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Flatness Chart

Introduction to Flatness

Since humankind first began using tools to depict figurative forms in an artistic medium, the greatest challenge has been dealing with the two-dimensional surface. From cave drawings forward, artists have continuously experimented with new ways to create a sense of visual depth and three-dimensionality on something that is naturally flat. In times predating the Impressionists, the ultimate goal for artists was to achieve a visual balance of perspective, volume and three-dimensionality. This began to change when Édouard Manet and other artists challenged such painterly conventions. However, the idea of flatness as an artistic concept was not a conscious concern until the early-20th century.


Importance of Pictorial Flatness

A unique characteristic of all modern art forms, from painting to literature, is the self-consciousness of the artist. In other words, in any particular work the artist will call direct attention to the fact that what people are viewing (or reading, experiencing, etc.) is a work of art. In contemporary culture, this may seem like an obvious quality, but before the advent of the Modern artistic era (approximately pre-Impressionism), art was not created to call attention to itself, but to celebrate figurative forms and accurately depict things that had some basis in reality.

By deliberately calling attention to the natural flatness of the canvas in a work of art, artists have exercised a uniquely modern phenomenon, wherein the viewer is not meant to appreciate the depiction of anything, but the act of painting itself. What makes this a self-conscious act is that the artist is openly acknowledging the mechanical limitations of trying to apply visual depth to a two-dimensional surface.

Flatness in Abstract Art

Prior to the 20th century, the primary characteristic of paintings had been the depiction of an image on canvas. Yet, beginning with the non-objective paintings of Kandinsky and the geometric De Stijl works of Mondrian (c. 1920s), Modern artists began consciously drawing viewers' attention to two important factors: the shape of a painting's support (canvas) and the properties of the painting's forms. Thus the painting's flatness became an integral component in the viewer's experience of the artwork. Paintings are flat by the very nature of the canvas. The perception, or the acknowledgment of flatness, is something that abstract art gave to the art world.

Abstract Expressionist painters, such as Pollock, Rothko and Newman, applied paint in such ways that viewers' eyes were not drawn to any particular central point on the canvas, but rather offered multiple perspectives. The flatness of the canvas was for them a surface in which to create an infinite space, seemingly with no discernable beginning or end. This practice was very much in the tradition of their abstractionist predecessors Kandinsky, Mondrian, Miró, and, particularly for Pollock, the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque, wherein multiple perspectives of the same subject were achieved on a two-dimensional surface.

Influence on Post-Painterly Abstraction and Minimalism

In the early 1960s, Abstract Expressionism led to one of many new artistic styles known as Post-Painterly Abstraction. Its practitioners, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, emphasized the planar field of the canvas by balancing autonomous forms that never overlap. They also employed a peculiar habit of leaving large portions of their canvases bare and untreated. Both of these features further emphasized the canvas as an important painterly characteristic.

In the Minimalist paintings of the 1960s - influenced heavily by the earlier geometric grid works of Malevich and Mondrian - artists such as Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly composed simple canvases, often in uniform color and with minimal detail. Minimalist painters applied precise color and used the painting's support system (in this case the canvas) to draw the viewer's gaze to the flat canvas itself. Several of Stella's paintings were significant in this regard because of their unique shapes. By fitting the canvas to the contours of the paintings' colors, Stella redefined the traditional support system and made paint itself the painting's form. This stylistic shift in perspective was perceived as a gesture of pure flatness.

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