PRINT December 1969

Problems of Criticism VII: To Save Painting

This is the seventh of a continuing series of articles on the subject, Problems of Criticism.


Brian O’Doherty: Thus the apparent total permission for artists in New York . . . is not a total permission at all. Painting, figuration, and the textural correlates for memory and nostalgia are proscribed.

Bruce Glaser: Are you implying that you are trying to destroy painting?

Frank Stella: It’s just that you can’t go back. It’s not a question of destroying anything. If something is used up, something’s done, something’s over with; what’s the point of getting involved with it?

It seems pretty clear that the art of painting stands indicted and is in trouble these days. It is accused of phoney illusionism, foolish romanticism, and the dull reworking of exhausted fields. If you believe these accusations, you say that they indicate painting’s very real troubles; inescapable sad facts, not the citation of them, constitute the art’s difficulties. If you do not believe the accusations, you say that because they are widely believed painting is suffocating. It could continue a long healthy life if it weren’t being theoretically proscribed, urged to die quietly, and thus enervated. You regard unwarrented debilitating attitudes as the problem.

The latter is, clearly, at least a possibility; widespread accusations obviously can turn talented people’s thoughts and energies away from an enterprise by making it seem to them suspect or illegitimate, and before long the enterprise really becomes a dull or dead one. If we care about the survival of painting, then, or even if we just want to be sensible about art, the testing of the accusations is important. They should stand or fall, not just hang over us. If they can be defeated, painting’s survival would not thus be assured—of course there is more to it than that—but we might prevent a needless killing, and, as it were, let nature take its course. I’d like to work towards that defeat here. And the indictments are, we’ll see, not only defeatable; they are incredibly stupid.


Donald Judd: I’m using actual space because when I was doing paintings I couldn’t see any way out of having a certain amount of illusionism in the paintings.

First the accusation which links illusionism with painting. In rough outline, the argument is this: painting, we hear, is inextricably involved with illusionism, since any color on canvas gives illusions, of depth, of expression, of vitality. Illusionism is dishonesty, phoney, or merely amusing. Artists should be above that sort of thing. Therefore they shouldn’t paint. Painters may and sometimes do try to dodge by turning the proscription of the depth illusion into its converse, a positive concern for problems intrinsic to the art, problems of the flat surface. But apparently we can’t eliminate painting’s other illusions: edges which, though literally static, seem to move; colors which, though all at the same (room) temperature, seem warm or cool; unfeeling pigments which seem to emote; lines which, though inanimate, seem to exhibit vitality, etc., etc. So when paint is made to seem somehow qualitatively other or more than itself, this is called illusionism and this makes the art of painting seem illegitimate.

And all because we have failed to see that there is not now and never has been any illusionism in any work understood to be a painting. For centuries we have just sloppily misapplied this word “illusion” to art. We saw something in art that was, like an illusion, extraordinary, but we then equated the two otherwise different things. The result was akin to that achieved by calling insane persons “possessed”; our equations provided no handle for understanding what was going on and in fact beclouded everything. And because we now despise illusions, painting, linked with them, suffers. To stop this, let us contrast illusions with paintings, and let the differences be understood.

With regard to illusions: a) an illusion appears as coextensive with our everyday world: a real rabbit out of a hat you could wear, a real oasis in the desert you traverse. And the illusion, to be such, must be clearly so given, it must appear as part of the natural world, though possibly with natural law violated; for an illusion would not be regarded as such, would not be illusory, if it did not appear as a (possibly extraordinary) part of the ordinary environment. The illusory, that is, is the deceptive in and about the world.

b) The illusion’s appearance is single-sided, a simple bold-faced sight: a body floats in air, an oasis is, and that’s that. The event we see seems to occur just as we see it, and we see nought in addition or contrary to it. We may know that else is involved, that what we see is impossible and this is not really occurring as seen, but we don’t see the wires, mirrors, effects of light, which would make the sight a natural, possible one. We would not regard as illusory a sight whose means of appearance was evident and which explained the sight in natural terms. The illusion’s means of appearance are, then, covert.

c) When we know that a given appearance is an illusion, when, that is, we are not experiencing hallucinations or mistaking mirages for reality but are, perhaps, at a stage magician’s performance, our sense of appreciation stems from seeing the purported and apparent suspension of natural law, by means unseen and unknown. Since we don’t believe in magic, we are impressed by the cleverness of the deceiver who can, insofar as we can see and despite what we know, make the impossible happen.

In point for point contrast, consider paintings:

a) a painting presents an image or sight evidently given as such. While the work is of course made of canvas and paint, matter like other stuff around it, what we see as the presented image—Michelangelo’s Jehovah, Picasso’s fractured mandolins—is not given or taken as an extension of the surrounding everyday world. The water of the seascape obviously cannot join that from your dripping umbrella, and you see you cannot swing your arm past your nose into Courbet’s air-space. This is conspicuously so: you know you are seeing a painting, an image-presenter doing its presentation via paint. The painting displays then, a sight to be seen as such, and while it may make reference to the world, it does not appear to extend that world by the length or the truth of its image, or, in some possible or impossible way, to add the artistically achieved effects to those of ongoing natural phenomena. The image presents no deceptive or true appearance of reality, since it is not given or taken as being in or of workaday reality.

b) In that a painting appears as both paint, stuff, with its qualities, and an image or sight with its qualities, the painting’s appearance, we may say, is dualistic: we see pigment which, while obviously inanimate, also obviously has vitality; pigment which, while evidently unfeeling, also expresses; pigment which, while clearly unmoving also displays action, etc. The painting has two coincident, co-appearing aspects. And it doesn’t hide that aspect, its materiality, by which its other, its image aspect is made manifest. The means of the painter’s presentation are, thus, overt, visible to all, if not perceived understandingly by all.

c) In fact, it is this two-in-oneness, this duality, which accounts in part for our wonder at and appreciation of a painting. We see matter which seems to be itself and be more or other than itself at the same time. Appreciation of the painting depends upon seeing two evident realities contrasting and differing from each other but coinciding and co-appearing. And this duality must persist if appreciation is to exist. The paint must be seen as paint, it must not seem to turn into, say, the water of the seascape and no longer be paint-and-sea concurrently. For then we would begin not to contemplate or appreciate but to act, respond (as to water). The painting, then, to be taken as art, cannot be successfully illusionistic, cannot seem to be only something other than paint.

Match these two descriptions and the differences become obvious. These differences are between deceptions in and about the world, by means unrevealed, to apparently create a marvel, and on the other hand, the construction of an image or sight, aside from the natural world, by overt means, being marvelous (not literally a marvel) in having a dual, or two-in-one appearance. In that art and illusions both involve appearances other than the workaday, they have something in common, but it isn’t much and they are not at all the same thing and cannot be identified.

There is, however, something in this matter to which the plaintiff’s are pointing, however wildly; flat canvases seem in some sense spacious, flesh appears where there is no real flesh, and so on, and if this is not illusion and not deception, it is still not just straight matter-of-factness. But to complain of this is to transform the old accusation of illusionism into something else. In fact, the only way to make persist a complaint in this area is to rest it upon the notion that nothing in art should be made to transcend itself, that nothing should be made to appear in a work (e.g., meaning, feeling, vitality) by any means, beyond the matter-of-fact properties of the materials employed. The above-cited dualisms, if not illusionistic, would be seen still as misleading in claiming that apparent qualities, which transcend the purely physical qualities of the art object are legitimate. Painting would of course suffer if this charge prevails. But we shall now see that this complains about the inescapable and asks the impossible.


E.C. Goossen: Increasingly the demand has been for an honest, direct, unadulterated experience in art (any art), minus symbolism, minus messages, and minus personal exhibitionism.

Robbe-Grillet: The world around us turns back into a smooth surface, without signification, without soul, without values, on which we no longer have any purchase. Like the workman who has set down the tool he no longer needs, we find ourselves once again facing things.

Until recently if one wanted to laud painting vis-à-vis the other arts he would point to the way paintings could make appear strange images, signify ideas, and express feeelings; he would say, in effect, that paint could transcend its modest material self and become (while still paint) much more. Sculpture, on the other hand, while it certainly could express and signify, seemed, comparatively, limited to and by its physicality. The stone, wood, or metal was what it was, ended where it ended, both literally and apparently, and could not very much surpass itself. And this seemed a pity. So a ranking of the arts seemed implied here.

Now, however, our cosmologies and ontologies have changed and we are inclined not to admit the idea of transcendence (even of a non-mystical, non-religious sort), or of anything which can itself surpass the stuff it is made of. A new ranking occurs and sculpture has the advantage here. Paint is just pretty goo until an artist makes it transcend itself. The sculptor’s materials, even when unworked, have more intrinsic character, can more readily be left to stand by themselves as themselves and, being coextensive with the rest of our object-world, they can just be things among other things. They can be, it would seem, non-transcending, which is the way they ought to be if they are to be congruent with our revised world views. Painting here is degraded by being made to seem foolishly romantic, misleading, or somehow extravagant.

We have done an incredible amount of this sort of ranking heretofore, between and within the arts, ranking in accordance with non-artistic considerations. When reformist politics was big with us, social-comment art was vaunted; when Freud was our hero, Surrealism was applauded; when Existentialist anguish was most prominent, Abstract Expressionism was hailed, and this partly because of the cited world views. Yet this sort of ranking is always, inevitably and inescapably, foolish, for the simple reason that works of art are in nowise obliged to be propositions about the world or any part of it, nor need they be in accord with their creator’s world view. The soundness of his view or of his art’s congruence with it is therefore irrelevant. We ask that works of art be, somehow, good to look at, or if you like, inciters of somehow worthwhile experiences, and they can, then, be quite unlike the way the world is. Surely this is a key idea of modernism: an art object provides a new reality, it is not necessarily reflective of an old one. To repeat, art objects do not operate in the province of truth, and therefore ranking of arts (or works) by their consonance with one’s vision of truth is wrong and wrong-headed. It was foolish to vaunt painting over sculpture (or music over both) for the former’s allegedly greater transcendentalism. It is foolish to vaunt sculpture over painting for its allegedly greater matter-of-factness. These considerations simply cannot confer ranks.

Ranking the arts with respect to their transcendental aspects is ludicrous also because people in the arts are, all of us and like it or not, involved with making things which surpass their mere materiality.

Even in nature the phenomenon of things appearing as more than just stuff is unavoidable, and it happens recurringly, though accidentally and inconsistently. We keep coming up against, for example, the expressiveness and apparent meaning of forms; which is to say forms thus exceed their sheer factuality. This is not to dispute the Robbe-Grillet assertion quoted above, nor to anthropomorphize or commit the pathetic fallacy; we are not talking about natural objects as actually containing messages or having meaningful place in a meaningful universe, nor about natural forms having a communicative or affective life. But rocky crags will look harsh, and the stepping stone will have special meaning to someone crossing the stream. We will see things thus because we need to perceive or surmise the meanings and qualities of things if we are to get along, and because we respond to visual stimuli with eye, mind, and emotions connected and not with eyes alone. To deny this limited, non-mystical transcendence of forms is foolish, irrespective of one’s view of the larger cosmos.

And in art we certainly cannot avoid this sort of phenomenon, for in practice we see it, and in theory we see why it must be so. Even artists opposed or indifferent to the phenomenon find it inescapable. Thus we hear of Ronald Bladen’s The X, exhibited at the Corcoran, that it seemed to exert a pressure on the walls, and that Tony Smith’s work evidences a remarkable “presence.” Talking matter-of-factly, Bladen’s materials, purely as such are not pressing, and Smith’s are a presence only in that they are of course really there, not absent. But we do not talk only matter-of-factly and yet we are not romanticizing or anthropomorphizing, and we must talk in excess of the literal facts because the forms do transcend their sheer factuality to seem more than just some stuff sitting there.

But in art, unlike nature, transcendence is not only a recurring, occasional condition, it is an obligation, and one the successful work of art fulfills very well. A tree, a lake, a rock, any natural thing can, we know, signify or express or act, but it can and often does loom in our vision merely as “just there,” and this is acceptable to us. Its being needs no reason or purpose and it need fulfill no inhering promises. But a work of art is, conspicuously, a given, from a human giver. It was something produced, made to be, or at least selected or indicated, and then exhibited, that is, designated as being for our attention. The art object, then, cannot be taken as “just there” because obviously it was put there. And thus it bids for our regard; the given asks to be taken. The work of art, then, either begs the question, “Why regard, why was it put there?” or, more often and more happily, it voids the question before it surfaces: one finds it somehow good to see the thing. Clearly the thing was made to be seen. That is why it was put there. And to make it this way is the artist’s inescapable obligation (perhaps his only one). And he always works at it, he makes things which appear as worth seeing. And he can’t do this—no one ever has—by making his materials loom as just some stuff lying about, unless the idea of regarding mere stuff, or this particular stuff, is the thing given for regard and this is interesting, i.e. this signifies. This object must seem to be stuff which surpasses its mere matter-of-factness and, in our perception of it, exerts pressures (for example) or makes a strange presence (or absence) appear, or signifies feelings or meanings, or in some other way—any way—rewards attention. The art object, we commonly say, “works” when this occurs; it doesn’t work when the materials just sit there not doing anything, and hence seem given to no avail. It is understandable then that even the most matter-of-fact object-maker makes his object larger or smaller, duller or brighter, or whatever, to make the big thing become awesome, the cool thing chilling, the mute thing ineffable, that is, till the thing looms as more than the sheer specifications would reveal, till, that is, it works. Which is why we say that painter, sculptor, Minimalist, Expressionist, or whatever, none of us can avoid creating material-transcending objects. While painting may be especially identified with material-surpassing efforts, it is not alone in this and cannot be theoretically underprivileged therefore.

There is, of course, a real and enduring dispute somewhere in this matter. But the current conflicts are really about the kinds of transcendence to be achieved, whether they are to involve material which is to surpass itself into realms of meanings and feelings in works somewhat dependent upon these latter realms, or, rather, to involve material to surpass itself only into being the inciter of ineffable phenomena without claims to significance, emotion or high purpose. The latter seems at first a more appropriate posture to assume in a world which does not speak meaningfully to us and in which we cannot find meaning, but there we go again, acting as if the way the world is can tell us how we must make art! No, to theoretically privilege some preference in this matter over others is, finally, impossible. And why one sort of choice is considered fulfillable only in painting, the other in sculpture is also unclear. A Mark Rothko or an Ad Reinhardt is as unclaiming of meaning and as dependent upon the phenomenology of seeing as a Donald Judd. There is, here also, no basis for ranking the arts.

There is still another, a very different respect in which all of us, the most fact-oriented object-maker along with the painter, cannot avoid being involved with transcendence in art. It is one of art’s services to each of us personally. (I know, we’re more professional when we try to serve rather than be served by art, but we do get something out of our vocation after all.) Consider: Does Robbe-Grillet state the proposition quoted above merely in passing and only once or twice, and is the insistent matter-of-factness of the Minimalists merely incidental to their work? No, the attitudes expressed have shaped the men’s styles and outputs and careers (or they have at least been central to them); the men repeatedly write about, embody in their work, act insistently and conspicuously in accordance with their awareness of the muteness of the universe. And what is all this insistent making, acting, writing, if not one’s trying, through his art, personally to be up to his new situation? The butcher and the baker meet cosmic muteness with personal muteness; artists often try (they’re not obliged) to transform the man who was yesterday a match only for a comprehendible, meaningful universe into one that today can live with the silence. This is art-making for, among other things, surpassing oneself; through art one may grapple with new beliefs or states of feeling (or non-feeling) to reach a different standpoint, and apparently even the coolest among us do it. There is nothing necessarily romantic, religious, evolutionary, noble, or progressive here. It’s just that now as before sculpture, painting, literature, etc., help artists and others get on with their lives. And if painting has heretofore been given pompous and excessive praise for this service and hence has become ostentatious and self-conscious at times, we can decry this, not the basic service or process involved or the art itself.


Also mortifying painting these days is the belief that there is nothing left to do in the art because no problems remain to be solved.

Of course, allegations of the disappearance of the last frontier have always heretofore proven premature, which might make them suspect. And in this decade I think Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland are making something new, despite the assertions that nothing new is possible. So it is difficult to understand how people can go on as they do stating an historical proposition which history, today as always, consistently defeats. It seems stupid, unless the allegation is just an exclamation, an expression of one’s personal dismay and inadequacy, and not a proposition at all.

Still, it is at least conceivable that some day in fact there will be no new theoretic problems to be solved in painting. But what would this mean to painters and painting? To many this would say that then at last nothing important remained to be done in the art. But why? It is because we see available only two alternatives: solving new problems or academic repetition. However, the very putting of the choice on this basis distorts the world. It’s as if the artist cannot wake up in the morning and say, “What do I want to do, or what do I need to do, or what should I do?” Putting his behavior on some real basis; no, the captains of the Red Team and the Blue Team grab him and insist he choose a side in a struggle of their own creating. The choice offered lies about what art is doing here, why it is amongst us and how, usually, it gets generated. We have to cut back to think as before we became fixated upon the phoney choice, or we will never think afresh. We have to remember the simple and indisputable fact that art is generated and it exists as a human enterprise because (though it acts like a monarch) it renders services, it does some good, to artists and their audience. Its forms may grow out of previous art, not life, and certainly it offers problems which often intrigue the artist and become his focus, but these forms and problems are the substance and manner of art’s being, not the reason for it; all the time, the effort, the tribulations, the wealth, the lives spent upon art cannot be accounted for by pointing only to the problems it poses. So to say that in painting no new forms and manners can be developed is to talk about the condition of the art’s being, it is not to say that art has no reason for being. And forms and concepts and solutions to problems may indeed be exhaustible, because once these are given they are given for all time and to give them again, as such, is inane repetition, but services must be rendered at point of need, and provision of these recurrently is not mere repetition; it is making art do what it exists to do. Each of us wants his bread, just the way he wants it, and wants it fresh, and whether his nourishment entails a new idea or not is irrelevant. Getting what you need may, conceivably, entail no new synthetic problem, but getting what you and your contemporaries need when the hunger is upon you and in your terms is always a big job. So unless the interests and wants relatable to painting dry up, that art will always have reason to be and have important work to do and intriguing difficulties to face.

The upshot of any argument is, obviously, that there is no good reason why painting should be proscribed and why it should not live and be well. But of course even if everyone reaches this conclusion, painting’s survival would not be assured, because reasoning does not decide these things. The trial occurs out there in the world of forces and events. The art’s survival surely depends ultimately upon the production of a continuing stream of important paintings (not a batch of favorable conclusions) and this production is dependent in turn upon the incidence of talent, its education, stimulation, support, current needs, that is, upon historical circumstance. Also, the arts are currently asked to present a procession of stimulations and experiences at a rate which may not be healthy for painting. If television could burn out a good playwright in a season by its devouring appetite, perhaps the vanguard audience can do likewise with a generation of painters. So prognosis is impossible. Still, if painting is not theoretically proscribed and thus enervated, it has a fighting chance, and to work for that chance was my intent here.

Justin Schorr teaches painting at Columbia and is the author of Aspects of Art.