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Artistic Surface | Artistic Depth

This is a response to Tim’s recent post “At Face Value: Gaga, Surfaces & The Superficial.” I don’t really know anything about Ms. Gaga—she’s a singer, right?—so that I must pass over in silence.

Instead, I want to address two distinctions that Tim points to: “style vs. content” and “surface vs. depth”—although I’ll admit upfront that neither one is one I’m enamored with. As Tim himself notes toward the end of his post, faces are communicative—indeed, they can communicate (and mis-communicate, and conceal) quite a lot. And as I’ve said in so many different places, style is content, and surface is depth; there is no distinction in my book (or in my books). I used to believe that citing Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style was enough to undo those false dichotomies, but I am no longer as optimistic as I once was in my youth, so I’ll try saying more.

Let’s begin by assuming that there actually is a difference between surface and depth. Can we name a purely superficial painting, one that’s entirely surface? How about an Yves Klein monochrome? After all, it’s just blue paint applied to a canvas:

Yves Klein, "IKB 191" (1962).

Although some of them have pebbles and sponges stuck to them as well:

Yves Klein, "Archisponge (RE 11)" (1960). Note that this image is a different color blue than the one above. I thought about trying to fix that, but why bother pretending that either one of these JPEGs is truly International Klein Blue? You'll just have to go see a real one for yourself, to get the effect.

Might we agree that it would be harder to get more “surfacey” than this? (If you have a better suggestion, by all means, let me know in the comments.) But what do we have here, really?

So just blue paint applied to a canvas, but is any Klein paintings superficial? That is to say, is a Klein painting slight, or obvious, or shallow, or not profound, or not thorough? Because those are the accusations, right, lurking behind that charge “superficial,” right?

Of course Klein wasn’t those things; he was instead a mystic who believed that his paintings expressed something very deep, something transcendent, something far beyond daily experience (which for him was the superficial). He was trying, in his work, to suffuse ordinary matter with a divine ethereality that would dissolve it and its viewer’s corporeality; the idea was that, if you stared at one of his paintings long enough, you would—I dunno, dissolve or something; it gets kinda murky. But I do know that Klein wanted, above all else, to achieve what he called “dematerialization”:

This dream-like state of static trance was probably experienced by humans in the biblical Eden. Human beings of the future, integrated in total space, participating in the life of the universe, will probably find themselves in a dynamic state like a waking dream, with an acutely lucid perception of tangible and visible nature. They will have achieved complete physical well-being on terrestrial earth. Liberated from a false conception of their inner, psychological life, they will live in a state of absolute harmony with invisible, insensible nature; or, in other words, with life itself, which has become concrete by a reversal of roles, that is, by means of rendering psychological nature abstract. (Klein, “Conférence à la Sorbonne” (aka “The Evolution of Art Towards Immateriality”), 3 June 1959, quoted in Weitemeier 40–1)

And even if you don’t believe in any of that, part of the appeal of Klein’s work is how electrifying the blue is, and how captivating and engrossing these deceptively simple paintings are:

The pure blue pigment, applied without modulation and without a trace of personal touch—apart from the barely visible wavy texture produced by the roller—raised the factor of color in art to an absolute level. It was also significant that at this point Klein began to concentrate on upright formats, with slightly rounded corners and an extension of the painted surface around the stretcher edges that further distinguished these works from traditional panel paintings with their clearly defined boundaries. In addition, the artist deliberately mounted the canvases not on the wall, but up to twenty centimeters in front of it. Seemingly detached from the architectural stability of the room, the images created an impression of weightlessness and spatial indeterminacy. The viewer felt drawn into the depths of a blue that appeared to transmute the material substance of the painting support into an incorporeal quality, tranquil, serene. […] Nowhere could the eye find a fixed point or center of interest; the distinction between the beholder, or subject of vision, and its object began to blur. This, Klein believed, would lead to a state of heightened sensibility. (19)

Klein of course chose that particular (synthetic) blue very carefully; he spent at least one year working to develop it with a chemist, perfecting it, then patenting it as International Klein Blue. So these initially very simple, “very surfacey” paintings are, in fact, deceptively deep.

But let’s continue thinking along these lines: what is, according to this logic, a deep painting? Well, how about this one?

Grant Wood, "American Gothic" (1930).

This painting has been quite popular ever since Grant Wood painted it and entered it in a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago, for which he took third place and got $300. For one thing, people have spent more than eighty years debating what Klein intended. Was he satirizing Midwesterners? Or was he celebrating the simple steadfastness of Iowans during the Depression?

So there’s controversy here, but of course Klein caused controversy, too. So what’s different, really, between an Yves Klein monochrome and American Gothic? They’re both essentially paint applied to canvases primed stretched over wooden frames. Actually that’s not true: Klein painted on cotton stretched over plywood, and American Gothic was done on beaverboard. And of course these paintings use different kinds of paint: IKB (dry ultramarine pigment suspended in a synthetic polymer medium) vs. oil.

But despite that, I’d argue, the chief difference between these two works lies in the manner in which those respective paints have been applied. In the Klein, a single color is applied evenly. In the Wood, numerous colors are applied in a manner that creates the impression of something else—in other words, American Gothic, unlike the Klein, contains a pictorial illusion.

I want to stick with this term, “pictorial illusion,” and not get drawn into discussions of “representation” or “mimesis.” As Klein himself liked to argue, “I am the painter of space. Not an abstract painter, but on the contrary, a figurative and realistic painter” (32)—so let’s leave that out. But I think it’s clear that Klein’s paintings, while arguably mimetic, do not contain or attempt to project any images of anything. (You can say, however, that they project the illusion of ethereality or insubstantiability, which is why I added the qualifier “pictorial.”). To put it very simply: when you look at them, you don’t think you’re seeing people.

Now, that’s no simple thing. As we’ve already seen, American Gothic, being primarily based around being illusionistic, invites us to read it along those lines, which is a large reason why people have long been interested in the work (i.e., no one is really sure whether Wood was poking fun or proclaiming the pioneer spirit). Furthermore, American Gothic contains compositional aspects that Klein’s work doesn’t and can’t: notice, for instance, the way that the pitchfork’s shape is echoed in the Gothic window, as well as in the male farmer’s overalls and even in his face (something I’ve always thought pretty nifty).

But let’s pause now and look where, at least according to this line of thinking, we’ve ended up. We’re not debating surface vs. depth, because we’ve agreed (I hope) that both of these paintings are pretty deep. Rather, we’re debating pictorial illusion vs. abstraction. (And I do think this shift holds. Just imagine for a second someone criticizing one Klein painting for being more superficial than another. It doesn’t work, right? How can one abstract painting be more superficial than another?)

So here we are, at illusion vs. abstraction. This debate is ultimately also, I’d argue, our old friend “realism vs. style,” gussied up in other clothes—and that’s a debate that I do know something about.

Here’s what I think is really going on. People who criticize artworks for being “just surface,” or “just style” are complaining about the fact that they can see the style. And that is because they are not being distracted by an illusion. In other words, when pictorial illusion is present and holds their attention, they are distracted fro seeing the style (because it’s conventional and therefore functionally invisible). Which means that they can focus instead on what they consider “content”: the picture, the story behind that picture, the characters, whathaveyou. In other words, when someone complains about surface or style, they are complaining that they would prefer that the style not interrupt or interfere with their enjoyment of the illusion.

Now, for fun, let’s try looking at this situation a different way. American Gothic is, we might argue, more superficial than a Klein. Because, despite Wood’s technical mastery, that’s not really a farmer and his wife daughter standing there. “Illusion,” we should remember, comes from a Latin word meaning “irony, mocking” (it shares a root with “ludicrous”); it means “something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality.” From this perspective, the picture might be considered the superficial, the surface, the materials comprising it the depth: the more convincing the pictorial sensibility is—the stronger its illusion—the harder it gets for us to see the forest for the trees, or what’s really “really there.”

Oil paint, on beaverboard.


To be sure, this is only one way of thinking about all of this. I don’t wish to deny that some artworks are more complex than others, which is another thing that people might mean when they call one artwork superficial, another deep. But I don’t consider that metaphorical distinction a good one to make even there; in general, I dislike metaphorical criticisms, not to mention metaphors in general—but that is, perhaps, an argument for another time. For now, however, I will say: when one artwork is more complex than another artwork, why don’t we simply say that, then try to articulate why it is more complex? In this case I would of course agree that “superficial” and “deep” might make a convenient enough shorthand, but it would be only the beginning of the conversation, not the end…

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

12 thoughts on “Artistic Surface | Artistic Depth

  1. Hey AD, as much as I appreciate these posts, I think you may have something backwards here. Either that or you’re overthinking this. I speak only for myself, but I still take issue with your statement that people “who criticize artworks for being ‘just surface,’ or ‘just style’ are complaining about the fact that they can see the style.”
    It’s not that I’m disappointed that there’s no illusion distracting me, I’m disappointed that it’s only illusion that’s specifically meant to distract me from the reality that there is nothing else going on. I kinda like some of Klein’s paintings (despite, or in spite of, all his metaphysical gobbledygook), but to me they are just visual corn syrup. My response is, “Oh that’s a cool color” but I don’t get much else from them (though I’d be more than willing to entertain ideas about process, but then we’re getting into things like “does process qualify as content in terms of depth” and that seems like a different argument than what’s put forth here).

    I just re-read Tim’s original post and the comment thread (there had been no comments when I first read it) and I guess a lot of this discussion hinges on “pop” sensibility? Frankly, I don’t care much for straight-up pop music and friends have ragged of me b/c I’m not into campy things (ex: I love metal, but loathe the campier stuff like power-metal or Dio or early black-metal costumery). Perhaps I’ll just have to agree to disagree that there is depth (pathos, emotion, etc.) in surface.

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for the comment! Although I don’t think I fully understand it:

      It’s not that I’m disappointed that there’s no illusion distracting me, I’m disappointed that it’s only illusion that’s specifically meant to distract me from the reality that there is nothing else going on.

      How does this apply in the case of a stylized film like Drive? I can’t really parse it; in particular I don’t understand what you mean by “only illusion” and “specifically.”

      Drive contains a fair amount of illusion (the fictional narrative that it tells), as well as plenty of self-conscious style. That adds up to quite a lot going on, as I tried to demonstrate in the analysis in this post. (Drive, though, might not make a good example re: your comment, so feel free to suggest another, better one.)

      Whether or not one likes or dislikes Klein’s painting doesn’t alter the ontology of the paintings. We may quibble with whether they’re effective, but we can’t deny that he was up to a hell of a lot, and created an entire mythology behind them (which is very well documented). My basic point is that they are not just blue paint slapped on canvas; there’s a tremendous amount of history behind the paint, their production, their creator, etc. All of which, yes, I think it part of the content of the work.

      Because process is always part of the content of the work, yes. How could it not be? The artwork is the result of the process. In the case of a Jackson Pollock painting, say, it’s important to know that his brush never touched the canvas; it’s a large part of what makes the painting look the way it does. Or, to choose a literary example: how Kenneth Goldsmith wrote Day is a lot of the content of that book. I don’t see how it could not be!

      Pop and camp have nothing to do with what my own purposes here, although I would imagine they’re very important to the points that Tim is making.


      1. I’ve never seen Drive so I can’t comment on that (I’m not much of a film person). I think you understand what I’m saying (since right in my comment I mention how discussing process goes deeper than just discussing surface and is, therefore, a different argument—one that I’d be much more willing to entertain), but you’re just respectfully disagreeing with me.

        Looking at this another way, if one isn’t engaged by a surface (which is generally the first element encountered by an audience) then it’s much more difficult to get into discussions of process or anything like that. That’s partially why I brought up pop and camp, those things don’t interest me and I’m far less likely to delve into deeper issues. But that also supports my point, that once you’re done talking about the surface itself, you’re engaging in a different conversation and that conversation is about process (where one is able to get a better conception of the work’s depth). Once we stop directly discussing Klein’s blue surface and start to discuss his processes, motivations, mythologies, etc., we’re engaging in a discussion about depth. But surface is “surface” explicitly because it has no actual, physical depth. It’s only when one moves beyond that surface does one encounter that.

        I would also concede that there is some depth or something there, but as I don’t feel it in any way, it becomes the equivalent of an absence. Now that would make for a fascinating discussion (though I’m woefully unprepared to make any arguments for at the moment) because it would make depth contingent upon the audience’s initial sympathies. That’s pretty thorny territory, I think.

  2. Like the above poster, I have to disagree with your asssertions.
    Which is the problem with art in general, how can you calculate people’s experiences with art if it becomes so subjective?

    I actually think in the opposite way when looking at art, and I know many who agree with me (not to say that my or other’s opinions are the “end-all” final opinions). To me the ornamental is superficial because it seeks to hide its deformities though what you said, “pictorial illusion.”

    But just to be sure if I am interpreting your words correctly, in summary, are trying to say that people aren’t satisfied with the ambiguity found in minimalist paintings?

  3. Love that Klein painting (“painting”?) I know this adds nothing to the conversation, but it’s just so damn pretty. And I love the idea of inventing your own color and making that the painting. It’s like a poet inventing his own language instead of writing a poem. Fun.

    1. Hey David, if you wanna hear a cool invented language, check out the band Magma. Drummer/composer Christian Vander constructed a language and mythology around which all the albums are based and, frankly, the music itself is beyond phenomenal.

  4. I’m not sure, like David, how this adds to the conversation but the thing is, sometimes, I go to a reading and some very young person reads some text he/she wrote and it’s very silly and involves things like pink elephants and talking dead babies or illicit sex and usually the grammar is very Joycean (and you can just feel that said writer thinks this makes the writing “new” as opposed to a hundred years old) and – well, they are saying nothing though, I leave the reading thinking – that was silly, thank God I’m not 24 anymore. And all the “style” in the world cannot make up for the fact that most young people have so little experience in the world – that they just have their education, their arrogance and their lack of a sense of mortality. And of course, their style. But substance or depth is like pornography, I know it when I see it. And it’s not always there. Sometimes, there’s not really anything there.

    BTW, love both of those paintings and the concept behind the conceptual one.

    1. I think I agree with you, Paula, that there is good and bad art. But I don’t think that has anything to do with style and content, really.

      The problem with a bad artwork is that it’s bad, not that it’s “too stylized” or “not stylized enough.”

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