Outside the Box: David Carrier on the Legacy of Shaped Canvases
The Shaped Canvas, Revisited at Luxembourg & Dayan
May 11 to July 3, 2014
64 E 77th Street (between Madison and Park Avenues)
New York City, 212 452 3350
June 7 to July 20, 2014
333 Broome Street (between Bowery and Chrystie)
New York City, 212 925 4631
Right now there is a great deal of interest within the New York art world in looking backward, seeking visual inspiration in modernism. Two current group shows are exemplary models of this revisionist historical thinking. Starting in the 1960s, many otherwise varied artists in Europe and New York employed shaped canvases. Inspired by the 1964 Guggenheim Museum exhibition “The Shaped Canvas,” Luxembourg & Dayan, housed on three floors of a majestic, very narrow Upper East Side townhouse, has organized an exhibition of 28 paintings employing this device. Starting around 1966, a group of Frenchmen of the Supports/Surfaces movement developed a remarkable synthesis of deconstructive philosophy, the political ideas of Mao and the decorative pure color found in Matisse’s late cutouts. Canada, a downtown gallery, has assembled a show of 22 paintings by these artists, in collaboration with the Parisian Galerie Bernard Ceysson.
Harvey Quaytman, Elizabeth Murray and Kenneth Noland painted abstractions on shaped frames; Claes Oldenberg, James Rosenquist and Tom Wesselmann used them to present figurative subjects. Some painters, such as Ron Gorchov, used the shaped canvas as a way to structure their pictures. Richard Prince, whose 1994 Untitled (Protest Painting) contains the outlined shape of a sloganless protest sign, is exemplary of artists who set shaped structures within a pictorial rectangle. In presenting a marvelous variety of shaped canvases, Luxembourg & Dayan generates some surprising, unexpected juxtapositions: Pino Pascali’s Coda di Delfino (1966), a jokey dolphin-shaped painting on wood, is set alongside Creede II (1961), a copper-colored, shaped work by Frank Stella. Jeremy De Prez’s Untitled (2014), which presents a seemingly rumpled plaid design, is hung next to John Armleder’s Lotta di gladiatori — The Best (2014). The exhibition ends with two marvelously funny pictures, Steven Parrino’s very orderly The Chaotic Painting (2006), a triangle shape, and Jacob Kassay’s Partial Credit (2014), a not-quite-rectangular canvas with the title printed on the right edge of the frame.
The Supports/Surfaces painters were a loosely organized movement centered in the South of France, linked together, at least initially, by their fascination with bookish philosophizing. Searching for an alternative to the practice of Clement Greenberg’s color field painters, these artists freely appropriated ideas from Michael Fried’s formalism and the Marxism of Marcelin Pleynet and Philippe Sollers, writers associated with the Parisian journal Tel Quel. Jean-Michel Meurice created strips of intense color like Vinyle (1976); Claude Viallat presented repeated patterns on dyed fabric or rope lattices hung directly on the wall, as in 1972/F14 (1972); Louis Cane employed repetitive rubber-stamping — Toile tamponnée (1967) is an example.
Artists who otherwise had no connection with one another have employed the shaped canvas. Using a shaped canvas doesn’t require any high-powered theorizing. And so it’s unsurprising that this pictorial format has been adapted by such a motley assortment of figures as Lucio Fontana, Mary Heilmann and Damien Hirst, on view at Luxembourg & Dayan. By contrast, although the Supports/Surfaces works can be seen as deconstructed paintings, what remains of that art form when you remove the stretcher and display the unstretched canvas or, conversely, present just the frame, sans canvas? This style of art making was parasitic upon what now seem like dated critical, cultural, and aesthetic theories. French writers drew an equivalence between what in the catalogue Joe Fyfe calls “the fabric of society” and the structures of bourgeois painting, making a link between the “radical social engagement” of French Maoists and deconstructive visual practice. If you remove the unstable supporting synthesis of formalist interpretation and political analysis, all that remains of Supports/Surfaces art is good looking decorative constructions. That perhaps explains why these artists haven’t had much impact within the American art world. When the New York artists looked to Europe for inspiration, it looked to Germany. As yet these Frenchmen don’t belong in the post-modernist canon. The show at Canada was handsomely hung, but by presenting this art with too little reference to its original context, the catalogue did not adequately support what could have been an important revisionist exhibition.
My account of Supports/Surfaces borrows from Raphael Rubinstein, “The Painting Undone: Supports/Surfaces” at https://www.artcritical.com/2004/02/01/the-painting-undone-supportssurfaces. The quotation from Joe Fyfe comes from the foreword of Surface/Support (New York and Paris: Canada Gallery with Galerie Bernard Ceysson, 2014).