Realism and Neo-Realism in Art
Leo Segedin   |   1964 |   Print this essay

Like Lazarus risen from the dead, the corpse of Realism has returned again to be embraced by the artist, but if the death of Realism had grieved the public, its resurrection does not seem to make many people happy. If the work of the last generation of abstract and non-representational artists were disturbing because it did not seem to refer to anything in the real world, the work of the present generation of neo-realists and so-called "Pop" artists confounds because so often it is impossible to distinguish it from other kinds of things in the real world. Contemporary artists have discarded traditional ways of describing the world as well as conventional ideas about what the world is like or what is important about it. Their way of using subject matter, their use of new unconventional materials, their inclusion of many different kinds of objects in a single work all serve to demonstrate that ever though these artists are intimately involved with the real world, the exact nature of that involvement is again a provocative issue for the artist. It soon becomes apparent that questions of value, of the apparent destruction of artistic standards, even of skill and competence, must at least temporarily be put aside in favor of more metaphysical problems of the nature of reality and the ways in which we can know and show it. The question about a work of art becomes, not how do we know what is good, but what and why is it? What and how does it mean, and in how many ways does it mean? What do we mean when we say that a work of art is real or realistic? Such questions may be philosophically provocative and artistically valueless, and it may well be that some contemporary art is more interesting to talk about than to look at; but insofar as it does provoke investigation into some of the fundamental premises of all art, it may help us understand more fully what it means to make meaningful objects.

Traditionally, the realist painter has been assumed to be a person skillful in the illusionistic presentation on a two-dimensional surface of three dimensional objects in a three-dimensional space as seen from a single viewpoint. Since the beginning of the fifteenth century, he has done this by applying certain principles of the geometry of optics and theories on the way light reveals form, and by developing systems of geometric perspective, aerial perspective, foreshortening, chiaroscuro, etc. --all projected in some media like paint onto some two-dimensional surface like stretched canvas. To the resulting image of solid forms in space, he may have added the illusion of texture and color on the objects being depicted by the further manipulation of the media. For almost five hundred years, this approach to the description of reality served the artist well, and the number of great works resulting from its creative use is probably greater than that of any other period in western history. Even Impressionism in the 1870's, based though some of it was on different principles of light projection, still continued the idea of painting as the illusionistic presentation of reality on a two dimensional surface.

The effectiveness of illusion as an appropriate description of the real world is based on the acceptance of its basic premises, however. Before the end 'of the nineteenth century, many artists had begun to withdraw from that acceptance. Along with illusionism in the nineteenth century, there had grown many Romantic and, later, Symbolist notions about subjective, inner worlds of experience which could be reached and revealed through art. The idea developed that there was a correspondence between line, colors, and shapes in a painting and particular emotional states, and that such elements would evoke these emotions in the viewer, an experience which eventually was considered to be far more profound than that caused by illusionistic representation. Thus, the romanticism of Delacroix developed into the passion of Van Gogh and the Fauves, and by 1910 became the abstract, calculated emotion of Kandinsky.

Other factors helped destroy illusionism. Cezanne's acceptance of the fact that we do not perceive depth from a single point of view as presumed by traditional concepts of perspective, but rather from the impressions of multiple retinal images, finally destroyed the consistency of Renaissance space; and because of the problem of integrating multiple images on a two-dimensional surface, there began a re-examination and re-establishment of the surface of the canvas as a dynamic factor in the plastic function of a painting. By 1910, this line of exploration became Analytical Cubism. Painting had became relatively abstract. No longer was it an attempt to describe the real world in terms of traditional illusionism.¹

When we say that painting becomes abstract, or no longer realistic, we are saying, of course, that painting no longer refers to an objective, outside world; but we can also say (and this is of far more significance to the twentieth century artist) that insofar as painting becomes less realistic, it also becomes more real; for a painting then takes on a life of its own and obeys its own laws. The reality of a painting is no longer the reality of its illusion of the outside world, but rather the efficacy of its own formal structure. What Picasso and Braque realized in 1910 was that a painting was a plastic organization, that its life was a result of the disposition of its elements, of line, color, shape, texture, etc. , and that any reference to any world outside the work was of secondary importance. Even the suggestion of depth on the painting was the result of its visual organization and not the application of systems of perspectives as if these systems were the only means available. Carried to its extreme, this suggested that painting was painting just as music was music, and any attempt to justify it in other than its own terms was considered objectionable to these artists. A few years later, Mondrian and the neo-plasticists even wanted to eliminate the subjective, emotional aspect of the formal structure.

Although Picasso and Braque never completely eliminated all reference to subject matter, their work at this time in no way described appearances. It functioned primarily as a formal structure, and for this reason, was considered "pure. 11 This state of affairs, however, did not last very long. During the same year, "impure" reality returned to painting, but not primarily as illusion. What probably began as new devices for the exploration of the plastic possibilities of a painting--the introduction of painted letters, wood grain, and small bits of painted illusionistic detail, and the next year, collage (pasted material)--became in short order a means for exploring metaphysical possibilities as well. For the first time in the history of painting, it was recognized that while a painting may refer to the real world (that is, have meaning) on many levels, and that the illusionistic reference was only one level, it was no longer necessary that the integrity of each level be maintained. Up until this time, there could be no internal contradictions within a work; and while ideas as to what constituted consistency varied considerably, only occasional effort had been made to explore the relationship between these levels and their possible modes of reference. It is not until the development of these devices, especially collage, that the artist had the means available to him to explore this new, relativistic world in which he lived.

An abstract painting itself existed on at least two levels. It was a physical object, a flat surface on which paint is distributed, and also an aesthetic object, a plastic organization of lines, colors, and shapes. If the shapes in a painting in some way suggested or referred to some real object, then another level became possible, and because an object can be referred to in many ways and have many meanings, many other levels were also implied. All of this so far is traditional: a representational painting may have a plastic structure and certainly exists as a painted surface. But suppose, to a shallow-spaced and only barely descriptive cubist work, we paint actual-sized letters as if taken from signs, newspapers, or public announcements, or that in some of the relatively geometric shapes, we paint imitation wood grain, or that in some corner of the work we paint an illusionistically real nail. It can readily be seen that the inclusion of these many contradictory or inconsistent referents to the real world in a single work, even though they may have a unity derived from being created out of paint on canvas, and even though they are plastically related, still set up metaphysical tensions within the work which can not be resolved by any absolute or simplistic notions about how we know about the world. With the introduction in 1911 of the collage technique, that is, the pasting of paper and other flat materials on the painted surface, the possibility of many new levels or kinds of referents to reality, and also the kinds of images these materials might contain, set the line of development which characterizes much of twentieth century art.

The possibilities of this approach, both as expressive and plastic form, and as a means for exploring the metaphysical ambiguities and paradoxes involved in representing reality, albeit in a simple form, is evident in Picasso's first collage, "Still Life with Chair Caning," probably done in the winter of 1911. It is very difficult to view this work without .becoming involved in metaphysical speculations. For the question of how we can know and represent what is real is implicit in the apparently contradictory nature of many of its reality referents. A simple cataloguing of the kinds of reality referents, which indicates the difficulty of the problem, includes:

  1. paint texture
  2. shiny surface of oil cloth
  3. simulated texture of chair caning
  4. cubistic analysis
  5. goblet, lemon slice, etc.
  6. illusionistic pipe stem
  7. letters as aspect of surface
  8. letters as free floating shapes
  9. letters as symbol
  10. rope frame
  11. painting as an object
  12. subject matter as iconography
If we ask ourselves of this painting, "Is it realistic or abstract?" or "How realistic -is it?" we must, after studying the painting, realize we cannot answer such questions. We must ask instead, "How is it realistic and in how many different ways'? " For what at first appears to be most realistic turns out to be most illusionistic or abstract, and what appears to most abstract because it is pasted on, is real and illusionistic at the same time. At first glance, the pipe stem seems to project out in front of the canvas, catching the light and casting a shadow, as any real object would, but a closer look indicates it is an illusion which works only from one point of view, is made of and feels like paint, and disconcertingly disintegrated into the cubistically analyzed part of the painting. The pasted oilcloth looks so much like real caning that it is only after very carefully viewing it that we become aware that it is really shiny, smooth oilcloth. And here again we do a metaphysical double-take. When we thought the caning was real, we realized that this reality was not the same kind that we perceived in the pipe stem. But when we perceived the caning as illusion, was it the same kind of illusion as the pipe stem, and what happened when we realized that this illusion was pasted on rather than painted? And just what is the proper reality of letters? Do they exist only to be read, or do they have an existence as a part of the surface on which they are apparently printed? If the latter is true, what is the effect of making those letters appear as if floating in front of the surface-, and if the former is so, what is the meaning of letters which don't stand for anything? The cubistic analysis of the goblet and lemon slice at first glance appear to be the most abstract aspect of the painting, but in terms of the reality of the plastic structure, which is the reality of the painting as an aesthetic object, it is most real. No matter what level we assume to be basic, we find that it is eventually contradicted by another, so that the work is a relativistic organization without any basic or absolute reality which it is obligated to describe.

The complexity of the shifting reality referents, when combined with a fluctuating, ambiguous, plastic organization, creates possibilities of a richness of meaning unequalled before in the history of art. Since consistency with a geometric space projection is no longer the prerequisite for the inclusion of images of any kind, and since at the same time, there has been occurring a break-down in the idea of hierarchy of subject matter, then any kind of object or material, no matter how commonplace, all of the emotions we experience with them, all of the meanings they may have for us, whether conscious or unconscious (which would differ from viewer to viewer and therefore suggest that a viewer might bring to a work meanings which were not "put" there by the artist)--all become the legitimate materials and means of the artist. "Anything" can be used and "everything" becomes possible. The use of "non-art" materials in the visual arts, of course, is not new, nor does its introduction here imply that there begins at this time a radical, movement in art aimed at either the introduction of unconventional materials or the destruction of classical values in art. The use of materials other than paint, the combination of many materials in one work, has been part of the means of the artist for thousands of years. What is new is the use of combinations of materials both for their dynamic formal values and for their capacity to establish a multileveled referent to reality. Implicit, also, is the latent idea that there may be in all materials qualities which may be worth perceiving, but which we would never see until they were placed in new, unexpected, and "useless" contexts. The world is full of many things which we never really see because we know what they are.

Also implicit in this point of view is the idea that paint, the traditional medium of the artists (at least in recent western history), used "invisibly" by most painters of the Renaissance tradition or for its expressive or plastic potentialities by artists of the late nineteenth centuries and early 20th century, is just another material among all the others with its own special characteristics but without special status. The idea of paint as physical material rather than as illusionistic sensation or decoration is latent in the work of the Dadaists and also in the works of the Expressionists of the twenties and thirties. The Cubists continued to play with it for a good number of years as indicated by their addition of ashes to paint to give it greater physical presence on the two dimensional surface of the canvas.

However, it was not until the post World War II years that the idea was raised to a philosophical tenet by some of the abstract expressionists. In the late forties, several abstract expressionists, De Kooning, Twerkov, Ferren, Pollack and others, developed the idea that color was not important primarily because of its psychological sensation, but rather because of the physical character of the paint which created' the sensation. Color as sensory illusion was less important than paint as a material which expressed the tool, action or stroke of the artist as well as its own physical surface. This idea had been used relatively abstractly by the abstract expressionists, but was used also in some of the works of the neo-realists who followed and reacted against them. In Jasper Johns paintings of maps, lower case letters, numerals, and other mundane subjects, it is the character of the paint and stroke as well as the shape and color changes which creates the aesthetic presence of the work; in his encaustic paintings of flags and targets in which stroke is eliminated as a factor, it is the physical surface of the wax as well as size changes and combinations with three-dimensional objects which give the slight sense of difference and make us feel as if we are seeing these commonplace objects for the first time. So important, in fact, is this sense of the physical reality of the paint surface and stroke itself, that for many artists, paint has taken on the status, not of a medium, but of a reality which can be used as a subject matter.

In the work of Tom Wesselmann, brush paint strokes may appear as collage elements derived consciously from the abstract-expressionist work of De Kooning rather than as a by-product of Wesselman's own painting process. Wesselmann says that he likes collage because:

…it sets up reverberations in a picture from one kind of reality to another. I don't attach any kind of value to brushstrokes. I just use them as another thing from the world of existence. My first interest is the painting which is the whole, final product. I'm interested in assembling a situation resembling painting, rather than painting. like the use of painting because it has a constant resemblance to painting.²

The same kind of thinking which allows a paint surface to be subject matter for a painting is found also in the work of the so-called "Pop" artists, who use popular, man-made images such as signs, advertisements, comic strips, etc. . as subject matter of their paintings. The pop artist may imitate (usually on a much larger scale) an already existing popular image. Or he may create from scratch paintings which bear a formal resemblance to popular images but which in no way can serve the functions which these images usually serve. According to Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, such paintings should not be confused with their subject matter. The paintings are new things, not recreated or transformed, but created and formed much as traditional paintings are.³

The problem of the relation of a three-dimensional image to experience of the phenomenal world is more difficult to ascertain because such an image is so much more like things as we know *,hem in the real world. The whole problem of systems of two-dimensional Projection is eliminated; three-dimensional images utilize the kinesthetic experience much as real objects do. The possibilities of exact mechanical description through use of measuring devices or direct casting is greatly increased. Sculptors can make images of people which, from a distance and under the proper lighting conditions, can very easily be confused with real people.

Aside from deviations from description for expressive, idealistic, or formalistic purposes, traditional conventions have come to be used which distinguish sculpture from its subject matter; and if description transgresses such conventions, we may feel quite uncomfortable in the presence of such works. Since the Renaissance, the tradition that most sculpture is not to be colored has been taken for granted. We do not feel any sense of unreality when viewing a white marble figure by Michelangelo any more than when viewing a black and white photograph. We can accept size difference between a statue and a real person as indicative of importance, and we do not see a bust portrait as being the head of a decapitated person. Those cultures which have decorated their statues with precious stones, metals, or other materials have been considered exotic, primitive or unsophisticated. We talk about expressing the natural characteristics of the material.

And yet these conventions are conventions and nothing more. They are part of the viewer's expectations or the sculptor's premises. Sculptural premises can be questioned as well as explored; the ambiguities implicit in exploiting contradictory premises can be made part of the provocative character of a sculptural work much as it can of a painting.

Impressionist sculpture is like impressionist painting in that it is concerned with phenomenal change, but it still retains the limitation of the Renaissance space concept, and therefore is capable only of "freezing" a form in motion rather than creating a volume which represented the motion itself. It is interesting to note that the only two impressionist painters to do any significant sculpture, Degas and Renoir, accepted traditional ideas of chiaroscuro at the time they did their sculpture. Cubist sculpture attempted to utilize ideas of simultaneous presentation of multiple images of an object three-dimensionally. Traditionally, multiple images of an object, has always been an important factor in the perception of sculpture, but only sequentially. Either the viewer moved around the sculpture or the sculpture was rotated. The cubists attempted to present these views simultaneously. The integrity of the object as -an object was fractured so that all parts were evident from all views. Time and space were treated as integrated, inseparable aspects of a form rather than as separate entities. Another cubist development was the projection of some collage concepts into three-dimensions as in Picasso's constructions of 1912-4, but play with contradictory referents to reality was relatively minimized. The only piece of sculpture other than these constructions which Picasso did between 1910 and 1925, however, was involved with reality referents--a work in bronze which was painted. In 1914, Picasso was experimenting in his painting with the color dots of Seurat. This he did, not for Seurat's reasons, but for color and textural enrichment of shapes in the painting. During this time, he made six casts in bronze for Kahnweiler of a cubistically structured glass of Absinthe on which was a spoon and a lump of sugar. The form of the glass itself before casting was modelled initially in wax, but the spoon was a real one. Each of these casts he painted differently, using the kinds of color dots he was using in his painting. In any intercultural or historical context, of course, the idea of painting sculpture is not new, but its use at this time, within the cubist aesthetic, implies that the artist is not applying a convention, but rather questioning, perhaps tentatively, the traditional distinctions between painting and sculpture. It again restates the Twentieth century artist's concern with the work of art and the multiple ways in which it can refer to the phenomenal world It is a statement, the implications of which were not realized nor developed until over forty-five years later in the work of Jasper Johns, George Segal, Claus Oldenberg, etc. In this sense, it may be an unacknowledged ancestor of the neorealists.

The analytic and formal tendencies of the cubists developed into the "pure, 11 abstract, plastic and metal constructions of the Constructivists, and into sterile geometricization of organic forms of the thirties. The Dadaists, in spite of their nihilistic purposes, made us see that any object, not only those made for artistic purposes, had the power to provoke strong emotional responses when seen out of their conventional contexts. The intensity of the public response was due not only to the fact that the display of everyday objects out of functional context, or of totally "useless" combines or constructions of everyday materials denied and insulted conventional canons of art, but also apparently to the unconscious associations those objects had for people, which became meanings of these objects when perceived in this new environment. The Surrealists recognized this Freudian aspect of objects, recognized also that dreams were disturbing in the same way, and attempted to recreate this quality of dreams by utilizing the evocative power of odd juxtapositionings, combinations, and transformations of everyday objects in their work.

Although the work of the Dadaists was essentially anti-Art and Surrealism was an attitude toward creative activity rather than a formal doctrine, both had the unintentional effect of making us see conventional objects with new visual insight. Objects we use tend to become invisible with familiarity, the idea of contemplating them as aesthetic object becomes ridiculous. Duchamp's urinal may have been insulting to a bourgeois society, but under what other circumstance would anyone have the opportunity or inclination to perceive such an object as a visual as well as a functional form? Any manmade or naturally formed object, no matter how humble, no matter how little attention we might conventionally pay it, has a structure of related parts, has color texture or has meanings which we generally associate with specially made works of art; and these characteristics can become apparent when the object is viewed in a special contemplation-inducing environment. What then -makes a work of art different from other kinds of objects? How does a work of art refer to the phenomenal world when it is a piece of that world, when it is that which it refers to? The distinction between Art and non-Art could no longer be determined by traditional canons; there no longer was any specially appropriate subject matter, formal organizations, materials, techniques, etc. How then was a work of art supposed to work?

The abstract-expressionists of the late forties and early fifties were not primarily concerned with the problem of referents to reality. Their attitude toward subject-matter was a sort of synthesis of cubistic or neo-plastic and expressionist concepts. Subject-matter was for the most part irrelevant to them with the exception of a few tentative ventures in collage for other than plastic purposes by De Kooning. At the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties however, many artists again returned to the problem of reality referents. Many of the materials and devices they used were similar to those used by the Dadaists, so much so in fact that their work was at first referred to as Neo-Dada; but whereas Dada art was an attempt to destroy art, the contemporary neo-realist continues to explore the possibilities of art.

In some cases they continue some of the questions inadvertently suggested by the Dadaist. James Dine attaches a porcelain sink to a canvas and sets it off with black paint and hangs it in an art gallery. What is it and what is it supposed to do? For all of its general appearance and material, it is a sink such as might be found in any washroom, but it is not in a washroom and you can't wash in it. It may be junk, but it is in a position of status, in a sense on a pedestal, isolated from others of its kind and properly lit. In fact it has all of the characteristics of an object of value, forcing us to see it as something special, and (if we can ignore the nagging feeling in the backs of our minds that we are being "took") enigmatic and disturbing. What is it if it is not a sink? What aid how is it supposed to mean? What does it refer to if not itself, other sinks which work? It is perhaps the questions rather than the answers which are most provocative, and establish a metaphysical basis for such work which in these works is as important as any aesthetic aspect.

Jasper Johns develops the issue more subtly and perhaps with greater metaphysical implication. He takes a conventional flashlight, casts it in bronze, places it on a special pedestal, and exhibits it in a gallery. It is a work of Art? It can be argued that Dine's sink is not a work of art because it is the sink itself rather than a copy, imitation or interpretation of the sink, even though a sink can be viewed as an aesthetic form. But Johns' object is not the flashlight one step removed from the original. It -is created out of a traditional art material, and has the color of bronze as any bronze art object would, properly exhibiting all the natural beauty of the material as required by traditional standards. The casting and finishing of the object is a product of human skill, as is the original flashlight, although of different hands and machines. It is nonfunctional, never was a real flashlight and can only be used as an aesthetic object fit only for contemplation. It has form, design, refers to the real world, intensifies our experience of objects in our environment by making its formal aspect more evident. Color is eliminated. Is it a copy, a transformation or an original creation? What objections can be raised as to its validity as a work of art? The subject matter perhaps but (outside of personal preference) any subject today can be utilized as appropriate starting points for creative activity. It may be argued that the flashlight was not designed initially as aesthetic form and that therefore any imitation of that form is not appropriate for contemplation. But any object serving some function, whether natural or man-made, has a form which can be perceived as aesthetic with the appropriate attitude. It also may be argued that the original flashlight was not the work of the artist, but it is not the flashlight which is being displayed and the artist did choose and use it.

The question of just how such a work is realistic is made more interesting when compared with a work by Manzu--Chair with Fruit--a bronze done in 1960- For all practical purposes this too may have been cast from real objects, but Manzu is a much -more traditional artist and is not associated with the neo-realists. The chair and fruit are most likely to have been formed by the artist. Just how significant is the fact that the original forms of one are man-formed by the artist and those of the other are anonymously formed by machines if in the final object form it is impossible to determine which is which? Is the mode of referring to reality basically different? Is it fruit or flashlight being presented for contemplation in either case or bronze forms in both cases? The intention and effect of these two works may be quite different, but the level of its reality referent is apparently the same.

The idea of casting real objects along with modeled shapes in a single bronze form is not new, and artists for many years have exploited its possibilities for varied purposes. After his Glass of Absinthe of 1914, Picasso again played with the idea in a series of sculptures in the forties and early fifties. His "Baboon and Young" (1951) includes a hilarious pun on the transformation of real objects in which what was originally a small toy auto becomes the head of the baboon. Some abstract artists also made use of the casting of real objects and many of the artists who use welding techniques used junk as their metal material. Other artists dipped fabric, paper, or other flexible materials into plastic or plaster which gave them solidity while still maintaining their essential character. In fact, it almost seems as if the fifties can be considered the decade of Junk in sculpture because of the number of artists who made use of pre-made materials in their work. But what both the casters and the constructors had in common is what puts them in the same line (regardless of how crooked that line seems to be) with most of past sculpture; and that is, both groups of artists transformed their materials into something quite different from what they originally were. In the same way that Picasso's toy auto becomes a baboon's head, so the work of Stankiewicz or Paolozzi becomes humanoid, animated, in a way which bears little relationship to animated in a way which bears little relationship to the level of reality of the original material. We might say that regardless of the quality of the aesthetic impact of a work which makes one work more significant than another, the mere casting of miscellaneous objects into a single bronze form or the welding of miscellaneous materials into an image creates a unity of meaning or effect which establishes it on one major level of reality much as traditional painting did. The transformation of the material operates more as magic than as metaphysics as distinct from the early Cubist collages which played with the multiple reality levels of its component materials. An important meaning of the collage was in the shifting referents of its elements whereas the impact of these later works is due partially to the power of the surprising new image conjured out of the old materials. Even the disturbing quality of Oldenberg's flabby plastic typewriter, or his Calendar with the sausage-like numbers create their impact because of the consistent transformation of their materials.

Consistency in the major level of reality referent, however, is not necessarily considered to be a value today, and several artists have used multiple referents exploiting the possibilities of the ambiguities inherent in their use in a single work. George Segal makes plaster casts of real people in natural positions which he then arranges in a sort of tableau of real objects such as chairs, tables, coke machines, etc. , which he calls "assembled environments. 11 The plaster figures, for the most part, remain stark white, but everything else is unchanged. The space in these "environments" is in no sense an apparition as it generally is in most art works, but quite real in that the viewer is supposed to be able to walk among these figures and even sit down with them much like in Mme. Tussaud's Wax Museum. The walls of these "environments" may even have windows in them or real paintings on them. The idea certainly is not original with Segal. At least as far back as 1927, the surrealist, Chirico, in discussing the singular effect of seeing familiar objects in unexpected surroundings, said:

A statue within a room, alone or in the company of living persons, might give us for example a new emotion, especially if its feet are not on a pedestal but on the ground, and think of the effect of a statue seated in real armchair or leaning at a real window.4

Because of the inconsistency of levels of referents, we can ask in what way works like this are to be considered real or realistic. How is a viewer to look at them? The figures themselves are not especially different from traditional sculpture except perhaps for their utter conventionality; they have the rough, whiteness of unfinished plaster separating such forms from their subject much as any conventional sculptured material might. But, as with Dine's waterless sinks, how are we to view the Cokeless Code machines and how important is it that we sit with his figures? And at what level of reality do the paintings on the walls exist? How are we to view them? Do we judge them as paintings or as images of paintings or are they to be seen only in relation to the total "environment"? Of what significance is it that only the figures are plaster white? Aside from these figures, it is often difficult to tell where the "art" leaves off and the "real" world begins; but again, perhaps this is just the sort of metaphysical speculation the artist wishes us to experience as an aspect of the work.

Along with problems of the physical resemblances of the art objects and "real" objects, sculptors have also become involved with the part that color may play in their work. Traditionally, when it has been used, color has been treated in sculpture as a secondary aspect, sometimes as local color, sometimes symbolically, and sometimes decoratively. Until recently, Western sculptors have frowned on color as aesthetically dangerous, for they have felt that perceptual involvement with the color of surfaces would tend to disintegrate the solidity of the sculpture. They preferred to exploit the natural character of the material out of which the object was made to increase the effect of solid volume. This attitude, however, is apparently a hangover from the illusionistic bias of the nineteenth century, which now, somewhat belatedly, has been discarded by many sculptors, long after it had ceased to be significant to painters.

When the new ideas of paint and color (either with or without their illusionistic or decorative aspect) are applied to sculpture, the problem of determining reality referents becomes more involved and provocative. Perhaps we can say that Picasso initiated the problem when he polka-dotted his absinthe glass after Seurat, but though it was Seurat's painting idea which got him started, the final sculpture did not disintegrate into a Neo-impressionistic haze; rather the surface of the form was enriched and intensified by the juxtaposition of the color spots. When he painted his sculptured owls in the early fifties, the crudity of the brushstrokes was quite in keeping with the crudity of the three-dimensional forms and added to the expressive impact of the works, even though the general character of the distribution of the paint was as decoration. When Johns painted his bronze casts of a coffee can holding his paint brushes, the paint acted primarily as surface intensification much as it does in his painting of targets, for he limited himself to the local colors of the original object. But the metaphysical implications of his flashlight are certainly made more complicated here by the addition of color.

The use of color in some of the work by Oldenberg further complicated the issue. The tables and chairs in his work may be real, the coat on the back of the back of the chair, the silverware, plate with bacon and eggs, and a box of Wheaties maybe crude, bulgy, plaster; but the coarse surfaces of the box of cereal, the bacon and eggs and the coat, are painted after the techniques of the abstract expressionists. The ambiguities of the multiple referents here are quite evident. Whereas the paintings of the Renaissance aspired to the condition of sculpture, it would almost seem that the sculpture of these artists aspired to the condition of painting.

The distinction between painting and sculpture, of course, has not been clear since the Dadaists intermingled elements of both in their attempts to destroy the art values of their time. Artists of other cultures seldom have made special distinctions between two and three dimensional elements in their work. For the last 40 years in our culture, artists have utilized both without considering either a special category.

Some artists of the sixties have given special, self-conscious, attention to this aspect. Johns paints in encaustic a drawer, brushstrokes showing, but the handles on the drawers are real wooden ones. Alex Katz paints flat, simplified human figures on board, but then he cuts them out and arranges them in real spaces as in a diorama. Many of what Wesselmann calls his collages are combinations of two and three dimensional materials. For example, his Bathtub Collage consists of a real bathtub, shower curtain, laundry hamper, door, towel rack, towel, floor mat, tile for the wall, etc. , but the lifesize figures in the tub is painted flatly and is almost featureless. In Marisol's work, two and three dimensional referents to reality are combined in individual figures which are then grouped to give the appearance of some social situation. Her figures may be combinations of wooden box-like volumes for the body, perhaps also for the attached arms or legs, or perhaps the appendages are cut from flat sheets of wood. The features of the faces and other significant details may be painted on while other surfaces may be left woodgrained.

After exploring the metaphysical tendencies in art of the last hundred years, it is apparent that it is becoming less fruitful to analyze the relationship between an art object and the phenomenal world in terms of degree of abstraction., as if all works of art can be laid out on a line with the most abstract works at one end and the most realistic at the other. An art work is a kind of reality in itself, can contain within itself many kinds or levels of reality, and thus can refer to experience of phenomena other than itself on many levels. A portrait by Durer can be considered as realistic only against the background of Renaissance aesthetics and philosophy. Regardless of the number of hairs and highlights indicated in the face of Durer's subject, the painting still exists as a painted two dimensional surface, and it may be this level of reality which is of primary importance to contemporary artists. An artist can make a contour line with a pencil and a viewer can respond as if it were an accurate description of a person rather than a drawing of a wire. A child can ride a broomstick as a horse or point his finger at another child, say "Bang!" And that child will fall as if shot. Is this gun more or less realistic that Dine's sink in which you can't wash even if you would want to? If Plato objected to painting as a third rate imitation of the real world, what might he say of the metaphysical complexity and ambiguity of contemporary art?

When we ask of an artwork "What is it supposed to mean?" We mostly mean "What is it supposed to "be" or "represent"? The neo-realist may answer "It is what it is, but what does it mean? What does anything mean?"


1. the textural effects of the thick color dabs of the Impressionists and Van Gogh almost accidentally, somewhat belatedly, and entirely inconsistent with the intentions of the artists who painted them, also helped re-establish the two-dimensional surface of the canvas in opposition to the illusion of depth suggested by the treatment of the subject matter.back

2. Interview by G. R. Swenson, "What is Pop Art?" part II, Art News, (February, 1964), p. 41. back

3. Interview by G. R. Swenson, "What is Pop Art?" part I, ArtNews, (November, 1963), p. 62.back

4. Chirico, "Statues, Marbles et Generaux," L'Effort Moderne (Paris, 1927) as translated and quoted by R. H. Wilenski, Modern French Painters (New York, 1960), p. 138.back

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© 2010 Leopold Segedin. All rights reserved.