Beyond the Bare Canvas: Surfaceless Painting

The monochrome was the inevitable consequence of the reductionism that characterized modernist discourse in painting. The subject of multiple revisitations by the neo-avant-garde movements of the 1950s, the paradigm dates back to the constructivist context of the early twentieth century: with the monochrome the pictorial figure became fully congruent with the structure of its support. In fact, the reductionist logic took painting back to its basic elements and operations. With the elimination of all reference to compositionality, the production of the monochrome ensured the complete transition of the plane surfaces of the pictorial relief to the effective one of the physical plane, with substantive identification between painting, relief and object (Buchloh 2015, 335-341).

It could still be sustained that the limits of painting could be made to retreat indefinitely before a picture stopped being a picture to become an “arbitrary object” (Greenberg 2011, 121), but it was the very dynamic of modernism that would lead, with the discovery of painting in its constitutive materiality, to the further and definitive step – to the identification of the monochrome with the readymade. After all, all readymades are monochromatic objects (Buchloh 2015, 339).

Painting, in reflecting on its own essence, had reached its zero degree. An art destined to wither away, given that the possible solutions to its basic problem (how to organize the surface of the picture) had been dramatically reduced (if there were any left at all). Hence the most obvious response would have been to stop working on a single surface and to be receptive to the dimension of actual space (Fried 1998, 149).

It is evident that this very same reductionist logic was based on the assumption that the pictorial act essentially consisted of just two components: flatness and the delimitation of flatness (Greenberg 2011, 123). This conviction was the foundation on which the inevitability of the monochrome was built and, consequently, of the bare canvas as the extreme limit of painting that had reached its final consequences.

But what would happen if this further obstacle were overcome, if the pictorial act freed itself from the plane surface itself?

We would have to think above all in terms of a superseding of the monochrome. But that is not all. A painting that goes beyond flatness would also imply the overcoming of that convergence between the monochrome and the readymade that was to have constituted the final act of painting itself.

Reductionism and the materiality of painting: these are the underlying terms of the modernist question. Precisely by pursuing the path of its material concreteness, painting, with the monochrome, was resolved in the readymade. The search for a full convergence between the pictorial act and the effective reality of the support, led, almost paradoxically, to the resolution of painting in the “conceptual” dimension of the Duchampian object. And, at this point, the customary materiality of the media drawn on by the painter, commencing with the concrete substance of colour, was transformed into the intrinsic qualities of the (monochromatic) surface of the readymade.

We might therefore think that when speaking of painting that goes beyond flatness, reference is being made to a purely nominal praxis in which colour and the pictorial act are reinterpreted in a metaphorical sense. Nothing of the sort. Reductionism and the materiality of painting entail conclusions coherent with the premises: it means maintaining the fullness of the pictorial act and foregoing the canvas (the surface, planarity) as an operative premise.

So, when an Artefact is realized – as in reality has already happened – that is capable of incorporating all of these premises, we will be in the presence of a superseding, not just of the monochromatic paradigm, but of the very subordination of painting to the readymade.

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Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. 2015. “The Primary Colours for the Second Time: A Paradigm Repetition of the Neo-Avantgarde.” In Formalism and Historicity. Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art, 335-373. Cambridge Mass.: MIT.

Fried, Michael. 1998. “Art and Objecthood.” In Art and Objecthood. Essays and Reviews, 148-172. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Greenberg, Clement. 2011. “Pittura modernista.” In Clement Greenberg. L'avventura del modernismo. Antologia critica, edited by Giuseppe di Salvatore and Luigi Fassi, 117-124. Monza: Johan & Levi.