PRINT May 1979

Pictures of Art

For J.H.W.

IF THE CONVICTION of abstract painting can be said to have revived during the last few years, that revival has not been easily accomplished. In excavating down to its foundations, however, it would appear that abstraction has rediscovered certain principles, about the relations between contained rectangular forms and their containing rectangle, that were first stated in the preabstract painting of the later 19th century, and that trace back further to fundamental organizing procedures in Western art. Even revolutionaries like Malevich and Mondrian, when they concentrated on such specific issues as the rotated rectangle or the pure rectangle “framed” by pure painting, seem to have been taking up specialized features of that tradition.

The High Renaissance marked an assumption of full control not only over the plastic rendering of the figure, which in itself had Byzantine roots, but also over the architectonic relation of all depicted forms to one another within a spatial context projected by the artist. Because this space-construction, reprojected outward toward us (the fundamental Byzantine approach to perspective all along), produced a pattern of flat forms whose surface interrelation also had to be taken into account, composition took on a fundamental importance in painting. While discharging more serviceable functions, painting began to reveal itself as activity appealing to the specialized technical connoisseurship of other practitioners and of sophisticated amateurs.

The preeminently modern concern with areas that fill the surface of the painting, around and between whatever forms occur within it, is partly an extension of the tradition of compositional balance that stems from the Renaissance emphasis on the relationships existing between depicted things in an also depicted space. Equalized categorical interdependence of figure and context collapsed by the Baroque, when either element might be indulged at the other’s expense. Figures could become sovereign units, wearing their surrounding space, as it were, as a kind of drapery; or, especially in the self-sufficient art of landscape, figures and forms could be swamped in contextual elaboration. Both could still be equated, but by appeal either to an orchestral sweep or to a kind of realism that fictionally froze time, demanding extra imagination of the artist and extra empathy of the observer.

The North never thoroughly shared the Italian sense of form and formal interrelationship, especially as regards the plane geometry of the surface. Since the time of Wölfflin, the notion that Northern art is interesting where Italian art is beautiful has been a critical commonplace. The homogeneity of elements that marks the Renaissance in Italy has its quite different Northern counterpart in distractingly detailed individual forms, scattered arrangements of these forms, and reliance on a kind of narrative point-to-point connection between them. Which is also why Rembrandt is the most serious exception to the standard of compositional rectitude: his values have so much to do with the poetic significance of the individual form—even individually highlighted body parts in a single figure—and on the unseen interior life of the subject, and so little to do with the logic of classical architecture projecting itself in a surface geometry. The emphasis on “formal value,” in modern French, and then American, art, reflects the Mediterranean legacy inescapably. (We seem, now, to be interested in engaging aspects of both alternatives, but not indiscriminately.)

Yet in the businesslike North it was also possible for Vermeer to confine himself, like a tradesman, to the task of rendering more or less the same basic domestic interior, capitalizing, as it were, on limitations freely embraced, to emphasize the specifically and professionally artistic element of composition. The window frames and framed pictures and maps on the walls in Vermeer’s interiors literally comprise the furniture of a bourgeois room; even where they refer to life outside—to properties of light and atmosphere, to history and previous art, or, in the maps, to navigation and trade—they do so within the specialized limits of the rectilinear composition. The window frames, framed pictures and maps of Vermeer are the raw material of pure geometric composition as well as rectilinear analogues for the painting, which the painter was consciously constructing, and even for technical sophistication (cartographic projection in analogy with perspective).

Comparably, the views of whitewashed Dutch church interiors, by Saenredam and others, constitute a kind of “abstract” substitute for the religious painting banned from Dutch Reformed liturgy by an iconoclasm that, like all iconoclasms, had its politics. Secular paintings of (nonclassical) church interiors thus displace the sacred paintings that might otherwise hang in the interiors depicted. The heraldic shields seen hanging on the piers in some of these church views are testimony of social class and also evidence of a secular, emblematic imagery halfway between the displaced holy image and nonpictorial painting. Hence the office of the artist became to report professionally what he saw in a church from which art had been removed.1

Poussin, by comparison, had to go less out of his way to make the esthetic point. In his great Self-Portrait of 1649–50 (Louvre) the figure is locked firmly into a balanced, asymmetrical “rectangular pattern of canvases and frames against a door, a sort of abstract of the artist’s studio.”2 Here is a relational system of plane, parallel, and in analogy with, door and even wall behind, permitting the composition to consist entirely of a system of pure rectangles held in balanced rectilinear check. Significantly, those rectangles represent artists’ materials and products, identifying the working life of the artist, just as their relational arrangement permits the compositional factor inherited from the Renaissance to emerge as an extraordinarily pervasive abstract symbolic portrait attribute, evidencing the very intellectual processes engaged in by the artist-sitter. Here we have a great French ancestor of Matisse’s equally Mediterranean Red Studio of 1911 (Museum of Modern Art), where paintings and other objects of art interrupt the overall field of red, parading, by their colorful and ironical realism, their preeminence in the artist’s abstract mental life—and his hand-work, as he repaints them in miniature.

Degas, Whistler and then Seurat conveyed to the 20th century a specific rectilinear tradition whereby framed and arranged pictures allude to the constructional aspect of picture-making, and to the finished product as a rectangular field subdivided unequally into rectangles, in a whole complex of rectangles held in relational check. In Degas’ portrait of another painter, Jacques Joseph Tissot, c. 1868 (Metropolitan Museum), framed and unframed paintings, hanging on and leaning against the wall, are arranged according to a rather Mondrianesque asymmetrical system of orthogonals. All but one of the paintings depicted share in a flat orthogonal composition (the spatial joint of wall with floor is suppressed), the only exception being an unfinished piece of work on the easel, cropped at the edge. The centerpiece of the portraitist’s work is another portrait, one by Cranach, and, thus, a Northern “realist” note in an otherwise Italian-ate “compositional” picture. Tissot, at rest from his easel, has the familiar presence of an earlier portrait nearby, while Degas works on his. This is shop-talk; so is showing us what one stretched canvas looks like from the back.3

The largest painting shown in Degas’ Tissot dominates the composition in size but, even more, in its aggressive compositional function: by bleeding off most of the top of the canvas and some of its right-hand side, its heavy frame geometrically inverts the corner of the painting, as though an exactly equal stretch of frame around Degas’ canvas had been bent inward into “Tissot’s” composition. This particular is important to modern painting, for the way it suggests possible linear elements within a painting that can carry mass and force and not be mere dividing lines. Thus, in Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Deux Personnages étendue (Two Outstretched People), of 1926, open moldinglike bands participate in an interlocking free composition, while also qualifying as independent motifs.

Picasso’s The Studio, 1927–28 (Museum of Modern Art), shows a firm right-angular form, like a carpenter’s square, where a red tablecloth, hanging over the edge of a tabletop (and showing its thickness), flattens against the picture plane. This rigid, L-shaped band relates to framed pictures on the wall as well as to a large yellow vertical rectangle at the left, banded on three sides with orange (the fourth, or lower, edge is shared with a band around the whole painting) that is either a door behind the artist or else the canvas on which the artist works, plus what may be a screen in the upper right, as well as an inner band that brackets the entire composition in a depicted frame from which “hang” two picture frames, the corner of one just touched by a compote on the table. This surrounding band, fused to the literal edge of the field, is analogous to the (real) stretcher underneath. The Studio turns a minor feature, the depicted picture, into a major theme, in the context of the artist’s workroom.

It was at the turn of the 1920s that the modern gallery as a “clean, well-lighted place” (a phrase borrowed from Hemingway) emerged, something like a clean studio from which all traces of work have been removed. Stieglitz’s third New York gallery, An American Place, which opened in December of 1929, was the definitive American symptom. Dorothy Norman said that the first thing one felt there was “the quality of light” in the spare, crisp rooms painted either white or light gray: “You notice that the bare undecorated structure of the building is the bare structure of the Place.”4 For her this made for a kind of esthetic sanctity, as though the lack of distraction in a pristine setting encouraged maximum spiritual intimacy with works of art.5

The broad angular bands of Taeuber-Arp and Picasso are important again in painting of the 1970s. David Novros’ No Title (No. 4), 1970–71, has a literal internal edge where separately stretched canvases abut, making for a division that is concretely linear and permitting framelike angular bands the same breadth and free play as rectangles in between. In Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s Hugo Grotius 1613 (For Paula), 1978–79, (see p.47 ) an open band at the left with four right angles in it is a kind of dismantled rectangular “frame” asserting its own area as a colored zone. At the right is the opposite, “picture”-like rectangles instead of frame members: two squares and a vertical oblong, of three different pastel colors, fused together in a cluster like three picture-in-a-picture forms, with an incipient band, like the one at the left, emerging from their midst. Here, neither “picture” motif nor “frame” motif plays a subordinate, subdividing role. Hugo Grotius also evokes Constructivist tradition, most particularly where rectangles touch at extreme corners, producing a checker effect. Gilbert-Rolfe, however, squares, as it were, the complexity of Constructivism’s positive-and-negative oppositions.

Now it was Degas’ contemporary, Whistler, who delivered post-Renaissance relational composition, using internal picture frames surrounded by a shaped, carefully proportioned, blank field, to American painting, especially with his Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: The Artist’s Mother, 1871 (Louvre) and his Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Thomas Carlyle (Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum), painted soon after. The composition of both portraits is governed by the rigid profile positions of the respective sitters (a feature as static and enduring as divine or imperial frontality, here having instead to do with personality). Particularly in “Whistler’s Mother,” the L-shape of the seated figure is part of a whole interlocking pattern of rectangles. The complementary “L” of a picture frame cropped by the top and right-hand edges of the canvas—cropped into the white mat of what we can only suppose to be a picture—plays a role comparable to the “inverted” corner of Degas’ Tissot. In the Carlyle portrait Whistler uses no such device; in fact, the lower of two framed pictures at the left, in “front” of Carlyle, has its frame and mat (but not its image) interrupted by a hat on the sitter’s knee (as in Picasso’s The Studio the corner of one frame is touched by a compote “before” it on the table), which also connects that picture with the wall molding and the floor. As if this called the relational composition of this work into question, where in “Whistler’s Mother” it was so secure, here Whistler displays his monogram with unusual emphasis, against the blank wall on the other side of the figure. The monogram itself, a dark butterfly form silhouetted against a white ground and “framed” in a dark circle, is a motif whose abstract value is in accord with the love of emblems and symbols conveyed in Carlyle’s own book Sartor Resartus (first published in the United States, in 1836, then in England, in 1838), which was a vital influence on Gauguin and the Symbolist generation.6 Even in the nonobjective emphasis in the titles of Whistler’s two portraits, where the sitters take second place, in subtitles, we encounter what was to be a typically Synthesist emphasis on pure composition.

Holger Cahill, speaking of “Whistler’s Mother” in 1932, noted that, if Whistler had lately “suffered a temporary eclipse,” nevertheless “there is much . . . that constitutes a usable past for contemporary painting. His distinguished decorative sense, his austere selection and his concentration upon design without losing his power of sympathetic characterization give his work permanent value.”7 True, a certain kind of conservative painter found Whistler’s formulas too easy to appropriate. Yet the same approach still carried conviction, in England, for William Orpen, whose The Mirror, 1900 (Tate Gallery), has an even row of three cropped picture frames along the top, betraying a changed taste in the hanging of pictures just then beginning.8 Besides, Whistler’s Carlyle itself appears, in admiring quotation, in the form of a framed photographic reproduction, in a painting from Seurat’s orbit, Théo van Rysselberghe’s A Reading of 1903 (Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten).9 That, in turn, signals Whistler’s enormous importance to photography—including Stieglitz’s own photographic Self-Portrait—at the turn of the century. Stieglitz, however, also changed the way paintings, as well as photographs, were arranged on the wall, as did others mediating between “fine” and “applied” art.

In 1897 Edith Wharton, the novelist, and Ogden Codman, Jr., architect and decorator, put together and published a book designed to sweep rooms clean of late-Victorian clutter, The Decoration of Houses (2nd ed., 1902). Far from avant-garde, Wharton and Codman shared in the “good-taste” classicism of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White generation in upper-class America. They did, however, acknowledge certain principles of simplified arrangement that, stimulated by Whistler, completely revised the hanging of pictures in avant-garde circles. For them separate pictures were subordinate to an overall decorative ensemble. To be sure, that says something about the circumscribed function of works of art in their world-view, but, at least in the objective features of their argument, they anticipate more radical trends.

Most in line with Whistler is Wharton and Codman’s view that framed pictures take part in the architectonics of wall division: “Everyone recognizes the necessity of selecting the moldings and other ornamental details of a room with a view to their position in the scheme of decoration; but few stop to consider that in a room hung with pictures, the frames take the place of wall-mouldings, and consequently must be chosen and placed as though they were part of a definite decorative composition.”10 This recalls not only the structure of Whistler’s paintings, but even, in particular, his complete room designed as a meta-work incorporating his painting Rose and Silver: La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, of 1863–64, the whole entitled Harmony in Blue and Gold: the Peacock Room, 1876–77 (Washington, Freer Gallery of Art), which is the ultimate ancestor of every painting-environment from El Lissitzky’s Proun Room for the 1923 Grosse Berliner Kunstaustellung and Theo van Doesburg’s and Cornelius van Eesteren’s lecture hall at the University of Amsterdam, to Mondrian’s design for the Salon of Madame B. . . . at Dresden, of 1926 (executed in formica at the Pace Gallery, New York, in 1970), Moreover, Wharton and Codman insist that “pictures and prints should be fastened to the wall, not hung on a cord or wire, nor allowed to tilt forward at an angle. The latter arrangement is specifically disturbing since it throws the picture-frames out of line with the wall. It must never be forgotten that pictures on a wall, whether set in panels or merely framed and hung, inevitably become a part of the wall-decoration.” Ironically, even in 1923 the Russian Suprematists were still hanging pictures at an angle to the wall, suspended by visible cords or wires, although such exposed wires could also have been sculpturally suggestive.11

But perhaps more interesting still is the specific advice that Wharton and Codman give in regard to schoolrooms, where their remarks point to an essential difference between art playing a decorative role and art as a stimulus to contemplation. Recommending “bare wall-spaces of uniform tint” for the classroom, they imply that this Whistlerian field, this void around widely spaced pictures on the wall, encourages thought: such spaces convey “to the child’s brain a sense of repose,” diminishing “mental and physical restlessness.”12 This is the pragmatic inversion of a distinction that goes back to Byzantium, between art as decoration, where the eye is intended to wander, even aimlessly, and art as an object of fixed apprehension. Most interesting for later painting, however, is the emphasis on the wall area around framed pictures.

The new movement of fine-art or “artistic” photography, extending the Whistler tradition of relational rectilinearity, had, for its part, a profound effect upon relational hanging. To turn from an installation shot of the 1889 Berlin photographic exhibition, to which Stieglitz contributed, to an 1899 photograph showing the “typical framing and hanging” of Stieglitz’s own photographs is to see a shift from pictures in mats packed closely together to a relationalism in the grouping of distinctly differently framed (unmatted) photographs into a harmonious asymmetrical composition.13 This was not the single-handed achievement of Stieglitz, but it does seem to have been characteristic of his circle, and, as such, it meshes with Secession tendencies in European painting.

Sadakichi Hartmann, a frequent contributor to Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work, published an essay on “The Influence of Artistic Photography on Interior Decoration” in 1903. Hartmann acknowledges that “Whistler and [John White] Alexander have preached the very same lesson in the backgrounds of their portraits. Everywhere in their pictures we encounter the thin black line of the oblong frame which plays such an important part in the interior decoration of today, and which invariably conveys a delightful division of space.”14 He says that modern photographers have enough choice of material and color available to them for frames to avoid making every room “look like ‘His Mother’ and ‘Carlyle.’ ”15 (Hartmann used the Carlyle portrait for the frontispiece of his handbook for photographers, Composition in Portraiture [New York, 1909] a few years later.) For him, considering the surrounding wall as the ground of a superpictorial, abstract composition led to a concomitant criticism of prevailing wall moldings themselves: “As long as door-jambs and window-sills and mantlepieces are manufactured wholesale . . . a burlap-wall, with a few ‘Secession’ prints will not save us,” while “The elaborate way in which the artistic photographers mount and frame their prints has attracted attention everywhere.”16

If these developments saw, for the first time, the active participation of an American avant-garde, they were nevertheless international. Gustave Klimt’s Portrait of Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein, 1905 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung) and Eduard Steichen’s photograph Poster Lady, published in a special Steichen supplement to Camera Work in April of 1906, have close affinities with the Whistler tradition, with each other, and with much more recent art—especially in their handling of the ground. If we could compare the Klimt with, say, paintings by David Novros, we could also speak of Brice Marden’s Decorative Painting, 1964, with its dark narrow side bands, left and right, and its typically indistinctly finished bottom edge, before the Steichen photograph.

Stieglitz’s photograph My Parents’ House—Lake George, of 1907,17 shows the kind of art-crowded interior of which the happy jumble of Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment was merely a hip revision. Despite his parents, Stieglitz’s approach to exhibiting pictures—paintings as well as photographs—anticipated the modern gallery as a kind of optimally neutral space and, ultimately, extended the Whistlerian composition-within-a-composition to totally abstract paintings containing framelike forms. Marsden Hartley recalled the interior of Stieglitz’s “291” Gallery: “. . . the spirit of Whistler seemed to come up” there, he said, “like a singular wraith.”18 Stieglitz must have considered the look of “291” an important part of his artistic posture, because when the gallery closed in April 1908 and then reopened next door at 293 Fifth Avenue in December, he not only retained the “291” name at the new address, but redecorated the new galleries “to resemble the previous establishment.”19

Interesting arrangements resulted in the hanging of specific exhibitions at “291,” as when, sometime around 1907–10, photographs of different sizes were hung close together but in wide white mats all the same size and grouped, in an almost Minimal way, in evenly spaced blocks of four,20 while having narrow white bands outline the walls, ceiling and doors gave the gallery the crisply bounded, Chanel-box look of Josef Hoffmann’s Palais Stocklet in Brussels, finished in 1911. In an exhibition of African sculpture at “291,” the pieces were mounted against white rectangular backgrounds which, in turn, were placed asymmetrically on dark rectangles,21 in a way that anticipates the abstract absorption of the frame motif in later painting, even including Mondrian.

Quite early in the century, the critic Julius Meyer-Graefe had expressed a positive liking for the way modern museum collections had begun to engage in contextual hanging in inventive relations: “We may instance the grouping together of works by the same artist or different artists, and of different periods, on the same wall, and the effect of one wall so arranged on another.”22 For Meyer-Graefe the modern museum was “the purely neutral spot, that serves beauty alone.” This neutrality had its own psychology. In a painting of A Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, 1912, painted by Roger Fry or Vanessa Bell, we see a spectator who seems almost at home in a gallery situation that is, at the same time, quite close to the specialized artist’s studio scene of Matisse’s Red Studio—a painting that actually appears within this canvas, cropped off at the right, in the manner of Vermeer or Whistler or Matisse himself.23 Here is the perfect image of the bourgeois intellectual connoisseur found, almost impossibly, somewhere between an art “consumer’s” collection (visited as a guest) and a producing artist’s studio (visited as a critic).

We get some idea of how advanced American collectors hung painting in their homes around 1918 from Charles Sheeler’s photograph of the interior of the Arensberg apartment in New York:24 there the tasteful reserve of Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman accommodates radical art, including Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, in a symmetrical, but alternating or checkered arrangement of small and large pictures (the larger canvases almost seeming to touch corners in an up-and-down arrangement) hovering somewhere between the Corinthian classiness of Wharton and Codman and the advanced bohemianism of “291." Such American trends in hanging also have European parallels. When the new public Kronprinzen-Palais gallery of modern art opened in Berlin in 1919, with a show of contemporary Expressionist art, the paintings were hung with their lower edges in one horizontal line, regardless of height,25 as if taking a cue from the low shelf that ran around the gallery at “291.” At the Kandinsky exhibition in Moscow, in 1920, the larger canvases were staggered, not unlike the formation in the Arensberg apartment, with evenly spaced, symmetrical clusters of smaller works in the “odd” spaces in between the alternate large ones higher up: nevertheless, the old 19th-century habit of tipping the upper paintings out from the wall on their wires persisted.26

Arrangements of hung pictures tend to propose single, relationally ordered supercompositions, in which individual pictures act as abstract elements in an essentially non-objective overall arrangement. But even large, mural-sized paintings may be absorbed into decoration scheme. Consider Kandinsky’s set of four related paintings keyed, however loosely, to the four seasons—that eminently decorative theme for Rococo apartments. These were painted for specific walls in the apartment of another New York collector, Edwin R. Campbell, where they were installed in 1916. “Hung in pairs at the entrance hall . . . , the lighter narrow panels and the heavier broad panels must have made a striking contrast, which had doubtless been intended.”27 Whether or not Kandinsky meant these paintings as independent “improvisations,” the result recalls the Rococo subordination of painting to decoration, as in Walter Pater’s turn-of-the-century evocation of Watteau: “A new manner of painting! The old furniture of people’s rooms must needs be changed throughout, it would seem, to accord with this painting, or rather, the painting is designed exclusively to suit one particular kind of apartment.”28 Today even works as forceful as Richard Serra’s large, all-black wall-mounted oil crayon drawings on canvas pose similar problems in regard to their ultimate destination. That issue is complicated now because the “neutral” gallery no longer modulates between the different ambiences of studio and apartment, since in so many cases collectors live in large, more or less vacant, white interiors resembling either a stripped studio or a furnished commercial gallery.

The great “picture of art” that established the self-sufficiency of a single nonobjective image and one itself suggesting a hanging painting was Malevich’s White on White, 1918 (Museum of Modern Art). There the skewing of the nearly (but not quite) square form sets it out of reach of an exclusively positivist accountability to the “objective” (that is, objectlike) character of the square support on which it is painted. The rotated square occurs in later American color painting. It is seen with an appropriately painterly vitality in Green Rectangle, a painting by Gene Davis from 1956. After Green Rectangle came paintings by Davis in which a broad-banded rectangle is set within the canvas, a framelike echo of the overall shape. The inside of this inside is painted in; and this painted rectangle too drips down over its surround. Then Rothko, with a set of murals on canvas, of 1958–59, set his characteristic hovering rectangles on their sides, connecting two of the same color by narrower passages of the same color, producing a windowlike frame, or even arrangement, although the controlled rhythm of what were now wide vertical bands kept in step. Like Malevich’s skewed “square,” Theodoros Stamos’ Homage to Milton Avery: Sun-Box, 1966, shows a skewed block of pure color interrupting a rectangular color field, but above two horizontal stripes, as if taking the place of the sun in a landscape. Stamos’ Cornish Sun-Box, however, of the next year, has only a hovering, skewed rectangle. American painting is, perhaps, as pursued by landscape as European painting is by the human figure. If Malevich’s great drawing, Suprematist Composition: Expressing the Feeling of Fading Away, of about 1916–17 (Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery), compares, despite its supreme nonobjectivity, with Rubens’ Raising of the Cross, in Antwerp,29 then Georgia O’Keeffe’s beautiful watercolor of the same time, Blue No. II (Brooklyn Museum), 1916, as abstract as it is, suggests some field or hillside with (Dove-like) solar effects. Finally, today, when Suprematist ideas seem urgent, the skewed square receives witty homage in Bob Zoell’s painted black square on a slightly oblong vertical canvas, the whole painting hanging skewed on the gallery wall, a work called Portrait of a Square.

An interesting recent nonsquare square that was also a study in framing was Richard Serra’s “conceptual” photographic project of 1971, Shooting a Square Through a Polygon, Camera Angle Measured, where a landscape photograph was shot through an irregular quadrilateral hole in a sheet of board, with the sheet held at just the right angle for the scene to appear framed by a square. It seems important to the resultant image that there is, near the bottom, the practically square end of a long timber, but everything rectilinear in the photograph nevertheless retains an ironic relation to the frame that we know, intellectually, to be far from the square—far, even, from being rectangular. Serra’s later unstretched, nearly orthogonal, all-black wall drawings also relate to Shooting a Square, particularly when they consist of a single slightly irregular quadrilateral surrounded, matlike, by white wall.

If we are concerned here with a kind of internal construction in art that parallels a modern tradition of hanging pictures in equally form-conscious ensembles, it must also be mentioned that the Surrealists did their best to subvert the logic and order of this approach. The great Surrealist exhibitions included, or even constituted, the first modern “installations” designed to circumvent the classical tradition of self-consciously balanced form, on behalf of individual instinct and liberty. As such, they anticipated projects by artists of the later 1960s and the ’70s seeking to displace an ossified specialization in “sublimated” formal value and composition by creating “environments” and other installed works that, partly because they were made in and for specific situations (thus conflating the spaces of production, distribution and consumption), denied as far as possible the bourgeois commerce of easel painting or conventional sculpture. One gallery in New York, Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, designed by the Viennese architect Frederick Kiesler and opened in 1942, became a fantastic temple of this newer, alternative tradition. The only condition that Guggenheim laid down for the design of her gallery, which was a headquarters for Surrealist art, was that the pictures be shown unframed.30 Kiesler curved the walls, ceiling and floor into one another in a continuous, cocoonlike shape, the paintings hovering away from the walls, which, needless to say, made relational hanging all but impossible.

Not surprisingly, in the exhibition of later abstract painting, hanging procedures continued to evoke modes of internal composition. The hanging of a cluster of Myron Stout’s canvases in an exhibition at the Stable Gallery, New York, in 1954, partly a subtle manifestation of traditional concerns, also anticipated Minimal and later attitudes. Five paintings of equal size were hung together, evenly spaced in two registers on the wall, with the span between the two rows equal to the spaces between the canvases in each row. Syncopating the two tiers generated interesting relations between the multiple pattern and the forms within individual canvases—particularly in the case of the cruciform and checker paintings, but also with one that looks something like a frame-motif. Even the two least cooperative units, the end canvases of the bottom row, had a certain reference to the configuration of the whole.

When Stella exhibited his open-centered violet paintings in regular geometric shapes in 1963, he extended the logic of his own development, whereby the real edge and concentric painted bands within it reverberated against one another. That obviously could not have made sense if the paintings had been surrounded by a frame competing with the bands that constitute the (nonrelational, noncompositional) painting proper. This move, at the same time, took place within the history of the frame device; William Rubin notes that it “turned the painting, in effect, into a kind of ‘frame’ for a polygonal area of wall that showed through.”31 That the “hole” in these paintings is equal to one-half of the area constituting the “painting” may even suggest that the painting-as-frame shows a resemblance to the matted pictures of Degas and Whistler, and to geometrically hung pictures in wide mats of the Stieglitz type. At the same time, the “hole” makes for the most literal of internal edges in a single canvas.

Also in the mid-1960s, Paul Mogenson produced, in painting, works in which a set of monochrome, separately stretched canvases hang on the wall separated by wide, even bands of wall space. In one untitled Mogenson painting on 16 masonite units, from 1967, the relational factor is held in check by the extreme width, and the Minimalist regularity, of the spacing. Yet the asymmetry of the whole still recalls the tradition of relational picture-hanging, insofar as this painting is like a hung ensemble of paintings. Works by David Novros from around the same time are also assemblies of “subcanvases,” and also show Minimalism in their progressive increase or diminution in sizes of components. Attaching these units together, however, Novros found a subtler kind of “internal edge” within the painting, while still leaving compartments open to the wall, leaving the way clear for a return to painting on a unitary surface: by comparison, Mogenson’s units are more like separate sculpturesque things.

Minimalism itself was dominated by a sculpturesque, objectlike concreteness and inertness. But within Minimal sculpture important contributions were made to the modern tradition of neutral compositional placement. Carl Andre dealt with relational rectangular forms of different size with eight sculptures called Equivalent (I-VIII), 1966, after a series of Stielglitz photographs. In each, 120 sand-lime and fire bricks were stacked in rectangular blocks of differing size, with all the rectangular stacks, each two bricks thick, positioned in balanced orthogonal relation with one another. Here with interchangeable units of mass Andre produced a volumetric equivalent of relational picture motifs in painting, without compromising his low-slung presentation of simple gravitational stacks. A year later, in 1967, Andre made the inverse of Equivalent, a wall-to-wall stretch of concrete blocks (one thick), with eight different rectangular voids: 8 Cuts. Andre has often used concepts that would seem to pertain only to painting, as in sculptures consisting of pure (but palpably material) line trailing along the floor, not to mention his many checkered arrangements. However, what might hang, in painting always clearly lies in Andre’s sculpture.

In Patrick Ireland’s 1967 Labyrinth project for Finch College, four solid oblong units, square in section, were bracketed by a square defined by four similar frame-like right-angles, also square in section. The mirrored planes of the labyrinth’s interior optically overrode, in this open sculptural square containing rotated solid oblongs, the fact that all the positive forms exactly equal, in volume as well as in ground plan area, the negative spaces between and around them.

To compare the paintings in the Stout installation and Stella’s concentric “frame” paintings with, say, the hanging of Brice Marden’s Thira Series, 1975–76, a set of six drawings in graphite and wax, is to discover, in regard to later painting, continuity in change. The slits of white wall between these drawings are in obvious harmony with the concentric black-and-white stripes that mutually define one another as forms in each unit, in a set of units that is very self-enclosed. Thus each unit represents a kind of form in its own inversion; so does each pair and, in a sense, so does the whole set on the wall, where the white strips of wall are like the narrowest bands, those of the central pair of units.

Andre Kertesz’s 1926 photographs of Mondrian’s Paris studio show perhaps the most pristine white studio—and, by extrapolation, the ultimate gallery or loft—of the modern movement. But the purification of the space, surely intended, at least in part, to neutralize the subordination of paintings being worked on to outside decorative considerations, also, ironically, made it easier to produce a compositional ensemble—just as relational, if more independent—out of whatever was put on the wall. Of course, on Mondrian’s walls nothing just happened to be in one place rather than another. In fact, the most striking feature of Kertesz’ interior view is the interest accrued by rectangular patches of colored paper that Mondrian had arranged in irregular but balanced clusters on the wall, just as, in an even more famous photograph of Mondrian’s studio hall and stairway, Kertesz produced almost a caricature of Vermeer’s rectilinear relationalism.

We could consider Mondrian’s colored rectangles in relation to the development of Mondrian’s painting. But it may be more useful to treat a single motif from late Mondrian, where a rectangular patch seems to contain a purely rectangular form, as a kind of image of the pictorial field, a device that has a long career.

Mondrian inflected the field exposed between the bands of his Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1942–43 (Museum of Modern Art), by connecting the bands, here and there, with rectangles of color larger than the flickering rectangular band segments and (mostly) smaller than the white rectangles of the “ground.” These connecting blocks have smaller rectangles within them; since even the interior rectangles are larger than the flickering squares of the grid bands, each in its surrounding rectangle is like a little “picture” motif, a small rectangular field of color “matted” by a rectangle of contrasting color.

Nicolay Suetin had already produced a Composition, c. 1926–29, in which a dark, practically square rectangle is suspended midway down a vertical oblong (with a wide band of exposed canvas around that). Such Russian modernist works have only recently become familiar in the West, so they cannot have affected the American response to Mondrian and his contemporaries. Today, however, they are at least as important to painters as the European Constructivist tradition that was well known.

One way or the other, Mondrian’s small motif of the rectangle inset with a subrectangle appears in a collage by Charmion von Wiegand, The Iris Gate, of 1956, where it occurs, more than once, along the central vertical axis. This is in a sense more “figurative” than Mondrian’s abstract cityscape: here having a horizontal red rectangle “matted” in white, above a dark blue vertical rectangle also matted in white, lends both centered, vertically aligned forms the character of a figure with head and trunk—perhaps even shoulders and hips. Yet Von Wiegand extends the snappy colorism of Broadway Boogie-Woogie. We can find the same line of thought in the optically snappy abutting rectangles, aligned along the diagonal axes, in Larry Poons’ van Doesburg-like Art of the Fugue, III, of 1960, linking emigré Constructivism with the color painting of the 1960s.

Rothko’s late Black on Dark Maroon, of 1964, is a vertical rectangle interrupted by a much squarer oblong—something like a single connecting form out of Broadway Boogie Woogie—of black. This confines color to a zone that seems all the more matlike for being narrow at the sides, wider at the top, and widest at the bottom. In Jake Berthot’s similar Wolf, 1975, a near square of virtually the same proportions as Rothko’s is rotated to the horizontal and placed nearer the top of the vertical canvas, as Johns had already placed the American flag in Flag on Orange Field, 1957 (Cologne, Museum Ludwig). The linear boundary of Berthot’s contained “square” is emphasized in the very laying on of the paint. Berthot’s painting introduces a kind of internal edge or physical abutment between the area that is contained and the area that contains it, more as Jasper Johns had done in Gray Rectangles, 1957, where three evenly spaced horizontal rectangles near the bottom of a square canvas are physically cut into the surface (producing, as it were, mini-stretched canvases within the whole), with these zones distinguished as well by variations in the brushwork. Incidentally, the Johnsian idea of inset canvases was extended to picture-hanging at the Monet exhibition of 1960, at The Museum of Modern Art, where William Seitz mounted some of the canvases, unframed, with their faces flush with the wall.

In a number of late paintings by Robert Motherwell, a large rectangle placed within the rectangular whole is both a pictorial reference to painting and an abstract allusion to the way a painting hangs down on the wall against the pull of gravity. (Howard Buchwald also used regular geometric motifs “hanging down” into the field in drawings and paintings of the mid-1970s.) In Motherwell’s The August Sun and Shadow, 1972, the abutment of the “outside” top of a contained form with the “inside” top of the canvas surface produces a hanging-picture effect. In other paintings by Motherwell, the squared “U” shapes that are here drawn in the neutral band become the main inflection in a still more overall field, but still “hanging down.” Jake Berthot’s Triangle Series No. 3: Prong, otherwise similar in its configuration to Motherwell, brings the “internal picture” form and the outside field into direct contact, although, as it meets the field at the sides in an interesting collision and drips down into the field below, the picture motif hovers slightly within the rectangle, just avoiding the upper edge of the canvas. Many of Berthot’s later paintings locate such a rectangular area closer to the center, more obviously like an abstract picture framed in a similarly painted mat.

In one of Thomas Bang’s sculptures in wood and wax a block of wood remains a rectangular solid, while a rectangular cavity is dug in, filled with wax and partly gouged. From the two different materials we know that we see a rectangular solid of one material interjected into another, even though only one face of the wax volume is continuous with one face of the wooden block—that part comparing with Motherwell’s painting, where the inside rectangle is congruent with one side of the outside rectangle, only along the top. The placement of Bang’s wax solid was anticipated by Bill Bollinger, who, around 1973, burned molten bronze into blocks of wood, stopping flush with the top. Both artists seem involved with the plastic differences between an inside, once molten, material and the containing, otherwise solid, wood. Still, their approaches are different. In line with a prevailing antiformal emphasis of the time, Bollinger had the making process determine the artistic specifics, where Bang, whose equivalent aim is to reveal conceptual “information” about the work, does not hesitate to impose a form, if it is elemental and logical enough. Thus in another wood and wax sculpture Bang replaces the volumetric corner of the wood block with wax, rather than the center, and slices off the corner of that corner, saying something about wax as against wood, but also making a fundamental statement about form that relates, in two dimensions, to pictures of pictures with a frame in the corner.

Today many of Burgoyne Diller’s investigations (in cruciformal composition, for instance) have interest for painters. In a Diller drawing called First Theme (Three Images) (101/2 by 73/4 inches) from 1961, three almost identical compositions occur in a sequential strip, two adjacent and one (the most internally different) off to one side, corner to corner, in a checker arrangement. Just such thinking motivates Bruce Boice’s canvases of the mid-1970s, with three attached panels, one framed in wood strips, the geometric contents of all three making systematic reference to one another. In some of Boice’s painted forms are all solid rectangles, in analogy with the separately stretched rectangular canvases; others are linear bands, similar in width to the width of the included wooden frame of one panel.

Within the three categories of composition that Burgoyne Diller worked out, in an American Neoplasticism, the paintings belonging to his “First Theme,” especially late works of this type, relate most obviously to the tradition of asserting abstract value in relationally arranged clusters of rectangles like pictures on a wall. One 50-inch square First Theme by Diller from 1958–60, has a dark square and two lighter near-squares balanced asymmetrically along both axes, in a field that seems as rectilinear and independent as the “squares” that puncture it. To compare with this a present-day painting by Peter Pinchbeck, Composition with Ocher, Yellow and Blue, 1978, is to sense a slightly different but significant emphasis within the same tradition. Pinchbeck’s forms, like their support, are clearly oblong: the three independent oblongs within the whole are even the same size. The spatial consequences of their color interaction seem as much a relational consideration as their balance in the plane. Pinchbeck’s manual touch is also more manifest in comparison with Diller.

In another First Theme painting by Diller (there are no other titles for these works), dating from 1962, we find a large white rectangle fitted squarely into the upper left-hand corner, as when, in the works of the 19th-century forerunners, a depicted frame may touch the edge of the overall picture. This prevents Diller’s four clustered rectangles from being so oblivious to their even gray surrounding surface as to simply overlay it, just as having the large corner rectangle and a small square diagonally opposite it both white allows those forms to puncture the gray field, and yet remain in analogy with the two other, medium-sized, rectangles (one yellow, the other blue). Note also that by pairing the two rectangles most different in size by color (white), and opposing those closest in size (blue versus yellow) Diller sets up something of a diagonal checkering effect. By comparison, Pinchbeck’s similar Composition with Pink Square, 1978, calls the color of the field into interactive play with the rectangles. The emphasis is different, even while the compositional tradition is the same.

Keith Milow’s relief paintings of around 1975 consist of separate rectangular chunks of (wooden) support, some flat on the wall and some perpendicular to it, orthogonally related, with the wall showing through between the separate elements. These reliefs by Milow are categorically paintings, mostly because each element has a single painted face, even if that face is not the side parallel to the wall. An untitled painted steel wall relief from 1977 by the Quebecois sculptor Roger Vilder, consisting of several panels with wall space between them, seems more a matter of sculpture, despite its obedient planarity. If Vilder’s piece has an obvious cruciform aspect, it has more in common with the sculpted corpus of a crucifix than with the cross part that is important for painting. By comparison, even Milow’s most massive-looking Crosses, which are hollow forms molded of concrete and resin, resemble the spatial investigations of the Suprematist painters: Malevich’s architectoniki or even Ilya Chasnik’s plaster relief Suprematist Architectural Model: Cross and Circle, c. 1926. Vilder’s solid aluminum floor sculpture, also from 1977, on the other hand, does compare, in its individual unit variants, with a thick, asymmetrical, Latin-type cross in Malevich’s gouache Suprematist Composition, c. 1915 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). In the Vilder floor piece the forms seem like positive solidifications of the negative field (whether painted “background,” the painting ground, or the wall behind) in paintings of rectangles in asymmetrical orthogonal relationship.

Vilder’s floor piece, in fact, presents us with a cluster of alternative interstices between four imaginary (or removed) rectangles in variously adjusted relations of proximity. This negative feature had already been proposed in American sculpture in Bruce Nauman’s Platform Made Up of the Space Between Two Rectilinear Bases on the Floor, in fiberglass, of 1966. In Nauman’s case the resultant form contradicts the rectilinearity of its own outside determinants, becoming self-enclosed in a way that does not require seriality and could not form part of a grid: the four outside edges of four external “rectilinear bases” would be required to enclose it, but the form that confronts us would still consist of one obtuse, two (negative) right, and three acute, angles. Even the two rectangles that might be fitted into its “concave” right angles would not be in an orthogonal relationship, but skewed in respect to one another, like the large black orthogonal square and the small red skewed square in Malevich’s Suprematist Painting: Black and Red Square, 1915 (Museum of Modern Art).

After all, what concerns us here is basically the issue of orthogonal form, including its equally orthogonal negatives, in analogy with the conventional rectangle of Western paintings—a rectangle that relates to, and qualifies, the rectangular wall. Certain recent gallery installations have touched on these matters whether by ultra-literalizing the material components or by ultra-literalizing the gallery context as “sculpture.”

Ed Moses’ 1978 installation entitled Two Cubist Paintings, at the Texas Gallery, Houston, provided a remarkable pun on the Degas “folded back” corner effect. One of the two paintings overlapped and obscured a gallery doorway instead of some vertical rectangle fit into the lower lefthand corner of the “canvas,” while a smaller square area in the upper righthand corner was—the opposite of obscuring space—literally cut away, exposing wall. Moses’ paintings in this installation were painted on wallboard, left partly exposed, proposing a distinct analogy between painting and background wall, with the “folded in” corner as a linking form.

The issues, however, are not easily sidestepped. Even exhibition “installations” as revisionist as Walter de Maria’s filling of the Heiner Friedrich Gallery, Munich, to an even height with the earth, in 1968, inherit overtones of the “picture of art.” Even more emphatically in its second execution, as New York Earth Room, in the Heiner Friedrich Gallery, New York, in 1977, this piece throws the architecture of the gallery into a picturesque arrangement of white right-angular planes and openings, highlighted against the dirt. Especially in photographs,32 de Maria’s “New York Earth Room” carries the relationalism of the pristine modern gallery space to an extreme of geometric interior view imagery, or indoor landscape, that still alludes, in painting, to the pictorialism of Saenredam, if not Vermeer.33

Joseph Masheck


1. On Saenredam in relation to Mondrian, see now Meyer Schapiro, “Mondrian: Selected Papers, vol. II, Order and Randomness in Abstract Painting” (1978), in his Modern Art: 19th & 20th Centuries, New York, 1978, pp. 233-61, esp. p. 259 n. 7. On late Mondrian and modern architecture, see Joseph Masheck, “Mondrian the New Yorker,” Artforum, October 1974, pp. 58-65. On Dutch iconoclasm, see William B. Maltby, “Iconoclasm and Politics in the Netherlands, 1566,” in Joseph Gutman, ed., The Image and the Word: Confrontations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Religion and the Arts, 4), Missoula, Mont., 1977, pp. 149-59.

2. Anthony Blunt, Nicolas Poussin (The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1958) (Bollingen Series, XXXV/7), Princeton, 1967, text vol., p. 266. Isn’t it possible, however, that the “door” is the back of a framed painting?

3. For a fascinating study of Degas’ depicted pictures, see Theodore Reff, “The Pictures within Degas’ Pictures,” in his Degas.: The Artist’s Mind, New York, 1976.

4. Dorothy Norman, “An American Place,” in Waldo Frank, et al., eds., America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait, Garden City, 1934, pp. 126-51, here. p. 126.

5. Ibid., pp. 131, 149f, likening the gallery to “a church” and “a Gothic cathedral . . . holding the Kingdom of Heaven within.”

6. See, for instance, Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, Bk. III, ch. iii (Works, vol. XII, New York, 1897, p. 168), for a discussion of the inspirational value of Hungary’s Crown of St. Stephen, a symbol that, for both personal and political reasons, including his own nationalist feelings, struck Sigmund Freud in exactly the opposite way: Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, vol. II, Years of Maturity: 1901-1919, New York, 1955, p. 200. Sartor Resartus, which appears on top of Milton’s Paradise Lost in Gauguin’s 1889 watercolor Portrait of Jacob Meyer de Haan (Museum of Modern Art) was the “bedside book of Gauguin and De Haan;” Wladyslawa Jaworska, Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School, trans. Patrick Evans, Greenwich, Conn., 1972, p. 214, with illus. on p. 105: see also p. 232.

7. Holger Cahill, “American Art 1862-1932,” in the Museum of Modern Art catalogue American Painting and Sculpture, New York, 1932, repr. New York, 1969, pp. 9-22, here p. 13.

8. Illus., John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, New York, 1963, small fig. on p. 252.

9. George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880 to 1940 (Pelican History of Art), Harmondsworth, 1967, p. 29, with pl. 13a.

10. Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr., The Decoration of Houses, 2nd ed., 1902. repr. New York, 1978, pp. 45f.

11. See the installation of the “Unovis” section at the “All Tendencies” exhibit at Leningrad in 1923, in the Annely Juda Fine Art catalogue The Suprematist Straight Line: Malevich, Suetin, Chasnik, Lissitzky, London, 1977, illus. on p. 18. Alan C. Birnholz’s excellent discussion of Tatlin’s corner reliefs, in his “Forms, Angles and Corners: On Meaning in Russian Avant-Garde Art,” Arts Magazine, February 1977, pp. 101-09, considers the wires in these sculptures in terms of a technological “bridge” theme, rather than old-fashioned hanging. On Suprematist hanging, see also John Golding, “the Black Square,” Studio International, March-April, 1975.

12. Wharton and Codman, Decoration (note 10), p. 180.

13. Illus., Dorothy Norman, Alfred Stieglitz, An American Seer, New York, 1973, figs. 16 on p. 34 and 18 on 38, respectively.

14. Sadakichi Hartmann, “The Influence of Artistic Photography on Interior Decoration” (1903), in his Valiant Knights of Daguerre: Selected Critical Essays on Photography and Profiles of Photographic Pioneers, ed. Harry W. Lawton et al., Berkeley, 1978, pp. 91-97, here p. 92.

15. Ibid., p. 93.

16. Ibid., p. 91.

17. Illus., Frank, America (note 3), pl. xxviii (a).

18. Marsden Hartley, “291—and the Brass Bowl,” ibid., pp. 236-42, esp. pp. 236-38.

19. William Innes Homer, Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde, Boston, 1977, p. 46.

20. Illus., Jonathan Green, ed., Camera Work A Critical Anthology, Millerton, N.Y., 1973, p. 244 (top).

21. Photograph, published in Camera Work for October 1916, illus., Homer, Stieglitz (note 19), fig. 93 on p. 198.

22. Julius Meyer-Graefe, Modern Art Being a Contribution to a New System of Aesthetics, trans. Florence Simmonds and George C. Chrystal, vol. I, London and New York, 1908, pp. 81.

23. Illus., Ian Dunlop, The Shock of the New Seven Historic Exhibitions of Modern Art, New York, 1972, p. 161.

24. Illus., Homer, Stieglitz (note 19), fig. 35 on p. 73.
25. Illus., John Willet, Expressionism, New York, 1970, p. 139 (bottom).

26. Illus., Will Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work, New York, 1958(?), pl. on p. 28 (top).
27. Ibid., pp. 142-44: cats. 198-201, with pls. on pp. 280f. Two of the panels, which Grohmann notes Kandinsky probably would have considered (self-sufficient) “improvisations,” are now in the Museum of Modern Art and two are in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

28. Walter Pater, “The Prince of Court Painters: Extracts from an Old French Journal,” in his Imaginary Portraits (1887), New York, 1907, p. 14, entry for February 1712.
29. Birnholz, “Forms” (note 11), p. 104.
30. Dore Ashton, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, New York, 1973, p.121, continuing: “ . . . one suspects that this reflects the influence of (James Johnson) Sweeney, whose passion for unframed paintings occasioned many comments years later when he was director of the Guggenheim Museum.”

31. William S. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, p. 82.
32. On the relation of such projects to photography, see Nancy Foote, “the Anti-Photographers,” Artforum, September 1976, pp. 46-54, here p. 54.

33. My thoughts on the relation between painting and hanging have gained from the stimulating series of Artforum articles, different in emphasis but occupying adjacent territory, by Brian O’Doherty: “Inside the White Cube Notes on the Gallery Space, Part I,” March 1976, pp. 24-30; “Part II, the Eye and the Spectator,” April 1976, pp. 26-34; “Part Ill, Context as Content,” November 1976, pp. 38-44.

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