Susan Stewart, 2003
Organic Form and Perfection in Painting from The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics, 1987-2003, 2004, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
I am pursuing the perfect painting. When in all modesty, and with a measure of self-irony, Peter Flaccus, an American painter now working in Rome, says this, he is describing an aspect of his larger search, throughout most of his adult life, for a harmony between material, technique, and image in the practice of painting. More recently he has been seeking an absolute economy of means and ends, a mode of painting conducted on a small and clear scale that has a deep resonance to the notion of organic form and the relation between made and natural structures. To follow the course of his reasoning in painting is to understand something of the necessary and sufficient conditions of that particular art.
We might begin by asking what a painting is – that is, how is a painting one kind of thing and not another? – before we can begin to consider what perfection in painting might be. Etienne Gilson's classic analysis of the form in his Forms and Substances in the Arts quotes the Nabis painter Maurice Denis's 1890 "Manifesto of Symbolism": "a plane surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order." Denis's definition emphasizes the two-dimensionality, formal totality, and shaping human intention distinguishing this art – an art of composed colors. And Gilson adds, "a picture exists from the moment these simple conditions are fulfilled...
painting by definition is abstract and not representational." The abstraction to which Gilson refers has nothing particularly modern about it: if we trace the genesis of this art to cave paintings of hunters' hand-prints and running bisons, we find a magic that is abstract in its use of metaphor and analogy as well as in what might be called its de-literalization of three-dimensions into two. Or if we look for a less utilitarian origin of painting in the opening up of pictorial space between the thresholds of the private and public in Roman (and what was likely to have been Greek) wall painting, these "simple conditions" also prevail.
Yet for any painter who came of age in the second half of the twentieth-century this notion of painting as the abstraction of three-dimensional space into two and a medium dominated by the composition of color has the force of a mandate. Painting's separation from the linearity of drawing, and hence the freeing of color from representational form – indeed the freeing of painting from representational demands of all kinds – ensues in the wake of photography and more generally from the secularization of art and not only as a consequence of the particular aims of modernist art movements after the Fauves.
Those problems of representation once at the forefront of all painting theory seem to be no longer relevant. The problem of the imitation of nature concludes differences between works of nature and works of art that cannot be breached – nature as given, art as intended; nature as infinite, art as finite; nature renewable in its multiplicity, art perishable in its singularity; nature as animate; art as animated. Perfection in painting therefore cannot be continuous with perfection of imitation. Perfection in painting may remain in the eye of the beholder, but it cannot coincide with perfection of imitation without surrendering its very existence as painting and disappearing back into the realm of natural objects from which it was created.
For the minimalist, painterly abstraction resides in a search for essence and a stripping down of process to the making of geometrical forms. The mathematical seriality and geometrism of minimalism, as early as Mondrian, links Platonic universals to the physiology of visual perception, hence yoking an invisible and visible nature. For the conceptualist, however, painterly abstraction is inseparable from the abstract, language-based, and hence social, relations informing the conditions of art"s creation and reception. The post-modern transfer of issues of representation from the visual to the social is an after-effect of conceptual art in this regard. Yet notions of identity and political power can be absorbed readily into the legacy of caricature and its concern with typicality and the inversion or reversal of the status quo. Once we recognize that "successful" representation relies upon conventions of pictorial space and habitual expectations of perception, once the formal and technical qualities of oil painting have been explored through the subjective means of abstract expressionism and the objective means of minimalism, and once the spheres of production and reception have been analyzed through the theoretical means of conceptualism and the satirical means of much of post-modernism, there remains the underlying question: why make another painting?
For Peter Flaccus the answer to this question has involved a return to a set of unfinished projects in the history of Western art. Most fundamentally, he has chosen to work for the past eight years solely by means of the technique of encaustic, one of the oldest techniques of the tradition, yet one that almost disappeared by the 12th century and has remained relatively rare. The Greek term enkaustikos, or "burning in," refers to the thermal treatment at the end of a process in which molten beeswax is mixed with pigments and at times resins, then kept fluid as it is brushed or otherwise manipulated upon a surface. Pliny the Elder"s Natural History records the method and mentions the unusual durability of surfaces produced by this technique, noting that paint applied to ships in this way could not be destroyed by the effects of sunlight, brine, or wind. The Fayum funeral portraits of the 2nd century AD are perhaps the most famous surviving examples of ancient encaustic art.
Flaccus begins with bleached pellets of French beeswax, which he melts in old pots on hot plates in his studio and mixes with damar resin, a varnish that comes in the form of clear crystals like small rocks. This is the classic recipe for an encaustic base. He then forms small brick-like pieces of this mixture which subsequently are melted again and combined with pigments.
In his early encaustic paintings he created spaces and marks by using brushes to apply and layer the wax. He then often would go on to incise and scrape the wax as well, re-melting and re-filling areas whenever his sense of the emerging composition required it. As the eye moved from trace to trace of the painter's movements in time, certain effects of depth and emergence were created. Beneath the surface of these works, the viewer could traverse areas of opacity and transparency. At times the surface of the wooden base would be visible; at times a wax-filled gash would draw the attention as steadily as a scar. Images from nature and the colors associated with Roman light – sepia, gold, gray, red and ochre – produced a sense of cultural fossilization, as if ruin had been stayed by the application of wax.
Freud compared the unconscious to a wax tablet on which are inscribed faintly visible traces of experience. In these early encaustics, there was a considerable emphasis upon the ways each gesture the painter makes could "count" or matter – each gesture is an indeterminate trace of human presence in and by means of a substance that has historically symbolized the crafted productions of nature and an ideal substance for human shaping and use. Although Flaccus has always eschewed metaphor for the evocation of visual form alone, the viewer was tempted to make familiar associations: the pilgrim's scallop shell, the whorl of hair on an infant's skull, the snail's architectural curve – somewhere on the threshold of nature and culture, an animal gesture seemed to become an intended action in this body of work. Between softening and hardening, the material could evoke the mutability of experience and the capacity of memories, too, to endure or harden in time.
Beyond these associations with animal industry and the impressionability of the memory, encaustic painting, however, challenges the definition of painting as three dimensions abstracted to two – a definition that continues to rely upon notions of depiction and reference to nature. One way to address this would be to consider encaustic painting as a type of sculpture, particularly a kind of relief – that is, to emphasize that the wax retains its dimensionality and is manipulated in three-dimensional space by the process of layering it. But this would not be adequate as a description of Flaccus's practice, for his recent paintings – at first dominantly a dark blue or rose-like Pompeian red, and more recently yellows, greens, tans and fuchsias – are meant to be apprehended as plane surfaces. He is making his way around the color wheel and thinking about how two or three colors can be combined like a musical chord. In these works Flaccus does not use a brush at all. He turns to the wooden board that will form the support for the finished painting and pools various amounts of variously-colored wax on the surface. All of this happens in a matter of seconds and he has less than a minute to make small adjustments or changes. Hence these paintings are an event as well as something made. The cooled painting can be scraped and smoothed to reveal a continuous variably colored surface reflecting and absorbing external light.
Variables of heat, speed, interaction of pigments, and other factors also introduce elements of chance and happenstance into a process that at the same time requires a very high degree of technical skill and knowledge. Painterly gestures are involved, but there is no thematic of touch or tactility. There is also not an emphasis on showing the process, or revealing the artifice – there is a quality of reserve about the technology. Since so much of the reaction between wax, pigment, and heat is fortuitous, the painter does not make claims for the process beyond the outcome that is the painting itself. Another person could not follow the method and make an analogous painting any more than he or she could retrace the method and become the same person.
Rather than offering the rising forms and surfaces of reliefs, the "blue" paintings can be compared to the experience of looking into a deep, smooth, body of water or the night sky, the "red" paintings suggest gazing at the sun or into a furnace. In either case, the opacity of white wax functions as a point of terminus – not in the object, but in the apparatus of perception. Yet of course these imaginary contexts come laden with a knowledge of their impossibility, given the mutual repulsion of wax and water and given the disastrous effects of excessive heat to wax. The viewer is thereby thrown back into acts of mind that are indeterminate and purely sensual until the next association arises.
These paintings thereby quite specifically evoke the relation between sense knowledge and the continuity of mental states that Descartes explored in his Second Meditation. Placing a ball of wax near a flame, Descartes held that if he could say the substance was the same, then there must be a continuity of perception – a continuity of the perceiving mind and hence of the perceiving subject himself. Throughout this meditation, a malleable ball of wax, in its indeterminate and constantly changing form, is an occasion for the mind to exercise its powers of abstraction. But what is perhaps underestimated in Descartes"s argument is the visual and tactile status of such sense impressions. In the alchemy of Flaccus"s practice as an abstract encaustic painter, the wax never asserts itself as anything other than wax – than transparency, opacity, color, and shape. There is no trompe l'oeil, no illusion of representation to interrupt the direct interplay of sensual apprehension of color, light, and form in relation to the continuity of the abstracting activities of the perceiving mind.
The resulting paintings (see, for example, Blue  and Red  on the back cover of this book) are luminous records of their own making. This is not merely a metaphor – it is as if their light stays "on" even as the cooled wax hardens. The areas of pure white have an intensity that seems hot, even as they also present areas of opacity, resolved by their cooled state. If after abstract expressionism it has seemed that modern painting is determined by the drips, spatters, blurs and runs of liquid paint, Flaccus's work makes us re-think the medium of painting, of colors arranged in a certain order on a plane surface, in fundamental ways. Encaustic painting opens up the relation between wet and dry, fresh and hardened, into temperature and another scale of time. The wax medium is in constant transformation and so the entire process of fabricating the painting evolves in an accelerated temporality. Balancing this acceleration is the longevity and durability of the finished work, which requires relatively little curating and will remain in a stable state so long as the surrounding temperature does not exceed 150 degrees.
Further, Flaccus is pouring his work without a mediating tool. Gravity, atmosphere in the studio, the chemical interaction of materials, and the artist"s gestures directly affect the final composition. There is almost no manipulation of the surface once the wax hits the board – therefore the final work has a ratio between happenstance and intention in which chance greatly outweighs the will of the painter's hand. Flaccus does not romanticize this and he has a strong sense that some works "don't succeed"; he will melt down a work and begin again and occasionally make small adjustments to the resulting work. But on this scale, mistakes are mistakes of nature as well as by-passed painterly objectives and every "mistake" yields information about a largely inarticulate knowledge of harmony and pleasure that resides in human perception. In other words, the mistaken is taken up into the next assemblage of works produced and embraced in the open-ended teleology of the painter"s life-long project.
Flaccus's transformation of the orientation of his making can be compared to Hofmann's use of poured paint, Pollock's turn toward the floor as his primary working surface, or Carl Andre's switch toward horizontality in making his sculptures. Flaccus's paintings are made on a table from above, but viewed in their finished state on a wall. His recent abstractions employing radiant effects are on the scale of two feet by a foot and a half – the size of a medicine cabinet mirror, an attic window, or a large open book. They are most readily apprehended at the distance one person usually stands from another in conversation – the place where the face is fully visible and the two speakers cannot quite see each others' shoes. There is a striking coincidence between the image and this scale of apprehension. They have a clarity at a distance and a resolution into surface details and nuances of shape, line, and color when viewed very closely. When Flaccus has experimented with larger, in some cases doubled, works with this process, they have an almost burdensome materiality that seems over-done and cannot readily be taken in. These ventures into grander works seem almost parodying of the features of the style. And smaller versions of this work, viewed at a distance, would lose some of the striking effects that come from the meeting of colors. Perfection of scale is indeed a quality of these encaustics if perfection is what makes a quality seem unalterable and complete in itself.
Because there is no illusion of depiction, the experience of scale is not at all bound to a comparison between the size of things in reality and the size of things in the image – rather, as Kant had claimed of aesthetical ideas more generally, there is a constant interplay between detail of mark, planes and shapes, and the edge as a place of event or meeting between substances of varying temperature and unquantifiable color. The final work is literally sealed, but there is no distinction possible between outer and inner, the substance of the thing and the substance of the seal. Oil paintings, acrylics, and watercolors involve the constant application of touches on the part of the artist. An encaustic painting also involves the application of gestures, if not touches, to its surfaces, and the final work has a depth that cannot be gauged from the visual information it provides alone. The colors in Flaccus's recent paintings have what might be described as internal edges; they do not conceal or cover something else beneath, yet because of this they seem of an indefinite depth and, locked together, the colors are juxtaposed in an interaction that is both dramatic and indefinite.
Modernism sought perfection in geometry and other eternal or static forms and hence continued a line of Platonism in art. But just as Flaccus's use of encaustic has opened another route to painterly materiality, so has his imagery opened another route to painterly content – that of the Aristotelian tradition of organic form, especially as it was received by the Romantics. This is a practice of abstract painting that does not place its emphasis upon the mechanics of the process in its use of tools, brushes, and the residue of gestures. Nor does it place its emphasis upon the rationality of the process by determining composition in advance. There are no studies or sketches or representations prior to, or independent of, the final work, nor are the elements of the painting and the relations between determined in terms of shapes and forms in the world outside the painting.
Consider August Schlegel's definition of the differences between mechanical and organic form in his 1808 "Courses of Lectures on Dramatic Arts and Literature":
The form is mechanical when through outside influence it is imparted to a material merely as an accidental addition, without relation to its nature (as e.g. when we give an arbitrary shape to a soft mass so that it may retain it after hardening). Organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it unfolds itself from within and acquires its definiteness simultaneously with the total development of the germ…. In the fine arts all genuine forms are organic, i.e. determined by the content of the work of art. In a word, form is nothing but a significant exterior, the speaking physiognomy of everything which, undistorted by any disturbing accidents, bears true witness to its hidden nature.
For Schlegel, the arbitrary shape given to a soft mass is mechanical because it is only determined by the need to end its prior state – as when something soft would need to be transported, or fit into a container. Organic form is in and for itself, following the demands of an inner teleology just as the bud unfolds into the flower, the mineral or salt becomes a crystal, the infant an adult person. There is nothing in the realized form that is superfluous or dominant. In Flaccus's recent works, there is never a moment of alienation from nature – rather there is a cycle continuing from the formation of wax and minerals to the re-mixing of these elements and a continuity between human gestures and human perception and the phenomena of the natural world without any necessary imitative or representative function.
Each painting arises from the conditions of its inner necessity. The works resemble each other, but each is unique and any imbalance in process or scale destroys the living quality of the final work. The judgment or determination of such an imbalance is in the end an outcome of a physical and cognitive response on the part of the painter or viewer. It is not that Peter Flaccus's paintings are neo-Romantic, but that the problem and opportunity of organic form has never receded despite the truly mechanical demands of various art movements. Such demands always function as either retrospective judgments of practices or prior determinations of content. Created within a culture of waste and decay, Peter Flaccus's paintings are paintings of duration, durable and radiant records of human making. To respond to them is to respond to something alive in ourselves as well as to their colors and light.
To let the artist speak for himself, here are some notes he has sent about "the perfect painting" in response to this essay:
1. The perfect painting is flat. The plain flatness of the support is the foil against which we experience the invented picture space. This is fundamental – a good painter (and thus the perfect painting) proposes a new picture space, one never before invented. An "original" style really means a new picture space, with specific new confines, characteristics, and rules. Only within his own custom-made picture space does the painter find himself, his voice, his freedom. Think: Bacon is free within the Bacon picture-space, Pollock is free within the Pollock picture-space, Warhol is free within the Warhol picture-space etc.
2. I actually believe that the picture space of these new paintings is an original invention. Among its special characteristics are: that the illusion is held in check by the physicality of the wax; the partly transparent paint body suggests an even thicker material layer than really exists; gesture is absent, and instead the images are traces of specific events that took place in a determined moment (as happens in photography, or the formation of rocks); colors exist as substance, rather than representing something else; the shapes of the paint substance are locked together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle rather than being overlaid coatings, as in conventional paintings; swelling forms, gently pulsing light, natural asymmetries, the contrast of soft roundness and square format all contribute to a tension between motion and stasis; the "color space" is not solid, liquid or gaseous, but a peculiar environment for form that seems to be in the process of becoming, rather than being fixed or rigid. You can't put new forms in an old warmed-over picture space. And new forms are necessary to elicit new emotions. And new emotions are necessary, otherwise: sentimentality.
3. Color = energy. Color is harnessed by exactly calibrating specific color relationships; this requires special knowledge and experience, and is analogous to a musician's manipulating the structure of chords, but is even more complicated than musical harmony, since colors exist in many independently variable dimensions (for example, light and dark value, "temperature," hue, intensity, transparency, quantity, etc.).
4. Order. The structure of a painting is designed to create pictorial tension, which means contradiction, conflict and drama, which means interesting to look at.
5. The perfect painting emanates light, obviously the illusion of light. Traditionally, painters have sought to represent light and manipulate light, to magical effect. However, lots of recent painters, in rejecting illusionism and romanticism, renounce light. Not me.
6. The perfect painting is formally elegant. The painting is flat, but it is an object and should be well-made. All the parts are visible. No smoke and mirrors. No brushwork "artfully" concealed. Impeccable execution, that is, material execution that is perfectly efficient. This is not virtuosity as a value in itself. Efficiency, on the other hand, is by itself a basic esthetic value. Getting a lot for a little. Most effect for least effort. For me, art works when it creates magic. The gap between what we experience and what we know is there creates the astonishment, the shivers. The gap is the art. The bigger the gap the better.
7, The perfect painting is characterized by an organic wholeness: integrity, Gestalt, the parts subordinated to a whole, a consistent logic from A to Z.
8. Leggerezza. The perfect painting pleases, and looks easy.
9, Since the perfect painting is not a metaphor for the fragmentary and contingent aspects of life, it will not be left unfinished. The masters (from Leonardo through Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, et al.) who left works in an unfinished state were obviously after bigger game than mere perfection. "Perfection," when technically possible, means simply fulfilling a very limited set of criteria.
10, The perfect painting has no more than two and a half ideas. A painting with three ideas is already a logjam. I tell my (skeptical) students to pare it down to two and a half. A pair of main ideas to establish the governing dialectic, plus a subordinated one to ramify the internal relationships are sufficient.
11. The perfect painting has correct scale. While contemporary galleries and museums generally ask for imposing, heroic scale paintings, the important thing is that the painting have the right scale for its formal content. It should "hold the wall" with authority. It should look alive from far away, and reveal more of itself as the viewer approaches it. With his nose finally practically touching the painting, the viewer will enjoy the fine-grained detail and notice another thing as well: the perfect painting, made from beeswax, smells good!
12, The perfect painting is in harmony with the universe! This must be the reason why, if the painter is distracted and lacks the requisite state of relaxed concentration, if there is an unnoticed draft from an open door, or other physical or psychic disturbance, the arrow will fly wide of the mark, and the painting is a dud.
13. A painting could satisfy all these criteria, and yet still be boring as hell. Several times in the past, just at that moment in which I was convinced that I had definitively understood my painting method, and thus had the happy prospect of an endless future of carefree productivity, all at once nothing worked anymore. The paintings were suddenly formulaic, dead on arrival. That's the proof that my own creativity depends as much upon not-knowing as upon knowing. Expertise is important up to a point, but the crucial factor is that each individual work be in a real sense an experiment. This is the reason that the unplanned and unplanable aspect of this new pouring process is working well for me now. Each painting is an experiment to see what would happen if I tried this or that little variation, and even if I reproduce all the procedures as closely as I can, I never get an identical copy.
14. As in nature, evolution creates forms. Painting is a progressive growing and learning process. "Perfection" will be a temporary evolutionary state. When one day I know how to make them perfectly, the game will be over.
15. This list is getting long, as more things occur to me, late at night. I just realized that the perfect painting, being simple and essential, will probably not be entirely autonomous, but rather exist as part of a series. Its meaning will depend in part upon comparison and contrast with other examples. In the end, the perfect painting may be like a sub-atomic particle as defined in quantum mechanics: we may have the statistical certainty that it has come into existence, but not have any way to locate it individually.