PRINT October 1977

Reaffirming Painting: A Critique of Structuralist Criticism

If the essence of science, ethics, language, and ceremony is conceptual relationships, then the same might be true of art.
Jack Burnham, The Structure of Art

In this way a mouth is a mouth. In this way if in as a mouth if in as a mouth where, if in as a mouth where and there. Believe they have water too. Believe they have that water too, and blue when you see blue is all blue precious too, is all that that is precious too is all that and they meant to absolve you. In this way Cézanne nearly did nearly in this way. Cézanne nearly did nearly did and nearly did. And was I surprised. Was I very surprised . . .
Gertrude Stein

IN THE ONGOING LATTER-DAY “Seminars” of Clement Greenberg a certain critical direction is already in evidence. Greenberg is heading to the brink of an ideology of art that is rife with destructive, hyper-modernistic tendencies to which he seems oblivious. Like the compass of cultural direction that he was for a considerable time, Greenberg again points up a true nexus in critical theory and one that is now in the forefront of debate. However, unlike his previously sophisticated art theorizing, his contribution now wanders in a philosophically militarized zone without the apparent knowledge that mines could go off at the slightest brush.1

This argument that Greenberg has now entered so inauspiciously is a familiar one in modern philosophy: the pitting of phenomenology’s descriptive and perceptual commitment against the syntactical credo of analytic structuralism. Perhaps it is necessary that these adversaries be given some characterization here so that the reader is made more fully aware of the dispute.

First, phenomenology is an approach rather than a metaphysic; that is, it is systematic rather than systemic. Phenomenology is dedicated to an encompassing and authentic description of the perceptual world and of our curious immersion in it. Here it accepts an endless task, just as it also demands the relentless interrogation of our primary assumptions. By the eidetic reduction and bracketing of presuppositions, it aims at the single “handle” we have on our world, our direct, untampered experience of it. It presupposes and exults in experience, prior to the intervention of second-order expressions of perception—derivatives which include science, logic and culturally relative creeds of morality, methodology and religion. Understandably, it is the branch of philosophy most concerned with the intuitive states and operations so vital both to daily existence and to extraordinary experience.

A more recent philosophical genotype is structuralism, which at least partly originates in phenomenological quarters, in that it embraces language as a governing factor in what we have traditionally termed “thinking.” Heidegger’s resonant quote rings true: “Language is the House of Being.” This notion, in turn, was prefigured by Wittgenstein and Saussure, whose work in language—more specifically, grammar—excavated the irrelevant whimsy and prejudice of the humanist tradition in order to erect the foundation for a modern view of “what is called thinking.”

From this foundation rises the prolific and eclectic edifice of structuralist thought. Structuralism finds man living so completely within language that “thinking” is redefined as the ever complex operations of intra-linguistic mechanisms and exigencies. Hence, thought without language is no more possible than language without thought. Syntax (the phrase and the sentence making up the superstructure of language) is the source of our seemingly infinite capacity for abstraction.

It is a small step from this elevation of language to near metaphysical status (although Chomsky hastens to emphasize its biology) to the belief that experience itself is obtained in and through a language. The apparently extralinguistic experiences of the biological, esthetic and spiritual are sewn in the fabric of a syntactical grasp of a syntactical world. Intuition is cast aside. The world speaks to us and dictates how we recognize it in its arrangement, that is, its experiential phraseology. Modern structuralism takes one further step and bids us to find our language and its generative syntax enclosed in the genetic strata of the human species and its phylogeny, along with the opposable thumb and stereoscopic vision: the syntactical mind as a reflection of millions of years of evolutionary adaptation.

Here lies the radical exponent that linguistics lends philosophy. The Chomskyan model in its genetic imperative serves in every area, every endeavor; its impressive logic seeks syntactical skeletons in experiential closets.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that the study of this particular human achievement, the ability to speak and understand a human language, may serve as a suggestive model for inquiry into other domains of human competence and action that are not quite so amenable to direct investigation.2

Paradoxically, the benign and liberalized attitude expressed in this quotation allows for unlimited speculative elbow-room.

The bent of structuralism toward semiology is central here, for it posits a lexicography of forms that signify meanings beneath the formal surface of experience. The resultant analytic methodology divides that experience into component parts for study and acquisition.

IN HIS FIRST SEMINAR, Clement Greenberg made his first departure into esthetic experience by declaring that intuition is the means by which we experience art.3 For Greenberg such an experience is the intuitive apprehending of phenomena, wherein one is not pointed toward some further end, derivative, essence or alternate experience. The esthetic is a self-enclosed experience of existential rather than functional or metaphysical value. Greenberg includes under this category not only the traditional arts of painting, sculpture, poetry, music, drama, etc. but also the appreciation of the sky or the connoisseur’s taste in wine. They too have esthetic aspects to the extent they do not point to any given end (functional, symbolic, or whatever) but are total unto themselves.

Greenberg does however differentiate between the appreciation of the natural pageant and other “unformalized experiences” and tradition-bound “art, fixed in forms that are coventionally recognized as artistic.” The distinction is one of “fleeting, raw” art (solipsistic in character) versus “art put on record” (social by implication). He admits the tenuousness of this distinction; it is a matter of “degree” and “quantity” rather than of affective difference. He does not see any definitive rift between the raw and fleeting and the esthetic experience in general. In his words: “[That] the esthetic intuition of a landscape” is not communicated through “a viable medium, doesn’t deprive it of its ‘status’ as art.”

Later in the article, Greenberg postulates that this esthetic intuition is intrinsic to the evaluation of the art itself. Using a Kantian model, Greenberg states that esthetic pleasure is preceded, and ignited, by the judgment of taste. However, he qualifies this philosophical alliance with Kant by offering that the precedence of judgment adheres to “perhaps a metaphoric logic” rather than actual temporal order. The first seminar, then, can be summed up as a geography of Greenberg’s esthesis. That is, instead of defining the experience, he searches for its boundaries—which he never finds.

Such an unbounded esthetic noticeably misses the mark. The informal and inadvertent witness of the natural pageant and other raw experiences is not self-enclosed. Nature “by nature” is acutely symbolic, pointing especially in the oceanic attitude, to grand designs, metaphysics and cosmologies. Also, we are too aware of the partiality of our sight to be able to stop at its perimeter and enjoy the sky purely for its color: the intimations of infinite spread are far too seductive. One cannot abstract a pure color experience from contemplation of the sky without exacting the price of the sky itself. The experience in its unadorned affect is solipsistic, Greenberg states. Yet this mandalic pageant, to which we are a captive audience, denies solipsism by virtue of its broad universal etching; it even brings us close to our common humanity.

Similarly, we find the beauty inherent in the human form (perhaps the most common experience of the natural pageant and the most often painted) inseparable from the sexual yearning or sexual attitudes pertaining to it. Only the active and willful suppression of sexuality could make such a separation possible. But, as with the abstraction of a pure color experience from that of the sky, it is arguable whether the esthetic experience is enhanced or made esthetically “leaner” by that suppression.

Pierre Bonnard and Philip Pearlstein are a case in point. Pearlstein admits to the purgation of sexual content in his paintings of nudes, while Bonnard spoke thus of his nudes: “It is the seduction which determines the choice of the motif and which corresponds directly to the painting . . .” The very human qualities of sexual yearning and even love manifest themselves visually in Bonnard’s pictorial rapture. His desire for his mistress is indistinguishable from his attachment to her surroundings and from the joy of painting itself. It should be emphasized here that Bonnard makes the sexuality that he discovers visible; he doesn’t merely elicit a sexual impulse from the viewer. Now sexuality is part of the body’s experience. It is not art.

The natural world (and our appreciation of it) is always evocative of further attitudes and sensations, whether biological, metaphysical or philosophical. Contrastingly an art object is by definition manmade, bearing some human qualities of its maker; less by any direct intellectual intent than by a general existentiality and a uniquely human denial of essence and function.

So Greenberg distinguishes his notion of unformalized art from the formal through a dialectic of solipsism vs. communicableness, and he maintains that the raw esthetic is unequivocally artistic, although in its wild state it fails to communicate its “art” beyond the individual. The effort to formalize the fleeting experience is an effort to circumvent the solipsistic character of the unformalized esthetic. Greenberg’s Kantian model completes the schema: the experience of raw art is both solipsistic and on the first order pleasurable, but in formalized art the judgment of taste is paramount; it “precedes the pleasure” (however metaphorically), in order to “give the pleasure.”

Yet in dogged persistence, we bear witness to art and receive what we call an esthetic experience. A value judgment is received at the same time. This judgment relates to no codified standards; in fact, it is not relative at all. More often than not this is an either/or situation, yes or no. We can point to brilliant passages in a poor novel, but this cannot rescue the work from the inadequacy of its not providing us with an esthetic experience. In a problematic work we may actively suspend judgment on the basis of unfamiliarity, but that can only be a postponement, and the very willfulness of such a suspension implies the inevitability of that judgment. Yet clearly, it is a small step from Greenberg’s conception of taste as verdict to the tableau that is structuralism, where the judgment of taste adheres to precisely the metaphoric logic that Greenberg gropes for—syntax.

Artists work within and against conventions. Conventions can provide resistance for felt, meaningful decisions in the making of a work of art. Consequently, artists who turn from culturally highlighted conventions to forms not at a given time highlighted make the pursuit of art artificially more difficult in that the forms they consciously work with do not allow for the proper resistance which great art deals with. Clement Greenberg makes a cogent point in his sixth seminar when he says that those artists who grapple most thoroughly with convention, who have the most invested in it, often create the greatest art. They give most grudgingly to new expression, with the most prescience, and more significantly, the most doubt.

When conventions no longer exercise a vital, active force they retreat back into the morass of unassorted formal possibilities. They continue to have presence as ghosts periodically creeping in, and may actually undermine a painting that is not directly soliciting or interrogating them. Hence, the powerful grip of conventions echoes their immanence—their meaning imbedded in lived reality rather than in historicity. They are fixed in our experience, not as mortal, culturally or historically bound phenomena that live a life and die. Conventions are temporal expressions of those questions intimated by the first images men ever scrawled on cave walls.

The word “form” merely expresses the ambiguities and insoluble problems of painting as an ancient but still vital question, in that the power and persistence of form lies in its inseparability from esthetic experience. One cannot be conceived of without the other. It is within the temporal experience of finite beings that form manifests itself as convention. Convention, therefore, is nothing more than the formal problems and equivocations of painting for all time, held in suspension by cultural-historical circumstances. Form is lived rather than applied, for inasmuch as a human being makes art, he makes form. Form is ubiquitous, and explicitly or implicitly all artists engage all the forms. Even naive painters or children are enmeshed in the web of possibilities which is painting whether they are cognizant of it or not.

In this connection, Greenberg’s notion of formalizing raw art or raw esthetic experience is faulty. He conceives of a vocabulary of convention and formalization that the sentient solipsist (the artist) manipulates to make the art he envisions communicable. Here Greenberg’s formalism borders on a structuralist model, where conventions are the language of a primordial and mute art—the semiological surfaces that articulate meanings beneath. This is questionable on two counts: that the solipsistic experience of heightened intuition is art; and that the role of conventions is to lend eloquence to this brute and undefined experience. Our heightened intuitive states, which we partake of more or less passively, are inevitably evocative, pointing to further states. There is no hidden esthetic intuition within these “feelings,” whether we come by them naturally or even artificially (as by drugs). Neither can we release the esthetic from the raw by suppressing these evocations. Any conception of formalizing art deals in redundancy since art is by definition formal.

The arabesque from Mycenaean vases to Matisse; the use of minimal, identifying marks in figuration from the Venus of Willendorf to de Kooning’s Women of the 1950s; or the dispersed composition from Uccello to Cézanne: such conventions reach the status of cliché. Similarly, period relationships, as between the camera and Degas or between oriental prints and the Nabis, or Gertrude Stein’s remark that an art lover could better understand a Picasso having first been up in an airplane, are other efficacious versions of the question. They demonstrate that there was something to link up rather than nothing at all. The causality and zeitgeist of which they speak only shed an oblique light on the enigma of form in painting. The larger meaning lies in the fact that convention is form merely at the time when the painter picks up the brush; painting is incarnate and for all time. Although the optical mix of Impressionist articulation did not make its appearance before the 1860s, nevertheless the absolute possibility of its realization was always there—a latent fact. Impressionism exhibits its historical aspect only insofar as it enters the finite lives of finite beings, but this does not negate the atemporal fixing of the Impressionist presence in painting.

For if we cannot establish a hierarchy of civilizations or speak of progress—neither in painting nor in anything else that matters—it is not because some fate holds us back; it is, rather, because the very first painting in some sense went to the farthest reach of the future. If no painting comes to be the painting, if no work is ever absolutely completed and done with, still each creation changes, alters, enlightens, deepens, confirms, exalts, recreates, or creates in advance all the others. If creations are not a possession it is only that like all things, they pass away; it is also that they have almost all their life still before them.4

THE LINGUISTIC MODEL FINDS its ontogenic foundation in syntax, the sentence- and phrase-making structure of the language we learn to speak. The acquisition of language is a main acculturating function of childhood and, most importantly, this acquisition adheres to a logos significantly more complex than conventional schoolroom grammar. Children learn to make sentences before learning to break them down. A child learns language and its adjunct faculties by the outer syntax of his world echoing within a sympathetic inner chamber of understanding. However, the structuralist takes this phenomenon of sympathy and posits a universal based on it—a transcendental factor that exists both in “Being” and in “being,” a cognitive map that duplicates the pattern of our world in motion and development within the child himself.

But like even the most prescriptive of philosophical methodologies, structuralism’s allegiance to syntax can only systematize our approach to experience; it brings us to the point of recognition, but only transcendent experience (the artistic being one) can give us true, if not full, apprehension. Piaget’s “hierarchization” of the stages in the child’s learning of time can only bring us to the doorway of true experience of temporality in the lived world. Only transcendent experience and esthetic experience in particular can open those “doors of perception” wide enough and long enough for us to enter (albeit intuitively) lived time. Literature does this directly in its hermeneutical looking-back-on-itself and by its sequential emphasis in narrative. Indeed, only in its proximity to literature (as in Barthes) can structuralist writing touch upon this quality and recognition. What is disagreeable, however, about this structuralist model—and its semiological addends—is not its incompleteness or its dependence on the poetic for clarity but rather its arrogance, which strikes false. We remain skeptical of its claims of imagined, philosophical wealth.

In The Structure of Art Jack Burnham presents possibly as radical a structuralist argument as has ever been imposed on art. Burnham posits a direct correlation between the semiological systemization of cultural anthropology at large and the making of art in a culture. He utilizes Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist models as the foundation for an intellectually and heuristically coherent esthesis. Understandably, Lévi-Strauss’ effort to make rigorous what has traditionally been a rather vague and speculative branch of critical theory bids him to borrow acceptable scientific methodology.

Yet Burnham doesn’t care, apparently, that in superimposing social-scientific modularization on esthetics he risks losing sight of his subject’s own nature. With his calculus of art he relinquishes accountability to the esthetic experience itself. Rather than tailoring a criticism to the contours of art, he subordinates art to a system, thereby squelching any vestigial notions of esthetic intuition both for the artist and the viewer. In this way, Burnham can write about how Monet “chooses,” “translates” and “distills” when he paints. The theorist/critic’s thumbnail sketches of representative paintings reduce modern masterworks to one artist’s effort to communicate an opinion on picture-making. Monet’s intentions, therefore, are to reify the ideology of Impressionism; painting is thereby reduced to illustration—the painted-word syndrome.

Burnham further envisions an “esthetic thesaurus” of sorts, from which the artist dispassionately chooses conventions and techniques in accord with his ideology, “subconscious message” or anecdote. The vehicles for the message take on the role of invariable semiological ideographs. Color, shape, line all stand as characters in a wordless literature. It is as Lévi-Strauss says, “the signifier for the signified.”

The dialectic that pervades Burnham’s schema echoes this relationship. The signifier belongs to the Natural (i.e. pure subject matter and media), and the signified belongs to the Cultural (particularized in convention and ideology). In the experience of the artist and the viewer, the Natural is characterized by empirical vision and the neutral “tools of the trade,” while the emblems of the Cultural are cognitive-cum-esthetic concerns. In like fashion, Burnham converts this dyad of the Cultural and the Natural to a more poignant triad where in addition to the prior antimonies (Cultural and Natural) a third state of fusion of the two is postulated. This third point, the Cultural/Natural, indicates mimetic art and its authentic variations. Burnham feels that this mimetic aspect “provides the most complete form of art,” by its coeval utilization of both the Cultural (ideology, symbology) and the Natural (realistic depictions).

This triadic structure is a transfiguration of Lévi-Strauss’s culinary triangle from The Cooked and the Uncooked. Based on some dubious numerological motives, Burnham is drawn to this three-cornered semiological module in order to lend his esthesis intellectual credence. He states that all art can be routed through this triangle. Natural/raw art is, first, the diverse, the ready-made—any object or experience in the world. Its status as art is achieved merely by the artist’s choosing it, the choice being a kind of soil from which the object esthetically emerges. Second, the Natural/Cultural is the mimetic. The admixture of the two spheres is analogous to the “Cultural” cooking of “Natural” food. It is the most complete form in that cooking or smoking is the most efficient way of preserving perishables. Hence, it is his bias toward mimesis that prompts Burnham’s severe condemnation of abstract art (the third corner of the triangle).

Painting since Cubism is almost exclusively Cultural, according to Burnham, and decidedly incomplete by virtue of its reliance on verbal explanation to justify it. Cubism’s proponents (Metzinger, Salmon, Apollinaire, et al.) are “apologists.” Modern art and abstraction are analogous to rotting food, proximate to death as well as to boiled food in their acculturated use of the pot (artifact). The obvious contradictions between the “natural” decay and “cultural” boiling, in considering water as both by-product (decay) and cleanser, don’t seem to bother Mr. Burnham. Neither do certain other problems. More specifically, if it could be proven that Larry Poons saw our illustration of “oriented” crystal structure before 1960, would his subsequent painting jump from the abstract—and, in Burnham’s words “metalinguistic”—category to the mimetic?

Clearly Burnham’s approach does not start from art itself, but is imposed from without in a manner irrespective of the pictorial evidence at hand; yet rather than pursue his less than perfect esthetic paradigm, it might be more relevant to consider the larger bias that stands behind his doctrine.

It is not an overstatement to suggest that Burnham’s structuralism reflects an intolerance of art, in that he bids on its death at the hands of pseudo-philosophical sophistication. After exploiting his own impressive and audacious scientisms, Burnham concludes The Structure of Art feeling that the failure he detects is not in him but in art itself. So he deems art a dying myth that has seen its day and is ready for replacement (Burnham’s debt to McLuhan?).

For Burnham the artist—from Monet to Duchamp to Pollock—is a mere manipulator of data collected from both nature (prosaic vision) and culture (not obsolescent ideology). The artist approaches art in the manner of a perverse and “objective” scientist, relegating everything to equal status, treating every stroke and smear as if it meant nothing to him. Painting becomes the vehicle to arrive at a “nominal work of art,” some bare and arid human experience, an existential mannerism where a supposed free soul arranges, like a typesetter, his esthetic morphemes for the purposes of conveying a message.

In Burnham’s historical tableau we can imagine Cézanne reaching a certain age, visiting the Louvre and getting his idea for a return to “classicism.” Seeing the business of the picture plane as the coming thing, he would apply this, together with the geometrization of shapes and modulation of colors in discrete strokes (his Impressionist legacy), and thereby produce what we have come to call a “Cézanne.” Burnham reduces creation to utter artifice.

His embrace of anthropology augments this notion on a supra-personal level. Society, like the individual, operates cybernetically; it requires for all collectively held truths a syntactical understanding or program that operates in the most quotidian and/or arcane circumstances. Hence the equivalence of art and food is not just a heuristic device: Burnham believes that all cultural stuffs are basically the same, subordinated to the syntax that is “mind.” Like customs and belief systems, esthetics must have a means of conveyance; it must be made communicable to sustain a cultural half-life. For in its raw state, it is difficult to comprehend (indigestible). Only in its formalized or cooked stage can it achieve what Burnham would call the necessary fusion of Culture and Nature and thereby become complete.

Now what we have been driving at is that this offer of communication as an integral of art finds common ground with Clement Greenberg’s notion of formalizing art so as to make some raw art-in-general communicable. Greenberg’s motivation is different from Burnham’s in that the former wishes to formalize art and flush it out from the underbrush of the “raw” in order to judge it. Burnham is not interested in judgments; he finds them only within the confines of his logos. His intention lies in developing a scheme that will encompass any artistic or pseudo-artistic enterprise.

Yet if we look beyond Greenberg’s surface motivation, we uncover (not coincidentally) a similar discomfort with the undetermined character of art. Greenberg’s uneasiness leads him to the outskirts of the structuralist camp. By finding art everywhere, he sets up a straw horse, so to speak, a democratization of standards, that then allows him to lift formalized art from the art-in-general by means of a new, formal, critical crowbar—conventions. Conventions are the initial step in a neat syllogism. They collectively bind art, making it communicable, which then allows the viewer to analyze conventions, and the way the artist works within them, as a means of exercising taste. The perspicacious viewer can make the judgment by virtue of the litmus test of convention, and by the “metaphoric logic” which releases the esthetic experience. This is the ultimate justification of the art critic; if art is such a discreetly systematized logic (not facile by any means), we need cogent spectators—critics—to supervise the necessary deciphering.

Greenberg maintains, of course, that we intuit the judgment. Form is felt, not argued. He seems, however, more comfortable with an implicit structuralist model to back him up and confirm his cognition. Surely the verdict of taste releases the esthetic and is wondrously useful, but it also can be used, in retrospect, to confirm the doubtful by virtue of the model.

LARRY POONS HAS BEEN pouring paint as a way of making pictures for nearly a decade. Within his persistently vertical imagery, Poons elicits a more varied range of expression than one might think possible. The straighter and more vertical pours suggest greater speed, as the pull of gravity seems to work more directly upon these parts of the painting. But the pours themselves do not fully encompass the painting.

For instance, Poons can lure a thin, lunate, pink pour out of hiding and let it sit on the surface, unresolved—an incident that becomes peculiar to the myriad razor-thin vertical pours. Possibly this incident may wink at a gourd-shaped mauve blob suspended three feet away in a pour that threatens to wash it off the canvas. These are not figure/field antinomies, because the intense heterogeneity of color and the effulgence of surface refuse to play field to a quixotic figure. As we view a Poons, we consider visual incidents that flirt at long-range with each other, within the epiphenomena of the pours—like two strangers as they might appear to each other on descending escalators moving at different speeds, as oblivious to each other as the escalators are to them.

The peculiarity and vivacity of these incidents—their refusal to act either independently or symbiotically (as in a de Kooning)—are pictorial phenomena only insofar as they play off the unity. Frontality, and the flatness it implies, provide this unity, against which the goings-on—occult as they are—can compete. This is all that gives the painting a fighting chance at the pictorial. Picture planes (a more or less accepted convention) have no intrinsic value, but in Poons’ case an observance of them allows his pictures to incorporate more than an amalgam of painterly effects. Aside from frontality, all manner of things take place. Religious lights appear deep in a forest, and a presentiment of atmosphere submerges surface relationships as the pictorial is washed out to sea in a Niagara of acrylic. Our illusionistic biases will be with us as long as the rectangle-on-the-wall, and they can reduce the same painting to an arbitrariness, making the verticality merely an oppressive fact about the “larger” painting.

In Kenneth Noland’s recent shaped canvases, transverse lines intimating convergence off the canvas can create a spatial ambiguity which flirts with the ghost of perspective even as it interrogates the sculptural, or at least shaped, picture support. Apparently, 400 years after the discovery of the laws of perspective, diagonals are still a touchy business. Merely by implicating convergence, diagonal lines may toy with conventions not being immediately culturally highlighted, when the painting is without allegiance to such conventions.

Poons and Noland illustrate two basic aspects of form. There is the historical aspect—conventions as nothing but formal problems highlighted at particular times—and there is the ontogenic aspect—all artists engaging all the forms even though they embrace only some. Old forms can undermine contemporary efforts, and in a sense history can be seen as stationary. The labyrinth that is modern art—its advances, detours, doublings-back, conscious perversities and laxities coupled with ascetic minimizations—not due to the fact the painter is in a funk: there simply are no ready means to an end he can accept. This could not be otherwise, given the fracture between what the artist puts down and what is there. Even a brushstroke of the most limited and mundane sort is still a thing in the world and, by its application, gains a clarity we could not have imagined beforehand.

Of course, space, color, mass and light are not only present in painting, but are there as integral aspects of Being for all of us. But if we interrogate them as entities, we end up inevitably by finding how they act rather than what they are. To proceed analytically is false here. Remove space, color, line or form from its mediating and defining activities and it does not gain precision but loses it. By highlighting it verbally, and hence analytically, one arrives at a quale, a conceptual phantasm. Place it back in the world of the senses and it regains its fibre.

Examine a Euclidean point. It is an abstraction, of course, a quale. If we flesh it out it is no longer a point but a dot, and we are placed on a polymer of equivalences. A dot cannot help but exhibit the attributes of a shape, in that it extends to a surrounding boundary, carrying on a clandestine dialogue with formal experience in general. The boundaries delimit the dot geographically by circumnavigating an edge, setting off the dot from the field that agrees with its perimeter. As we perceive a dot in temporal being, it cannot be thought of as having been inserted in a pre-existing locus of space waiting for it. The dot organizes the field around itself, by articulating and controlling that field. But the shape cannot be without the field. Its being is “field-being,” perhaps analogous to the primal “field-being,” our body. Both interface with the out-there in a like manner. The dot, like some sentinel, calls to an internal equivalent within us.

This exchange between seer and seen lies at the root of painting. The painter conjures this exchange as soon as form emerges in this activity. Hence, painting could be said to capture Being within a vision that is developing along with the painting. As Barnett Newman said, “The painter paints in order to have something to look at.”

When we squeeze red paint from its tube and mash its molded ribbon, spreading the red out so that our eyes can light upon it and trace its body, a subsequent rubbing of it between our fingers is redundant. Our eyes have already gauged it—its consistency, redness, unctuousness and plastic capacities—as if vision had touched the paint itself. It is difficult to imagine a medium where these qualities could exist with more complete plastic independence: color without body, body without surface, surface without contour (as in light, perhaps, if light could light nothing). Only because of the consonance of seer and seen can our body visually apprehend other bodies.

We can imagine red, conceived and not perceived, but surely the least interesting aspect of redness is its genus, i.e. red. Red is what? An abstraction, an ideal? It is for us in its redness and it can only be relative to other rednesses that we have seen. Yet it simultaneously clings before our eyes to ferrousness, vaporessence, effulgence, sanguinity, crustiness, or whatever manifestation red exhibits in its occurrence. We could only conceive of red existing independently of these concretions if we could conceive of a vision separate from our body, a vision without correspondence to our corporeal presence—which is directed by it (our body) and in turn directs it.

The common reaction to such problematic terms is that they are difficult to define but nevertheless “we know what we mean when we use them. How could we characterize activity without a subject? Isn’t this a needless obfuscation?” However we do not know what we mean, rather we “see” what we mean. It is only in activity that such words possess useful meanings. A thin line, by mere alteration in scale, assumes both color and shape. Shape and form are congeners, and their respective defining antinomies—field and space—are likewise congeners. And these abstractions are harbingers of others; their activity is our only logos.

If we dispense with the denotative as the primary condition of words and depict painting in the poetical mode, we surrender the experience of painting to the future aggrandizement of language. Words are not benign equivalences. They take from the world and that which is in it. Words capture perceptions only at the point, for example, where the word “apple” does not denote the thing apple, but becomes itself “applelike.” It is possible at this poetical plateau to imagine such a formal autonomy, a synchronization of morphemes and phonemes rivaling in complexity the chiasm of our experience. Language would then equal experience rather than denote it.

In this, however, it would forego the interrogative function of philosophy or critical analysis and theory. Only a return to phenomenological etiology lends us the possibility of an authentic art criticism. And phenomenology is first a commitment to unity among things, to the world as a pluralist organism. The particular, as an organ of the world, is a bridge across this seeming paradox, since we would not recognize difference if we did not presume unity. Art furnishes just such particulars; in art we confront an inextricable aspect of Being as a whole, yet a unique phenomenon.

If we touch for one last time upon Greenberg’s belief that some kind of artistic object is everywhere, we realize that he recognizes only the first part of this complexity. He doesn’t fully see the difference between a painting of a sunset and a sunset as a definitive difference (the reaction to one being esthetic and the other not). He sees only the formal separation between the raw and/or asocial, and the formalized and/or communicable, the latter being the civilized phase of the former.

A more sentient ontological estimation of painting reveals these experiences as being in fact definitively different. Painting’s particularity lies in its being an intuitive activity, subject to certain limitations: firstly, art cannot fully corral a direct experience of the world, and, secondly, it cannot retreat into an absolute plasticity of form. Implicit in the concept of pure plasticity is a necessary meaninglessness: whether valent or polyvalent, meaning could only be an encumbrance for the artist. Yet it is not coincidental that an absolutely plastic effort is as esthetically unrewarding as a trompe l’oeil. A formalist criticism which speaks of painting as being about color or about surface is as irresponsible as a criticism that speaks of painting as being about little girls or pieces of furniture.

Art’s inability either to depict experience and obtain it on its own terms or to achieve a pure plasticity points to the ontological peculiarities of esthetic intuition and its separation from intuition in general. This intuition is inviolable, that is, it is a response to painting or poetry that cannot occur without the formal congress of paint or formal congress of words. Form does not rescue esthetic intuition from intuition at large; rather the esthetic, which issues from the contemplation of art, becomes subject to the same limitations as art. Therein lies the nature of esthetic intuition. If it refuses to go beyond itself to other intuitions, that is only because art refuses the same, being caught as it is in its own ontological trappings.

PAINTING CANNOT OCCUR WITHOUT a formal congress of paint or poetry a formal congress of words. Form is fused into art. Art lives in form as a man in his skin. Form cannot be conceived as a substitute for esthetic experience any more than the skin of a man could be a substitute for him. At best, the skin would be a clue to a human being even though that is all that lends itself to our senses. To carry the illustration further, the evidence of man, whether intuited fleetingly or probed scientifically vis-à-vis an exhaustive dissection, can only be a clue to the totality that is man. We comprehend a truth limited and yet exhausted—limited in that it cannot contain all possible human truths, and exhausted in that it conforms and extends to the limits of our apprehension. This is the dialectic of the modern cogito: “I perceive, therefore I am.” It is what enables metaphysics continually to reach beyond the limits of structuralist argument.

What constitutes this invisible? A child learning to cross the street develops a cognitive storehouse of memories which he comes to tap intuitively. He correspondingly gains in assurance, but the underlying telos of such a negotiation is a perceptual faith in the unbroken continuity of past, present and future. In this way, the present is never plenary; it is, more aptly, plenipotent—caught in the fabric of color, mass, motion and line, pregnant with the was, is and always will be. It must be a metaphysical present.

To the extent that it deals with these same variables, painting must ultimately be a conceptless presentation of Being. Far from being suspended in atemporal thought, these entities are enmeshed, completely, within painting. Their congress in form finds a correspondingly nascent vision which does not define experience but equals it.

Geoffrey Dorfman is a painter; David Dorfman, a poet, is author of Season Is.



1. Clement Greenberg, “Seminar Six,” Arts Magazine, June 1976.

2. Noam Chomsky, Reflections on Language, New York, 1975, p. 5.

3. Clement Greenberg, “Seminar One,” Arts Magazine, November 1973.

4. Maurice M. Ponty, Primacy of Perception, ed. James Edie, trans. Carlton Dallery, Evanston, Illinois, 1964; essay entitled “Eye and Mind,” p. 190.