Wholly Different Category

Robert Ryman Untitled [no. 25] 1960

The last (but not least) of the modernist strategies of motivation is non-composition. It is consciously used in opposition to the three other ones. I would divide it into six subcategories (though there might be more, unbeknownst to me). What they all have in common is a programmatic insistence on the non-agency of the artist: the work must be produced by means that do not rely on the artist’s subjectivity, and (this is what differentiates these strategies from Mondrian’s compositional strategy) this independence must be plainly visible to all—it must be part and parcel of the artwork itself. The least frequently summoned strategy is chance, perhaps because it bears some dangers. To be sure, chance undermines subjectivity, but it might also end up throwing out the baby—that is, the very possibility of painting—with the bathwater. The others are all indexical operations in which the painting (or sculpture) falls back onto itself: the grid, the collapse of image and field, the deductive structure, the monochrome, the process. In each of these indexical operations, there is a reduplication of one property of the painting or sculpture onto itself, and, to speak like Rodchenko and his friends, there is no “excess”: a modular grid retraces the proportions of the support it maps. The stripes of a Black Painting by Frank Stella, the “transfer” of a window frame by Ellsworth Kelly, the processual marks of a work by Robert Ryman fill up the canvas, as does the single color of a monochrome by Yves Klein. Some artists used several of these strategies simultaneously or successively (and these categories are themselves porous: a grid or a monochrome also represents a collapse of field and image; a monochrome is also a grid with only one square, etc.).” [Yve-Alain Bois on Modernist Composition]

Piet Mondrian Composition in Red Blue and Yellow 1937-42

the more closely the norms of a discipline become defined, the less freedom they are apt to permit in many directions. The essential norms or conventions of painting are at the same time the limiting conditions with which a picture must comply in order to be experienced as a picture. Modernism has found that these limits can be pushed back indefinitely — before a picture stops being a picture and turns into an arbitrary object; but it has also found that the further back these limits are pushed the more explicitly they have to be observed and indicated. The crisscrossing black lines and colored rectangles of a Mondrian painting seem hardly enough to make a picture out of, yet they impose the picture’s framing shape as a regulating norm with a new force and completeness by echoing that shape so closely. Far from incurring the danger of arbitrariness, Mondrian’s art proves, as time passes, almost too disciplined, almost too tradition- and convention-bound in certain respects; once we have gotten used to its utter abstractness, we realize that it is more conservative in its color, for instance, as well as in its subservience to the frame, than the last paintings of Monet. [Clement Greenberg on Modernist Painting]

Jackson Pollock Free Form 1946

In the United States, the phenomenon originated within the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists, usually praised (by Schapiro among others) for the high subjectivism of their art. Both Pollock’s allover drips and Newman’s use of bilateral symmetry and oversized canvases can be seen as assaults against composition (and would be interpreted as such by future generations of artists). Pollock’s and Newman’s rejection of the tasteful art of balance common to European post-Cubist art emerged in part from a highly competitive (and slightly nationalistic) atmosphere and a desire to “start everything anew.” It casts their art, in any case, in a wholly different category from that of other Abstract Expressionist artists (Ad Reinhardt excepted, if he is to be included in this movement, which I doubt very much). Pollock eliminated (at least partially) the bodily link that made of the brush the continuation of the hand and of the gesture the “handwriting” of the artist. He allowed gravity (that is, a process that was independent of his agency) to play a major role in the configuration of his skeins. As for Newman, he reinvented symmetry as a deductive structure (even though he would have rejected this con- cept), this time, however, not as a cipher of a “zero degree” of art but as the score of a beginning that must be endlessly enacted. Newman, in fact, reintroduced “man” into the equation—not the personality of the artist (he called that “folklore”), but the human being as the subject of perception who is given a “sense of place” in front of the canvas he or she beholds. [Yve-Alain Bois on Modernist Composition]

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