The What is Painting? Project: Featuring William Conger

What is Painting? Norbert Marszalek

I thought it would be intriguing to ask painters this simple yet complex question. This query comes with no ground rules—it’s up to each individual artist to find their own approach and direction.

This project will be an ongoing exploration … let’s see where it takes us.

What is Painting?
Featuring William Conger

The cryptic answer to the question What is Painting? is that there is no painting until the question is asked. The direct answer is that there are many answers, perhaps one for each painter, and all of them are truthful but inherently incomplete. What I offer below is an effort to give my incomplete answer to the question for the sake of fostering dialogue.

You Can Start Anywhere

On a cold winter evening in 1965 I attended a lecture by famed art critic Harold Rosenberg at the University of Chicago. It was a packed house. Rosenberg stomped onto the stage like a happy Frankenstein (he had one inflexible leg) and spoke with great wit and charm. He knew he was talking to a diverse audience made up of art lovers, faculty and their spouses, students like me, and some artists from the community. He gave an entertaining summary of the perplexing and wildly pluralistic contemporary art scene. He had stories about the New York artists he admired — the action painters — and sarcastic remarks about those he didn’t admire. Those were the ‘post-painterly’ followers of Clement Greenberg, the minimalists and new conceptualists and, for good measure, those low-art Pop artists who had already turned attention away both from Rosenberg’s notion of angst filled abstract expressionism and Greenberg’s Platonic formalism. At the close of his lecture a nervous young artist asked, “So what’s next? What should an artist do now?” Rosenberg stepped back from the podium, spread his arms and roared, “You can start anywhere!”

A few days later I read Rosenberg’s new book, The Anxious Object where he wrote, “It matters not in what mode an artist begins…the formal repertory of modern art was fairly complete by 1914.”1 For Rosenberg what counts is finding the obstacle to going ahead and confronting it in “prolonged hacking and gnawing” as the starting point of “discovery and metamorphosis.”2 The Anxious Object is the extended version of “You can start anywhere!” That statement was an amazing revelation for me. It has become my motto as an artist. The artist can begin anywhere, with any mode of art, with any tradition, set of skills or materials, and with any idea. As Rosenberg argued, discovery and thus new art emerges from how one vexes what is already done. More than a century earlier, Eugene Delacroix wrote on the same topic: “What inspires (artists) is not new ideas but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”3

So many painters tremble at the first step, trying to decide what tool to use, what color to mix, what mark to make and where to put it, desperate to do something new. Yet all they need to do is to start, to act, to make any mark, and then recognize that the real issue, now instantly reborn, is to deal with the conflicts, paradoxes, enticements and habits which that mark brings to mind. The challenge is making the first mark with ‘begin anywhere’ confidence while recognizing it as a stark reality, something in the world to be examined, indexed, reflected upon, and cherished or discarded because it does or does not exemplify the otherwise shapeless feelings we know as our own. For those who understand this, the second mark counts big. That is the beginning of the do or die intensity of painting; it means that everything that matters is in the act of painting.

Act, Object, Idea

Of course I realize that there is more to painting than the physical act of painting. However, for me the essential thing is the act: painting as a verb. I like Franz Kline’s blunt declaration, “A painting is something painted with paint”4 because he put the emphasis on the act by using the word painted which implies an agent, the painter (or a machine) applying paint. He could have said a painting consists of paint, or a painting is an instance of paint but one can’t read his words without imagining the painter at work painting a painting. Nevertheless, Kline did not deny that painting might involve more than the act of painting for it is also true that painting as a noun consists of paint or is an instance of paint, meaning it’s an example of painted things, all of them nouns. Moreover, nowadays we can easily recognize that the noun paint is a looser signifier than it was for Kline and his era. Many substances, like water or tar or cloth or dust or hundreds of other such things have been regarded and used as-if paint. Moreover, we can be perfectly clear in saying that a painting is an object independent of the painter and maybe not made by a painter. Finally, painting might even be an object in imagination only—an idea—as when Monet imagined the tree he saw as so many blobs of paint.

So even though I prefer to think of the act of painting as an essential or foundational physical feature, I also regard it as a dialectical act that synthesizes the distinctions between painting as object and painting as idea. Ultimately, I regard the dialectical act of painting to be a purposeful act that generates metaphors which are the subject and content of art.

In this way of thinking I am led to suppose first of all that there are three aspects to painting: painting as an act; painting as an object; painting as an idea. Each of them can be examined independently of the others and each can be antagonistic to the others for there is nothing about the act, the object, or the idea that is necessary to all three. For example, the art historian (or anyone) may give top priority to painting as a physical object, something that can be indexed according to formal attributes, and be little concerned with media and process; the art philosopher (or anyone) may give top priority to painting as an idea and ignore particular painting acts or objects or choose only those which illustrate a philosophical point of view. The historian and theorist do not create art. They describe it or define it. They examine the separate aspects of painting as act, object, idea.

In performing the act of painting, however, the painter who aims for the creation of art, and not merely its definition or descriptive examples, must reconcile the natural antagonism among the three parts of painting by acting with paint to attain a singular oneness or synthesized harmony among them, a new frozen moment urging us to imagine metaphors embedded in visual form. Only this act, for the audiences, for everyone, even the for painter, enables the surprise of art proper, the aesthetic experience, which can be said to be the awareness of a never before-never-again synthesis of act, object, and idea.

When Does a Painting Begin?

Even though I’ve decided for myself that a painting begins when I produce a mark with paint upon a canvas, I know it’s reasonable to say that the beginning could be in the mental decision to act and not in the mark resulting from the act. In other words, we can push back the beginning of the painting act until it’s really more idea than act. When Hans Namuth5 crawled under a propped up table of glass to film Jackson Pollock, who stood on a wobbly stepladder and flung paint from above, he had evidently already decided that Pollock’s paintings began in the air, not when the paint physically marked the canvas but moments before in the airborne falling arcs of paint. When the paint landed on the glass, the surrogate canvas, they became the history of the painting act—its past—and not the whole act itself. When Harold Rosenberg coined the term action painting and defined the canvas as an arena in which to act, he metaphorically expanded the canvas to embrace the physical space and movements of the artist as they occurred and not after they had left their traces on the canvas. Did Pollock begin his painting when he dripped his paint as Namuth implies or when dipped a stick into a can of paint or even before that when he bought a can of decorator house paint at the hardware store? Did he begin when he spread his canvas in the floor? Was it when he recalled some incident from the past that prompted him to imagine painting with drips and pours? Once we give up limiting the beginning of a painting to a physical mark on a surface, an arbitrary yet useful limitation, we can’t find a beginning at all. That’s why Rosenberg said that the artist can begin anywhere.

When I leave my home in the morning to drive to my studio I am already painting in my mind; that is I am immersed in the idea of painting. I may be thinking about the sketches I made the evening before and the new brushes I will soon use. I am alert to new sights or happenstance in my neighborhood and, recalling Monet, I pretend to see them as if they were made of paint. I notice shapes of things and spaces that look like the abstract shapes in my paintings. I am preparing to act.

And When Does a Painting End?

Once in the studio I begin working right away. No lingering. I turn on bright lights. I am comforted by my paints and tools, my brushes cleaned and dry, the benches and stacked paper, the new paintings on the easels, the pure workshop aura. I act on first impulse, mix a color and choose a brush and start. Only then am I caught up in the daydreaming that enables art. I feel blended with the centuries of other artists who went to their studios to do what I am doing. I imagine them with me, helping me or being ruthless and sardonic in their critiques. We converse in make-believe. That is the stuff of an artist’s solitude. In complete isolation there is total freedom of the mind. I free-associate in silence. My shapes and colors keep morphing from one likeness to another. They embody memories and stories and pictures in rapid succession and all together. I make abstract compositions but they keep coming alive metaphorically with borrowed identities as if they were dancers stretching, bending and leaping or were stolid soldiers in a grim line of defense or even remained a set of squares and circles playfully happy to have escaped from some too serious Greenbergian painting to now enjoy a deep breath in a sky once forbidden to them. I am a witness to this crazy melange sprouting from my brushes. I’m the protector, the teacher, the guardian, the bandleader, the lover, the old uncle, the mischief-maker in chief, the wayward holy roller, art criminal and all-around eager friend to every line, shape, and color gathered in my studio. It all involves mystery and joy but there are also feelings of melancholy, real sorrow, loss, of deep loneliness, menace and foreboding. If I’m lucky one day or another, a painting can absorb it all, all the ridiculous pretensions and all the searing and too real pain, at least for a while. The painting is a sacrificial thing. It takes in and masks with pigment all the vanities, joys, sorrows and dreams, not only mine but of any others that linger by. It is an object that now functions as a container for an entwined set of metaphors. I paint them all over and over. I change every shape and color trying to keep up with their make-believe games. Day after day. Then the whole painting is scarred and beaten but no giving up is allowed. My job is to give it a good face, to prop it up with a pat on the back, a dress-up confidence and the promise that it can go it alone. It’s been to hell and then to the carnival and then restlessly imprisoned in my mind. Now it’s free and and doesn’t need me or want me anymore. It is done.

Painting As Painting Made With Paint—The Expansive Limit

For centuries, and maybe since the days of the Paleolithic cave dwellers, people have used paint, or some gooey, wet substance colored with dirt or dyes to smear images onto surfaces. Whatever the media and its uses, far more varied than any one person can imagine or master, painting has always been up to the task of exemplifying the whole range of human experience, from the mundane to the truly profound. Paint seems infinitely malleable. It seems that nothing in individual or collective experience has ever been beyond the expressive limits of painting. When we look to past times to seek an understanding of culture, the state of civilization, of science and technology, spiritual belief, of human hubris and humility, we can find it all in painted imagery, more than we can live long enough to see. In addition, painting has always been a medium for personal identity, for declaring the self, of avoiding the dissolution of individual freedom. In recent times, modernist painting was defined as prime evidence of the existential self, the angst driven assertion of authentic individual meaning in an apparently indifferent universe. Or so it seemed.

When Jackson Pollock painted Lavender Mist in 1950 he almost went beyond the bounds of painting. His paint included hardware store paint made for decorating walls with pale colors. His canvas was raw, unprimed and unstretched. His brushes included sticks, cans with holes poked through them, his own fingers, rags, and other devices. Pollock was not using the art supplies that had been proven good enough for centuries, good enough for the masterpieces of Leonardo, Rembrandt, Manet, or Picasso or even those Paleolithic masters of Lascaux. For as long as anybody knew, the picturing of whatever can be summed as human experience had been done with a fairly small range of painting pigments, tools and surfaces. Now Pollock had pushed them to their limits as if to recognize that they might not do the job anymore, that they might not be adequate to contain or symbolize the burgeoning reality of human experience.

Not long ago I visited the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and spent some time with Lavender Mist. Like many others I had become somewhat numb to Pollock, automatically recalling phrases like Jack the Dripper which blends of all of his mature work as look-a-likes, a generic swirling tangle of poured and spattered paint. I knew it was time for me to take a hard look again at one Pollock painting, perhaps his greatest painting. I put aside my preconceptions, my lazy lumped together mental Pollocks, and looked at Lavender Mist while pretending to be as young as I was when he made it. I went very close and far back, I sat and stood. I wandered from one end of the huge painting to the other. I queried the work and submitted to it. I smiled at its lasting audacity. I was dazzled by the freshness and complexity of this painting. It’s still shocking to be at the mercy of a Pollock: raw canvas, coagulated paint, furious swirls, spontaneous drips, scruffy hand-prints, and sheer bigness. After wondering how tan colors could be made so aggressive just by the speed of their application, I noticed what seemed to be very deliberate, slow, small additions and corrections as if Pollock had resorted to the traditional daub-and-step-back-for-a-look approach of easel painting. Did he really carefully weave in lines and edges, spots and splatters after the fact? Did he blot or transfer paint with edged objects? I suspect he did and if so that makes Lavender Mist much more difficult and confrontational. It enables the painting to escape the cliched descriptions (created by Namuth’s film) of his process as limited to pouring and dripping of paint from above and not also brushed or smeared directly onto the canvas.

There’s plenty of evidence, any viewer can see it, that Pollock used every method of marking the canvas with paint, with Lavender Mist and certainly afterwards. He was intent on reaching the expansive point just short of going beyond paint —and painting—which would happen if non-paint objects were added (notwithstanding his-paint embedded cigarette butts and his few much discussed but seemingly experimental collage and cut-out paintings such as the large Out of The Web painting on masonite in 1949). I think he did want to define the limit of painting as Kline described it, “painted with paint.” Of course others, including Picasso and Braque had already gone beyond that limit years earlier with collage and soon newcomers such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jim Dine would do it again by incorporating everyday objects not painted with paint into their paintings. Nevertheless, for Pollock, it may have been true that he had reached the point in Lavender Mist where painting was at the brink of not being painting anymore.

In Naifeh and Smith’s probing biography of Jackson Pollock, (1989) there’s a remarkable episode reported by Lee Krasner. Jackson had just finished Lavender Mist and asked her, “Is this a painting?” She later said, “Can you imagine? “Not ‘Is it a good painting’ but “Is it a painting?’”6 I think Pollock realized that with Lavender Mist he had expanded painting as something painted with paint to its limit. Perhaps he realized that if that was the limit of painting it was no longer big enough to contain or exemplify individuality—his individuality—and modern life experiences.

Painting As Something Made with Paint—The Reductive Limit

If painting reached an expansive limit in Lavender Mist what of its reductive limit? At what point is painting too mere? When is a painting too small in its presentation as “made of paint”? Despite the compelling mid-century commentaries by Clement Greenberg advocating the reduction of painting to its most essential and necessary elements, Russian artist Aleksander Rodchenko had already ‘been there and done that’ in 1921 when he exhibited a triptych of monochrome paintings: Pure Red Color, Pure Blue Color, Pure Yellow Color. He then said, “I reduced painting to it logical conclusion….I affirmed ‘It’s all over’….there is to be no more representation.”7 This was indeed a step beyond Malevich’s famous 1918 White on White painting because Malevich still nestled a square within a square, making one—or both—of them the illusionist field functioning as something not made of paint. Rodchenko, however, did eliminate the perception of a painted surface as something not made with paint, but only if we avoid metaphorical associations and stick with his logical, literalist outlook. His triptych was all paint. It was paint as paint just as Pollock probably intended Lavender Mist to be for we are reminded that Pollock rejected any allusive representation of Nature when he declared, “I am Nature,” which is to say that he was Lavender Mist. Poignantly, when he asked Lee Krasner, Is this a painting?” he might have been asking, Is this me? (it is worth mentioning here that Clement Greenberg invented the title Lavender Mist, an odd painting as-something-else contradiction of his literalist notions about painting. Pollock had titled it Number 1,1950).8

Nothing Exceeds Painting as Metaphor

Just as other artists had gone beyond Pollock to add things to paintings not painted with paint so too did some of them reduce painting further than Rodchenko had done. Rauschenberg presented the untouched raw canvas as a painting. Then it was a tiny step to present the wall itself, or anything at all, as the painting. Painting had exceeded the limit of acting with paint to acting with the idea of painting. At this point painting had uncovered its subjective side, its metaphorical side (as Greenberg unwittingly recognized by renaming Pollock’s “No 1” with a metaphor for a certain colored atmosphere).

Although painting was always metaphorical, after Pollock’s Lavender Mist, it began to break away from the pretense that it was not. The act of painting returned to the act of generating metaphors, sometimes only ‘painted with paint’ and other times made with something else to be imagined as painted with paint.

Some artists, including me, have mostly continued to paint with paint, to make “something painted with paint” as if to work within the range defined by Rodchenko and Pollock but newly embracing the reality that painting is always about something else, too. In my early art school days in the 1950s it was evident that abstract paintings could be made with something besides paint and could engage in the full play of illusion and allusion. Before 1960 I had already collaged cut apart paintings and added everyday attachments to my Abstract Expressionist paintings. I realized that any paint mark looked like itself and something else and thus was not much different with respect to allusions from an actual something else, such as a piece of wood, attached to the painting. Today I sometimes make painted objects on wood with added sticks, glass, metal, string, and more and consider them as kinship alternatives to my ‘all paint’ paintings. After all, they, as well as my all-paint paintings, can be equally imagined as made with paint or as something else not made of paint. They are all material visualizations of metaphors.

It doesn’t matter if one considers painting to be the act of making marks with paint—something painted with paint—or as the act of using anything as-if it was made with paint, or the reverse, of acting with paint as-if it were something else, because the essential reality of painting is its metaphorical function. Painting is one human activity that exists expressly for the sake of generating metaphors or make-believe. It has no other function.

Despite limits imposed or exceeded in efforts to define what painting is, what was never excluded was the subjectivity of painting, by which I mean the compulsion of the mind to identify anything for what it is and for what it might be and feels like. Paint is itself and always something else too. Any shape or color, any image whatsoever evokes a plethora of associations—some purely emotional—which are projected back to them, making them representations. There is no escape from this and for that reason there is no such thing as painting reduced to its essential and necessary elements or to painting going beyond its maximal limit because there are no limits to metaphor.

In Summation

I think painting is the act of painting that generates our metaphors and the surprising awareness of art as self identity through its unity with painting as an object and as an idea. It is something painted with paint and something else presented as-if painted. It proves the truth of Rosenberg’s advice, “You can start anywhere” and evokes the challenge of Delacroix’s “not yet done enough”. Most of all, painting never stops forcing us to ask Pollock’s profound and troubling question, “Is this a painting?


William Conger
William Conger, Meridian, oil on canvas, 36″ x 32″, 2014


1 Rosenberg, Harold, The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audience, Collier Books, New York, NY, 1966, p. 20.
2 Rosenberg, p. 20.
3 Wellington, Herbert, Editor, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, Cornell University Press, 1951, p. 40
4 Rosenberg, p. 42.
5 Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An America Saga, Harper
Perennial, New York, NY, with permission from Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1989. p.648
6 Naifeh/Smith, p. 649.
7 Drake, Ryan, The Death of Painting (after Plato), Research in Phenomenology 41, (2011) p. 23-24.
8 Naifeh/Smith, p. 614.

© 2014 William Conger

William Conger is a Chicago-based abstract artist whose work has been widely exhibited, collected since1958. He was awarded a 50 year retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2009 and continues to exhibit new work in Chicago at Zolla Lieberman Gallery, Printworks Gallery, Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis, Vendome Gallery in NY, and elsewhere. He was professor and chair of the department of art and art history at DePaul University in the 1970s and 80s and and then professor and chair of the department of art theory and practice at Northwestern University where he is now professor emeritus. His published art writing has appeared in Whitewalls, Critical Inquiry, Language Sciences, Psychoanalytic Studies in Biography, and others. He was a founding editor of Chicago/Art/Write, a 1980s publication devoted to artists’ writing.

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