His criticism was collected in a book of essays, Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th-Century Art, in The picture plane as a vertical held true throughout the art movements including the more radical such as Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. In relation to the Abstract Expressionists, Steinberg cites Pollock as one example who could be seen to work horizontally but points out that this was more a way of starting — to speed up getting paint onto canvas. Pollock was essentially creating paintings to be seen and viewed vertically otherwise the drips would not drip. They dispensed with traditional and experimental e.
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And I propose to use the word to describe the characteristic picture plane of the s — a pictorial surface whose angulation with respect to the human posture is the precondition of its changed content. It was suggested earlier that the Old Masters had three ways of conceiving the picture plane. But one axiom was shared by all three interpretations, and it remained operative in the succeeding centuries, even through Cubism and Abstract Expressionism: the conception of the picture as representing a world, some sort of worldspace which reads on the picture plane in correspondence with the erect human posture.
The top of the picture corresponds to where we hold our heads aloft; while its lower edge gravitates to where we place our feet. A picture that harks back to the natural world evokes sense data which are experienced in the normal erect posture.
Therefore the Renaissance picture plane affirms verticality as its essential condition. And the concept of the picture plane as an upright surface survives the most drastic changes of style.
Pollock indeed poured and dripped his pigment upon canvases laid on the ground, but this was an expedient. After the first color skeins had gone down, he would tack the canvas on to a wall — to get acquainted with it, he used to say; to see where it wanted to go. He lived with the painting in its uprighted state, as with a world confronting his human posture.
It is in this sense, I think, that the Abstract Expressionists were still nature painters. But something happened in painting around — most conspicuously at least within my experience in the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Dubuffet.
We can still hang their pictures — just as we tack up maps and architectural plans, or nail a horseshoe to the wall for good luck. Yet these pictures no longer simulate vertical fields, but opaque flatbed horizontals. They no more depend on a head-to-toe correspondence with human posture than a newspaper does.
The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes. To repeat: it is not the actual physical placement of the image that counts. There is no law against hanging a rug on a wall, or reproducing a narrative picture as a mosaic floor.
What I have in mind is the psychic address of the image, its special mode of imaginative confrontation, and I tend to regard the tilt of the picture plane from vertical to horizontal as expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.
A shift of such magnitude does noc come overnight, nor as the feat of one artist alone. And the picture planes of a Synthetic Cubist still life or a Schwitters collage suggest like-minded reorientations. Whereas the event of the s was the expansion of the work-surface picture plane to the man-sized environmental scale of Abstract Expressionism.
Perhaps Duchamp was the most vital source. His Large Glass begun in , or his Tu nC of , is no longer the analogue of a world perceived from an upright position, but a matrix of information conveniently placed in a vertical situation. Even as Abstract Expressionism was celebrating its triumphs, he proposed the flatbed or work-surface picture plane as the foundation of an artistic language that would deal with a different order of experience.
Up and down are as subtly confounded as positive-negative space or figure-ground differential. You cannot read it as masonry, nor as a system of chains or quoins, and the written ciphers read every way. Scratched into wet paint, the picture ends up as a verification of its own opaque surface. In the year following, Rauschenberg began to experiment with objects placed on blueprint paper and exposed to sunlight.
Already then he was involved with the physical material of plans; and in the early s used newsprint to prime his canvas — to activate the ground, as he put it — so that his first brush-stroke upon it took place in a gray map of words. The artist visited the show periodically to water his piece — a transposition from nature to culture through a shift of ninety degrees. Though they hung on the wall, the pictures kept referring back to the horizontals on which we walk and sit, work and sleep.
When in the early s he worked with photographic transfers, the images — each in itself illusionistic — kept interfering with one another; intimations of spatial meaning forever canceling out to subside in a kind of optical noise.
The waste and detritus of communication — like radio transmission with interference; noise and meaning on the same wavelength, visually on the same flatbed plane. This picture plane, as in the enormous canvas called Overdraw , could look like some garbled conflation of controls system and cityscape, suggesting the ceaseless inflow of urban message, stimulus, and impediment. To cope with his symbolic program, the available types of pictorial surface seemed inadequate; they were too exclusive and too homogeneous.
Rauschenberg found that his imagery needed bedrock as hard and tolerant as a workbench. If some collage element, such as a pasted-down photograph, threatened to evoke a topical illusion of depth, the surface was casually stained or smeared with paint to recall its irreducible flatness. And you can attach any object, so long as it beds itself down on the work surface.
Or, in the same picture the flattened shirt with its sleeves outstretched — not like wash on a line, but — with paint stains and drips holding it down — like laundry laid out for pressing.
The consistent horizontality is called upon to maintain a symbolic continuum of litter, workbench, and data-ingesting mind. I once heard Jasper Johns say that Rauschenberg was the man who in this century had invented the most since Picasso. What he invented above all was, I think, a pictorial surface that let the world in again. The flatbed picture plane lends itself to any content that does not evoke a prior optical event. Color field painters such as Noland, Frank Stella, and Ellsworth Kelly, whenever their works suggest a reproducible image, seem to work with the flatbed picture plane, i.
The emblematic images of the early Johns belong in this class; so, I think, does most of Pop Art. When Roy Lichtenstein in the early sixties painted an Air Force officer kissing his girl goodbye, the actual subject matter was the mass-produced comic-book image; ben-day dots and stereotyped drawing ensured that the image was understood as a representation of printed matter. Here there is actually a series of images of images, beginning from the translation of the light reflectivity of a human face into the precipitation of silver from a photo-sensitive emulsion, this negative image developed, re-photographed into a positive image with reversal of light and shadow, and consequent blurring, further translated by telegraphy, engraved on a plate and printed through a crude screen with low-grade ink on newsprint, and this final blurring and silkscreening in an imposed lilac color on canvas.
What is left? Before the Warhol canvases we are trapped in a ghastly embarrassment. This sense of the arbitrary coloring, the nearly obliterated image and the persistently intrusive feeling. Somewhere in the image there is a proposition. It is unclear. And it readmits the artist in the fullness of his human interests, as well as the artist-technician. The all-purpose picture plane underlying this post-Modernist painting has made the course of art once again non-linear and unpredictable.
What I have called the flatbed is more than a surface distinction if it is understood as a change within painting that changed the relationship between artist and image, image and viewer. Yet this internal change is no more than a symptom of changes which go far beyond questions of picture planes, or of painting as such.
It is part of a shakeup which contaminates all purified categories. The deepening inroads of art into non-art continue to alienate the connoisseur as art defects and departs into strange territories leaving the old stand-by criteria to rule an eroding plain. Spread the love.
Robert Rauschenberg and “The Flatbed Picture Plane”
And I propose to use the word to describe the characteristic picture plane of the s — a pictorial surface whose angulation with respect to the human posture is the precondition of its changed content. It was suggested earlier that the Old Masters had three ways of conceiving the picture plane. But one axiom was shared by all three interpretations, and it remained operative in the succeeding centuries, even through Cubism and Abstract Expressionism: the conception of the picture as representing a world, some sort of worldspace which reads on the picture plane in correspondence with the erect human posture. The top of the picture corresponds to where we hold our heads aloft; while its lower edge gravitates to where we place our feet. A picture that harks back to the natural world evokes sense data which are experienced in the normal erect posture. Therefore the Renaissance picture plane affirms verticality as its essential condition. And the concept of the picture plane as an upright surface survives the most drastic changes of style.
Reading Points: Leo Steinberg, John Cage
His family left the Soviet Union in , and settled in Berlin , Germany. In , after the Nazis came to power, the Steinbergs were forced to move again, this time to the United Kingdom. In , encouraged by his older sister and her husband, Steinberg moved to New York City. For years he made a living writing art criticism and teaching art, including at the Parsons School of Design.
from Other Criteria – Leo Steinberg