Pigment vs. Pixel: Painting in an Era of Light-Based Images

Fabian Marcaccio, Paintant Stories, 2000, pigment inks, oil, acrylic, silicone, and polymer on vinyl, wood, and metal structure, approx. 13 ft. 1½ in. x 328 ft. (4 x 100 m). Collection Davos Latin-America, Zurich (artwork © Fabian Marcaccio)

Copied from a small and fuzzy photograph clipped from a newspaper in 2003, Gerhard Richter’s Silikat paintings depict a honeycomb array of silicate particles, modeled on the structure of a butterfly wing. In an effort to discern the reason for the brilliant iridescent sheen of the tropical butterfly Morpho sulkowskyi, a Japanese research team had discovered that this scintillating chromatic effect was not the product of light in the blue spectrum reflecting off a colored pigment embedded in the wings themselves, but was instead the result of white light scattered from a host of microscopic cavities present on the creatures’ scaled surfaces. It was this phenomenon that the researchers had managed to replicate synthetically by means of the silicate arrangement.1

Pointing as they do toward a new method for creating color without the use of pigment, Richter’s steadfastly monochromepaintings acquire a cultural significance different from that of his previous photo-based works. While his earliest forays into photo painting in the early 1960s helped open a new chapter in the century-long relationship between painting and photography, the Silikat paintings align with a more recent and less familiar turn in the history of image relations: the growing prominence of light-based images in our digital image ecology, at the expense of their more established pigment-based counterparts.

Referring to the manner in which images are disclosed to their viewers rather than their methods of storage or production, the terms “pigment-based” and “light-based” pick out two different sets of visual representations. Located in the first set are the great majority of paintings, prints, and drawings, together with a raft of less exalted forms of printed matter. Light-based images, meanwhile, are associated with technologies like film, television, and video, whose images are disclosed intangibly, through emissions of radiant light. Spanning both camps is photography, a technology whose images may be propagated tangibly, in the form of pigment-based prints, or intangibly, in the form of luminous projections.

Approaching these categories historically, it is clear that since the maturation of cinema we have been witnessing a steady migration from pigment-based to light-based methods of image production, an exodus that with the onset of the digital era in the early 1990s has become a flood. Because the Silikat paintings point to both the shifting balance of this pigment-light dynamic in recent years, and the much lengthier relationship between painting and photography, they raise an intriguing historical question: if modernist painting of the pre-digital period was marked, among other things, by its efforts to affirm its distinctiveness and irreplaceability in the face of photography’s steady colonization of our image world, how have painters been responding to the surge of immaterial, light-based images in the digital era?

What I want to argue here, with reference not only to Richter but also to a range of younger artists, is that the once-urgent need of modernists to defend painting against the predations of photography, while upholding its preeminence and distinctiveness among other forms of pigment-based image production, has faded during the past half century, thanks to the efforts of a host of artists in the late 1950s and 1960s to place painting on a new and less defensive footing with respect to those practices. In the wake of these postwar activities, painters learned to value and exploit the kinship between painting and other forms of pigment-based image production—photography included—instead of dwelling on their medium’s singularity. As a result of this inheritance, artists of the digital era have been able to respond to the rampant proliferation of light-based images in a novel way. Instead of stressing the distinctiveness and irreplaceability of paint in the face of new forms of light-based image production, as prior generations of modernists were wont to do in response to the rise of photography, recent artists such as Luc Tuymans, Albert Oehlen, Fabian Marcaccio, Christopher Wool, and Wade Guyton have instead affirmed the virtues of pigment more broadly. This shift in emphasis reveals that the once-burning conflict between painting and various forms of photomechanical image production has lately been eclipsed by a new and more pressing antagonism, between the materiality and tactility of pigment on one hand, and the immateriality and intangibility of light on the other.


The 1960s: Paint Reconceived as Pigment

It has often been noted that in the early 1960s Richter helped perpetuate the lifespan of painting by choosing to clone his works from photographs.2 In doing so, he set himself against a century of modernist orthodoxy in which painters had sought to define their practice in opposition to or in excess of the workings of photography. What has not been observed, however, is that his decision to mimic photographs in paint placed him squarely in the midst of a much broader historical development, which saw a host of painters of this period endeavor to prolong their medium’s vitality by drawing painting into dialogue with a range of other pigment-based forms of image-making.

Richter began his foray into photo painting at a time when modernist painting was beginning to feel the limits of two significant and self-imposed constraints on its identity: its postwar stylistic confinement to the reductivist culs-de-sac of gestural abstraction, color field painting, and the monochrome, and its lengthier materialadherence to an oil-on-canvas format, which had anchored modern painting since its birth. Faced with these constraints, a gener­ation of emerging painters would seek to revive the sagging fortunes of their medium by rethinking its identity on a broader material and procedural basis.

While many of these figures (including Piero Manzoni, Yves Klein, Daniel Buren, and Robert Ryman) would pursue this task by putting accepted definitions of a painterly support under pressure, an equally significant cluster would opt to retain the traditional canvas-on-stretcher format of the Western easel painting tradition (or a close analogue thereof), and instead focus their attentions on exploring the nature of paint itself, in connection with the broader category of pigment to which it belongs. This they did in two sharply contrasting ways: by bringing forms of pigment and processes of pigment application associated with other art forms and modes of image-making into what was otherwise a manifestly “painterly” image space; and by transposing other forms of pigment-based media into paint. Thus, in the span of roughly a decade, between the late 1950s and late 1960s, figures such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol would assimilate mechanical silk-screening practices to the domain of painting, while others such as Richter and Roy Lichtenstein would begin simulating found photographs and comic-book imagery in paint. Still others, such as Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo, would begin incorporating the dyes infused in commercial fabric as a readymade component of their work. In the work of these and many other artists of the period, the capacity of painting to sustain itself in dialogue with other forms of pigment-based image production was clearly at issue, though approached from two technically opposing standpoints. On one hand, the simulative efforts of Richter and Lichtenstein traded on paint’s capacity to faithfully mimic the representational effects of other forms of pigment-based imagery—a well-established trope in painting’s history that these artists, along with many others, reactivated in the early 1960s as part of a shared effort to perpetuate their medium’s lifespan. On the other hand, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Polke, and Palermo deployed a range of “non-native” pigment types within the image space of painting, thus opting for a logic of assimilation rather than mimicry. This recourse to assimilation is significant, for it served as a tactic not only for rehabilitating painting culturally, but for rethinking its identity physically as well, a gesture that traded heavily on the vagaries of our habitual definitions of paint and pigment.

Surveying the millennia-long history of painting, it is clear that the distinction between paint and other forms of pigment has never been entirely firm or immutable, for how else could new forms of pigment have been periodically introduced to painting’s image space over the centuries, and on this basis come to be regarded as paint? The mere existence of this process of historical redefinition suggests that the distinction between paint and the broader category of pigment to which it belongs has always been both open and negotiable—assertions that current dictionary definitions of the two terms do much to affirm. Pigment, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us, comprises “a colored substance, usually artificially prepared from mineral or organic sources and used for coloring or painting; specifically a dry substance, usually in the form of a powder, which, when mixed with oil, water, or other liquid medium, constitutes a paint.” Paint, meanwhile, consists of “a liquid which when spread over a surface dries to leave a thin layer of color or protective coating.” Clearly such minimal descriptions as these leave much to be desired, particularly where the definition of paint is concerned, for by the OED’s terms substances like peanut butter and chocolate will count as paint—a proposition that Dieter Roth sought to test in a work like Basel on the Rhine (1968)—while the unbound powder in a Klein monochrome from the 1950s will not count as paint at all. Must we therefore refrain from designating Klein’s works as paintings? Or on the basis of his material innovations should we instead elect to broaden and refine our definition of paint? My point here is not to adjudicate this matter, but to show how postwar works such as Roth’s and Klein’s point to very real difficulties in fixing paint’s definition, both semantically and materially.Returning to the assimilative works of Warhol, Rauschenberg, and company, who during the same period as Roth and Klein chose to work with pigment types linked to other modes of image-making, it is clear that their work raises similar concerns. For if substances like chocolate and ultramarine powder suspended in resin can be included in our definition of paint, then why not others such as fabric dye and printing ink also, in spite of the fact that each has long been wed to nonpainterly modes of image production? While this kind of territorial thinking was integral to the development of modern painting, having been used for more than a century to anchor the medium’s identity as it fought to hold its own in the age of medium-specificity and mechanical reproduction, what I want to suggest here is that from the 1960s onward, in the work of Roth, Klein, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Polke, Palermo, and others, such monogamous presumptions began to break down.

As these artists welcomed new kinds of pigment and pigment application processes into the domain of painting, they were not, I would argue, simply crossbreeding or hybridizing painting with other forms of pigment-based image production. Nor, as yet, were they pushing painting boldly to its dissolution in the post-medium era. Instead, they were seeking to expand the material purview of their medium by contextually claiming pigments such as printing ink, chocolate, and fabric dye as hitherto neglected or unrecognized forms of paint. Having signaled by means of their retention of a conventional canvas-and-stretcher format that they were invested in perpetuatingpainting’s lifespan instead of brokering new, postpainterly forms of pigment-based art practice, these artists attempted to broaden their medium’s horizons by suggesting that the ostensibly “foreign” pigment types with which they were working could, when transferred to the image space of painting, be legitimately claimed as paint. For just as the art form known as painting possesses a negotiable material identity that has varied greatly over the course of millennia, so too does paint, such that our willingness to regard this or that form of bound pigment, this or that form of liquid spreadable color, as paint, is, I would argue, just a matter of competing interpretive prerogatives brought to bear within continuing processes of publicly negotiated consensus building. It is only in comparatively recent times—i.e., the period of the Western easel-painting tradition—that our notions of paint and its support were narrowed to the point where they became rigidly identified with oil paint, canvas, and a handful of other possibilities. It was only in the period of modernism’s first hundred years of development that the notion of a monogamous link between specific forms of pigment and specific modes of image production would harden from convention into dogma.

In the postwar period, however, both of these conventions were increasingly called into question, and for those painters who elected to contest the narrowly formulated modernist definition of paint at this time, the advantage for their practice was clear: the ability to continue developing painting in association with, rather than isolation from, neighboring precincts of late modernity’s dizzyingly spiraling image ecology, without undermining its status as painting. For to claim substances like chocolate, unbound powder, fabric dye, or printing ink as paint is in no way to compromise painting’s identity. It is simply to reject the claim that these substances need be firmly and exclusively identified with a fixed list of nonpainterly image-making practices, or in the case of chocolate, with culinary activities having no link to art whatsoever. What these two assertions overlook is the possibility that one kind of pigment can fulfill different functions under different descriptions in the context of differing regimes of image production, so that what counts as dye or chocolate in one context might legitimately be counted elsewhere as paint. Upon granting this assertion, we can acknowledge that artistic media are capable of admitting nominally “foreign” traits into their “native” domain without unduly threatening their identity or integrity. Quite the reverse in fact, for this process of assimilation pushes us to recognize that the “essences” of media may well be more flexible, expansive, and inclusive than is often presumed.

The legacy of these and other painters of the 1960s was twofold. On one hand they reminded us what painting has in common with many other modes of image production, namely pigment, and called attention to the ways in which the boundaries between these image-making practices can become fluid and productively aporetic when pressured. On the other hand, by holding fast to the conventional “painterly” format of the stretched canvas and assimilating other forms of pigment topainting instead of brokering a more even-handed process of transmedial deterritorialization, they proffered ways in which painting might escape the confines of the oil-on-canvas paradigm by learning to wear its material and cultural identities more lightly, which is to say on less rigid, reductive, and exclusivist terms. Along and across the hinge of pigment, these practices seemed to claim, painting would be able to identify itself with rather than against other media, and on this basis keep both its identity and integrity intact—not in spite but because of its willingness to open its borders to other forms of pigment and the domains of cultural production to which they were attached. But while this logic has helped give painting a new lease on life in recent decades, with the dawning of the digital era in the early 1990s, the tide of technological history has wrought a new set of cultural transformations to which the medium must now respond—changes that have seen this embedded postwar paradigm of openness and identification slowly but surely begin to invert itself.


The 1990s and 2000s: Pigment, Paint, and Light, Postdigital

During the past twenty years, we have been witnessing a digitally driven paradigm shift in processes of image production and distribution, equivalent in stature to the emergence of photomechanical reproduction processes in the mid-nineteenth century. Among other things, this shift has helped accelerate the twentieth century’s preexisting drift from pigment-based to light-based forms of image-making beyond all prior measure. The history of immaterial image production does not, of course, begin at the tail end of the twentieth century, for light-based, intangible imagery is as old as sun-cast shadows and water-borne reflections. What did transpire at the century’s end, however, was a dramatic shift in the ratio of light-based to pigment-based image production, facilitated by the mainstreaming of a host of digital image-making technologies and our increased exposure to the screen-based devices with which they are associated. In the past two decades, the availability of these technologies has spurred a democratization of image production that has taken the light-based developmental lineage of film, TV, and video to a new level of pervasiveness in daily life. As the sheer quantum of screen-mediated imagery has continued to balloon, painting has been faced with the challenge of reinventing itself once more, this time in dialogue with forms of imagery in which pigment plays at most a very minor role.

There are of course many ways in which painters might elect to respond to the prevalence of light-based imagery in the digital era, not all of which need be critical in nature. What I want to explore here, however, is a single strand of practice from this period that may indeed be viewed from such a standpoint. The artists I wish to discuss have absorbed the assimilative and mimetic strategies of the 1950s and 1960s and continue to deploy them to painting’s advantage. When engaging with the phenomenon of light-based imagery, however, they are obliged to use these tactics differently. Because none has thus far chosen to rethink painting as a light-based rather than pigment-based undertaking, there can be no question for any of these artists of assimilating light-based imagery directly to their work using monitors or other technologies of electronic projection. For this reason they must engage with light-based forms of image-making indirectly, by working with and from their printed output. While still inclined to work mimetically, they can no longer do so on the basis of an overlooked or disavowed affinity between the pigments they employ and the new forms of light-based image-making. Instead, they must proceed on the basis of an insurmountable form of categorical difference between their own works and the light-based images they address. But these accommodations and adjustments notwithstanding, they continue to advance the pigment-centered strategies of the postwar period, deploying them in opposition to the spectacular production values and purely commercial interests that underwrite the great majority of light-based images that we encounter on a daily basis.

A key figure in this regard is Tuymans, who often works with source images derived from film, television, video, and the Internet. As Helen Molesworth has noted, Tuymans is inclined to retain the spectral and internally illuminated qual­ities of his light-based sources when transposing them into paint.3 Yet rather than replicate these outright, he transfigures them in ways that use the material attributes of pigment to level an implicit critique of the alluring traits of intangibility and depthless inner radiance that are characteristic of light-based media—a desublimatory process given special emphasis in a recent work called Turtle (2007). Derived from video footage uploaded to the Internet, the subject of this painting is a lightbulb-clad parade float from Disneyland, one of many that participate in the park’s nighttime parades. But while the Disneyland original takes the form of a whirling and enticing ball of candy-colored light—effects that its remediation via video serves to heighten—Tuymans’s turtle is a wan and bloated apparition that looms obscurely into view from the bottom of the canvas. Dazzling in its whiteness, yet stripped of its warmth and radiance by means of Tuymans’s washed-out and superficial painting style, this degraded specter is assembled from a lusterless amalgam of pale dabs and stipplings, whose variable thicknesses and differing degrees of opacity stress its inherence in the palpably embodied realm of pigment, a space wholly foreign to the rarefied and intangible domain from which its source image emanated. By refusing to endow his painted simulacrum with the same auratic sense of purity and insubstantiality as his source, Tuymans reminds us of the susceptibility of certain core features of light-based imagery to a fetishistic investment on the part of the spectator, a process that he moves to inhibit by means of his anemic painting style.4 Efforts like these lend the mimetic painterly strategy of the 1960s a new significance, premised not on the materially commensurable distinctions linking two pigment-based image forms, as had been the case with artists like Richter and Lichtenstein, but on the wholly incommensurable discrepancies between the material and immaterial image realms.

Working alongside Tuymans in recent years have been a number of painters who employ the assimilative methods of the 1960s in their engagements with the light-based realm. Painters of this persuasion, such as Oehlen, Marcaccio, Guyton, and Wool, have annexed digital printing and production methods to the medium of painting in a variety of ways, combining these with other methods of pigment application to pursue their own materialist critiques of their source images and the forms of light-based image-making from which they derive.

Since 1990, for example, Oehlen has used rudimentary graphics software to produce his computer paintings. With the mouse as his paint brush, he sketches poorly guided, pixelated trails onscreen that when output to canvas affirm the artist’s long-standing practice of undercutting received notions of good form and artistic accomplishment. In contrast to his prior works, however, the deliberate ineptitude of the computer paintings is directed as much against the immaculate perfections of the pixel as the virtuosic assurances of the artist’s hand—a trait that has become more noticeable as the production values of the digital domain have grown more refined. In a world that is increasingly in thrall to the luminous solicitations of high-end graphics and photography, Oehlen’s slapdash tangles of printer ink and black acrylic possess a welcome ability to restore the sense of liveliness and spontaneity that is so often missing from such artfully manicured images. Wholly inverting the slick and seductive production values of most commercially oriented digital images, it is thanks precisely to their amateurish ineptitude that they can bring such a vivid semblance of liveliness and playful organicism to the coolly rationalized image space of the pixel.

Elsewhere, in a collaborative painting called Sturm (2004), created with Jonathan Meese, Oehlen performs a similar interrogation of a second key instrument of digital reproduction, which resides at the heart of computer animation processes: the 3-D wireframe and its attendant surface modeling techniques. From the neck down, the work’s two female figures are composed of voluptuous, tanned expanses of gleaming flesh, whose pornographic perfections are revealed at the base of the picture as the product of synthetic modeling algorithms. Above the neckline, these screen-rendered beauties sprout coarsely painted, flailing, sticklike arms and seem to share a single balloon-like head. Eschewing aesthetics and evincing only the slightest commitment to naturalism, the painted regions of their anatomy seem to travesty their buxomly modeled contours below. Yet these painted perversions are by no means more excessive than the light-based abnormalities to which they run counter; for if the figures’ lower regions speak to the digital era’s increasingly cold-eyed pursuit of pleasure beyond the bounds and capabilities of real flesh, then the lush and cursory passages of paintwork in which Oehlen and Meese’s figures terminate may be thought of as a redemptive, pigment-centered response to this condition. Their own crudity and ugliness notwithstanding, the figures’ flailing limbs and floating head retain a palpable affinity with actual bodily matter and thus with organic existence, something that cannot be said of their digitized anatomies below. These smoothly manicured expanses may well be flawless, but beyond alluding to a promised play of probed and penetrated orifices, can they really be said to speak of the inward life of the body in the same viscerally evocative manner as paint? Addressing the now largely light-based phenomenon of pornography, pigment pushes back on this occasion with its own more vital brand of surrogate carnality.

Fabian Marcaccio’s Paintants, meanwhile, work to contravene the prerogatives of another prominent venue of light-based image production, which traffics in its own brand of lustrous yet inert perfection: the CGI-saturated, effects-driven blockbuster. If the ultimate objective of the blockbuster is to manufacture reality wholesale, producing self-contained cinematic worlds in as seamless (and indeed seem-less) a fashion as possible, then Marcaccio’s enormous images, which erratically commingle all manner of photographic and painterly source material, flatly countermand this aspiration. To the self-enclosed and pixel-perfect worlds of the blockbuster, Marcaccio opposes turbulent tableaux of a far more open-ended and conflicted nature, whose fitful disjunctures of imagery, jarring discrepancies in scale, and lurid sensuality produce a disjoint yet fluid picture space that lurches deliriously from states of extreme photographic likeness to the pure abstraction of the brushstroke. Running in ribbon-like fashion for lengths of up to 100 meters, panoramic works like this must be experienced in a temporally extended manner akin to that of cinema.5 Yet the pictorial and material prerogatives of Marcaccio’s static, pigment-based works could not be more starkly opposed to the values and objectives of their moving, light-based counterparts. No less spectacular than the cinema, these works give rise to a very different and far less ingratiating form of semblance, premised not on effects of false totality and hallucinatory realism, but on traits of fragmentation and manifest artifice far closer to the state of lived experience in our current mass-mediated social environment. As in Oehlen’s work, the organic and fleshly qualities of pigment remain crucial to the Paintants’ capacity to generate these lifelike effects, for the binding media of these works, which help fix Marcaccio’s imagery in its heaving state of metamorphic disjunction, are silicone gel and a recently developed form of synthetic polymer that may be colored as needed and sculpted into any form. Lying in thick, coagulated trails across the surface of his photo-collaged imagery, the industrial pigments that Marcaccio deploys enable him, like Oehlen, to assert the richness, physicality, and actuality of pigment in the face of the vivid yet insubstantial simulations of matter that are the stock-in-trade of light-based images.

In contrast to Oehlen and Marcaccio, Guyton and Wool are less concerned with the specific instruments and forums of light-based image production, than with the pretense of many light-based images to a kind of timeless and placeless perfection, in which the laws and constraints of embodied material existence have been wholly superseded. Reacting adversely to this state of imagined transcendence, the two artists seek to reimpose the forces of accident, decay, and dissolution on the light-based imagery with which they work.

For the past decade, Wool has been exploring possibilities for photographing and digitally manipulating his painted and silk-screened imagery, which he then prints back onto paper or canvas. Working against the seamless production values of most commercially driven light-based images, albeit subtly, he uses Photoshop to cut up, degrade, and erase selected regions of his hand-rendered imagery in scarcely apparent ways. The fact that these operations mimic processes he has long enacted on his works by hand is important here, for this parity helps place the virtual and actual dimensions of his practice on an equal footing. By means of this equality Wool reminds us that the immaterial realm of the digital need not be conceived as a space of purity, perfectibility, and limitless freedom from the bonds of matter; for just like its analogue counterpart, the computer-driven virtual domain can play host to its own processes of entropy, degradation, and dispersal.6

Guyton too is intrigued by these entropic dynamics, but contrary to Wool has found a way to subvert the perfections of the light-based realm at the moment of its extrusion into the space of pigment. Using Photoshop to render crisp geometric forms in solid black, Guyton prints his compositions onto sheets of canvas and paper that he folds, crumples, and distresses in ways that obstruct the smooth back-and-forth traversals of the heads of his inkjet printer. Upon crossing the threshold of actuality, the Platonic perfections of Guyton’s figures begin to crumble, yielding images that are stigmatized and battered by their sudden encounter with the real. Amid a constant deluge of light-based imagery in which the timelessness, placelessness, flawlessness, and seamlessness of the spectacle prevail, entropic and materialist gestures like those of Wool and Guyton serve to critically undercut these values, by drawing immaculately pixelated imagery into the messier, more volatile, and haphazard territory of matter.


Why Pigment Matters

Surveying the works of Tuymans, Oehlen, Marcaccio, Guyton, and Wool, it is evident that all share an urge to interrogate the rising power of light-based imagery in their work, drawing on established strategies of mimicry and assimilation to do so. In pursuing this objective, however, they are obliged to use these tactics in a different manner than their postwar forebears, for the simple reason that they are responding to a different set of historical pressures. If their predecessors once used mimicry and assimilation to bolster their medium’s position within a much broader, but still largely pigment-based image ecology, today’s painters are driven by the urge to retain a vital and meaningful role for pigment in a light-based environment whose need for its services is waning.

While moving to fulfill this imperative, these digitally oriented painters have resorted to a tactic first employed by nineteenth-century modernists in response to the rise of photographic reproduction: the emphatic assertion of all that distinguishes their practice from the new forms of image-making with which they must now contend. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries painters turned to traits such as color, texture, and evidence of hand production to achieve this aim, and with Tuymans and his peers aspects of this same dynamic remain in play. What these artists stress above all, however, are the material and organic properties of pigment, in ways that call attention to features of their work that light-based image-makers are either unwilling or unable to replicate, such as pigment’s propensity for uncontrolled accident and spillage, its muddy and impure commingling of hues, its lusterless and earthbound opacity, and its palpable affinities with the body. And logically so. For what better way for pigment to protest its waning stature than by stressing its connections to a natural and implacably physical domain that today’s light-based image world seeks all too often to transcend?

At stake in this assertion of pigment’s physicality is modernism’s long-standing practice of advancing the claims of the sensuous and the singular against the rationalized incursions of the universal, a tendency these artists carry forward by welcoming the unloved material dynamics of accident and entropy into their work, together with the effects of impurity and adulteration to which they give rise.7 In such key domains of modern social life as government, industry, and the spectacle, the forces of instrumental reason have consistently sought to constrain the play of difference, degradation, and unpredictability that such organic processes embody, whether in the name of social order and its inevitable suppressions of diversity, an advancing domination of nature, or a ceaseless exhortation to escape life’s difficulties through interminable processes of consumption. As these forces have strengthened their hand, the singularity of the artwork in all of its opacity and specificity has continued to lodge the claims of the particular in opposition to their leveling dynamics, a tendency embodied, for example, in the growing physicality and literalism of modern painting between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.

As J. M. Bernstein has observed, paint’s power as a bearer of sensuous particularity has continued to increase throughout modernity, in direct proportion to the growing rationalization of social life. So much so, in fact, that by the moment of Abstract Expressionism’s ascendence, modern painting had willfully reduced itself to nothing more than a bare assertion of nonidentity, as embodied in that movement’s sheer and unadulterated displays of paint’s materiality.8 Fast forward half a century to the digital era and it is the virtues of pigment’s particularity that are now being pushed to the fore, this time in ways running counter to one of the crudest ideological assertions of our current light-based era: the notion that the data-driven powers of virtuality with which the light-based precincts of the spectacle are currently invested have enabled us to shed the bonds of matter entirely, and thus escape its ineluctable dynamics of death, decay, and accident.

Under conditions such as these, the particularity of pigment acquires overtones that were absent at the moment of paint’s protestations against the rationalizing impulses of a prior epoch. In the heyday of industry, the sensuous particularity of paint stood for all that the coarse grids of standardization, rationalization, and administrative modernization were unable sieve—hence for the lost possibilities of certain fading forms of individual freedom and the limitless particularity of a subdued and degraded natural world. In the light-based era of the digital, the materiality of pigment has come to stand instead for all that the hubris of the virtual disavows—to wit, the laws of time and space, the forces of gravity and accident, and the fixities, limits and constraints of physical form; everything, in sum, that the prevailing powers of our light-based image-world would like to believe they can suspend in the name of a ceaselessly intensifying commercial imperative. If, at the apex of industrial modernity, the bravura stagings of Abstract Expressionism and other forms of mid-century abstraction had insisted on the virtues of paint’s particularity, today it is the broader category of pigment that in the work of Tuymans, Oehlen, and their cohort is insisting on the value of its own materiality, in the face of a staggering onslaught of crisp and cheery pixelation.


Luke Smythe is a recent PhD graduate from the art history program at Yale University. He is currently working as a curatorial fellow in postwar art at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and is revising his dissertation on the abstract work of Gerhard Richter for publication. Forthcoming projects include an essay on the early films of Len Lye, to be published in October, and an online catalogue of multiples by Joseph Beuys.



  1. For Richter’s source image and an account of the Japanese efforts to replicate the color properties of Morpho sulkowskyi, see Uta Bilow, “Ein farbloser Anstrich für schillernde Farben,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 3, 2003, N2.
  2. For one notable reading of Richter’s work from this perspective, see Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: Maler (Cologne: DuMont, 2007), 188–89.
  3. See Helen Molesworth, “Luc Tuymans: Painting the Banality of Evil,” in Luc Tuymans, ed. Madeleine Grynsztejn and Helen Molesworth, exh. cat. (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2009), 18–19.
  4. That the sheen and radiance of photographs can exhibit such allure is noted by Victor Burgin, in “Photography, Fantasy, Function,” rep. Thinking Photography (London: MacMillan, 1982), 189–90. Yet as Rosalind Krauss has noted in response to Burgin’s observations, the luminosity of light-based images is even more alluring in this regard. See Krauss, “Cindy Sherman: Untitled,” rep. Bachelors (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1999), 134.
  5. Marcaccio himself has spoken of wanting to achieve a cinematic sense of “vision in movement” in his work. See “Conversation between Hans-Michael Herzog and Fabian Marcaccio,” in Fabian Marcaccio: Paintant Stories, exh. cat. (Zurich: Davos-Latinamerica, 2005), 66–69.
  6. For a related reading of Wool’s works, which presents them as reminding us of the grime and messiness of reality that screen-based digital images seek to keep at bay, see Mark Godfrey, “Stain Resistance: Mark Godfrey on Christopher Wool’s New Works,” Artforum 49, no. 10 (Summer 2011): 362–65.
  7. This thematics of particularity and universality is central to the social and aesthetic thought of Theodor Adorno. For Adorno’s considerations of art’s sensuous resistance to the universalizing impulses of modern reason and its associated social manifestations, see, for example, Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Continuum, 2004), 81–83, and 426–28.
  8. See J. M. Bernstein, Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 149–57.