Abstract Critical

Some thoughts on Grids

Written by Sam Cornish

Woodcut 1977 Garth Evans, wood, adhesive, 259 x 267 cms

Grids feature in quite a number of exhibitions of abstract art currently on show. This is perhaps always the case. They can be seen in Winston Roeth’s exhibition at Bartha Contemporary, in the small survey of Garth Evans’ constructed sculpture at Poussin Gallery, in Mondrian and Nicholson: In Parallel at the Courtauld, in Reflections on Concrete Art at Laurent Delaye and in the Peter Kalkhof exhibit at Annely Juda. In the recent exhibition at Standpoint Gallery, Ha Ha What Does This Represent? grids, implicit or explicit, featured in the work of somewhere between five and seven artists (depending on how far the OED’s definition of a ‘framework of spaced parallel bars’ is stretched). Grids were even more prevalent in The Indiscipline of Painting exhibition, shown at Tate St Ives and the Mead Gallery at the end of last year and the beginning of this.

Untitled 1995, Linda Karshan, pencil on paper, collection of the Courtauld Gallery, Courtesy the artist

Running alongside the Mondrian and Nicholson exhibition is a small but interesting display of drawings from the Courtauld’s own collection, Lines Crossed: Grids + Rhythms on Paper. Its centrepiece is a large abstract drawing by Linda Karshan but the rest is more strictly historical, stretching back to the sixteenth century. Grids, it seems, have been with us for quite some time, a point reinforced by a recent publication by Hannah Higgins which traces the grid (at first in the form of the ‘staggered grid’ of the brick wall) back to the very beginnings of human civilization. In some works in Lines Crossed the grid is simply a tool for squaring up a drawing in preparation for its transfer to a larger surface. Elsewhere the grid is perspectival, playing an active role in allowing the objects pictured to exist in an organised and convincing space. In the Gothic Arch by Piranesi, my favourite work in the display, the perspectival grid is fractured, its order simultaneously confirmed and denied to bewildering effect. Piranesi’s subversion of the expectations perspective creates can be seen as a predecessor to Picasso and Braque’s Cubist experiments. Other grids in Lines Crossed order a number of different images on a single sheet, either creating a narrative (in a similar way to a modern cartoon), for purposes of display or simply to decorative effect.

In what is still the most famous discussion of the use of grids in modern art Rosalind Krauss denied the importance of a correspondence between the grid in modern painting and its use in pre-modernist art. For her, on the contrary, the grid declared the ‘modernity of modern art’, it stated modernism’s denial of the past, its ‘exclusive visuality’, its ‘will to silence, hostility to literature, to narrative to discourse’. For Krauss the grid functioned as modernism’s central ‘myth’, covering the ‘shame’ of a hidden religiosity with what Krauss saw as a spurious materialism. Tracing the origins of the ‘myth’ of the modernist grid Krauss stated that ‘I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that behind every twentieth-century grid there lies… a symbolist window parading in the guise of a treatise on optics’. Though Krauss’s account is an engaging read and arguably functions well as a description of an art such as Mondrian’s, its polemical edge means it cannot convincingly explain the sheer number of modern artists who have employed a ‘framework of spaced parallel bars’.

WINSTON ROETH Blue Light Dark, 2006 Tempera on MDF 86.4 x 86.4 cm Courtesy: Bartha Contemporary Ltd., London. Copyright: Winston Roeth. Photo: Tom Moore, Beacon NY

One abstract artist I recently visited, who sees the grid as central to his work, admitted that he has been accused of using it as a crutch. Leaving aside the theoretical concerns of Krauss, it is perhaps in this sense that the grid is most problematic. Is it used by many artists simply as a way of ordering a surface with the minimum of fuss? Where it may have once seemed to suggest a new and radical approach to art-making, in many cases it now functions as a readymade and default mode (John Elderfield felt the same in 1972 when he criticized the ‘exploitation of the grid to merely inaugurate paintings’). Two examples can illustrate the extent to which the grid functions as a default position. For Allison Wucher, who curated Lines Crossed, ‘Karshan’s grid is not an appropriated or intentional form but instead, a manifestation of her internal rhythm; the marks she makes on the page correspond to the reach of her arm’. Though Wucher is apparently following Karshan’s own thoughts on the matter, her comment seems to me to be very disingenuous. Surely what we are really seeing is not a liberation of the body into the form of the grid, but in fact the imposition of the grid to such an extent that the body is forced into following its order. Interestingly much the same piece of disingenuousness can be seen elsewhere on abstract critical in the recent film in which Alan Gouk talks about his paintings. Though he does suggest that the squares and oblongs which make up the bulk of his paintings ‘echo’ the shape of the canvas, Gouk also claims that these forms originate in the natural reach of his arm. The implication is that the blocks which form loose or submerged grids across his paintings are not present because of the legacy of their use in a hundred years of modern art, but occur as almost a natural phenomenon.

Rosalind Krauss, ‘Grids’, 1979, reprinted in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths

Hannah B Higgins, The Grid Book, 2009

John Elderfield, ‘Grids’, Artforum, May 1972

More on Lines Crossed can be found on Allison Wucher’s personal blog, here

  1. Kim Matthews said…

    It’s funny but I feel the same way about trees as some of you seem to feel about grids, and it all seems pretty arbitrary to me. You could make the same sort of implication that people who do representational work rely on the comfort of the familiar. And equally arbitrary is the claim that spontaneity is heroic. In the end, it’s what you get that matters: grid, tree, splatter. No one strategy is inherently superior to the other. What is laudible is honesty, devotion to craft however you define it, and the courage to make the work your mind, heart, and/or soul needs to make.

  2. Anthony Jones said…

    I have used grids in one way or another for over 40 years, the Romans et al used grids for much longer! but in general I have come to realise that they are an effective way of organising visual information.

    I was a typographic designer for 20 years, opted out and did a fine art degree, since then I have been somewhat ‘short of funds’… but the use of ‘the grid’ is always there.

    For some reason I reponded to the role it has played and still continues to play…. I use it and it uses me…

  3. Alan Fowler said…

    The use of a grid as an integral and overt element of an image is often referred to as a relatively modern practice. Interesting, therefore, that its first use by a British artist was by David Bomberg in his two extraordinary paintings of 1913/14 – In the Hold and Ju Jitsu.

  4. jenny meehan said…

    Apologies to those who love grids, but I find them really boring. They can be very clever, so I am sometimes very impressed, but I don’t get a thrill. G R I D. AAAhhh! Even the word strikes horror! (I jest, of course!)

  5. Danila Rumold said…

    The thing I have picked up from this conversation is whether the grid is a form of conventional constraint or, a structure providing liberation. In my own work, I move back and forth between making drawings from my paintings and then paintings from my drawings. By using the grid as a squaring tool, it allows me to meditate on the relationship of each square thereby slowing me down. Through this process of careful looking, it allows me to empty the work of “Self” and move into the unknown. Arriving at this new way of Seeing (outside of my own subjectivity) demands my presence and beckons the necessity of being Awake.

  6. Robin Greenwood said…

    I recommend the excellent post on Robert Linsley’s blog at http://newabstraction.net/2011/11/21/stately-verticals/
    about verticals and horizontals in a Poussin painting, and how they open up the space rather than flatten it. Are grids a constraint or a liberation? I guess these things go in phases, and my sense at the moment is that geometry, symmetry, grids and suchlike have been done to death in recent times. Take a look at the Hirst show at Tate – just about everything in this show is conventionally and boringly arranged symmetrically on grids or in boxes. It’s a safe bet, isn’t it? My inclination is to get as far from this as I can, and at the risk of falling down, attempt something with more freedom to it. Like Robert, I want to arrive at the unknown; and, what’s more, I want to do it in an unpremeditated manner.

  7. Katrina said…

    Dear Sam and Robert
    Thanks for starting this….
    I think I can see what you are both saying here about being ambivalent or even possibly boxed in (ha!) by grids but they are just part of mathematics (and of course thereby architecture) and mathematics is as old as the first building, the first window or the first table – in fact as old as the first straight line. Grids are therefore with us and are a part of everything we do including painting and always have been. So, are you saying that the mathematics in a painting is just a means to an end – part of a pre worked plan or diagram, which doesn’t allow for the unexpected – a kind of tool with a dead end? No. Surely mathematics can be freeform, open, surprising and disrupted: hidden or up front: simple or complex, but always there – somewhere? Do you think that artists are scared to give up the idea that a little bit of individual genius (a hideous notion – no, we are all the same) will be lost or undiscovered if they recognise the rational or adhere to some sort of principles? If you work on canvas you have already entered a grid system. If the work is three-dimensional you can’t ignore the room and its walls. Photographic work or film – self-explanatory……
    I am one of the artists in HA HA you mentioned who works with grids and geometry. I am exploring symmetry and asymmetry, the possibilities of the rational or logical and the final visual ‘gestalt’ of a painting – and thereby its success. It will be a long road I am sure. The mathematics is one part of the journey – and the journey is part of the painting.
    Katrina

    • Robert Linsley said…

      Katrina, you are of course right, the grid is everywhere, so it is incumbent on an artist to examine themselves carefully—is their work an unconscious reflection of their environment? Or if conscious is it just conformist? It’s not about genius but about being awake. Personally I’d be ashamed to reflect back the geometry of the built environment, it seems like such a minor and secondary role. But also consider that all grids are really the same grid. Since the grid is an abstract concept, a Platonic form almost, it precedes all of its applications. So no matter how original you may think your work is, it is just a locatable place on the grid, the same grid that everyone else is on, so the place of your work is an already existing place. Again, I couldn’t be satisfied with that.

      • Sam Cornish said…

        Whilst I agree with you Robert that it may be a positive thing for artists to move beyond ‘an unconscious reflection of their environment’, I do want to question whether ‘all grids are really the same grid’. Leaving aside questions of reference (and keeping within formal organisation) do you really think clearly and directly stated grid in a Mondrian really the same as the grid in a Matisse, or the grid in the painting by Poussin you discuss on your blog?

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Sam, I agree that each work is a specific distinct thing, with its own particulars, but the “grid” as a concept or as a mathematical form precedes any of its applications. That’s the problem, for me, and that’s what I meant. But I’m not doctrinaire. Implied grids in Cezanne are very beautiful. There are pleasures to be found in Mondrian, etc.

        But to pick up on Deirdre’s remarks, the standard progression from cubism to Mondrian to “flatness” to monochromes is only one possible path. It’s hard to do something new in abstraction, but it is possible.

  8. Deirdre Swords said…

    The grid is the best shortcut to flat (I’ve succumbed myself). Combine that with vibrating colors and OMG you have…. INSTANT ART! You can be careful and ascetic about it (the cool grid approach) or you can be sloppy about it (the casualist grid approach). You can leave out a line or two! Make a diamond grid! Overlap two grids! The possibilities are endless and it really feels like you’re painting!

    I agree, the open-ended approach may be the more dangerous way to go (one can really make a fool of oneself) but it holds out the most promise!

    • jenny meehan said…

      Yes, indeed. Painters are always moved unconsciously by the beauty of lines and colours…their mutal relationships enchant, and are of more interest than what they might represent. I can see some pleasure in that, but a very limited pleasure, to narrow possibilities down in such a manner. Each to their own.

      I have been thinking recently about equilibrium in painting composition and this relates to a sense of control and order, which is a kind of stable feeling, and then toying with the reality of life which always includes a sense of tragedy,(brokenness) and I think this might be the cause of my own dissatisfaction with paintings which cling so intimately with the grid. The grid as a tool is one thing and I found Danila’s use of it very interesting, though I have no wish to remove my self from my own painting in that way, I can see the interest and how this could be a very fruitful and interesting process.

      • Scott said…

        I think the reality of life includes a sense of order as well as tragedy and chaos. Grids lead me to think about the macro/micro levels of existence. We’re all composed of cells, for example. We’re all individual humans. We’re all generally one nationality, etc. Same thing with time, or music. It’s all measured out into units. And within the confines of that order there are all sorts of variations. When I see a grid laid out before me, I can process on a macro level, while simultaneously registering the variations of each unit one from the next.

        A grid of colors, such as G. Richter’s cathedral windows, presents a sense of possibility, randomness, and the infinite.

  9. Robert Linsley said…

    Sam, I am glad that you have taken up this topic, because the grid is, as you suggest, too much of a default mode today. Recently I heard it described by Richard Tuttle as a “no-brainer,” meaning that if one wanted to give up depiction the grid is the only, and only valid, way to start a picture. If abstract painting is going to have a future, this kind of uncritical thinking will have to be examined. As it happens I have a strong position on this, and have addressed it in several blog posts (http://newabstraction.net/tag/grids/), as well as in a number of articles, albeit only in passing. Your comments toward the end of this brief article are, in my view, exactly right, though perhaps too cautious.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Hi Robert, Thank you for your comment. I suppose I would say that my caution comes from the fact I don’t have a very strong position on this. In that I am attracted to many (not all) of the works with grids I mention at the beginning, but still have a vague feeling that their constant presence cannot be other than a limitation. The coincidence between the comments on Karshan and by Gouk was a sort of tipping point in relation to this vague feeling; the similarity between the obvious denials really struck me. However, though their denials both functioned in relation to the body, on reflection this is not really the either / or I am most interested in. Placing emphasis on the body also seems a limitation. Really the grid is a limitation on structure in a much more general sense. Sam

      • Robert Linsley said…

        If you have a certain ambivalence on the topic I might understand why. The fact is, rectilinear, regularized compositions can be very satisfying. There is a pleasure to be had. I know many people will testify to the intense pleasure they can get from Mondrian, or Judd. I’m susceptible to it to, as likely are you. But if I analyze it further I find that it is the pleasure of arriving at a familiar place. It’s a pre-existing satisfaction, if that makes any sense. The sense of a satisfying end to a process of careful adjustment. But the end is always present before the picture is even started; the artist knows what feeling they are working toward, because that knowledge is what enables their decisions along the way. It’s all very Platonic. On principle I take the Heraclitan approach, an open-ended practice. I want to arrive at the unknown.