P A I N T I N G A S O B J E C T
Painting has an amazing ability to manipulate us into seeing and believing in something which is not tangibly there. If we see a painting of a landscape, or a portrait of a lady, we think only landscape or lady, as if these two-dimensional images were real. The frame plays an important role in encouraging these illusionistic qualities. A framed painting acts more as a window (or, strangely, like film) where we look out onto an event or in on an abstract emotion.
For hundreds of years, painting has presented us with illusions – and we fall for these illusions, letting painting transport us to other worlds. However, in recent history, there have been a few artists who have pushed painting in the opposite direction – away from illusion and towards objectness – the truth is, after all, that a painting is already an object (it is canvas stretched around wooden bars).
Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923 / #1) is known for his monochromatic, multi-panel, and irregularly shaped canvases. In Kelly's work, a composition (which is usually contained within the picture plane) is divided up into separate canvases. Devoid of artistic brushstrokes and lacking any sort of “subject matter”, his curved and shaped canvases stress form and, as Kelly says, shifts “the visual reality of the painting to include the space around it”. Redefining painting's relationship to sculpture, Kelly's canvases jut down angularly to the floor, layer up on each other – one canvas creating a shadow on the surface of the other – or bulge away from the wall rather than collapse inwardly on some frame-confined reality.
David Novros (b. 1941 / #2) also worked with multiple, shaped, flat-color canvases which are assembled together to create abstract designs and patterns. These patterns can have illusionistic aspects to them (forming the shape of something decorative or recognizable), but the separate canvases themselves remain very object-like. As a result, the wall space around and in between the paintings becomes activated.
Frank Stella (b. 1936 / #3) and Robert Mangold (b. 1937 / #4) are others who created paintings which share an object's ability to take up and relate to space. The thin, linear designs on Stella's shaped canvases are self-referential to the painting's own structure, but they also offer an illustrative element. Some of Mangold's canvases incorporate simple, line-drawn designs and are arranged in the shape of a frame - a frame surrounding and containing empty wall space. This perceptual illusion contrasts with the obvious physicality of his canvases. Though Stella and Mangold's paintings may seem to have no hidden meanings, or, in Stella's words, “what you see is what you see” - Stella's expressive titles and Mangold's perceptual and pictorial contradictions suggest otherwise. This is not to say that a painting, which is acting as an object, cannot have a subject matter as well. But there is a difference between paintings which address their own materiality, and paintings which are simply* pictures.
*this is not meant in a derogative way
Jo Baer (b. 1929 / #5) did not use shaped canvases but also moved away from painterly illusionism and, like Mangold, referenced the optical frame. Her work consists of flattened geometric forms which often wrap around to the sides of the painting. In fact, with certain pieces, most of the actual “painting” takes place on the sides and off of the traditional picture plane. This brings attention to a painting's objectness – its own physical depth (rather than pictorial depth) and shape. A few of her paintings are hung close to the floor, challenging the inherited eye-level view of painting and bringing it closer to the domain of sculpture.
But why try to make a painting more object-like? Why not just make a sculpture? There is something important about objects: objects are external rather than internal – they exist in our physical space and time – and not just in our minds.
If a painting is pushed away from being merely visually illusionistic, it is then not limited to being just a metaphor, just a vehicle for transcendence, or just a symbol. An object-like painting becomes about physical presence and about the interaction with the emotion, subject, or idea which it is representing.