FRAME FOLLOWS FORM: THE SHAPED PAINTING IN AMERICAN ABSTRACTION
By Peter Frank
After the Second World War, American artists fell into a frenzy of formal experimentation. At first dominated by the theater of metaphysical narrative that defined abstract expressionism, this trajectory of extravagant invention took a more formal turn around 1960 The production of imagery gave way to the production of unencoded, optically self-sufficient structures, manifesting as hard-edge geometric art, color field painting, Op art, and, ultimately, minimalism. As distinct as those practices were from each other, in result at least as much as in intent, they shared not only the impetus to compose form and exploit color for their own sake, but to do so with often elaborate audaciousness. American painters wanted to break with, certainly to challenge, whatever traditions and conventions could be identified – including many traditions and conventions so basic to artistic practice they seemed invisible or insurmountable.
One such convention was the rectangular canvas, hung parallel to wall and floor. Representational painting was supposed to register as window or mirror on the world, its boundaries stable and, by inference, functional. A painting could conceivably be round or oval, but should it have corners, they should be 90 degrees – and the surface of the picture should be (or at least appear) as flat as glass. With painting freed once and for all from its mimetic purpose, artists were no longer bound to the rectangle, or even to the flat surface. As a result, early in the 1960s painters began to take liberties with the supports upon which they worked, doing as little as tilting the canvas and as much as turning the canvas into a sculptured topography.
American painters’ investigation of the “shaped canvas” (and shaped whatever-other-material-provided-support) had its antecedents in European and even South American abstraction -- “even” because, while the European work, such as the lozenges of Piet Mondrian, was generally well known to the Americans, the more daring South American work, including the eccentrically boundaried abstractions of the Madí group in Buenos Aires (and later Paris), was not. To American audiences, breaking the frame, as painters in New York and elsewhere began doing after 1960, was a revolutionary move – especially in the large formats made popular by abstract expressionism – anticipated only by the tondos and lozenges of Mondrian’s American followers.
That said, American shaped-painting artists of the 1960s did invent some radical formats – then and since. Charles Hinman, for instance – celebrated in the mid-60s along with Sven Lukin, Richard Smith, and other abstractionists as “shaped canvas artists” – reconfigured the hidden supports of the canvas itself into a complex surface articulated and counterbalanced by areas of vivid color. Certain painters of the Washington Color School – Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis most famously, but Paul Reed most daringly – broke the lateral bounds of the picture plane in concert with the eccentrically interlinked forms on the canvases themselves. Painters of the Park Place group, including Leo Valledor, also pushed against the perimeters, and often the surfaces, of the canvas as a way of exploring the experiential and conceptual gap between painting and sculpture. Op artists such as Francis Celentano and Francis Hewitt shaped their canvases to their symmetric, often concentric compositions, giving those compositions added retinal oomph. Hard-edge painters like Ward Jackson played off against skewed circumferences, dynamically engaging the edges of their paintings in the compositions themselves. And when a gestural painter like Lilly Fenichel wanted to extend the practice of painting into something else – beyond sculpture, even, almost to furniture or fixture – she had wood or fiberglass supports built that, painted monochromatically, would reach across and even off the wall as if leaping from a painting.
Note that, while most of the examples of shaped painting here postdate the 1960s, all the artists here are veterans of that era. Even though the shaped-canvas “craze” burst and faded fairly quickly on the overheated ‘60s scene, the technique has retained its allure for abstract painters – most particularly, it would seem, those who were working at the time and whose dedication to abstraction as a rich and infinite realm of exploration endured long after the party ended. After all, as witty and celebratory as these giddy structures and loopy objects may seem, they have all been created in a spirit of earnest research and sober manufacture. Formulation and fabrication are points of pride for artists like these, and the shaped painting represents no mere dalliance with superficial design: it could have been, and still can be, a way to amplify form and enhance vision. The ideals of the ‘60s, not just the ideas, have persisted in the practice of shaping painting.