What is modern art about? That is exactly what Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Joseph Kosuth (b.1945) have tried to respond, and they all ended up being positive that they had found the right explanation, none equal to the other’s. However, they defended their different positions through think and thin during the 20th century. How is it possible that they all developed theories so different and, in Joseph Kosuth’s case, even opposite?
|Richard Prince. “Canal Zone” 2007
We will be using three photographs of the second half of the twentieth century to compare and contract these critics position in art. Harry Callahan’s (1912-1999) telephone wires series of photographs (fig.1), Richard Avendon’s (1923-2003) Marilyn Monroe (fig.2) and Richard Prince’s ( b.1949) Canal Zone series of photographs (fig.3), whose work of art of “the rastafary” was sentenced to be destroyed in 2011. All photographs, all differently intellectually loaded.
The first of these, and also the oldest, is, in my opinion, a clear study of the composition of black lines over a white background, other than a photography, as understood today, itself. And it makes a lot of sense when you realize that the older theorist and artist is Piet Mondrian. Both lived in the U.S.A during the same time, therefore Callahan could have easily been influenced by Mondrian’s ideas and works of art. As Mondrian had stated “it is from equilibrium, from the conscious, that art comes” and, for these artists, composition became the key to achieve this “equilibrium”, which meant the expression of the universal unconscious to Mondrian. However, even though Clement Greenberg was a believer of Mondrian’s theories, his use of the word “purity” did not express the exact same concept as Mondrian’s. When he said that art should aim pure art, he would try to achieve it through a more self-critical point of view. “Purity” as self-definition. To him, “visual art should confine itself exclusively to what is given in visual experience, and make no reference to anything given in other orders of experience”
, as, for example, and universal state of unconscious.
But, what is purity in photography? Is it what we reveal directly from the camera? Or is it the way light affects the roll and captures a scene? How could we know if it is a new “genre” and has no history and, for C. Greenberg, art is no rupture of continuity with past art? Despite this, the one photograph that responds directly to one of these questions if Avendon’s. He was courageous enough to try to achieve this “purity” by printing a picture he had taken of Marilyn Monroe without editing, and he made that clear to us by adding part of the Kodak frame.
So, if photography is a two dimensional media, what do P. Mondrian and C. Greenberg, with their pursue for “pure” art, think about representing three dimensional scenes in two dimensional mediums? They both defended flatness in painting because painting is a study of paint on canvas, despite the fact that C. Greenberg said that “Mondrian could suggest three dimensionality”
. As far as I am concerned, both the “telephone wires” and “Marilyn Monroe”, are three dimensional objects, differently though. We can only know that the black lines in Callahan’s photographs are telephone wires because he tells us so in the work’s title. If he had not told us, would we have known what it was? Probably not. And would we then, not knowing what those lines were, been able to perceive the third dimension of perspective? It resembles to P. Mondrian’s “Sea in Starlight” (1914). It is hard to tell.
|Piet Mondria. “Sea in Starlight”. 1914
But, to Joseph Kosuth, this is not modern art. This theories and photographies are still too concerned with aesthetic experience and form and do not question the nature of art. This turns out to be the most important characteristic quality of a work of art for J. Kosuth. To him, C. “Greenberg (and therefore, P. Mondrian) is a critic of taste”. That is why he why he would consider R. Prince’s photography as art and not the other two previously commented. It is not a surprise to us to realize that R. Prince and J. Kosuth were born only 5 years apart.
Moreover, to Kosuth, Duchamp, with his “readymades” and his “Fountain” (1917), finally gave art its own identity by not caring wether art critics would or would not understand or like his work of art, but by creating a self contained “definition of art”. And that is exactly what R. Prince does when taking a picture of a picture and adding external things to it. He rethinks photography by adding his own ideas to what he thinks is uninteresting photographs.
So, if we agree that Callahan was studying how to achieve purity through composition, and R. Avendon tried to achieve purity by photography itself, to J. Kosuth they were not making art about art, but about composition and photography. On the contrary, the eclectic work of R. Prince was concerned, among everything else, on the idea he wanted to express, rather than the final formal outcome, which would not be considered art by both P. Mondrian and C. Greenberg.
What is photography about? That is the great question that is still to be answered. It is not a three dimensional art since it is expressed on a flat surface, so should it be two dimensional? Is not that what painting is about? It is hard to say when all these theories are strong and plausible but so different at the same time.
1 Mondrian, Piet. Neo-Plasticism. The general principles of Plastic Equivalence. (1920)
2 Greenberg, Clement. Modernist Painting (1960)