PRINT September 1983


A discourse that would be neither of the order of reduction nor of the order of promise.
—Michel Foucault

IN 1966 BARNETT NEWMAN stretched a large rectangular canvas, the height of a man, and covered it almost entirely with a brilliant red, bracketing this with a narrow yellow strip on the right-hand side and a slightly broader blue strip on the left. In 1969, he commented on it as follows:

I began this, my first painting in the series “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,” as a “first” painting, unpremeditated. I did have the desire that the painting be asymmetrical and that it create a space different from any I had ever done, sort of—off balance. It was only after I had built up the main body of red that the problem of color became crucial, when the only colors that would work were yellow and blue.

It was at this moment that I realized that I was now confronting the dogma that color must be reduced to the primaries, red, yellow and blue. Just as I had confronted other dogmatic positions of the purists, neo-plasticists and other formalists, I was now in confrontation with their dogma, which had reduced red, yellow and blue into an idea-didact, or at best had made them picturesque. Why give in to these purists and formalists who have put a mortgage on red, yellow and blue, transforming these colors into an idea that destroys them as colors? I had, therefore, the double incentive of using these colors to express what I wanted to do—of making these colors expressive rather than didactic and of freeing them from the mortgage. Why should anybody be afraid of red, yellow and blue?1

When Newman said this the triad of “primary” colors—and perhaps even color itself—seemed to have been heavily mortgaged; indeed, the very activity of painting seemed to have become impossible. Frank Stella had shown his large black canvases in 1959 and, in the climate of minimalism that followed, the few painters who were associated with it, such as Jo Baer, Robert Mangold, and Brice Marden, were working in grays or with a very muted palette; Robert Ryman, the best of these painters, had opted exclusively for white. Eventually this prohibition against color stood as a prohibition against painting altogether. In Europe as well, ever since Yves Klein, with his International Klein Blue Monochromes, his Monopinks, and his Mono-golds, had claimed, as Pierre Restany says, “to implement the symbolic transmutation of the basic colors blue, red and yellow,” the latter seemed to have been mortgaged. Responding to Klein, Piero Manzoni had emptied his canvases of all color, arriving at the Achrome, and the Zero group, in Germany and Holland, had followed in his footsteps.

When Newman said this. it was also one year before his death, one year before Mark Rothko’s death. and two years after Ad Reinhardt’s. “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” sounds like a challenge to the great “religious” painters of his generation—to Rothko, soon to be driven to suicide by his dark bichromes; to Reinhardt, who since 1960 had been repeating his “ultimate painting” in black, to himself: and above all to Death. The challenge is a bold one, relayed in a series of four canvases, the last and the largest of which, barely finished at Newman’s death, articulates two large symmetrical squares, one red and one yellow, on either side of a blue rectangle. Around this blue, a reputedly archaic color, the color of melancholy and childhood, this painting and its title allow history to be read in two directions. Who were those “purists, neoplasticists and other formalists” who had put a mortgage on red, yellow, and blue? Looking back in history, it was chiefly Piet Mondrian who was the target. Looking forward, it was those younger painters to whom the old Newman was preparing, willy-nilly, to pass the torch, and who, in the orbit of minimalism, claimed his canvases but rejected his esthetics. And it was to Death as it was carrying off the last great painters of the sublime, and with them, perhaps, painting itself, that the canvas and its title addressed their challenge in their own present time.

Such is the meaning of Newman’s question: it is about fear and its two historical addressees. Looking ahead, what is at stake is how to redeem the mortgage on painting’s survival. Looking back, it is the lucidity with which one fearlessly takes stock of this mortgage. It may be that the die is cast. Painters have every reason to be afraid of red, yellow, and blue—not so much, as Newman seemed to believe, because Mondrian, the “purists, neo-plasticists and other formalists,” have made them into their exclusive domain, but because the radical, purist but antiformalist statement of this triad perhaps ended painting altogether. The guilty party is Alexander Rodchenko. In 1921, at the “5x5 = 25” exhibition in Moscow, he showed three monochrome canvases side by side, one red, one yellow, and one blue, and explained them as follows: “I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: It’s all over. Basic colors.”2

At a time when, in the most cynical fashion, a “return to painting” is being staged, amounting to an epistemological regression in relation to Rodchenko’s radical move, and to an esthetic regression in relation to Newman’s quality of work, the question “who’s afraid of red, yellow, and blue?” takes on the value of a critical and historical tool. With fear as an index of truth, it raises the crucial and urgent problem: how are we to judge whether, yes or no, painting today is dead? As a question allowing history to be read in two directions, it compels a methodology; even more, an ethics. This methodology cannot be other than historical, quite the opposite of current historicism. Whereas the latter, in art as well as criticism, operates solely through quotations, appropriations, and falsifications of history, the questioning of artistic facts as they came about is what will be sought here. By “facts as they came about” it is meant that these facts are often works, sometimes texts relating to them, always interpretations, always judgments. For a work of art is made of nothing but the esthetic judgments interpreting the history to which they belong. Thus it should be out of the question to upset the judgments delivered by history, without further trial, on the pretext of revising the history of Modern painting, since those judgments in fact constitute the works we have inherited from it. In concrete terms, it should be out of the question, on the pretext of post-Modernism, to consign Mondrian, Rodchenko, or Newman to oblivion, as if Julian Schnabel, Sandro Chia, or Gérard Garouste—who do not bear comparison—could without further trial take their place in an amnesiac account of history.

What is involved here, then, since “artistic facts as they came about” must still be questioned? What is involved—and this is the whole ethical dimension—is a further trial. That is to say that interpretations will be reinterpreted and judgments reconsidered, but without ever forgetting that judgment has been rendered, the verdict of which, on our historical scale in any case, remains irrevocable. It is also to say that the fact that Mondrian is a great painter has been established, probably for all time, and that no historical revision can reverse that judgment. And it is finally to say that if Mondrian’s name must again be put on trial, it could only be because of a prejudice, and in front of an unprejudiced court, for whom the question of painting’s survival, which is part of the question of Modernism and of the meaning of modernity, remains unsettled.

The two questions that arise on either side of the historic divide represented by Newman’s painting and challenge echo each other. We “post-Moderns” would say: does painting after abstraction—hence with abstraction, since its history cannot be erased—still have a future? Early Modernism, on the other hand, would have asked: does painting, on the verge of becoming abstract, still have a past? This latter question, which is that of the relation of the avant-garde to tradition, is entirely a question of legitimacy and foundation. Ours is no longer of this order. It is but a program of reinterpretation dealing with established legitimacies, but also with failed acts of foundation. Between these two questions stands fear. There is the fear that early abstract Modernism, and all the futurist enthusiasm and revolutionary fervor it carried with it, must one day be severely judged by the tribunal of history as a naïve and monstrous hope that would give birth to all sorts of terrors. But above all, there is also the fear that if one is lured into making this judgment, one then gives up all hope and surrenders to those political and artistic forces whose only answer to avant-garde “terrorism” has always been the most massive oppression. Our fear, however undecidable its outcome, is the index of truth that is to guide the judgment that the present times impose on us. And it is itself to be interpreted around the axis of symmetry set up by Newman.

“Who’s afraid of red, yellow, and blue?”, a phrase that can translate into “Who’s afraid of Rodchenko?”, bears within itself a double bind. It is a provocation to which the only reply is dismissal or denial. I can only say: not me! But as soon as I have said that, I have to back it up. If I say that Rodchenko doesn’t frighten me and that, quite the contrary, there is nothing in art I value so much as a radical annihilating move aimed at ending the ideology of autonomous painting and leading to a revolutionary social practice, then I am soon led to construct a very thin history of art based exclusively on works whose whole impact exhausts itself in absolute negativity, esthetic rarefaction, and ideological destruction. But I could not blind myself to the extent of not seeing that the Russian Productivists, like the Soviet revolution, have failed, nor that in the West, all the art that has built upon this revolutionary program or one like it constantly runs the risk either of ceasing to exist as art, or of reinforcing the system it is fighting against. This already was Theodor Adorno’s dilemma. But Adorno, and the 1960s generation of his readers, still disposed of an imaginary supply of future time. Adorno’s hatred of affirmation was the most affirmative profession of faith in the world. The cultural crisis of the ’80s, social regression and repression, Reaganomics and Thatcherism have taken away that supply of future time. Revolutionary faith has been turned inside out in the punk slogan: no future! If, then, I say that Rodchenko doesn’t frighten me, in truth he frightens me a great deal more than I dare to admit. If I go on adhering to the artistic and ideological program of the most revolutionary branch of Modernism, all I have on my side is radical pessimism, nihilism, and despair.3

Between nihilism and cynicism there is but a thin line. From an impotent and disappointed revolutionary commitment to the position of a disillusioned spectator who ends up reveling in the corruption of his or her own hopes, it is a short step if I say: Rodchenko doesn’t frighten me, for the full stop to which the red, yellow, and blue triptych brings painting tolls the knell only of Modernist painting. Once false hopes have been dissipated, once the purism of the “neo-plasticists and other formalists” has been abandoned, once Rodchenko has been both stigmatized and glorified as the extreme example of impotence, I can shamelessly reappropriate painting, beginning with all that Modernism wanted to exclude: expressionism and sovereign subjectivity, figurative work and good old perspective, literary eclecticism, Salon painting and decorative delights. The whole past of painting is available, and there lies its future. I feel triumphant. Even Mondrian’s asceticism, Newman’s sublime, and Rothko’s transcendence belong to me—on the one hand as images, at the most as styles, and on the other hand as discourses, as words I no longer have to believe in nor whose demands I even have to understand in order to claim them as my own. The time for looting has come. The discourse that valorizes it by regressing toward mock-up religious or subjectivist metaphors hardly succeeds in masking its true nature. It is the discourse of hegemony, of Capital and State, the discourse of the marketplace and of generalized exchange. Thus if I say that Rodchenko doesn’t frighten me, it means I’m on that side, whether from cynicism or naïveté, out of class interest or because nihilism has brought me there by a series of stages leading from disillusionment to despair. But if I have the least concern for art, if I make any demands of painting, and if I am not afraid of red, yellow, and blue, then I must be mad, unconscious in my failure to see that I should be all the more frightened for red, yellow, and blue—because all the symptoms of decadence, fin-de-siècle byzantinism, kitsch, and the mercantile absorption of the arts into the entertainment industry are already here.

This is the double bind in which the current injunction to be post-Modern, coming at us from all sides, is caught. To deny our fear is to give in to it, out of impotence or treachery, in any case out of blindness to the true meaning of the word post-Modern, which is fear. What makes us so anxious not to be Modern any longer? What pushes us to repeat the tradition of a break just when we are beginning to understand that Modernist ideology erred in its image of a break with tradition? These are questions that it will take time to elucidate, and that are hard to express or to hear amid the manic-depressive syndrome that has seized the art world in the last few years. For we don’t even know what it is that we have to mourn. The revolutionary utopias of radical Modernism? In that case painting is apt to survive in fashion and eclecticism, and art will thereby gain a new social integration with its special slot in the industry of leisure. But at what price, since we will then also have to mourn the esthetic and moral demands that we have been brought up to make by Modern “purism.” If, on the other hand, we are to remain faithful to those demands, we will have to mourn for painting, and perhaps for everything we call art, from the moment we claim for it a social resonance broader than that of critical allegories for the initiated. The price to be paid is not less onerous. Post-Modernism is a loser on all counts, and we don’t even know how to name what has been lost. Perhaps we will know once the mourning is accomplished. We must therefore accomplish it.

Mourning means neither sinking into melancholy, nor clinging frantically to the phantoms of past promises. It means working for survival, giving oneself chances for the future by reworking the past. The mourning process must begin with the recognition of an ever-present fear, which is always the fear of death. But in this context fear can act as a lever. Once I have recognized that I am afraid of red, yellow, and blue, afraid of Rodchenko, Newman’s challenge raises a paradox. Of the two questions extending from there, one belongs to the dawn of Modernism, the other to its twilight. The first was, does abstract painting still have a past?; the second, does painting after abstraction still have a future? Both are dictated by fear, both demand a courageous answer which may be simply to ignore the question without, for all that, putting it out of mind. The paradox lies not only in the symmetry of the questions, but also in the historical position of the senders and addressees. In 1912, when painters as different as Wassily Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay, Frantisek Kupka, Kasimir Malevich, and Mondrian were about to switch to abstraction, they were also about to break with the whole past of Western painting. Of this break they were all highly conscious, and they all hesitated before crossing the threshold. Their audacity was not blind recklessness but the courage to address the question that they had been asking themselves to a recipient still absent. It was to the future that they addressed the question of the past of abstract painting, and we are the ones who receive it, together with the set of answers given to it by modernity. Correspondingly, the question of the future of painting which we are asking ourselves ought to be addressed to the past. Here the paradox is more obvious. The first abstract painters couldn’t expect tradition to legitimize abstraction; they could only cast ahead of themselves their demand for legitimization, and that is the primary meaning of the word avant-garde. It seems equally reasonable for us, who are concerned about the future of painting, to ask the future to calm or confirm our anxieties. Yet the future will not tell what will have been the future of painting today. Or rather, yes, no doubt it will tell, but it won’t say anything significant unless it also receives an answer from the past. From what past? Possibly the whole of the past, since there is nothing in memory, certainly nothing it has repressed, that cannot be reactivated. But it is above all modernity, this Modern(ist) past which we are told we no longer belong to, that will or will not legitimize the painting of tomorrow. It is for it to say whether, yes or no, what we have called painting during modernity, which includes ancient painting, will have ceased to exist and whether, yes or no, the practices that may replace it will have maintained the link with their pictorial prehistory. Thus the future of painting addresses its demand for legitimization to the Modernist past.

Such a statement is highly problematical, since it bears an uncanny resemblance to the various neotraditionalist and historicist positions currently dominating the art scene, if it does not appear as a simple reiteration of the formalist position. Yet it is radically opposed to them, the whole question being to know, in the long term, how modernity is to be defined and, in the short term, how this demand for legitimization is to be formulated. When Clement Greenberg, who is probably the only critic of his generation to have constantly upheld the link existing between Modern painting and the pre-Modernist tradition, declared, right in the middle of the minimalist period, that only the art of painting is capable of incorporating the quality standards transmitted by, say, Jackson Pollock and Newman, he indeed was asking the new art which was supposed to usher in the future to justify itself vis à vis its Modernist past. But he made several mistakes, of which not the least consisted in holding an a priori concept of what painting is, a concept which came to him from too narrow a reading of history and which served him as a yardstick for prejudging the future. Greenberg’s views have not withstood the verdict of the ’60s and ’70s but at least he had an acute sense of the paradox (of which he was finally himself a victim), saying that it is when an avant-garde breaks with tradition that it deserves to be called traditional. But when in 1979 Barbara Rose organized an exhibition entitled American Painting: the Eighties, offering as justification for her prediction a text that is nothing but a collection of clichés, some Greenbergian, some mechanically anti-Greenbergian, concerning a supposed essence of painting, it was clear that Greenberg’s prejudice had been turned into the most grotesque caricature. Here was criticism undertaking to prophesy a tradition to be legitimized in advance by a middle-class, watered-down version of Modernism.4 When Jean Clair, in the name of a certain impasse in minimal and conceptual art, which he must have noticed as editor of L’Art vivant, dodged the whole of modernity so as to return to “sound” values such as technique, genre painting, pre-Cézannean esthetics or “the classical tradition, i.e., the tradition of permanence,” he demonstrated a wicked way of looking at history. He too calls on Modernism in order to-legitimize what he believes to be a “new subjectivity”—but only as a foil or else as an obstacle that the painters he considers to be sensitive, like R.B. Kitaj or Jim Dine, have been able to integrate by refusing.5 When Achille Bonito Oliva, anxious like everyone else about the “bankruptcy” of the avant-garde, coined the word “transavant-garde” as a name for a group of Italian painters who indiscriminately plunder the forms of minimalism as well as of Marc ChagalI or Giorgio di Chirico, he was confronting two questions which are indeed raised by Modernism, and asking the new painting to take them into account. These are the death of art and/or its impotence to change society, and the linear, “progressive” vision of history. But what he was leading up to was the statement that the painting he speaks of shows a “need for catastrophe” which liberates a nomad individuality owing no responsibility to history and consequently having “no privileged ethic.”6 And when Rudi Fuchs renounced the rigorous policy that until a few years ago he was carrying out at the Eindhoven Museum and put the last Documenta under the auspices of two neo-classical allegories, Painting and Sculpture, he was referring to the supreme Modernist fantasy, that of specificity, and one wonders with what degree of sarcasm. When in the exhibition plan he purposely mixed the Neue Wilden with the artists who at the end of the ’60s had pushed a certain form of Modernism to its furthest consequences, he was undoubtedly reshuffling the cards of history, but one wonders with what confusion in mind.

And when he declared with a straight face that he wanted to present the elegiac journey of our artist-heroes toward the “English Garden” represented by the museum, as a way of reflecting “our desire for a clear order and a quiet atmosphere,” he was no longer hiding the fact that the new art, however “revolutionary” it may be, is always in the end called to appear before the instituted Past, but one wonders with what cynicism he indulged so blatantly in the perversions of power.7

None of these people—and other names should be mentioned—has the excuse of ignorance or irresponsibility. At most one can grant them the mitigating circumstances of fear. But it is unacknowledged fear, except perhaps in the cases of Greenberg, who had already expressed it very coolly on paper in 1940, and of Jean Clair, whose apocalyptic overtones, disturbing as they are, strike one as more truthful than the technocratic triumphalism displayed by Barbara Rose’s and Rudi Fuchs’s positions. But if one grants them that, one must on the other hand incriminate them for their pursuit of power. Whether influential critic, manipulator of the market, or curator or director of a museum, the people mentioned here have sought or are seeking the power to intervene in the history of art. And this not only oppresses the most vital art of today, not only directs and deforms judgment, but risks further mortgaging the chances of a reinterpretation of the history of Modernism.

It is in this sense that the future of painting—or of art—addresses its demand for legitimization to the Modernist past. It’s not to just any Modernism or, to put it rather foolishly, to the Modernist vision of Modernism, nor indeed to the anti-Modernist vision that is rampant today. It is to a Modernism that is still waiting to be reinterpreted. Anti-Modernism is usually satisfied to reverse the value judgments of orthodox Modernism or Modernisms (there are several of these, but in the present context, particularly in the United States, Greenberg’s version is still dominant). It makes only a superficial attack on Modernism’s interpretations. Some critics and historians, who have not renounced modernity nor even completely abandoned “formalist criticism” as part of their working method, have begun the task of a serious reinterpretation of Modernism. But a lot remains to be done, that can be done only if one starts by sorting out as far as possible, on a theoretical level, what pertains to judgment and what to interpretation.

It ought to be an established fact that the judgments that have made history in the period from Manet to Pollock and beyond are without remission. Concerning artists as undisputed as these or Mondrian or Newman, or Marcel Duchamp, for that matter, any revisionism would be absurd or monstrous. The consequences indeed would be serious and immediate. For if one says that Alexandre Cabanel is after all perhaps superior to Manet, one will also say that Puvis de Chavannes is superior to Cézanne, André Derain superior to Picasso, Isaac Brodski and Alexander Laktionov to El Lissitzky, and one will perhaps end by finding that Hitler was right in wanting to burn “degenerate art.” The slightest revision of judgment bearing on a key figure in Modern art runs the risk of carrying in its wake the auto-da-fé of the whole of Modernism. And this is not because, as one might be inclined to think, there is an unbroken and irreversible chain of progress in which artists are linked to one another throughout the course of a one-way history, but because no work of art exists alone, being always the interpretation of at least one other work. What makes Manet, Cézanne, or Lissitzky key figures is also what binds them together. On the one hand there is the relevance of the interpretations the works propose of one another by order of historical succession; on the other, the resonance that ranks these interpretations around a limited number of focal points echoing each other in all directions, forward and backward, mainstream and fringe, specific and trans-specific.

It is one thing to interpret the history of art as an artist, another to interpret it as a critic or historian. Nevertheless both parties have this in common—that everything begins and ends in esthetic judgment. For example, Picasso sticking a piece of oilcloth onto his canvas in the Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, was making an esthetic decision which is by the same token a relevant interpretation, and one that is new and pregnant with further developments, of the contradictions that Cubism had inherited from Cèzannean space. And when the art historian chooses Picasso as a leading figure, and when in the art of Picasso he chooses the collage as the motif of an historical perspective in which it is connected with Tatlin’s “Counter-reliefs,” Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbilder or Duchamp’s Readymades, his work has also begun with an esthetic judgment, and will end in that judgment, partially esthetic, partially other, by which he valorizes these artists to the detriment of others. The difference is that his judgment is not by the same token an interpretation, or at least not an explicit interpretation, and explicitness is required of the historian, whereas it is absolutely not required of the artist. The historian and the critic are obliged to give reasons for their judgments, to explain them and build an interpretation of the works that places them in a context which is, more often than not, their historicity. Furthermore, their discourse constantly refers to that of other historians and critics, either refuting them or taking them over, either amplifying them or cutting them down. None of this is required of artists. Although their culture, ideology, and taste are formed by what they have read and learned about art as much as by their firsthand acquaintance with works, and indeed by many other things, no one should expect them to make explicit in their work the interpretation which that work embodies. The esthetic judgments out of which a work arises—and in the making of art the only judgments that count are esthetic ones8—do not require any explicit motivation, justification, or explanation whatsoever.

In a way, of course, this is also true of the historian and the critic. Inasmuch as their work begins and ends in esthetic judgment, they have as much right as anyone to the most arbitrary subjectivity. But it is their job to produce a rationale for their verdicts, with the imminence of another verdict to be rendered in their own case, of which they must know they run the risk. What they submit to the judgment of others is not simply their esthetic judgment but rather the interpretation explaining, justifying, or amplifying it. And this, needless to say, is not to be judged esthetically. It is to be judged interpretively. The discursive history of art—which must be distinguished de jure (even if de facto this is not such an easy task) from the operative history of art, entirely immanent in the opera, the works—is thus made up of interpretations that expose themselves to the verdict of other interpretations.

What is being hinted at here is that there exists a certain degree of independence and some mutual resistance between what has been referred to as artistic facts “as they came about” and the discourses that retrospectively have built them into a logical historical pattern. Although this may look like a truism, it is not. For every precaution must be taken to avoid the misconception that what is here intended is a revival of the old ideology of the autonomy of art, according to which artworks can perfectly well dispense with theories and interpretations: that being sufficient unto themselves, they enjoy complete immunity and impunity with regard to what critics and art historians may have to say about them. This is not true. Artworks have everything to do with theories and interpretations, and not only with those which the artists supply on their own account in texts and manifestoes. They have everything to do with them because they themselves are theoretical and interpretive, owing their status as works of art not to the skill or technique of artists, nor to their ideas or intentions, but rather to their esthetic judgments. And these are unquestionably interpretations, but—and this is the point—interpretations that cannot interpret themselves. If they could that would mean either that the work in question was not the resultant of esthetic judgments but the illustration of a pre-existing theory (and there are of course many cases of this, which adds to the confusion), or that what is called its self-reference amounted to a tautology offering no hold to criticism (and this does not exist, whatever some may think). In the first case works of art would be merely ideological and without any specificity; in the second case they would exist as absolutely autonomous and hermetic monads not accountable to ideology, history or the outside world. As neither case is admissible, it must be concluded that works of art worthy of the name are concretions of esthetic judgments which interpret other, earlier or at the most contemporary ones, but which as interpretations remain suspended, awaiting other, later interpretations which will make the former explicit. Depending on whether those subsequent interpretations are themselves works of art, i.e., concretions of esthetic judgments, or critical discourses, the history they recount—for in both cases it is a history—will not look the same.

The operative history of art jumps from esthetic judgment to esthetic judgment and, although interpretations are embodied in them, these may well remain implicit all along the historical chain—or network. The discursive history of art moves along from interpretation to interpretation and, although esthetic judgments preside over them, the work of justifying these is never completed. The two histories, needless to say, are closely intertwined, constantly crisscrossing and sometimes going part of the way together. That they are very often inextricable de facto makes it all the more urgent to sort them out de jure. For they do not separate out simply into the history of works and the “history of history,” or history of criticism. It may happen that art criticism wishes to escape the mode of commentary, to become art itself, an “isomorphic and displaced text”—to borrow Julia Kristeva’s expression—taking the work as its pre-text. The intellectual—i.e. ethical—decline of the group around Tel Quel is there to testify to the kind of dangers that this attitude can lead to. When criticism claims to be art, it is no longer prepared to submit itself to intellectual judgment, and all sorts of falsifications of the facts “as they came about,” all sorts of betrayals become possible. There have also been examples of a symmetrical danger when art takes the form of criticism. It may happen that an artist seeks to reduce all art, not only his own, but that of others as well, to a critical discourse, regurgitating this discourse as a work of art. The case of conceptual art, mainly that of Joseph Kosuth and Art & Language, is a prime example of this attitude and is probably largely responsible for the traumatisms the avant-garde is undergoing today and their various regressive consequences. Kosuth has presented successively a variety of theoretical interpretations of art which, while inaccurate, are not at all without interest, but he has presented them as art and as if they were self-interpreting, which removes them from interpretive judgments and moreover greatly confuses the issue of the nature of esthetic judgment.

These two examples show that we have all the more to gain by distinguishing decisively between the operative and the discursive histories of art, that it neither can nor may be ignored that they are constantly interfering with each other, influencing each other, stimulating or inhibiting each other. It is imperative to emphasize what distinguishes them from each other and to repeat that, in the operative history, the interpretations which are embodied in the concretions of esthetic judgments constituted by the works might well (but this would be an extreme case) remain implicit throughout the entire historical network, whereas, in the discursive history, the esthetic judgments presiding over the interpretations and taken up or challenged by succeeding criticism and reinterpretations never achieve ultimate justification and foundation. Thus it is not in the name of the discursive history of art that revisionism is rejected here. The judgments consecrating even such artists as Mondrian or Newman will never be finally justified in such a way as to be rendered absolute and objective. Rather, revisionism is here rejected in the name of the operative history of “Modernist” art, postulated as valid. It must be so postulated, and a postulate requires no justification. It is a wager, it is in itself a judgment, not caused by a motivation but regulated by a maxim and sensed to be true thanks to a feeling. In these disenchanted days, the feeling is fear, and the maxim close to what Ernst Bloch called Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The principle hope).

The work that should proceed from all this belongs to the discursive history of Modernism, but addresses itself to it only very indirectly. Tackling it head-on would involve endless ideological refutations and counter-interpretations of the accepted readings of the history of Modern art. It addresses itself to the operative history of Modernism and sets itself the program of questioning artistic facts “as they came about,” i.e., as they partake in a history that jumps from one esthetic judgment to another, the immanent interpretive relevance of which is postulated. The operative history resists the discursive history as it has been written by orthodox schools of Modernism down to the present time; above all it resists the various reactionary reappraisals that today are attempting to reappropriate it the better to silence it. It is to that operative history that the pictorial and artistic practices of tomorrow are already addressing their demand for legitimization. It is not to the museum, neither to the museum-as-temple which the Rudi Fuchses claim to have reinstituted, not to the museum-as-machine which, like Beaubourg, gives us a foretaste of what art will be when it has been entirely absorbed by the industry of leisure. These two museums—the first being in fact nothing more than a pre- or anti-Modern ideological mask for the second, infinitely more real phenomenon—now function and are destined to function to an increasing degree as conditions that artists cannot ignore. Their work ought to show that these conditions have been taken into account if they don’t want to let themselves be manipulated by an institution that has usurped its legitimizing authority. But the museum is not their real interlocutor, it has never been the legitimate interlocutor of artists of authentic ambition, and now that it no longer legislates by autocratic rejection but by compulsive ingestion, it will be less and less of one. The artists of the future will have the same interlocutor that artists have always had, that is to say, tradition. So what if the word has become suspect, monopolized as it is by those who deploy it against modernity’?9 We must take it back from them, and quickly, and identify it with what the most significant avant-gardes of modernity have been. Tradition is the operative history of Modernism—as well as its roots in ancient art, with which Modernism’s break is less radical than is generally believed—as it still largely remains to be rewritten in a discursive history that would be congruent to it.

A priori, there is no criterion for this hoped-for congruence, nor any guarantee that it can be obtained. If there were to be a criterion, it would be the following: if the rewriting is “correct” on the discursive level, it will bear fruit on the operative level, It ought then to open up new possibilities for the art of tomorrow, clearly blocked at present by both orthodox Modernism and the revisionism that has arisen in opposition to it. Conversely, it is only the realization of these possibilities that will be able to prove whether this rewriting has been “correct,” or rather, relevant. The criteria for the “scientificity” of the art-historical discourse are not concerned with logical truth nor primarily with empirical accuracy; they are criteria for fecundity. And fecundity can be verified only after the event, This does not dispense the art historian from respecting artistic facts “as they came about,” nor does it authorize him or her to predict them as they will come about. The discursive history of Modernism can only be retrospective. If it is to be declared relevant it will be from the vantage point of a prospective piece of the operative history of what can perhaps be termed, but not at the dictate of fear, post-Modernism. And that prospective piece—the post-Modern art that has not yet been made—will not get its relevance from a retrospective reassessment of Modernism through art-historical discourse. The paradox remains open and the mutual relationship between Modernism as discourse and post-Modernism as practice remains unequal. The historian, as always, depends much more on the artist than the artist on the historian. At the most the latter can confirm by an interpretation of tradition the judgments that some artists will make and are already making, at the most he or she can prepare the way for their reception and hasten their resonance But if the historian is wrong, that will in no way prevent the artistic facts of Modernism from existing “as they came about,” nor prevent them from being the arbiter—that is, the tribunal of tradition—before which post-Modernism will be summoned to appear.

We must now turn back to the two questions which occupy a historically symmetrical position on either side of Newman’s challenge. The first abstract painters asked themselves “does painting still have a past?”, and they addressed their question to the future. We on the other hand ask ourselves “does painting still have a future?”, and we address our question to the past. This means that the pioneers of abstraction had their tradition ahead of them, whereas we have it behind us. They were not yet “Modernists,” and we no longer are. They were prepared to found something by the name of abstraction, or pure painting, or die gegenstandslose Welt (the nonobjective world) for which no legitimization was at hand yet. and we are the belated recipients of that something which in our eyes no longer requires legitimization. This question has been settled by history, probably in the early ’30s, when such movements as Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création suddenly spread abstract art and were already beginning to make it academic. And it is obvious that for us the opposition between figurative and abstract art is no longer relevant and has no bearing whatsoever on the future of painting. What does have a bearing remains the question of foundation. If tomorrow’s painting does not in some way account for what was founded by abstract art, it will declare itself irresponsible before its tradition. If the esthetic judgments it emits do not also interpret this question of foundation or foundations, something crucial for the reinterpretation of Modernism will once again have been evaded or repressed. This question then ought to be reconsidered on the theoretical level as well; indeed, it is the first question which the discursive history of a Modernism to be reinterpreted ought to tackle.

Now, of course, we do not believe in this question of foundation anymore; this is one aspect of post-Modern skepticism. We are wary of all claims to a tabula rasa, and of prophets telling us that a new order has sprung out of a clean sweep. We are too well aware of the failure of abstract painting on this level. It has not succeeded in being that plastic language, that universal grammar of the visible, that we were promised as a liberation from all the tyrannies of academicism, and the open door to a culture which at last would be accessible to all. The “revolutionary” hopes of abstract art, whether “idealist” or “materialist,” have faded, and seventy years later we are still affected by that traumatism. If the question of foundation is to be reworked today, it is obviously not in order to justify its ideology. Nor is it in order to denounce it. It will be largely in order to analyze it.

That the first abstract painters should have felt the need for a discursive justification, in addition to the esthetic judgments from which their works stemmed, is not a matter of indifference. That while expecting from the future that their practice be legitimized, they should still have felt the need for a discursive legitimization valid in their own eyes and for their immediate circle, cannot be disregarded. But what cannot be disregarded either is that their works are not reducible to their discourses; that, in accordance with what has been said above, they are concretions of esthetic judgments interpreting other, fatally earlier ones, and that, therefore, despite the ideology of the tabula rasa to which most of the founders of abstract art subscribed, the question of foundation is not one that can be resolved in the very terms in which it is formulated. It can be resolved, as has always been the case, in terms of tradition and, in this instance, of the pre-Modern tradition, or at least the pre-abstract tradition. The pioneers of abstraction addressed their demand for legitimization to the future, because, for a multitude of reasons, they had no choice. And the future has granted their demand. But the future has granted it for quite other reasons than the ones put forward by the discourse of legitimization that those painters gave themselves. Abstract painting has not been legitimized because its revolutionary promises have been fulfilled, but on the contrary despite the fact that they have not been fulfilled. It has been legitimized because, amid all the proclamations of a break, the link with pictorial tradition has been maintained, and because this has been perceived, although it has rarely been treated as a theme in itself by the written history of orthodox Modernism.10

If the discourses of justification that surround the birth of abstract art are to be reconsidered, it must be with the utmost respect for the texts themselves, reading them less for their ideological content than for the function of authorization they exercised over the passage to abstract art and for their fecundity for practice. It turns out that—in a number of cases which remain to be studied one by one—this fecundity is independent of the logical or “scientific” truth of these discourses, and even independent of their ideological meaning, whether “bourgeois” or “revolutionary,” “regressive” or “progressive,” etc. Thus they are to be treated in the same way as the discourse of chemistry on phlogiston before Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, or that of physics on ether before Einstein, might be treated today, i.e., as errors that have nonetheless proved historically fertile. What these discourses have fertilized does not belong to the order of discourse but to that of practice. It does not belong to the order of that language which moves along from interpretation to interpretation without ever evoking the judgments that set it going. It belongs to the order of that judgment which is by the same token an interpretation, that of esthetic judgment.11 Thus it is useful to ask oneself what esthetic matrix has been rendered fertile by the discourse thanks to which the first abstract painters sought to found abstraction. There have been several—On the Problem of Form, for example, to borrow the title of an important text by Kandinsky published in 1912, or, for Mondrian, the paradigmatic opposition of the vertical and the horizontal. The latter example is indeed enlightening since it is immediately—in each painting individually—a visual form resulting from esthetic judgment and a conceptual model as well, informed and authorized by Mondrian’s ideological discourse rooted in theosophy and masculine/feminine symbolism. But there is another esthetic matrix that was of considerable importance for the foundation-fecundation of abstract painting in the case of all the protagonists, and this brings us right back to Newman’s challenge, on either side of which the question of foundation and our question, that of painting’s survival, echo each other. This matrix is the triad of primary colors—red, yellow, and blue. The paradigm of the primary or basic colors, which already had a long history both in painting and outside when it became a mandatory signifier for early abstractionism, is one of the answers, historically contingent, that painters have given to the question of pure color set for the history of painting since Impressionism. What marks the switch to abstraction is the moment when the notion of pure color was amplified and erected as a metaphor for pure painting.

This moment already bore the stamp of fear. Why fear, and fear of what, are questions beyond the scope of this article. But one has an inkling that fear of the void enters into it, when one witnesses the turnaround by which painting, once abstract, confronted it. Fear of the void is the fear of having no foundations, of having the ground fall away from under one’s feet, of no longer having a past to support the present. “Does abstract painting still have a past?” was indeed the central question for the founders of abstract art, and their answer was to turn their fear against itself: painting no longer has a past, but what matter; its lack of past shall be its future! Fear is still with us, our fear echoing theirs, but we know the risks we would run were we to exclaim that painting’s lack of future has been its past! We know that giving in on this point without further trial would mean surrendering far beyond the issue that has been raised here, clad in the false innocence of a conservative concern for the survival of an outmoded craft. As we look about us and see the “progressives” and “reactionaries” of the art world taking stands on either side of a dividing line called “the death of painting” by one party, and “the return to painting” by the other, we know that this can only be a symptom showing that both alternatives, unless rejudged and reinterpreted, are bound to remain equally disquieting.

Thierry de Duve teaches art history and theory at the university of Ottawa.

Translated from the French by Elisabeth Ritchie.



1. Barnett Newman, in Art Now: New York, vol. 1, no. 3, March 1969, cited by Thomas B Hess, Barnett Newman, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1971, p. 132.

2. Alexander Rodchenko, from the manuscript “Working with Malakovsky,” 1939, cited in Von der Marerer zum Design, Russische konstruktivstische Kunst der Zwanziger Jahre (catalogue), Cologne: Galene Gmurynska, 1981, p. 191.

3. And if there is something in the attraction art holds for me that keeps me from giving in to nihilism, I immediately begin to doubt my political commitment and my class consciousness. This seems to me to be the rather painful position of Benjamin Buchloh these days, as he himself admits in connection with his attraction for the photographic quotations of Sherrie Levine: “Levine’s attitude embodies the ambivalence of the artist and intellectual who lacks class identity and political perspective, exerting a certain fascination over those contemporary critics, including myself, who are equally ambivalent toward their affiliations with the powers and privileges that the white middle class provides.” Benjamin H D Buchloh, “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,” Artforum, September 1982, p. 52.

4. Barbara Rose, American Painting: The Eighties (catalogue), Buffalo: Thorner-Sidney Press, 1979.

5. Jean Clair, Nouvelle Subjectivité, Notes et documents sur le retour de l’expression figurative et de la scène de genre dans la peinture de la fin du siècle (catalogue), Brussels: Lebeer-Hossmann, 1979.

6. Achille Bonito Oliva, La Transavanguardia Italiana, Milan: Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1980.

7. Rudi Fuchs, introduction to the catalogue, Documenta 7, Kassel: 1982, Vol. I, p. XV.

8. This might give many a reader a start. To those who would accuse me of lapsing into the most harped-on bourgeois art-ideology. I have not much to say, hoping to have succeeded in dissociating myself from it, but on other points. To those who would say that indeed art seems to call for esthetic judgment only, but these are in fact ideological judgments, my answer is no, this is not true. It is precisely this belief, allowing one to judge art ideologically (even 0 critically) rather than esthetically, that causes one to suspect one’s own taste, to be caught in a double bind and driven to a state of despair, and to be pushed to an inevitably dogmatic position. And to those who would fear that esthetic judgment must then be purely subjective and arbitrary, in other words irresponsible politically and ideologically, I would simply recall Kant’s remarks on the beautiful as a symbol of morality (a symbol, not a scheme!).

9. For example, Jean Clair openly, and Rudi Fuchs insidiously. Particularly perverse is the inclusion in the Documenta 7 catalogue of T. S Eliot’s famous text “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” between a text by Goethe Uber den Granit (On granite) and a text by Jorge Luis Borges on “The Dream of Coleridge.” The choice of texts is a very intelligent one, but its only aim is to intimidate the reader. To add to the confusion, Fuchs in his introduction quotes the name of Eliot between those of Hölderlin and Coleridge: from Romanticism to Modernism and back. Yet Eliot’s beautiful text could have been put to better use, in order to show what Greenberg owes to it, for example, or to recall the quotation Duchamp made from it in “The Creative Act.”

10. The most popular doctrine of Modern art history, as it is still too often propagated and taught, conforms to one of the two following models—continuous revolution or the law of the pendulum. In the first version of “orthodox Modernism,” Modern is taken as synonymous with revolutionary, both words are given a positive connotation, and history is presented as an apparently inexhaustible process of destruction of values. Herbert Read is largely responsible for having popularized this ideology, provoking this reply from Harold Rosenberg: “The painting must be shown as standing in relation to values in painting, not to the value of ending values.” (“Revolution and the Concept of Beauty,” in The Tradition of the New, New York: McGraw Hill, 1965, pp. 75, 81.)

The second version of “orthodox Modernism” believes it has discovered a sort of historical engine in the principle of perpetual motion, i.e., in the alternation of action and reaction, decadence and renewal, excess in one direction and excess in another direction. Meyer Schapiro, reproaching Alfred Barr for holding such an ahistorical concept of history, makes fun of this myth: “. . . they are reduced to a myth of the perpetual alternating motion of generations, each reacting against its parents and therefore repeating the motions of its grandparents, according to the ‘grandfather principle’ of certain German historians of art.” (“Abstract Art,” in Modern Art, Selected Papers, New York: George Braziller, 1978, p. 189.) Although Greenberg’s “formalism” is also a version of “orthodox Modernism,” and although he himself holds considerable responsibility for the crisis in painting we are witnessing today, he cannot be accused of conforming to either of these models. On the contrary, Greenberg saw very clearly that the process of reinterpretation that constitutes the history of Modern painting, rebounding from one esthetic judgment to another, is a process of making some interpretations explicit (while others are made implicit) wherein, in the long run, continuity prevails over discontinuity: “ ‘Abstract Expressionism’ makes explicit certain constant factors of pictorial art that the past left implicit, and leaves implicit on the other hand, certain other such factors that the past made explicit. . . . ‘Abstract Expressionism’ makes no more of a break with the past than anything before it in Modernist art has.” (“‘American-Type’ Painting,” in Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, p. 210.)

11. Thus it is possible to avoid launching into ideological criticism while at the same time avoiding the hypostasis of a purely visual, prelinguistic practice, often seen as the only alternative to a philosophy of art as language or ideology.