Washington, D.C.

Corcoran Biennial

One way of thinking about the divide between documentary and fiction is that with fiction all questions raised by the work—the way behavior is motivated, the way a character’s language ultimately forms symbol systems, the aptness of place and time to the circuit of action—are resolvable only in terms of the work; the work itself generates tests for the relevance of the demands we might make on it. But the documentary situates itself within an entirely different and opposite mode of questioning: a recording of events that leads one outward towards ever widening circles of inquiry about the grounds for those events. One of the propositions of the documentary attitude is that with unmediated reality, there are no inherent tests for the relevance of one’s demand for information. The limits of access are not set by esthetic criteria in the documentary, but by the technological limits of the given recording device or the exigencies of the real situation.

From its beginning, modernist painting set itself off from other forms of realist inquiry by tying itself to the modality of fiction, even though it was at the same time deeply committed to stripping from the canvas surface all vestiges of narrative art. The fact that narrativehas wormed itself back into the heart of modernist painting within the last two decades, so that each painting’s content becomes the telescoped history of a given pictorial problem, for which the picture in question forms a kind of lyric reply, is a problem central to the continuing strength of modernist art. And it is in the face of this problem, it seems to me, that painting which lodges itself within the medium of the documentary has come to appear more viable within the last few years. So that although the Corcoran Biennial contained work which ranged from open field abstraction to neo-realist figure painting, it nonetheless possessed a determined consistency—one of which its organizer, Corcoran Director, Walter Hopps, seemed to be unaware. And that consistency had to do with the impress of the documentary sensibility.

The Biennial included work by eleven painters of Hopps’s choosing, and by allowing each of these eleven to select one other artist to participate, that initial group was expanded to twenty-two. Since the painters’ own choices ran naturally to a colleague whose interests paralleled or extended his own, this process of selection deepened the apparent divergence among Hopps’soriginal decisions. Hopps chose to represent abstract painting with Sam Francis and David Novros; to show its conceptualized, environmental expansion through Robert Irwin and David Stephens; and its involvement with process in canvas-and-stretcher constructions by Richard Jackson. Paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and Peter Saul explored divergences within Pop art; and various aspects of neo-realism were identified through pictures by Richard Estes, Ed Ruscha and Philip Pearlstein.

Aside from the aberrant presence of a picture by Clyfford Still, the show contained nothing of quality (except for some as-yet unformed paintings by a young artist named Franklin Owen, who seemed to be working toward a transformation of color-matter into an unfocused kind of drawing which appeared to be constituted through reflection). Therefore, it is not in terms of individual, successful pictures that the show can be discussed, but rather on something like symptomological grounds.

In his introduction to the exhibition, Hopps explained that the extreme spread of styles represented in the show arose from the actual situation of painting today, “from the current complex diversity ofapproaches to. painting and the sharp divergencies of basic esthetic premises.” This disunity, this breakdown in the felt hegemony of any one pictorial style proceeds, in Hopps’s view, from the present decline of the influence of painting itself. For the general esthetic sensibilities within the arts seem now to be determined by sculpture and its environmental extension and not—as has been the case throughout the entire history of modern art—by painting. Thus Hopps feels himself to be responding to many painters working in an apparently wide range of styles, and accounts for the permissiveness and pluralism of his taste by events that have occurred outside the sphere of painting itself. My own feeling is that contrary to what Hopps himself has said, his selections for the Biennial involve the same response, or rather a response to the same thing in each of the artists he chose to hang; and that that response comes indeed from issues extrinsic to painting but that it may not be primarily shaped by Hopps’s convictions about contemporary sculpture and its affiliates. The link that seems to connect those painters—whether one is dealing with an abstract or a representational work—has to do with the way, in each case, facticity is reified within the work so that the fabric of the picture is irremediably torn apart, and through the gaps that are opened, one looks outward past the work for the resolutions to the questions posed by it and not back towards the object itself. Two cases in point are Ed Ruscha and Philip Pearlstein.

At first Ruscha’s word pictures appear to be an extension of Surrealist imagery and it is as such that Hopps characterizes Ruscha in his introduction. The monochrome grounds which darken in value as they move toward the upper margin of the pictures recall the indeterminate spatial reaches of Tan-guy’s painting and support the same kind of dream-related content of a gravitationless field. But unlike Tan-guy’s, Ruscha’s fields have a certain specificity. They are spreads of color unmediated by the artist’s “sensibility”; rather they look like the runs of color in commercial paint catalogs, mechanically graded from, say, the most intense yellow-orange down the value scale to hot, acrid brown. They are like an archeologist’s core sunk into an aspect of our culture which exists on the other side of fantasy—bought and sold by the numbers on the cans. The grounds address themselves to nothing particularly inherent in picture-making, and instead record the kind of manipulation of color that is common to commercial culture.

The words, like “desire” or “Adios,” which appear to float within this field are depicted as though they had been created by spills of paint into which has been dropped small kernels of specific weight and density—like beans, or in the case of Desire, small beads of intense cobalt blue. The presence of these beads, plus the reference to gravity made by the image of the spilled paint, seems to pin the word down to the physical surface of the field—so that the word appears as an object, a commercial object—or, because of the beads spilled into the depicted puddles of paint which form it, a refuse object. The word is thus read simultaneously as spilled on the canvas and floating within the illusionistic field; and the word’s content—cheapened by a kitsch milieu which sells “desire” for the price of a movie ticket—parallels the indeterminacy of its spatial location. The irony congealed on the surface of Ruscha’s pictures is that the two ideals of 20th-century painting, the modernist declaration of Cubist lettering (with coffee grounds and sand mixed into the paint to affirm the meaning of the pictorial surface) and the Surrealist imagery shaped by an ultimate faith in the internal resources of fantasy honestly mined and depicted, have both foundered on the shoals of a commercial culture which can expropriate and devalue the meaning of anything within its grasp. The ground of Ruscha’s picture is neither illusionist space nor flat surface, and the word’s position relative to it is likewise indeterminate and indeterminable. Both point outward toward a mute world of commercial artifact and to the fact that both meaning and value have been stripped from that world.

This feeling that visual entities have somehow precipitated themselves out of suspension within the pictorial medium, that each exists as a hard fact but that none makes meaningful contact with the next, holds for Pearlstein’s art as well. The nude figures that he records with studious attention to detail are generally lit with a kind of theatrical floodlighting that both exaggerates the darkness of cast shadows and intensifies the brightness of reflected light. In this way each limb, each piece of the body’s contour, is made to read dark against light or light segmented off from dark. Not only does Pearlstein’s lighting of the bodies recall the photographer’s studio, but the abrupt foreshortening of limbs and faces that is common to the figures in his work relates more to the exaggerated perspective produced by a camera lens than to the continuities and adjustments of bifocal vision. Within the photographic situation that shapes the image as a whole—the lighting, the cropping, the abrupt points of vantage—the treatment of individual surfaces is self-consciously hand-rendered. The piecemeal reading of the figures that results from this both denies the body’s internal coherence and fluidity and disrupts any sense of coherent design that the body might make within the field of the picture, even while it heightens the tactile presence of each of the dissociated segments. There seem to be two discrete layers within Pearlstein’s pictures: a photographic and a brush-created one. Since there are no formal bridges built between these two layers, Pearlstein’s paintings remain a collection of disjunct, tactile facts which are left pictorially undesignated. They are given neither the kind of illusionistic space within the painting through which they could connect up with one another, nor are they related by means of design to the lateral spread of the picture surface. One is forced therefore to read them temporally, to add up corporeal fragments one by one: disparate documents of flesh, the scaffolding for which is an external reference to the indisputable veracity of a photographic record.

Both Ruscha and Pearlstein make paintings from a display of illusionism as such coupled with references to mechanical devices for producing that illusionism. However, the questions the works pose are not formal ones, because for both men, as for painters like Estes or Franklin and increasingly for Irwin, authenticity is no longer perceived as rising from engagement with formal questions. Rather, their questions are about the veracity or trustworthiness of devices external to picture-making for the registration of fact. Further, they arise from the kind of sensibility which fifteen years ago would have, for example. found Guernica a satisfying statement insofar as political feeling was caught up and manipulated within it through a formal transformation. Now those same sensibilities turn to newspaper accounts and to documentary films. They are stuck on facts which they see no way to control and stuck with a sense that to exhibit the reflexes of (formal) control would be a lie.

The three recent canvases by Sam Francis, for all their modernist hallmarks—the open fields of white, sized canvas, the bleeds of high-key acrylic color concentrated at the edges—seemed also to situate themselves within a documentary mode. In Green, where color is limited to ragged monochrome bands of yellow, green, blue and red at the edges of the painting, the open field of white is designated as empty canvas, the limits of which are reinforced by colored drawing, literalizing the pictorial surface as a fact, but avoiding any interpretation of that fact. Francis says nothing about the nature of the white field, about its inherent properties of focus or about its possible tension from edge to edge. In another painting, a band of blue is bled diagonally across the field and this heightens further the operation of the color at the edges to declare the canvas as a pictorial shard—a fragment cut from some larger field. The fragment at hand reads as a document of its own existence and as a gesture outward—always to some set of relationships beyond itself that might give it meaning.

The environmental piece that Robert Irwin contributed to the show consisted of a transparent gauze scrim stretched between the cornices of a circular gallery in the Corcoran above which rises a dome punctured at the center by a glazed oculus. As daylight filters through the oculus and focuses on the scrim—a disc-like fly caught in a barely visible web—one becomes aware that Irwin’s “work” is to intensify the spatial qualities the room already possesses. Domes generally seem weightless, appear to hover. This dome, slightly unfocused by the visual intervention of Irwin’s scrim, appears more intensely weightless, more difficult to grasp. Irwin’s work is like the filter on a lens trained on a real space—the properties of which, he seems to feel, are properly beyond his control.

The documentary sensibility is a phenomenon that is central now to the arts—central in the sense that it has to be dealt with, to be accounted for. This is something that filmmakers are acutely aware of. But then their medium itself forces on them the necessity of sorting out the relationship between unmediated and camera-created reality. In La Chinoise and Weekend, Godard returns to the dilemma it poses again and again, slipping back and forth between a theoretical and a formal analysis of the relationship. But for painters, the documentary seems still to be merely a mode which is there to be appropriated—not yet something that is in itself highly problematic and as such a potential source for ideas that could be pictorially profound.

Rosalind E. Krauss