Painting to Sculpture:
One Tradition in a Radical Approach to the History of 20th Century Art

Big Blue by Ron Davis, 1966

Big Blue by Ron Davis, 1966

MARCH, 1968

The medium of painting has exploded. To come to grips with what this means requires a new and radical approach to art history. Radical history—dealing with problems at the root of the matter—is the relevant history. But radical history is not the only relevant history: a history of trivia and anecdotes, "silly" ideas and straws-in-the-wind may, in the end, reveal more truth. Even contradiction is no longer excluded from pro­found meaning—not in the humanities and arts, anyway. Nevertheless, perhaps we need a radical approach to history now, at this time, to make some sense where other worn-out and irrelevant historical approaches manifestly fail.

The Kentuckyian , 1968, by Billy Al Bengston

The Kentuckyian, 1968, by Billy Al Bengston

The explosion of painting is nuclear. At the nucleus/core/ roots of the idea of painting in the twentieth century, "radical " transformations have occurred that necessitate a correspond­ing shift in our modes of comprehension. The very best paint­ing is no longer necessarily within limitations of the conven­tional medium of painting. What painting now can be certainly derives from an exploding concept of the medium itself; and it is seen in the work of artists committed to the essential prob­lems of what painting (hence art, hence life) is really about. But to form proper subject matter for the art historian, these problems must manifest themselves in the work. An intelligent approach must concern itself with two general issues: what painting is changing into (and how), and what it remains—or, what has really happened and is happening in the art of paint­ing: what painting is becoming and what it is. With the circu­larity of all things human, the most "pure" painting of the 1960s (Noland, Stella, Newman, Boisvert, Egan or Lee-Nova) contains the widest and frequently the wildest implications for what painting is becoming—what it can be, what it might be. Conversely, in the work on the apparent periphery of the medium, where the pictura simplex has become extended and complicated so as to overlap the multi-dimensional media of sculpture and architecture, we frequently encounter salient implications for the history of painting. These are strikingly present, for example, in the work (sculpture ? painting ?) of Billy Al Bengston, Michael Morris, John McCracken, Ron Davis or Clark Murray. Clearly we are going to have to sacri­fice all that false confidence gained from the rigid classifica­tions or taut terminologies if we hope to make much sense about what happens to painting in the twentieth century. Far more important than blessing one work as "painting" or brand­ing another as "non-painting" is the pursuit of such questions as: " How, or in what ways, is it painting ? What new ground does it explore ? What new 'problems' does the work articu­late ?" At the same time this is a self-correction process, where­by critical thought can help keep language precise and apt, yet without sacrificing the richness of meaning, nor obscure the constant subtle changes of inflection and connotation, in words like "painting".

Fortunately there are more than words involved. The pri­mary evidence for any art history, the works of art themselves, offer eloquent testimony to the radical extensions of the me­dium of painting in several key directions. The respective back­grounds of these "traditions" all antedate the twentieth cen­tury; and for these directions of painting's "extrinsic" develop­ment there are anticipations and prototypes. But the full and clear evidence in the art, plus an articulated consciousness of these problems among artists and critics, appears only within the last hundred years, especially within the twentieth century proper, and with most force and conviction most recently.

Before outlining one of these major extrinsic traditions, it should be emphasized that the main line of development for painting is an "intrinsic tradition" discussed by the present author in an earlier article ("The New ' Pure' Painting", Art International, Vol. XI, No. 2, February 1967). In brief, that tradition is concerned with painting as an essentially two-dimensional medium—and with the conceptual and formal problems being investigated by artists precisely within this two-dimensional frame of reference which has, by convention, come to define the limits of pure painting. In this sense painting is also "pure" because it is not concerned with sculptural or architectural aspects—even though they may be, and often are, present in one and the same works cited to exemplify some aspect of painting per se. By contrast, the extrinsic traditions are those which do concentrate upon these overlaps or inter-medial developments—painting as it tends to incorporate more and more purely sculptural, three-dimensional concerns, for example. Other directions of development outside the two-dimensional medium of pure painting include painting as it tends to incorporate architectural concerns (four-dimensional qualities, as fundamentally the experience of space in time), and painting as it tends to incorporate aspects of motion or kinesis. As with the sculptural direction, this last is also a devel­opment of an essentially two-dimensional medium toward three-dimensionality, but with this important distinction: the "third" dimension in this instance is not spatial, or "depth", rather it is the dimension of time—as it were, the first two and the fourth dimension, without the third, but still totaling three-dimensionality.

One further point here, because it relates more to the idea of an intrinsic tradition than to the extrinsic ones. In one of the above paragraphs the device of an invented Latin phrase was used in order to focus attention on an unusually restrictive or precise sense of the term "painting". While pictura simplex can not claim an authentic classical origin, it may nevertheless aid in the quest for meaning-in-communication. An alternate form of pictura is the spelling pinctura, which classicists may ex­plain as a later nasalization. In Latin, both mean the same thing; with the adjective simplex, the phrase gains the meaning of "painting pure and simple", or the essential act of painting, i.e., the laying of paint or color upon a ground. It is our understanding in the history of art, moreover, that this ground be a plane surface (hence painted three-dimensional objects or sculpture is usually referred to as "polychromed "). Serendipeditiously, the distinction between pictura and pinctura, which is a distinction of sound in Latin, can be developed into a sound distinction for the history of twentieth-century painting. Let pictura stand for painting in the sense of picture-making—that sense which characterizes the history of Western painting since the Renaissance, in fact dominating it until the early twentieth century. Then let pinctura stand for painting in the sense of "pure" painting discussed in the previously cited article—as you will, the act or art of painting, as it transcends or simply bypasses a picture-making function. Such a consciousness of painting can certainly be discovered in Velazquez or Goya, and it is the essence of Manet's modernism; the idea is foreseen by Kant, and also possibly by Goethe. But the most objective and forceful, indeed irrefutable manifestation of this distinc­tion is in the twentieth-century development of abstract art. Here the old bugaboo of mimesis (art as an "imitation" of the so-called real world—as if art weren't also part of that reality) is for once if not finally resolved. Whereas in the nineteenth century such important artists as Manet, Gauguin, Seurat, Cezanne and Monet could all concern themselves with pinctura within the context of painting as pictura, picture-making, al­most all of the artists of the twentieth century seriously con­cerned with the problems of painting have centered their con­cern in the realm of pinctura, either neglecting or deliberately rejecting the making of pictures in the conventional nine­teenth-century sense. (The most notable exceptions to this are the Surrealists and the Pop artists, and a few individuals like Francis Bacon.)

Kufa Gate  by Frank Stella, 1968

Kufa Gate by Frank Stella, 1968

This is not just an idle word-game, because it leads to an even more important and far less obvious distinction. If we have used pictura to stand for picture-making "in the conventional nineteenth-century sense", there is yet another sense in which it may be used with reference to abstract painting. For fifty years abstract art avoided raising the problems of the figure and ground. It is only in the art of the 1960s that the art itself poses and resolves this problem. In a very important article discuss­ing this and several other issues, Sheldon Nodelman cites the painting of Noland and Stella "in which there is no contrast set up between the image-content and the picture object, in which there are no contained or superposed forms, thus no figure-ground relationships, and in which as in so many works of sixties art there is often no effect of modelling by contrast of values, the same intensity of light prevailing throughout . . . the picture surface". (" Sixties Art: Some Philosophical Perspec­tives", Perspecta 11, The Yale Architectural Journal, 1967, p. 75.) Sixties painting then, is more purely pinctura, in this refined sense, than the art of Pollock or Kandinsky. However, because in sixties painting the picture object asserts itself not only as thing, "but as a thing alive", we seem suddenly to have leapt from that rarified realm of "pure" painting right back out into the multi-dimensional real world.

This is not quite so disturbing when we remember the ambivalent potential of our examples, i.e., so long as we don't insist that every example of painting be wholly within one or another "tradition" in order to exemplify some aspect of that tradition. In fact, the weight of historical importance accorded to the painting of both Noland and Stella is in direct proportion to the number (and the kind) of problems raised. In addition to serving as monuments of "pure" painting, the work of both Noland and Stella fits squarely within one of the extrinsic tra­ditions already mentioned briefly above.

The emergence of what Nodelman calls the "picture object" in sixties art (but which we might well call the "painting ob­ject") is actually the culmination of one of our extrinsic tradi­tions. In order for a work of art to be something, it is no sur­prise that it first stops being a picture of something else. Thus the three-dimensional objecthood of the painting is most fully and consciously achieved by the artist when he sheds the last attempts to deal in illusionary space; in the history of twentieth-century painting, this means when the figure-ground problem is finally resolved. But like a mystery story, even though we may begin at the last page, the solution still doesn't mean very much until we learn something about the story.

Composition IV  by Wassily Kandinsky, 1911

Composition IV by Wassily Kandinsky, 1911

The essence of the plot is that painting, in this tradition of development within the larger history of painting, becomes sculpture. The history of such a development must document the major conceptual and formal innovations and their spread, which in turn indicate the principal phases of the tradition. The same caveats apply here as with other histories; for example, the first instance may not always be the most historically significant. A specific illustration of this point is provided by what must surely be one of the most important problems for the twentieth-century art historian anyway—but also one which is crucial in this tradition: the background and beginnings of abstract art. Fortunately Kandinsky's paintings and watercolor studies from late in the first decade of the century through 1911 (by which time the impact of abstractionism has clearly struck) have been preserved and are well documented and accurately dated. Kandinsky remains the major innovator of abstract art because of the quality, scope and impact of his work (not the other way around), and despite his being antedated by several experi­menters in abstractionism.

For the art historian the key events in any tradition must be expressed in terms of the particular medium (though con­ceptual anticipations also have their place in any history). The impact or influence of an expression is another important gauge of historical significance. Early abstract work around 1910-11 signalled the end of painting as picture-making; Nodelman covers the other crucial point, when painting in the sixties achieves objecthood. Both of these expressions are in terms of painting itself. In between there is a lot of ground to cover. Some familiar works acquire entirely new significance from this new historical point of view. Try cutting the same old pie new ways, and sometimes you find a whole plum, thus discovering that plums are whole.

The limits of this extrinsic tradition of painting's history are probably when the painting concerns (with problems of pinc­tura) diminish, and the work "becomes" sculpture. David Novros and Clark Murray are painters who have become sculptors, much as the sculptor Carl Andre has entered the realm of architecture and space planning. But within the lim­its of painting-to-sculpture is a rich mosaic of formal devel­opments.

Picasso's  Still Life with Chair Caning , 1912

Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912

The problem of the frame emerges soon after abstractionism regenerates painting, as in Picasso's revolutionary Still Life with Chair Caning dated May 1912. Mondrian explores the problem especially in the first lozenge paintings of 1918 or 1919. Frame­lessness is another aspect of the problem, crucial for the devel­opment of the anti-picture, or painting object. The earliest work I have seen by Mondrian in which lines are painted around the edge, turning 90 degrees back into space from the picture (painting ?) plane, dates from 1935. This is important as a formal abrogation of the frame made in terms of painting. Nevertheless, it is a long while before this consciousness seems to spread to other artists, generating alternate solutions or ex­pansions of the formal problem. In the sixties there are leading younger artists like Michael Egan and Nick Boisvert whose work does this, while developing a "vocabulary" of edge and shape treatment.

The problem of shape, although related to that of the edge, can be fairly stated as a concern of "pure" painting, in terms of the two-dimensional medium. Frank Stella's painting curiously illustrates this: it is important that they have their depth, and that they hang without frames (both key elements con­tributing to their objecthood), but Stella's treatment of the side edge itself is so unavoidably casual as to constitute a demur perhaps, or a gambit declined. A special case is suggested by Billy Al Bengston's new series of "dento" paintings. These works are brushed, sprayed and stenciled on an irregular metal ground, the edges cut only more or less straightly—with tin snips, lined up by eye. When the pieces are finished (a process that can include bending, denting, perforating and even a sort of laconic repousse) their unframed edges cast strange shadows against a wall—especially if seen in the "classic bad light" of the average home, for which the artist intended them. These shadows emphasize the irregularity of the typical dento format, a quasi-square. The technical and formal means by which these effects are created involve actual three-dimensionality; this really qualifies Bengston as a maker of "relief panels", or in other words solidly within the tradition of painting-to-sculp­ture we are considering.

Ring  by Ronald Davis, 1968

Ring by Ronald Davis, 1968

The mention of "relief" indicates another broad category of works that seem to span the two conventional media of paint­ing and sculpture. Perhaps the most important thing to remem­ber about the recent work of Ron Davis is that it is painting. Structurally the works are shallow boxes built up out of fiber glass in which pigment has been suspended. The translucent qualities of some areas permit great visual depth to be created, as the pigmentation of the back "wall" can be partially seen by the viewer in front of the painting. The means used are, strictly speaking, three-dimensional; and yet, because of the great interest in the illusionary effects they create (which paint­erly interest came first, and not the other way around) these really deserve to be considered paintings, and not sculpture. This is substantiated further by Davis' use of color: it is not at all illusionistic in the conventional painter's sense, i.e., advanc­ing and receding colors do not augment the drawing of such figures as the foreshortened pentagon in Forty-two. But color does work for Davis in a new three-dimensional and illusionistic way—one that is quite at odds with the way his drawing works, even within the same painting. A reflection upon the problem of shape offers another rather curious affirmation of painter­liness. The sub-title of Forty-two is Brown Pentagon. The shape of the painting is actually an irregular hexagon, a plane surface with six unequal sides; but the drawing, or painting, creates the illusion of a pentagon. Is the image of the painting synonymous with its shape ? This question becomes intricate—con­sider that two of the "pentagon's" edges are in fact contiguous with the edges of the hexagonal painting's plane surface, while two others are merely painted. A pentagon gets six sides by being rotated in space, and by being seen from above or below, but not directly above or below. A final point should be added about the surface of Davis's paintings, with their deliberate re­flective buffing marks. Briefly this recalls the surfaces of David Smith's sculpture, which (together with Smith's graphic atten­tion to welds) of course suggests a converse tradition of sculp­ture-to-painting. This, however, would properly lie within this history of twentieth-century sculpture.

Discs by sculptor Dewain Valentine

Discs by sculptor Dewain Valentine

Two counterparts to the work of Ron Davis that perhaps are more clearly sculpture than painting are still ambivalent enough to be mentioned in the present context. Dewain Valen­tine is rapidly gaining recognition as one of America's most energetic and impressive young sculptors. Among the finest of his recent pieces are several studies presented as wall hangings. These polyester constructions are moulded, with metallic, brightly hued pigment suspended in the plastic. The four prin­cipal tetrahedral forms create a fascinating play of faceted light. Projected polychromatic versions may well demonstrate a more fundamentally sculptural use of color, say, than in the plane-surfaced Davis pieces. The edges of Valentine's forms (in the arris sense, not the sides of the physical object) function optically as drawing. Elements such as the "negative" X area between the internal bases of the tetrahedra read with a very positive graphic quality. The more we begin to challenge our own simple-minded propensity to file away works of art into one or another air-tight category, in practice the more we tend to discover about values and meanings the work might contain. The issue was raised by Valentine hanging his "sculpture" on a wall.

John McCracken's  Yellow Pyramid

John McCracken's Yellow Pyramid

Again a converse example comes to mind—or it would be converse if John McCracken were generally thought of as a painter. A painter he is indeed, and an exquisite one, with his laboriously sprayed, multi-coats of automobile lacquer. But the problem of just what the wall means for either painting or sculpture is articulated by McCracken's solidly sculptural fiber glass planks which are leaned up against the wall. With elo­quent simplicity they come as close as any work to probing the depths of that interrealm between painting and sculpture. Either they are paintings that have been removed from their hooks (in fact, there are no hooks on the backs), or they are pieces of sculpture risen up off the floor and aspiring to be paintings.

A further extension of this problem is illustrated by the dis­turbing painting of Michael Egan entitled Push Face. This con­ceptually demanding piece is presented free standing, but as a painting. Again there is the ambivalence between figure and ground as Egan's stripes run around the edge to the sides; are they the changing ground, or is it the white, the stable "ground" on each of the four identical component canvases ? Another complication is presented by the internal edges—the square hole in the painting. As a free standing piece this develops spa­tial implications more radically than Stella's paintings like Ileana Sonnabend, or even Iain Baxter's witty Extension for a Frank Stella, accurately measured to fit around a Stella painting to be hung in its interior space. But at this point perhaps we have worked our way through a good bit of the tradition's develop­ment, and begin to enter fresh territory.

Kurt von Meier


This is the cover of the March, 1968 edition of Art International, in which this article appeared. Art International discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-69.