In 2009 the Museum of Modern Art made a major announcement concerning its displays that was dutifully reported by the New York Times: the chief curator of painting and sculpture, Ann Temkin, had decided to remove the frames from the museum’s collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings, thus “freeing” the paintings from the “domestication” of the gallery space.1 The paintings had been meant by the creators to go unframed all along, Temkin noted, and the frames contributed to a separation between the paintings’ material immediacy and the viewer’s reception of them. The paper anticipated that viewers would feel astonishment at the paintings “hang[ing] naked, their rough, paint-splattered edges and rusting staples on view to the world.”
As this example makes clear, the ways that viewers have been trained to look at paintings depend, at least partly, on physical frames and their virtual counterparts, which anchor us frontally, flatten paintings visually, and which clothe the works, making them presentable as art. Absent the frame, the edges of paintings present chaos, revealing painterly process, traces of questioning and decision making, and the world of the indeterminate. Given their potential power, we might assume the edges of paintings to have been subjected to rigorous art historical analysis, but it seems instead that we regulate the authority of the edge largely by ignoring it, folding it into a larger discussion of art in general, or by subsuming framing edges to a function within an image’s composition, thereby affording them a position in the centripetal movement of the composition but diminishing the part they play merely to defining the outermost limits of the picture plane. (By contrast, frames and framing devices have received sustained attention, including Immanuel Kant’s commentary on the ergon and parergon, as well as Jacques Derrida’s elaboration of those concepts.) In these strategies, the edge is normalized, its position as a site of potential infection from and to the outside reduced and managed. But what if it is the case that an unframed painting is “naked,” that somehow revealing the edges of a canvas or a panel uncovers something unseemly and inappropriate about painting? How do we speak about painting, and especially those paintings whose edges are exposed, without considering the implications of its edges?
The essays included in this issue’s Critics’ Page attempt a reckoning with edges. For Laura Lisbon, Maija Miettinen, and Suzanne Silver, grappling with the edge is part of their painterly practice and something that causes them to consider, respectively, the possibility (or perhaps inevitability) of painting’s objecthood, the historical convention of the tableau and the moment when painting seemed to try to free itself to become self-aware as art, and the precarity of art and the artist’s position in contemporary political society. To Squeak Carnwath, the edge possesses use-value, even as it also negotiates between the two-dimensionality of an image and the three-dimensionality of material. A curator, Aimee Ng regularly sees paintings’ edges without frames and reflects here on a 16th-century portrait that was seemingly painted to hang “naked” and unprotected. Looking at a print made one century later, Amy Knight Powell explores 17th-century understandings of artistic convention and their ramifications for plein air painting, as well as its masculine proponents. George Rush asks, “Why do my students paint the sides of their canvases?” and ruminates on the possibility that they could be resisting—by covering up—the commercial nature of the art world to which they are inextricably bound. Likewise seeing the edges of paintings as sites of resistance, César Paternosto proposes painting the framing edges rather than the face of canvases as a potent inversion of the Western evolution of the art form, a move that acknowledges Latin American civilizations’ pre-contact fascinations with edge relationships.
As for me, I approach edges as a lover of painting, though that tactic is not without its frustrations. When the sculptor Pygmalion fell in love with his creation, Ovid tells us, he kissed it and felt her lips become warm.2 In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1890 painting of the story, the living statue does more than grow warm: Galatea encircles Pygmalion with newly fleshy arms, even as her legs remain riveted to her sculpted pedestal. Unlike sculpture, painting has no such Pygmalion myth: Neither Pygmalion nor Galatea gaze back admiringly at us.
There are stories from art history, of course, of viewers believing themselves seduced by paintings. Why otherwise would their eyes follow us around the room even though they never reach for us? More common, though, is the lack of reaction from Leonardo’s most famous image, the Mona Lisa (1503). We think her smile mysterious precisely because it mollifies the embarrassment of suspecting that she might be laughing at us. And how much more difficult, too, to be a lover of abstract painting, in which we cannot even see reflections of our likeness. When we love abstract painting, we find ourselves loving painting itself: thus, the drive to determine its “peculiar” features. But viewers are never the equal of paintings, even when we approach them face-to-face. We are always the pursuers, the lovers. We are never the beloved.
And that is the thing about the lover/beloved relationship: it is always asymmetrical. The persistence of boundaries spurs longing, so edges are useful to propagating desire, even as we viewers are spurned: “So although I couldn’t possibly feel cross with [Socrates, his beloved] and keep away from him, I couldn’t find a way to make him mine either,” Alcibiades tells us in the Symposium.3 Desire seems to thrive on asking, pursuing, looking; once possessed, understood, paintings run the risk of inertness. Their edges are built to confront the moment when yearning for them ends, knowing it is inevitable, preparing them for the moment when we leave them. Art is ideally constant; it is we who are licentious with our gazes and desires and who leave painting. The edge is not only what we see as we approach painting, it is what remains as we walk away. “He never looks back at you from the place from which you see him. Something moves in the space between. That is the most erotic thing about Eros.”4 Painting as well.
- Ted Loos, “At MoMA, ‘Permanent’ Learns to Be Flexible,” The New York Times, 22 October 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/arts/design/25loos.html.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X, trans. Anthony S. Kline, 243-97, available online at http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph10.htm#484521423.
Plato, Symposium, 66, §219d-e.
- Anne Carson, Eros. The Bittersweet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 167.