PRINT April 1993


MICHAEL CORRIS: In the service of a souped-up formalist view of Modernism, Rosalind Krauss recently enlisted Algirdas Julien Greimas’ semiotic square to reanimate that most conventional, reductive, and central modalization of Modernism’s development: the relationship between “figure” and “ground.” The basic conceit at work here is that the terms “figure” and “ground”—canceled, mirrored, and restated within the logic of Greimas’ square—will bear significant conceptual results. But the very cancellation of the terms of this dichotomy reinforces their power, resuscitating the figure/ground problem as the dominant model of 20th-century painting. When this analytic exercise is applied to specific, canonical Modernist works, the appearance of particular types of painting practice is explained chiefly by reference to the move from figuration to abstraction. Indeed, the whole history of Modernist painting is represented in terms of the emergence, development, exhaustion, and reinvention of the modalities of figure and ground.

ROBERT NICKAS: With the semiotic approach we’re talking about premeditation, and where there is prior intent, the crime is more serious. The type of analysis you describe might be what T. J. Clark had in mind when he remarked, “The semiologists are frozen in the triumph of their prearranged moments of vision.” For me, the figure/ground problem is best visualized literally: as a body laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

MC: Clark’s complaint suggests that the pictorial orders described by the terms “monochrome,” “grid,” “allover,” and “mise-en-abîme” are ideological no matter how scientifically derived. And this judgment is leveled in the conviction that the theory giving rise to those terms is universalizing, abstract, and antihistorical—that we miss the most decisive and critical moments of contemporary painting when discussion is framed exclusively in formal terms.

RN: If the paintings are framed for crimes they never committed. . . .

MC: While Greimas’ semiotic square can generate some interesting results, they depend principally, as Fredric Jameson points out, on the perspicacious selection of the initial terms. What is lacking in the semiotician’s account of painting is the possibility that there might be a painting—a monochrome by Olivier Mosset, for example—that isn’t a monochrome in any conventional sense. That is to say, a painting in which the opposition between figuration and abstraction has been neutralized, a kind of trompe l’oeil monochrome, a painting of a “monochrome.” By the same token, the meaning of a painting by Michael Stubbs, who applies paint with cake decorating tools, might not necessarily be grounded in its “gridness” alone but also, for example, in the associations of this decorative technology.

RN: It’s one thing to make a painting with cake decorating tools and quite another to use a Bunsen burner, as Yves Klein did in his “Fire” paintings, or an ice pick, in the case of Lucio Fontana.

MC: I agree that it would be a mistake to dehistoricize artists such as Fontana and Klein by conflating their work with that of contemporary artists who also happen to test and torture the surface of painting. Thomas McEvilley has pointed out that Klein’s “Fire Paintings” exhibit “a sex-and-death thrill, a Promethean aggression.” And Fontana has referred to his “holes” as a different dimension: “I make a hole in the canvas in order to leave behind me the old pictorial formulae. . . I escape symbolically, but also materially, from the prison of the flat surface.” Yet while there is a conspicuous lack of this sort of beautiful and absurd metaphysical rhetoric where the artists at hand are concerned, there is nevertheless a shared need to “escape from the prison of the flat surface.” Of course, today, artists are no longer interested in taking sides in the abstraction/figuration debate. For them it is completely outmoded. By making works that invite readings as pictures of paintings rather than as paintings, they effectively cancel the debate. And it is our contention that the exuberant articulation of the surface of the “picture” is the typical means of achieving this.

RN: Imi Knoebel wielded a power saw to make his recent “Battle” series, and if the painting still had any rights, Steven Parrino’s mistretched monochromes would probably have the artist charged with assault and battery. Even some works made with paint alone, such as Rudolf Stingel’s or Steve Di Benedetto’s, look as if they were produced with toxic waste. When we look for an antidote to these signs of violence in the paintings of a Lily van der Stokker, we still have to admit that something is being “killed”—if only with kindness. As one of her works has it: Love Goodness Kissy Kissy.

So maybe we’re still talking about painting and its antagonists.

MC: The mechanics of this new order of painted objects are often brutish, excessive, and suggestive of “incompetence.”

RN: Like Dan Walsh’s works, which have been described as “cartoons of painting.”

MC: For each synthetic category generated on behalf of the oppositional pair “figure/ground” we are proposing a sharp and, by way of the semiotician’s frame of reference, perverse closure. The drill is simple: the abuse of the monochrome. . . .

RN: As in Parrino’s work.

MC: The embellishment of the grid to the point of an embarrassing plenitude. . . .

RN: Stubbs.

MC: The degradation of the allover to the point of dissolving its absorptive qualities. . . .

RN: As in Michael Scott’s deliriously optical line paintings and, most recently, his oversaturated color paintings.

MC: And the decorative regress of the mise-en-abîme to the point of hallucination, vulgarity, and eroticism.

RN: That’s the best description to date of Jutta Koether’s work (or of Lisa Ruyter’s for that matter): sexy, psychedelic, and in bad taste. It may not exactly be Pattern & Decoration for the ’90s, but how else does one come to terms with Joan Wallace’s Navaho-rug painting, or with Mary Beyt’s Pennsylvania Dutch motif? And let’s not forget Moira Dryer’s final body of work, in which “the punishing” and “the decorative” were often merged. Who can say where this might have gone? We’re left with a trace of the artist not only on the canvas but in front of every painting, and not only because we may be acutely aware of the artist’s absence. Whether or not there is a visible sign of the maker as in Fred Fehlau’s paintings in which his body is imprinted directly on the canvas, suggesting the conclusion of the sexual act (a stain or spill)the artist is present. There are always two figures and two grounds: the artist and the viewer; the surface of the painting and the space in which it finds itself projected.

MC: A painting of quality is a picture that uses abuse, embellishment, degradation, and decoration to generate complex visual malapropisms out of erasure, cancellation, acts of outright destruction of the surface of the picture, the scotomization of vision, unabashed scenarios of seductive plasticity, patterning, and color, or outright displays of incompetence—intended and otherwise. The picture/surface dialectic is not the same frame of reference as the figure/ground opposition.

RN: “Militant superficiality”? You have to allow me at least one line from the dreaded Warhol file, and here it might actually pertain. Andy once said that if you wanted to know anything about him, all you had to do was look at the surface of his paintings and he’d be there. Though surely not intended as such, it may be the only honest answer he ever gave.

MC: I don’t think Warhol’s response has a great deal to do with truth or falsity. His practice is a lived belief. As Denys Turner has pointed out, “There seems to be no epistemic space between what is socially lived and the social ideas of it, there seems to be no room for a false relationship between the two.” I would not want to suggest that Warhol and the younger artists we are talking about consider the respective surfaces of their paintings to mean the same thing or in the same way. Warhol tried to say “Look, there is no difference between what the picture says and how it says it.” These younger artists are much more inclined to admit that a contradiction between the what and the how exists in their paintings. I would go farther: it is central to the way they work.

Michael Corris is a senior lecturer in art at Oxford Brooks University.

Robert Nickas is a critic and curator living in New York.