PRINT September 1988


The scriptures can be understood as narratives about created objects that enable the major created object, namely God, to describe the interior structure of all making. . . .
—Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain

IN 1984, AT THE CLOISTERS, New York, the young artist Christian Eckart came across a catalogue on the Santa Croce Crucifix, a late-13th-century cross, attributed to Cimabue, which had been damaged in the Arno floods of 1966. After about of restoration, the cross had toured the world, inviting reverence at the various stations on its road, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eckart wondered what it all meant. Such ritualized recoveries and restorations of ancient artifacts, and the pilgrimages made by all sorts of people to see them, reflect a pervasive phenomenon: the cultural reestimation of the icon. One aspect of this is the iconophilic hysteria that so regularly accompanies exhibitions of the Impressionists. To view a blockbuster of theirs (or of Picasso’s, or of King Tut’s) is usually possible only by purchasing tickets weeks in advance from one’s local Ticketron outlet, and then entering the museum single file to pass, in lockstep, before those small colored paintings of fields and cliffs. This somewhat preverse public activity has its private analogues, as can be seen in the sale of a picture of irises by Van Gogh for $53.9 million last fall, and in the fabulously inflated prices collectors pay in the contemporary art market. This fetishization of the image, however, is accompanied by its inverted double, a pervasive iconophobia. For only one example, take “Picturing ‘Greatness’” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, this spring. Curated by the artist and writer Barbara Kruger, the show gathered photographs of various artists over the years to provide a collective impression of varying degrees of narcissism, of men and women transfixed by their own hyped-up, mythologized self-images, interior pictures made all too material by the camera. For Kruger, apparently, the image is a construct dangerously susceptible to misuse. She is an iconoclast, then, a trait she shares with other artists—Gretchen Bender, Louise Lawler, Meyer Vaisman, Ashley Bickerton, and Wallace & Donohue are but a few to come to mind. All engage in a criticism of art practice, and express through what is typically very bitter irony a communal feeling: a suspicion that images are deceit, chicanery, hypocrisy, evil.

The more elevated a cultural institution’s history, the more angry one’s disillusionment with it when that comes; and the image has an illustrious past. For W. J. T. Mitchell, its tradition begins with the Bible’s “account of man’s creation ‘in the image and likeness’ of God.” In this view, “The words we now translate as ‘image’. . . are properly understood . . . not as any material picture, but as an abstract, general, spiritual ‘likeness.’”1 Arthur Danto also identifies images as evolving from religious practice, “generated out of that sort of magical re-presentation paradigmatically exemplified in the Dionysian rites . . . where the god is actually invoked into re-presence by the appropriate religious technology.”2 At an early stage in our culture, Danto posits, the image was considered as actually embodying the god. Then, in a kind of retreat, it came merely to symbolize the god in ritual, and thus to be seen as “contrasting with a reality [it was] previously supposed to participate in.”3 Finally, Danto argues, representations became “art,” approximately at the time of ancient Greece. Yet though it was no longer integrally associated with ritual, the remnant of its former role permitted art to function still as a sanctified space. And that aura of the sacred in art has persisted long after the faiths that gave rise to it, and many of those that have followed, have failed or fallen into doubt. Danto argues that art itself is perhaps no more than a remnant of the sanctified. A culture like ours, however, which has after all popularized a word like “deconstruction,” is suspicious of received ideas and ways of seeing, mental and visual habits handed on from the time in which that original meaning has been forgotten. Hence the contemporary debate over the image—here claimed as worthless, there as infinitely dear. Which brings us back to Christian Eckart.

Eckart’s current work really begins with the Santa Croce Crucifix. An early piece from 1986, in fact, actually consists of the 80 illustration pages of the catalogue he acquired at the Cloisters, taped over, in silver and gold bars, so as both to complement and to obscure the images beneath—or both to recognize and to deny the sacral. This impulse is a recurring one in Eckart’s work. Formally, too, one sometimes finds echoes of the Cimabue later on. The Santa Croce Crucifix, in the tradition of the time, is not a simple cross: it is amplified by a series of rectangular projections to allow for the sinuous shape of Christ’s body, for portraits of Mary and of Saint John, and so forth. The whole is framed by an elaborate gold-leafed molding. Eckart often uses this kind of molding, for example in the “Andachtsbild” (Devotional image) series which he began in 1987, and which also, in their irregular geometries, may remind one of the angular outline of the Cimabue—it is as if a skeletal cross were buried in them somewhere but swallowed up in distortion, or viewed in a nonexistent perspective. And instead of filling these complex forms with representational imagery, Eckart uses solid plywood panels either faced with monochrome Formica—in supersaturated colors like those of the Trecento—or gold-leafed, mainly flat but with here and there a heavy impasto brushstroke showing through. These images, if so they can be called, transfigure not the Christ but the Modernist painting strategies of which they are typological distillations. Wooden constructions as much as or more than paintings, they are monuments to the most pared-down, elemental pictorialisms: the monochrome and the brushstroke. These Eckart makes into a basic iconography. They are his symbols of the icon.

It is not only through its roots in religion that art beatifies itself; its separate space is also infused with philosophy. “It is my view that art . . . arose together with philosophy,” Danto writes, for philosophy “begins to arise only when the society within which it arises achieves a concept of reality. . . . [and] that can happen only when a contrast is available between reality and something else—appearance, illusion, representation, art—which sets reality off in a total way and puts it at a distance.”4 Suppose that generally we can consider our philosophy to be our understanding of the reality of the world, and of our relationship to that reality. Then art cannot be disentangled from philosophy, since art, by standing contrapuntally to reality, marks its border, and is instrumental in defining it. For Danto, art has a relationship to the “truer” reality that Plato believed lay beneath the surface of the world, the invisible truth identified as telos. And there is a sense in which Eckart’s project is a teleological investigation. Probing Modernist paradigms, he is trying to arrive at ever closer approximations of the essential gestures, the structural constants, that hypothetically underlie them, as the Platonic forms hypothetically underlie the things of the world. Since such gestures—the brushstroke, the definition of pictorial space—have been the foundations of icons throughout history, his work can be said to argue against the idea of Modernist rupture with the past (and of our own rupture with Modernism), suggesting instead art’s continuity.

Eckart’s typologies are more wide-ranging than the variations in the “Andachtsbild” pieces: he works simultaneously on a dozen series altogether, each of them a model of (and a monument to) an aspect of Modernist imag(in)ing, and each also evocative of older methods of visualization. The “Icon-type” works, for example, are asymmetrical massings of molded gold-leafed panels that might have been lifted from a Renaissance church yet also evoke the irregular grids of Mondrian. The “Illuminations,” isometric drawings of simple geometric forms in gold leaf on plywood, evoke early attempts at perspective, and also Sol LeWitt’s systematic permutations. (Mitchell has described perspectival illusionism as seeming to reveal “not just the outward, visible world but the very nature of the rational soul whose vision is represented.”5) Each of the “White Paintings” is constituted of several different-sized sections of white-monochrome Formica, edged in classic gold-leafed frame and hung as a unified piece whose parts cannot agree; these monochromes refer as much to materialists like Robert Ryman as to mystics like Yves Klein. But the fractured space and broken frame obviate both the formal purity of the object and the mechanics of emptiness by which the white plane might once have been claimed to suggest the sublime. In the “Eidolon” series, that emptiness becomes literal: the gold frame, standing out from the wall, contains nothing.

Eckart’s permutations on Modern tropes that have become clichés are quite different in meaning from Sherrie Levine’s or Allan McCollum’s generic painting forms. McCollum and Levine essentially work in the Warhol tradition, revealing Modernist art as degraded to the level of serially produced commodities. (Even Levine’s unique works emanate a melancholy awareness of the obstacles between her familiar visual devices and a renewal of their ability to convey meaning.) Eckart, however, uses the Modernist approach to symbolize the invisible organizing structures of art itself. In a sense, this is a modification of an old chore. The basis of much of early Modernism, after all, was to make telos manifest: Suprematism and Mondrian’s Neoplasticism in particular were intended to express the world’s hidden order,6 and both are overt sources for Eckart. (One piece of his is called After Malevich (reified accordingly), 1986.) And the Modernist thematic concerns that Eckart has chosen to explore show a certain continuity with earlier, Christian art, as if to confirm Danto’s idea that art is by its very nature “transfigured,” even when apparently secular. Eckart, however, arriving at the end of the Modern era, is subject to doubts and mistrusts of the icon that are specific to our own time; thus he fragments the old machinery at the same time that he perpetuates it.

There is one more sense in which Eckart’s work shows its continuity with the past, and to discover it we must return to the Santa Croce Crucifix. The cross is a sign of the body, and so, I would argue, is the Modernist monochrome with which Eckart equates it in the “Andachtsbild” series. The monochrome, because it is painted a single color, intends to be considered a colored thing rather than the window on the world offered by older painting. It is the “thing in itself,” the primary thing, and as such, Danto has commented, can be taken to stand for ourselves, the body, flesh. (What could be more primary than the body?) In this reading, even the formalist or minimalist object has a figural meaning, and the “Andachtsbild” works have a double one, bringing together the monochrome and the cross. But in its application to pictorial space, the monochrome can also attract another interpretation, for it may be viewed not only as “thing” but also as “no-thing”—as pure emptiness. Eckart’s sacraments of Modernism, then, are also the concerns of what we usually identify as religion, be it Dionysian or Christian—they are Hegel’s abstract spirit become extant being, they are the body and the void.

Claudia Hart is an artist and writer who lives in New York. She contributes frequently to Artforum.



1. W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 31.

2. Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1981, p. 76.

3. Ibid., p. 77.

4. Ibid., p. 78.

5. Mitchell, p. 39.

6. See, for example, the catalogue for the exhibition “The Spiritual in Art,” organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1987.