PRINT September 1975

Patterns, Grids, and Painting

PATTERN, FOR AMERICANS, HAS NEVER even been an esthetic issue. Our artistic self-consciousness: developed out of painting and, perhaps, architecture. Associated with decoration and the machine, pattern was always outside the area of legitimate artistic concern. The stylistic revisions of the last decade or so—remember the defense of boredom?—might have been expected to alter that situation. Yet to artists now working with pattern (especially women, who may feel it as something particularly their own), it still seems to imply a lack of inwardness and freedom, and they are often defensive about it. Pattern carries the aura of craft and contrivance, although many individual aspects of pattern—its affinities with number, rationality, mechanical production and depersonalized imagery—have been reclaimed for art. Pattern itself remains unanalyzed, its salient characteristics unknown. Unlike painting, pattern has no mystique, and it has been underground so long that thinking about it reveals surprising complexities. I’ll try to start at the beginning, although that is already a lie. There is no beginning, middle or end to pattern. Its boundaries are vague, or, at least, I frankly don’t understand them. Perhaps I should just say that what follows seems to me to be generally true.

It is ordinarily supposed that pattern is the repetition of a motif; it isn’t. The crucial determinant of pattern is the constancy of the interval between motifs, a fact easily demonstrated by anyone with access to a typewriter. If you preserve the spacing between sequences of letters it doesn’t matter what letters or marks you use, a pattern will appear. On the other hand, a single motif, like a rubber stamp, irregularly applied to a sheet of paper does not yield any sort of pattern at all.

Two warnings are in order. First, we must distinguish between the creation of pattern and allusions to it. Early Matisses, like La Desserte, refer to patterned cloth as a pictorial element, but the motifs are so large, interrupted and dispersed that pattern does not actually appear. At the beginning, Matisse’s painted pattern no more is a pattern than the painted lemon is a lemon. And when he does begin to use true pattern, he is very cautious. He chooses small, simple linear motifs: stripes, diamonds, squares.

Second, a pattern only comes into phenomenal existence when there are enough repetitions of the space/interval to establish it clearly as a unit. On a typewriter, four or five rows are needed if you are using the short side of the page and varying the “motif” (which, of course, engenders small-scale differences in the shape of the intervals). To clinch the demonstration, introduce a new sequence of spacing in the next four lines. The result will be legible as two patterns, regardless, again, of the marks you have actually made.

The naive assumption that pattern is the repetition of a motif is fatal to any sophisticated understanding or use of it. That assumption ignores the possibilities of pattern because, in effect, it allows the pattern-maker to vary only the way in which his motif is stated. This does not necessarily vary the pattern itself. The truth of that statement depends on what you decide to call “the pattern itself.” It seems natural to say that one pattern can have variant forms or that you can perceive a whole range of changes as presenting alternative forms of a single pattern.

Taking interval as a constant, then, a single pattern can be maintained through changes in motif, through changes in color, and through changes in density (the scale of the interval relative to the size of the patterned area). Of course the “feel” of the pattern will be different as it passes through those changes, but the juxtapositions of variants will usually, under scrutiny, support a sense of family resemblance. The mutations will seem internal, genetic. On the other hand, if you change the interval while any or all of the other variables remain constant, the difference feels radical. The new pattern appears as a transformation, a system change. The conceptual richness of pattern can be fully realized only through the juxtaposition of related patterns. That is why pattern books and fabric stalls from Bloomingdale’s to the souks exercise their perennial fascination. While a single pattern may be boring, traditionally offering nothing beyond its own sensible identity, the confrontation of related patterns inevitably teases the mind, evoking the presence of hidden laws and an infinity of legitimate, unexpressed possibilities.

In the context of pattern, the elements of drawing take on an unexpected weight. Thicken a line here, flatten a curve, deepen a tone—it’s not simply a form that changes. The rhythm of the whole alters. The effect of variants in pattern, sometimes subtle, sometimes violent, is hard to describe in the usual formal terms. Our esthetic vocabulary was built for unique forms and closed aggregates, and in pattern nothing is unique or closed. Orchestration is all.

Pattern can be so enthralling that the convert, disengaged from the usual pleasures of painting, begins to feel that only the most outrageous prejudice keeps pattern from receiving the artistic enthusiasm it deserves. But this, too, is naive. Pattern is not an extension or variant .of picture-making, although bits of it can be pressed into serving pictorial purposes. Pattern is basically antithetical to the iconic image, for the nature of pattern implicitly denies the importance of singularity, purity, and absolute precision.

A lot of painting—perhaps most of it—aims at perfection. The enthusiasts of pictures continually call our attention to the impossibility of changing a single stroke or nuance. Like a brimming glass of water, a painting full of meaning or feeling cannot easily tolerate any addition, subtraction, or displacement. Pattern, on the other hand, once established, is incredibly tough. Islamic artisans traditionally put “mistakes” in their patterns as a religious renunciation of perfection, which belongs only to God. Their mistakes disturb nothing. A demonstration of the irrelevance of perfect form.

A more crucial threat arises out of the relationship of pattern to iconic meaning. Many people believe that the interdependence of ideas and forms is what gives art its intellectual dignity. Pattern vitiates the impact of form and turns thought into ritual. The link between a perceptual form and its extraformal meaning is normally fragile, and requires support from the context in which it occurs. Mere repetition is dangerous enough—repeat any word ten times in a row and it becomes pure sound. Pattern is lethal and can kill the power of any image. Simply regularizing the interval between pictorial elements makes forms lose their individual meaning. They become motifs whose similarity overrides any differences among them. It is here, in the difference between motif and subject, that the true “mereness” and “abstractness” of pattern lies. Pattern trivializes and degrades its themes by turning them into esthetic details within a larger, more inclusive form.

In effect, patterned repetition in space has the same consequences as the repetition of symbols over a long period of time. To see the same image over and over again in a variety of situations disengages the control of context and erodes meaning. Without institutional control, religious symbols readily become lucky emblems and ultimately “mere” decorative motifs, as we can see from the fate of many pagan and Buddhist themes. From a strictly artistic point of view, the absence of referential meaning is not necessarily a loss.1 The artistic impulse is promiscuous—it doesn’t necessarily take a respectable idea to turn an artist on. Like the gilded fly, he’ll go to it on any occasion.

Consider Warhol’s early use of repeated images. They presented the paradox of an emotionally loaded subject (the car wrecks, riot scenes, electric chairs) which flickered between carrying and failing to carry its expected emotional response. That paradoxical effect was attributed to Warhol’s schlocky color, the coarseness of handling, or the associations to mass media. Yet perhaps the crucial step was just the regular repetition of the motif, which suddenly made it possible to see the picture as a pattern and its subject as a motif. Certainly, similar themes and treatment never had the same flattened, brutalized effect in Rauschenberg’s hands. They remained stubbornly, if vaguely, poetic—his sensibility is implacably intimate and nuanced. When Warhol began to use sentimental images, flowers, cows, portrait heads, the same pattern format sabotaged the sweetness as effectively as it had previously undercut the horror.

I think it is impossible to respond simultaneously to a picture and a pattern because each evokes a different mode of perception and a different kind of esthetic experience. Each engenders a specific kind of attention and particular sets of expectations. The sets are psychologically incompatible and the kinds structurally distinct. The fundamental structure of pattern is the grid; any pattern can be reduced to some grid. I suggest that grids and compositions are cues to different mobilizations of self. It may seem excessively magical to claim that in choosing one type of organization or another the artist establishes a fundamental relationship to the viewer that no later artistic decision can abrogate. Yet we all learn to mobilize our attention in a variety of ways, and have undoubtedly learned how to respect and set aside the cues for various sorts of attending. This is true even though we may not be able to say exactly what those cues are.

Compositions breed involvement, intimacy and references to self. Grids generate a greater emotional distance—a sense of the presence of objective, pervasive law.

Composition arises when an artist wishes to snare somebody into sustaining attention to a complex whole. He must keep his forms and form elements together without overloading or impoverishing his field. Any composition has focal areas, and locally intensifies and submerges control over the perceiver’s activity as he moves over the work as a whole. In the nontemporal arts, sequence and tempo are established by exploiting the similarity and contrast of forms.

However complex the execution of a composition may be, seeing a composition is easy. It is a deliberately engineered reprise of ordinary looking. Whenever we face some corner of the world, we are likely to find some parts of the display more interesting than others, to move our attention there and to check out the rest as subordinate setting. The hierarchic, relational aspects of pictorial composition simply displace and harden the usual process of floating, intermittent attentiveness.

Scanning is a much more specialized, anxious kind of looking. It contains an element of search, and unsatisfied search at that, since it implies a restless refusal to focus and an attempt to grasp the nature of the whole. The characteristic response to patterns and grids is rapid scanning.

Why should an organization that is instantly recognized as regulated and lawful evoke so unquiet a response? I think it is because the linear grid, whether it is expressed or implicit (as in pattern), is disorienting. It has no intrinsic shape, no body or geography of its own. It is a featureless field of equally stressed marks, a sea of notation that demands justification as a form before it can be investigated in detail. The first requirement in any unfocused situation is to locate the boundaries of the field, since the boundaries alone can provide orientation. Thus any pattern or grid is initially scanned in order to establish its relationship to the physical world. It demands location as a physical unit. Does it also provoke justification in terms of a larger situation? If so, that “requirement” initiates the philosophical aspect of pattern.

Unless framing elements are stressed, grids are centrifugal. The possibility of unframed grids arises because the regular juxtaposition of repeated units itself establishes a unitary area or field. Thus, exhibitions of series art and Conceptual art (both of which are normally hung to equalize the importance of their component parts) very often yield visual, unframed grids. Sometimes the arrangement is more than just practical. In Robert Ryman’s work, for example, the grid is eminently suited to his subtle, static fields. They require such a close focus that the grid extends beyond the range of peripheral image and thus functions as the context of the viewer and his visual field simultaneously—a zone of silence. In Helen Frankenthaler’s recent show of ceramic tiles at the Guggenheim, on the other hand, the presence of the grid was baffling. Were the tiles supposed to be tiny pictures of disjunctive units of a complex whole? In the immensity of the Guggenheim’s dynamic space, the question seemed less than urgent.

Grids are nonhierarchic and nonrelational, but that is not because relationships among its components do not exist, nor because the components of the grid are necessarily equally stressed. A grid is nonrelational because its internal spatial relations are marked out as invariable and therefore inexpressive and disregardable. Its shapes are thus not shapes at all, but authoritative markers, indicating the pace and rhythm by which we are to perceive the whole.

By denying informational value to shape, the normal carrier of form and content, the grid offers nothing more (or less) than a seamless experience of measured space, the experience of visual order itself. A grid is an isolated, specified, unlocalized field, as close as we can come to perceiving pure being, free from any added rationale or emotional activity.

This being so, it is not surprising that artists who begin with the grid usually proceed to destroy it. The step most commonly taken is the reintroduction of shape, either by breaking into the regularity of the field (turning the grid itself into a stressed shape) or by interrupting the unbroken equality of its internal relations. Turning the interval into a structural module naturally entails a return to shape and composition. The toughness of patterns, in which the grid is normally unstated, is utterly reversed by actual grids, which are extremely vulnerable to inflection. They easily lose their unitary, nonmaterial character and become a kind of composition—usually called constructions, lest the module escape your notice. Like all other constructions, grid-derived works are more or less tidy, more or less arbitrary. Subjected to the hazards of illusionistic perspective, illumination and material process, grids lose their metronome effect and return to the everyday world of things and symbols.

Few things on earth are more pointless than a grid seen through a temperament. Like an artificially illuminated sundial, it dumps vision in favor of visibility. The experience of the grid can be interesting, but the form itself is noninformational. An “interpretation” of it is somewhat more vacuous than handwriting analysis. As an aid to art-making, the grid is trivial, a mechanism out of Creative Playthings that guarantees neither order nor ingenuity. It has no more claim to intellectual significance than correct anatomy. Nevertheless, if you start with .a grid, it would seem merely intelligent to stay with it and investigate its own odd nature, turning your materials into a substantiation of it. Surely the strength of artists as diverse as Alfred Jensen and Agnes Martin lies significantly in their unwillingness to subvert the grid.2 On the other hand, artists like Ryman and Kelly, whose strength lies apart from rhythm and intuition, are sufficiently sensitive to interval to keep their relationship to the grid submerged, holding it as an unstressed backstop. It keeps their viewers locked into relating to the sameness of their different surfaces.

Most semidestroyed grids are pretty boring. Preserved grids, if the artist can hold you to them, are pretty interesting. Grid structures with submerged asymmetries, of the sort found in Near Eastern carpets and some Buddhist paintings, are notoriously esthetically satisfying in a way that even good paintings are not. The enjoyment of patterns and grids, so often linked to religion, magic, and states of being not-quite-here, requires an indifference to self-assertion uncongenial to most Westerners. When I suggested that grids evoke the experience of law, I did not mean to speak metaphorically. It is one of our cultural quirks that we find law and creativity an odd pair. Charismatic personalities are another story—we expect creativity from them. Our art history is the history of big artists—yet little artists, making small contributions to a collective articulation of form, embody an equally real creativity. An enormous amount of the world’s artistic production has been made as the process of discovering possibilities within rigid frameworks, like the requirements of the crafts or the structure of the grid. We are only beginning to think about such things.

Amy Goldin is a critic and writer who contributes frequently to Artforum and other art journals.



1. When the audience for a work doesn’t share a wide range of attitudes, the lack of stress on iconography can be a positive advantage, freeing it from sources of possible resistance.

2. I find Martin’s titles over-concrete. They are undoubtedly part of the history of the work, but they are irrelevant to its immediate lyricism.