The Beginning of the End of Painting


The 1960s was the period in which deconstructive art came into ascendency and painting lost its grip as the principal medium of fine art. But we can trace the evolution of this development further back. Certain individuals pursued the deconstructive turn in the 1950s, notably Robert Rauschenberg and Yves Klein. And, as always, we can trace the genealogy back further into early twentieth century art; specifically, to Cubist collage, Kurt Schwitters’ trash paintings, Dada’s philosophy of “anti-art”, the Dada and Surrealist concepts of chance, automatism, and montage, as well as the Duchampian Readymade. But, perhaps, the first icon for the mythic “end of painting” was created in 1915 when Kasimir Malevich produced his Black Square painting.

We may ask ourselves whether the Black Square is a painting or whether it announces that which will transcend painting; it appears to be less a painting and more philosophical object. And in this sense it resonates with the Duchampian Readymade such as Fountain, 1917, which although an object is certainly not a sculpture in the traditional sense.


Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting, 1951. House paint on canvas, 72 x 72 in, four panels. Collection the artist’s estate.

It was only when the metaphysical implications of abstraction—first evinced in Malevich’s Black Square–began to intermingle with the implications of the Duchampian Readymade that the process of undermining the hegemony of painting would begin. The first significant postmodern elaboration came in 1951 when Robert Rauschenberg created White Painting, consisting of four stretched canvases covered with house paint. When Rauschenberg exhibited more white paintings at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in September 1953, Barnett Newman—a practitioner of the genre of Hard Edged Abstractionism—commented that “He thinks it’s easy. The point is to do it with paint.” (in Kotz 1990: 79). But the younger Rauschenberg was more in tune with the spirit of the time than Newman, realising that in the wake of the Duchampian Readymade the point of postmodern art is to shift the boundaries of art beyond specific media. Painting would ultimately become reduced to being simply one more colour in an ever-expanding artistic palette.

And if the reader is unconvinced by my reference to the Duchampian Readymade with respect to White Painting then consider another work from 1951: Automobile Tire Print. Rauschenberg was assisted in the production of this work by the avant-gardist composer John Cage who drove his Model A Ford over the sheets of paper thereby providing an imprint of everyday life worthy of the title “Readymade”.

What we find in art of the post-war period is a significant intensification of deconstructive process evident in early 20th century art but rarely taken to the extremes that became the norm during the 1960s. The only exception is the Duchampian Readymade which is as radical as anything produced in the 1960s, or for that matter at the turn of the millennium.



Yves Klein, Monochrome Propositions: Blue Period. Galerie Apollinaire, January 1957.

Another artist who turned to the process of extreme deconstruction as early as the 1950s was the French artist Yves Klein who is noteworthy, like Rauschenberg, for his reduction of the art of painting down to a single colour: in Klein’s case a particular shade of ultramarine which he dubbed YKB (Yves Klein blue). He even took a patent out making YKB his own personal colour. One of the first exhibitions of Klein’s monochrome paintings was his “Monochrome Propositions: Blue Period” at the Galerie Apollinaire in January 1957. The Milanese artist Piero Manzoni was particularly impressed by Klein’s exhibition and soon afterwards produced his first white “Achrome” paintings (Bodet, Lecombre 1986: 55) . Evidently Manzoni was unaware that Rauschenberg had already “taken” the colour white. When it comes to the Readymade, whether it be white or ultramarine, it is a question to who gets there first.


Raymond Hains, Poster in Yiddish, 1950. Torn poster 34 x 54cm. Signed and dated bottom right. Collection Yehuda Neiman, Paris.

Raymond Hains was a colleague of Klein, and became a fellow member of the Nouveaux Réalistes in 1960. With Mimmo Rotella Hains pursued a new mode of Readymade based on torn posters encountered on the streets of Paris. Not only are these objects Readymade’s they also reference Cubist collage. But whereas Picasso and Braque brought little scraps of newspaper and wallpaper into their paintings, Hains took the next logical step and amplified the scraps into the condition of “paintings”. Kurt Schwitters (left) did much the same thing but his pieces were compositions. What makes the Poster in Yiddish, 1950, illustrated above, different is that there is no composition: the composition is ready-made. If we can call selecting such an arrangement from everyday life “composition” then it is a mode of composition more akin to the photographic frame than to painting. Like a photograph Poster in Yiddish is a species of visual “quotation”.

Another member of the Nouveaux Réalistes, César (César Baldaccini), made his reputation in the world of art by exhibiting cars compressed by the machine used in wrecking yards; a very simple concept, and César is quite open about the fact that he is no intellectual. Yet he had stumbled upon a genial formula. To begin with his crushed automobiles are true readymades. Anyone with the cash to buy scrap metal could afford one. But of course it can only be a work of art, a precious object, if it is attributable to the genius of César.


César, Relief tôle, 1961. Assemblage of pieces of automobile bodywork mounted on a frame.

César’s more painting-like, Relief tôle, 1961, is, on the other hand, less a Readymade than a collage and one has to admire the artist’s signature wittily executed with a welding torch. No doubt if Barnett Newman saw this piece he would have repeated his comment regarding the “point is to do it with paint.” (in Kotz 1990: 79). But increasingly artists in the 1960s were showing that this was precisely not the point.


Daniel Spoerri, Le petit déjuner de Kichka I, 1960. Objects fixed to a wooden panel, chair; 36.5×69.5×64.5. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Philip Johnson Fund, 1961. Exhibited at The Art of Assemblage, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961

But although César’s substitution of pieces of car body for the pieces of paper pioneered by Picasso and Braque and elaborated by Schwitters, is impressive; the narrative of intersecting the ideal plane of the picture with the raw physicality of real objects can always be taken further. In Daniel Spoerri’s Le petit déjuner de Kichka I (The Breakfast of Kichka I), 1960, real objects thrust out from the picture plane in a defiant gesture, as if proclaiming the victory of the real over the sanctity of imaginary pictorial space. We begin to understand the meaning of the name Nouveaux Réalistes (New Realists)—also known as Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism)– given to this group of Parisian artists working in the 1950s and ’60s. We begin to realise that here was a movement in which the Readymade began to be writ large. A movement that signals the beginning of the proliferation of the Duchampian virus.



Yves Klein at the Centre d’Essai du Gaz de France, Plaine Saint-Denis, 1961

Returning to Yves Klein, the photograph above shows him pushing the boundaries of art by painting with fire, with a fireman and hose at the ready. What we see in this photograph is not so much an exploration of the Readymade but rather a manic explosion of possibilities in terms of the media acceptable as “art”. Confronted with the power of fire oil paint starts to appear a little tame. But as we shall see more clearly later, Klein was not only adding the medium of fire to that of paint, he was also introducing a performative dimension to the activity of “painting”. The once integral medium of painting starts to undergo a deconstructive process of splitting and dis-integrating into new mediums.



LEFT Saint-Phalle and Tinguely shooting at a Saint-Phalle relief, Impasse Ronsin, Paris, June 1961. Photo: Harry Shunk. RIGHT The finished work (click to enlarge) Niki Saint-Phalle, Tir, 1961. Plaster, objects, paint on a woodel panel, 330 x 210 x 35cm. Signed and dated on the back. Galerie Beaubourg, Marianne et Pierre Nahon. This work was reproduced in Art International vol 8, October 1961.

The image above shows Yves Klein’s colleague, Niki Saint-Phalle’s approach to painting which combined extreme collage with weaponry. Saint-Phalle’s contribution to the Nouveaux Réalistes was her series of Tir“paintings” ( shooting paintings). The element of aggression is self-evident, deconstruction becomes that much closer to destruction. But in contemplating Saint-Phalle’s work we should bear in mind the intimate relationship between life and death, creation and destruction. There is also a gendered dimension due to the fact that Saint-Phalle is a woman. Her use of the rifle in her work assumes a psychoanalytical dimension; the rifle becoming a phallic symbol enabling her to enter into the realm of avant-garde art which was, even in the revolutionary 1960s, dominated by men.

Niki Saint-Phalle, Tir, 1961. Plaster, paint, frame. 90 x 75cm. Signed and dated on the back. Collection Marcel Lefranc, Paris.

If we examine Tir, 1961 illustrated above, one can also see that Saint-Phalle’s use of a plaster ground for her paintings makes the surface appear body-like so that, metaphorically, she is shooting an embodiment of painting. Which is to say, following the spirit of Dada “anti-art” she is really out to “kill” painting.


Niki Saint-Phalle’s exhibition Feu à volonté (Fire at Will), Galerie J, June 1961.



Saint-Phalle exhibited her Tir series in an exhibition entitled Feu à volonté (Fire at Will), Galerie J, June 1961. And the opening of this exhibition involved a performative and interactive element in that the visitors were invited to take part in shooting at the works of art. On the left we see Saint-Phalle taking a shot, top right the Parisian gallerist Iris Clert and bottom right Jasper Johns. Robert Rauschenberg also attended the opening.[1]

The intersection of painting and performance attained a pinnacle on 9 March 1960 when Klein, through the Comte d’Arquian organised a remarkable “Action Spectacle”, in d’Arquian’s salon 253 rue Sainte-Honoré, Paris. From a standpoint at the turn of the millennium it is extremely curious that this event was very formal, black tie in fact. But it was a radical episode in the history of art that indicates, like the other instances we have seen in this essay, the beginning of postmodern art. Postmodern art is defined here as a concerted elaboration of the most radical premises of early 20th-century art, in particular the experimental aspects Dada and Surrealism. Postmodern art emerged in the 1950s and took hold with a frenzy in the 1960s, toppling the hegemony of abstraction and becoming a dominant discourse that still holds sway today.

Returning to Klein’s Action-Spectacle, it can be seen in the photograph that Klein covered the floor of d’Arquian’s salon with very large sheets of paper on which he placed buckets of YKB paint. Various naked women covered the front of their body with the blue paint and applied it more or less vigorously to the paper. The Action-Spectacle was a practical demonstration of how Klein produced his ANT (Anthropometry) series of paintings; a more restrained example of which is illustrated below:


Yves Klein, Anthropometry ANT 85, 1960. 155.5 x 352.5cm.

A hundred hand-picked guests watched the performance which was accompanied by a 20 piece orchestra which performed the Symphonie Monoton (Monotone Symphony) which consisted of 20 minutes of continuous sound followed by 20 minutes of silence (Restany 1982: 110). The silence no doubt referenced John Cage’s 4′33″ ( 4 minutes, 33 seconds), 1952, in which the score instructs the performer not to play their instrument for the duration of the piece (Wikipedia 2008). Pierre Restany reports that there was a discussion after the performance and while Klein recovered from the tension of the occasion Restany explained to the audience that what they had witnessed was ” the development of a personal right opening out on a general mythology of energy, its appropriation and impregnation. The Anthropometries could not be detached from the general context of Klein’s creations, from the multiform expansion of his vision.”(Restany 1982: 120). Then, Restany recounts, the renowned French abstract expressionist painter George Mathieu, who was close to the Comte d’Arquian, launched an attack upon Klein’s radical deconstruction of painting beginning with the question “As for the rite, agreed, but where’s the myth?” and continuing with:

a very classical theory of the creative gesture, linking it to lucidity of control and consciousness of one is action. Turning to Klein he asked him point blank: “What is art for you?” To which the monochrome painter retorted: “Art is health … That health that makes us exist” (Restany 1982: 120).

Apparently this positive response to Mathieu’s negative attack won the day for Klein with the distinguished audience. Restany explains that to Klein “health meant true life, the possibility for the artist to appropriate cosmic energy and escape the fate of the living dead who undergo social conformity” (Restany 1982: 120). In many ways Klein, who was to die only one year later of a heart attack aged 34, was a prelude to Joseph Beuys who, like Klein, became a zealot proclaiming the healing powers of the new art that left the picture plane and, apparently, leapt into life.

With regard to Klein’s urge to become a shamanic father-figure the art historian Thomas Crow notes the implicit sexist element in the Anthropometry performance:

Appearing in formal dress that unwittingly evoked a sex-club master of ceremonies, … [Klein] acted out his exalted belief that the true, male creator directs energies and materials from a distance, in this case using the bodies of women as instruments suited to soil themselves and surrender their dignity in the actual production of the work: “I no longer dirtied myself with color,” he declared, “not even the tips of my fingers.” (Crow 1996: 122)

SEE ALSO: Abstraction, Genius and the Decline of Painting (for an account that goes further back in history) and Quiddity  (which concerns painting and sculpture moving away from any metaphorical or compositional content towards the concept that the work of art is an object in-itself)
[1] With regard to the issue of “interactivity” and “audience participation”, it should be noted that only the inner circle of avant-gardists possessed the licence to treat art with such irreverence.

Bodet, Aude; Lecombre, Sylvain. 1986. “Chronologie”. In 1960: Les Nouveaux Realistes. Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 15 May to 7 September, pp. 43-110 (exh. cat). Paris: Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Crow, Thomas. 1996. The Rise of the Sixties. London: Calmann and King Ltd.

Kotz, M. L. 1990. Rauschenberg, art and life. New York, H.N. Abrams.

Restany, P. 1982. Yves Klein. New York, H.N. Abrams.

Rosenberg, H. (1972). The de-definition of art; action art to pop to earthworks. New York: Horizon Press.


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