Places of painting
By Christine Buci-Glucksmann
Translated from French by Jane McDonald

“The topological space is my home”: it is in these terms, during a friendly conversation in Brooklyn, that James Hyde described to me his obsession with space in painting. As if it were necessary to abandon, definitively, the flat, modern space of painting with its pure abstraction and its ethic of the medium, in order to re-paint utterly freely, to invest each surface, each object, each material, to better rediscover the world. Wall, floor, glass box, carpet, paper cut-outs, table, chair, pillow or handle, anything can become a painting. Of course, we will not fail to recall here several famous examples, from Rauschenberg’s Bed to Stella’s “shaped canvases” or to Ellsworth Kelly’s spatialist approach. In fact, the rejection of the distinction between the pictorial and the commonplace – like the introduction of raised relief in painting – already has a long history that dates back to the 1920’s, and that dominated the 60’s. However, for Hyde, as for the entire generation of American artists of the 90’s, painting defined itself as multiple, productive and free of stylistic criteria in the traditional meaning of the term. More than a reflexive, avant-garde or conceptual painting, it involves a painting-artifact, that constructs its grammar of signs based on an unprincipled investigation of the history of the pictorial – from Medieval and Renaissance frescoes to post-Duchamp boxes – to the point where one is faced with a variant-variation of Deleuze’s Baroque fold: “an infinite painting.” 1 It is not the transcendent infinity of Giotto’s frescoes, nor that other white, empty and cosmic infinity of Malevitch, but multiple and varied infinities: the infinity of crossing over borders and through diverse operations concerning art and the world, or the infinity of movements and passages which open onto a field of real and virtual forces, where painting is implicated. A topology, in sum, in its matter and means, which empties painting of its ontological substrata and of its traditional supporting structure – canvas and stretcher – in favor of its becoming multiple, materialized and abstract.

We know that topology is a discourse about place, and scientists distinguish between two types of topology: a general topology that treats ideas about affinities, limits and continuity, and an algebraic topology that derives the unvarying principles particular to topological spaces – dimension, homology or homotopy. In this way, in the case of homology, one can “triangulate” a surface by transforming it into a polyhedron, thus passing from a “piece of the surface” to the “geodetic triangulation series” particular to these polyedrons that haunted Plato and Durer in their constructions of a world.2 Such would be the course of an “infinite painting”: producing surfaces, folded textures, wrinkled and misshapen polyhedrons, mobiles or furniture-sculpture within given spaces, or rather, thanks to the given space. In Hyde’s works, this kind of topological abstraction breaks with any specific index of the painted surface, the stretcher or the grid so that painting, for Hyde, is less “a model” for the world in Yve-Alain Bois 3 sense, than it is the infinitely redirected analysis of a relationship to the world – localized, isolated, and always changeable.

In other words, originally, exclusively two kinds of surfaces placed in space explored the history of painting from the Renaissance to Duchamp. Vast frescoes, kinds of monochromes, such as the blue black of Term, are painted in the most traditional and the most artisanal fashion of the Italian “buon fresco” with its “bed of color.” But the wall, of Giotto’s “Arena” in Padua or of Fra Angelico’s “Convent San Marco” in Florence, is here multiplied, utilized and displayed, within and through the immense blocks of styrofoam, which detach themselves from the background and engender the power of place, in the lack of any sacred place. The place is neither a container, nor a simple inert emptiness. It encompasses both the material’s potentiality and the work’s “active principle of engenderment” as in Medieval thought, because, with their frontality, the styrofoam fresco-blocks advance towards you, with all the force of their colored field and of their “block of sensations.” And this, regardless of size – whether it is the monumental Rise, (1993), installed in a many-storied atrium in Cleveland, or a different painting-format, whether it is the wall “of small frescoes,” with their irregular and haphazard distribution, or the immense fresco-veils such as Start, a work that plays on transparency and abstract superimposition. In all these cases, it always concerns a way of painting that directly sculpts the color, that occupies the three dimensions, even if the liquid and inflected paint floats in the in-between space that hovers between veil and artifice.

And then, the viewer discovers other, more reflective surface-volumes – these glass boxes that hold paint drippings on crumpled paper or on rags, that immediately induce a double vision. Close up, one sees only the materiality-texture of a painting that is thick and enclosed, with layers, folds and paint splashes like a De Kooning. However, from far away, positioned on the wall or on the floor, the box-paintings function like “quasi-paintings.” They return to a cold and sharp rectangular frame, and call for a mirror-like and suspended transversal gaze. In sum, the “grands verres” are pictorial, repeated, and closed like shop windows, in which the glass is both a barrier, an in-front/in-back and an operation about limits. Contrary to the frescoes that re-enact a gesture out of the past while ironically diverting it by using styrofoam, here one is in this “civilization of glass” which Paul Scheerbart already foresaw in his premonitory book, L’Architecture de verre. It is a space that leaves no trace, that is smooth, cold and without secrets; the glass partition substitutes for the opaque wall and is created from emptiness and an objective style that can allude to “clouds of color.” 4 From there it draws its crystalline and virtual power, and its suspended esthetic. The pictorial textures of the glass boxes – framed, physically and conceptually enclosed – suddenly begin to levitate.

But fundamentally, why go from fresco-painting that harks back to the past to these “glass boxes,” that are sorts of potential shop windows of art which, from Duchamp to Manzoni, Beuys, Boltanski, Jeff Wall or Damien Hirst, had such an impact on the entire twentieth century? Because the box-effect, luminous or not, always implies theatricality, whether minimal or ambiguous. Substituting the structure of a glass box (or of light-box coffee tables) for the stretcher-plane immediately creates a mirror effect, a doubling which distances and neutralizes the object. Duchamp’s enumeration – a building facade, a window with glass, a glass cupboard, a glass bin, a box – refers to the “figure of a space” which entitles the viewer to “look at it through transparency.” However, it also involves placement and especially “the act of placing fragile objects.”5 Like skin or silk, the enclosed layers or traces are ephemeral, but they nonetheless require a place, even if it is one of false and falsifying glass. However this real-ideal place – Duchamp’s “lag time of glass” (“retard en verre”) only subverts the very space of the painting, that of classical mimesis and of modernism’s abstract flatness, shown here in a cold, neutral theater that juts out from the wall or the floor. Consequently, the pictorial materiality is trapped in this anesthesia of feeling characteristic of an indifference that acts as a screen and a mirror. It filters the visible and produces pictorial abstracts. Within the glass boxes, as in Richter’s reflective paintings, the painting becomes pure surface.

Boxes that are closed or open, stacked up or set down, archive-boxes and concept-boxes, boxes for remembrance or for forgetting – the obsession with the box functions within contemporary art as a “supplement to,” indeed as a substitute for, the pictorial, by creating a quasi-architecture of glass. In Hyde’s work, the wall or glass surface is no more than a palette transformed through humor, a game of artifice and artifact, where Alice is now on the other side of the mirror. Within its box-place and its emptiness, is the painting that is pure stigmata and wound of its own history, living or dead? By placing into delayed contact the interior and the exterior, the deep and the superficial, the transparent and the opaque, the paint is at the same time on the inside and on an ultra-thin limit that is like a membrane or a sheer fabric. The paint is grafted onto and turned into a hybrid by this surface where the act of painting consists of a projection into space, because the pictorial plane is multiplied over and over, within another narrative. It is a narrative of the glass which functions as a virtual, physical and conceptual lining. But it is also a narrative of objects diverted from their usual functions, of ultramodern and unusual materials, and of places, potential, suggested or present. Ultimately, the infinity of the painting becomes inseparable from all its possible fields of projections and of transferals. It is multiplicity in a pure state, with neither repetition nor series.

This ambiguity which arises from the topology is present throughout Hyde’s work and perhaps characterizes this becoming-painting. The visible surface of the wall or of the glass leaves room for any and all possible supporting structures, which are most often every-day objects such as carpets, shelves, furniture or handles. All painting is a ready-made, and even a ready-making of a ready-made. The handle with its variations of color and of material – sometimes smooth, sometimes rough – formalizes the painting by variations of color and material – sometimes smooth, sometimes rough – formalizes the painting by situating it within a nominally explicit gesture. “This is not a handle,” wobbly or balanced, well-built or spindly, trapped within its allusive scenarios and its little stories. A good example of this would be an imaginary “studiolo,” made entirely of handles. Only the action – push/pull – leaves a trace and a memory. In fact, this action defines, isolates and constructs like a line. It gives rise to a spatializing that is endowed with a totally virtual ubiquity because each viewer can inhabit it, but the site nevertheless remains abstract, as in Russian constructivism. Here the study of the limit, that of glass or of monochrome fresco, with their framed and framing shapes, is liberated. It shows and maps out the architecture of a place as commonplace as it is elusive. It is a working drawing of place: handles with no doors, glass with no windows, or blocks with no architecture. Hyde’s “my home” is an indeterminate theatre, a world of virtualities sometimes inhabited and sometimes deserted, made of handles or of a giant pillow or of impractical and practical furniture-sculptures. But behind the physicality, there is an entire network of interlacing gestural designs of movements and of speed, defining marks resembling diagrams, and more violent gestures of pictorial projection. Unlike the Euclidian space that is always homogenous, the place creates peculiarities and events within the play of presence-absence that constitutes it. It is inseparable from an entire anthropology of dimensions and of ritual and social directions: being within, being enveloped by, entering, leaving, crossing, being at the center or on the edge. Shapeable, changeable, anamorphosable, protecting or menacing, everyday or prophetic, the place is empowerment in the Spinozist or Leibnizian meaning of the term. An empowerment of expression and of virtuality, where the forces take on form and the materials become methods. Infinity only exists within is affirmative modalities, its multiplicity and its dynamic power or persevering in existence. Spinoza called it a “conatus,” a desire.

A desire to paint, to affirm painting, over an over again, as a sign, an object, a materiality or a quasi-painting, whatever. Such is the challenge facing Hyde, who, like many contemporary artists, mixes up high and low culture in order to resituate abstraction within the very movement of a “return to the real” that Hal Foster discusses.6 As in Verge – this hanging loop of painted carpet - here the painting is infinite. One can always turn it around, unroll it, roll it back up, and rediscover this vertical or horizontal regard characteristic of Chinese or Japanese rolled paintings. The act of painting on carpets – inherently informal and rough – evokes imaginary scenes of a theater of landscapes with differing points of views and receding horizons. Consequently, wall-paintings, mirror-paintings or carpet-paintings all refer us back to the same question: the power or the impotence of painting today, within a world henceforth dominated by the virtual and by generalized cyberspace.

In many respects, Hyde, like other artists of his generation, reinterprets, indeed replays and visually reinvents an entire history of abstraction, whose traces and influences are obvious: veil and monochrome (Rothko or Newman), gestuality (Pollock or De Kooning) or painting-object (Rauschenberg or Stella). However, it is not about reappropriating the “post-modern” by reference. Neither, is it an “after painting,” between recuperation and redemption, that applies the allegorical impulse analyzed by Craig Owens in Beyond Recognition.7 Here the references to American abstraction are removed from their context, shifted, and reworked, in order to better treat the “interfaces” between the arts and the world, and to better recreate perhaps what Michel Foucault called the “heterotopias,” the other, different spaces.

Unlike the scientific space of the 17th century that was homogenous and infinite, the “heterotopies” deal with localization, placement and all the relationships of proximity between points and elements, from the series to the trellis. They are therefore topological. But the placement is only a “counter-placement,” where “the real placements that one can find inside the culture are at once represented, contested and inverted.” 8 The “heterotopies of crisis” and the “heterotopies of deviation” juxtapose in a single place several incompatible spaces, in which a non-chronological time is defined. Brothels, gardens or boats belong to these “heterotopies” that create ambiguous open-closed spaces. “Spaces of illusion” or “spaces of compensation,” as meticulous and real as the referent that actuates them, are the artistic and social symptoms of a relational communication. Hyde’s different painting-places or pictorial “heterotopies” belong to these spaces where the permanent hybridization of practices, spaces and supporting structures enables him to formulate a new approach to contemporary abstraction. It is a topological abstraction, always impure.

Whatever he chooses as the supporting structure – carpet, vinyl, glass or plastic, whatever the object or the referential sign- handle, box, pillow or piece of furniture, Hyde is indeed an abstract painter. Of course, one no longer finds oneself in front of an ideal abstraction of the modernist type in the manner of Greenberg. Here abstraction is more additive and extractive than “sub-tractive.” Impure, it always operates by reinventing its planes and the heterogeneity of its materials outside of traditional painting. It also vacillates between the production of surfaces and the geneology of places, and thus treats these new “abstracts”9 which I discussed within the American “post-abstraction” of Lydia Dona, David reed, Jonathan Lasker or Fabian Marcaccio. Whether it concerns the map, the diagram, or the fractal models, all the new abstracts share exploring an uncertain territory between construction and expressive neutralization, between surface and spatial trajectories, between presence and distance. It is as if, from now on, between the vision and the painting, there existed this “barrier” (Barrier) which Hyde shows that lies in front of an absent painting, or this block of shattered and mineralized transparency of plastic (Flex). The barrier is imperceptible and impassable, an interior-exterior that comprises the minimal shape of a topological and architectural abstraction, marked by the end “of the grid” as the visual and organizational paradigm. Then, the topographical space becomes wavy, folded, marked by the diagonal and the spiral, like an impure texture, stretched or misshapen between the artificial and the more “suspended” esthetic effects of the veiled-superimposed-draped.

Fix is exemplary in this regard, with its glowing, artificial and cutting vinyl, deformed by its rough volume and its sharp edges. Here, one is in front of the result of a topological process in the strict sense of the term. At first, like Hyde, you take a regular surface, then you fold it, unfold it, compress it and tape it violently. Little by little, it falls into place and strangely resemble fractal objects in its irregularity, its intersections, and its heterogeneity. Within fractal geometry one can, in fact, begin with a Euclidian space and extract from it a collection of open ensembles: one thus obtains some “tremas” resembling the holes or dots on a die – like a city with random streets or surfaces warped and cratered with holes like a Swiss cheese. That is why in certain virtual installations, such as those of Jeffrey Shaw and Mike Metz,10 one can pass from a regular grid that is projected flatly to a setting in motion of a volume that is fractal, wrinkled, folded, angular, modifiable and reshapeable at will.

Thus, it is by reshaping that the topology of the fold engenders folds and unfoldings, that it creates a texture which renders the material expressive and pictorial depending on the procedures of recovering, transferral and reshaping. To fold is to express something in terms of a certain potentiality; it gives birth to an interior mold where the outside and the inside meet, depending on an infinity of variables. That is why the fold, as an empowerment of textures and of places, is always “infinite.” It unfurls into the distance or into the overlapping of two space-limits: “grooved space” – geometric, homogenous and Euclidian (such as a window or a grid), and “smooth space”- of n dimensions, made of crossings, inflections and sensory influences, and always constructed through local operations.11 One could even add that painting continues to vacillate between these two poles, which Wolfflin has already analyzed: the classic linear of a line-contour and the whirling and spiraling pictorial of the Baroque, in which the line is open to infinity, in its inflections, its planes and its points of view. The folds of Fix are not flowing, are neither Greek, nor Baroque, nor Oriental. They are trapped within the substance, fixed and hardened. They arise from a veritable pictorial morphogenesis, a geology and geography if you will, which opens onto a kind of abstract landscape, with its strata, its patterns, its spiky folds and its superpositions of thickness. The mutability of the violent fold functions as a vast inorganic envelope, a projectile and a disposition of the boundary between painting and sculpture, and indeed even between painting and architecture. All folds are duplicitous: they exist on one side and on the other, on the inside and the outside, are made of one color and another. It alone engenders places and points of view, and creates a voluminosity beyond any quantifiable magnitude. More than a flowing and loose pleat, here it is the very artifact of the painting, which exhibits its own heterogenous materials though a forced folding made of compressions and irregular bulges. In Hyde’s work, the fold determines the colors: 1,000 colors, like the “ten thousand beings” of pictorial Taoism, or the 128 sides of the mazzocchio in Uccello’s drawings. A thousand colors, like a number raised to a power, where the detail and the whole remain unanalyzable, because the detail makes the whole and is never simply a part of the whole. Also, the emerging place is not a simple Wittgensteinian context or an “in situ,” as in the Minimalism or Land Art of the 1960’s. It is really the topological abstraction of painting which enlarges the space and produces the place. It also engenders the imaginary rooms of a future house, like a symbolic expression of the Self: true-false dining rooms with their design – furniture, true-false storage rooms, true-false floors, true-false walls. It encompasses an entire theater of truth and illusion, of metamorphoses and of raptures of painting, that succeeds in freeing itself of its “crisis,” while still reinterpreting its history and its signs. To the allegory of the “deconstruction” criticism of the painting and its concept, Hyde contrasts more familiar scenarios (chairs, a table, a pillow), micro-narratives and fragments of the world. The surface effects that are present in Hyde’s work resemble the thoroughly epicurian emissions of corporeal phantom-fantasies in which the interior and the exterior are constantly inverted in a humorous way. So, it is not about a simulated abstraction, an art of art, characteristic of an “esthetic of cynical reason” which practices and mingles all styles by treating abstraction as a simple ready-made to recopy. Instead, here the surface takes possession of the bodies, engenders its bodies, but the body has no other flesh than the complex and theatricalized encounter between the artifacts and the pictorial according to the model of an imaginary house. That is why abstraction without style of the topological renews today a central question, that of the relationships between painting and architecture, practices by numerous artists, seeking perhaps these “heterotopies” that arise after the demise of any utopia.

The house – with its rooms, its blueprints and sections, its walls and floors, it framings and its off-centerings, its intimacy like its objectivity – creates an imaginary concept of place, which changes the lay-out by endowing it with a potential familiarity. It thus renews a connection with the world without being the world, and its architecture of simplified plans offers an alternative model to the flatness of modernist space. In terms of other interpretations – from Mondrian’s or Kandinsky’s house-models to Matisse’s French doors, from Schwitters’ Merzbrau to Dan Graham’s “Pavillions” and to the various “Maisons-cerveaux” of Jean-Pierre Raynaud, Mario Merz, Lucy Orta or Jean-Marc Bustamante- the house has served as a laboratory and as a diagram for an abstraction which attempts the real without being the real. It is a metaphor and an architectural paradigm that alters the space-time of painting, probably because, as Stan Allen has written, in architecture, the abstraction is already “conditional,” and functions as a “diagram of the possible.” 12 Schwitters, however, already noted that his Merz involved a “standard scene,” which could accommodate any kind of play. Also, the Merzbau transformed the interior spaces linking art and life by staging what Schwitters considered the sole activity of the artist, “to define and reevaluate.”

Basically, when Hyde paints frescoes on styrofoam, he returns precisely to this moment in art when the work was destined for an architectural place (usually sacred, as it was), and became itself a place through its symbolic and spatial effects. It is not by chance that he also made a site-specific painting composed of four monumental monochrome “frescoes” for a firm in Cleveland.13 The connection to architecture, explicit or implicit, haunts his work, as he must have been haunted by numerous Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist artists. These include in a spiritual form which explicitly refers to the sacred: Rothko’s chapel in Houston, Barnett Newman’s synagogue project or Dan Flavin’s Chiesa Rossa. It is as if investing a place came down to creating the real metaphor of painting in its most powerful and wildest desire: as Rothko said, “to paint the finite and the infinite at the same time.”

Infinite painting is one of the forms renewed by this desire, where the topology, like the architecture, serves as a “plane of immanence” for painting. Sometimes present within the objects, sometimes constructed as volumes, they enable one to confront several places at the same time: the real exhibition place, the imaginary place of the house and the artistic place of the works. Painting trades its ideologies of crisis in favor of its metamorphoses, in a theater as abstract as it is concrete. However, don’t be fooled. Behind the vast folded surfaces lurk all the violence of the rhythm and of the “futuristic” speed of the 21st century, and the pursuit of a syntactical exploration of the material’s possibilities. Certainly, Hyde’s mobiles are a rococo assembling of disparate elements that play on incompletion and ruin; however, it is indeed an exploration of a kind of sophisticated mathematical labyrinth, that constructs an entire unsteady architecture of vision, that animates Hyde’s projects. In the same way, the explicit materiality of painting, pushed up to the sculptural fold or to the painting of 10,000 colors, made of dozens and dozens of tiny painted fragments- is ultimately treated as an artificial material that can connect with the furniture-artifacts of the future and occupy all its dimensions. Topology is always trapped within its movement, its instability and its paradoxes, and is always situated at the edge between seeing and knowing, even if the objective is always to create a more straightforward personal emotion. The floating or reflective surface of the frescoes and of the glass boxes connects to the raised sculpture-folds, the violently misshapen, multisided polyhedrons, or to the mobiles, the pieces of furniture and the folded-unfolded carpets. This kind of syntax remains open to all networks, all kinds of chaos, labyrinths and transformations. The absence of any overt identifying style thus becomes a style: that of a world which invents itself within a free, multi-sensory, multiple esthetic. That which places us today in front of what I would call art in the age of the virtual, in Walter Benjamin’s sense when he spoke of art in the age of technical reproducibility. Perhaps we are passing, unawares, from an art dominated by reproduction, repetition and the series, to an art which takes possession of the multiple in its purest state, like a fictitious window, or an incompleted house or a glass that has become a world-eye. But there is neither waste, nor surplus, nor allegory. There is just the renewed affirmation of painting: 1,000 colors, 10,000 supporting structures, 100,000 places, and so on until infinity.

1 Gilles Deleuze, Le Pli: Leibniz et le baroque, Editions de Minuit, 1988; The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, G. Deleuze, trans., Tom Conley, University of Minnesota Press, 1003.

2 For this definition of topology, c.f. Le Tresor, Dictionnaire des Sciences, under the direction of Michel Serres and Nayla Farouki, Flammarion, pp.981 (Topologie) and 734 (Polyedres).

3 Yve-Alain Bois, 1990, Painting as Model, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass

4 Paul Scheerbart, L’architecture de verre, Circe, pp.52 and 143.

5 Marcel Duchamp, Duchamp du signe, Flammarion, pp. 106, 51, 188.

6 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 1996.

7 Craig Owens, Beyond Recognition, University of California Press, 1992, “The Allegorical Impulse,” pp.52 and following.

8 Michel Foucault, Dits et Ecrits, Volume IV, Gallimard, pp. 755 and following.

9 I am referring to the text, “Post-abstraction”, in which a new paradigm of abstraction, called “abstracts,” appears, in Pratiques abstraites Revue Rue Descartes, n 16, April 1997, PUF/College de Philosophie. In English to: “Abstraction: from Marcel Duchamp to Cartography,” Trans n 4, New York, 1997, and “Le diagramme en art,” Any, New York (forthcoming in 1999).

10 I am thinking especially in France of Miguel Chevalier’s recent installation: “Croissances et Mutations” at the Espace Landowski in Boulogne-Billancourt (December-January 1999).

11 Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari, Mille Plateaux, “Le lisse et le strie, “Minuit, pp.592 and following. I am also referring to: Gilles Deleuze, Le Pli, Minuit. I developed theses themes, that I only touch on here, in an article devoted to Gilles Deleuze’s esthetic: “Les cristaux de l’art: une esthetique du virtuel,” Gilles Deleuze, immanence et vie, Rue Descartes, n 20, PUF/College de Philosophie.

12 Stan Allen, “Painting and Architecture: Conditional Abstractions,” in Abstraction, Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts, n 5, edited by Andrew Benjamin, Academy Editions, London, 1995.

13 Progressive Insurance
© Christine Buci-Glucksmann
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