THEORY AND MATTER
Painting? That most Establishment of mediums, which many people at the time thought thoroughly compromised and artistically exhausted? To grasp the perversity of Supports/Surfaces's placing painting at the center of its practice, take a look at comparable movements in other countries, such as Arte Povera in Italy or Post-Minimalism in the U.S.—for nearly all the artists associated with these tendencies the whole point was to escape painting by every possible means.
Equally improbable was the type of painting Supports/Surfaces gravitated toward: monochrome expanses of color and simple geometric patterns that derived from American Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, from Clement Greenberg's dreaded formalism. In other words, these artists embraced the most counterrevolutionary of all options. The only way to understand the logic and consequences of their choices is to look carefully at the artworks and to read the texts that formed and framed them, texts written by theorists and critics as well as by the artists themselves. For a long time it has been almost impossible for the U.S. public to see examples of Supports/Surfaces art, and reading the relevant texts hasn't been much easier. (Few have been translated, and even Francophone readers must track them down in rare periodicals and exhibition catalogues.)
The Canada exhibition, which was realized in conjunction with Bernard Ceysson, a French gallery owner and former museum director who has been a longtime champion of the movement, benefited greatly from the gallery's high ceilings. As can be seen from photo-documentation, the original Supports/Surfaces exhibitions (1969-72) frequently featured artworks that could be unrolled and stretched seemingly without limit. Although Piero Manzoni had launched his potentially infinite line (in black paint on an enormous unspooling roll of paper) a decade earlier, the French artists engaged with color and structure in a way that hadn't interested Manzoni. Equally important, their long-form abstractions were designed for display, intended to occupy as much physical space as possible, whereas Manzoni's experiments with radical extension were meant to be rolled up in canisters.
More crucial than Manzoni for the Supports/Surfaces experiments were the modular structures of the American Minimalists, which implied infinite reiterations. Where Supports/Surfaces departed dramatically from Minimalism was in its rejection of industrial materials. By opting for flexibility and lightness (unstretched canvas, handkerchiefs, gauze) Supports/Surfaces artists were able to create works that were highly portable and could feasibly be extended to great scale. Judd's boxes and Andre's steel plates may have gone on forever in theory, but they were too heavy and too unwieldy to be easily extended very far. Similarly, Stella's stripe paintings were restricted in size for purely practical reasons. Divesting itself of all rigid structures, Supports/Surfaces attained a remarkable physical freedom.
It's impossible to separate this tendency toward the infinite from the circumstances of many early Supports/Surfaces exhibitions, which were held in the streets and on the hillsides of southern France, where the majority of the artists lived. Although the recent Los Angeles and New York shows offered no outdoor installations, the Canada exhibition, in particular, did acknowledge the importance of the idea of the endlessly unfurling work.
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