the representation of it as foreshortened, as oblique. Insofar as the painting’s pictorial quality depends on this illusion, it depends upon defeating painting’s natural frontality. Olitski’s art is the first to make this demand an unequivocal and absolute one for modernist painting.

Within the limits of its rectangular field, a blank canvas presents a viewer with two (mutually exclusive) inherent conditions or properties. The first involves its physical presence which the viewer acknowledges when he sees the literal flatness of its surface. The second is a perceptual property—equally a condition or aspect of the canvas—and that is the apparent opening up of an infinitely penetrable depth behind that surface. In looking at a blank canvas, one can either see its flatness (by identifying its flatness as the surface of an object, impenetrable and unyielding like the surface of any object), or one can see its nascent space. The blank canvas’s either/or is like the either/or of a Gestalt puzzle: one sees it now as a rabbit or now as a duck; it is impossible to see it as both at the same time.8 In this situation the alternate and conflicting claims of apparent depth or literal flatness can neither be adjudicated nor unified. The blank canvas cannot make one present through the coherence of the other. The fact that one sees this doubleness is merely a function of perception. These two irrevocable claims are given with eyesight itself.9

In the second decade of the century two kinds of painting located radicalness at the opposite poles of seeing the pictorial surface. Cubism sought to isolate the essence of painting within the flatness of the picture’s surface, while nonobjective painting—especially the work of Kandinsky and Malevich—looked to the infinite depth of man’s vision for a place to locate the abstract shapes it found compelling.10 If Cubism sought painting’s justification in the demonstration of flatness as a quality intrinsic to painting, itself, non-objective painters, too, pointed to what they felt to be a defining characteristic of their medium. In maintaining the pictorial field as an infinite continuum over and against its existence as a flat object, Kandinsky and Malevich used as a defining norm of painting its irreversible frontality. This is not to suggest an opposition between frontality and flatness, but rather an opposition between the assertion of flatness, which calls attention to the painting as an opaque object, and the declaration of frontality, which guarantees it transparent depth. Although in Synthetic Cubism flat planes finally coincided with a flat and frontal picture surface, the devices which Braque and Picasso used to acknowledge flatness symbolically closed off the picture space and rendered it literal. But frontality itself offers the possibility of unimpeded recession; and it was this possibility that became, for Kandinsky and Malevich, painting’s own imperative. They wanted their canvases to be seen head-on, as though the viewer were standing squarely before a window, for if one looks frontally at a pane of glass (or into a still pool of water), one sees only the objects behind the glass (or beneath the water); the transparent surface itself is invisible. Identifying the frontal point of view with the frontality basic to painting, their argument rests on the fact that whatever else the picture might be, it is frontal; and the space (of which single-point perspective is one limiting case) guaranteed by this frontality is infinite.

The idea of frontality was neither accepted nor rejected by the generations of the most advanced artists succeeding Malevich. It was simply mooted by the action of younger modernist painters who looked to Cubism for their operational model and continued to resolve pictorial issues in terms of flatness.

As advanced painting over the last 15 or 20 years began to locate its ambitions for major art in the primacy of color, flatness was seen to be not only irrelevant to the assertion of color in its own right, but inimical to that assertion. Flatness shackled and congealed color, limiting it to a second-order property of objects rather than allowing it to exist as the primary property of an object, namely, the painting. In creating a space in which color could live and breathe, Pollock, Newman, and Louis each found a way to the illusion of an exclusively optical space:

The eye explores the colored field not by entering a traditional illusionistic space full of conventional clues to the tactility of objects or their relations to one another in tactile space, but by perceiving nuances, fluctuations and properties of color alone, which together create the different but closely related illusion of a space addressed exclusively to eyesight.11

Throughout his his recent critical writing Michael Fried has discussed the strains that this new optical space placed on the structural organization of the work of color painters who chose to engage with it. As he has pointed out, the task of acknowledging the literal or defining qualities of painting became increasingly, in the hands of painters like Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland, the acknowledgment of the picture’s shape rather than of its flatness.12

In Stella’s art this acknowledgment operated through his decision to align bands of color with the outer boundaries—or shape—of the canvas. With this alignment the picture’s surface was fixed in the vise of frontality. Now, if flatness is an aspect of painting that demands that one identify the picture in terms of a sculptural object, frontality is even more importunate in this respect. The very word “frontal” implies a three dimensional object. The only things we ever characterize as frontal are things which, like buildings or sculptures, necessarily have backs and sides. Frontal is used to distinguish between one of their several possible aspects. It might be objected here that paintings also have backs and sides; but this has nothing to do with the meaning of seeing as it is used in discussions of pictorial art. When we see a painting, does it occur to us to feel that we are only seeing one aspect? Similarly, does it make sense to describe a wall seen from the interior of a room as frontal? Such a wall appears as a two dimensional field. Whatever characteristics of density or solidity we might associate with it are still unrelated to an idea of it as a free-standing, sculptural object. Ironically, then, a pictorial structure which acknowledges the shape of the canvas by aligning bands of color parallel to its surface, insofar as it promotes the painting’s frontality, underscores rather than denies the painting’s object quality.

The concentrically or symmetrically aligned stripes of Frank Stella’s pictures from 1960 to 1965, building from the perimeters of the works inward toward their centers, demand a face on confrontation by the viewer, and assert all points within a given polygonal band as equidistant from the observer’s plane of vision. To point only to their contiguity along a flat and continuous surface is to ignore the shadow of a single-point perspective system that stations each successively smaller band at a seemingly farther remove from the viewer, and a step closer to the infinitely distant center of the canvas.

This illusionism and this frontality reinforce each other in Stella’s stripe paintings. They finally work counter to his ambition for the release from sculptural drawing that is the requisite and the goal of opticality. For the two-dimensional scaffolding that radiates from the centers of the paintings outward along each tier of stripes, projects an illusionistic fold or crease in the fabric of the painting. Impelling one to read the work in terms of a hollowed out three-dimensional geometry, it provides the sense of a compositional armature. These armatures obviously do not operate through the dark and light contrasts that fleshed out the geometrical scaffolding of classical painting, but a resemblance between them holds; both appear as the means of relating points to one another on a spatial grid. In addition, both seem to have issued from decisions made prior to the painting of the picture. In classical art the bodies of the figures, or the excavated levels of the landscape, which are the direct sensations given at the surface of a painting, appear in isolation from their underlying geometries. In Stella’s case, the color seems aloof from the preordained structure beneath it.

In the frontality of Stella’s stripe paintings, the surface is felt, or rather seen, only insofar as one sees the flatness and literalness of the picture support; or, alternately, the surface reads itself away the moment the color is felt spatially.

This reading away has all the loss of control, all the absence of limitedness13 that one feels in the opening up of the picture to naive illusionism that occurs towards the outer margins of even the most masterly of the Analytic Cubist paintings of 1910–12.14

In 1965 Stella abandoned symmetry in a series of pictures made from V shaped modules. Although each of these modules was itself symmetrical, the final paintings balanced neither color nor shape about a central axis. And with this departure the frontality of the earlier paintings vanished . . . to be replaced by a new source of literalness. Stella had always worked the surface of the stripe pictures so that the grain of his brushstrokes would run in the same direction as the stripes themselves. In works from the 1965 series, like Ifafa or Quathlamba, this treatment pushed the paintings toward a peculiar kind of mimesis: the imitation of the conditions of an actual three-dimensional object. For as light reflected off the bands of parallel stripes, the effect was to brighten one arm of a given V, causing the other arm to look darker, as if it were in shadow.

The conjunction of shapes in these works already produced the illusion of figures in reversible perspective, so that the paintings appeared as folded planes, buckling away from the wall and projecting into the viewer’s space. But the surface treatment made the direction of the apparent fold—its concavity or convexity—depend on the spectator’s point of view as he changed his position in front of the painting. Since it was the direction of real light falling on the work that created the sense of difference between planes, a new vantage with regard to it would create a new relationship between light and dark sides of the “folded” shapes. So while the 1965 pictures warded off the uncontrolled and uncontrollable space of the frontal paintings, they did so by embracing a literal sense of dimension rather than a pictorial one. This is again territory Malevich had explored. In his White on White he made the internal shape distinct from its ground primarily by a difference in facture; and one of the picture’s features which was considered significant in the 1920s was that as the light on it varied with the time of day, the painting itself seemed also to change. In this way, the surface took on not only a visual transparency, but a psychological one as well: the painting was literally responsive to the same conditions of time and space as was the beholder; and the unimpeded passage between its space and his was made doubly secure.

Stella’s last work, a series of paintings based on the circle, maintains this vassalage of the picture to the changing conditions of light over time—if not actually, as was true of Ifafa, then symbolically. By interlacing their surfaces with fluorescent colors (commonly known as Day glo) Stella signals to the viewer that under different kinds of lighting (most conspicuously under an ultraviolet light source) he will not just face a painting altered in the intensity of its colors, he will find a different painting: one whose skeletal structure would emerge in phosphorescent arcs while the continuous fabric of the surface would dull to extinction. (This case is hypothetical; I mention it because for me it functions as a metaphor for the kinds of disjunction which appear in the paintings under any kind of light.)

The terms on which Stella’s new paintings try for success demand that there be a compellingly felt interdependence between the patterns of color which declare and maintain the surface of the works and the circular shapes (either whole or in section) which bound or limit them as objects. And interdependence assumes that in seeing the sequences of colored shapes in the interior of the canvas, one is continually and forcibly aware of the presence of the boundaries of the picture—a presence which has the power to make itself felt with a startling self-evidence and actualness within the interior (where the real, physical framing edge is in fact absent). Conversely, interdependence implies that the actualness suggested by the shapes within the boundaries of the picture seems to generate the final shape of the picture-whole. This is what I take Michael Fried to mean when he characterized the relation between interior (“depicted”) and exterior (“literal”) shape in Stella’s canvases of last year as one of “inextricable fruition.”15

But the very conditions Stella sets for these works, conditions which are intimately tied to what I have been speaking of as obliqueness in Olitski’s painting and something that is apparent in Noland’s recent work as well, are the ones which the circular paintings fail to meet. In the face of this failure they seem to me both the smartest and the weakest paintings Stella has ever made. For the interdependence between depicted and literal shape fails to materialize. In its place I simply see circular armatures behind which arcs or rays of color recede in vertiginous, traditional illusionism. In the orbit of this unlimited space (once again guaranteed by the rigid frontality of the shaped planes) color models the sides of isolated sculptural prisms (as in Abra III or Darabjerd III) or strands flat shards of figuration at the surface of the picture (as in the flowerlet shape wedged into the right corner of Tahkt-I-Sulayman I and repeated slightly to the left of its center).

It feels very strange to see a painting by Frank Stella in the light of Cubism, but the way in which wedges of space are sectioned off from one another between the circular grids and frames of these works seems like an expanded or extended version of both 1910 Cubism and its Orphist variations.

The problem of frontality affected not only the work of Olitski and Stella but that of Noland as well. It is in view of this’ problem and Noland’s response to it that one could now begin to look for answers to the questions about his painting which I raised at the outset of this essay.

First, it seems obvious that the bottomless, focused space which operates with a divisive freedom in Stella’s stripe paintings, grips the centered chevron canvases of Noland also. Held parallel to the viewer’s plane of vision, the nested sequences of V’s in the works of 1963 seem affixed to the upper framing edge of the paintings and mark the front-most extent of the picture space. But the triangles of white canvas which flank the color-tiers do not have a similar or equal hold on the surface. Despite the fact that we may understand these white fields intellectually, as the woven material of the surface itself, this is not the part they play visually. Within the paintings’ frontality their visual role is that of unlimited remoteness. As such, raw canvas does not have the capacity to reaffirm the surfaceness of the paintings except insofar as it establishes their literalness, their identity as objects.

I do not know whether Noland’s decision to drive the chevrons away from symmetry was a direct consequence of the way raw canvas became inert in the frontal pictures. It is clear however that the off-center chevrons begin to defeat frontality. With their seeming obliqueness to vision, the eccentric paintings were able to engage the space of the white grounds in the coloristic openness of the surface. Once the lengths of the colored arms of the V’s are no longer equal, one’s certainty about the frontality of the paintings is somehow shaken. The perimeters of the canvas seem to warp as the sources of the color arms advance or retreat in relation to the viewer. It is within this flexing or twisting of the color that the blank areas of the canvas have a visual role that is at last specified. They no longer lapse to a blank background for the color. Now, the white canvas functions as the taut continuum which, by its visual presence, realigns and reconverts the colored areas to a continuously felt sense of surface. In this sense the surface is, with these works as it was not before, given simultaneously with a vision of the color. The surface, seen as surface, is continuous with the color seen as space.

At the beginning of this essay I remarked that the diamond shaped canvases which followed the chevrons returned to symmetry—although now it was about a horizontal rather than a vertical axis. However, this does not mark a capitulation to frontal painting. Now turned sideways, the chevrons act to pivot the canvas so that the physical distance between the viewer and the right and left points of the picture’s edge appears unequal. The uncertainty about the painting’s shape which this illusion provokes seems to be a function of the horizontal axis itself. Noland once remarked that verticals always seemed to register as shapes, always alluded to free standing objects; the horizontal itself escaped this identification as shape.16 Horizontality seems to transmute the color image as well. Each band of color can now be seen more separately (the vertical chevrons had to fight off an inherent capacity to congeal into a monolithic image), with the result that even while perceiving the continuity of the color along the picture’s surface, the eye sees dislocations in space between one band and the next. The subjectiveness about the place of color in these pictures which grips the viewer is like the insecurity one feels about the relationships between things seen on or at the horizon: the sense that the measurableness of space and distance has been drained away. This analogy with landscape is not, obviously, a literal one; it has its role only in pointing to an experience of seeing (in the world) which in these diamond pictures becomes totally integrated with the seeing of painting.

Noland’s latest works—twenty foot lengths of canvas pulled taut by the radiant distention of color—move deeper into the implications of the diamond pictures. At the same time they confront a problem that had been inherent in Noland’s art from the beginning: that his color could be seen, like that of classical painting, as local color. Perhaps it was Olitski’s use of color, or Olitski’s need to unlocalize color through the use of the spray medium, that forced this issue. Perhaps not. But Olitski’s conviction has been that armature like structures and local color would, in the end, package and delimit the openness of color. It would make color function as part of the grammar used to locate discrete objects. By reconceiving the role of color, Olitski was able to change the syntax of the question “where?“ That question could then point toward an answer outside the confines of positive location—whether by means of a coherent or an incoherent perspective system. By turning to the logic of color, Olitski found himself outside the circle of the logic of place.

Faced with Stria or Via Blues (both paintings from Noland’s latest New York exhibition) it may seem strange to speak here of a release from local color. Local color is after all local to something. That objects have colors local to themselves is an essential factor in our being able to separate them, to make distinctions from among objects, or between objects and their surroundings. And for this reason someone looking at these paintings might ask, what is color doing in them if not separating out or making distinctions? He might note that he is not simply referring to the distinctions that Noland has manipulated before, like changes of value (within some of the elongated diamonds) or absolute difference in hue. Because in Stria, for example, distinctions seem more far-reaching and more concrete. Not only are there intense contrasts in hue and value, but also in the density of colors (and sometimes the density in different applications of the same color).

Eight bands of color of equal width travel the length of Stria, divided from each other by narrow stripes which run between thinner tracks of raw canvas. The top four bands are not only lighter than the bottom four, but appear less dense. Their transparency sets off, and is set off by the narrow stripes which stand out in relief against the pale pink and blue of their surrounds, while in the work’s lower half these same lines are more recessive, seeming to open the surface up from behind, like emanations of light. The raw canvas channels also change according to their context; in places they have the crisp brilliance of the white page in a Goya print, in others the soft luminous quality of a nimbus of reflected light.

These distinctions are all there in Stria. And of course they feel like the distinctions we make between things in the world. Except that the ribbons of color in Stria are not things; and because of their length it is impossible to experience them as local. Although the bands of color lie flat and continuous on the surface of the painting, they don’t seem to have access to the second dimension necessary to turn them into planes or shapes. Distended for 20 feet down the surface of the canvas, which itself is almost impossible to experience as a discrete shape, color becomes one dimensional, becomes line.17 For Noland it is the horizontality of this line that intervenes between color and the possibility of shape.

Within the linear hold of this color, any attempt to focus somewhere in the painting results once more in the illusion of color turning away from view. It is as if the very act of moving toward the multiple horizons in Stria, to grasp the distinctions that are there between them, perpetrates this illusion. If Pollock’s painting could (to use Michael Fried’s term) address itself to eyesight alone, it was because line created a kind of placelessness in which sculptural objects were unimaginable. But Pollock’s loss of place depended on the extinction of all differences within the optical field; and it gave rise to the kind of allover composition, in which small units are repeated equally over the face of a canvas, that has led painters who have imitated it into a kind of pat academicism.18

What is so moving about Noland’s latest pictures is that while they still center on eyesight itself as their subject, it is a purposive vision—vision as it moves towards things to possess them. In these paintings Noland isolates the role of eyesight as the making of distinctions, and maintains it, as Olitski had, outside of the logic of place.

Rosalind E. Krauss

—————————

NOTES

1. This is a crude paraphrase of Michael Fried’s insights into the implications of structural decisions made by Noland. See Three American Painters, Fogg Museum, 1965, pp. 30–31.

2. The following section on Olitski is excerpted from my essay for the catalog of his recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.

3. In a recent essay, Michael Fried discussed Olitski’s sprayed surfaces in terms of the “intention” of color. In distinction to the monumental expanses of largely undifferentiated color characteristic of Newman and Still, Mr. Fried pointed to the minute-to-minute changes in color (and in value) available to Olitski through the spray medium. What one finds instead of color extended over tracts of the picture surface is a variety of colors that “inhabit not merely the same space, but the same points in space.” (See Jules Olitski, the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1967, p. 6.)

4. Mr. Fried has discussed the implications this aspect of modernism raises for the traditional notion of style. See Three American Painters, Fogg Museum, Cambridge, 1965, p. 11.

5. Greenberg, Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, p. 152.

6. Greenberg, “Jules Olitski,” in the Venice Biennial catalog, United States of America, 33rd International Biennial Exhibition of Art, Venice, 1966, p. 38.

7. Ibid. See also Olitski’s remarks here. He says, “The decision as to where the outer edge is, is final, not initial.”

8. E. H. Gombrich refers to this phenomenon in Art and Illusion, New York, 1956, p. 236.

9. This observation finds a place in most psychology texts’ discussions of perception. In his article “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” (Artforum, V, (November 1966), 18), Michael Fried points to what he has elsewhere called the “virtual inescapability of pictorial illusion” by saying that the projection of depth behind the picture surface is not a sensation the artist needs to induce in the viewer, for it “belongs not so much to the art of painting as to the eye itself: it is, one might say, not something that has had to be established so much as something—a perceptual limitation that cannot be escaped.” He goes on to distinguish from this automatically projected continuation of the viewer’s own space, a different kind of space which was first won for painting by the efforts of Pollock, Newman and Louis. Insofar as this new space—one which can be imaginatively entered only by vision — is built from the radical transformations of color and line that take place in the work of these painters, it, in Mr. Fried’s words, “specifically belongs to the art of painting.”

10. In his Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky called for the destruction of the “material plane” of the canvas, and the creation in its stead of an “ideal plane.” Not wanting to “limit” the painting to the actual surface of the canvas, Kandinsky thought of pictorial space as indefinable and immeasurable; the infinite continuum of pictorial space, as he conceived of it, he likened to the medium of time. Malevich, too, writing of Suprematism, saw the future of painting in the destruction of flatness:

I have broken the blue boundary of color limits, come out into white beside me comrade-pilots, swim in this infinity. I have established the semaphore of Suprematism. I have beaten the lining of the colored sky, torn it away and in the sack which formed itself, I have put colors and knotted it. Swim! The free white sea, infinity, lies before you.

These feelings of headiness and awe experienced before the limitless white surface, and the notion that it could resonate with untold new combinations of feelings previously held isolated and captive within separate individuals, can be identified as peculiarly Symbolist aspirations. (Mallarmé’s Salut, published in 1893, expresses this exaltation before the blankness of the white page.)

11. Fried, Three American Painters, p. 22.

12. The need to neutralize flatness and at the same time to concert the pictorial structure of a painting toward an acknowledgment of the shape of the support—the framing edge—has been put forward by Mr. Fried in various essays. See particularly “Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” loc. cit.

13. “Limitedness” is used here in the sense that Mr. Greenberg employed it: “ the picture succeeds, when it does succeed, by reaffirming in the end (like any other picture that succeeds), the limitedness of pictorial space as such, with all its rectangularity and flatness and opacity. The insistence on the purely visual and denial of the tactile and ponderable remain in tradition—and would not result in convincing art did they not.” (“Louis and Noland,” Art International, IV (May 19101, 28.)

14. This issue was first raised by Mr. Fried who saw it as an inconsistency and therefore a fault in the structure of Cubist painting. In his essay, Three American Painters (op. cit., p. 41), he points to the way that most Analytic or Synthetic Cubist canvases decrease in density toward their edges, especially at their corners. In this way the Cubist grip on the surface of the canvas which is maintained by fluctuating planes excavating the intermittent illusion of a shallow space tends to loosen as Picasso and Braque worked away from the center of the painting. At the edges this loosened grip often permits something like traditional, deep space to reenter the picture. In Mr. Fried’s view, “The Cubists appear to have built their paintings out toward the edge, and the nearer to it they came the less consistent with their treatment of the main motif their handling seems to have become.”

15. “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” op. cit., p. 23.

16. This was said to me in conversation. I have used here other remarks about his work which Noland made at that time. I only hope that in the context of this essay I have not done violence to their meaning.

17. In a recent essay Michael Fried compared Noland’s new painting to the “openness in abstract extension” of Prairie, a sculpture by Caro. See “Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro,” Artforum, VI (February 1968), 25.

18. Clement Greenberg has spoken about this phenomenon in private and alluded to it in his “Post-Painterly Abstraction” catalog, re-printed in Art International, VIII, Summer, 1964, and in his essay, “Recentness of Sculpture,” re-printed in Art International, XI, April, 1967.