December 1, 2009

Critical Fragments: Narrative

“[…] the image no longer contains the terms of its past – understood as the terms of the problem to which it is seen to be a response. Rather, both the past and the problem are felt to reside outside it, and access to them can only be achieved by a long chain of explanation which characteristically takes the form of narrative.”(1)

Rosalind Krauss wrote these words about Frank Stella and his decision to work in series in 1971. By that time Stella’s best work was possibly behind him as he abandoned his flat series to move into shaped canvasses and the “Protractor” series. Krauss’s focus on Stella’s paintings became a measure of how the then-as-yet-unnamed “postmodern” painting might proceed and how it would deal with its position in art history. Her visionary grasp of the simple fact that any “meaning” attributed to a work of art comes from “outside it” is doubly impressive in retrospect. Moreover, her thoughts prompt further reflection concerning another take on the idea of “narrative” itself, particularly with respect to the painting’s “frame”.

The narrative of cinema unfolds within the frame of a camera lens. A diegesis, or fictional world, takes place inside that rectangular space that is the “look” of the camera.(2) Everything that we “see” is bounded by that framing device. Cinematic “meaning” is expressed through the diegesis which follows a narrative arc to a determinate end.

Film directors often articulate their vision through obsessive concern with every object and actor within the camera’s frame. This auteur of cinematic narrative (Kubrick, Hitchcock, Welles, Fellini) truly relies on the framing device of the camera to represent their “vision.” In this regard, these directors are often compared with old master painters in their ability to exact such power from each square foot of celluloid.

Photographic narrative is not diegetic. Indeed, it cannot be, given that a unique photograph is but a “moment” and does not follow the sequencing of film. As a result, photographic “meaning” is often supplemented by textuality exterior to the photograph. Narrative readings of photographs are thus suspect as any “story” presumed from a photograph requires interpretive textual embellishment from without.

Historically, narrative interpretations of photography were based on established traditions of how paintings were interpreted; relating part to part within the frame to deduce a story. Figures, settings, events were usually of mythic or historic importance and meant to impart knowledge to the populace, many of which were illiterate. Readings of photography have been misinformed by this relational logic. After painting had fully renounced realism by the start of the 20th Century, these relational elements became formalist. Yet modernist painting still relied on the idea of part-to-part relationships to emphasize the modern artists’ new concerns with formal elements over realism.

Narrative in abstract painting has nothing to do with a “story.” Certainly there are arguments that relationships happen between the formal elements of a painting that “tell” a story, i.e., this line relates to that line, this color balances that color. But these have become less and less important since the emphasis placed on the frame.

Narrative in abstract painting has less to do with the formal elements than it has with the frame. The frame defines the time; shows us how to look, where to begin. Narrative painting can address this linearity only through the frame.

Like the humble march of words in a sentence, moving inexorably to an ending and coherence, linear movement within a painting’s frame is yet another way to approach the narrative. Unlike cinema, photography or realist painting, abstract painting must convey the temporality of its linear process through tactility and the measurably perceptible. Without “looks” or “story,” abstract painting constructs an altogether different version of the narrative that neither deals with its status as an object nor rejects it.


1. Krauss, Rosalind. “Problems of Criticism, X: Pictorial Space and the Question of Documentary,” Artforum, November 1971, 69.

2. An idea expressed about still photography in Victor Burgin’s essay “Looking at Photographs” and about cinematography in Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” Burgin suggests four “looks” of the photograph while Mulvey prefers three.

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