“Ever since the Renaissance, painting has been the grandest intellectual adventure in the visual arts, a titanic effort to encompass the glorious instability and variability of experience within the stability of a sharply delimited two-dimensional space.”
Jed Perl, The Rectangle is Dead, The New Republic, September 7, 2013
When Jed Perl writes of the twin aspects of painting, the stability and instability that paintings exhibit, he is getting to the crux of the matter. Painting offers two contradictory experiences. On the one hand, a painting is a flat two-dimensional object, with its surface texture and color shapes. On the other hand, a painting offers the possibility of a three-dimensional experience, the illusion of moving into space and discovering forms. Stability and instability. Fact and imagination. Actual and fictive. It is this twin role, and its simultaneity, that gives painting such power. Real and unreal. Real and more real. In a curious way, paintings function for adults not dissimilar to the way Winnicott’s transitional object serve infants and toddlers, although perhaps in the opposite direction. The transitional object helps lead the child from an undifferentiated world into a clearer sense of individuation and a distinct identity. Painting, through the coexistence of two seemingly opposite experiences, interwoven into an actual unity, may provide the receptive adult the possibility of moving from an experience of fragmentation into an experience of wholeness and integration, not only within oneself but with the world at large. Boundaries between me and other, between inside and outside, prove to be not quite as firm as previously thought. This occurs not only because our minds are teased into non—discursive awareness by the shimmering interchange between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional experience; “I see a flat colored surface, no wait, I see a sky and valley below, no wait – will you look at those marks!” The experience of wholeness occurs because the respective completeness of the 2-D and 3-D is each dependent on the other. That is, in order for a painting to maintain a consistent three-dimensional arena for the viewer to inhabit, in order for me to visually remain looking at and in the painting as a spatial situation, its two-dimensional composition must be complete – it must hold me visually, and then figuratively. Conversely, in order for the two-dimensional composition to be complete the marks and design, transitions and edges, must appropriately accommodate the parameters of the given three-dimensional experience, whether that is deep and far-reaching space like a Turner or more shallow as in a Braque, whether full bodied as in a Titian or subtly expansive as in a Matisse. Greenberg got painting’s essence exactly wrong. It isn’t the stability of painting’s flatness; it is the inextricable unity of painting’s impossible flatness/fullness, stability/instability, stillness/movement. This is life. And this is why painting carries such an extraordinary metaphoric force.
There is more. For we human beings are twin in our very nature. We are constantly and impossibly twinning in our experience. We are body and soul – or if you are of the ilk, body and mind. And our identification with either leaves us incomplete because we are both (and, in our deepest truth, neither). Here the two-dimensional surface of the painting functions as the fact of our body and the three dimensional experience performs as our soul. The achievement of great painting, the exquisite integration of the 2-D and 3-D, gives us not just hope that wholeness is possible – Herbert Marcuse is right! More than that – great painting serves as a reminder, a rekindling, that such is the truth. Reality is whole. We are whole; it is only our minds that have slipped and reconstructed away from this awareness. What was it that de Kooning said in reference to Wittgenstein’s injunction, “Don’t think, look”? “Don’t look, paint!”