Chance and the Punctum
When Richard asked me to read his essay “Reality by Chance,” and to write for this issue of the Rail, I focused on his paragraphs about the thinking of Roland Barthes. I was especially interested in Richard’s observation that both Richard himself and Barthes welcomed assignments that would shift the subjects of their thinking.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s the surfaces of my paintings began to have a “photographic” look. This wasn’t something I intended. I wanted my paintings to reveal the direct processes used to make them. But the surfaces in my paintings began to look distanced, not touched by the human hand. It was hard to decipher how these surfaces were made. Visitors to my studio began to comment that they looked like photographs. This unnerved me at first, and it took me a while to accept what I had done. I came to these surfaces because I used transparent glazes to introduce new kinds of color. I liked the sense of light that the transparencies created: sometimes there seemed to be flashes of light and at other times a uniform glow from behind the surface, as if from a screen. Even though my paintings were made with the traditional techniques that I studied in Rubens and other Baroque and Mannerist painters, I had to admit that my paintings looked photographic.
What did this photographic surface mean? Did it imply a deeper change in the structure of my paintings? I read Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography in the ’80s to answer my question and have been thinking about his ideas since. In a coincidence of the kind mentioned by Richard in his essay, I have recently returned to reading this book because a friend is reading it and would like to discuss Barthes’s ideas.
I have especially tried to understand two terms that Barthes invented for investigating photographs, studium and punctum. In Camera Lucida Barthes explains the terms in this way:
What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training. I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium... It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions. … The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. ... This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum... 2
Soon after first reading Barthes, I tried to apply these terms to a painting by Caravaggio in an essay about his work that wrote in the ’80s and never published:
In 1985, looking at Caravaggio’s Bacchus in the “Age of Caravaggio” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, I was fascinated by what I thought were ripples on the surface of the wine glass that Bacchus holds in his hand. I thought that the ripples showed his nervousness, a trembling of his hand. Since the painting had telling realistic details, I wondered about the carafe that he has just set down and decided to look at it carefully. The top surface of the wine is sloped and sloshing with foam. Bacchus has just set it down. While I was marveling at this, I saw something else on the top surface of the wine. Looking closely, I saw that it was a reflection: Caravaggio at his easel, painting. I couldn’t believe it. At first, I thought that I was imagining what I saw. Caravaggio had drawn me deep into his painting, but with this reflection he was telling me that it was all staged. He was taking credit for the staging, as well as confessing that he had also been seduced by his own painting. This reflection was like that of a photographer whose image is caught unexpectedly in his own photograph. Caravaggio is a painter and had to invent this moment. This reflection was the punctum of the painting.
In January 1986 David Carrier published the first article on my work in Arts Magazine. I’ve gone back to read Carrier’s essay because I remembered that he applied Barthes’s ideas about the punctum and studium to my paintings and to the works of other painters. I find his essay to be filled with insights and prescient understandings of my then future, now current, paintings. He emphasizes the fragmentation and lack of unity:
Moving across Reed’s surfaces, my glance catches a line of white, the ground or a field of artificially bright color, undistracted by the need to see them as surfaces of forms which tell some story, I enjoy the punctum without worries about its unity.” 3
When I wrote to Richard to say that I was rereading Carrier’s essay, he reminded me that it was David Carrier who first introduced him to my paintings. Carrier took Richard to see an exhibition of my paintings in Soho in the late ’70s or early ’80s.
I hate that the word “composition” is applied to my paintings. People usually don’t understand my objection. To me “composition” implies forms arranged in a confined, limited format. I always want my paintings to imply extension past the edge. Barthes calls this the “blind field”: “Yet once there is a punctum, a blind field is created (is divined). … The punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond—as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see….4 This quality of the blind field especially applies to film:
Yet the cinema has a power which at first glance the Photograph does not have: the screen (as Bazin has remarked) is not a frame but a hideout; the man or woman who emerges from it continues living: a “blind field” constantly doubles our partial vision.5
I want breaks in my paintings, elements that don’t fit together, disjunctions and then, in contradiction, unexpected continuities in ways and places where continuity seems impossible. I try to tear apart the usual structure of painting and to find another structure. In the last months, for an upcoming show, I have been overwhelmed, pressing to make the right decisions about paintings in progress that I don’t understand. Seeing this unusually large number of paintings together in progress in my studio has given me an inkling of a new kind of a place or mood that is emerging. Sometimes trying to understand what I am feeling I have remembered specific paintings and the places in which I saw them. For example, I keep remembering, my visits to Beccafumi’s frescoes in the Oratorio di San Bernardino outside Siena. Sometimes I find that I can smell the damp earth. And I’ve especially been thinking of the mood and the implications of the yellow in one of the frescoes there in relation to several of my paintings. Can Barthes ideas of the punctum and the blind field help explain these flashes of memory? Do his ideas have a relation to the new aspects that I find developing in my paintings? There are now stencils and silkscreens in some of the paintings. I have only tentative speculations about where these paintings are going. The offer to write this essay has helped me to focus my questioning. What are the desires and memories activated by the punctum and the blind field?
Richard Shiff, "Reality by Chance," Kodikas/Code: Ars Semeiotica 37, no. 3/4 (July-December 2014): 191-208.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1980) 26-27.
Carrier, David. "Artifice and Artificiality: David Reed’s Recent Painting," Arts Magazine 60, No. 5 (January, 1986): 30–33.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1980) 58.