Please Wait...

The Pull of Pictorial Significance

Johannes Meinhardt

Translation from German by J.W. Gabriel


The situation of painting has become difficult, and confusing into the bargain. After about 1960, when abstraction, which had become the leading genre, and even objective and expressionist painting had grown dubious and were denounced by many artists as illusionistic, untrue, and idealistic, a great number of young artists gave up painting, some turning to Happenings or Minimal Art. Painting that reflected an imagined, spiritual or transcendental world, that represented states of mind, imaginings (or even ideas), was rejected, and with it, painting in general.

In this situation of a complete questioning of painting, a few artists began experimenting with a new approach. Rather than starting from a defined concept of painting, they inquired fundamentally and radically into what painting could be when it no longer concerned itself with mental content or the representation of imagery, was no longer predefined by the intentions of its creator. The investigation looked into the effects that resulted from the employment of means – canvas, paper, supports of all types, paint, ink, pigment, colored pencil, brush, charcoal, hand, arm, active body; what would emerge through the use of diverse media and techniques in the way of visual phenomena. Strictly speaking, this new painting (in the 1960s, it was Fundamental or Analytic Painting), though at first sight related to modern abstraction, actually had nothing in common with it. It no longer worked with a language-like, significant order of pure visual elements (lines, planes, colours), whose composition could produce an infinite play of relations between these elements and thus a secondary aesthetic world of aesthetic and semantic transcendence.

In the context of the new painting, a painting was initially nothing that could transcend itself  as bearer of some aesthetic or subjective meaning; the new painting was an experimental field in which the functionings of perception and the cultural context of painting as a traditional social and historical praxis could be investigated. There still is no one accepted term for this new painting, which has nothing in common with the abstraction of modern art. As Marcia Hafif pointed out in 1981, “Instead of accepting the usual simple duality of realism and abstraction, we should divide contemporary painting into at least four different categories: 1) Representation of nature; 2) abstraction from nature: 3) abstraction without reference to nature; and 4) the type of painting I have been discussing – a category for which no completely adequate concept exists”[1] To describe this painting genre, Robert Ryman introduced the term “realistic painting” – meaning not that subjects are depicted realistically, but that the materials and processes of painting are themselves real. “Now, there is a third procedure  that has been called by various names, none of which are very satisfactory. … I call it realism, because the aesthetic is real. This third process, realism, has a different approach than representation and abstraction. With realism, there is no picture. The aesthetic is an outward aesthetic instead of an  inward aesthetic, and since there is no picture, there is no story. And  there is no myth. And, there is no illusion, above all. so the lines are real, and the space is real, the surface is real and there is an interaction between the painting and the wall plane, unlike with abstraction and representation.”[2]

It is obvious that for Olaf Quantius, this radical new beginning of painting was already a matter-of-course precondition of his concept of painting. A compositional thinking that would imply a unity of the picture plane as a unity of the aesthetic contextcoherence of meaning on the basis of a unity of the visual language, is no longer related to his idea of painting – despite the fact that a fragile and fleeting compositional thinking can emerge on a second, derived level. Yet what in his eyes have changed in the recent history of the medium with respect to Analytic Painting are two aspects especially: on the one hand, involvement with the irreducible illusionism of painting; and on the other, involvement with the contingent emergence and self-generation of pictorial signs – not out of a language, but out of a quoting, collaging, freely selecting employment of a virtually unlimited repertoire of pictorial tropes, visual rhetorical figures.[3]

The argument that paintings possess an irreducible illusionism, prior to any representation of a three-dimensional physical space, a space of pictorial elements and colours, was advanced to counter Analytic Painting by Gerhard Richter in particular. For Richter, painting is intrinsically visually bivalent or multivalent, bringing various visual orders simultaneously into play. Every painting, every pictorial surface produces effects in the realm of the visual  which transcend the material surface of the painting, generating immaterial pictorial reality beyond the material surface; and these effects must be taken seriously as a phenomenal reality of vision. This is why the “illusionism” of painting cannot be reduced or eliminated without eliminating painting itself; what distinguishes a painting fundamentally from a random surface or object is precisely this visual difference, which includes an aesthetic difference between the objective surface and the – often contradictory – visual effects, which resist being synthesized into a unity and enable and demand a perception of the painting on several levels. “If I forget the negative notions associated with the concept, then for me an illusionism remains that is indivisibly connected with painting, or is even the equivalent of painting. Painting as illusion – this has nothing to do with an illusionary world or such things. What I’m trying to say is that I am not aware of any type of painting at all that is not illusionistic.”[4]

Paintings have always transcended their material surface in the direction of a complex, purely visual reality, whether they additionally represent a mental or spiritual world or not. “There is no colour on canvas that signifies only itself and nothing beyond this; otherwise, the Black Square would be just a stupid application of paint.”[5] The difference between colour as matter (paint) and colour as visual chromatic value (colour) itself – whether this is understood in the context of an autonomous, structured and hence language-like colour system as in modern abstract painting, or as a visual effect of perception, lacking structure and meaning – points to this distinction.

Olaf Quantius, for whom the illusionism of pictorial and colour-engendered space as an effect of materials and processes is a matter of course, puts a great deal of effort into making it difficult for the viewer to settle into a single order of perception, and accordingly into a certain type of painting. Although there are paintings of his that contain objective passages (especially isolated buildings), these passages originate in photos (taken by himself) and hence avoid any compositional decisions and intentions. In some paintings there also occur passages which at first sight have the appearance of abstract compositions of colour fields; yet it turns out that these “compositions” are frequently based on non-compositional considerations. Yet for Quantius, the categories and criteria of earlier painting genres (in modernism) – objective representation, abstract composition of the picture plane, or the expressive gestures of the hand – are employable without qualms as elements in his approach, as long as they do not determine the painting but expand the complexity of perceptual potentials. This also implies that for him, objective and non-objective passages or aspects are useful in expanding the complexity and ambiguity of the levels of perception offered by the painting.


What is decisive is the irreducible complexity of the picture plane, which transcends any simple reading or identifying perception. This is further increased by undermining the “natural perception” of many pictorial elements, such as traces of pouring and flowing of paint, which are transformed in several steps, so they do  no longer  originate directly from the actual material process. The pictorial elements have frequently emerged in a way different from that which they would suggest: what has the appearance of drawing is usually produced by masking off certain passages, some cut with a carpet knife, resulting in a secondary “touch” strongly determined by the resistance of the material. What appear to be “natural” flows or courses of paint are deprived of their naturalness by photographing such passages, projecting, enlarging and copying them, turning them into entirely artificial colour areas (the photos of excerpts are additionally often distorted on the computer). What appear to be forms are actually not geometric or organic shapes composed on the picture surface but contours precut in paper, with the aid of which Quantius tests the right location and right size of the form he subsequently paints on the surface (some of these paper shapes are used repeatedly).

Quantius undermines every notion of the painter’s personal palette, on the one hand by employing extremely strong or weak colour differences which he uses like musical chords, as consonances or dissonances; on the other by using paint substance of such diverse types that the colour as value or tone can no longer be separated from its material vehicle. The list of ways of applying the paint material is well-nigh endless. Quantius not only splashes and pours the paint, moreover turning the canvas to produce abrupt changes in the direction of flow; he not only paints certain forms after shapes cut out with a knife but applies gobs of paint to the canvas with his fingers, lifts them off again with a palette knife, and reapplies them next to the original spot; he uses patterned woolen blankets as painting supports; he masks off entire areas of the canvas with masking tape; he lets liquid paint dry in layers.

As a result of these methods, immediate perception usually proves misleading. Nothing is as it seems. This play with deception or indeterminacy is important, as it engenders ambiguity, the pull of multivalent significance. The classical ambiguities of perception are also exploited to this end: oscillation from positive to negative form and vice versa; oscillation of above and below, oscillation of layering and juxtaposition, and vice versa; and an indistinguishability of forms on the plane, which (in micro-metreological processes of pouring and washing off) might equally be self-generated or selected, pre-existing organic forms. In this way, Quantius’s visually demanding works, articulated in terms of far-reaching oppositions and differences, take on no determinate meaning; they do not (or hardly) speak; they convey no mental or mental-aesthetic content. Yet they  produce the effect of a strong pull of an undetermined significance.[6] This significance is primarily semiotic, not semantic; it arises from the large number of differences that exist in the painting, which suggest  unknown signs, signs of an incomprehensible yet structured visual language. As a result, our perception is unsure what is being offered to it (in the context of a defined order of perception), and is thrown back upon itself. Rather than articulating a certain meaning, the work’s refusal to do so tempts or forces the viewer to become aware of and reflect on his perception, caught up in visual contradictions, and to succumb to the pull of the significance of this articulation missing a language. .

This suggestive significance is built on an interplay of various levels: the individual visual elements or forms, which seem almost to be symbols; the incomprehensible, chaotic pictorial space, in which spatial and planar aspects are jumbled and mutually contradicting; the complexity of the interplay of many contrasting elements (which is hardly composed, but rather emerges additively from the painting process). For Quantius, this maintenance of a vortex of ambiguity represents a “settling into a significance, a ’spirituality‘ that can deal with and convey this indeterminacy and paradox.”[7] The comprehensive reflexiveness of perception, difficult to deal with because what is presented to the eye is so multivalent, escapes it and contradicts itself, enables a quite different kind of self-reflexive contemplation, an awareness of the highest concentration that is no longer controlled or diverted by a certain mode of perception, but rather achieves a kind of calm – the “’calm in the eye of the hurricane.‘ What I mean by this is a quality of calmness, of ‚contemplation‘, of serenity, of both-and, a place within this pull”[8] that is constructive and peaceful – by having obtained a stable position in perception and self-reflexion.

The pull of significance communicates no meanings (no denotations), though it does enable connotations, allusions and recollections that are culturally grounded yet remain to a high degree personal, subjective or even arbitrary. In this way, there emerges a secondary, parasitic[9] language of connotations that tends to build either on a historical, cultural rhetoric of painting or on pictorial tropes. This secondary language is related to sampling in music, where musical language in the strict sense of the word which deals with purely acoustic, aesthetic elements (made up of notes and tone differences, combinations and chords) combined by means of rhythmical and temporal, architectural orders, plays a secondary role. In sampling, contingent or arbitrary time excerpts with their musical or merely material, acoustic content are isolated and repeated, forming instable or ephemeral elements of a secondary musical language in which style, epoch, sound source, echo, material source, cultural utilization, and related factors are present as musical connotations yet retain barely any basis in primary denotation (a reference or significance). The employment of such pictorial rhetorical tropes differs fundamentally from quotation. Rather than the appropriation of a certain text, in this case a pictorial expression, with the intention of emphasizing its cultural and historical dependence on context, what counts here is a rhetoric of pictorial allusions and connotations. This brings a comprehensive cultural history of images into play, a history with its contingencies and subjective arbitrariness, the history of cultural memories, the charging of forms with subjective and cultural motivations and evidences which turn them into figures or tropes, which relate them intimately with texts, images, and cultural knowledge.

The situation of painting has become difficult, and confusing into the bargain. By weaving highly diverse, contradictory categories and modes of perception, of objective, abstract, expressive and “realistic” painting, into open networks, Olaf Quantius creates works that no longer enable simple perception, but instead involve the viewer’s eye and mind in insoluble contradictions and exert an enormous pull of significance; he creates paintings of a complexity that provides the viewer with a remarkable experience of intensity. Anyone who is receptive to the many potential modes of perception in play on the one hand, and to the allusions and references in the art on the other, is forced or tempted to devote the highest possible concentration to the diverse, contradictory, significant aspects and moments of the painting, and as a result gains a sense of heightened consciousness and an expanded awareness of self and presence in the world.

[1]   Marcia Hafif, “Getting on with Painting,” Art in America, April 1981, p. 138.

[2]   Robert Ryman, “On Painting/Über Malerei,” 1991; in Robert Ryman, exh. cat. Espace d’art    Contemporain, Paris / Hallen für neue Kunst, Schaffhausen, 1991, pp. 57-69, 59.

[3]   A rhetoric of imagery that has separated from the rhetoric of language and formed its own intrinsic criteria, would be just as necessary today as a hermeneutics of the image that has liberated itself from the hermeneutics of the text was in the 1960s.

[4]   Gerhard Richter, 1977; in Gerhard Richter, Text: Schriften und Interviews, Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig, 1991, p. 86.

[5]   Gerhard Richter, in Gerhard Richter, exh. cat. Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, 1993, vol. II, Texte, p. 61.

[6]   The concept of “significance” (Bedeutsamkeit) in this sense was developed by Jochen Hörisch, Bedeutsamkeit: Über den Zusammenhang von Zeit, Sinn und Medien, Munich, 2009; here esp. chaps. 2 (“Bedeutsamkeit, Bedeutung, Sinn”) and 4 (“Emergenz von Bedeutsamkeit”) of the introduction.

[7]   Olaf Quantius, e-mail of December 25, 2014.

[8]   Ibid.

[9]   In this context, “parasitic” implies the fact that a complex order of the second degree is enabled by and remains dependent on the existence and effectiveness of a simpler order of the first degree; see Michel Serres, Der Parasit, Frankfurt am Main, 1981.