Painting and Indexicality
So, how to define painting once it has merged with other procedures - from the readymade and linguistic propositions to the insights of institutional critique? How to determine a practice that renders impossible the rigorous distinction between what is intrinsic and what is extrinsic to it? I want to propose that we conceive of painting not as a medium, but as a production of signs that is experienced as highly personalized. By focusing on painting's specific indexicality, we will be able to grasp one of its main characteristics: it is able to suggest a strong bond between the product and the (absent) person of its maker. This is due to the way indexical signs actually operate: According to Charles S. Peirce, an index shows something about a thing because of its physical connection to it. Since he mentioned photography as an example for this "class off signs," art historians tend to mainly treat photography as the indexical art form par excellence. But I would argue that painting suggests such a physical connection even more strongly. Someone has left her marks.
Frank Stella's observation that painting is a sort of handwriting was actually quite to the point. Its signs are indexical insofar as they can be read as traces of the producing person. Now even if we opt for a deconstructionist approach, insisting how the trace equally addresses "the formal conditions of separation, division, and deferral," we are still dealing with the ghost of a presence. This is also true for those paintings that avoid handwriting by using a technical device, as in Gerhard Richter's abstract paintings produced with a squeegee. By moving the squeegee up and down the painting in a particular way, Richter inscribes his own body movement into the painting. In other words, attempts to eliminate the subjectivity of the artist from the painting usually lead to a reentering of subjectivity into painting. And the more negation there is of handwriting, the more this negation will be considered to be the handwriting of the artist.
Yet linking indexicality to painting does not imply that we ignore the split that occurs between the artwork and the authentic self. What we encounter in painting is not so much the authentically revealed self of the painter, but rather signs that insinuate that this absent self is somewhat present in it. As a highly mediated idiom, painting provides a number of techniques, methods, and artifices that allow for the fabrication of the impression of the author's quasi-presence as an effect.
For this indexical effect to occur, the artist does not need to have literally set her hand on the picture, or to have brandished a brush, or to have thrown paint on it. A mechanically produced silkscreen by Andy Warhol, who often delegated his work his assistants, or a printed black painting by Wade Guyton, is no less capable of conveying the sense of a latent presence of the artist - by virtue, for instance, of imperfections deliberately left uncorrected, selected combinations of colors, or subsequent improvements. Painting, then, would have to be understood as the art form that is particularly favorable to the belief - widespread in the visual arts more generally - that by approaching or purchasing a work of art, it is possible to get a more immediate access to what is assumed to be the person of the artist and her life.