Photography After Painting: On Three Photographs by Assaf Evron / Ariel Krill

Clement Greenberg described painting’s modernist project as “a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium; … resistance [which] consists chiefly in the flat picture plane’s denial of efforts to ‘hole through’ it for realistic perspectival space.”*1* Greenberg, of course, was articulating painting’s gradual departure from its earlier aspiration to create an illusion, one that attempted to fashion the canvas as a window onto the world. And even though the critic did not credit the invention of photography as one of the historical factors for abandoning this aspiration, many others did and still do*2*. These voices argue that since photography, due to its very technique, has no choice but “to hole through a realistic perspectival space” in the flat plane of the photographic paper, it liberated painting from the need, or the desire, to do so. However, whether we accept this position or not, it is clear that the photographic plane is as flat as the pictorial plane. In this respect, the difference between the two lies merely in the fact that while painting overcomes its flatness through human effort, photography does so through an allegedly automatic process: the craft of the painter is replaced by the physical and chemical interaction between light, the photographic film, and the development and printing materials. Ultimately, however, both illusions are the same: whether it is a painted canvas or a photographic print, the flat plane is perceived as three-dimensional perspectival space. Thus, the question remains: Is photography capable of overcoming this illusion despite the very mechanicity by which it is produced? Can photography – like painting – express its own essential flatness? Three works by Assaf Evron, displayed in his solo exhibition “Near and Apparent”*3*, not only suggest that this possibility exists but that it can generate a particularly potent viewing experience.

Three photographs: squared, 80x80 cm, untitled and unframed. The dominant color is beige – the color of Israeli concrete, the tone of the “Want of Matter” school of Israeli art. At the center of one of the images appears a diagonal cut surrounded by a series of punctures – seemingly, one of Lucio Fontana’s less-restrained Concetto Spaziale paintings. Another photograph is dominated by a black-grayish horizontal smear crossed by vertical lines of similar color in regular intervals – a composition that brings to mind Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings. And, finally, the upper part of the third square is covered by an irregular stain of a purple-beige tone, dripping onto the light beige surface below it on which a form resembling the Arabic letter wāw or the number 9 is found. This image evokes the abstract expressionism of Antoni Tàpies, or even that of Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline minus their typical black-and-white contrast.
This list of painters demonstrates the unique quality of Evron’s three photographs: namely, the fact that they gain their power from a particular painterly aesthetic. All three could easily belong to the tradition of “abstract expressionism,” “action paintings,” or “Want of Matter” − if only they were made of paint applied onto canvas or plywood rather than light bouncing from a wall and then registered, by a camera, on photographic film. Indeed, the three photographs depict forms that resemble “brush strokes … defined for their own sake” – a quality that, according to Greenberg, typifies modernist painting*4*. And, indeed, the faded color of the concrete wall resembles those elements in the Israeli landscape characterizing “Want of Matter” aesthetics, as articulated by Sarah Breitberg-Semel in the seminal article that gave this movement its name*5*. Yet, above all of these, Evron’s photographs gain their power from their flatness, from the fact that they do not position their viewer in front of a “perspectival space.”

The majority of Evron’s photographs depict vertical planes – walls, cliffs, greenhouse netting, tree trunks, barrels – photographed from close-up and from a straight, frontal angle. The three works considered here are no exception. Yet they stand out from the rest because their subject matter – a wall into which a car has collided – is not contained within the limits of the image but rather exceeds it. There is no element in the photograph that functions as background and that can provide us with a point of reference for what appears in the foreground, as occurs in many of Evron’s photographs: no sky above the cliff, no vegetation behind the netting, no desert landscape peeking from between the barrels. Rather, the whole image is mere foreground: the three-dimensional, “perspectival-realistic” space disappears; the vertical surface of the wall and the picture plane are, as it were, “stuck” together.
The result is that at first glance the nature of the depicted object – namely, the wall – is unclear to the viewer, causing the three photographs to resemble the paintings of the aforementioned artists. However, in time, one realizes that this is not the case: the longer one observes these photographs, traces of the wall and the car that crashed into it are revealed. Nevertheless, the fact that the wall does not present itself to the viewer in its three-dimensionality but as “adjacent” to the photographic paper continuously reverts the gaze back to the picture plane itself. Thus, the singular quality of these photographs is found in the infinite movement they initiate in the spectator’s gaze: an oscillation between the wall and the photographic paper, between photography as a representation of reality and photography as art for its own sake.
In these three works, Evron harnesses the illusion that the photographic paper is a window onto reality in order to express the inherent flatness typifying the photographic medium, thus challenging this very illusion. Is the photographic paper “transparent” and the abstract, expressive forms carved onto the wall? Or are these forms situated on the paper itself, the wall functioning merely as the technical tool – the “brush” – used for their creation? The absence of a clear answer summarizes the unique experience that these three photographs provoke.

By channeling the documentary aspect of photography, which is intrinsic to its mechanics, to the creation of images that gain their power from the aesthetic of abstract (and, thus, non-representational) painting, the three photographs supply us with a refreshing view on two of the most important artistic phenomena of the past 150 years: the invention of photography and abstract art. On the one hand, these photographs demonstrate just how much abstract painting has changed our perception of the world. For it seems that without the abandonment of the quest to represent reality, the traces that one unfortunate car left on one anonymous wall would not have generated such a strong viewing experience. On the other hand, if it were not for Evron’s decision to present these traces in such a specific manner – “attached”, as it were, to the photographic paper – these traces would be categorized as no more than humorous, anecdotal gestures. However, this is definitely not the case. The power of the photographs lies in their ability to go beyond Roland Barthes’s “that-has-been” – the dictum by which he summarized photography’s viewing experience*6* – thus lifting the documentary bars behind which photography has been captivated for too long. They do not simply document the traces of an event, they are not merely a window onto reality. As far as the experience that these images evoke is concerned, their appreciation is no longer a question of subjugating them to a reality that is external to them. Rather, they pose the question of whether it is not the opposite that is the case – of whether reality, far from the being the end to which these photographs are a means, is not actually the brush and the paint through which they were conceived.

*1*Clement Greenebrg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” in Charles Harison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory: An Anthology of Changing ideas, (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1992), 558.
*2*One recent example, among many others is Barry Schwabsky, “Sheer Sensation: Photographically-based Painting and Modernism,” in Ralph Rugoff, The painting of Modern Life: 1960s to Now (London : Hayward Publishing, 2007), 26−31.
*3*Heder Gallery, Tel Aviv, 22 December 2007 – 26 January 2008.
*4*Clement Greenebrg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon”, 558.
*5*Sarah Breitberg-Semel, The Want of Matter as a Quality of Israeli Art (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1986).
*6*As articulated in Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).

English translation: Alma Mikulinsky