Continuing with T.J.Clark’s recent piece in the LRB, he had some very perceptive things to say about Picasso’s skill at scaling an image to its support. Looking with the eyes of the present, Clark can’t help but see that today we don’t look into a picture, but at it, that the shape and size of the piece is vividly present to us: “At the root of modernism in painting lay the idea—or better, the conclusion arrived at in practice—that the truth of a depiction now depended on a deep obedience, or receptivity, to the whole shape and substance of the coloured thing…The literalness of the container is modernism’s truth-condition. In a culture saturated by false equivalents, short cuts to non-knowledge, pseudo-pictures, the truth of a pictorial proposal has to derive from the proposal’s overtness, its factuality. This is modernism’s core belief.” Though Clark is not known for writing about Frank Stella, or the monochrome, or Gego, or Richard Serra, or any other artist for whom “shape is form,” he is intellectually prepared, perhaps partly through his friendship with Michael Fried. But then talking about a Picasso still life he goes on to say “But literalness does not depend on ‘painting up to the edge’ or simple reiteration of the support. It has to do with the energy of the whole arrangement.” This formulation takes the productive awareness of shape back into the picture. The important thing is now an intangible—Picasso’s energy, or ability to give vividness to his images—not the formal necessity to break out of the frame and give the work a shape. This is a deeply conservative move, but then Clark may also be right.
So far I’ve defined Picasso’s difference as decisiveness, or, following Clark, as “power of mind” (which Bloom would call “cognitive difficulty”), but now I can add vividness. All three may be aspects of the same skill—not a talent, but the product of will applied to practice. It may or may not be important that Picasso invented the shaped canvas, among so much else.