The Iconoclasm of painting; Modernism into Provisionalism

August 1, 2015


Painting has always commanded an authority due to status in the art-historical canon. Perhaps then it was inevitably that once the radical, anti-establishment modernists came along it was for the gallows.






The following essay is a condensed version of a longer thesis, ‘What effect has the post-medium-condition had on the continuation of painting’, and includes sections of an independently written essay, ‘Bonfire of the Vanities: The Avant-garde and Modern Painting’. The original essay identified two case studies. The first was an exhibition of the work of Richard Tuttle in 1965, which was used as a connective between medium specificity and the post-medium through the development of painting. The second was both a 2009 essay by Raphael Rubinstein (Provisional Painting) and a 2008 work by Richard Aldrich. Both case studies have a reduced presence in this essay and the conclusion has been removed.

The essay attempts to define not the impact of the post-medium-condition on painting, but rather the causality it has had on changing attitudes towards contingency that manifest themselves within contemporary painting. To understand fully the complex of contemporary practice, particularly that of contemporary painting, an historical cause must first be established.

Modern thought has been constructed on the ideological force of progress and one can identify the modern ideal of progress as negational reductionism.  

The terminology ‘negational reductionism’ is admittedly pleonastic, however it is used here to signify the impact of progression-as-reductionism on contingency. Reductionism progresses towards a finality of a most reduced form at which development is afforded two options; culmination or reversal. The modern imposition of reductionism is experienced most acutely within painting.

Painting’s engagement in reductionism is restricted both within pictorial boundaries of simplifying represented form and in its structure as medium. A continuation of reductionism within modernist painting is thus limited; necessitating reductionist progression within the structures of medium-specificity. Reductionism can continue however, with the removal of these boundaries of medium as specific. In the early 1960’s the demarcation of medium was rejected, the extension and preservation of an ideology of reductionism was defined by Rosalind Krauss as a ‘post-medium condition’.

In order to understand what impact the post-medium-condition has had on painting one must understand the dialectical interplay that both have with reductionism. Through this framework a definition of painting’s continuation can be established as it gives a characterization to its initial negation.

The Conditioning of History

i. The pre-development of the post-medium-condition

“There [has] come into being an art world whose history, regardless of the credos of its practitioners, has consisted of leaps from vanguard to vanguard, and political mass movements whose aim has been the total renovation not only of social institutions but of man himself” (Rosenberg, 1962, p. 11)

The implications of Harold Rosenberg’s definition of Modernism suggest that there had arose a particular conditioning of artistic discourse that mapped the success of an artist on the legitimacy of their status as ‘vanguard’. Rosenberg’s describes this paradoxical situation as that ‘the famous ‘modern break with tradition’ [had] lasted long enough to have produced its own tradition’ (Rosenberg, 1962, p. 11)[1]. Clement Greenberg, speaking in reference to the art climate of 1950’s America, similarly identifies a major cause of the necessity to produce ‘vanguard’ work originating from Marcel Duchamp, stating that; ‘you made yourself significant, not by producing good art, but by producing recognizably avant-garde art with shocks and surprises’ (Greenberg, release date: 2000)[2].

A transgressive act and Rosenberg’s definition of a ‘vanguard’ act are not easily distinguished as they exist mutually dependent. If a new act is a transgression of an existing paradigm, progression then exists as consecutive transgressions against formalism. The transgressions of modernist painting naturally manifest themselves as negational in order to exist as a liberation from formalist structure. Understanding reductionism in modernist progression will show that medium-specificity is antithetical with it.

Greenberg’s formalization of dogmatic medium-specificity, in his essays that necessitate medium essentialism in the 1950’s and 60’s, is contradictory to the definition of Modernism as a liberation from formalist structure [3]. Greenberg’s essays also find a strong incompatibility with the necessity for negational definitions of progression that Modernism subscribed to; the ‘truism that the best art is that which moves on from previous art’ (Greenhalgh, 2005, p. 107).

An incompatibility occurs between Modernism’s ontology of progression within the delimitation of the structures governing medium-specificity. An oxymoron that resolved Modernism, as a critical position, into a state of compromise. The necessity for reductionism infers a possible implication; an inevitable extension of reductionism that is incompatible with the development of medium specificity. The logic of continuing reductionism implies a finality in its most reduced form. In the context of ‘medium-specific’ or medium-governed production, a continued logic of negational reductionism ultimately negated the structure that supported it; taking the form of a post-medium condition. The post-medium-condition does not constitute a movement but rather a corollary causality of reductionism as progression.

Rosalind Krauss, writing in A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in age of the post-medium condition, identifies the demise of medium-specificity within Modernism. In doing so she similarly identifies a conceptual framework that delineates a continuation for artistic production through the dissolution of medium-based structure.

The post-medium-condition is of primary concern to the continuation of painting as it self-evidently constitutes a repudiation and negation of presupposing the framework of medium. Under such a ‘condition’, a continuation of painting deserves critical attention as it cannot manifest itself in the same reductionist model as in Modernism.

ii. Strategies of assimilating painting into a post-medium framework

For Krauss the conception of the post-medium-condition constituted the inevitable finality of the reductionist model within medium-specific Modernism; characterized by the declarative gestures of Marcel Broodthaers. Broodthaers’s statement, which Krauss interprets as ‘FIN ARTS’, becomes not the end of art but the end of the arts as individual disciplines, replaced in favor of a “higher aesthetic unity” (Krauss, 1999, pp. 9-12)[4]. Within a post-medium condition the explication of the purpose of art becomes dissociated with the singular introspection of medium, thus ‘the ontological labor of the modernist artist [becoming] to define the essence of art itself’ (Krauss, 1999, p10).

The disestablishment of modernist categorization can be seen to be in direct conflict medium-specificity. Broodthaers’s declaration that media is interchangeable effectively compromises the presupposed medium-structure of painting. A view that is supported by his 1972 work Section des Figures (The Eagle from the Oligocene to the Present), in which the interchangeability of media suggests an anti-hierarchical framework of appropriation and therefore a critique on the categorization of medium.

The dissolution of medium can be identified as theoretical reductionism; as the process of sublating  multiple theories in favor of a singular one. An important implication of the theoretical reductionism of the post-medium is that the resultant condition allows all material form to become available due to the deconstruction in values prescribed to medium.

Subsequently the conclusion drawn on painting is that a return to a medium-based approach, is an act comparable to that of re-codifying medium, thus supporting the claim for the post-medium-condition to constitutes a “wholly new beginning of a new historical sequence” (McEvilley, 2005, p. 368) [5]. A continuation of painting is problematic within a ‘new historical sequence’ hostile to it.

The work in a 1965 solo exhibition by Richard Tuttle at the Betty Parsons Gallery, titled Richard Tuttle: Constructed Paintings (see Figs. 1-7), was made to allow for painting as a rejection and a negation of the essentialist’s demarcation of painting and thus inclusive within a post-medium-condition.

The work created for the exhibition were a series of painted monochrome forms. The ‘monochrome’ is fundamental to understanding the work’s association to form. Similar to the work of the 1960’s ‘Shaped Canvas’ movement, of artists like Frank Stella, Robert Mangold, Al Loving, or Leo Valledor, Tuttle’s monochrome suggests a further reduced emphasis of painterly aspects.

The finality of modernist reductionism had yielded the ‘triumph(...) of painting so reduced to zero that nothing was left but an object, in the form of the monochrome’ (Krauss, 1999, p. 53)[6]. Tuttle’s continuation was a reference to the monochrome as finality in painting and its subsequent sublation into a sculptural form. The sublation of painting infers that in becoming absorbed under a broader category it similarly negates the original category. The consequence of Tuttle’s action is the assimilation of painting into a sculptural form and the negation of the medium-specific theories of painting.

His monochromes no longer function within the definition given to painting but reside in a space between painting and sculpture. In doing so both mediums sublate, that is they are appropriated into a singular entity in order to negate the demarcation of either. Tuttle’s work differentiates itself from the theories of modernist essentialism and thus characterizes painting when in the context of a post-medium object.   

iii. Sculpture as infinitely malleable

To understand painting in the context of a ‘post-medium-object’ the involvement of sculpture within the same context firstly requires explication. A philosophy of appropriation in the post-medium-condition can be identified as that of everything as available object. Duchamp’s prognostication that “the category of the readymade would be extended until it embraced the whole galaxy of objects with which we are surrounded” (Joseph Masheck, 1975, p15) is validated with the dissolution of medium. Seen both through Broodthaers’s declaration of interchangeable media and emphasized by the terminology of Donald Judd’s Specific Objects; the sublating of medium assimilates all production under a universal category.

The multiplicity of appropriation within Broodthaers’s 1972 work constitutes a microcosm of the effect on painting of the rejection of presupposing medium-based categorization[7]. Greenberg had suggested that the intentions of Modernism ‘is that of a progressive surrender to the resistance of medium’ (Greenberg 1940, pp. 296-310). Greenberg’s model in the context of Broodthaers’s work shows a rejection of ‘surrender’ in his rejection of ‘medium’, in favor of continuing reductionism through directing all production towards a singular ‘higher unity’ (Krauss, 1999, pp. 9-12). Broodthaers’s work suggest all potential objects are made available for appropriation with the removal of ‘medium’.

The term that Krauss defines as ‘sculpture’ is one that has the potential as to be ‘almost infinitely malleable’ (Krauss, 1979, p 30). Seen in the context of post-medium appropriation, expositions of sculpture have the potential to be transposed and developed within a post-medium condition due to ‘sculpture’ being a conceptual framework. Painting however, does not contain the same appropriation abilities as it is restricted in its delimitation to a particular material.  

Lucy Lippard’s 1967 essay As Painting is to Sculpture: A Changing Ratio, two years after Tuttle’s exhibition, discusses the assimilation of painting and sculpture. The crux of her argument falling on painting’s relationship to sculpture rather than the reverse; suggesting painting’s assimilation into sculpture through a shared association of “painting and sculpture as physical objects” (Lippard, 1967, p. 31-34). An association displayed, and proven, in Tuttle’s involvement in painting.

When Greenberg’s theory of painting is applied to discussing Richard Tuttle’s Constructed Paintings (see Figs. 1-7) the delimitation is unsuitable. Defined by Greenberg the delineation of ‘painting’ is excessively more specific than the more ‘malleable’ framework of sculpture. The monochrome flatness of Tuttle’s painting does conform with the Greenbergian understanding of ‘painting’. However, existing as sculptural form, his work is antithetical to the restrictive definition of ‘painting’ imposed by Greenberg. Tuttle’s engagement with Greenberg’s lack of conclusive or convincing expositions of painting infers an assimilation of painting into a less restrictive ‘sculpture’. From this can be inferred the problematic limitations in the continuation of painting.

iv. The paradox of continuing painting

As shown in Duchamp own negation of his previous cubist style of painting, reductionism is used as the model for progression within Modernism and one in which painting’s involvement is limited. Rodchenko’s claim in his 1921 work to ‘reduce painting to its logical conclusion’ affirms a finality to painterly simplification; “it's all over. Basic colors. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation” (Rodchenko, 1939)[8] [9]. The monochrome is the finality of reductionism within medium-specificity, as Greenberg defines; a ‘real and material plane’ in painting (Greenberg 1940, pp. 296-310).

Reductionism within modernist painting consisted of ‘the flat picture plane’s denial of efforts to ‘hole through’ for realistic perspectival space. In making this surrender, painting(...) got rid of imitation’ (Greenberg 1940, pp. 296-310). The involvement of painting with reductionism can only exist with the framework created by the concept of medium-specificity. Without a framework in place progression via reductionism can continue and corollary, painting cannot.

A formula of progression consistent with painting-as-medium can only exist as evolutionary revisionism, that is, constructing progression from the alteration and development of existing forms consecutive with an underlying constant. A formula antithetical with Greenberg’s equal insistence for negational reductionism. In effect presenting a paradox for the continuation of Greenbergian painting; necessitating progression through negational reductionism within a structure in which it is limited.  

For Greenberg progression in Modernism remained “continuous with the past”; taking the form of the underlying constant of ‘medium’ (Greenberg, 1988)[10]. His definition is therefore consistent with evolutionary revisionism and reductionism. These are not as contradictory as would first seem, however they do suggest their potential for progression to be finite.

The continuation of painting in the context of sublation is problematic; a continuation as medium-specific would be marginalized by the accusation of reactionary and thus not ‘significant(...) as recognizably avant-garde art’ (Greenberg, release date: 2000)[11]. Conversely, a continuation of painting as a post-medium practice is naturally antithetical.

The influence of a post-medium condition on painting can be seen as presenting a negational logical complement; if the condition of post-medium is established then painting cannot be, if an exposition of painting is made a post-medium-condition cannot claim dominance as a model for continuation[12]. The proliferation of post-medium practices, and the depletion of directions taken in medium-specific painting, supports the post-medium’s claim to dominance [13]. Inferred is both the potential for development in the post-medium being greater and thus the unendurable medium-based terminology painting.

Potential development is seen as more viable in methods of production that are not continually tied to the conditions of evolutionary revisionism within pre-existing structures and thus such structures are abandoned. The dissolution of these structures amounts to a finality in the definition of painting; as it becomes sublated into a wider post-medium definition. Tuttle’s monochromes reference Rodchenko’s ‘logical conclusion of painting’, in suggesting its logical continuation through sublation with the dissolution of medium-specific structures.

In Arthur Danto’s After The End of Art 1997, the ‘end’ can be seen as the finality of reductionism as progression taking the form of post-medium, thus corroborating the statement that the definition of reductionist progression within medium-specificity is unsustainable and limited. A post-medium-condition as finality infers that in order to continue progression, reductionism must be re-evaluated.

Krauss identifies in Broodthaers a proposed model within the post-medium-condition for continued production; that of unlimited possible appropriation. Broodthaers’s model however, presents a problem for the continuation of work that negates any conceptual or material boundaries; a landscape of near-infinite directional progression. In such a landscape development can thus have little context. Brian Dupont equates the ‘new post-modern landscape’ as having no ‘directional movement(...) distinguishable from another’ (Dupont, 2014). The suggestion of near-infinite appropriation implies that possible directional progression is similarly near-infinite. Broodthaers’s model positions both arguments for and against a post-medium-condition as problematic for progressive production and therefore continuation. As Jan Verwoert writes in his 2005 essay Why are Conceptual artists painting again?;

“A radical understanding of historical critical conceptualism(...) requires every producer of art to change history by coming up with a unique idea starting from absolute zero(...) he/she must do this in a manner that is both clear and lucid. The pressure to succeed, which modernism’s dedication to relentless avant-gardeism has already introduced, is now experienced even more acutely.” (Verwoert, 2005)


 Painting versus progression

i. Negation as termination

Joseph Kosuth’s statement in Krauss’s Voyage on the North Sea identifies the relationship the post-medium-condition has with progression; “being an artist now means the question the nature of art” (1999, p. 10). A culmination in medium-based reductionism presents a problem for the continuation of painting as it supports the claim that such a continuation would constitute a reactionary anachronism as it would attempt to reinstate the historical convention of medium. The declaration of post-medium marginalizes and negates the continuation of medium-specificity. Danto noted that “every art movement of modern times has come with a set of claims that invalidated every other was as unacceptable” (Danto, 1992, p. 223). Such a premise sugges