Critical Shibboleths

The thoughts on this blog are getting complex because there are simultaneous independent lines of inquiry. I want to continue with my attempt to show the extent to which “objective” illusions are produced by desire and sustained by knowledge. I also want to return to R.H.Quaytman and Ai Weiwei, both very soon. After that I want to get back to nature and ruminate on automatism, something I’ve just been nudged to do by my old friend Gregg Simpson. But first I want to clear up something about space. I’m provoked by Yves-Alain Bois’s recent Artforum piece on Martin Barré, although again, Barré deserves a lot more consideration, and this argument is not about him.

It has become a critical shibboleth that color field painting opens a new post-cubist pictorial space, but as an artist I think I’m justified in getting impatient with critics and art historians who know everything about art from books, and never from the experience of the work. As Greenberg pointed out, the first mark on a blank canvas creates space, and whether we see that space as infinite or very shallow—and it could go either way—it is still Renaissance/Newtonian space, with its three axes. Greenberg would have it that this is a new, optical space, but he was also quite clear that both tactile and optical space are fictions, so the distinction between them is also a fiction. It’s a rhetorical claim conjured out of the art politics of his time, which demanded that American painting be independent from European models, and which had to come to terms with the fact, again as Greenberg himself had pointed out, that Pollock’s work did not depart much from analytic cubism. Yes, color field painting dispensed with chiaroscuro and modeling, but it did not manage a productive negation of cubist space; it actually fell away from cubist space or maybe behind cubist space, back into familiar Newtonian infinities.

What Greenberg felt, or knew intuitively, and also stated quite lucidly, was that cubism no longer looked contemporary because it had too much fussing and fiddling about with little brush marks, and too much fussing and fiddling its way to the edges and corners. Cubist space, however, remains the only departure in modern art from the Newtonian box. The planes in a cubist picture can only be located by reference to adjoining planes. It is a relative space, and that is something new which to this day has yet to be subsumed by any other new space. But then that enterprise is partly what this blog is about. There is no reason why bent, folded, twisted or curved planes couldn’t produce “open,” “expansive,” color saturated fields, or even why they can’t move off the canvas altogether into so-called “real” space. Nor are such planes necessarily incompatible with literalness and factuality.

The fact is that today the difference between “late cubism” and the color field matters not a bit. At least that is what the pictures tell me, but then they are not obligated to hang on the same art historical line forever.

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