PRINT Summer 1977


THE STRETCHED CANVAS SUPPORTED BY a rectangular wooden armature is only one of the conventional formats of Western painting. Pottery, plaster walls, the leaves of books, panes of glass set in real windows, and “panels”—those portable solid chunks of woodwork plastered over (like little slices of wall)—all presented themselves to painting long before the light, resilient, easily transportable (and saleable) canvas as we know it settled in. Indeed, the stretched canvas coexisted for a long time with the panel before emerging as the preeminent modern Western format in the later 16th century.1 Although we cannot pretend that any of the other modes has maintained equal importance, almost all—except for panel painting—have seen some modern revival. One category of panel painting, however, may have special, if unacknowledged, pertinence to contemporary art—namely paintings on rectilinear but nonrectangular panels.

No doubt the largest class of non-oblong paintings consists of crucifixes, an archetypal example being the great Crucifix attributed to Cimabue (c. 1290) that stood in Santa Croce, in Florence, until it was destroyed by the 1966 flood. This immense panel, over 16 feet tall, showed Christ crucified on the cross, with vignettes of S. S. Mary and John, one at the broadened end of each arm, with a superscription in another, similarly broadened, terminus at the top. Two other rectangular protrusions, one extending most of the length of Christ’s body and the other out from his feet, completed a symmetrical pattern of widened rectangular zones extending out from an otherwise uniform pair of crossing bars—bars that were of course made, like Christ’s cross itself, of wood. Each of these lateral rectangular extensions spread out the flat surface, expanding the confines of a plain cross into an eccentric but calculated, irregular but symmetrical, painting ground. This both opened the ground as a painting surface (in contradistinction to the linear bars of uniform width that would have supported the carved corpus on a sculptural crucifix), and established units, within it, dependent essentially on the concept of a framed painting. These compartments were defined, in terms of the painted differentiation of the whole surface, by a complex but elegant system of narrow and wide bands which made one rectangle seem both connected with, and distinct from, another. But the entire painting was also completely surrounded by an unbroken, framelike molding that gave the unity of a single irregular shape to a cluster of disparate regular compartments. And that helped, in a very modern way, to set the object apart as a painting from other sorts of objects—in particular, apart from sculpture.

This distinction is all the more insistent by virtue of the fact that, although the corpus, the saints and the superscription were all actively affirmed as non-sculptural, a halo encircling Christ’s head was actually rendered in relief.2 Thus the most metaphorical or literary, and the most non-pictorial, element was the only one to become so concrete as to cast a real shadow. This probably had to some extent the character of paragone, arguing for the superior capabilities and sophistication of painting over sculpture (sometimes even in bourgeois-professional terms), but it also implied an attitude toward representation, since on these terms the halo was the only “graven” element, even though not an “image.”

In other ways as well, the crucifix affirmed itself as a painting happening to call upon concrete and invested shape, rather than as a piece of sculpture. Thus Christ’s hipslung body filled the left-hand lateral extension to its very edge, while the equivalent compartment on the right was completely empty—a painted body opposed to, and equated with, a “picture of nothing,” as though the two, taken together, might imply something halfway between a blank board and a volumetric body. Or consider the way, on a vertical axis, the long wide band bordering the inside of the right-hand compartment could have continued into the space between two bands in the cross above, or the way on one side the halo touched the very corner, while on the other it obscured the corner completely.

Another crucifix from the early 15th century comes out of this Florentine tradition. Since it has subsequently been too heavily repainted to be considered as period painting, attention shifts to the issue of the crucifix itself as a shaped object. Here nothing is raised into relief except the surrounding frame, yet that frame lends the perfectly flat panel the meandering angularity and shaped character of, today, Frank Stella’s Sangre de Cristo (1967). Now even if Sangre de Cristo is named after a mountain range in southern Colorado, and hence only indirectly after “the Blood of Christ,” it exhibits the same alternation of indented and protruding rectangular shapes, in addition to its reiterative “slats” and its metallic “gilt” paint. This alternation is perhaps the most arresting feature of the Florentine crucifix, to a point where it is not possible to say whether a given form is an indentation in from a wider beam or is itself a narrow beam from which wider rectangles protrude. Also, the maker of the cross3 was involved with an ambivalence between a certain foursquare emphasis (as in the Greek-cross bilateral symmetry of Stella’s own Ouray [1960–61]) and the extrusion demanded by the vertically oblong Latin cross type, just as the painter was obviously interested in the (Stella-like) relation of the beams of the cross depicted within the crucifix, as both image and form, to the real molding that frames the whole.4

Now the cross as cross, not just a completely non-objective motif taking crosslike form, is a preeminent Constructivist motif. Appropriately so, for it gratifies the desire for a kind of fundamentalist form to go along with a concretist approach to the “reality” of pure materials. Malevich, whose affinities with the tradition of icon painting are now apparent, had recourse to the cross as just such a de-formalized or formally purified form many times in his paintings, although even now the degree to which such forms extend an initially specifically Christian cross is not yet obvious.5 For instance, in Malevich’s Suprematist Cross Painting (1920), with a white square occupying the central position of the corpus on a skewed (Latin) cross configuration of intersecting bands, there is even a small oblique crossbar near the lower extremity of the cross motif, corresponding surprisingly literally with the “footrest” found on Russian Orthodox crosses. Ideologically, the implications of this are complex, although Lissitsky’s remark, made when he was collaborating with Malevich at this very time, is suggestive: “After the Old Testament there came the New—after the New the Communist—and after the Communist there follows the Testament of Suprematism.”6 In one sense that implies a thorough supersession of Russian Christian tradition, yet in another it suggests a historical rhythm whereby Communism has something in common with the old Covenant, and post-revolutionary life with the new.

Jasper Johns made a shaped, and assertively concrete, painting in the form of a Magen David (Star of David) around 1954, which he titled Star. Apparently he had already made a painting fully coincident with a religious symbol about two years earlier, that one in the shape of a cross (although it is no longer extant). That there should have been both a cross painting/object and a Magen David painting/object implies something rather specific about the degree to which such forms (and Johns’ subsequent targets, flags, numbers and maps) function as contentless and/or contentfull.

An equation of cross and Star of David had been vital to Chagall’s I and the Village (1911), where an autobiographical head in profile at the right wears both a cross (on a curious rosarylike necklace) and a Magen David (on a finger ring); moreover, if there is a depicted cross on the church steeple in the background, Chagall’s overall composition has a starlike aspect. Chagall himself painted an astonishingly sympathetic—given the year—White Crucifixion (1938), in which Holocaust vignettes surround an abandoned, crucified Christ, with a Menorah at the foot of the cross. Johns, however, comes more profoundly to grips with the issue of symbolic embodiment and representation, even as regards the limits of idolatry.

Compared with even a real icon, not to mention some even only iconically pictorial, otherwise abstract image, such a work by Johns has a surprisingly self-sufficient material and spiritual character. More like any actual crucifix than even the most apposite icon (say, one still merely opening a tableau of the Crucifixion to our beholding), Star presents us in its fully simultaneous shape with the very object of our apprehension, as a coincidence between form and idea. If a crucifix lends our real space a Golgothan aspect, by its utter concreteness locating us metaphorically at the Crucifixion hill, Johns’ Star, whatever its other interest as a piece of painting, confronts us directly with the Magen David, that cipher, among other things, for the divine attributes of power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy and justice: this is it; nothing at all representable lies beyond. Even the exposed stretcher carpentry of Star lends it, along the same lines, the forthright realism of a concrete abstract symbol—a realism that, far from having anything to do with representation in the sense of idolatry, even suggests the biblical distinction between honest woodwork and corrupt idol-carving from carpenters’ scraps (Wisdom 13, in the Apocrypha).

The difference between the concretely symbolic and the still pictorially iconic can be considered in terms of the difference between a window as opening into a space other than ours, and a mirror confirming our presence here and now. In Mallarmé’s poem “Les Fenêtres” (“The Windows”), within a nexus of liturgical imagery7 that clearly evokes the Symbolist penchant for icons, the image of a crucifix on a blank wall is opposed to that of a window. In formal terms the two motifs are complementary, especially as regards the crisscrossing grid of a windowframe, with closed rectangles of transparent glass between, versus the single intersection of a crucifix dividing an opaque wall into open quadrants. Yet there is also an opposition between the window as an opening into any other space and the crucifix as a locator in present space.

Similarly, although an icon can be considered “a kind of window between the earthly and heavenly worlds—a window through which the inhabitants of the celestial world looked down into ours and on which the true features of the heavenly archetypes were imprinted two-dimensionally,”8 Rudolph Otto pointed out in The Idea of the Holy (1917) that “the Cross becomes in an absolute sense the ‘mirror of the eternal Father’ (speculum aeterni Patris); and not of the ‘Father’ alone—the highest rational interpretation of the holy—but of Holiness as such.”9 Or, as Friedrich Schlegel had put it earlier, in a slightly extended literary formulation: “. . . The highest possible degree of mortal anguish, as embodied in the Crucifixion of our Lord, mirrors itself afresh in each subordinate picture of suffering.”10

Schlegel had a real enthusiasm for the pictorial, but his mirror image does suggest direct confrontation. Ironically, it is just the presumed superiority of icons over worldly (or idolatrous) images that permits them to confront us directly in a kind of interface with the divine. The point, however, is that they still suggest a kind of membrane which, despite the quasi-modernist artistic appeal of its flatness, still demarcates two distinct worlds, even as it brings them in touch. The cross, however, inhabits this world while causing us to reflect on it.

If the icon shows us images that do not deceive, the cross occupies what might have become sculptural volume without becoming a graven image—thanks to its main property of referring concern back into our present space and lifetime. As such, crosses are in a way as “windowless” and opaque as Leibniz’s monads: “The monads have no windows through which anything could go in or come out.”11 Fora cross is completely and self-explanatorily itself, although any one cross, unlike a monad, is the same as another in all but its exclusively artistic features, since each cross is a very thorough reiteration of The Cross.

When Johns painted his Star, and the cross painting as well, Barnett Newman had already produced eccentrically tall and narrow paintings that seem like single “zips” detached from their physical ground and formal context in Newman’s own other paintings. Such works approach the condition of “cruciformality” in that they reduce to a beamlike format a painting ground that is still loyal to painting as distinct from sculpture. Of course, they do not have crossbars. And yet if we reconsider the concrete/symbolic aspect of Newman’s late Stations of the Cross (1958–66), such a single, detached “zip” as The Wild (1950) may seem even more closely related to the problem of the crucifix.

The main problem here is that whenever the Stations are discussed, it is assumed that they resemble only in some extrapolated, allusive way actual liturgical Stations of the Cross—those sets of 14 place-markers commemorating in churches the events that took place from point to point along the road of Christ’s Passion. In fact, however, the only canonically obligatory feature required of a set of “stations” is that each have a cross of real wood: no imagery at all is specified, so that, even if there are pictures, they really function as illustrations accompanying the “real” stations, which are marked by the crosses (however small) of wood. (In many modern churches one sees only small wooden crosses, each carrying a number, and no pictures at all.) In other words, Newman’s Stations could certainly be used liturgically as proper stations, in place of pictures, and are not merely vaguely like Stations of the Cross.

So, since there is nothing to preclude their actually functioning as contemplative stations along the “Way of the Cross,” Newman’s Stations render all the more literal the qualified “cruciformality” of his detached stripes.12 In their fusion of the extremes of artistic self-reference and symbolic obviousness, such motifs, like Johns’ Star of David, may furnish better paradigms than the still pictorial icons for the self-evidence and generalized content of a modern painting as a thing-in-itself.

In some of Reinhardt’s most powerful “black” paintings of the 1960s a square canvas divides—so subtly that this cannot even be read without patient attention to the whole—into nine equal subsquares, five forming an upright Greek cross that is locked by the other four (in the corners) to the overall, concrete square of the format. Here an older artist brings the blatantly reductive, radically uninflected “anti-formal” form of Minimalism into view. A whole array of such works, themselves uniform in size, was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in 1966–67. In one regard such works certainly are formally centripetal and reductive, for the only surface differentiations are the common boundaries of abutting subsquares (the shared boundaries of alternating checkered squares had absorbed Malevich) which are indeed microstatements of the whole unitary format. Yet these are also positive, even centrifugal, presentations of pronounced, centralized Greek-cross motifs. Reinhardt did tend, like others of his generation, to shy away from anything resembling the specific assignment of thematic significance to his configurations, a posture that soon came to be maintained even more categorically by the younger generation. But he could still, for instance, admire a temple at Angkor Wat as “a structure of four aspects, an architectural mandala in stone, a magic diagram, a ‘chronogram,’ square, cruciform.”13

An untitled square painting by Johns from 1975 takes up the same “anti-compositional” cruciform composition of Reinhardt’s “ninesquare” square, but stresses more than Reinhardt chose to do a positive or emergent aspect—even a process of coming-into-being.14 Johns’ “cross” is an incomplete gestalt, all clues to the Greek-cross pattern residing in the right-hand third of the painting. (Like Malevich’s famous “near-square” in White on White (c. 1918), the three squares in a vertical stack at the right of Johns’ painting are not exactly equal and not uniformly square, which makes them seem more invented or created than they would have been as perfect squares.) Similarly, a recent untitled drawing by the sculptor Joel Shapiro takes up the theme of the Greek cross emerging from a square ground, in this case stressing the identity of the square of “ground” at the lower left, the filled-out square of the two intersecting members, and the implied overall square. Furthermore, Shapiro’s design is as involved as the 15th-century crucifix with the ambivalence of projecting or recessed compartments.

If Malevich drew on the abstract/concrete ambivalence of the cross as a configuration peculiarly apposite for de-figuralized abstraction, Léger did the opposite by admitting the cross to, and on a par with, his repertory of pictorial imagery belonging otherwise to everyday life. In his Big Julie (1945) Léger equated the hearty, sporty figure of a female bicyclist with a stylized crucifixion motif consisting of a trophy-like cluster of bicycle parts displayed against a large, body-sized Latin cross. This, however, amounts not simply to a cynical approach to the cross as an intrinsically religious form. Instead, a kind of demythologized equilibrium is established which flatters “Julie” by transferring some of the cross’s symbolic glory to her, just as in his Mona Lisa with Keys (1930) Léger had already equated the image of the Gioconda with an ordinary bunch of keys, not insulating it so much as both granting a chummy familiarity and negating only the mystique of bourgeois humanism that would make what is in fact a very common image into a cult object of Renaissance idealism.

Léger’s Big Julie, with its thick, rather Malevich-like cross, is a work that happens to be of substantial interest to David Diao nowadays, for its construction as well as its color. Diao’s untitled painting of squares and partial circles, of 1975–76, is more abstractly and geometrically constructivistic than Big Julie, but Diao produces organization composed of overlapping left-and-right halves and, even more importantly, the equal-and-opposite identification of two large, simple motifs, one figural and the other purely geometric. Diao’s elegantly brazen “high color” is also in tune with Big Julie. The figural motif in Diao’s painting, although composed entirely of “Colorform”-type squares, has a black square for a head, and this square shifts off the “torso” slightly, to the “figure’s” left.

In Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe’s Warfare and Pleasure (1976–77), we find a similar configuration. Here a red square occupies the position of a head, set over a long horizontal, outstretched-armlike bar and a vertical “trunk” of equal width. The grid structure of Warfare and Pleasure can itself be compared with the “squaring” in a sketch for a crucifixion by Tintoretto, where the similarly high-placed crossbar relates, thanks to conformity to the grid module, to its near-Tau-cross T-shape.

Actually, Warfare and Pleasure returns us to our original considerations, and the artist acknowledges that it is, in fact, a Crucifixion. Now even the shifted “head” found in Diao’s painting functions specifically as the head of Christ turned to his left, that is, toward the “Bad Thief.” In fact, just as Gilbert-Rolfe’s main cross, together with its surrounding field, consists of squares joined or separated by similarity (black squares) and difference of colors, so the left and right extremities of his 15-foot-long canvas consist of similar, but subordinate checkerboard “crosses” in the traditional positions of the crosses of the Good and Bad Thieves on Golgotha.

If a main esthetic appeal of the cruciform is the extent to which it claims for the concerns of painting much of the territory in the no-man’s-land of object-shape that might otherwise have been assumed to accrue to sculpture, several advanced present-day sculptors have dealt with cross configurations in ways that reflect critically on the possibility of the cross as a sculptural, but far from “graven” object. Carl Andre’s Five Corners (1970), four squares each consisting of 36 steel plates, forms a single overall square, but one with an implied Greek-cross motif, so to speak, in negative, bisecting it in both directions.

Richard Serra’s Delineator removes itself just as scrupulously from “graven” space-displacement in the room, with two large (26-foot) steel plates hugging the ceiling as well as the floor, and crossing at the center. As a configuration, Delineator shares in the Constructivism of Malevich’s slapped-down but (however shallowly) overlapping oblongs in cruciform arrangements, but it places us ourselves, with palpable terribilità, at the very point of intersection, so that we not only occupy the position of the corpus on a crucifix but experience mortal fear under the immensely heavy plate fixed to the ceiling above us.

Sol LeWitt’s Five Part Piece (in the Shape of a Cross) (1966–69) is a Greek-cross cluster of cubes. LeWitt has more recently produced a wall piece taking the form of a narrow-beamed Greek cross—Cross Perpendicular (1977)—but Five Part Piece already raises this issue in a more problematically volumetric way, even if the emptiness of LeWitt’s squares is a way of avoiding the old claims of mass. Significantly, the very crosspieces of LeWitt’s sculptures themselves meet in Greek-cross motifs. One might recall Alan Watts: “. . . The Holy of Holies was a cube, symbol of completion or perfection. Interestingly enough, the cube unfolded becomes the Latin Cross!”15

The cross, despite its obvious signatory capacities, can function in painting in an interestingly nonlinguistic way, as a complete and self-evident hieroglyph that necessitates not the slightest analytic consideration, despite its enormous evocativeness. If the main drift of iconoclasm is always to caution us against being seduced by images as deceptive sculpturesque phantasms, the cross physically inserts into our space in such a lucidly elemental way that instead of distorting our sense of what is real it organizes what we see according to its coordinates. Even when it carries a sculptural corpus, the main meaning is conveyed by the supporting cross, which, even though of such-and-such a thickness and width, does not implicate the shape-giving aspect of sculpture. No wonder Keith Milow’s recent Crosses Between Painting and Sculpture are so critically loyal to the realm of painting, from Cimabue’s Crucifix to Johns’ Star: for their extreme departure from the stretched rectangular canvas, far from constituting an indulgence in eccentric shape, revives an even older conventional format in painting.

When the crucifix, with the sculpted corpus on it, is veiled and exposed three times on Good Friday, to the words “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which has hung the Salvation of the world,” even the brief uncovering and re-draping of successive parts of the veiled cross may suggest an ultimate frontier of permissible image-reverence, as though we were proferred glimpses of the not-quite-representational cherubs decorating Moses’ Tabernacle whose invisible faces were concealed behind crossed wings.

––Joseph Masheck



1. Even the fact that paintings are usually rectangular but need not necessarily be so was known to academic tradition. Already in the “Dictionary of Terms” supplied with his Principles of Architecture, Sculpture, Painting and Other Related Arts (3rd ed., 1699) André Félibien had defined what he called the chassis of a picture as “the wooden pieces that form the square or other sort of figure to which the canvas is attached.” André Félibien, Des Principes de l’architecture, de la sculpture, de la peinture et des autres arts qui en dépendent, 3rd ed. (Paris, 1699; repr. Farnborough, Hants., 1966), 373. In his chapter on oil painting Félibien does illustrate Zpl. LXII) a vertical oblong stretched canvas, empty but “squared” in a rather Rymanesque way for the transfer of a design.

2. Meyer Schapiro, “Notes on Castelceprio,” Art Bulletin, XXXIX/4 (December 1957), 292–99, draws attention to the ironic abstract/concrete ambivalence of the cross contained within a circular (painted) nimbus (halo) in images of Christ: “It is a remarkable fact that although Christian art develops from naturalistic to increasingly abstract modes of representation and tends to present its symbols as distinct surface forms, the cross in the nimbus remains a symbolic object in real space overlapped and obscured by the head of Christ” (p. 295).

3. Millard Meiss, in his notes on the photo card in the Frick Art Reference Library, suggests “an artist with knowledge, for example . . . Pacino da Bonaguida.”

4. Rosalind Krauss, “Sense and Sensibility: Reflection on Post ’60s Sculpture,” Artforum, November 1973. 43–53, esp. p. 47, speaking of Stella’s Die fahne hoch (1959) and Luis Miguel Dominguin (1960): "Both paintings arrive at a particular configuration, which is the configuration of a cross. We could call this accidental of course. Just as we could conceive it accidental that the Cross itself relates to that most primitive sign of an object in space: the vertical of the figure projected against the horizon-line of a nascent ground. . . . In canvas after canvas one finds oneself in the presence of a particular emblem, drawn from the common repertory of signs––stars, crosses, ring-interlocks, etc.––part of a language that belongs, so to speak, to the world, rather than to the private originating capacity of Stella to invent shapes. But what Stella convinces us of is an account of the initial genesis of those signs. Because in these paintings we see how they are given birth through a series of natural and logical operations.

“The logic of the deductive structure is therefore shown to be inseparable from the logic of the sign. Both seem to sponsor one another and in so doing to ask one to grasp the natural history of pictorial language as such.”

5. Alan C. Birnholz, “On the Meaning of Kazimir Malevich’s ‘White on White, ” Art International, January–February 1977, 9–16, 55. Now see also Margaret Betz in the present issue of Artforum. Apart from the icon question, it is worth remarking that in Malevich’s Peasant Women at Church (1911), the figures are all seen making the Sign of the Cross in unison, with mechanical, Constructivist precision.

6. E. Lissitsky, Supremativism of World Revolution; qu. in S. Lissitzky Küppers, El Lissitzky (London, 1968); qu. Birnholz, op. cit., 13.

7. Here I am grateful to Rose-Marie Logan for vital elucidation.

8. E. Benz, The Eastern Orthodox Church (Garden City, 1963), 6; qu. Birnholz, op. cit., 12.

9. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, trans. John W. Harvey, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1950), 172. Thanks to Ronald T. Lau for a copy of this book.

10. Friedrich von Schlegel, “Description of Paintings in Paris and the Netherlands in the Years 1802–1804,” in his Aesthetic and Miscellaneous Works, trans. E. J. Millington (London, 1881), 86; italics mine.

11. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, “Monadology,” par. 7; in his Monadology and Other Philosophical Essays, trans. Paul Schrecker and Anne Martin Schrecker (Indianapolis, 1965), 148.

12. Cf. Nicolas Calas, “Subject Matter in the Work of Barnett Newman,” repr. from Arts Magazine, November 1967, in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York, 1967), 109–15, speaking of Newman’s 1967 sculptural version of three freestanding “zips” in relation to his Stations of the Cross: “They appear as acephalous crosses since no transversal bars limit their upward thrust.” Again: “Newman’s crosses are crossless since the cross, besides being the symbol of the crucified, is also the emblem of a God. Barnett Newman identifies himself with the agony of a compassionate man who was crucified. not with the transfiguration of a mortal being Acephalous crosses are for those who have been cut off from the hope of immortality.” These “crossless crosses” are not literally acephalous, since they are armless, rather than headless, although this goes along with Calas’ meaning to the extent that it suggests crosses lacking the wide embracing arms that are often interpreted as a forgiving appeal to all mankind. I would only qualify Calas’ remarks by maintaining that a transfiguration does take place, but by means of pure art––a transfiguration from figural form referring to a transcendent state to abstract form evoking one––and this is not without immortal consequence.

13. Quoted from Reinhardt’s essay in the catalogue of the 1961 Asia House exhibition Human Sculpture, by Dale McConathy in his introduction to the Marlborough Gallery exhibition catalogue Ad Reinhardt: A Selection from 1937 to 1952 (New York, 1974), unpaginated.

14. On this painting, see also Joseph Masheck, “Jasper Johns Returns,” Art in America, March–April 1976, 65–67.

15. Alan W. Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity (1st ed. 1953) (Boston, 1968), 229 n. I. The present author used to think this was his own idea.