PRINT March 1979

Existential Formalism: The Case of Sharon Gold

Freedom implies . . . the existence of an environment to be changed: obstacles to be cleared; tools to be used. Of course it is freedom which reveals them as obstacles, but by its free choice it can only interpret the meaning of their being. It is necessary that they be there, wholly brute, in order that there may be freedom.
—Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

SHARON GOLD’S PAINTINGS ARE unequivocally modernist.1 But to bespeak, however brilliantly, their materiality—of format as well as substance—is not fully to qualify their modernism. For, at least since the late 1960s, modernism has involved what Robert Pincus-Witten has termed an element of personality.2 This is more than a matter of what Joseph Masheck calls “the human effect” generated by “the palpable ‘touch’” of the material. It involves, rather, an acute sense, in Pincus-Witten’s words, of the form of the work itself as signifying “the really lived, the idiosyncratic datum.”3 That Gold’s paintings exemplify this new biographical formalism is suggested by Judith Lopes Cardozo’s observation that “Gold continuously tests the stresses between Minimal dogma and a more subjective, almost existential approach.”4

Existential formalism does not need such full-blown expressionist notions as action painting to give it weight. The expressionistic does not have any monopoly on the existential, and in some way distracts from it, since it draws attention from the identity of the work to that of the artist’s person. The virtue of modernism is that it abides by the identity of the work as that which determines it as art. But until the ’60s this identity had been too narrowly conceived, in the name of an easy objectivity, as a material identity. The existentialist orientation to subjective identity becomes a corrective to formalism’s overdetermination of the work as objective (climaxing in high Minimalism). And it reveals the continued operation, in formalism, of what is in fact its essence, more than any materiality: its self-criticism.

The expressionist turn to subjective identity mystifies the artist rather than clarifying the work. Art voices a general subjective form rather than a particular subjective person: the artist is no more privileged or mysterious in his subjectivity than any other person. General subjective form gives a coherence and articulateness—an objectivity—to subjectivity, beyond what might be mysterious in it. That Pincus-Witten does not fully see this, but thinks the new subjective formalism which he has recognized involves a revival of reference to the traditional “uniqueness of (artistic) personality,” is the error of his insight.

In a sense, subjective form has always been immanent in object Minimalist form, but obscured by exclusive attention to the objective—which is exactly what made it, as Cardozo notes, dogmatic. As a consequence of such indifference to the subjective element in formalism, subjective form has become more insidious than ever—as Gold’s work demonstrates—both in an effort to tip its hand (“touch”), as it were, and subtly to undermine the dominance of objective form. This undermining is itself the sign of subjective intention, the sign of subjective freedom in the face of all-too-familiar objective form. The topic of this essay is how Sharon Gold’s paintings recover this residue of subjective freedom from their objective environment, an environment that has almost become stereotyped in materiality and design.

Formalism in general, it seems to me, is badly in need of acknowledging its subjectivity—as a tension within its objectivity. For its identity is always in danger of degenerating into a sterile, however subtle, equilibrium. It is just because its identity is so completely abstract and involves such a precise and limited vocabulary that it is always in danger of becoming a meaningless game, a hermetic play with artistic units that becomes entirely predictable in effect. However much the ritual of that play might establish an artistically meaningful identity, that identity cannot itself achieve full significance until it blossoms into a promise of existential consequence, a promise of impact on identities other than its own. This it can only have when its own subjective identity is called actively into the play, rather than taken for granted as the gratuitous effect of material manipulation—“the human effect” of “the ‘palpable’ touch.” When Pincus-Witten writes that “the earliest problem of sculpture was to reproduce the verticality of the human being in contrast to the horizontality of the earth”5 he assumes existential consequence as axiomatic—as inherent in the abstract forms, as given with them. Yet such consequence is not guaranteed by their sheer artistic exhibition, however subtle. On the contrary, exhibition tends to reinforce the sheer abstractness of the forms: their purity, i.e. their remoteness and irrelevance—for all their iconic directness and sublimity—to known and proposed existence.

Only when the forms are in sufficiently tense relationship as to be in effect “critical” of one another, denying the self-identity of one another, does their existential potential emerge, if never more than as an impacted potential. There is no automatic revelation of the impacted subjective form in abstraction. It is only indirectly, through the specialized tensions in objective form—irreducible tensions, as irreducible as any materiality—that subjective form offers a glimpse of itself, if only as a residue uncontrollable by objectivity. Without these tensions, formalism is in danger of becoming dry and dogmatic abstraction. In part, the subjectivization of Minimalism that Pincus-Witten remarks was a response to the recognition that it was authoritarian from the start, proposing a sterile dominance of stereotypical forms. High Minimalism, with its cultism of forms—we might say that existential formalism searches for an occultism of forms—was tense only in relation to current artistic practice, not inherently, that is formally.

Sharon Gold’s paintings are a significant part of this subjectivization, in that they make an advance in tension without positing an advance in expressionism, without moving into the exaggerated expressionism that seems to be proposed by both body art and environmental art. By staying with the body of the painting itself, she curbs its expressionistic tendencies without discharging them, so that, for all their visibility, they function subliminally rather than directly. This is confirmed by the fact that her visible surface, as Masheck says, subsumes an invisible, if felt and glimpsed, surface of color, so that a sense of impacted coloristic possibility emerges through the actuality of the surface. The perceived activity of the surface becomes problematic, and opens the way to a conceivable, if unspecifiable, depth of meaning that appropriately remains in the physical, as well as psychic, depths.

In other words, Gold’s expressionism never gets carried away with itself. Instead it becomes a utopian proposal about the work, an actualized absence charging the work with tense meaning. This expressionist absence gives the work a more subjective significance than any positive effect of touch such as traditional expressionism offered. This negative expressionism seems to place the subjective in the same indirect relation to the physically objective that it seems to have in life. The subjective is inferred, proposed, conceived and reconceived and never finalized in its constitution; it is thrown out as an unrealizable possibility that is yet realized in its presence, making the physical more tantalizing than it can ever consistently be.

Gold, then, can be said to make paint what Pincus-Witten calls a “signature substance.”6 But what remains to be determined is what the signature signifies. Masheck helps us with this, in his account of the cruciform character of Gold’s images; carrying his analysis further, we might note that the power of the cruciform, apart from the cultural symbolism that has encrusted it, lies in the fact that it reveals a meeting of opposites in which the encounter does nothing to disturb their oppositeness. The crossing of the opposites does nothing to “bend” them, to compromise the integrity of each and the tension of their relationship. This is why the cross, with its unequivocal tension and abstracted irreconcilability, is a radical “charging” mechanism, and has been so often appropriated for symbolic purposes. In Gold’s paintings, it functions, as Masheck suggests, as an inner frame—the armature of aura, at once creating it as a wake around whatever it frames, and embodying it. As Masheck implies, the painting becomes an icon, that is, its abstraction becomes utopian, a realm of existential possibility as well as of abstract actuality. The iconic converts the objectively abstract into the subjectively possible, undermining the all too obviously abstract with an invisible subjective liveliness.

Gold’s differentiation of the phenomenal field of the paint by a cruciform—the form becomes a means by which the field decisively announces its power of individuation—introduces a profound relief into the paintings, and also heralds their critical relation to sculpture. Indeed, when I first saw them I thought of them as impacted reliefs, because they were sufficiently raised from the wall to function as reliefs yet not sufficiently removed from it to become theatrical, or even illustrative of the wall. The model of differentiated form emerging from undifferentiated flux—simply of a frame emerging from the unframed—which the relief offers, seems to me a more primordial image of sculpture than Pincus-Witten’s vertical/horizontal, figure/earth crossing. The crossing can be displayed only after the primary relief has been established; it becomes the differentiation of the freshly undifferentiated surface the frame contains. In any case, this critical relation to sculpture—reinforced by the fact that Gold’s canvas is backed by “wall-like plywood panels” (another touch of felt invisibility, of subliminally articulate negative presence)—adds a fresh element of conceptual tension to the perceptual tensions already noted. Both perceptual and conceptual tension are registered in the fact that the crossings of the cruciform—or rather, in some cases, the implied crossings—are handled in such a way that they become a kind of relief sculpture.

The crossing is never effortless, never predictable across the continuity of the works, so that its differentiation is acutely tensing, even when the crossing is seemingly repressed, as in the works where it occurs at the horizontal borders. One thinks, incidentally, of Mondrian’s crossings, particularly in his late New York paintings—which also convey a sense of muted sculpture not unrelated to the potential relief character of the paintings. Then one realizes the truly sensitive character of the crossing. It almost becomes a test for the existential character of the work. To convert its inevitability into a critical decision gives the crossing something of the character of an existential leap. As one existentialist writes, “Decision always involves some element that is not only not determined by the outside situation but not even given in the external situation . . . some element of leap, some taking of a chance, some movement of oneself in a direction which one can never fully predict before the leap.” With the cruciform, the external situation and directions are given; the formal environment is complete and seemingly unchangeable. But the decision about the character of the crossing undermines, if not abolishes, it, changing it so subtly as to make it register, charged with an unexpected valence, an altogether existential sense of risk, of chance encounter. This enhances the cruciform’s power of “charging” its environment, its power of “auration” or irradiation.

In Gold, the tension within the cruciform—an implicit tension that she has made explicit—and the tension between the vigorous painterly flux and the cruciform emerging from it, at once its obstacle and efflorescence, charge the surface with an energy beyond that supplied by flux and cruciform independently. This energy can only be regarded as transcendental, in the sense that it makes the picture seem to transcend its own materiality without positing any clear alternative. And this energizing tension thus gives the picture a utopian status, in which the variety of its tensions—between hidden coloration and quasi-monochromaticism, visible canvas and invisible wood backing, sculptural potential and actuality as painting, as well as between cruciform focus and free phenomenal field of paint—seem to propose a utopian unity, without thereby forfeiting the self-contradictoriness that is the objective resource of the paintings. It is this implied, but undelivered, unity that makes clear the full scope of the severe self-criticism that underlies Gold’s paintings. The austerity of the paintings loses nothing: they are not compromised by their implication of subjective selfhood emerging from their objective self-criticism.

This dynamic of self-contradictoriness suggests an obsessive self-criticism that does not take self-identity for granted. (Indeed, the obsession is ontically reified in Gold’s personal pride in her industriousness—the belabored labor with which she produces her paintings.) In general, the intention to be modernist must become obsessive in order to discover the tensions within modernist self-identity that give it life, that make it existentially viable. Harry Stack Sullivan wrote that obsession was “peculiarly the disorder of the ‘thinker,’” and varied from “ruminative preoccupation” to a preoccupation with “logical, or pseudo-logical, formulations.” Touch is a ruminative preoccupation in Gold, the cruciform a logical or pseudo-logical formulation. And the subtly disordered relationship she establishes between them bespeaks modernism’s desire to demonstrate that it still requires thought, that it is not a matter of mechanical, predictable art. Obsession gives it its cutting edge, converts its presentational mode into a critical one.

It is only when the self-identity of the work of art becomes a critical issue that modernism does its job scrupulously, reminding us of the precariousness with which forms are given, a precariousness which precludes their reduction to jargon and insists on their insidious existential import. For the modernist work to recover its self-identity as a self-contradiction—irreducible, and not to be explained away materialistically—is for it to recover the character it initially acquired as a model of unrelenting self-criticism in art, as a refusal of that complacency which insists that art might be perfect.



1. See Joseph Masheck, “Hard-Core Painting,” Artforum, April 1978, pp. 52–53.

2. Robert Pincus-Witten, Postminimalism, New York, 1977, p. 14.

3. Ibid., p. 128.

4. Judith Lopes Cardozo. “Exhibition Review,” Artforum, December 1977, p. 64.

5. Pincus-Witten, p. 23.

6. Ibid., p. 16.

Donald B. Kuspit