Exteriority/Interiority: Surface Dimensions of Painting
During the 1960s the notion of surface became an important concern for advanced artists and critics. It was given special impetus, through the notion of flatness, by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg in relation to Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting. While flatness has long fallen out of favour within art theory, having been set aside as belonging to a modernism that is now outmoded and overly restrictive, it has a complex afterlife that this paper will seek to revisit in order to argue for its theoretical and historical productivity. Reading with, through, and ultimately against Greenberg, the philosopher Stanley Cavell and the art historian Michael Fried proposed fundamental revisions of Greenbergian flatness that emphasized its phenomenological depth rather than merely formalist properties. For Cavell, in his The World Viewed, flatness was to be reconceived as frontality, a vector that corresponds with the “frontedness” of the human body. Two decades later, in his book on Manet, Fried argues that French painting of the 1860s is called upon to acknowledge its condition of publicness through emphasizing its facingness. Flatness, according to this history, is a miscomprehension of a fundamental facingness—an error that hypostatizes rather than acknowledges the surface of painting.
The aim of this paper is less to chart the historical reconceptualization of flatness, than it is to analyse fundamentally what is at stake in such a reconceptualization. It will argue that in discussing painting in terms of frontality and facingness, Cavell and Fried examine how the medium and in particular its surface-ness allows an “intersubjective” relation between artwork and beholder—a relation that is ultimately of ethical and political import. Whereas much of the paper will focus on a particular dialogue between Greenberg, Cavell, and Fried, the final part of the paper will consider the complex ‘paintings’ of Daniel Buren in which surface is rethought as an exteriority defined by material thickness and the weaving between recto and verso allegorical of art’s institutional enframedness. Finally, this paper seeks to imagine the painted surface not as something that covers over the canvas but radically as the necessary marker of painting’s depth.
Dr Matthew Bowman's research focuses on twentieth century and contemporary art, criticism, photography, the art market, and philosophy in the USA and Europe. He is the author of numerous essays including 'The New Critical Historians of Art?' in James Elkins and Michael Newman (eds.), The State of Art Criticism (Routledge, 2008) and 'Rosalind Krauss' in Mark Durden (ed.), Fifty Key Writers on Photography (Routledge, 2013). An extended essay on Martin Heidegger s notion of de-distancing and its value for art historiography, titled 'Shapes of Time: Melancholia, Anachronism, and De- Distancing', was published in Amanda Boetzkes and Aron Vinegar (eds.), Heidegger and the Work of Art History (Ashgate, 2014). He has two forthcoming books: an edited collection of essays titled The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing (I.B. Tauris, 2018) and a monograph October and the Expanded Field of Art and Criticism (Routledge, 2019).