Painting to object

Frank Stella, ‘Hyena Stomp’ 1962
Frank Stella
Hyena Stomp 1962
Tate
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

In the second half of the twentieth century, many different artists began to challenge the integrity of the two-dimensional work of art, the traditional painting on canvas, and its frame. Dissatisfied with the restrictions of working in two-dimensions, a large number of artists began to explore their formal concerns beyond the confines of the frame. Gradually they challenged the rigid boundary between the viewer and the work of art; its integrity was broken and the work progressively invaded the space of the spectator. Thus some of the central issues that have preoccupied artists since the post-war era have been the problem of shape, the nature of pictorial or sculptural abstraction, and the relationship between work and viewer.

Early in his career American painter Frank Stella reacted against more expressionist forms of painting and instead began to make works that emphasised the picture as an object. Eva Hesse, who trained as a painter, began in the mid 1960s to experiment with making reliefs that frequently incorporated organic forms and unconventional materials like wool and string. From making reliefs that progressively invaded the space of the viewer, Hesse moved into creating sculptures distinguished by their latent eroticism, occasional humour and soft, non-mechanical materials and production.

Colour is also a shared concern of the artists included here and a critical issue for abstraction. Since the 1950s, Ellsworth Kelly’s work has played on the status of a painting as an object and experimented with the shape and placement of fields of unmodulated colour. From the mid 1960s, his works, sometimes in relief, sometimes free-standing, consist of painted cut-out metal shapes and juxtaposed areas of opposing or incongruent colour.

In recent years, artists such as Melanie Smith have made an ironic return to these issues that preoccupied artists of the 1960s and 1970s. Smith takes abstraction as a found element of the city as much as of art, returning it to a context in the real world and therefore investing it with a content that undermines its very status as abstraction. Her language is the hybrid language of post-modernism in which Modernist abstraction is one of its subjects.