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Abstract Expressionism Theory: Flatness


Introduction to Flatness

Since humankind first began using tools to depict figurative forms in an artistic medium, the greatest challenge has been dealing with the two-dimensional surface. From cave drawings forward, artists have continuously experimented with new ways to create a sense of visual depth and three-dimensionality on something that is naturally flat. In times predating the Impressionists, the ultimate goal for artists was to achieve a visual balance of perspective, volume and three-dimensionality. This began to change when Édouard Manet and other artists challenged such painterly conventions. However, the idea of flatness as an artistic concept was not a conscious concern until the early 20th century.

Importance of Pictorial Flatness

A unique characteristic of all modern art forms, from painting to literature, is the self-consciousness of the artist. In other words, in any particular work the artist will call direct attention to the fact that what people are viewing (or reading, experiencing, etc.) is a work of art. In contemporary culture, this may seem like an obvious quality, but before the advent of the Modern artistic era (approximately pre-Impressionism), art was not created to call attention to itself, but to celebrate figurative forms and accurately depict things that had some basis in reality.

By deliberately calling attention to the natural flatness of the canvas in a work of art, artists have exercised a uniquely modern phenomenon, wherein the viewer is not meant to appreciate the depiction of anything, but the act of painting itself. What makes this a self-conscious act is that the artist is openly acknowledging the mechanical limitations of trying to apply visual depth to a two-dimensional surface.

Flatness in Abstract Art

Prior to the 20th century, the primary characteristic of paintings had been the depiction of an image on canvas. Yet, beginning with the non-objective paintings of Kandinsky and the geometric De Stijl works of Mondrian (c. 1920s), Modern artists began consciously drawing viewers' attention to two important factors: the shape of a painting's support (canvas) and the properties of the painting's forms. Thus the painting's flatness became an integral component in the viewer's experience of the artwork. Paintings are flat by the very nature of the canvas. The perception, or the acknowledgment of flatness, is something that abstract art gave to the art world.

Abstract Expressionist painters, such as Pollock, Rothko and Newman, applied paint in such ways that viewers' eyes were not drawn to any particular central point on the canvas, but rather offered multiple perspectives. The flatness of the canvas was for them a surface in which to create an infinite space, seemingly with no discernable beginning or end. This practice was very much in the tradition of their abstractionist predecessors Kandinsky, Mondrian, Miró, and, particularly for Pollock, the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque, wherein multiple perspectives of the same subject were achieved on a two-dimensional surface.

Influence on Post-Painterly Abstraction and Minimalism

In the early 1960s, Abstract Expressionism led to one of many new artistic styles known as Post-Painterly Abstraction. Its practitioners, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, emphasized the planar field of the canvas by balancing autonomous forms that never overlap. They also employed a peculiar habit of leaving large portions of their canvases bare and untreated. Both of these features further emphasized the canvas as an important painterly characteristic.

In the Minimalist paintings of the 1960s - influenced heavily by the earlier geometric grid works of Malevich and Mondrian - artists such as Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly composed simple canvases, often in uniform color and with minimal detail. Minimalist painters applied precise color and used the painting's support system (in this case the canvas) to draw the viewer's gaze to the flat canvas itself. Several of Stella's paintings were significant in this regard because of their unique shapes. By fitting the canvas to the contours of the paintings' colors, Stella redefined the traditional support system and made paint itself the painting's form. This stylistic shift in perspective was perceived as a gesture of pure flatness.

"Modernist Painting"
By Clement Greenberg
Originally published in Forum Lectures (Voice of America), Washington, D.C., 1960
    Key Points:
  • Greenberg argued that the essential and unique element in Modern painting is its flatness. Aside from the literal flatness of the canvas surface itself, Greenberg focused on the depicted flatness, wherein the artist balances forms of color and line to create a painterly value that appears utterly flat.
  • He discussed the limitations of painting as a medium in much of his writing. It was the Old Masters who, according to him, struggled for centuries to break free from these limitations and create a depth of perspective in their work. Modern painters, however, have embraced such limitations. He wrote, "The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm that was shared with the art of the theater; color was a norm and a means shared not only with the theater, but also with sculpture. Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else." In other words, Greenberg pointed out that art of the theater or that of sculpture is, by their very nature, three-dimensional forms. Painting, however, is applied to a natural two-dimensional surface, and modern artists had begun to embrace that nature rather than trying to defy it.
  • He paid close attention to Cubism as a defining moment for flatness in Modern art. The easel plane in Cubist paintings was a place for artists like Picasso and Braque to create spatial ambiguity; representation of form without a clear and singular perspective. Greenberg wrote that, "...the Cubist counter-revolution eventuated in a kind of painting flatter than anything in Western art since before Giotto and Cimabue - so flat indeed that it could hardly contain recognizable images."
  • Perhaps most important of all, Greenberg conceded that, "The flatness towards which Modernist painting orients itself can never be an absolute flatness." He claimed that the moment any paint touches the canvas, some form of depth has been created, and the canvas now ceases to be completely flat, in both a literal and depicted sense of the word.


"[Mondrian's] attack on the easel picture was radical enough, for all its inadvertence, and the paintings of his maturity are ostensibly among the flattest of all easel pictures." - Clement Greenberg, from "The Crisis of the Easel Picture" (1948)

"The first mark made on a canvas destroys its literal and utter flatness, and the result of the marks made on it by an artist like Mondrian is still a kind of illusion that suggests a kind of third dimension." - Clement Greenberg, from "Modernist Painting" (1960)

"[Jasper] Johns's subjects are flat. Under an enormous literal representation of an unmistakable pipe Magritte wrote Ceci n'est pas une pipe. And to the puzzled spectator who mistakes the image for the reality, he would have said - Try to smoke it." - Leo Steinberg, from "Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art"

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf

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