-Hegel, Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind.
The reduction, the absolute reduction of painting to the self-identical, (medium qua content) in Pollock, on the one hand, and Ad Reinhardt, on the other, reveals the essentially Hegelian thinking behind the movement and thought of painting from the early 19th century until the 1960’s. The earliest stirrings of what would be dressed-up in a Hegelian metaphysics, that is, the beginning acknowledgements of the possibilities of paint true to its own properties as a substance, and not as a medium, would come from P.P. Rubens. Rubens had begun to acknowledge paint itself, and took the first historically reflexive shot at pictorialism. He infected the staid Spanish glaze-work of Diego Velazquez who thence gave Spanish painting its first distinctions in European painting. Velasquez begat Watteau, Delacroix, Turner, Goya, Manet ... until Cezanne gave the young painters of the early twentieth century the most of what the 19th century put toward painting and the Absolute. That is, the emancipation of painting from depiction (or low sense-consciousness), from medium as such, to being in the world (in the vulgar sense of the Heideggerian phrase), both object and surface, that is, as ontic determination, as we understand from Clement Greenberg*. Painting thus is in the process of becoming, it’s mediumicity the Subject itself, the result of Absolute self-consciousness, moving ever further from the sense-consciousness of an enthetic ego (or the artist), to continue usage of our Hegelian jargon. Mechanization, utility aesthetics, and ‘primitive’ artifacture as found in early twentieth century Modernism would solidify the abstract movement of aesthetics and aesthetic theory until painting is said to have thought itself through, and thus presided over its own death. From Duchamp’s revolt against the signature, to Pollock’s increasing effacement of the artist’s hand through the dynamism of increasing the space between the tool of application and the surface upon which it is applied, this self- reflexivity of the medium becomes the subject.
Abstract negativity, best personified by the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt, and ultimately the Achromes of Piero Manzoni, strangely have their counterparts in early Pop painting and its mass cultural transcriptions. Held as an indictment of a society of commodity exchange, Pop painting conversely posed the question directly to Art itself; to its history of religious hierarchy and class exclusivity, to its incongruous presence in the world of late capitalism, both spiritually and culturally. Pop was both a capitulation to what was timely, and critical to what became outmoded, rarefied, surviving through academic monasticism, that is, Art itself. A dual meditation on the place of painting and the genetic ties of commercial illustration and cartooning to the history of painting, Pop worked its way out of the metaphysical cathexis of a Reinhardt or Manzoni.
Photorealism attempted to confound the old argument that painting achieved its initial death with the development of photography, and emphasized the signature representational modality of the photo-chemical as beneath the real. Copies of representations, ironically, the works of the photorealists pushed away from metaphysics by rejecting the living presence of the landscape painter or portraitist, - (the latter who persist in the Platonic rejection of painting as a bastardized document of perception in its ancient cultural beginnings) - to a more overt dismissal of Truth.
I want to focus on several incredible citations from the thinking behind Manzoni’s process of making the Achrome pieces, which best exemplify Hegelian historicity and absolutism in relation to the theory of painting, via Heidegger’s purist conception of being in the world (Dasein), which is impossible to think without the concept of Hegelian self-consciousness.
Below, a citation from a Sotheby’s catalogue from November of 2003, preceded by a quote from Manzoni himself, the catalogue’s author therein describes, remarkably, Manzoni’s process in executing his Achromes, epitomizing the Hegelian consciousness, whose conceptuality facilitates the radical effacement of painting, and performativity, as such.
“As [Manzoni] stated in 1957: “We absolutely cannot consider the picture as a space onto which to project our mental scenography. It is an arena of freedom in which we search for the discovery of our first images. Images which are as absolute as possible, which cannot be valued for that which they record, explain or express, but only for which they are: to be.” Manzoni’s reply to this quest was the Achrome series. Executed between 1957 and 1963, these paintings share surfaces that are completely devoid of color. The artist wanted to minimize any sense of his own personality or gesture, that would ultimately end with the poisoning of the purity of the image. Therefore, he does not paint the canvas, but rather pleats it and coats it in kaolin. It is through the drying process that the work achieves its final form, without the intervention of the artist, who leaves the last stages of creation to the medium itself. The result is an unemotive, white, neutral surface which avoids and denies imagery in favor of a more radical purity; a work endowed with its autonomous existence.”
“My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn’t think about form by the ocean… a world without objects, without interruptions, making a work without interruption or obstacle”
-Agnes Martin, Writings.
Agnes Martin, whose exquisite, linearly ruled surfaces also, consciously or not, seek to partake of Hegelian abstract negativity, in contradistinction to the process of Manzoni, fall short of that aspiration. Her verbal affirmations remove her paintings from the status of object, as her denial of line and form is an eidetic contract which may only take place, if at all, within the old illusory space of the picture plane.
“The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more is it accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system. It does not conceive the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive evolution of truth; rather, it sees only contradiction in that variety. The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant's existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole. But contradiction as between philosophical systems is not wont to be conceived in this way; on the other hand, the mind perceiving the contradiction does not commonly know how to relieve it or keep it free from its onesidedness, and to recognize in what seems conflicting and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments.”
-Hegel, Preface to the Phenomenology.
In closing, with perhaps what should have served as our opening, the large citation above from that most famous of Hegelian texts presents us with the organic conception of Hegelian truth and his conception of a series of progressively predetermined historical imperatives which constitute a multi-valent, however ultimately linear principle of philosophical historicism: the movement of history toward the Absolute. Such a conception has informed the dictates of art historical thinking, thoroughgoing. Art History awaits its post-historicist moment.
I have tried here to articulate, in brief, the fundamentally Hegelian movement of the thought of art theory, borne out again and again by mid-twentieth century modernists, to the incredibly complex context of Marxian thought throughout prominent art-theory, (Marx’s debt to Hegel in implicit emphasis) from Adorno to Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloch, and F. Jameson, who have built their works on structuralist and post-structuralist continental thought which is pervasively entwined with Hegel, via Kojeveian hermeneutics or simply by virtue of the continental metaphysical tradition. Begging the reader to bear with this clumsy albeit obvious claim, it is only to avoid the mire of explication, in order to point to the contrasting Anglo-American philosophical tradition, which I attempted in vain a decade ago to think in the context of art. What does a Peircian semiotic applied to the work of art appear to yield as opposed to Barthesian or Kristevian semiology? What does Quine, or Willy Sellars contribute to the thought of art historical developments or simply perceptual and cogitative confrontation to painterly abstraction? So terribly resistant is the Anglo-American tradition to the theoretical imagination of art thinking, that Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, and Marx’s Art and History burst through these philosophical diversions and reclaimed my assent to their comprehension. Hegel has had critics, prominent ones, from Schopenhauer to Kierkegaard in 19th century Europe, to C.S. Peirce stateside. Peirce’s dismissal of Hegel as utter nonsense aided the ruin of his academic career by conflicting with the prominent American Hegelian, Josiah Royce. However no critic of Hegel has been so plain spoken and sweeping than that of Sir Karl Popper. Few have demonstrated the socio-political perniciousness of Historicist thought as Popper. Popper regarded Hegel as merely a spiritual propagandist for the expansion of the Prussian state. Historicism, with its precedent in the Judaic concept of Promised Land, and it’s corollaries in American Manifest Destiny, to the proto-Fascist pan-Slav and pan-German movements, culminating in the Blood & Soil ethos of the Nazi party, and the Stalinized corruption of the Communist International.
*Yet in this sense never achieving the [Heideggarian] metaphysical purity of a being free of anthropomorphism, which Manzoni and his Achromes come as close to achieving beyond any other. Robert Smithson’s famous disdain for the anthropomorphic and emotive fail to be relieved of the eidetic traits of anthropos, in that his works take the form of ideal structures couched entirely in anthropic abstract conceptions.
Illustrations below, in order of pertinance as relates to the textual progression, above:
|Jackson Pollock, ca 1950.|
|Ad Reinhardt, Black painting, above, and more such in the studio, below.|
|Andy Warhol, early paintings from the early 1960's, above and below.|
|Richard Estes, 1969-70.|
|Piero Manzoni, Achrome, 1959.|
|Agnes Martin, Play, 1966.|
|Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962.|