With the notable exception of the brilliant Beverly Fishman, who encouraged us to question all forms of painting, my education didn’t really consider the sides of paintings. They were painted white—that ever-problematic stand-in for neutrality—or stained by action on the front, but more often simply ignored. Left untouched as if they didn’t exist, they remained one blind spot among many in my youth. Of course, there was, and still is, something evocative about that untouched part of a canvas or linen or panel—years after art school, I recall relating strongly to Dike Blair’s beautiful description of the transition from front to side in a review of a Vija Celmins show. And, thankfully, structuralist painting theory has become well revivified by As Painting: Division and Displacement (2001) and other explorations in the last 20 years. But I think in my formative years I just generally received the signal that “real paintings” have a kind of look. This might explain why I’ve been so slow to comprehend my undergraduate students’ tendency towards a couple of things: they buy their canvases pre-stretched, and they either paint the sides black or they continue their painting on the front all the way around the sides.
I struggle with populist approaches to art, so it’s taken me a few years, but I’ve begun to understand why so many of my students buy their canvases premade. While we teach them how to make a stretcher and panel from scratch, they’re often working at a job 20 hours or more a week on top of a full load of classes and are beholden to strict economic limits or parental demands. Some have children or are ROTC. Looking back at my own art school experience, Blick’s scorched-earth strategy hadn’t yet begun, and I don’t remember that there were any pre-stretched canvases to be had at the boutique art store on campus. To paint on one was to be a hobbyist, an amateur, a painter manqué, and we needed the extra money for paint, beer, and cigarettes. These current kids drink and smoke (or pop Adderall and vape) but I also think they walk into the store, see row after row of pre-made, pre-gessoed canvases of all sizes, and realize they can load ’em into their car and drive to the studio and start painting within an hour. In all honesty, it’s hard to blame them. Like the rest of us, they’re caught in cheap credit, Amazon, and streaming addiction. Student loans loom. Beer and smokes aren’t the only demands on their credit cards: they’re saddled too young with the expectation of a car payment, $600 phone, laptop, internet bill. They’ve been brought up to need these things, and the cost is time, so they spend more money on supplies to save it, a familiar cycle. As much as the desire to paint cartoons or selfies or process-based abstraction, this unrecognized scenario signifies the contemporary in their work, compounded by the fact that often my students’ pre-college exposure to paintings isn’t coming from “the artworld” but everyday retail capitalism: paintings for sale at Target, galleries on Main Street, the state fair, Instagram, and Pinterest.
So, what does this have to do with painting the sides of a canvas black, or painting what’s on the front and turning it a full 90 degrees onto the sides? Why would this make intuitive sense, unless, of course, the painting itself was black, like Reinhardt or Steir or Offili? Recently I was asking a colleague why a campus gallery’s ceiling was painted black and his theory was that the ceiling would “disappear,” like the night sky. It doesn’t: being in the greatest contrast with brightly lit white walls, the dark ceiling creates the most difference, not disappearing but announcing itself with maximum force. But the fallacy of the disappearing ceiling got me thinking about the sides of canvases painted black (and the trend of many sculptural installations to have black walls) and the desire for something difficult to just disappear. Of course! The desire to conceal the edge is not only to deal with its persnickety formality but an unconscious impulse to conceal its retail origins, its identity as an art store (and artworld) commodity. I mean, painting has been positioned as the ultimate commodity fetish within a crowded field, so wouldn’t it be nice if the role of capital—from the art store to the art fair to the auction house—just disappeared? Though my students don’t yet know it, to paint the side in this way is a particularly American move, an unconscious desire to have it both ways: to benefit from and yet conceal the apparatus of capital behind our behaviors, in school, art, and the everyday.