Abstract Critical

Touched and Untouched: The wealth of painting

Written by David Sweet

There is something embarrassing about painting. Making sculpture seems like labour. But once the stretcher has been screwed together and the canvas stapled – and someone other than the painter can do that – then what? Making a painting mainly means touching. The avoidance, or more commonly the repression, of touch can of course be a pictorial strategy, but its absence or limitation proves its power rather than irrelevance. Inevitably, to paint means to touch, and touching risks embarrassment.

There’s something unpromising about thinking about touch. It’s associated with two outworn ideas, the first of which linked gesture and authenticity. This comes from pro-Abstract Expressionist theory, sometimes called the ‘expressionist fallacy’, reading brush marks as foolproof indications of mental states. Faith in that approach has been undermined by irony and fear of phoniness. The second idea was about mechanisation versus handicraft. But the role of the ‘hand’, and the skills thought to reside in it, has been downgraded. The contemporary practitioner can access any number of methods of image production, most of which require little or no manual dexterity.

What I’m trying to do here is bring touch back to the centre of the question of painting. I want to argue that touching is the method through which identity is achieved for the painting, the painter and the viewer. If this doesn’t seem enough of an ill-fated project, then I should also mention that I want to draw on ideas that were in circulation in the late fifties, which I don’t fully understand, to try to support the argument.

To start with a beginning; When somebody paints they are (potentially) doing two things, “a” painting and specifically “this” painting. Painting “a” painting is relatively easy: Get a blank canvas, some brushes and rags, acrylic pigment, (5 to 7 colours should do), and some water. Put the canvas on a wall. Carelessly lay a thin wash of one colour over the canvas. When its semi dry brush thicker pigment over the surface. It doesn’t matter too much what shapes you make, but maybe some could be bigger than others. And you could add a few lines. Spend a couple of hours doing this and you will end up with “a” painting. What’s more, you will, albeit for a short time, have been “a” painter, and an abstract painter at that.

But the tougher challenge facing most serious practitioners is not to do “a” painting, but to somehow make the painting at hand, “this” painting, more than just “a” painting. The distinction is crucial, especially in abstraction. “A” painting made to the above recipe contains all the right ingredients. But it’s unlikely to appear other than as something participating in a generic identity. Paradoxically, that doesn’t mean it’s not unique. It will differ from other generic paintings and have a particular material presence and even aesthetic appeal. The problem is that it will give rise to an experience that could be replicated exactly by another painting, also appropriately preceded by the indefinite article; “a” painting (1) could be substituted by “a” painting (2), which might look different, but will share the same limited generic identity.

What I’m calling “a” painting might also be described as ‘routine’ or ‘academic’ or ‘clichéd’. It will satisfy the criteria of being medium legitimate, complying with the art form’s rules, and not suffer any lack of ‘content’ or formal richness. What is wrong with such ‘a’ painting is its failure to deliver a kind of existential ontological shock.

I realise this will need some explaining. But first I think it is fair to say that the practice of making and looking at routine paintings is very common. There are pleasures to be had in front of generic work, which is just as well as a lot of the stuff you see falls into that category. And routine may not necessarily mean mediocre; it can be quite good. But quality, however assiduously pursued, cannot transcend ‘a’ painting’s fixed generic horizon.

The alternative to ‘a’ painting is ‘this’ painting, namely one possessed of an identity that it does not share with other paintings. It’s ‘there’ or it ‘exists’ in a particular way. It takes up a new place in the world, a place that wasn’t there before.


‘ To be is to be the value of a variable’ is a phrase from an essay called “On What There Is” by the American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, first published in 1949.[i] The phrase is almost a slogan from a time when analytical philosophy held sway. But it also belongs to a moment when critical discourse on American painting drew on currents of European thought, especially linked to the concept of individual agency, ‘expression’ and ‘action’, while undermining the power and autonomy of a unified ‘self’, or subject, by reference to the propositions of psychoanalysis and Marx’s critique of the consciousness-bending capitalist system in which such supposedly autonomous subjects operate.

I don’t want to offer a reading of all that material here. Rather, I want to re-use the wool of these period ideas to knit something else. The hope is to say something which may have contemporary, and by definition, intergenerational relevance, about painting and touching.

One meaning of variable is ‘having no numerical value’. [ii] A simple take on Quine’s formula suggests that value, and therefore what there is, depends on a variable being restricted, ‘quantified’ or ‘bound’. Painting involves a lot of variables. “Binding” these variables produces what there is in the painting.

Take colour as a variable: There are around 16,777,000 discernable colours that can be generated through electronic means and appear on a computer screen. The Daler Rowney Cryla acrylic chart consists of 72 hues. But most painters won’t have 72 tubes in their studio, preferring to confine themselves to a small number of shades that form their ‘palette’. Individual paintings may exhibit even fewer colours, limited to pairs of complementaries, plus black and white, for instance.

The sixteen million odd possible colours might be interpreted as variables, adapted from the above definition to mean ‘having no chromatic value’. The paint manufacturers’ decisions and the choice of palette form a chain of tightening restriction in relation to the variable in preparation for the painting stage. Once the colour is committed to the painting it establishes its full value at the end of a binding process. As Quine is addressing issues of ontology, one could say that the colour that there is in painting exists in a particular way, as the value of a bound variable.

This binding process can be seen in what can be treated as other variables within painting, the size of the rectangle being a convenient example. Against all the possible available dimensions Matisse’s The Red Studio is 181 x 219.1cms, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is 243.9 x 233.7cms and Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 is 269.5 x 530.8cms. Again, following Quine, one could say that the size of these paintings, the limits of their existential territories, can be understood in terms of the values of bound variables.

It would be possible to itemise more ways in which painting’s variables become bound, in the dense chain of decisions found in the processes of drawing and composition for example. In a well-known passage from ‘Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence’, Maurice Merleau-Ponty reflects on this process as evidenced in a slow motion film of Matisse at work.[iii] When seen in ‘expanded time’ Matisse’s brush seemed to rehearse several possible movements before descending onto the surface. But M-P describes this not as literally eliminating an infinite number of possible gestures till only one remains, that’s an illusion caused by the camera, but rather that Matisse

…looked at the still open whole of his work in progress and brought his brush towards the line which called for it in order that the painting might finally be that which it was in the process of becoming.

Matisse however did make a choice. The line

..was chosen in such away as to observe, scattered out over the painting, a score of conditions which were  unformulated and even unformulable for anyone but Matisse, since they were only defined and imposed by the intention of executing that particular painting which did not yet exist. (M-P’s italics)

Though pictured in slow motion, the suggestion that his ‘hand operated in the physical world where an infinity of options is possible’ is revealing. It describes the primal scene of the blank canvas, the empty universe, with which Matisse began, crowded with 16,777,000 valueless possibilities. By imposing his choice at the moment in the work’s forward progress on which Merleau-Ponty focuses, Matisse gives a value to the variable of the line and, at the same time, he clinches the existence and the identity of ‘that particular painting’. Moreover, he achieves this through a gesture, when the brush comes down and touches the painting’s surface.

Merleau-Ponty wrote his essay a few years after the period in American post-WW2 painting, when touch and gesture were in the ascendency. Historically of course there are plenty of examples of overt pigment ‘handling’ in mainstream painting. Malerisch or painterly work is a recognised type, often much admired by painters themselves. But in Abstract Expressionism, gesture and touch took on a categorically different status. The identity of the work and the painter was determined, or at least dominated by, the character of the marks of which it comprised. The visibility of the paintings amounted to material evidence of pigment application, directly linked to the movement of the hand, its rhythms, tempi and arcs, (gesture) or the pressure the hand exerts, (touch). From Kline to Newman, and even further, to Reinhardt, the work’s ‘formal’ syntax grew out of decisions about how the painter got the paint onto the support. The relatively larger formats on which they operated presented different challenges to their technique, making the degree of the individual’s physical involvement and control more crucial. [iv]

By dramatising, maybe over-dramatising, gesture and touch, which had always been part of painting, the Abstract Expressionists showed how it could define the core of the work rather than be mere rhetorical elaboration. The seemingly endless possibilities of manipulation, combined with the differing levels of viscosity and sensitivity of the medium that preserved the visual evidence, provided what might seem like an infinite array of options. A conflation of gesture and touch had been made one of painting’s variables, in need of quantification. Each painter found a way of binding this variable into the ontological commitment of the work. Touch began to exist in a different way in paintings. It was ‘there’ in a demonstrably different way, as the value of a bound variable.

But having got this far we encounter one of the problematic features of Abstract Expressionism. The necessary conditions of material intimacy involved in the process means the viewer, when considering the results, has to deal with the person doing the gesturing and touching. The viewer has to come to terms with the body of the painter, which insists on physically interacting with the means of expression. As touch and gesture emerge as variables, the explicit human agency which is directly legible in them acquires a new status. The painter becomes a variable. For common sense reasons, the identity, and the name, of the individual takes care of the problem of binding the variable. Of all the people in all the world, (16,777,000 plus) ‘this’ one made ‘this’ painting.

There’s something unfortunate, even gruesome, in the ‘brushstroke’ that exemplifies Abstract Expressionism, the ineradicable human stain that has become its legacy. By the mid-fifties, it was already the object of appropriation and critical scepticism.  Younger painters did their best to construct work devoid of handling, favouring methods like pouring (Frankenthaler and Louis) or tape and roller, (Noland and Stella by the mid-sixties). They produced surfaces that appeared ‘untouched’, if not necessarily immaculate. Poons and Olitski used thicker pigment, but the final effect is much nearer that found in late Monet where the paint layer is encrusted and corrugated, but looks to have been the result of geological sedimentation rather than human action. Paradoxically the surface of Reinhardt’s painting does look handmade. Touch has been repressed and slowed down, but it’s still visible in the finish.

The skein paintings by Jackson Pollock represent an odd case where gesture and touch part company. Gesture is clearly evident. Whole body movement is registered in the swings and handbrake turns of the paint trails, but touch is absent. He is out of contact with the surface except on those occasions where he plants his handprints onto the canvas. While his paintings prior to 1947 were highly dependent on the brush, pushing through opaque pigment to establish a quasi-surrealist symbolic order, the webs and lattices of his later work were transparent, letting through a view of the untouched part of the canvas against which the gestural action is played out.

The contrast with the empty canvas, against which the linear choreography was displayed, reinforced by the film and photographic record of the man at work, mean that the role of Pollock’s ‘body’ has always been given a fair amount of attention in analyses of his 1947-50 output. Waving one’s arms around is one way of getting attention, but many writers have felt the need to attribute meaning to the gestures, sometimes referring to Jungian therapy, or ritual, or the somatic rhythms of an increasingly industrialised America.[v] Painters have of course always had bodies, but they were not ‘there’ inside their work in quite the way Pollock’s and others’ in the movement, were, through a pictorial process of incarnation. What also happened was that the ontological commitment entailed by making the practitioner one of painting’s variables, a variable given value by being bound or quantified by the identity of the relevant individual, affected the status of the painter outside the work. So, in the discourse, Pollock ‘exists’ as a painter in a particular way. He has become an object of interest and speculation and a big part of the ‘meaning’ of his own work.

Abstract Expressionism, as a movement, might have exaggerated gesture and touch, along with the role of the heroic individual, the sub-conscious and the rest of it: But about painting, they were never wrong. However, their beliefs seemed oppressive to following generations. Later practitioners, through ironic strategies or mechanised production, found a place to work within the expanding field of painting methodologies, but this location tended to be at some distance from the Abstract Expressionists’ definition of its core concerns. Gesture and touch remained in the vocabulary however, often in the form of the autographic mixed in with the reprographic, photographic and the graphic, as represented by writing and drawing. The current generation of painters, however, may feel less oppressed by the legacy of the 50’s. I think someone could make the case that contemporary painting, particularly abstraction, is beginning to move back in the direction of the Abstract Expressionist model, and back to readdressing the question of touch. The reason could be a growing understanding of painting as a continuing source of what I’d like to call ‘ontological wealth’ in a culture where other art forms offer mainly ontological poverty. [vi]

‘Ontological parsimony’ was Quine’s guiding principle. He didn’t want too many entities in his world and, wielding Occam’s razor and following Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions, managed to analyse out such non-things as universals and unicorns in his inventory of what there is. But I have used his slogan to do the opposite, arguing how painting has the power to add to rather than subtract from the universe’s stock of stuff, creating value by binding a substantial range of variables which include size, colour and touch, and through touch, the body, and through the body, the identity of the painter. This power may not always be used to the full. Size can be standardised, colour reduced to monochrome, touch eliminated, the body deleted, the practitioner’s individual agency effaced, and at the terminus of this process there will still be something to look at. But its identity will be shared with all those other generic ‘paintings at the end of painting’. It will be another cliché, ‘a’ painting of the type I described earlier. It will be functional but ontologically impoverished.

As I said, I want to place touch at the centre of the question of painting. The basic method of putting on paint with a brush is a commonplace enough act. The brush meets the surface, lays down its load of pigment, and is then replenished. There’s little virtuosity involved. In everyday home decoration circumstances, the aim is for an even coat with no drips. Usually to achieve that, the brush travels over a freshly painted area, not applying more paint but settling the stuff that’s already there. Painters of the artistic kind tend to omit the second activity. They prefer leaving the facture visible so the action of application is fully on view in the exposed paint layer. At this level the variability of touch is easy to appreciate simply because each painter tends to leave recognisably different traces in the top layer. Like handwriting or fingerprints, they become identified with the individual, the signature of a personal style. But touch is not relevant just to the final stages of painting. At some point it puts into material terms, the key strategic structural decisions that constitute the work’s distinctive formal identity, something that must happen ‘in order that the painting might finally be that which it was in the process of becoming’.

The canvas, with its tooth and surface drag, provides an appropriately receptive interface for touch, within easy reach, and able to accommodate the full range of variables from violent gesture to gentle dabs with a small sable. But these variables can’t be bound into existence if the painter is absent or distant from crucial events in the painting’s formation. And that stipulation seems too sentimental or traditional, tending towards making the handmade a sort of fetish and promoting an emphasis on manual or craft skills, which are cognitively meaningless in the modern world.

The identity of ‘this’ painting, which is the model I have been pushing, is fashioned by (amongst other things) size, colour, touch and the painter, in the form of bound variables. The accumulated value of these bound variables represent the ontological wealth of painting. I’m using wealth in the ordinary sense, relating to assets within an economy contributing to its total worth. Because of painting’s capacity for ontological commitment, it is biased towards multiplying entities, increasing what there is, what exists, aiming for plenitude rather than Quine-like parsimony. If  ’this’ painting does not fulfil this role, if it doesn’t deliver a tangible ontological advance, a small existential shock, it becomes ‘a’ painting, falling back on generic identity but not adding to the universe’s stack of entities.

But that’s not all. The complete inventory of painting’s wealth includes the individuals who comprise its live audience.[vii] The viewer is the final variable. Of all the people in all the world ‘this’ one is standing before ‘this’ painting.

The viewer’s lived existence in front of painting is operationally essential otherwise much of its visible ontological wealth is likely to be missed. Reproduction impoverishes painting. Photos of The Red Studio are unlikely to be 181 x 219.1cms. The red won’t be its red, the untouched surface of the reproduction won’t be its touched surface. And the viewer won’t be its viewer in as much as they will not take up an existential position in respect of the work. It won’t be ‘there’ for them and they won’t be ‘there’ for it. The work in reproduction and the viewer will be signatories to a ‘transactional’ not ‘relational’ contract. [viii]

Following the above formulations, ‘a’ viewer could be one of an uncountable number of people, so possess ‘no numerical value.’ But in encountering ‘this’ painting they become valued as one of its variables, as an individual subject sharing and contributing to its ontological wealth, merely by paying attention to what’s there. The painting has to be as present to them as they are to themselves. That’s enough to establish the relational contract between the beholder and the work. And the viewer’s identity (as a viewer rather than ‘client’, ‘punter’, ‘customer’ or ‘owner’) is fashioned by being bound by their experience in front of ‘this’ painting.


This may read like the first part of a catalogue essay for an exhibition of contemporary painting. However, I don’t want to list the exhibitors who might illustrate my thesis. The problem is that the show would divide into examples of ok generic paintings on the one side and paintings delivering an existential shock on the other. I fear neither the exhibition nor the catalogue will ever see the light of day.

September 2014



[i]William Van Orman Quine, From a Logical Point of View. Harvard1953. Reprinted 1961, Harper Row, pp 1-19.

[ii]I’m suggesting using this as a practical way of describing the situation where the amount of possibilities is so great that effectively they a ‘numberless’, ie none can be assigned a specific numerical value.

[iii]Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence’, Signs, Evanston, 1964.

[iv]Walter Darby Bannard’s, ‘Touch and Scale’, Artforum, Vol. 10, (June 1971) pp. 58 – 66. goes into this matter in some detail. The essay is also worth reading for its take down of Guernica whose limitations as a painting are often totally ignored.

[v]For an idea of how Pollock just might have absorbed the rhythms of post war America see Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses, Chicago, 2005. Chapter 5 particularly, pp 205-251. I think his drip technique might have come from his experience of driving from the city out to his new house and studio. The movements of steering a car, depicted in movies of the period, come close to the curving gesture he often used. His death was caused by not negotiating a bend, which may or may not be relevant.

[vi]I’m thinking here of photography. Apart from the distinction between colour and black and white, almost every aspect of photography is standardized so intensively that, at a significant level, every photograph shares its identity with every other. The images might be different, but the images don’t belong to the photograph, so don’t affect its identity.

[vii]This might seem to suggest that the situation in which the viewer finds themselves in front of ‘this’ painting is somewhat ‘theatrical’, reminiscent of Michael Fried’s indictment of minimalism’s chronic dependency on the audience even the ‘audience of one.’I don’t think it’s the same experience.

[viii]I made this distinction in ‘Para-Painting and Transactional Art’, abstract critical, Aug 2012.

  1. Visio said…

    I liked the essay. There are so many variables with painting. Thinking about color there are many choices/variables that create color effects and effect the perception of color:

    Type of paint (oil, waterbased, etc)

    Brand of paint (high end to inexpensive)

    Surface quality and type (Canvas, wood, paper, etc.)

    Method of application (all manner of brushes, palette knife, rags, sponges, fingers, etc. )

    Layering colors

    Color juxtaposition

    Perception of color changes in natural/artificial light and bright/low light.

  2. John Pollard said…

    As someone with more than a passing interest in existential philosophy and the philosophical aspects to art, particularly abstraction, I enjoyed this essay.

    I would respond in a number of ways. I tend to think that every painting can be described as both “a” painting and “this” painting, both generic and original. And because of the visual identity of every painting the importance of touch, and anything else in the making of it, will only ever say so much about the visual quality and hence its value and worth.

    I guess a work of visual art can do all sorts of things for all sorts of people. But for me the qualities of its visual nature, as an object in its own right, is ultimately what matters. And when an abstract painting works for me I am likely to forget the artist, his or her touch, etc. For example if there is gestural energy in a painting it becomes the energy of the painting, no longer the artist’s.

    On the subject of “existential ontological shock” I am sure a bad painting could do this if such a shock involves bringing one out of one’s immersion in the everyday and back in touch, or a confrontation, with our human ontological existence (freedom, responsibly (for meaning-making/choice) , authenticity, mortality, etc etc).

    So, whilst believing that visual art can contribute something towards our existential development, I think that the ‘visual’ quality of visual art will always wriggle out of being reduced, or neatly defined, by its existential shock value.

  3. Anonymous said…

    This is a great article and well worth the read. Fortunately, it left me with more questions than answers, the biggest having to do with how, as viewers, we can tell “a” painting from “this” painting and how, as practitioners, we can create “this” painting versus “a” painting. This is particularly true when you consider that a majority of works we see (and are therefore creating) fall into the “a” painting category. If, as you say, “a” painting can be “medium legitimate, complying with the art form’s rules, and not suffer any lack of ‘content’ or formal richness”, then how do we separate “a” painting from “this” painting? We seem to be getting close to a Brillo Box question; what makes the difference between “a” Brillo box on a store shelf and “this” Brillo box by Worhol on display in an art gallery, considering that both look exactly alike? One is art, the other is not, but why? And if this is not what you are saying, if you are in fact confirming that the difference between “a” painting and “this” painting can be determined visually, that one is aesthetically superior to the other, then we seem to be falling back into Greenberg’s “practiced eye” type of criticism, which seems to have stopped being effective in the 60′s with Worhol.

    I think you hint at a possible answer in the rest of the article, mainly that “touch”, or the presence of the artist, is what distinguishes “this” painting from “a” painting. However, as you mentioned, throughout history touch has fluctuated in importance. It was important for Vermeer to erase all traces of his touch; the less he was present in his work the closer he got to perfect mimesis. Conversely, It is important for Sean Scully to keep visible brush marks in his work, because he feels it adds to the history of the painting. Frank Stella eliminates all personal touch and creates almost machine-made work, not unlike pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein. Yet in all of these styles there is much work that can be considered “a” versus “this”. Maybe we need to go beyond mere physical touch? I feel as though maybe it is the spirit in which work was created that might make the difference between “a” painting and “this” painting. Is it the conviction, the desire to create, the sheer will of the artist who puts himself completely into his work, and therefore creates something that is convincing enough that it might be called “this” painting rather than just “a” painting? And if a painting is convincing enough that it moves the viewer, then the viewer knows he is standing before a great work of art? Is this what is meant by an “existential ontological shock”?