Milan Mrkusich
The Architecture of the Painted Surface

It would not be easy to contrive a more inaccurate proposition than that a painting is a flat coloured surface. Of course a painting is at least that (ontologically). But manifestly a painting is not at most that (optically). And it is between the two poles of such a paradox that the philosophical weavings and unweavings of the theory of modernist painting has occurred over the last two decades: a tapestry engineered by the looming presence of Clement Greenberg.

'To achieve autonomy', Greenberg would pontificate, 'painting has had above all to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture'. The notorious maxim was to be that 'flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art'.(1) Well, such critics have always indulged themselves in inventing perils for modernist painting, in cultivating the sense that painting is in imminent danger of losing its identity, in provoking new and daring painterly acts to rescue the art from aesthetic oblivion.

But Greenberg's philosophisings on the point were inane, and inane for too much early modernism. For to exaggerate the ontological fact that a painting is at least a flat coloured surface into the claim that a painting is at most, and at its most autonomous, a flat coloured surface, is literally to lose sight of the opticality of painting. Ironically, it is to make of a painting a merely ontological object: a thin sculpture, as it were. The very concept of flatness is not optically but spatially contrastive: it is a concept without use except to define surface in a three-dimensional world, the world of sculpture. And so far from releasing painting from its supposed subjugation to sculpture, all that Greenberg had managed to achieve was to put painting more in thrall to sculptural logic.

The grim fact for modernist painting was that, at this time (in the early 'sixties), Greenberg had an acolyte-generating power. Artists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd began to work up Greenberg's dictums into false rages about painterly 'illusionism'- that ghostly, optical interference with flatness. Judd testily signalled 'riddance of one of the most salient and objectionable relics of European art'.(2) Stella became echoingly self-righteous about it:
I always get into arguments with people who want to retain the old values in painting-the humanistic values that they always find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object.'(3)

But, resisting the temptation to have fun with Stella's egregious logic of 'seeing', what kind of object could this really be? It was thin sculpture - and even Stella was dimly, unconsciously aware of that when he started turning his stretchers on the fat end to make his objects project more off the walls.

MILAN MRKUSICH Painting Sienna 1968
Acrylic on jute canvas, 762 x 914 mm.

The illusion was Judd's and Stella's. Judd was initially the more honest when he admitted 'I couldn't see any way out of having a certain amount of illusionism in the paintings'. So he took up the 'illusory' slack in the third dimension and made painted sculptures.

It took Stella much longer to realise that he could not eliminate the 'something-there-besides-the-paint-on -the-canvas', even from his systematic stripe paintings. People had eyes to see the projections and recessions, the depths and the extrusions, in the abuttals of painted colour. And, like Judd before him, Stella became the sculptor he always had been, introducing the third-dimension in his painted aluminium reliefs of the mid-'seventies.

The Greenbergian strand in the tapestry of modernist painting had become unravelled. But there was a rich inheritance, a tougher turn of philosophical mind which had begun to develop.

No: it was not in the flatness of the coloured surface that the true autonomy of painting could be found. It was in the colouredness of the flat surface. And there were two painters in the late 'sixties, working thousands of miles apart, who recognised that. One was Jules Olitski. The other, and Ofitski's better, was Milan Mrkusich.

To locate Milan Mrkusich just here (and so late in the piece) within the theoretical vicissitudes of modernism is no act of local piety. If there is one New Zealand painter who brings in his train a flint-eyed observation of modernist theory it is Mrkusich. And if these protracted introductory remarks aim at one injustice it is that, for too long, Milan Mrkusich has laboured singularly, solitarily, and with minimal celebration in his own country, to engage with, and to command, important facts of modernist painting and modernist theory. It is a morbidly depressing fact about New Zealand painting that, artistically, aesthetically and critically, it is for the most part the blinkered and mindless eyes that have had it. Mrkusich has given his paintings to those eyes. But he has given his painterly mind much more widely.

MILAN MRKUSICH Monochrome Green 1979
Acrylic on cardboard, 1225 x 1213 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

Topically alert, and typically vagrant, Greenberg began to make remarks about Olitski's paintings that were the optical obverse of what he had been saying. But if, with the following sentence, Greenberg misses the mark with Olitski, there are accuracies in application to Mrkusich's art:
Together with colour it contrives an illusion of depth that somehow extrudes all suggestions of depth back to the picture's surface; it is as if that surface, in all its literalness, were enlarged to contain a world of colour and light differentiations impossible to flatness but which yet manage not to violate flatness.(4)

It is within this impossibility to flatness, and yet the non-violation of flatness - my original paradox - that Mrkusich paints, coolly and confidently. And that painting restores what Judd found so objectionable a relic of European art - a relic, one could say, instantiated in the depth-in-flatness and the flatness-indepth of so unforgettable a painter as Piero della Francesca. (How blinded the modernist memory became through the meretricious glow of critically manufactured perils!)

There is indeed something impossible to flatness, a depth-in-flatness, in a Mrkusich painting (of any vintage): the subtleties of his coloured surfaces. As Olitski himself had said: 'Paint becomes painting when colour establishes surface'.(5) And what other, what more vital, autonomy could painting expect to command- If Olitski did not mean it, then he ought to have meant that painting is painting to the degree that colour alone will articulate surface (and figuration or composition are merely the contents of surface). Colour is form for painting, just as space is form for sculpture. It is, in painting, colour which articulates recessions and projections (and perspective -which anyway requires figuration - is simply a representable, spatial, or sculptural, means and not an end). It is, in painting, colour which articulates texture (and that paint may be crudely larded or loaded on to the canvas are again sculptural facts). It is, in painting, colour which articulates optical unity, the much-cherished all-overness of the Impressionists (and, vigorously exploited, sculpturally fragments optical unity).

MILAN MRKUSICH Painting 1971
Acrylic on canvas, 1727 x 1727 mm.
(Formerly in the Paris collection, now private collection)

The colouredness of surface in Mrkusich's paintings comprises, so to speak, the metaphysics of his art: the substance of his built colour-worlds. These worlds can be articulated with minimal surface differentiation (as, for example, in Metagrey, No 3, 1969); or with a dappled surface differentiation (as, for example, in Metagold, No 2, 1970); or with a hazed surface differentiation (as, for example, in Painting, 1971); or with smokey billows of surface differentiation (as, for example in Achromatic Grey 1977). It is through these techniques that Mrkusich creates his deep worlds in flatness: metaphysical articulations of the chromatic universe with its inviting distances and its excluding closenesses. (Through colour, one wants to say, Mrkusich asserts just those 'humanistic values' which Stella got into arguments about: the invitations and the exclusions which are the burden of human existence.)

MILAN MRKUSICH
Achromatic Grey
(Linear series) 1978
Acrylic on hardboard, 1200 x 900 mm.
(Collection Dunedin Public Art Gallery)

 

Still, these built chromatic depths remain amorphous. If colouredness of surface constitutes the metaphysical substance of a Mrkusichian world, the depth-in-flatness, then it also requires a logic, a structure for the flatness-indepth. There is, for Mrkusich, beyond the colouredness of surface, also an architecture of painted surface.

It is in this architectural region of painted surface that the most marked changes in Mrkusich's paintings over twelve years have occurred, and the most dramatic changes (if one may call any feature dramatic in so cool an artist).

To define this architecture of painted surface an architectural term suggests itself: armature. Not quite the modelling term here, but armature used architecturally in the sense illustrated by The Oxford English Dictionary with the phrase 'Iron bars or framing employed in the consolidation of a building'. Mrkusich's armatures are the consolidation of his built depths in colour: they give both frame and focusing structure to those depths. For with the variations in armature which Mrkusich has introduced over the years there is no mistaking the hold they have of the flatness-in-depth.

In the first (and longest - that is, until 1976) period of armaturing, Mrkusich was to use a system of corner mounts - triangulations at the four corners of his rectangular or square paintings. The deep chromatic world was, as it were, framed within the equivalent of the old manner of mounting photographs in an album. And there is a deeply important theoretical point in this device.

The suggestion of a photograph evokes the suggestion that the deep chromatic worlds were, after all, flat filmic scrapes, like a photograph. The substance of the colour worlds were impossible to flatness, but the armature of the corner mounts indicated no violation of flatness. A refined metaphysics and logic had come together to resolve the paradox.

The device was not quite so successful in the earlier years of this period: for the interestingly similar reason that Olitski's work of this time was not quite so successful. Typically in an Olitski work, where his armature for the deep chromatic world consisted of dribbled edges of raw paint at the top or side of his canvas, there was the disconcerting sense that the world was being twisted obliquely from the frontality of the spectator. Similarly, in certain of Mrkusich's paintings until about the early 'seventies, the corner mounts were themselves vigorously different-hued (as, for example, in Painting Sienna 1968).

The corner mounts in these works seemed to be pulling the paintings this way and that, bending and wrenching at the deeper chromatic world behind the flatness and creating an incoherent architecture of painted surface. It was as if the logic of the armature was trying to draw multiple conclusions.

This rapidly began to change. In the later works from this same period of armature, the corner mounts themselves came to be increasingly less discernible, more consistent with each other, and more optically complementary to the coloured surface. A purely frontal flatness had begun to emerge.

It was this purer frontality which was taken up in the post-1976 period of armature - in my view, still the strongest and most determined logic by which ,Mrkusich has architected his painted surfaces. The armatures here consisted in finely-constructed grids of squares with an almost evanescent lightness holding the flatness in depth. The actual patterns of the grids varied; and occasionally, too, a diagonal would shoot across the painted surface from the corner of a grid square (as, for example, in Achromatic Grey (Linear Series) from 1978.

MILAN MRKUSICH
Monochrome Orange
1979
Acrylic on cardboard,
1222 x 1214 mm.
Collection of the artist)

But the real strength of the armatures, particularly in late 1978, derived from the mathematical seriality of the grid squares. In constant ratio, the grid squares themselves would serially double in size across and down the coloured surfaces. With a work like Monochrome Yellow, for instance, from 1978, or Monochrome Orange from 1979, a profound juxtaposition of two alien worlds had been found: the substantial but amorphous deep colour-world on the one hand, and, on the other, a mathematically pure and defined logical world. The architecture of painted surface had reached a zenith: in sheer depth there was flatness, in sheer flatness, depth.

It is perhaps a little early fully to absorb and make comment on the most recent logic of armature which Mrkusich has introduced in the new paintings of 1980: the Two Areas paintings in which the armature itself has been integrated into the duochromatic painted surface. But one may guess at the motive. For, with one or two of the mathematically serial grid armatures (particularly, for example, Monchrome Green 1979) there was a detectable tendency for the complexity of the armature itself to defeat the coloured surface. As the grid squares became smaller and more prolific, it was almost as if the surface had begun to be obliterated as surface.

MILAN MRKUSICH Two Areas, Achromatic II 1980
Acrylic on customwood, 1220 x 1827 mm.

In the Two Areas paintings there has been a typically Mrkusichian move to purify and rethink the complex philosophical tasks and artistic labours on which he has been engaged for twelve years. He has come to the point now, in the new painting, where surface as surface is reasserting its own status over diminishing armature.

It will, I fancy, be a hard exercise for the artist. The danger, of course, is that in now juxtaposing two different planes of colour, the unitary surface may come to seem optically hinged at the abuttal.

Yet, and it is a proper point on which to conclude, Mrkusich, more than any other painter in New Zealand, has persuasively demonstrated an inalienable grip upon implacable issues of art theory. There is no doubt, for me, that he will continue to do so. And for those who find in the intellectualising of art - those intellectual foundations which I have attempted to explore here in Mrkusich's art - a mere vacuum, I know of no better antidote than the visual experience of gazing upon a Mrkusich painting. It is not in the mind's eye that theorizing about art takes place: it is in the eye's mind.

1. Clement Greenberg, 'Modernist Painting' in The New Art: A Critical Anthology, ed Gregory Battcock (New York 1966).
2. Donald Judd quoted by Michael Fried,'Art and Objecthood' in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed Gregory Battcock (New York 1968).
3. Frank Stella interviewed by Bruce Glaser, 'Questions to Stella and Judd' in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology.
4. Clement Greenberg, 'Jules Olitski' in United States of America, 33rd International Biennial Exhibition of Art (Venice 1966).
5. Jules Olitski, 'Painting in Colour' in United States of America, 33rd International Biennial Exhibition of Art.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 19 Autumn 1981. This version contains different images to the print version.