The term “quiddity” as used in art theoretical writing refers an aesthetic that places emphasis upon the objecthood, or objectness of the work of art rather than its representational or metaphorical aspect. Such emphasis is principally associated with American minimal art which was presaged by Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting 1951 (artintelligence) and began in earnest with Frank Stella’s black paintings in the late 1950s. Stella’s black paintings were self-referential, they were paintings about painting. In this sense they paralleled the work of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns who foregrounded the materiality of painting. There is also a family resemblance between the semiotic blankness of John’s American flag paintings and Stella’s use of black stripes.
John’s American flag is a non-symbol, chosen not for its connotations but because it is a cliche. Silvio Gaggi notes that “Johns chose as his subject something with formal properties nearly identical to those of the painting itself. Because the surface and edge of a flag correspond precisely to the surface and edge of a similarly proportioned rectangular painting” (Gaggi 1989: 61). Likewise, Stella’s stripes of black paint (below) dutifully follow and repeat the rectangular format of the canvas which is such an obviously institutionalised aspect of the discipline of painting. And to reinforce this point the space in between the stripes reveals the raw canvas behind.
The shift towards objecthood and self-referentiality in American art took place against the background of the work of the older abstract expressionist artists. For the younger artists who became aware of Marcel Duchamp’s groundbreaking Readymade strategy, expressionism must have appeared old-fashioned because it rested on the premise that painting could convey a spiritual message.
For example, the abstract expressionist Adolph Gottlieb explained his, and his friend Mark Rothko’s, understanding of art as follows: “While modern art got its first impetus through discovering the forms a primitive art [fauvism, cubism, expressionism], we feel that its true significance lies not merely in formal arrangement, but in the spiritual meaning underlying all archaic works ….” (in Sandler 1976: 62-63). What is interesting here is that there is an attempt to refer back to a previous age. In the middle of the rise of American consumer capitalism at the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century this could hardly have been more culturally out of sync.
Quiddity seems more pragmatic, more industrial and urban. And it was anti-expressionist because the focus upon the objectness of painting was intended to lead to a total elimination of metaphorical or mythical meaning. Bearing this in mind, the question can be posed as to what the difference might be between Stella’s black paintings and Ad Reinhardt’s grey or almost-black monochrome paintings (click below).
Irving Sandler reports that:
Reinhardt created what he considered his ultimate picture in 1960—a five-foot-square canvas composed of nine almost identical gray squares—and he repeated it until his death. About this series, he wrote that he aimed “to paint and repaint the same one thing over and over again, to repeat and refine the one uniform form again and again. Intensity, consciousness, perfection in art come only after long routine, preparation and attention.” (Sandler 1976: 229)
The focus on repetition seems very close to the approach taken up by the younger Stella. But in Reinhardt’s theoretical essay “Art-as-Art” we gain a different perspective. There Reinhardt struggled with the sticky question of what art actual is; and, after Duchamp and Dada, asking this question has been fundamental. Generally Reinhardt’s attempts to articulate an answer are somewhat turgid, but at one point he has a moment of great lucidity and asserts: “The one place for art-as-art is the museum of fine art. The one reason for the museum of fine art is the preservation of ancient and modern art that cannot be made again and that does not have to be done again.” (in Johnson 1982: 32). This is a very interesting statement because it really does cut through the verbiage and get to the crucial point of what fine art actually is: something that is accepted into an an art museum.
Although he was certainly not aware of it, by stating that “the one place for art-as-art is the museum of fine art” Reinhardt was effectively defining art in the terms developed by the philosopher George Dickie who developed the institutional theory of art (1974). But I am sure that if Reinhardt knew this connection—and its pragmatic, materialistic approach to art—he may have revised his statement. The problem with Reinhardt’s reference to the art museum is that it does not adopt a critical stance with regard to the institutions of art. He simply takes the granted the idea that art is great and should be preserved for eternity. Unlike Duchamp there is no critical reflection upon the romantic concept of genius and the extreme preciousness of the work of art. And this is hardly surprising because Reinhardt belonged to the generation of abstract expressionist artists who were unaware of the revolution in thinking about art inspired by the Duchampian Readymade.
What is significant about the institutional theory of art is that every other aesthetic theory—including quiddity—becomes a subset of institutional theory to the extent that all other aesthetic frameworks become merely stratagems. However much art tries to demystify itself and become just another object in the world, it is always remythologised by the art museum/gallery.
Returning to the aesthetics of minimalism, in 1960 Stella took his analysis of the fundamental flatness and rectangularity of the canvas and stretcher a step further in his Aluminum Paintings first exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York in 1960 (click thumbnail below).
These paintings break rather than follow the rule of a rectangle. The pattern of stripes breaks out of rectangularity turning the canvas into another shape. This action entails a sculptural gesture which Stella reinforced by increasing the width of the stretcher so that the works jut out significantly from the gallery wall. In 1968 Stella claimed that “My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object” (Glaser 1968: 158). When he says “it really is an object” there appears to be an element of surprise. One might ponder upon why one would not consider any painting to be an object. But the answer is that works of art are not ordinary objects and the reason why this is the case is precisely for that reason cited by Reinhardt: they become subjected to treatment which is superior to that which we afford most of our fellow human beings. They become royalty.
Let us examine some more American minimal objects, such as the sculpture of Donald Judd. Take the “vertical progression” sculpture, for example, illustrated above, which consists of a series of identical open fronted cor-ten steel boxes bolted to the gallery wall. The aesthetic breakthrough that this strategy promised when Judd first realised it in the early 1960s lies in the fact that the sculptural object includes the wall. The sculptural object, therefore, bleeds into the actual environment thereby putatively enhancing its everyday objecthood. According to the aesthetics of quiddity it is no longer an ethereal aesthetic object but something more “real”.
This is supposedly amplified by Judd’s use of factory fabrication and industrial materials (see the screws in the close-up above right). It may even be claimed that the interaction of minimal art with its environment brought art into everyday life. But this is not the case in Judd’s vertical progressions because they do not include the real world into the fabric of the sculpture, instead they include the quasi-sacred space of the art musuem. Ad Reinhard’t comments on the art museum apply as much to minimal art as they do to abstract expressionism.
And as the once radical minimalist artists grow older, they inevitably accept the institutional mythologising of their work (as do we, the viewers). Thus, as Donald Kuspit reports, Frank Stella at the age of 64 complained bitterly about the exhibition Modern Starts at MoMA, New York, on the basis of its deconstructive application of anti-art values to art history (artintelligence). It appears to be acceptable for artists to be anti-aesthetic (including Stella) because if in the right place at the right time they will become celebrated for their deconstruction. But when curators take the same tack and begin to dismantle notions of genius and the canon, then the canonised will complain most bitterly.
Dickie, George. Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis. Cornell University Press, New York, 1974.
Glaser, Bruce. 1968. “Questions to Stella and Judd”, ed. Lucy Lippard. In Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, pp. 148-64.
Johnson, Ellen H. ed. 1982. American Artists on Art from 1940 to 1980. Boulder CO: Westview Press. (Reinhard’s Art-as-Art was originally published in Art International, December 1962.
Sandler, Irving. 1976. The triumph of American painting: a history of abstract Expressionism. New York: Harper & Row.