PRINT December 1985


Who will occupy the deep space in recent painting?

THERE’S AN EXPERIENCE like recognizing a long-forgotten acquaintance when one sees the representations of deep space, both perspectivally rendered architectural interiors and atmospheric outdoor skyscapes, that have reappeared in recent painting. As one gazes into the vastnesses opening the canvas out and up to stirring depths and heights, the moment, while exhilarating in its Wagnerian grandiosity, is fraught with uneasy questions. Why did we forget this acquaintance some hundred years ago, or decide we didn’t want it anymore? This brings up other questions, like: Who were we when we last were seeing it? What have we become? And why do we want it again now?

The placement of the human figure in perspectival space during the Renaissance has been regarded by many—from Alois Riegl at the turn of the century to Roger Fry in the ’30s to Suzi Gablik in the ’70s—as a crowning cognitive triumph of European painting. It is held to represent the coming of age of the ego, which now sees itself as clearly separate from the world, though linked with it by the act of vision. Perspectival convergence and foreshortening build the subjective viewpoint of an observer into the painting; at the same time, the mathematical accuracy of the architectural rendering represents a strict objectification of space. Clarity rules: the perspectival precision surrounding the figures expresses with a gridlike accuracy their location in, and their relation to, the world.

With the 19th-century landscape of the Sublime, and Impressionism, effects of atmospheric perspective carried this clarity of subject and object out of the city and into nature. And then the flattening began, the famous flattening that was made into a law of Modernist painting by Clement Greenberg. Cubism had dismantled linear perspective, and Surrealism had posited a purely mental space, preparing the way for Jackson Pollock’s allover space. By mid century the painted surface was acknowledged as a surface, and the illusion that it was a window into space was pretty well over.

The new flat surface, or shallow space, without a human figure, also represented something about the ego. In work like Mark Rothko’s it has been regarded as representing what D.W. Winnicott called “potential space”: a memory of the mood of space that the infant has when lying on its mother’s breast, uncertain, in this dual unity, where its ego ends and the surrounding world begins. Potential space is the space in which ego clarity dissolves, in which the ego merges into an oceanic lack of differentiation. In it the ego confusedly and blissfully mingles with the world, seeking refuge from the hard-edged clarity it had displayed in the gridded perspective of the Renaissance.

But behind this flat surface, which once was proclaimed the ultimate state of painting, was still a hidden world. The figure began to creep out of potential space into the light again. In the work of Alex Katz, then later with Neil Jenney and New Image painting, the figure looked out from the flat surface. With no depth to move in and no place to go, it might have been saying, “get me out of here, give me space to be a person again.” The recent wave of figuration has mostly transpired in a space only slightly deeper, a space in which self-absorbed figures are transfixed by the intensity of their own feelings without acknowledging or implying a surrounding world. In the bright light that was turned on neo-Expressionism, we rediscovered work that had long presented the figure in ambiguous or abstract spaces lacking precise location, though with a difference: Leon Golub’s figures agonizing before their Pompeiian red grounds, Georg Baselitz’s figures hanging around waiting for an identity, have been deprived of location against their will and forced by politics rather than by self-absorption into a dream or nightmare space between sleep and waking, which they would seek to escape if the space for escape were available.

The first suggestion that representational space was about to open up was the reoccurrence, in the work of, say Sigmar Polke, David Salle, and others, of a layering and transparency of space reminiscent of Francis Picabia’s paintings. Then, about three years ago, quietly but undeniably, deep space reappeared, sometimes rendered in the conventions of Renaissance perspective. Brice Marden focused us on the interiors of empty cathedrals; Jack Goldstein arranged distant hills and carnivals of light under the far depth of the night sky, which often was marked by tracerlike bursts of lines suggesting perspective; Anselm Kiefer showed us the vast wooden interiors of empty Valhallas in fiery forests, resonating with footsteps that were not there, and with parallels and arches converging on altar-like spaces suggesting sacrifices. In the Renaissance such spaces served to contain human figures and relate them to the world; this time there are no figures in the echoing rooms, only a sense of ghosts (the ghosts of old Germany, for example, haunt Kiefer’s foresty halls), in general the ghosts of who we were when we last lived in such places. But haunted or not, these spaces are being presented for habitation. They stand before us both inviting and ominous, like stages waiting for new figures to inhabit them. They are a theater for the future, which is to say, a challenge for the present.

The contemporary ego—decentered, fragmented, distrustful—is confronted with this overtowering space, which summons it to some dreadful drama or some lonely and terrifying responsibility. The absence of human figures from the picture seems to signal a fear of seeing ourselves in that future yet, a fear of not being adequate to the responsibility of its vast spaces, of not knowing who we have to be to walk out onto that stage—a terror of what dramas may ensue there, and what roles we may be cast in. Yet in another sense this deep and obvious emptiness is a magical space designed to summon forth the new self that the future seems to demand. We have objectified the space and incorporated into it, through perspective, the viewpoint of a subject who is still hidden. Now it summons us to show ourselves and occupy it.

Thomas McEvilley is a writer who lives in New York. He is a reviewer for and contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston. He writes the “Marginalia” column for Artforum.