“Each painting is an act of rebellion, but also one of the many parts of an ongoing revolution to free painting from the tyranny of mundane representation or color field annihilation.”
- Francesco Bonami
Known for his bold and emblematic challenge to painting, the present work by Rudolf Stingel serves as a distinctly pressing example from one of the artist’s most significant series. Having built an artistic identity rooted firmly in the contrasting notions of Conceptualism and formal gesture of abstract expressionism, the Styrofoam paintings are some of the most groundbreaking expressions of his vital approach to mark-making. Stingel calls upon expansive sections of Styrofoam that are placed on the studio floor and as he walks across them, pours thinners that subsequently melt and transform the surface through unpredictable and volatile chemical processes. The use of industrial materials harkens back to the use of cheap materials by artists of the Zero movement. Most notably, the work distinctly references Piero Manzoni, who utilized colorless materials including Styrofoam, cotton balls and even bread encased with gesso or kaolin to create his Achromes, transforming the atypical raw materials into unusual surfaces.
The question of the artist’s mark here is confounded by the act of stripping the surface away, until the physical surface of the painting is almost completely destroyed. The remnants of the materials, footprints and embankments of silicone preserve the performative significance of the work. Like Jackson Pollock’s monumental action paintings, executed through the expressive physicality of flinging paint onto canvases laid out on the studio floor, sometimes with footprints or even cigarettes encased in the surface, it is impossible to separate the artist from the final product which vibrates with the vitality of its creation. However, unlike the “aura” of gesture in the work of the Abstract Expressionists, Stingel is firmly rooted in the concept of universality most notably demonstrated by his 1989 instructions for creating one of his paintings, a “do-it-yourself” manual. Chrissie Iles writes: “In Stingel’s Styrofoam paintings, it is action that registers first for the viewer. While oriented towards the viewer’s vertical presence in its hanging, the plane of the ‘canvas’ is definitely horizontal. Robert Rauschenberg made a similarly dramatic statement about painting in his horizontal floor work Mud-Muse 1971, in which an expanse of mud sat inside a large container on the floor of the gallery, bubbling whenever viewers made a noise. Like Stingel’s Styrofoam, Rauschenberg’s drilling mud is an industrial material, alluding to painting while asserting its own, quotidian presence as not-painting” (C. Iles, “Surface Tension,” Rudolf Stingel, ed. F. Bonami, New Haven, 2007, p. 25).
Indeed, the use of everyday, nontraditional art materials and the existence of the artwork off the traditional wall of the gallery is imbedded with firm notions of Minimalism—the light sculptures of Dan Flavin or the progressions of Donald Judd, where the work of art could live in its environ beyond the scope of traditional painting. Jerry Saltz wrote: “His unforgettable 1991 New York debut consisted of a vivid orange rug in an otherwise empty gallery. It was one of the best shows of the 1990s. …it was the first time where [he] understood that installation could be painting” (J. Saltz, “The Icon and the Iconoclast,” Village Voice, March 8, 2005).
More recently, Stingel has taken this notion even further, disembarking from the polished formal restraint of the Minimalists. In his work, the viewer not only participates in the physical experience, phenomenology of the artwork but also the participatory act of mark-making through vandalism. In 2002, at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, he completely covered the interior of the gallery with the ubiquitous construction material known as Celotex Tuff-R. The malleable quality of these silvery insulation panels allowed Stingel to mold every surface of the gallery's interior, creating a shimmering, bewildering space in which the edges, corners and contours of the gallery were diffused and made immaterial. Over the course of the exhibition, visitors carved and mutilated the Celotex, piercing the purity of its all-over, reflective surface. If Stingel’s Celotex panels indicate a painting transformed, they might also illustrate a painting destroyed, by the nature of the audience’s interaction with the piece. It is hard to think of a more destructive, unholy act than the willful slashing of a painting's pristine surface. A direct affront to Modernism, the technique shares certain affinities with the work of Lucio Fontana, while also calling to mind such disparate sources as graffiti art, the Art Brut style of Jean Dubuffet, the work of Cy Twombly and the emotional intensity of the Abstract Expressionists.
The following year, Stingel’s second iteration at the Venice Biennial included the Celotex installation with Styrofoam paintings from the same series as the present work as anchoring site lines—works made by the artist’s own process of demonstration and destruction amidst a call to viewers. Stingel explains: “There is a difference in whether under the so-called trace of the individual there is a name or not. Even when visitors scratch in their names, they are by far not authors, they act within the prepared space, but they cannot control it. One could say I allow painting, but not by my assistants who carry out my concept but by a public that inscribes its own individual response in a material way into the work” (R. Stingel, F. Bonami, Ibid., p. 35). Indeed, we may be said to experience the work as a fresco of sorts—as a fragment extracted from a larger vista and placed before us on the wall. As in so many of Stingel’s works, the painting is transformed from a “painting” into a piece of interior architecture that resonates across multiple artistic registers.