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Towards the middle of the 1960s Michael Fried praised the distinctive features of a new pictorial illusionism that had led to the neutralization of the flatness of the picture surface. Nothing had been so crucial to the development of modernist painting as the need to recognize the “literal” quality of the picture’s support, the American critic stressed. All this involved, above all, the necessity to confirm the flatness or two-dimensionality of painting. The new illusionism, from Pollock and Newman to Noland and Stella, was able to absorb and to dissolve the picture surface while at the same time preserving its wholeness.

To be precise, what was dissolved (or, at most, neutralized) was the “flatness” of the painted surface, not the surface itself, which was not denied at all: “The literalness of the picture surface is not denied.” Fried’s thinking clearly related to Greenberg. Flatness would never be full and complete: the first mark made on a surface would destroy its “virtual flatness”. The new illusionism rendered explicit a new pictorial structure based on literal form, able to determine the structure of the entire painting – as in the very evident case of Stella’s stripes. “Literal” form thus achieved primacy over painted form.

However, the primacy in question was often based on a conflictual relationship between the painting and the qualities of the support or ended up settling into a complex of ambiguous relations that only accentuated the gap between the literality of form and that of the support. Given the context, it was almost inevitable that a “critical” opposition would take shape, made up of “young” artists hostile to any form of illusionism, and supporters, as Fried himself stressed, of a totally “literal” art such as to go beyond painting itself.

However much it contested the hypostatized and isolated literality of Judd and of the Minimalists, Fried’s thought clearly brought out the difficult situation painting now found itself in, facing a dilemma that risked being fatal.

On the one hand painting could reaffirm its own raison d’être, recognizing the literal nature of the support, confirming the wholeness of the pictorial plane and re-presenting itself in terms of a pictorial illusionism which, however, made the contrast between painted form and literal form re-emerge. Or it could try to eliminate at the root any distinction between illusionism and literality, as the Minimalists proposed. But that would have involved a definitive rejection of painting and an opening up to the third dimension, to actual space, regarded as “intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.”

But was a third possibility conceivable, one not contemplated in the opposition between Fried and Judd, and capable of resolving the dilemma?

Might it be possible to produce a totally literal work, in the integral sense of the term, without giving up on painting?

To achieve the solution, the most radical choice was made: to eliminate the picture surface, rather than preserving its wholeness, whilst keeping painting “intact”.

This was the crucial step that permitted the realization of an artefact that was, at one and the same time, a painting and a wholly literal work, for which any illusionistic reference was separate from and independent of painterly procedure. And the reason for this, ultimately, was also quite simple, at least in theory. Where flatness exists, pictorial intervention can only create an “illusion”; and so, to be free from any residual illusionism, there was nothing for it but to take a further and decisive step forward. To paint without a surface on which to apply colour.

The Greenberg-Fried camp wanted to safeguard painting, believing it impossible to forego the wholeness of the picture surface, but leaving open the problem of the literal form of the work. By contrast, Judd believed that literality and painting were incompatible and, consequently, that it was necessary to do away with painting, emphasizing instead the deployed materiality of the surface of the object (and certainly not the reverse).

The outcome of the stand-off seemed to weigh too heavily against painting. The range of acceptable solutions to the basic problem of how to organize the surface of the painting had been drastically reduced, to the extent of prefiguring an imminent death of painting – this is how Fried summed up the situation.

But even before the American debate, the consequences for painting had been made even more dramatic by Fontana’s Spatialism. The slashing of the support had led to the zeroing of painting. With the elimination of the continuity of the surface, the possibility for painting to reaffirm its own autonomy (at least that was what had to be thought, in the absence of alternatives) had been definitively lost. The only coherent path to take, however paradoxical, in order to carry on painting would be to produce a painting in the canonical form of oil on canvas, without having the surface on which to apply colour. A painting freed from the surface and going beyond flatness finally took concrete form in an artefact produced in June 2019 – painting corresponding to the hypothesis of a “canvas-less” picture, as a response to the situation posed by Spatialism. But that is not all: by foregoing the surface as its operative premise, the new painting coincides structurally with the support itself. The new Artefact tells us, therefore, that it is possible to come up with an actual solution to difficult problems such as those posed by Spatialism and by the opposition between Donald Judd and Michael Fried.

©2023 by Archivio Almaviva

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