Propped not Supported

cooley-installation-view Pinceman Viallat

Installation view of Pinceman and Viallat. Cooley Gallery. Nov. 40 – Dec. 14, 2014.

People like to complain that the Supports/Surfaces group isn’t well enough known in America. This could mean that critics, certain critics, think their art is good enough to have warranted more attention, and probably attention from the presumptive big names: MoMA, Met, Walker, etc. They might also have in mind a historical point: the fact that the members of Supports/Surfaces were highly influenced by certain North American figures (Olitski, Greenberg, Noland, McLuhan) and so could be complaining that there is a kind of genealogy being erased when, say, Color Field painters are shown while Support/Surfaces are neglected. I have a feeling they tend not to mean that the group has benefitted from their existence outside of the limelight, although some do speculate that the “freshness” of the works today might have something to do with how infrequently they’ve been seen.

The basic details of their project are readily available (e.g. here at artcritical, and here at Art in America): post ’68 radicals, influenced by and engaged with French intellectual culture (thus, their interest in painting’s deconstruction), as well by American Color Field painting, committed solely (and improbably) to painting, focused in a kind of neo-Greenbergian mode on the irreducible qualities of painting, thus support, thus surface. Also central is their commitment to working as a group, with Raphael Rubenstein (the scholar who has been most committed to them) even claiming that they conducted “their relations like a communist cell.” The facts are a place to start the work of looking, disagreeing, extending.

I want to think about their interest in what is often called softness. What is being referred to is the group’s refusal, in the main, to stretch and frame their canvases. But “soft” isn’t quite right. Pliable, flexible, unstructured…and then, following that line, we would arrive at a series of negations, words that imply that the canvas always had a previous life as something hard, inflexible, taut, in negation of which the canvas, or painting itself was then defiantly slackened, as though letting air out of a balloon, or tires. But that line of thought is only accurate if one wants to cast the activities of the group as a kind of anti-painting, a negation, a singling out of features to then strike them through. There are lots of reasons to resist this line of thought: for one, deconstruction, in the Derridean sense, doesn’t work like that. More prosaically, the group has said explicitly in their writings that they were not interested in anti-art (and so drew a distinction between themselves and a group like Arte Povera). My own reason is more experiential. I do not think the paintings read, in the gallery, as statements in the negative, polarized afterimages of a convention they want to destroy or deflate.

There is a shadow here of Simon Hantaï and his pliage works, or foldings, which were first folded then painted then stretched taut. Hantaï was a direct influence on some members of Supports/Surfaces. But only a few works show evidence of such procedures, the trace and pleat of fold lines scarring the hung canvas (André-Pierre Arnal, Pliage, 1971). We also know that Supports/Surfaces were influenced by Morris Louis, particularly by his staining technique (which he in turn learned from Helen Frankenthaler). Louis, when done with a painting, would immediately roll it up and store it (he didn’t, like Pollock, need to see it hung to get his bearings). His paintings didn’t get stretched and framed until they were being prepared for exhibition, and exhibitions didn’t happen until late in his life. Famously, incredibly, he never saw one of his Unfurleds stretched and hung. It’s as if Supports/Surfaces had learned from this episode that stretching and framing were a kind of stricture imposed by galleries, that tautness itself was an institutional afterthought, that all Louis paintings might have remained rolled. It’s an arresting thought (one that would dramatically change Louis scholarship, not least Greenberg’s and Fried’s accounts).

So if Support/Surfaces’ paintings are not un-stretched, not de-flated, if they present themselves without prefix, then how to apprehend them in their positivity? The difficulty of thinking non-negatively here evidences how deeply imbricated tautness is with painting’s history, even its presumed ontology. But a painting that is stretched on a frame neither in production nor display is not a painting without support. It is, rather, a painting with many possible supports, all of them provisional, non-absolute, yielding. Support comes to have an existence in time: it can change. A painting might be made on the floor but exhibited on the wall; made with folds, but exhibited outstretched. Air and the natural resistance of fabric, given by the weave, are not unsupportive, they are simply labile.

Jean Pierre Pinceman 1973

Jean Pierre Pinceman, 1973

In the display of the works, this tends to stress in-ness over on-ness, one-ness over two-ness; one wants to refer neither to “paint” nor “canvas.” I want another word; a single one, or several words that aren’t connected by prepositions (the eponymous slash is connective without being prepositional). This quality, in turn, means that the works don’t present themselves as images, at least not in the sense of two-ness that is embedded in that word (an image, for instance, needs a medium and so can be said to hop media). And this means that the works don’t always answer easily to the term “abstraction,” given that “abstraction” itself tends, still, to want to emphasize a movement away, a withdrawal from…if not representation, then something given in opposition. “Abstract” signals a conceptual relation, a toggle that can be imagined to either be in the art (signaling thereby a modality) or in the world (thus the changing fortunes of the term “realism”)—in either case, it presumes the split to be somewhere. But the works on display are more about patternings, repetitions; the fallible as insufficient; unrolling as extensibility: ongoingness. The paintings don’t seem to end because they never quite begin, yet they are very evidently made objects. Many of them are assembled from parts (Jean-Pierre Pincemin, Carrés Collés, 1973) or imprinted (Claude Viallat, 1970/056, 1970). Assembling and imprinting, as they appear in Supports/Surfaces’ work, are both additive processes, not automated so much as simply available. As such, they can be easily learned, which is to say, quickly taught. Teachability seems like something IN the works.

This, I think, is one trace of the group’s collectivity, of their existence beyond or with-out the individual. In their patternings, their insufficiency, the ongoingness of their existence, their rolls and folds and pliability, the variable nature of their supports, the works open themselves, arrive open and remain open, to the work of others. Not as collaboration, two working together to produce the one, but as a preposition-less mode of production that is cloaked neither in mystery nor mastery, given neither in apprenticeship nor discipline. An immanent teachability without beginning and without end.

The works—all but one, whose anomalous status as a stretched canvas itself gets recoded by its context (Marc Devade, Untitled Paintings, 1967)—hang loosely on walls, flow onto floors, lie down, drop from ceilings. They roll and extend; they are marked on their surfaces by the evidence of previous foldings, so they can be said to have unfolded, but never fully, never finally. The crimp is a lived history, a history of the present, something we must learn to live with. To work in extension, to work in a suppleness of support, to be unreliant and insufficient, to be patterned but not disciplined is to exhibit the teachable. This is the works’ positivity. And here, if we want, we might see how their Leftist politics, so avowed and debated in their writings, finds form.