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A Research on Modernism in Painting

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Modernism is a movement that surfaced during the 20th century; it was not regarded as a specific style, like other movements, but more a compilation of ideas compiled from painting branching off from the traditional expectations, specifically representation in a realistic style. This essay will analyse two texts, one written by the art critic Clement Greenberg, on his view of modernism; the other a chapter by Craig Staff concerning where painting sits within the art world. A piece of Artwork by artist Ian Davenport, called ‘Giardini Colourfall’ will then be analysed and discussed in relation to both texts. Throughout the essay the ideas of modernism will be uncovered, resulting in a better understanding of the term, as well as giving an insight into painting in relation to its development over the years.

‘Modernist Painting’ by Clement Greenberg discuses the term modernism and what Greenberg believed it entailed. His essay was published in 1961 roughly a 100 years after the author believed Modernism had begun, interestingly he didn’t see it as a movement, limited to a specific time period, he believed it to be an ongoing practice. In Greenberg’s own words, he said modernism would go on “without gap or break” (1961), and believed it is not restricted to art, it is actually all around us. Greenberg and art historians agree that the first modernist paintings were those of Manet’s, due to how he approached the surface in which he painted upon, however the origin of modernism to Greenberg started with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, labelling him the “first real modernist” (1961). His fundamental idea of modernism is that the medium, in this case paint, is used as a method to criticise itself, for example Kant used logic in order to discover the limits of logic itself; therefore paint is used to work out the boundaries of what paint can do that doesn’t cross over with another medium. The criticism comes from the inside, looking specifically at the characteristics of the medium, rather than bringing in external factors to assess the technique. Modernist artwork is a way to make art noticeable through the use of its medium. It was key to Greenberg that the art be ‘pure’, meaning it defined itself and did not possess qualities you may find in other areas of art. Limiting support was shared with theatre, reality shared with photography, three-dimensional with sculpture; the one property specific to painting was flatness. Although no painting can be completely flat, as the first mark made immediately destroys the complete flatness of the surface, modernist painting became about keeping it as flat as possible, leading to unrecognisable images and later on the removal of any identifiable or representational objects, as all that can be recognised must exist within the three-dimensional plane making it hold properties linked to photography or sculpture. Modernism found that you could remove aspects from paintings before it loses its status as a ‘picture’. The further back it is pushed the more closely the piece needs to be observed yet the medium becomes more defined and brings back the idea of ‘flatness’, making the viewer focus on what the piece offers as a whole. This technique limited what could be done with the medium, but it was specific to painting alone, securing its place within art. An example Greenberg gives of a modernist piece is Mondrian’s rectangles, unlike previous works produced by the masters, he created space within his work that could only be experienced through the eye. Greenberg emphasises the point that modernism is all about optical experiences, no theory is involved, it is strictly practice and the artists often do not consider aesthetic, that is all down to results and not method.

The second text I have looked at is a chapter called ‘situating painting’ from the book “After Modernist Painting: The History of a Contemporary Practice” by Craig Staff. The book was published in 2013, just over 50 years after the text by Clement Greenberg, therefore Staff has since seen work influenced by different movements such as post-modernism. Greenberg wanted to separate painting and keep its limits within the boundaries of what painting alone can do when removing all properties of other art forms. On the contrary, Staff discusses the difficulties of organising painting into a singular category as the work produced can be so broad and hard to situate. In the text he states ‘Morgan Falconer believed painting’s revival is down to it expanding beyond its original means’, staff believes it is not and should not be a restricted method of expression; it should be continuously developed, expanding on what a painting is. In contrast to what Greenberg believed, Staff explains how painting is not limited to the canvas; during the renaissance artists would paint directly onto the walls, in this case the walls act as the support for the painting. Wealthy people with large walls would commission artists to paint large paintings, but the up scaling of work caused Greenberg to argue the work was too close to architectural rather than painting. The creation of the easel was some what seen as a resolve to this problem as it meant work could be developed independently. In the text, Staff talks about two artists Katharina Grosse and Jules Olitski, both of which used spray guns to produce artwork. Olitski focused mainly on colour throughout his working years, until around the mid 60’s he started to consider the canvas more, restricting his work to inside the boundaries of the canvas edge, often leaving them untouched or only applying a thin coat of paint. This links to the properties of painting Greenberg spoke about in relation to modernism. Both Olitski and Grosse’s work shows the dematerialisation of painting, emphasising the process and experimentation with the material, this too links to Greenberg’s idea of modernism as their work looks at what the paint can do as a medium in its own right. Although, aspects of Grosse’s work resembles qualities of modernism, she does not allow supporting edges to restrict her work, this is helped by her method of using spray cans; she doesn’t have direct contact with the surface, she believes brushes get in the way, this automatically creates some distance between her and the surface she is working on. Her works large scale and unusual surfaces, for example the walls of random buildings, is down to her desire to separate her artwork from a specific site and any identity imposed on the work due to the site it is found in. Through the 1980’s there was site specific art, the work produced was made to fit in a specific location, this almost made the place part of the work, setting limitations. Since the 1980’s situation specific artwork has arisen, due to their being more to consider when exhibiting a piece of work. Staff makes it clear throughout the text, with the examples of these two artists and their work, that there are too many aspects to consider to be able to completely situate where painting belongs.

The artwork I have chosen to talk about in relation to the two aforementioned texts is a piece by Ian Davenport called Giardini Colourfall. It is a site-specific piece getting its name from the place in which it was created for, The Venice Giardini. The area is parkland where an art organisation called Venice Biennale host the Venice Biennale Arts Festival, which Davenport’s piece was created for in 2017, commissioned by well-known Watch company Swatch. The painting is made up of systematic vertical lines of acrylic that have been carefully poured from the top of an aluminium panel, resulting in a pool of merged colours at the bottom. It is one of the largest pieces the artist has created, standing at 3.8 meters high, with a width of 14 meters; the pool of colours that congregate at the bottom reach out at about 1 meter away from the panel wall. The choice of chromatic colours was inspired by some of the great masterpieces by the following artists: Gustave Klimt, Claude Monet and Pietro Perugino, however Davenport’s piece explores much more saturated colours, making the painting bright and bold. There are no recognisable images contained within the piece due to the results being purely dominated by chance and gravity, once the preliminary step of pouring the paint has been completed. It is difficult to decipher any symbolism as the artwork seems to be more focused on method than the results produced, thus relating to both modernism and abstract expressionism as, like Jackson Pollock, Davenport uses a style called action painting; in this case he uses pouring; other examples include splattering and dripping. The piece as a whole is rather pleasing to look at due to the combination of beautiful colours with controlled lines, but the transition from lines to swirls in a pool is what makes it so interesting. It not only combines two surfaces and shows the result of what the paint does when one meets the other, it also brings the painting closer to the viewer, it occupies the floor space, like we as people do, it is taking up space it would not be expect to take, making it stand out from other paintings. The use of both surfaces pushes the artwork into the expanded field, leaving its title as ‘painting’ to be questioned. It is not simply a painting in canvas placed on a gallery wall. The wall itself acts as the canvas as so does the floor. The uniqueness of the used surface removes the artwork from what someone may consider a painting, yet isn’t quite what is expected of a sculptural piece. Another example of this would be a piece of artwork by Pinot Gallizio, called industrial Painting.

Ian Davenport’s ‘Giardini Colourfall’ has connections with different aspects of both previously discussed texts. The artwork shares qualities of what Greenberg regards the properties of modernism to be. Davenport’s piece is dependant on the ability of paint being a liquid that dries to a solid form; therefore the characteristics are more important than the promise of an aesthetical result. Modernism in Greenberg’s eyes focused on the practice rather than producing work with symbolism or theory behind it. Additionally, Giardini Colourfall contains no identifiable images, nothing to tie it to the three-dimensional plane that we exist within, it is an experience that is completely optical. The absence of recognisable images maintains the painting’s relative flatness, this is also aided by the technique used, as the poured paint runs straight down the aluminium panel, highlighting the smooth surface. In spite of that, a main feature of the artwork is the collection of paint at the bottom, thus taking the painting out of the support’s edges; something Greenberg believed painting should be restricted to. On the other hand, Staff, who discusses the development of painting ‘coming off the canvas’ sees expansion upon technique or any previous restrictions of a mediums means as positive and essential for survival in the art world. Davenport’s painting does just that; he has taken a widely used medium and rather using it in a traditional manor – to represent existing objects or sceneries – he has decided to create a piece based around what the medium can do with limited assistance. Nevertheless, Greenberg spoke about modernism concerning paint being used for its abilities, the abilities which have aided Davenport to produce work that is traditionally unexpected of paint as a medium. In the second text, Staff talks about artist Katharina Grosse, who’s work correlates with the artwork in question. Like Grosse, Davenport has no contact with the painting’s support, only with the medium, giving the work a sense of immediacy. Both artists allow the medium and technique to take control of the outcome. Moreover, neither confine their work to a support’s edges, a characteristic that isn’t found in traditional paintings; it is an adaptation that has allowed painting to stay interesting and fresh.

To conclude, modernism is a term that originated to organise a group of ideas imposed on painting. In the text ‘Modernist Painting’, Greenberg explains what modernism is to him and what it consists of. In a nutshell, the term describes paintings that are produced based upon what the medium paint can do alone; the restrictions limit what the resulting piece will look like, but it makes the artwork unique to painting, giving it its own place within art. Contrary to this, Staff discuses the developments that have been made within painting, specifically taking the artwork off of the canvas. Staff believes these changes are advancements, keeping painting alive within an everchanging and progressing artworld. As spoken about in the text ‘Situating Painting’, it is often too difficult to confine painting to one term. This is made evident through the artwork ‘Giardini Colourfall’ by Ian Davenport. Through analyses and comparison to both texts, it is clear that certain paintings, like Davenport’s, can contain factors of more than one movement. Giardini Colourfall was produced based upon the characteristics it possesses, a key idea of how a painting should be created in the eyes of Greenberg, regarding a modernist piece of artwork. However, the characteristics of paint are what enabled Davenport to make the artwork, with the inclusion of the collection of paint and cause people to question where in the art world it technically belongs. Davenport’s exploration into the expanded field caused by the pool of paint at the bottom, gives the artwork qualities of a sculptural piece, whilst still remaining rather flat and gives no sculptural illusion, only optical. These factors are why Staff believes it to be too hard to put painting into a singular group; a painting can stick to the ideas of modernism yet create a piece that would not be completely accepted by Greenberg, despite focusing on the medium itself. Even though modernist ideas provide security for painting, as well as some interesting and unique work, it is limiting and can not keep painting alive. These are the reasons why artists went on to develop paintings and why expansion is so important. A consequence of this, is painting possessing characteristics of other art forms, such as sculpture, making some people question whether it should be called a painting at all.  

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