Another Light: Painting’s Phenomenal Opticality

By David McDowell.

Published by The International Journal of the Image

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For Clement Greenberg only painting free of any representational or illusionistic vestige was truly ‘optical.’ All other painting, even non-representational painting that still suggested volume or depth, he regarded to be ‘tactile.’ Greenberg’s agenda in making this distinction was significantly partisan, specific to a certain moment in American modernist painting that is now part of art history. With Greenberg himself also now an art historical figure, it is easy to neglect his emphasis upon the optical quality of (some) painting, and to simply assume that because light is necessary for the viewing anything visible, painting can hold no special optical status.
This paper looks to reinstate Greenberg’s focus of the optical quality of painting but freeing it from the specific limits within which he set it. The first step in doing so is to identify an aspect of the phenomenal character of what Greenberg meant by ‘optical.’ It argues that this aspect is elevated when painting is concerned not merely with its own appearance or that of what it might attempt to represent, but rather presents the very condition of appearing, by means of light, of itself and what it represents. This proposition is developed initially by reference to Greenberg and through consideration of the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who had a developed interest in not only optics but in the very optics of painting. These examples serve as the bases for affirming a phenomenological perspective on art’s act of making visible. This case is further developed by identifying tensions in Gilles Deleuze’s understanding of ‘optical’ in regard to painting. These tensions are held up to counter Deleuze’s diminished regard for phenomenology, in order to consolidate the validity of the phenomenological approach to the experience of art.

Keywords: Phenomenology of Art, Painting and Optics, Clement Greenberg, Leonardo da Vinci, Elaine Escoubas, Gilles Deleuze

The International Journal of the Image, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp.205-218. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 896.789KB).

David McDowell

Lecturer, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia