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Originally published in Artforum, January, 1970

Ronald Davis, Spoke, 1968
Ronald Davis
, 1968

60 1/2 x 132 inches (shaped)
Polyester Resin and Fiberglass


 It is interesting that the two artists who have used this method most fruitfully are very different in age, training and background, and in a sense begin and end the decade, respectively. They are Hans Hofmann and Ron Davis. Hofmann, who died in 1965, was a Cubist-Abstract-Expressionist who did not really flower as a painter until he was over 60. He was a great genius; in fact, I think he was the world's greatest living painter during the first half other 1960s. Davis is a young artist still tangling awkwardly with a very powerful style with which he has produced a number of brilliant works in the last two or three years. Though it seems as though Hofmann "handed the torch" to Davis, it is clear that there is no line of influence. Instead, they both reacted to the same necessities of the art of their time. It is a case of parallel evolution.

 Rather than fight the battle of side-by-side painted areas, as so many of his colleagues did (see "De Kooning's Retrospective" in the April, 1969, Artforum), Hofmann pulled out a specific kind of painted area, a rectangle, which by means of its even color and sharp, specific edge and shape seems to float in front of the rest of the picture. The floating rectangle was a brilliant, one-stroke solution to the problems of edge and isolation. Because it creates a strong illusion of depth the picture surface is no longer visually two-dimensional. The rectangles and the other elements are free to take their place in front of or behind each other or at whatever depth is assigned to them by the dynamics of the picture. By carefully balancing size, shape and color intensity Hofmann made paintings in which no part was visually isolated from any other because they could "reach" across apparently empty space rather than across the very resistant fully-painted flat picture surface. Furthermore, the rectangles reflect the edge very strongly, accept it as an element of design and bring it into the picture. This neutralizes the insistence of the edge and has the effect of "anchoring" the painting very strongly. Since edge-reflection is forcefully contained in one or more "free" rectangles the colors of the rest of the painting are called on to perform no prerequisite duties for design. The Hofmann rectangle painting is not made like the typical Cubist painting, by truing and fairing and aligning — that's all taken care of by the internal edge-reflection. It is made instead by adjusting the painting in terms of color and paint: area size, value, intensity, hue, thickness, tactility. Thus, Hofmann used Cubism to leave Cubism behind, as did none of the other Abstract Expressionists.

 Ron Davis uses a different illusionistic device to get a similar effect. A typical Davis looks like a large, many-sided plastic container seen from a somewhat elevated angle. The illusion of three dimensions is very sharp and strong. As in a Hofmann, a visual deep space is created in which the colors, in various guises, can be anchored or suspended, and can relate to one another across the apparently empty space created by the illusion. The natural properties of the smooth, transparent fiberglass surface are used to full advantage; mottled translucent areas, spots and skeins of color come up against sets of regular opaque areas which are often torn or scarred to give away some of the color "behind." There is no edge problem because the edge is fully integrated as part of the design. Though Davis is plagued by "series" ideas, and has yet to get a grip on the inherent monumentality of his style, he is young and inspired, and these things will evolve naturally.


 Though the "shaped canvas" is one of the clichés of the sixties, Frank Stella, who was the first to make a big issue of it, remains the only one to handle it convincingly. He alone of the canvas-shapers keeps the inside of his picture carefully adjusted in terms of edge and size, so that the shape of the canvas seems to be generated from within rather than applied as an element of design. In recent years he has combined his glowing colors in an illusion of shallow space by letting the colored bands surround and run in front of and behind each other.

 The paintings of Kenneth Noland, unlike all those above, stay resolutely flat, though an occasional unsuccessful work will "buckle." His best work, the recent horizontal "stripe" or "band" paintings, make no concession by means of illusion to the problems of piece-isolation. Noland's is an interesting case, probably the only one in which pure pressure of color dictates size and shape. Once committed to horizontal bands of color on a horizontally extended surface, Noland has a number of overall options open to him, besides the adjustment and variation of hue which finally "makes" the picture. He can change the proportion of the canvas, the width of the bands and the value of the colors. It has been my experience, as a very rough rule-of-thumb with his pictures, that strong value (light-dark) variation of the colors can be maintained successfully only by reducing the number of bands, which carries as a consequence either a widening of one or more of the individual bands or a narrowing of the canvas horizontally. Noland has painted a few paintings which violate this "rule." There are three reasons why they do not provide adequately for the thorough interaction of the colors:

a) As I have said before, when color areas are widely separated across a fully painted flat surface they tend to become isolated and lose the effect of relationship. Many regular bands mean thin, distinct areas which can easily become mutually remote as they are separate in space.

b) Strong value contrast makes areas more specific as area and therefore more susceptible to isolation.

c) Because of our visual habits a large group of horizontal stripes or bands of strong value difference will separate into groups and will begin to perform the function of value difference in nature, that is, shading, so that we get an illusion of buckling or vertical unevenness, like looking head-on at a roll top desk. Then we begin to see the picture in terms of the value, or in terms of grayness, which hinders consideration of hue difference.

 Noland has defeated these problems with several devices. One is extreme variation of band size within a picture; another is the reduction of value difference across the picture surface. A third is an invention peculiar to Noland, which, like Hofmann's eccentric floating rectangle, is an example of the inventive extremes an inspired artist will take when all other paths are blocked. It is the exaggerated horizontal extension of the picture surface. This makes up for separation of the colors on the surface by visually eliminating the "non-conforming" edge, by scaling down its size and importance and by sending it to Siberia, so to speak. Noland's paintings are extremely edge-reflective; the horizontal edges are brought in over and over, but the vertical edges are not. If they were, the composition would begin to be done up in little squares and a different kind of picture would come about. If we see a thin stripe at the bottom of a canvas and another at the top we may see them as mutually isolated, but that isolation will be enhanced if we are allowed to see the actual ends of the stripes, which gives us the information that these stripes are in fact separate units. But if these ends are held away from us we are not allowed to make this conclusion. The horizontal limits of the paintings become extended "buffer zones." We realize that the same thing goes on there as in the middle, so we direct our attention to the middle and see the stripes as integral parts of an overall repeated pattern, the "wholeness" of which is not disrupted by snipped-off ends. This is one reason why reproductions of Noland's recent work are so inadequate, why we must see the painting before us, full size.


 The most specific shape is a large one which contrasts strongly with its surroundings. This kind of shape is most susceptible to the problems of isolation and edge because it inhabits an area very definitely and because the strength of its own edge forces comparison to that of the canvas. Two clear methods to reduce the definiteness of shape are to reduce value difference between shapes and to reduce the size of shapes. Noland has made a number of horizontal stripe paintings which bring the value of the colors very close together. This induces a uniformity of surface, despite the clean-cut character of the stripes, because the absence of strong value differences lets us see the picture as a whole unit, all at once. Hue variation is independent from value in this format and the painting can be carried by a wide range of hue within the very similar value.

 By "atomizing" his paint, Jules Olitski has reduced the painted shape so much that it no longer figures as shape. This is a solution for color painting similar to that of Pollock's for space painting. As I have said, color must have surface, must spread out to present itself fully, and covering closes off the surface and isolates shapes. By atomizing his paint Olitski has given his surface opaque color and transparency at the same time. If you spatter red paint on a white piece of paper, the result will be a surface occupied by red but not covered by it. If a similar shot of green is applied the same effect will be gained. The result is that the two colors extend across the surface, are visible and contrasting all over that surface, but do not literally cover it. It is not possible for two colors to each completely cover a surface and remain visible. Furthermore, the colors get at one another in proportion to the degree of fragmentation because there is more edge-per-color available the more divided the color is. This ratio of available surface of equivalent volumes according to the degree of disintegration is a well-known fact in physics, and it works for art as well. Olitski plays these clouds of powdered color over his surfaces just as Pollock strung out his nets of painted line, varying the concentration here and there. Though he usually keeps values close, the value differences which do exist take over through the fog, and the colors can take their place in the various shadowy depths induced by those value differences or sit opaquely on the surface. Because of the compensations made by the other factors of his style Olitski has not chosen to go to explicit depth illusion; it is enough for him to suggest it, softly, here and there, so that we know it is there, kept in reserve, backing up the painting.

 Olitski is obliged to do something about the edge because the pale, close-value surface can close up and turn the painting into a big flat object very easily, and this would force visual consideration away from the painting. Internal repetition of the edge would quite evidently interfere with the quality and mechanics of his surface. But the atomized shape is so subdued as shape, the colors so delicately uniform across the surface, that strong edge-repetition is not needed; there is nothing inside the painting which calls for it. Olitski simply brings the edge in along one side, or goes around a corner, by masking off a value difference or by drawing a rough and often highly colored line. This declares the painting as a painting, stays out of its "body" and carries in other colors.

 There is a "feel" about these mechanics which I can't put properly into words. When I think hard about these paintings, as I have, some of these simple, seemingly arbitrary solutions to pictorial problems jump up and become more than they really are, become human. Hofmann's rectangle, Noland's stretched-out canvas and Olitski's random edge decoration all have that sense of mental "leap" which scientists describe when, after years of pushing and straining at a problem the answer comes down out of nowhere in all clarity. The effect is different, because to the scientist the answer is the result, while to the artist it is only a kind of license to get along and show his stuff. But there is a sameness of the quality of thought.

 These are other artists of the sixties who have painted very good paintings with other means. Helen Frankenthaler, for example, compensates for edge and isolation by lining up her images with the edge and by keeping the colors bright, the areas simple and separate and the space wide open. The color areas are strong and distinct and relate easily across the unmodulated raw canvas. Larry Poons, though he has changed his style very much recently, is best known for his paintings of small, regularly arranged colored dots or ovals on a colored surface. According to the picture, these colored bits are surrounded by the colored surface or, because they can be organized into precise systems across the surface, jump in front of the surface as separate entities, as if each set of dots was laid out precisely on a sheet of clear plastic held up in front of the colored canvas. There are many other very fine painters I have not brought up here because this essay is about techniques, not artists; it is about a few of the methods some artists have used to get color into their painting and it is not meant as a compendium of good artists. Furthermore, the use of these art-making procedures does not insure art quality. Though apparently necessary, they are only foundations. My point is that no matter how wild it looks, great art is always securely built. These are notes about the strength of the skeleton, not the beauty of the flesh.

 Despite all the "new" materials brought into art and the consequent silly talk about the decline and imminent death of painting, I think we are just getting started, that in the sixties we have taken the first moves of the first great burst of real abstract painting. The new art, its roots deep in the great art of the recent past, will leave behind it the frivolity and fussiness of the fad styles of the sixties and the puritan restrictions of Old Mother Cubism. It will be as bright as it is balanced, as permissive as it is secure, a natural art embracing all the natural materials of painting, an American analog to the beautiful painting of the French Impressionists a hundred years behind us.

* I will not try to justify this flat statement (except to ask the reader to refer to my article, "Present-Day Art and Ready-Made Styles" in the December, 1966 issue of this magazine) because I have confidence that time passing will do the job for me. This is also a good point to say that this essay is based on a lecture I gave recently, and is more general and less tightly worked-out than my other writing in this magazine. In the form given here it is an outline, full here and thin there, which could and perhaps should be made complete in time to come.

 For an excellent discussion of the taste of the art public, which I only touch on here, try to get hold of Clement Greenberg's "Avant-Garde Attitudes," a pamphlet printed by the University of Sydney, Australia. It has not been published in this country and may be hard to get, but it is worth the trouble.

** See the first few pages of "Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, David Smith," Artforum, April, 1968, for a more thorough discussion of the evolution from Impressionism to Cubism.


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