PRINT April 1978

Hard-Core Painting

For G.J.M.

We explained how one property of a surface is bound up with the outline. We must now speak of the other property of a surface, which, if I might put it this way, is like a skin stretched over the whole extent of the surface.
—Alberti, De Pictura, I.4.

Paintings involved with cruciformality can raise, and then transcend, the question of their being sculptural.1 Ultimately they affirm their affinities with painting by being shaped, space-displacing objects only to the same extent that other paintings are. (Today it is amazing how even Stella’s most outrageously exploded reliefs remain attached to painting as a category, like paintings with their formal veneers steamed partly off, even as they jut into common space.) Painting reflects concern back from an only negligibly space-displacing esthetic territory into the observer’s world, whereas sculpture generally already substantially inhabits the space to which it refers or alludes.

Certain features of the conventional rectangular canvas itself may have “cruciformal” properties, especially the stretcher, both in its individual parts and as a whole. A single stretcher bar has already, of itself, a primary beamlike character, but less like a sculptural beam (and even Robert Grosvenor’s beam sculptures do not consist merely of a single, unadulterated piece of wood) than as a linear element intersecting with other similar elements in a system of rectilinear abutments—in other words, determining a plane.

No wonder the cross motif had preeminent importance in Suprematist and Constructivist painting. Andréi Nakov has pointed out that after 1919 Malevich developed the cross, out of insights of 1915, into “one of the fundamental forms of his plastic language”: evidently for him it crystallized the issue of orthogonal relationships inherited from Cubism.2 Unlike Mondrian’s horizontal and vertical intersections,3 the rotation of the cross motif from the axes of the rectangular surrounding edge defined an issue of free internal composition, rather than a fixed relation to the limits of the rectangular painting format. Hence, with Malevich, “it is rare that his structure appears frontally and balanced.”4 What we have, then, is less iconic in the sense that the ancient Orthodox icons themselves have certain features of built-in “nonobjective” objectivity5 than a taking up of traditional pictorial problems of Western European painting without regard for depiction—or rather, a capitalization on the minimally pictorial, and maximally abstract and symbolic, properties of the cross as a motif. The challenge was to retain the traditional means of post-Medieval painting, especially composition in the most comprehensive sense of that established academic concern, but without, if possible, anything like pictorial content.

The many rotated crosses in paintings by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and other international Constructivists function similarly, except that they are, as a rule, less revisionist, retaining the balanced directional tensions of pictorialism where Malevich produced a new kind of static interrelation between independent forms, Nakov puts this well when he says that in Malevich’s painting “. . . the cruciform is used in the structure of relations, but in no way determines the dependence of forms.”6

Furthermore, the cross motifs in Moholy-Nagy’s paintings of the 1920s seem contrivedly “uncrosslike.” Just where they might resemble a Greek cross, one arm or another will be lengthened. That is also true where the form might resemble a Latin cross, but then there is the subtler problem of overcoming the single upright orientation that Maholy obviously wants to avoid. Such concerns would seem to have to do both with ideology and with esthetics, with a progressivist secularism7 as well as a desire to compose in structural counterpoint against the orthogonal, rectilinear given of the overall rectangle.

Similarly, the discussion of cruciformality might also have extended to the pictures of crosses by Georgia O’Keeffe, except that they remain loyal to landscape as a representational category. Robert Rosenblum has already shown how, for example, O’Keeffe’s Cross by the Sea, Canada, 1932, extends the German Romantic tradition of Caspar David Friedrich’s Cross at Rügen, c. 1815.8 And, just as it is important that what Friedrich’s painting shows is not the Crucifixion, but an “artistic” cross,9 so it is with O’Keeffe. Perhaps even more so, for what she discovers in the landscape is a peculiarly anonymous “found” object of culture whose spare, proto-modern simplicity evidences just that combination of homegrown simplicity and discovered elegance that was admired, around the same time, in Shaker furniture.

The cross, for O’Keeffe, is just another motif, and a landscape motif at that, not even a subject borrowed from history painting. Its ultimate interest for her would seem to reside in the way it intersects with the horizon like a gun-sight, locking a slice of natural place into a symmetrical composition in painting.10 Moholy’s and O’Keeffe’s crosses are motifs which, recurrent as they are in both artists’ work, are more about convention than transcendence. If anything, the relation between tradition and modernity is subtler in O’Keeffe’s crosses than in Moholy’s.

One way to overcome such inertia is to treat the painting as a wall, and one way to do that is to paint it all one color. By now a whole history could be written of monochrome canvases, not only Yves Klein’s blue ones, but American examples as well, down to Ed Moses’ recent series of all-red paintings begun in 1976—themselves adumbrated in some measure by Sam Tchakalian’s milky-reddish Bounce Ball of 1968 (Oakland Museum). The trouble is that when a canvas is painted all one color, without any inflection whatsoever, it can snap back to emptiness, like a perfectly clear and undivided window pane, even a window looking out onto a clear, uninflected “sky.” Mondrian noticed this in regard to the blank canvas, but his insight still seems to carry over to the uniform monochrome: “In painting, the empty canvas is an expression of naturalistic space, determined by the circumference of it.”11

From this viewpoint, Rauschenberg’s White Painting of 1951 is far less important for its lack of ostensible inflection or articulation than for the fact that it really is strongly inflected, but only by the most concrete means: the work consists of four square panels clustered into a larger square. Thus real, but internal, edges divide a square into a four-square pattern that, if it were a painted motif, would be a cross, but that is, in a sense, the opposite of a cross—a square format with four inverted, internalized corners meeting (here actually physically abutting) at the center. Hence even the residual windowlike aspect of a rectangle divided by crossing mullions disappears. In 1975 Marcia Hafif showed a monochrome painting, vermilion encaustic on wood, consisting, like Rauschenberg’s, of four squares abutting into a large square, but designed to extend exactly the height of the wall behind, floor to ceiling. Ryman’s Varese Wall, 1975, a white painting on wood eight feet high and 24 feet long, is a wall: it was painted directly on a wall surface in Italy, detached, and exhibited in New York standing slightly in front of the gallery wall—which poses the interesting question of detaching the painting as a radical inflection of the surface as an entirety and all at once.

It is an idea of a wall-like painting, with implications of solidity as well as flatness, that concerns us here, especially the idea of a painting that is structurally wall-like in consisting of canvas stretched over wood. This is not a new idea, not even in modern art history. There was a certain muralistic ideal around the turn of the century: Burne-Jones, for instance, used to prefer the idea of painting a painting in situ, on a wall, never having “cared for a traveling picture, though mine are all that.”12 The importance of the Mexican muralists to the W.P.A. generation is also significant. In 1959 Kline painted a painting actually called Orange and Black Wall,13 followed by his Shenandoah Wall, 1961. Hofmann did a Combinable Wall, in two separable parts, in 1961, as well as The Golden Wall (Art Institute of Chicago) of the same year. Indeed, already by the late 1940s Hofmann had written: “A plane functions in the same manner as the walls of a building.”14 More recently, Thornton Willis has painted a whole group of “Walls,” beginning with Wall, 1969 (Whitney Museum of American Art),

Meanwhile, Ellsworth Kelly’s early works inspired by the actual walls of Paris buildings carried over the muralistic theme in crisper, more Constructivistic terms that have real pertinence to present-day painting. Here the various “Window” paintings of 1949 are of prime importance, for their broad attachment to the ideal of the wall as given as well as their more specific revision of the Albertian idea of the easel painting as having the capability to open like a window-frame onto a veritable space,15 capitalizing as they do on the concrete-but-abstract nature of their initial architectural motifs—an approach that has certain earlier American modernist anticipations in the work of Charles Demuth. Thus Kelly’s Saint-Louis II, 1950—painted, significantly for us, in oil on wood and cardboard—derives precisely from the outside wall of a building in the Rue Saint-Louis-en-L’Ile, as photographed by the artist himself.16 In Kelly’s 1955 Wall Study a large dark area almost completely dominates the field, except for a border at the bottom which continues up along the left-hand edge, tapering into the very corner—as though the dark area were obliterating an entire light one “underneath,” just billowing out far enough to show a (light) underlying “ground” (this implication of layering will prove as interesting as the muralistic inspiration announced in the title). In a very similar later painting, Wall, from 1958, the equivalent large dark polygon takes the form of a square skewed into a rhombus, with another, now downward-pointing, wedge of “ground” at the right.

The latter-day modernist fixation with the framing edge was partly a symptom of desperation and partly an invocation of lasting values. The desperation was evidence of the anxiety that since the pictorial “contents” of painting had been drained away, all that might be left was an empty container exhibiting its own physical shape. (It is no accident that the emphasis in early Russian modernism on the mental content of abstract art is now of primary interest.) But easel painting had shown a consciousness of its own material components long before, and quite apart from its liberation from Renaissance bourgeois-humanistic conventions of representation. The stretcher bars painted into a 15th-century Madonna and Child in the Edinburgh National Gallery, not to mention more recent pompier works by Eugene Berman,17 antecede similarly “self-representational” conceptual devices in Johns and Lichtenstein and, for that matter, in the work of so many artists of the last few years who pun on the stretcher as object/motif, including all the many “clever” mock-modernist paintings or reliefs that consist of stretcherlike strips defining zones.

Attempts have been made to make objects seriously evidencing the sculptural properties of the conventional rectangular painting stretcher. Sam Weiner’s wood and glass sculpture Bandabout, 1975, is a relief consisting of four-inch wood slats joined in a square, with slits of glass in the mitered corners, that hangs on the wall like nothing but a completely empty stretcher physically transfixed by light.18 Picasso probably made most of what there was to make of this issue in his wood construction Man, of 1958 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), which conjoins “found” materials into a configuration whose amusing allusion to the human form, in the midst of complete abstraction, depends partly on the visual pun whereby the two “feet” borrowed from furniture already carry with them anthropomorphic overtones. More profoundly, so does the framelike wooden square that forms the “figure’s” torso, for this is also the stretcher that, made for cultural purposes of natural wood (so far, just like the furniture “feet”), represents the human cultural conventions of art. This partly puns the idea of the human “frame” as the human physique, but no more so, say, than John Donne did, while rather pointedly evoking painting, in a sermon on God’s creation of mankind in His own “image” and “likeness” (Genesis 1:26): “Never such a frame, so soon set up, as this, in this chapter. For it is all, it is the whole world.”19

Newman’s detached single “zips” or stripes carry this implication, punning as they do on the idea of a painting so narrow that, like a stretcher bar considered as a line, it has only length. It is important that Newman’s stripe is “strung” in the same vertical longitudinal direction as the canvas itself, with the “motif” practically equal to the whole surface, which is in turn practically equal to a single stretcher bar. One of Keith Milow’s recent Crosses Between Painting and Sculpture concentrates wittily on this set-up. Subtitled a Cross That Doesn’t Cross, it resembles the other crosses in Milow’s series of 100 in every way except the one that might have seemed definitive: its horizontal and vertical bars are two disconnected elements that hang separately on the wall. For Newman, of course, a “cruciformal” relation can easily be discerned between the lone-stripe paintings, which otherwise might form a bracketed, self-conscious, even experimental subcategory of his main production, and the formal and thematic content of his Stations of the Cross. Similarly, Milow’s Cross That Doesn’t Cross depends for its irony on the obviousness with which its sister crosses are “complete” and literal crosses. By comparison, even Milow’s A Cross Between Painting and Sculpture, No. 38, 1975, where the horizontal bar crosses physically in front of the vertical element, is still plainly cruciformal.

Michael Venezia’s “Narrow Bar” paintings, which he has been painting for over four years, relate to Newman’s detached zips and to Milow’s Cross That Doesn’t Cross to the extent that they are like single stretchers rather than whole rectangular fields. Indeed, like Newman’s detached zips, Venezia’s very first “Narrow Bar” paintings hung vertically on the wall. But these works do not constitute an ironic category of painting, except to the post-Minimal extent to which each is, as Venezia is fond of putting it, a single “piece of paint” (and, even then, all share this quality). All these canvases are the same size, 2 1/2 inches by 10 feet long, and all are monochromatic. If paintings by other artists discussed here are wall-like in being stretched over plywood, Venezia’s might as well be carpenters’ studs as single painters’ stretchers. Venezia presents us with a horizontal “piece of paint,” Newman with a vertical zip motif on a radically trimmed ground. Yet it is not a mere question of the same thing done the opposite way, for the paint is applied transversely by Venezia (as against Newman’s stripe submitting to the shape of its, however condensed, surrounding field). This means that one of Venezia’s extremely horizontal paintings is not only opposite to one of Newman’s in orientation, but also, on a higher level, by its internal contradiction between longitudinal field and transverse stroke. Venezia’s “stroke,” while “machine-made” by spraying, indulges in irregularity: not only does it leave a very plastically irregular deposit of paint, but the actual laying on is done inwardly all from one (long) edge. The physical thickening of the paint is more pronounced along the edge which is not quite painted up to, than along the edge from which the paint is applied. Venezia is interested in the way all this minimizes the claims of “composition,” but he does this by a radical resort, as it were, to an idea of the single stretcher bar actually upholstered over with canvas as the starting point for a contribution to the ongoing dialectic of painting in a skeptical time.

The relation between one of these “Narrow Bar” paintings and the wall on which it hangs seems to have to do with clearing a space with a sweeping gesture and the holding it with modest aplomb. For the paintings not only require a huge expanse of wall (per square inch of canvas), but they also need to hang alone: a great expanse of wall is thus governed by a slim, long, elegantly compact, lyrically taut painting.

In Newman’s work as a whole the general tendency to embrace vast muralistic expanses of canvas was combined with a rather architectonic specialization in tall, narrow vertical forms that link (and also hold apart) the top and bottom edges (perceived as above the viewer’s head and at his feet). However, at the end of his life Newman produced some triangular canvases, inspired by considering the triangular faces of the pyramidal base of his Broken Obelisk sculpture, 1965-67. It is interesting that the thought should have originated considering the structural base of a sculpture whose thrust is otherwise like a vertical zip. Indeed, in each of the two finished triangle paintings, Jericho, 1968–69, and Chartres, 1969, the triangular stretched canvas provides a (shaped) support for a configuration still determined by the ziplike band. Here the zips run through the (shaped) format like crisp slices, each suggesting a possible cut that, since the painting as a whole is no longer responsible to a rectangular given, could just as well actually be made. It might be argued that the symmetry of these isosceles triangles works against their further fragmentation from rectangular “wholeness,” yet Newman was at the time of his death about to start two more canvases, both right triangles.20 Besides, in Jericho a single zip is already placed just asymmetrically enough for one of its edges, considered as a purely linear abutment (and this feature of Newman’s work was to take on great importance in our own day), to delineate the center.

When he painted his Hommage à Barnett Newman in 1970, the Quebec painter Guido Molinari had already written an essay on painting on large surfaces, arguing that a muralistic scale allows the painting to overcome the implication of a window within which (even abstract) spatial perspective structures play: “. . . When the surface attains certain proportions, the dependent function of the painting in relation to the wall that supports it can be totally annulled, so that it itself becomes a quasi-wall.”21 Hommage à Barnett Newman is a large horizontal rectangular canvas (modestly, somewhat smaller than either of Newman’s completed triangles), divided in half, left and right, and then subdivided into four triangles by two diagonals extending from the top center to the bottom corners. There is no zip as such, but Molinari, whose earlier work relied consistently on just the kind of “linear abutment” that in Newman’s Jericho allows only the edge of the zip to form a linear division, has obviously modeled the overall composition on the late triangular works of Newman, who died around the time he painted his Hommage. (An isosceles-triangular painting by Kelly, Two Panels: Black, White, also dates from 1970.) For Molinari’s own purposes, the emphasis is different: what we see has to do with the abutment of pure planar expanses of uninflected and crisply contrasting color, in a setup that has no use for line along the straight abutments within the rectangle.

Howard Buchwald, however, in several paintings which also relate to Newman’s Jericho, has taken a different interest in Newman’s triangles. In an untitled painting of 1975, for instance, an isosceles triangle painted as a uniform band interrupts a visibly stroked, but formally uninflected, green field, the base of the triangle sharing the lower edge of the canvas and its point touching the upper edge at the center. This arrangement is, however, interrupted by a real saw-cut through the surface, a cut that bisects the apex of the isosceles triangle (and, with it, the whole canvas)—extending down as far as the inside of the base of the triangle. That is, the cut stops only as short of the lower edge as the width of the (ziplike) band, constituting the triangle itself. If it extended any further, it would physically divide the piece into two separate canvases, so that the way it slices through the apex of the triangle above, while acknowledging the width base (as a painted band rather than as a geometer’s line), is reminiscent of Newman’s dividing zip in Jericho. The physical cuts in this and other paintings by Buchwald thus allow inflection to take place without resorting to discursiveness. They form, in the most concrete way, “internal edges.” Needless to say, these cuts would be impossible if Buchwald’s paintings were not painted (in oil) on linen stretched over and glued to board, giving something to saw into.22

My phrase “hard-core painting” obviously puns on the fact that working on canvas that is stretched over the firm surface of plywood or masonite or some other sort of board, as in the work of Milow, Venezia, Buchwald and other artists discussed here, is essential to the way an otherwise purely optical surface presents itself to us. The work of Johns is an important consideration, even though his canvases are not backed with board. For what is finally important is not so much that the surface be concretely hard as that it be approached as an intransigent plane. On that score the combination, in Johns’ work, of a deftly expressive touch with a stony, stoic, planar frontality of surface serves, for him, a subtly ironic purpose which the occasional placement of a real canvas, face “down” on the painting, only underscores. In any case, the relentless profundity of Johns’ work—its stubborn loyalty through practically a decade of serious doubt about the efficacy of painting, not to mention Johns’ own personal inhibitions and doubts (also transcended)—is what matters most. When Johns’ Untitled quasi-Greek-cross painting of 1975 appeared, the moral force of his persistence was reconfirmed.23

Howard Buchwald had made an untitled square Greek-cross painting in 1973, and, although it is not exactly of the “Red Cross” type, since it does not divide exactly into nine equal squares (the bars of the cross are not quite as wide as the corner squares), it nevertheless shows Buchwald taking up the Greek-cross issue, with its suggestion of “internal edges” instead of “lines.” The only thing that evokes a cross at all in the “nine-square,” Red-Cross-type configuration—as Reinhardt, above all, used it—is for the central square to be united with the middle square on each side, which “fills in” the pattern of a cross while subordinating the (four) corner squares to the five central ones.24 The opposite of this set-up—which suggests the idea of inverting the cross, as already noted in regard to Rauschenberg’s White Painting—prevails in Max Bill’s Nine Fields Divided by Means of Two Colors, 1968, where nine white squares are separated by pairs of very narrow, contrasting bands of color, as though the colors had somehow almost condensed into dividing lines, leaving white areas behind. The implied steps in such a transformation and inversion have actually been made the subject of an animated abstract film by the Quebec kinetic artist Roger Vilder. In part of Vilder’s Colour in Motion, conceived in 1971 and first shown in 1975, a foursquare square, with each square a separate color, breaks down into a more and more linear Greek-cross motif. Bill’s painting and Vilder’s film, however, have nothing to do with the wall issue.

Jake Berthot made paintings on canvas stretched over wood, with painted-up-to (not sawn) internal edges, in 1974–75. He testifies, however, that he was motivated not “by notions about walls or wall-like surfaces,” but by “problems of carpentry.”25 Heidi Glück uses the face of a wooden panel (not canvas-covered) for some of her paintings, and regular stretched canvas for others: we can encounter almost the same forms—which are as sharp as razor cuts, but painted—in “hard” or “soft” versions.

The case of Garry Kennedy today is pertinent. Kennedy, who in the early 1970s was involved with more or less “Conceptual“ activities, has returned to painting in full force since 1975.26 The kind of painting that has engaged Kennedy has taken “post-Conceptual” advantage of the Conceptualist emphasis on systems—especially self-generating systems that preclude wanton interference—in undercutting and qualifying the (idealist) aim of formalism to reduce painting to ideas about the governing artistic properties of its format, by a new emphasis on the substances of painting in a much more material sense. In this Kennedy is far from alone. In fact, much of the most convincing recent painting is of this sort.

Many of Kennedy’s paintings are painted on fairly small square canvases that, measuring 30 by 30 inches, have something of the scale of a small square tabletop—the size of a gaming table, in fact. These works, painted in many layers of acrylic paint on canvas, have a sheet of plywood backing between the stretcher and the stretched canvas, which Kennedy’s larger paintings do not have. This might be explained, to a certain extent, purely optically, in the sense that, on a small scale, the interference of the stretcher with strokes pressed on anywhere near the stretcher edge, when the canvas is pliant, has a relatively great visual effect on a small canvas. But there would seem to be other considerations, especially, perhaps, a sense that a large stretched canvas is in its own right muralistic, while a smaller canvas is made more self-sufficiently like a “piece of wall” by actual recourse to stiff wallboard. The only inflections that occur on Kennedy’s multilayered monochromatic surfaces are linear systems that are suggested by the format, plus the felt human “touch” that, instead of making lines, stops up against implied lines. For instance, in an untitled square painting of 1976, one diagonal follows the weave of the canvas (which is stretched on a 60-degree angle) from the upper left-hand corner down to where it intersects with the bottom edge, while another extends all the way from upper left to lower right, so that one is the diagonal of the stretcher and the other is the diagonal of cloth stretched over it. It is important to consider that these “lines” are really internal edges of a sort—nothing but abutments between zones defined by the building up of pigment where the strokes covering each zone stop. Recently Kennedy has been painting directly on long, round, bare wooden poles with many layers of sweeping longitudinal strokes piled up in a single strip along one “side”: the result relates to Venezia’s “pieces of paint” in that it is almost all edge.

Now one of the most interesting of Malevich’s famous series of drawings developing the Suprematist formal vocabulary is the one in which we find a square subdivided into four equal subsquares, alternately black and white (or full and empty): the Suprematist Composition of Squares, apparently drawn in 1913, and published in Malevich’s “Bauhausbuch” Die gegenstandlose Welt in 1927.27 This is interesting, first of all, because, sequentially, it comes after the development of the initial square into a nine-square, Greek-cross form.28 Several other primary formal elements are involved in this sequence (including the circle), but the point is that Malevich’s series would not allow us to take his four-square checkered square as anything but the inversion of a cross with equal bars. The pattern consists too exclusively of the pure abutments of four equal subsquares, differentiated only by tonal alternation. Rauschenberg’s White Painting, which abolishes even the tonal alternation, would be “merely” a monochrome painting if it did not answer Malevich’s device with physical separations between the subsquares. Recently a rather ramshackle black-and-white version of Malevich’s checkered square appeared as the centerpiece of a funny drawing by William T. Wiley called Nothing Seems Accurate, 1977.

But the dead-end of monochrome is not the only way out of Malevich’s conundrum. Color offers very formidable possibilities. Actually, Malevich’s checkered, four-square design suggests the pair of foursquare squares that functions as diagrams in Josef Albers’ widely read Interaction of Color (1963). These diagrams, which belong to “a basic exercise in color transformation,”29 rely on alternating vertical and horizontal, and opposed diagonal, lines, in black and white, to illustrate the occupation of each equal quarter of a square by one of four different colors. The very fact that diagrams so distinctly monochrome, even linear, as this represent patches of (nonspecified) color recalls the use made by Goethe in the Farbenlehre (1810) of black-and-white diagrams to illustrate his chapter on “Conditions of the Appearance of Color.”30 One of Goethe’s figures is, in fact, a black-and-white checkered square (although it is subdivided again, into 16 squares rather than just four).31

Today Albers’ checkered designs composed of regular linear hatching easily call Sol LeWitt’s drawings to mind, perhaps especially the ink wall drawing Lines in Four Directions, Each in a Quarter of a Square, 1969. The fact that LeWitt’s most similar works have nothing to do with color seems unimportant, since Albers’ diagrams themselves have the neutral but objectified color of (blank) line cut illustration just so that their standardized compartments, occupied by “noncolors,” may be replaced by any colors. It is the design itself that is interesting, and that, too, calls attention to an exhaustively systematic attitude toward varying a primary and elemental form in repetition that Albers and LeWitt do share. In a different way all LeWitt’s wall drawings in repetitive linear patterns—many with hatched units, like the Albers diagrams—are significant in their relation to the mural context in which, in their full-scale versions, they appear. It was William Morris, in his lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing” (1881), who, dealing with the issue of the proper way to design wallpaper, had suggested that “chequers and squares” in some way “hint at the possible construction of a wall,” which, in turn, led him to imagine the direct “scoring of lines on the surface of the wall.”32

Several recent paintings by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe take up this type of four-square configuration, and to a purpose that is actually related to the ultimately coloristic intent of Albers’ investigation. Gilbert-Rolfe has drawn attention to an untitled charcoal drawing by Brice Marden, dating from 1962-63, in which a horizontal oblong is checkered into four equal dark or light oblongs.33 In Gilbert-Rolfe’s own art the foursquare pattern provides a kind of formally given, stable format for negotiating pure tonal (Malevich’s diagram) and coloristic (Albers’ diagram) relationships. It is no accident that Gilbert-Rolfe considers that painting with fewer than four colors is now too undemanding. For instance, in his A Chinaman in Athens, 1976, two white squares diagonally oppose two blue squares; yet, because the two whites appear slightly different, and the blues are of two different shades, there are other, completely different, sets of relationships at work besides the “two whites” versus “two blues” of the checkerboard motif per se—top-to-bottom and left-to-right correspondences and oppositions, besides diagonal ones. This set-up is altogether too self-contained and, from the point of view of relational form, too redundantly interlocked, to be considered simply a “configuration.” Other similar paintings by Gilbert-Rolfe are more complex but equally self-evident.

The plastic touch with which Gilbert-Rolfe paints out each of his compartments, stopping at the common frontier that it shares with the next—equal—compartment, without the interference of a boundary between, can be compared, perhaps unexpectedly, with Malevich’s nice “touch” in his four-square drawing. Yet here we have an approach to the sensuosity of color in thoroughly rational circumstances for which, despite the striking resemblance to Malevich’s diagram, in Malevich’s painting there is no corresponding place (we would have to turn, perhaps, to Popova’s moodier colors, which inhabit less rigorous compositions).

Sharon Gold’s paintings, which also propose purely tonal and coloristic relations, do not generally follow the four-square system closely, but they do make use of a kind of rectilinear “quartering” in which there are no lines as such, but only abutments—interior edges. As a rule, Gold’s subdivisions of the overall rectangular format are unequal and asymmetrical. But in her case, as in Kennedy’s, the many layers of pigment that build up by the time we face the “epidermis”34 of the painting make for distinct alternations (and some light overlaps) which in her case provide the only “design.” These zones are overlaid and subsumed by an allover coat of one color, but not really to a monochromatic effect. The luminosity with which the underlying color zones still make themselves mutedly felt—and, with them, the rectilinear but asymmetrical design—may recall, in earlier American modernism, the muted luminosity of Whistler’s asymmetrical rectilinear compositions. For Gold, who paints on canvas stretched over wall-like plywood panels, the materiality of the format corresponds with an equally material attitude toward the layers of pigments, which have come to overlap in bands rather than only abut in lines. Marks left by the scraping of the built-up layers involve the palpable “touch” that is also so important to the human effect of the work of other painters mentioned here, besides supplying clues to the underlying layers.

It is significant that Gold arrived at her present format, with its characteristic structure, after dealing with a different sort of rectilinear pattern, one more freestanding as a motif seen against a field, although the “lines,” even there, consisted only of abutting layers. In these earlier paintings the evidenced linear pattern, which is symmetrical, has something of the character of a playing-field layout, as with Ellsworth Kelly’s early Tennis Court, of 1949. A turning point for Gold was White to a Yellow, 1975, where, again, the only indication of any “design” at all comes from the abutting of rectangular zones of different (pastel) colors, in juxtapositions that radiate with different tonal densities through, in this case, a pale yellow skin.35 But what design there is in the painting, whose canvas-over-plywood format again makes it a “piece of wall,” is cruciform. The vertical oblong of the whole is divided vertically in half, left and right, while a horizontal division intersects the vertical one so as to form two squares at the top and two vertical oblongs (like restatements of the overall oblong) below. Thus she expands Malevich’s four-square checkerboard from a Greek to a Latin cross, as its use transfers from the gross differentiation of tonal contrast to the exploration of tonal substance.

The regularity of the alternations of color—which really produce the checkered effect by an alternation of light and dark tones, since almost every compartment is of different color—is qualified by intuitiveness that could not find room in a more deterministically Constructivistic system.36 Thus, for instance, in an untitled painting from 1976 a horizontal field is subdivided into eight subrectangles, six of them arranged in three stacks of two, with these, in turn, bracketed by a narrow band running from edge to edge along the top and a similar but wider band at the bottom. The “undercoats” of these top and bottom edge zones are polarized, in tones as well as color: black at the top and white at the bottom. But the six squarish (but not square) rectangles of the two central registers establish a checkered rhythm—violet over yellow, then white over black (note: black over white, over black over white, from very top to very bottom, in the center) and, finally, green over red.

Last year Gold made an untitled three-sided painting, painted otherwise in the same manner as her other canvases but mounted against the wall along one of its long edges. Each of the three faces presenting itself is treated in a different coloristic manner, which keeps this painting-as-object from simply reverting to sculptural claims. This is not an object in that sense, but three planar paintings sharing a single format, in no more exceptional a way than a framed two-sided old master drawing may have different designs on each side. Sol LeWitt made a similar but freestanding object of two thin freestanding wooden panels, about as thick as stretched canvases, joined together in a right angle and painted (with lacquer) in 1965. But LeWitt’s painted wood Floor Structure is essentially a sculptural proposition.37 Gold’s work, however, relates more pertinently to Keith Milow’s projecting wall panel pieces, which, despite the seeming categorical ambiguity of their relief stance, constitute a serious examination of the sculptural frontier, seen, once again, from the point of view of painting.

The works of these various artists are, so to speak, formally self-supporting. Each painting has a completeness, despite the fact that it is inflected. Each has its own identity, despite its similarity to the artist’s other works. These must be consequences of their transcendence of “design.” Design was something that single-image painting evaded and allover painting tended to gloss over. Design, that is, in the sense of any chosen set of compositional vectors that require to be submitted to a balance that could be called algebraic in its requirements that (a) successive moves be made, and (b) that these moves, in turn, be successively compensated for. The tedious thing about that procedure is the redundant way it first requires that possibilities for irregularity be entertained, and then that selected irregularities somehow be rectified. As such, it recalls the old machinery of tonality in music, especially the need to smooth over harmonic discrepancies by modulation—something that Schoenberg, for one, hated—just to disguise their own arbitrary determinism (or conventionalized arbitrariness). Of course, if you forbid all inflection in painting, you drive composition out of town—which was the Minimalist way of producing art objects that were their own anxiously nonobjective motifs, fully and perfectly rendered (no wonder so many works of Minimal art resemble diagrams for theory). Such works are often like single abstract nouns (and abstract nouns abound in the art criticism of the same generation). Alternatively, a single work could consist of a whole array of objects, each displaying a single inflection systematically induced: a whole declension of nouns. In the first case we might think of an enduring, monolithic, uninflected chord (LaMonte Young), then a music consisting exclusively of regular modulatory changes (Phil Glass).

Now, however, painting concerns itself with the inflected work that neither presupposes the arbitrary subdivision of some initially purer whole nor subordinates itself as a mere instance to the pattern of inflection of some mega-work. Psychologically, this suggests personalities that are neither obliged to conform to a universal model nor commissioned to engage in categorical eccentricity. Painting used to be discussed in stylistic terms analogous to extremes of collective order (Constructivism) and individual freedom (Expressionism). But order always suggests imposed composition, and freedom is always freedom from some inhibition or prohibition. Now painting seems to propose a self-reliant liberty.

Joseph Masheck



1. See Joseph Masheck, “Cruciformality,” Artforum, Summer 1977, pp. 56–63. I am grateful to the artists and students of art who sent me further information after that article appeared.

An interesting development since has been learning that Alan Watts’ comment that, just as the Holy of Holies was a cube, so a cube “unfolded” forms a Latin cross (ibid., p. 62)—that this idea has already been made manifest in contemporary sculpture. Carel Visser’s related sculptures Folded Cube, 1970 (Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum), and Flying Low, 1970, illustrate this notion perfectly. Each consists of six square steel sheets 1 mm. thick (100 mm. sq. in Folded Cube, 80mm. sq. in Flying Low), connected by leather hinges. The works are basically the same, except that Folded Cube is a closed cubic form in space, while Flying Low is a cube literally “unfolded” into a Latin cross four squares long and three squares wide. Visser himself has commented on the interdependence of the two works: “A cube is as it were an inaccessible, closed fort [sic]. So by using leather for the connections I try to make it a bit less solid and inaccessible, softer and wobbly. And then I also show that the cube, if you slash it a few times with a knife, will sink to the ground like a dying seagull. These two forms belong together, and that is why one gives meaning to the other.” Caret Visser, “In Conversation with Jan Dibbets and R.H. Fuchs,” Museumjournal (English ed.), September 1974, pp. 119–25, esp. p. 123, with figs. 11 on p. 123 and 12 on p. 124. I remain grateful to my late friend Barbara Reise for a copy of this article.

Brice Marden’s work can demonstrate very well the kind of transition I intend to make from “Cruciformality” to the present essay. Marden’s Homage to Art VII, 1973, a collage with wax and graphite, takes on a reproduction of a Zurbarán Crucifixion and juxtaposes with it a very Mardenesque patch of pure drawing of the same size. Then we have other works which call upon the nine-square Greek-cross device that is so prominent in Reinhardt’s work. And, finally, there is the more comprehensive issue of concrete abutments between the parts of a single painting.

Other artists who work with crosses might be mentioned, especially those dealing with the specifically Crucifixion-suggestive Latin cross, although my main concern is with cruciformality in “nonobjective” art. A particularly interesting example was Barbara Munger’s installation which I saw at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art in July of 1976, where a tiny white Latin cross placed high up on a vast black wall, in a dark room, achieved a visual effect far stronger than its size and simplicity might suggest. In New York, Frank Young has used crosses in installations, including a 1972 piece called Shaft, in which an even file of crosses was set into the intervals of an iron fence.

Joyce D. Rosa, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on The Beatus Manuscripts: Aesthetic Characteristics of Selected Illuminations from the Thompsonian, Saint-Sever and Gerona Manuscripts and Their Influence on Picasso and Léger (New York University, 1975), has kindly called my attention to similarities between Léger’s Big Julie (1945) and certain early manuscript painting, especially one that Léger is known to have seen in New York, in the Morgan Library, where he and other artists were taken to see it by Meyer Schapiro in 1935. While the 10th-century Spanish painting in question (in Morgan Library Ms. 644) does suggest interesting associations with Léger, its forms do not seem similar enough to his to override the idea that Big Julie is standing beside a modern crucifix in Léger’s painting.

Since writing “Cruciformality,” I also find that the term “cruciform,” used exactly as I intended to use it, was familiar to 19th-century iconography. Edward Hulme, in his Symbolism in Christian Art (London, 1891; rev. ed., Poole, 1976), distinguished configurations where the cross is a determining factor from those where it is simply a contained motif: “In all references to . . . [the motif of a cross within a nimbus (halo)] we find the expression ‘cruciform nimbus.’ This is not a particularly happy idea, as it suggests the notion that the nimbus itself is in the form of a cross, instead of containing the cross. Cruciferous would be preferable.” (p. 67, gloss). I thank Sid Gribetz for a copy of this book.

2. Andrei B. Nakov, Russian Pioneers: At the Origins of Non-Objective Art (exhibition catalogue for Annely Juda Fine Art), London, 1976, p. 48.

3. Which have already been considered by at least one popular religious magazine to suggest the Christian cross.

4. Nakov, Russian Pioneers, p. 49.

5. On the pertinence of Russian icons to 20th-century art, see Margaret Betz, “The Icon and Russian Modernism,” Artforum, Summer 1977, pp. 38–45.

6. Nakov, Russian Pioneers, loc. cit.; see also pp. 49–52 on the central importance of the cross motif in Malevich’s teaching and, even, in his own applied-arts work.

7. In his Vision in Motion, Chicago, 1947, Moholy did touch on religion, but only to make a generalization about the rise of Protestant capitalists who “communicated personally with ‘providence’ when a decision had to be made, and felt themselves-rightly or wrongly-as executors of God’s will in the management of their merchant empires”: excerpted in Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Moholy-Nagy (Documentary Monographs in Modern Art), New York, 1970, p. 192.

8. Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, New York, 1975, p. 132.

9. Cf. ibid., pp. 25-27, especially the discussion of Friedrich’s Cross in the Mountains (alias, the Tetschen Altar) of 1808.

10. Yet it may nor after all, be so easy to separate the cross as a religious motif from such a landscape ideal, particularly in the case of Protestant artists. Thus, in regard to Reinhardt’s black Greek-cross paintings, after accepting the painter’s remark that he “never had . . . the cross as a symbol in mind,” Barbara Rose suggests instead that “the cross became an ideal image for expressing the polarities of horizontal and vertical.” (in her ed. of Art as Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, New York, 1975, p. 186). But suppose this is not an antithesis?

Besides, a distinguished theological/iconographic tradition suggests that a cross shown as if intersecting with a body of water in a landscape refers to the Baptism of Christ at a specific point in the Jordan: see Hugo Rahner, “The Christian Mystery and the Pagan Mysteries” (1944), in Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, II, The Mysteries (Bollingen Series, XXX/2), Princeton, 1955, pp. 337-401, esp. pp. 394–97.

11. Piet Mondrian, “Writings,” ed. Harry Holtzman, in Tracks: Journal of Artists’ Writings, III/1 and 2 (Spring 1977), pp. 19–43, esp. p. 22.

12. Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, II, New York, 1904, pp. 333–34.

13. Thornton Willis remembers a Kline “Wall” on the jacket of a Dave Brubeck record, which Sid Gribetz has traced: the painting is this same Orange and Black Wall (1959), and the record, released by Columbia around 1962, is called Countdown: Time in Outer Space.

14. Hans Hofmann, “The Search for the Real in the Visual Arts,” repr. from his The Search for the Real and Other Essays, ed. Sarah T. Weeks and Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr., Andover, Mass., 1948, pp. 46–54, in Sam Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, n.d., pp. 39–43, esp. p. 41.

15. Interestingly, Alberti’s often-remarked consideration of the painting as a window does not actually apply to the whole framed painting as an entirety. If it did, much more of the responsibility for giving the window effect would devolve onto the frame as being analogous with the actual woodwork of a window, instead of onto the painting proper considered in its fundamental nature. What Alberti really says is that you can draw within the limits of the canvas a rectangle, and then that drawn rectangle can, in turn, give the effect of a window: “First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen. . . .” (De Pictura, I. 19). Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and On Sculpture, ed. with trans. by Cecil Grayson, London, 1972, p. 55.

16. For both the original photograph and the painting, see John Coplans, Ellsworth Kelly, New York, n. d., pls. 56, 57.

17. Thanks to Howard McP. Davis for both suggestions.

18. On the other hand, a former student of mine, Molly Renda, has made witty paintings consisting entirely of stretcherlike bars but otherwise still loyal to the rectangular format. In Renda’s Icon (1976) even a (right-) triangular protrusion from the rectangle is stretcherlike, while the use of goldleaf on the (empty) “stretcher” proper calls on the conventions of early panel painting, as the title implies.

19. John Donne, “Of Creation, the Trinity, and the Nature of Man,” in The Showing Forth of Christ: Sermons of John Donne, ed. Edmund Fuller, New York, 1964, pp. 1–13: italics mine. Thanks to Ronald T. C. Lau for calling my attention to this book.

20. Thomas B. Hess, in his Museum of Modern Art exhibition catalogue Barnett Newman, New York, 1971, p. 137.

21. Guido Molinari, “Sur: Le Choix de peindre sur de grandes surfaces” (written 1969, pub. 1970), repr. in his Écrits sur l’art (1954–1975), ed. Pierre Théberge (Documents d’histoire de I’art canadien, No. 2), Ottawa, 1976, pp. 65–66.

22. On the relevance of drawing to Buchwald’s physical cuts, and on his relation to Newman, see Joseph Masheck, “Painting Beyond Doubt: The New Work of Howard Buchwald,” Arts Magazine, March 1975, pp. 53–55, which also anticipates some aspects of the present essay.

23. See Joseph Masheck, “Jasper Johns Returns,” Art in America, March-April 1976, pp. 65–67.

24. Erik Saxon has dealt with the various transformational stages between the solid Greek-cross form and the checkerboard pattern in paintings and drawings of the last five years. In an untitled painting of 1973, for example, a square is divided into nine subsquares; the center subsquare along each side is painted a different color, with the central one and those in the corners left white, resulting in a checkered design. In a drawing from 1974 Saxon subdivided a square into nine subsquares in such a way that the four dark squares in the lower left overlap the center square with the four dark squares in the upper right, leaving the upper-lefthand and lower-righthand squares blank. Other of his configurations include a 1977 design where a solid Greek-cross form, derived from a nine-square setup, abuts a solid area of different color that is two units (two subsquares) high and two wide: the adjoining corner of the cross form is filled in solid, so that, to the extent that there is a Greek cross present, it has one pushed-out, solid corner square-as in Joel Shapiro’s untitled 1976-77 drawing (illus., Masheck, “Cruciformality” [Note 1] p. 61).

25. Letter to the author, February 21, 1978. “As the carpentry became simpler, the plywood disappeared.” Further: “. . . The pragmatic negation of painting to ‘Walls’ seems a servitude that’s dead-ended and meaningless. The surface, like the day, is in flux.”

26. Eric Cameron, “Garry Kennedy: Painting Painting Itself,” Artforum, May 1977, pp 50–51.

27. Kazimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World, trans. Howard Dearstyne, Chicago, 1959, p. 75.

28. On the other hand, when the Dutch sculptor Carel Visser made a nine-square wall piece called Big Window in 1972, a sketched study for it shows that the idea began with a square divided into four subsquares, the whole rather window-framelike for its being drawn in double lines. Both the drawing and the sculpture are illustrated in Visser, “In Conversation” (Note 1), fig. 14 on p. 125. Visser notes (p. 124) that the configuration was inspired by “certain things that were made in Peru.” One wonders whether he means the Nazca pots, which often carry checker boardlike patterns, and which Roger Fry found “consummate examples of how, by allowing the sensibility to have play—by refusing to repress it in the interests of perfection—we can accept with delight forms of extreme simplicity which would be intolerably bleak and empty if geometrical regularity were attained.” (Roger Fry, Last Lectures, London, 1939, repr. Boston, 1962, p. 94.) Fry’s distinction is of prime importance now that 1970s art has finally fully emerged from the 1960s.

On the opposition between cross and windowpanes, especially with regard to Mallarmé’s poem “Les Fenetres,” see Masheck, “Cruciformality” (Note 1), pp. 58–59.

29. Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, rev. pocket ed., New Haven, 1975, p. 34.

30. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours, trans. Charles Lock Eastlake, London, 1840, repr. Cambridge, Mass., 1970, ch. xiii, esp. pars. 207–08, p. 85, with pl. I, fig. 2 (also par. 234, pp. 96–97, in ch. xv).

31. On the use of checkerboard formats by Johannes Men and Paul Klee, as well as Albers, for the study of color interaction, see Clark V. Poling’s interesting catalogue for the High Museum of Art, Bauhaus Color, Atlanta, 1975. p. 34.

32. I have already discussed this passage in relation to Lewin: Joseph Masheck, “Kuspit’s LeWitt: Has He Got Style?” Art in America, November–December 1976, pp. 107–09.

33. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Brice Marden’s Painting,” Artforum, October 1974, pp. 30–38, esp. 38, relating the drawing to Stella, and illus. on p. 35. I thank Joshua Neustein for reminding me of this.

34. I am borrowing “epidermis” from Charles Fegdal, “La Matière dans la peinture moderne,” in his Essais critiques sur l’art moderne, Paris, 1927, pp. 19–25: “La belle matière es comme un épiderme jeune et frais sous lequel on croit voir circuler un sang vermeil, du quelle semble surgir la vie elle-meme.” (!)

35. Even Gold’s layering might also be compared with Russian icon-painting, just as many works by the artists discussed here are “panel”-like. M. Anissimov noted, in his “The Painting of Icons in Russia,” Formes (English ed.), No. 4 (April 1930), pp. 11–14, esp. p. 13: “Inside (the) sections the relief is modeled with flat brilliant colours, these also being encircled with straight lines and angles. To obtain this “framing” effect [probiela] the artist super-imposed successive layers of painting, adding each time more white to the fundamental colour.” Further on: “The relief of the face is rendered by super-imposition of layers of extremely fine colours that were called ‘play.’ ” Italics mine.

36. For a statement by Sharon Gold on intuition, see her “The Cognitive Crate Object: Intuition and the Creative Process,” Re-View, 1/1 (October 1977), pp. 25–29.

37. Peter Pinchbeck’s untitled acrylic-on-masonite construction of 1970, in which two white-painted panels hang without touching one another but forming an angle in space (one end of only one panel is fixed to a wall) is also interesting here, if not as pertinent to Gold.

I am grateful to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for supporting this and related investigations.