Painting and Time,
Conference paper. Hull School of Art and Design 17 & 18 April 1998 

A discussion about painting and time raises the question; 'what is the time of painting?' This question suggests, in itself, that what could be discussed are qualities of temporality that are conditioned by the specific characteristics of a particular artistic medium - not sculpture, not installation, not photography but painting. That some how painting is (at least potentially) distinct from other artistic mediums and that it some how works differently. The complex historical grounds of such a discussion has been opened up by Yve-Alain Bois in Resisting Blackmail , his introduction to Painting as Model (1). Here he attempts to break down the false opposition between formalist and antiformalist positions and instead to map out differences between American and European formalism. Medium specificity under American formalism was conditioned by ideas of aesthetic autonomy. An alternative view would use the limits of painting as a model for tackling wider questions. One such question is how time is material to painting in a way that conditions spectatorship, and this can be seen to be distinct from or displaced by other mediums. Implicit within this alternative view is that painting is not merely positioned to demonstrate or even worse, illustrate these models.
In the thirty years since Michael Fried's essay Art and Objecthood (2) was written it has remained a contentious critical position. As a critique of Minimalism and as a defence of painting it remains tainted by Fried's uncompromising support for a high modernity that even in 1967 was for many unconvincing. But to dismiss the essay because of vagaries of taste would be to avoid the main thrust of Fried's argument.
The response of Art and Objecthood to what has become generically known as Minimalism, was to Judd and mainly Morris's credo that the concerns of sculpture could be said to be not only distinct from painting but actually hostile (3) to it. If Fried did not agree on the outbreak of hostilities between painting and sculpture he considered that painting and Minimalism (or as he dubbed it literalist art) were at least at odds with each other. We may be healthily suspicious of oppositional arguments, but even so it may be useful to re-examine the main distinction that Fried makes between painting and Minimalist practices.
Fried accused literalist art of being theatrical, a term which seems to have confused rather than clarified his argument. By theatre Fried was simply referring to the confusing of the space between a work of art and the spectator. In a Minimalist installation the spectator is confronted by an entire situation where even the spectator's body is involved. Temporally such a work operates in terms of an 'inexhaustible' experience, and an endlessness based on repetition and the serial unit. Fried noted that this 'presentment of endless', or indefinite, duration' 'persists in time' (4) and he goes on to say that:

'(the literalist preoccupation with time) is paradigmatically theatrical: as though theatre confronts the beholder, and thereby isolates him, with the endlessness not just of objecthood but of time; or as though the sense which at bottom, theatre addresses is a sense of temporality, of both time passing and to come, simultaneously approaching and receding as if apprehended in an infinite perspective....' .. (5)

Fried notes that painting is unable to function within this duration of experience, as at every moment a painting is:

'wholly manifest,....a continuous and entire presentness, a perpetual creation of itself that one experiences as a kind of instantaneousness'. (6)

Fried's positioning of painting positively and Minimalism negatively led to a constraint within Art and Objecthood. He felt obliged to develop theatricality as a concept in some detail, and in so doing left the detail of what painting might be in relation to this, open to some speculation. While offering an extraordinary account of the operational conditions of Minimalism Art and Objecthood leaves painting to flounder in a somewhat theological half-light most famously epitomised by his final sentence - 'presentness is grace' (7).
In Absorption and Theatricality: Painter and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (8)Fried looked further into terms opposing theatricality. Within the context of 18th century painting theatricality could be applied to those figures within a composition that directly address the space or the presence of a would-be beholder. The painting thus presents itself not as a painting but as a continuum of the beholder's space. It is as it were making a statement that addresses the beholder as if to say, 'I am not a work of art, but like you I am real ' Absorption on the other hand depends upon what is depicted not addressing the viewer in this way. The scene and characters depicted are 'absorbed' within their own world-view and time. The viewer thus has to negotiate the picture primarily as a work of art that is removed from the space of the beholder, or more specifically as a representation and not as something 'real'. Absorption in this historical sense depends on an internal mechanism of painting that perhaps can be seen as an internal tension of opposites. For the painting has to simultaneously maintain itself as a painting while presenting a pictorial schema. This can be described as the viewer having to reconcile the work objectively and subjectively, as he or she encounters both its status as a work of art and its potential function as an image. Fried's description of 'absorption' in terms of 18th century painting did not serve his argument in Art and Objecthood . It also conflicted with his assertion of the strength of the painting he was supporting in 1967. It also fed the attack that Minimalism was mounting upon painting. Pictorial schema in 18th century painting brought with it illusionism through perspectival space as well mimeticism. These were aspects that fell outside the canon of in high-modernist abstraction. The survival of painting after Minimalism could be accounted for, however, in terms of the capacity it has to engage the spectator within an oscillation of forces much like those set out as 'absorption' by Fried. However the complexity is such that the terms need to be re-defined.
Shape was a determining factor in both Fried and Robert Morris's support of their respective critical positions. Fried maintained that shape was common to both painting and sculpture. The tension between what he called 'depicted shape' and 'literal shape' brings about an operation that aligns with his description of absorption. In his essay Shape and Form (9) he says:

And in fact there is no distinction one can make between attending to the surface of the painting and to the illusion it generates. To be gripped by one is to be held, and moved, by the other (10).

The oscillation between literal and virtual recalls absorptive effects but the terms 'depicted shape and a subsequent illusion only lent power to Morris' argument. For him the gestalt effect of simple shape pulled the mind toward an instant recognition of form and canceled out the need to negotiate the form internally. Instead viewing could be structured externally in a spatial and temporal field. For Morris gestalts effectively canceled out absorption.. However for Morris, the relationship of shape to gestalt effects involved a suppression of how shape systematically works in pictorial terms. Fried's use of the term 'depicted shape' in terms of illusionism precluded all possibility of countering the force of the literalist argument.
Frank Stella and Elsworth Kelly used shaped canvases, which were often four-sided, which could be described as rhomboids, distorted rectangles or squares. Such distortions are subject to pictorial systems broadly known as projections whereby a solid is transcribed onto a flat surface in a way that can crudely be described as tracing the shape of an object cast as a shadow onto a surface. While at times this resembles perspectival systems such an indexical representation is not viewer-based. It is rather object-based as it is account of an object's properties and not dependent upon a particular viewing position. An axionometric drawing represents specific aspects of an object and not how an object appears to a spectator from a fixed position. The frequent tension between literal shape and depicted shape in Kelly's and Stella's work results from shape being read through an object-based projection system. Perhaps it is not by chance that Elsworth Kelly's photographs which relate directly to his paintings are of the shadows cast by objects. The point here is to distinguish qualities of shape when they are placed within the vertical visual field; squares and rectangles can hold a gestalt in the way Morris described but irregular figures cause the mind to switch between potential readings(11).

In his essay 'A Picturesque Stroll Around Clara - Clara' (12), a discussion of Richard Serra's work by Bois, some of the issues found here are identified. Although a sculptor and for many a Minimalist artist, Serra actively criticised many of the tenets of Minimalism. What he was most vehemently opposed to was gestalt properties. He remarked that Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty had become best know through an aerial photograph which he considered denied the true temporal experience of the work. He said:

"Photography produces a gestalt reading - reconstructs it around a compositional a priori...... most photographs take their cues from advertising where the priority is high image content for an easy gestalt reading." (13)

He was also unhappy about the wider use of gestalt effects in environmentally based art which he considered extended an idea of the planar space in advance and pre-emptied an experience of it. Serra's sculpture is constructed so that the multiplicity of views cannot be ascribed to a gestalt reading but rather as an unknowable entity. The viewer must be vigilant as to the shifts of reading in a Serra, to its changes, and not expect the serial and regular mode of a gestalt effect (14).

Theatricality and absorption at the time of Fried's Art and Objecthood were easily dismissed as formalism in its high modernist phase scoring technical points of little relevance. Indeed Fried's formalism at that time was intrinsically American in the way that Yve-Alain Bois describes in his book Painting As Model. Bois points out that the apparent divergence between formalist and antiformalist positions are contained within a false polemic. With formalism questions of meaning are deployed in terms of quality as content, and with antiformalism questions about form are rejected as out of bounds. Bois instead asserts an older European formalist model mostly developed in revolutionary Russia which regarded form as inherently ideological. The key distinction here is between an art that reflects or mirrors an idea of transformation, and an art which can be critically regarded as transformative. With the Russian example art in a reflective capacity spawned 'socialist' realism which was no more than an illustration or an expression of a socio-political tendency.
By introducing questions of ideology in reference to Art and Objecthood I do not just want to go over well worn ground mapping the structuring of the individual through abstract expressionism or the rhetoric of control that is implicit in Minimalist art. What is more pressing is to look at theatricality and absorption as structures or mechanisms that have a far wider implication than Fried was able to develop at the time. Perhaps the most efficient way for me to present this, if not the most academically sound, is to switch the terms. If instead of 'Theater', 'Spectacle' is used and instead of 'absorption', 'lived time' is used then Art and Objecthood changes complexion in many ways. These replacement terms are derived from Guy Debord's work the The Society of the Spectacle (15) which coincidentally was written around the same time as Art and Objecthood. The key premise here is that capitalism in its drive toward consumerist globalisation needs new structures within which to construct its active subject. The mechanisms of the spectacle have much in common with Fried's idea of literalist theatre - the space of the beholder and that of the work of art (or representation) is compounded and confused usually in the name of the active or increasingly the interactive spectator. Time is subordinated to an endless successive and objective sense. The duration of the experience in spectacle or theatre submits the beholder to as Fried says:
' the endlessness of not just objecthood but of time.'
This time could be named the time of the world, objective time or perhaps global time. Debord describes the subordination of the beholder to this aspect of time in terms of a new species of alienation. He says:

"The spectator's alienation from and submission to the contemplated object (which is the outcome of his unthinking activity) works like this: the more readily he contemplates, the less he lives; the more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The spectacle's externality with respect to the acting subject is demonstrated by the fact that the individual's own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him. The spectacle feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere." (16)

A theatrical aspect of the spectacle can be sensed here - the confusion of the stage presence of objects in an Minimalist situation with that of the spectators finds an echo with Fried's when he says:

"It is a function, not just of the obtrusiveness and, often, even aggressiveness of literalist work, but of the special complicity that that work extorts from the beholder. Something is said to have presence when it demands that the beholder take it seriously - and when the fulfillment of that demand consists simply in being aware of it and, so to speak, in acting accordingly."(17)

Theatricality, in Fried's, account seems to exclude contemplation as being important to the viewing condition of literalist art. Instead, the beholder is simply aware of the effects within the situation according to which the viewer then acts.
Robert Morris endorses this reading and attributes its effects to the gestalt workings of the primary forms used in Minimalist work. Morris's external dynamic of gestalt effects constitutes an active sense of spectatorship. This is pitted against the internalised order of a painting which he implies is passive in comparison .
Passivity here is open to question as what Morris is identifying is perhaps not passivity but what Fried called absorption or Debord called contemplation . The relationship of Minimalism to consumerist forms of production and the commodity was always strangely positivist. Serial form and industrial processes were embraced as the natural territory of an artist in a way which could be described as uncritical.
For Debord spectacle precludes the possibility of critical distance and an art which places itself and a spectator in an endless succession of consistent relations would seem to also exclude the possibility of just such a distance.
Thus painting if it does have a capacity to 'defeat theatre' is strangely ideologically positioned to question dominant forms of representation.
Art and Language saw these avant-gardist strategies as compromised and rejected conceptual art practice in favour of painting. Art and Language's textual work testifies to their thorough understanding of what they named the 'beholder discourse'. In the series Index: Now They Are the viewer is at first confronted with monochromatic painting which are under glass. Close inspection reveals the faint trace of another painting and an image. What lies underneath is a copy of Courbet's 'l'Origin du Monde'. At the centre of the canvas is written 'Hello'. These paintings are structured at once seemingly to address and to deny access to the viewer. This structuring of the painting plays into a range of historical fields but sits squarely within realist debates.
Richter's painting of Betty is a picture of somebody absorbed within a state of looking. Perhaps it is only with knowledge of the painting that the fullest sense of this is appreciated. She is in fact looking at one of Richter's own glazed monochromes. And thus she is looking at painting which is also a reflection of her own image. Our viewing of the painting could further be described as looking at a painting made from a photograph of a person looking at a painting and at the same time her own image. The shifts in such work of states of consciousness constitute the need for the viewer to be questioning and vigilant as to the workings of the painting.
The border war between painting and sculpture and the subsequent development toward an extended field was played out in very different way in France at the same time as Minimalism was emerging in the U.S.A.
Support-Surface was concerned with literal questions of support in painting and a relationship to something which was not painting. Support-Surface was distinct from Minimalism in one major sense. It did not see painting as a function of sculpture; as merely conditioned by the literal and physical properties of its support. It instead sought to interrogate the relationship between painting and three dimensionality in a bid to reset the terms of how painting can be made. Pictorial space and extension in space are questioned in much of the work of that period. There is no question of progression between pictorial space and an extended field but only of a tension between them. This tension as I have indicated before is the necessary ground upon which painting can be made. In thinking through such issues Bois owes much to Hubert Damisch who offers a powerful model for painting (18). As Bois says in Painting As Model:
Damisch's thesis is rigorously anti-Sartrean: in opposition to the imaging consciousness which necessarily has as its purpose the constitution of an image, he sees in Mondrian's canvases, in Pollock's, in Picasso's Portrait of Vollard, each with its own modality, "an ever-reversed kaleidoscope that offers to aesthetic perception a task both novel and without assignable end...the 'meaning' of the work consisting precisely in this swarming appeal". Or again: "If the painter has chosen to prohibit the imaging consciousness from giving itself free rein ... it is for the purpose of awakening in the spectator the uneasiness with which the perception of painting should be accompanied". Now, this task of the painter is the stake of his art; it is what makes his canvases a specific theoretical model, the development of thought whose properly pictorial aspect cannot be circumvented.'

1. Bois, Y. A. (1990)Painting As Model, pp.xi-xxx
2. Fried, M. (1967) 'Art and Objecthood', Art in Theory, pp. 822-834
3. Morris, R. (1966) 'Notes on Sculpture 1-3', Art in Theory p814. "To begin in the broadest possible way it should be stated that the concearns of sculpture have been for some time not only distinct from but hostile to those of painting."
4. Fried, M. (1967) 'Art and Objecthood', Art in Theory, , p.832
5. ibid., p. 832
6. ibid., p. 832
7. ibid., p. 832
8. Fried, M. (1980) Absorption and Theatricality: Painter and Beholder in the Age of Diderot.
9. Fried, M. (1966) Shape As Form, Art in Theory, pp.775-778.
10. ibid., p.777.
11. With a parallelogram the mind will switch between reading it literally and how it can potentially be seen as a rectangle or square within an inclined plane. The latter 'illusion' is not however perspectival. This type of figure, which arises in axonometric and parallel drawing systems, is a shape generated by way of a projection much in the way the shadow of a three- dimensional object is cast on a surface in elevation. Strangely a distinction often used in the USA between perspectival and systems like obliques, axonometrics and isometrics is viewer based or object based systems.
12. Bois, Y. A. (1983) 'A Picturesque Stroll Around Clara - Clara' October. The First Decade.
13. ibid. p.344
14. Serra talks about this in terms of thinking of sculpture in terms of elevation rather than through plan. To think of shape in terms of elevation in order to generate a parallax effect is to acknowledge pictorial qualities.
15. Debord,G. (1967) The Society of the Spectacle (trans. 1994, Zone books).
16. ibid., p.23.
17. Fried, M. (1967) 'Art and Objecthood', Art in Theory, p. 826.
18. Damisch's distinctions between tableau, pictorial and peinture offer a manner of thinking about painting which is difficult to translate into english which is perhaps the reason why Fenêtre jaune cadmium is still only available in French. A sense is implied in Damisch's writings that schema, be they object or viewer based, operate (or oscillate) between the tableau and the pictorial. This has been the main thrust in my thinking for this essay.
19. Bois, Y. A. (1990)Painting As Model, p248.




© Mick Finch 1998