This is the “zero degree” of painting. The total integration of content and form. The pre-renaissance artist understood this, that painting is a visual and architectural presentation, a structural concern.
Giotto, in his cycle of murals at the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, demonstrates this, the demands placed on the painted surface when forced into a confrontation with structural situations. Each scene of the life of Saint Francis reorganizes the structural dynamic of the interior. A conception of painting that dissolves and obliterates its architectural/structural limitations. Or do they? This coupling may be seen as seamless.
I lose sight of the fact that my paintings are on canvas…If the visual act taking place is strong enough, I don’t get a very strong sense of the material quality of the canvas, it sort of disappears. (Frank Stella)
When ever I travel to Madrid, I always return to the Prado Museum to view the Painting by Roger Van Der Weyden, “Descent from the Cross”. I always see this painting as a shaped canvas; it is and it isn’t. Its shallow space and crowed composition is suspended figuratively and literally in a situation of intense and felt passion. A self-contained structural fact. As with the St. Francis cycle, this work is able to conform to, while obliterating its own format. It seems to be accomplished by an unprecedented attention to it’s internal narrative and external shape, a format dictated by the architectural niche and/or frame where the painting would be placed.
This coition of formal concerns, interior/exterior, is resolved by the artist placing on an equal conceptual level, the narrative of the Christ Passion and the elongated (and upside down) “T”- shaped cross format of the support. In other words, the external shape of the painting, a cross exists equally with the internal compositional subject matter, the descent from the cross.
The absoluteness of integration in the Van der Weyden is complete and radical.
This close correlation of painted support and structural shape is what I would like to address. What I want to avoid is a judgmental position of issues or formal analysis of structure versus color, picture versus frame, etc. I propose a more ecological fusion of the two, similar to the Van der Weyden or to the massive altarpiece The Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico now housed in the Louvre Museum.
The two issues exist but they absorb each other.
This third position, total integration is, in a way, the “zero degree” of radical structure. One cannot exist without the other. These arguments for a unification of internal and external pictorial space is one of meta-integration, where two levels of visual dynamics acknowledge the completion of a given work.
One concern is not more or less important than the other, this is their radical nature.
I prefer to view the making of a painting as a situation which develops. In addition, I understand the construction of space to be a situation that is more fixed and unchanging. This dichotomy is a given, inherent to the nature of painting and structure making. It is not necessary that the viewer be bound to preconceived metaphysical condition when viewing these paintings. By the same token, as Barnett Newman would say, “aesthetics is for me like ornithology must be for the birds”. The painting/structures should be left free to live their own inborn condition of being.
One could say that “itself” is a quality of metaphysics, the nature of oneself perhaps, but these are works of fine art, not consciousness itself, but rather it’s mirror, a projection or optical illusion of consciousness. These works are a meditation on the innate qualities of a given structure (form) and content (color). A personal, intimate metaphysics of being.
Mark Dagley 1991
First published by the Kunstverein St Gallen, 1991. Republished in Rogue Magazine #20 in June 1993.