The background for this project is the longstanding debates around painting that have come to be known as the expanded field in painting, painting beside itself or peinture comme volume.
A widespread awareness of the idea of tableau perhaps first came to light in Yve-Alain Bois’s book Painting as Model and particularly in his reference to the two formalisms, distinguished as originating in Europe and the United States. However tableau was just an implication here. The two formalisms can be crudely characterised by Clement Greenberg’s idea of painterly specificity as centred around qualities of flatness and optical events, the contrasting European formulation being Hubert Damisch’s complex sense of thickness as being its defining property. The difference between these formulations can be read as a movement from an idea of painting to one of tableau.
In 2001 the exhibition, conference and book, As Painting: Division and Displacement, organised by Philip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon and Stephen Melville explored an American and largely French context of post war artistic practices that had as its backdrop the crisis engendered within painting by Minimalist art. Robert Morris and Donald Judd’s positions worked against a view of painting as being relational, internally composed and as antithetical to the relationship to the spectator they were advancing. Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood, which remains the key text about this critical moment, was arguably what many French artists in the 1960s and 70s were responding to; i.e. they were developing ‘painting’ that was critically addressing the Minimal Art paradigm. In many senses they were deploying ideas and practices that added up to an understanding of painting as tableau. As Painting explored this, through the exhibition as well as in the published texts, where translations into English of essays by Christian Bonnefoi and Jacques Lacan develop how tableau and thickness in painting can be understood.
It was in Michael Fried’s recent book Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before that the term tableau came into focus in a significant way. In chapter 6 Fried extensively uses Jean François Chevrier’s formulation of tableau, in relation to photography, as a defining term for his own understanding of what is at work in the large scale photography he is discusses. Some interesting distinctions arise out of Fried’s analysis of Chevrier’s formulation. The English translation of Chevrier’s text used picture form in place of tableau. Fried states he prefers tableau to picture, I think mainly because the photographers he is discussing factor in, the support, framing and display as material to the work as a whole; for example - light boxes in the case of Jeff Wall’s work. Chevrier’s position is perhaps more clear in his description of this genre of large-scale photography as being an object-image.
The key aspect for me in the opening up of this discussion around photography through the filter of tableau is the fact that it disrupts the dialectic of how photography and painting have been discussed in recent years. Large-scale photography has been seen to be using painting as a reference and painting has been seen to be a mediation of photography. One medium has been used for the terms upon which to discuss the qualities of another. The introduction of tableau into this displacement is the use of a third term and the question here is to understand what tableau might be; what is at play and stake in its use in such analysis.
This was the underlying territory for the first phase of this project. The working title for the conference to be held at Tate Modern was Tableau, dispositif, apparatus. My feeling has been that tableau is a compound of processes, mechanisms and qualities, something akin to a mechanism and resembles the way many French artists use dispositif to describe the underlying logic of their work. Apparatus is often utilised in a similar way. Dispositif brings into focus Foucault’s writings, his essay on Las Meninas can be thought of as a description of it as a dispositif. Similarly Althusser’s concept of apparatus serves a similar role in opening up tableau to wider discussion. The Tate conference will be organised around Michael Fried and Jean-François Chevrier working into tableau, Philip Armstrong into apparatus, Fulvia Carnevale into dispositif and Michael Newman somewhere between the three terms. Stephen Melville will also intervene in the tableau session.
There will be a second day, of the Tate conference, dedicated to research papers. The two symposia, of which this is the first, are in preparation for this second day.
I chose the quote from Jean-François Chevrier’s text The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography for the call for papers for the symposia and I think this needs some remarks. He says :
The restitution of the tableau form (to which the art of the 1960s and 1970s, it will be recalled, was largely opposed) has the primary aim of restoring the distance to the object-image necessary for the confrontational experience, but implies no nostalgia for painting and no specifically “reactionary” impulse. The frontality of the picture hung on or affixed to the wall and its autonomy as an object are not sufficient as finalities. It is not a matter of elevating the photographic image to the place and rank of painting. It is about using the tableau form to reactivate a thinking based on fragments, openness and contradiction, not the utopia of a comprehensive systematic order.
The reason for the choice of this text was to open up a wider discussion and one that brings into focus a complexity of positions. The quote from Chevrier is highly layered. On the one hand it distances itself from looking at photography in terms of a hierarchy of mediums – its status as painting. On the other hand he addresses fragments, openness and contradiction as somehow being in answer to the opposition to the tableau form of the art of 1960s and 1970s which I read here as Minimalist and Concept Art practices. The question here is if the opposing position to fragments, openness and contradiction can be stated as wholeness, closure and literalism? Interestingly Chevrier is opening up a position that in turn is critical of the Minimalist paradigm resembling Fried’s critical position as laid out in Art and Objecthood. However Chevrier here is not addressing an axis upon which specific objects and painting simply stand. He seems to be calling for a more complex analysis.
My feeling here is tableau offers ways of addressing the rhetorical qualities within a broadly pictorial field of practice. That it can mobilise an analysis grounded in complexities rather than the arguably theatrical properties of gestalt effects, unitary and primary forms. Composition seems to be at stake here. Both in Greenberg and Morris and Judd’s analysis auto, non and anti composition have increasingly become standard strategies for artists including painters. Tableau, dispositif and apparatus imply thinking of artistic forms as compositional objects. Words such as aggregation, distribution and parataxis give the possibility of reviewing composition in artistic practice not solely as the product of automatic process and displacement of authorship, but rather as material and immanent to the rhetorical address of pictorial forms. Diderot is in the background here, absorption and theatricality is at work here behind the scenes. The constructed nature of pictorial form brings to mind Leo Steinberg’s Flat Bed Picture Plane. Collage, montage, the reprographic and the autographic are material elements with the mechaism of the tableau. Another question here seems to be of the image. Where can it be materially said to stand in pictorial forms; how can we talk about how it operates, functions and its address?
27 November 2010, Central Saint Martins.