In the late fifties and early sixties the essential or ontological
reductionism of abstraction began to reveal its inextricable aporia. This was
most evidently manifested by Ad Reinhardt who, beginning in 1960, painted his
"Black Paintings" for five years. He kept making the `last picture', an empty
repetition of the same square black painting. Abstract reductionism had sought
to ban all contingent, non-essential, sensual aspects from the painting, from
the surface, so as to reveal, by way of reduction, the basic ontological
categories and important definitions of painting, that is to say the painting
itself, the first or the last picture. By contrast, reductive monochromy
revealed an irresolvable contradiction in each attempt to uncover the notion of
painting in a visible way. In the last picture, the notion of `painting'
converged with an individual painting, which, however, showed nothing
contingent, nothing sensual and thus nothing existential. Instead, it just
stood for the notion of it, but it was no longer painting, no specific,
individual painting. A painting that would only stand for a general notion of
'painting' would be no painting. Reduction does not lead to a significant
foundation or essence but rather to an emptiness, a nothingness: the absence of
anything visible, anything sensually concrete. What remains is the empty
convention which governs from the outside, by means of a framework, what
institutionally is perceived as a painting. A picture which only stands for
painting can, however, be used as a surrogate, a proxy for any other possible
picture. lt can assume the place of a painting within a framework or an
institution; it then functions as a vacant space, an ersatz which keeps the
place of a painting vacant and thus allows its absence to be perceived.
The sign which only stands for the notion of `painting' is itself a sort of
pictogram and indicates an empty space, a zero-point of painting. At the same
time this contradictory generic painting can become a sort of meta-painting.
Since the latter is also empty and void of meaning, simply a conventional and
cultural form of painting, it can serve to question the social and cultural
genre of `art' or `painting' per se. lt no longer has any pictorial, aesthetic
or artistic implications.
Such `ersatz'-paintings are analytic instruments to be used within the
socially existing places and institutions of art to demonstrate the functioning
of the context - venues, situations and institutions - of art. Giulio Paolini's
"disegno geometrico" (1960) or Daniel Buren's works with striped awning
material (from 1965 on) were used as instruments; Allan McCollum's early works
(1969- 1977) are a continuation of this critical-analytical exploration.
With the "Surrogates" (as of 1977/78), McCollum found a tool to increase the
range of critical analysis. As of 1982 the artist made large series of plaster
cast "Surrogates", which at first were made of wood. In relief form, these
works depict the material corporeal composition of the conventional picture as
its `picture', its subject. Dark, black surfaces surrounded by white `passe
partouts', which, in turn, are set in differently colored frames (cf.ill.).
These plaster reliefs are not just surrogates for paintings in the sense
that they depict and simulate the conventional structure of a graphic work
(frame, cardboard, passe-partout, drawing) in a painted relief. In a stricter
sense they are also proxies for paintings, they take its place on the wall and
in a specific setting. They are material placeholders. And like paintings, they
become individual through a banal, consistent combination of predefined formats
on the one hand and frame colors on the other.
The ironic, subversive move against the essentialist quality of abstraction,
through which the essence of painting proves to be an effect of framings,
economies and institutions, becomes particularly clear in McCollum's
"Surrogates on Location" (as of 1981/82). These works are made of photos
showing TV scenesor magazine photos in which "Surrogates" appear in the decor
of the scene, somewhere in the background, as a sign of cultivatedness and as
social or class-specific distinction. Some framed pictures became "surrogates",
which because of poor lighting and too great distance in its situation, in the
scene, and because of poor resolution of the screen are only visible as black
squares. Allan McCollum demonstrates, yes, even proves in an ironic sense that
the social and cultural meaning of paintings is always fully exhausted in the
mere signs of painting, in the "surrogates". It thus becomes clear that he only
reproduces existing pictorial signs with his plaster cast surrogates. In media
imagery he discovers - sarcastically "surrogates", as models preceding the
nonconceptual and pre primal.
The pictures no longer need a museum. As cultural status values, as signs of
social distinction they move in all realms of life. The cultural status value
of paintings enhances its place or its owner. Nothing of the painting must be
recognizable other than the empty sign of its value. It has to be recognizable
as an artwork and it is best when it can be recognized as the work of a
specific artist. The painting itself becomes a sign in cultural and social
terms in that it proves to be value - a value of exchange and as one of
distinction. By entering the economic cycle of exchange as an exchangeable
vehicle of value, it no longer shows itself as painting, as visible work.
Instead it reveals its social surface as a sign which it codes as a rare,
In this sense it resembles money, the equivalent or ersatz. It is also
similar to a commodity which as such is mainly a superficial sign of its
exchange and distinction value (commodity fetish) and only secondarily, if at
artwork is always only its own proxy, its own equivalent, its own semiotic
surface - its own surrogate.
The "Surrogates" function like artworks: the original is alien to them. They
are the product of a repetitive, quasi-industrial process, casts of a mold,
itself the product of a cast. They are commodities based on a model and no
longer the mimetic imitations of an original. They are copies or illusions and
no longer copies, since they do not imitate a model. Rather, they are created
through the vacuous iteration of industrial production. Yet within the economy
of.art, of an economy of rarer and more significant goods, they still also
function as artworks.
As opposed to the commodity, the "surrogates" are not just embedded in
situations in which their surface, their value is stressed, they also relate to
the place and to the context of painting. There they barely fulfill the minimum
expectations of painting. They allude to Marcel Duchamp's subversive strategies
at the point where they ostentatiously create a noticeable opposition between
the basic fulfillment of the expectations given in a specific situation,
governed by the context, the institution, and the disappointment, the lack.
This opposition can and should become productive in perception in a critical
and analytical sense.