...But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what's there And nothing can exist except what's there.
--John Ashbery, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror

: thing keeps cropping up is this thing about 'subtext,' songs, words, plays--they all have subtexts, which I take to mean a hidden meaning or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the meaning, or message, that's right there on the surface, completely open and obvious...What do you call what's above the subtext?
: The text.
Fred: OK, that's right...But they never talk about that.
--Scene from Whit Stillman's Barcelona

The word surface can't help but summon up what lies beneath it--a contingent word, inseparably bound to its opposite, to the thing of which it is a part, impossible with out its antonyms: inner, deep, full, solid, cover up, sink. There is the surface of something and there is what's below the surface: a painting's surface, water's surface, surface reading, surface meaning, surfacing, Wittgenstein's surface grammar and deep grammar. The connotations, implications and associations are never-ending. In the fine arts the surface is a vacillating plane receding and materializing throughout the history of art, often at the center of some of its most ideological and teleological concerns. Central, for example, to the teleology of naturalism, where we can track the thrust of the western development toward naturalism through the surface's progressive recession: in the human form's emergence from the surfaces of painted pots in the "Greek revolution," to the height of perspectival science in the Renaissance (the nadir of surface's cycle). We then watch surface reassert itself in modernism's rejection of naturalism and its embrace of the materiality of media. Modern painting, for example, in an effort to stake a claim for itself among the other arts, asserts its independence by announcing the impenetrability of its surface. Surface, considered within the fine arts, and most emphatically in painting, is that part of the artwork most often denied in illusory art--it is that part of the painting that we see through, to get at subject matter, narration and figuration. The surface of the artwork is a critical point, then, in modernist art, as painting moves away from the hegemony of illusion and perspective that dominated painting from the Renaissance into the modern period. In each of these historical moments surface is central to the dominant ideology--on one hand, through its suppression, on the other, through its assertion.

Surface reasserts itself in 19th century painting, after its long suppression during the reign of naturalism, first visible in landscape paintings, such as those of the Barbizon School, where the transparent, slick, "licked" surfaces of the academy give way to richly textured impastos, apparent in painters such as Turner and Corot. Such attention to surface realized itself most fully in the 19th century in the work of the Impressionists--whose textured surfaces mimic the perceptual sensation of the elements as they work on the eye--but while this newly textured and foregrounded surface is a leap away from illusion and transparency, it is still a surface the viewer moves through and beyond, only a further development in the technical means of getting at the visual impression of what that surface connotes: trees, water, atmosphere, sunlight. It is not until the 20th century that the surface is exposed for what it really is--a picture plane--which it is impossible to "hole through," to use Clement Greenberg's phrase. The surface materializes in the black canvases of Malevich, the grids of Mondrian, and the visual games of Klee, which rely so much on the play between the flatness of the plane and our tendency as viewers to "see-in" and "see-as." [1]

Surface is central to modernism's rejection of subject matter in favor of form. Fine art's battle against narrative is waged on the surface of paintings. In an effort to forge a legitimate space for itself among the other arts, painting purged itself of all traces of alien craft and asserted its newfound independence through the purity of form and medium. Richard Wollheim, in his investigation of a "dominant theory of modern art" took the development of the "physicality" of painting as his central theme and finds this physicality most manifest in painting's surface: "In the context of painting, for 'physicality' read 'possession of a surface.' " [2] In 1916, Kasimir Malevich called this "the zero of form," and said in his usual iconoclast fashion: "if the masters of the Renaissance had discovered the surface of painting, it would have been much more exalted and valuable than any Madonna or Gioconda." [3] Rosalind Krauss posits the grid in modernist painting as "emblematic of the modernist ambition"--the grid, which "maps the surface of painting itself"--the "bottom line" of which is "a naked and determined materialism." [4] No one celebrated the realization of the surface of painting more than Clement Greenberg, who saw the move toward the picture plane as the logical outcome of modernist self-investigation: "The history of avant-garde painting is that of a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium; which resistance consists chiefly in the flat picture plane's denial of efforts to 'hole through' it for realistic perspectival space...." [5] Greenberg describes an evolutionary process in which the varying planes of illusory painting struggle toward one another until they finally meet on the "material plane that is the actual surface of the canvas."

Surface is a contested site in the history of western modernism. The arguments that circle around surface are innumerable. Michael Fried, for example, would argue that an overemphasized surface leads to "objecthood" instead of art. [6] Fried's argument about "literalist" art was primarily addressed to the minimalists, who took Greenberg's theory to an absurdly literal level: objects were reduced to surface. In Art and Illusion, Gombrich attempted to map out just where it is in our perception that surface takes place: "a picture before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a plane surface covered with paint....But is it possible to 'see' both the plane surface and the battle horse at the same time?" Gombrich would say no, "we cannot have it both ways." [7]   Where to locate the surface, when to acknowledge surface, to what degree, in what manner, are all concerns that question the very limits of art itself. It is a tricky situation, for, in Klee's words, "one may simply lose one's bearings on the formal plane." [8]   Herbert Damisch referred to this as the "trickery of the picture" and showed how easily we unknowingly slip from the surface into the painting even in our speech. The French word for painting, he points out is tableau, whereas in English it is picture or painting. The French refers to the structure, the surface, the vertical plane on which the painting takes place, while the English refers to the process, the result, the material adhered to that plane (painting) and the thing it depicts (picture). "The fact that one and the same word may denote the product of painting and the material base on which it is placed may well make us wonder what relationship exists between what one might call the 'operation' of the painting with its external form, its 'exterior' and its substrate, if not its very substance." [9]   Both words, Damisch points out, are synecdoches, but which part is chosen to represent the whole constitutes a significant shift in perception.

There is yet another side to surface in the modern era. Surface, with its emphasis on materiality, superficiality, and immediacy, rings of capitalistic commodification and the newly industrialized modern world. Siegfried Kracauer noted a strange elision of distance and depth in his account of the "mass ornament," in 1927, which he described as "a pattern of unimaginable dimension." [10] Using the dances of the Tiller Girls as an example of modern "simple surface manifestations," Kracauer described the impossibility of navigating or gaining dominance over the visual display that confronts the modern viewer--depth is condensed and everything is reduced to the same plane, an "aesthetic reflex," says Kracauer, "of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system." Walter Benjamin notes a similar lack of distance in his account of the withering of the aura through technological reproducibility: "What is aura really? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance no matter how close the object may be." [11] The modern age is, of course, the age in which this aura "withers", an era that elides the "semblance of distance" and objects are encountered in a new proximity. Such a tone was to be taken up by postmodern writers at the end of the century, when, in late capitalist America, everything appeared to be reduced to surface: "a fantastic space, a spectral and discontinuous succession of all the various functions, of all signs with no hierarchical ordering--an extravaganza of indifference, extravaganza of undifferentiated surfaces...." [12]   This is Baudrillard's description of the late 20th century American desert-city. Surface is no longer about the realization of a thing's essence, about purity and truth, but assumes almost the exact opposite meaning. The rich, pure surfaces of a Pollock give way to the gloss and glitter of late capitalist America. Van Gogh's boots are traded for Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes. Postmodern art, literature and architecture, according to Fredric Jameson, suppress depth. The postmodern, unlike the modern surface, repels, deflects, denies, like the mirrored skin of the Bonaventure Hotel in LA. [13]    In 1931, Benjamin saw the withering of the aura as an ambivalent and dialectical process. At the end of the century, however, distance and history are eclipsed without any of the critical benefits of Benjamin's system--this is the "flattened universe" of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, where "spectacle obliterates the boundaries between self and world...true and false." [14]   Here surface exceeds its frame and consumes the world around it--an alarmist and reactionary vision, perhaps, but no more ideological than its modernist predecessors. But surface was always everywhere--what history changes is how well we know it: "We live amid surfaces," says Emerson, "and the true art of life is to skate well on them." [15]

Christa Robbins
Winter 2002