PRINT September 1979

Space and Subjectivity: Four Painters

Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors; . . . actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.
—Donald Judd, in “Specific Objects,” 1965

THE FRONTALLY OF PAINTINGS immobilizes us. By its figure-ground relationships paint on a flat surface substitutes for relations of actual presences, texture and color, drowning will and intellect in sensation and emotion. To turn from real space to the conventional format of painting is to turn from action to stasis, from the here and now to vicarious existence in a projected future or a fixed past, even, possibly, from participation to alienation. Yet for artists in recent years to have found it worthwhile to take this turn again is only convincing, I think, because the source of expressive energy in art is found not in the format, the special “space” in which the work appears, but in the use of this format to evoke credible experience derived from real conflict.

Not that Judd was wrong about real space, which clearly did provide him with an appropriate format. The art of the 1960s drew its life from the viewer’s consciousness and presence, bringing to awareness the nature of that period’s most significant experience and the terms of its most crucial conflicts. By the mid-1960s the viewer’s mind had become the “ground” of works that were all “figure”—“primary structures” and Minimal works. In a different way, his or her presence and movements of mind and body also supplied the missing elements of figure and ground, scale and definition in color-field painting as well as in process and conceptual works. The viewer was both subject and object, consciousness and presence, and was both engaged and detached. The work drew its force first of all from the tension between image and object, perception and understanding, and then from the viewer’s sense of the interpenetration of subject and object in the world of human creations and of his awareness of the conflict, in that world, between function and action, adaptation and self-creation. When the Futurists insisted that figure and ground be integrated in 20th-century painting, they were demanding an end to alienation.1 The art of the ’60s carried Futurist theory to its logical conclusion with the annexation of actual space.

Actual space, then, is intrinsically powerful and specific in the sense that it is the space where alienation is overcome, where we discover ourselves in our world, our capabilities in what we do. But one event cannot be enacted there: the plunge into subjectivity, through alienation, where we discover the world in ourselves, the limits of our capabilities in what we believe. For the expression of that experience, paint on a flat surface is more specific than actual space because it can mean anything from inert materiality to intense sensation and emotion.

Before it is a picture of anything, a painting is a representation of consciousness. Indeed, the conventional format of Western painting, the rectangle on the wall, signifies for us the material/ideal duality of Western consciousness, the assumption of an enduring, objective material world (the post and lintel, the wall, the frame, the stretchers) contrasted with an ephemeral, “subjective” picture space in which human vitality becomes visible and intelligible. This psychic duality becomes a source of power in painting when it is objectified in dualities of figure and ground, feeling and structure, gesture and format. What painting now offers, however, is something Judd and his generation could not have foreseen: the opportunity to confront this duality as it has not been confronted since Abstract Expressionism, assimilating to the language of abstract painting the object orientation of the ’60s and yet drawing expressive force from the conflict between the unified intensity of “subjective” life—that is, of individual experience—and the implied dualities of the conventional format.

This opportunity has been seized by, among others, the four painters considered here: Peter Pinchbeck, Thornton Willis, Stewart Hitch and Vered Lieb. These artists are grouped together here because having developed in converging directions since the 1960s, they tend to define their concerns similarly. And their work shows a common involvement with certain issues surrounding the conventional painting format. Moreover, they have exhibited together over the past few years.2 (Certain other related artists may not define themselves or their concerns in quite the same terms as the four discussed here; I intend to eventually discuss their work in the same context.)

Peter Pinchbeck, a neo-Constructivist, had been showing large-scale environmental structures until the early 1970s. Having hung a painted plywood rectangle in front of a canvas in one of his constructions, he decided in about 1974 that he could get the color relationships he wanted simply by returning to painting. Thornton Willis’ color-field paintings, based on stripes and grids, had come out of process art around 1967; Willis then started to bend the stripes and to simplify his forms, beginning, about 1975, a series of paintings based on a triangular central shape and establishing heavy figure-ground tensions. Stewart Hitch, after a period of experimentation in which he produced shaped canvases and constructions that were, as he has put it, “outrageous in format and morose in color,” also began in the mid-’70s to simplify in a way that suggests, through the interchange of field and figure, a quirky, enigmatic personalism. Vered Lieb, the youngest of the group, traces her influences back to Eva Hesse’s window pieces and to color-field painting. In her more recent work framelike shapes float on darkish grounds; a cruciform space division appears in the newest paintings, where tension and ambiguity emerge through color densities and in indications of the actual painting process.

In the work of these artists, the dualities of the traditional format are forcefully confronted by placing intense expressive weight on the subjective side of the scale. Their paintings are nonrepresentational—pictures of consciousness, not of the world. They can also be considered, in a sense, pictorial—not in their imagery, but in their exploitation of figure-ground tension to create focus and scale and in their tendency, by reference to vertical and horizontal axes, to give a centered, stable physicality to each work. But these paintings are objects, not windows or even energy fields. They assert their being in real space through a physicality and density that holds attention beyond their initial impact and through readings in which ambiguities emerge. Such ambiguities—of figure and ground, mass and gesture, volume and two dimensionality—are not new to painting. But they are dwelt upon and explored so as to carry a much heavier investment of meaning than the rapid figure-ground alternations of hard-edge paintings (or even the understated ambiguities of earlier abstraction). In the process, the interpenetration of subject and object, observer and work becomes a hypothesis proved in experience, rather than an arresting metaphor. In these paintings the format and its compositional analogues are facts of perception, not symbols of transcendence. They assert two complementary truths: that perception is all there is for us and yet that sensation is a mental act.

In Peter Pinchbeck’s canvases, for example, a claim to integrity might normally be grounded in the geometric shapes that echo the geometry of the format, as it is in neo-Plastic and other Constructivist painting; the geometric shapes, it could also be claimed, have a certain life and spirituality generated by their conveyance of space, light, movement, harmony. Pinchbeck’s rectangles, however, assert themselves as paint, not as messengers from a realm of transcendent spirituality. Perceived as squares arranged in asymmetrical balance, they resist the esthetic demand for a resolution of tension. Yet color, in these paintings, dematerializes the format—just as color texture and gesture did for painters like Pollock and Rothko. In Pinchbeck’s Isomagnetic, the shapes constitute one plane. This plane either moves in front of or behind the plane of the field, or else it locks into the field so that the whole painting reads flat. Yet the color interactions negate the “flat” reading: the large area of a cadmium yellow field keeps the viewer aware of this field as space, or the illusion of space, while purple and bluish pink shapes embellish the gold quality of the yellow, making it read like radiance or light. A yellow shape in the center is cooler than the background yellow, so it normally would recede behind the ground color; yet this shape is pulled on by both the others, so that it appears optically suspended between them, as if by an unseen force. The dialogue between the shapes themselves and between the shapes and the field is continuous; at no point does one element dominate another. So is the interchange of illusionist “subjective” and literal “objective” readings. Thus Pinchbeck balances the “subjective” life of color and color relationships against the stability of the painting as object, without giving transcendent value to either. The ambiguity is pervasive, intense, resistant to resolution. The conflict between feeling and structure, implicit in earlier abstract painting, becomes explicit here.

If Pinchbeck’s rectangles are like personages engaged in a discussion, Thornton Willis’ central triangular shapes also have a certain human quality. Joseph Masheck has noted the portraitlike composition of one of these triangle paintings, as well as the double figure-ground alternation between its vertical and horizontal sides.3 But this kind of analysis does not fully account for the compelling presence of, for example, Willis’ Bisby, 1977, with its subtle yet strong tension between the flat “literalness” of the ground behind a gray triangle, and the dynamism of a diagonal edge that seems farther from the viewer than the vertical edge. The movement suggested here is like that of a door, its hinged side close to the viewer, opening into a room. And just this kind of dynamism can be seen in paintings as different from Bisby and, indeed, from each other, as a Velasquez portrait and a Matisse interior.4 In such earlier works, however, the movement into the picture space is a pleasing fiction, whereas in Bisby it is the source of a powerful but only gradually emerging tension. Thus the central triangular shape of the painting has enough volume, in terms of value and texture, and enough space around it, to be able to turn on its vertical edge, accounting in that way for the feeling that its diagonal edge recedes; but the red background contradicts this possibility with an uncompromising frontality.

In Bisby, movement toward the center remains subliminal, an unfulfilled expectation, something subjective. And with the principal tension between literal and subjective readings, other tensions emerge. The edges of the central shape, in their contrast of rigid and relaxed line, suggest something as massive and balanced as a standing human figure or a mountain in a Cézanne landscape, and yet this shape can also be read in negative, as if the red area were a curtain opening on air. Meanwhile, painterly brushing and flecking within the central gray form give it a certain shimmer, a translucence, and the layering of paint along the edges suggests atmosphere and process; but these suggestions are opposed, once more, by the relative flatness of the red ground color. Furthermore, the intensity of the red contradicts a “ground” reading for the area surrounding the triangle, while the texture and weight of the gray supports it. Thus a simple distinction between the objective, literal format and the subjective life within is subtly but deliberately undermined by ambiguity. The painting becomes a charged, weighty presence, as mysteriously “real” as objects or figures in actual space, and more expressive than an “object.”

Stewart Hitch’s work is the most striking of the group in its contrast between the stable, centered “object” quality of the format and the dynamism and personalism of a central shape. Hitch’s pictorial strategy begins with a visual assault as aggressive in its frontality as that of a poster or a comic strip. His central “starburst” figure contrasts with, and steps off, the ground, as the painting “steps off” the wall. His color relationships and the dynamism of the edges, which always look painted rather than cut, create a sharp tension in the central shape and between it and the ground. In Hitch’s recent canvases the figure is stylized and stable, fixed to the central axis. The more obvious dynamism of the “flying” shape that characterized some of his earlier starburst paintings here informs instead the motion and direction of strokes within the shape, and with a greater ambiguity in the reading. The central shape can now be interpreted as a figure on a ground and as a hole in a plane, as both expanding and contracting, as a living organism and as something crushed or sheared off (Still’s shapes). In terms of value, the figures in these paintings should be holes in the canvas, but the issue is confused by their density and animation, and by the layered edges that place them in front of warmer, lighter, normally more positive, ground colors. In certain paintings the sense of tension and movement may even suggest animate life, as if the figure were an individual going two separate ways.

Hitch’s central shape is actually bifurcated in the large 1979 oil painting C-C Rider, in which a dark blue central shape, recessive in terms of color and value, nevertheless seems to be folded back from a projecting vertical axis at the center of a deep red ground, like a sheet of paper folded down the center and cut into matching points along the edges. The calligraphic quality of earlier works gives way, in this painting, to a linear outlining that is achieved by using a narrower, long-handled brush. And the figure is more symmetrical, pinned even more emphatically to the central axis than similar figures in Hitch’s previous paintings. Yet the figure does maintain its ambiguity and dynamism. Its points are not really symmetrical; they do not match precisely, and they could be moving forward as well as back. Finally, they return the viewer to the perception of a richly textured, densely painted, many-layered shape with pointed, multicolored edges, a figure that is stable and centered, yet tense with a vitality that is a visual equivalent of life.

The vertical-horizontal axes of the canvas, a strongly felt presence in the work of the other three artists, emerges as an actual shape in Vered Lieb’s most recent paintings. Despite its insistent, elemental force, however, this cross reads in “negative,” becoming simply the area between four rectilinear shapes whose outer edges extend, in imagination, beyond the stretchers, and whose inner edges create the cross shape as they either pull away from the center of the canvas or move on a collision course toward it. An untitled 1979 acrylic painting adds further readings, with deliberate complexity, to this basic opposition of static and dynamic elements. In one of these interpretations, two lower quadrants of the canvas, ultramarine blue rectangles that are more densely painted, hence darker than the upper ones, pull down vertically against racing horizontals. In another painting, four separate blue rectangles in-habit a yellow space, their separateness asserted in discontinuities of line, value, and color and in the individual layering evinced by traces of color along their edges—in one corner, for instance, traces of red under the blue suggest the density of a cast shadow. Tension and ambiguity arise through small adjustments: discontinuities of line; densities of color achieved by layering—blue over red, yellow over orange—rather than by volumetric illusion. In the traces of layering are also indicators of the “real” in terms of process. The painting remains an object charged with color, its surface divided by a simple frontal composition, while a controlled complexity of possible readings works to invest with subjective force its literal, almost schematically simple, composition.

The paintings of these artists, then, grapple from the start with the contradictions of the traditional painting format. As a fictional convention, this format permits intense expression to “subjective,” alienated experience; but it exacts a certain price for this expression, the intensity side drawing from the credibility side. So these paintings must work formally, must be read carefully in terms of focus and scale, space and color, in order to open up the possibility of expression and feeling. Beyond that, however, they raise basic questions: What is objective, acted upon? What is subject, actor? How does feeling relate to structure, format to consciousness?

One must recognize that some objects are also subjects, just as some figures are grounds. A feeling achieves expression by submitting to the prevailing consciousness, as it is embodied in a conventional format; but the intensity of the feeling—its life, its truth, compared with the inertness of the convention—can undermine the conventional format and, with it, the prevailing consciousness. The format of painting, like other fictional conventions, is as provisional and arbitrary as the forms within it. Literal fact and literal space are indeed no more than varieties of perception, as provisional and arbitrary as fiction, and as true.

Anita Feldman



1. As Joshua Taylor points out, the Futurists’ depiction of movement was only one aspect of their concern with the interplay between object and environment, their desire, as the 1910 Manifesto put it, to place the spectator “in the center of the painting;” “Rather than rebelling against the Impressionists as did the Cubists, they looked upon them, rather than on Cézanne, as the founders of modern art. They agreed with them that no object, moving or still, can be seen in isolation, but absorbs its surroundings just as it contributes to them,” Joshua C. Taylor, “The Futurist Goal, The Futurist Achievement,” Patricia Kaplan and Susan Manso, eds, Major European Art Movements, New York, 1977, p. 169.

2. Pinchbeck, Willis, Hitch and Lieb showed together at the Cayman Gallery in December 1976; Pinchbeck, Willis, and Hitch at Artworks, December 1978.

3. Joseph Masheck, “Iconicity,” Artforum, January 1979, p. 32.

4. See Portrait of a Buffoon of Philip IV, by Velasquez (Prado) and Interior with Goldfish, by Matisse (Barnes Foundation).