In an essay published in Artforum in 1986 and included ten years later in his book Kant After Duchamp, Thierry de Duve proposed that the ready-made— Marcel Duchamp’s innovation of treating an everyday, industrially produced item, such as a bottle rack, snow shovel or urinal, as an art object—“ought to be reinterpreted today in connection with painting.” De Duve’s suggestion has been more or less ignored: in theory, if not in practice, painting and the ready-made have pretty much gone their separate ways. But I still think de Duve was onto something.
Seeing “Inventing Abstraction,” the fascinating exhibition currently at the Museum of Modern Art—in which Duchamp is a signal presence, although not as the proponent of the ready-made [see “Wild Things,” March 11–18, 2013]—has rekindled my interest in de Duve’s claim that “the birth of abstract painting is the relevant context” for the appearance of the ready-made. True, de Duve was too credulous of the many witty remarks Duchamp made a half-century after the fact, justifying his recourse to the ready-made as a retort to the situation of painting in an industrial age. In 1961, for instance, Duchamp stated at a symposium on assemblage: “Since the tubes of paint used by the artist are manufactured and ready-made products we must conclude that all the paintings in the world are ‘readymades aided’ and also works of assemblage.”
What Duchamp cleverly avoids confronting, except for the acknowledgment hidden in that innocent little word “aided,” is the unique and unindustrialized nature of the human gesture by which that industrial, ready-made product, paint, may be applied to a surface. This gesture “aids” the paint considerably, at least in the most favorable cases—though, admittedly, it may be a struggle to achieve this. How else to explain the wit and pathos of Frank Stella’s remark that his goal was to keep the paint as good on canvas as it was in the can? Stella was 27 when he said that, and young as he was, he already understood how easy it is to spoil good materials: just breaking even was already to be ahead of the game.
Giorgio Griffa, an Italian painter who recently had his first show in the United States since 1970, might just as well say he’s trying to keep the canvas as good on the wall as it was on the roll. For any painter, the choice of a painting surface is crucial, but more so for Griffa than most. For him, there’s no such thing as a blank canvas, because the canvas itself is a ready-made, an industrially manufactured material thick with information integral to the finished painting. Griffa would probably contest my use of the word “finished.” Myself, I’d start instead by taking issue with the word “canvas,” which is how the checklist at Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York City named the material on which he’d applied his acrylic paint in all the works included in the exhibition “Fragments 1968–2012.” But the “canvas” is really several different kinds of textile, of diverse hues and textures; several of the paintings were done on a dark, coarsely woven jute fabric.
Griffa’s canvases (or whatever it would be more precise to call them) are not stretched but simply pinned to the walls. And even if he had never put a spot of paint on them, each one would already be a little different from the rest—and not only because of the innate qualities I’ve already mentioned. There are also the more or less rough and uneven edges where the canvas has been cut, sometimes leaving loose threads hanging here and there, and especially the deep horizontal and sometimes vertical creases most of them bear from having been folded and unfolded. These textures reflect the manner in which the canvases are stored when not being exhibited—and so with Griffa’s work, even storage has to count as part of the activity of painting them, because it’s clear that each piece is folded in its own way in order to create a grid of specific proportions, with folds of a given depth.