Selection by María Emilia Fernández
We Put Up Pictures to Forget Walls

“We have to be able to forget there are walls
and have found no better way to do that than pictures.” 1
- Georges Perec

One could argue that the intimate dialogue between art and walls goes as far back as the origins of painting, when hunter-gatherers took time to depict horses, bears, panthers, bison and rhinoceros on the sides of caves. In the south of France for example, at the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave around 30,000 B.C., they sought to capture a fraction of the energy within these creatures, and the resulting drawings still captivate us through their sensibility and dynamism. Devoid of a frame and free from the laws of perspective, the figures seem to exist beyond space, as though they emerged directly from the rough and uneven surface of the rock. One intuits that painting was more ritual than representation, a way of affirming that which exists, or an impulse to possess the physical dimension we inhabit.

Many centuries later, the Romans took on the challenge of dissolving the walls of indoor spaces with intricate and illusionistic murals. The interiors of wealthy private homes, both in cities and in the countryside, were adorned with frescoes of courtyards, rotundas and gardens, complete with statuary, birds and fountains, seemingly overlooking the landscape that existed beyond the walls. 2 Artists used multiple vanishing points to create a sense of looking out from different perspectives within the same room, portraying vistas of lush vegetation and blue skies framed by faux renderings of architectural elements. Frescoes like the ones discovered in Pompeii are a testament to painting’s ability to use color and texture to create the feeling of being outdoors, of conjuring the three-dimensional despite the flattened space of a wall.
“First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen,”
- Leon Battista Alberti.

The notion of paintings as metaphorical windows, as gateways for our perceptual and intellectual wanderings, is credited to Leon Battista Alberti and his 1435 treatise, De pictura. 3 His writings had an influence on later Renaissance painters, including Leonardo da Vinci who declared that “the prime marvel to appear in painting is that it appears detached from the wall, or some other plane,” praising the painter’s knowledge of lights and shadows to create what nature does to objects (and sculptures) in real life. 4 During this period, the paragone between sculpture and painting intensified, each striving to prove its superiority. 4 Painting showcased its ability to capture spatial relations and sculptural forms, challenging the limitations of two-dimensionality with trompe-l'œil devices such as casting shadows into the viewer’s space and depicting objects of daily life with a level of detail and accuracy that would only be surpassed by photography centuries later.

By the beginning of the 20th century, paintings’ move away from realism was in full swing, and movements such as Cubism aimed to present multiple planes and viewpoints at once, suggesting their three-dimensional shape within the same two-dimensional space. Instead of trying to attain the illusion of depth or adhering to the rules of linear perspective, which had become the norm, artists such as Picasso, Braque and others presented the possibility of contemplating a figure that was pieced together in the mind. The flatness of the canvas was both evidenced and undermined in these explorations, in assemblages and other experiments that defied traditional views of painting and sculpture.

The present selection of works puts forward different examples that subvert or complicate the conventions of pictorial space and its relation to the wall. If images are mediations between human beings and the world, then the work of these artists addresses the very question of how we perceive, not just art but the world around us. We could satrt with Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale [Spatial Concept], for example. With his buchi (holes) and tagli (cuts) series, Fontana highlighted the idea that a painting is an object, not only a surface. The punctured canvas reveals the space behind the picture, effectively creating a dialogue between the flatness of the painting and its surroundings. An inverse echo of this gesture can be found in Eduardo Costa’s Cuña blanca and in his volumetric paintings as a whole. Made exclusively from layer upon layer of paint, this piece projects out from the wall, inhabiting a liminal space between the sculptural and pictorial, but also bordering on performance if one imagines the patience and hours of work involved.
I am sorry, a work by Yishai Jusidman, also extends into the spectator’s physical realm.
The notion of painting as a window is reversed in this apologetic large-scale letter, which runs unto the floor of the gallery, blurring the line between the vertical axis of the wall reserved for art and the horizontal axis belonging to the viewer. Similarly, Dieter and Björn Roth’s Tischmatten [Table mats] were originally set up over their tables to protect working surfaces from spilled drinks or food. These cardboard sheets that were meant to accumulate scraps, stains, written notes and other traces of the artists’ daily life became works in their own right, a kind of practical diary of the father and son’s working process.
These paintings seek to transcend or at least converse with the the wall, as do the works by Adriana Lara, Gabriel Sierra and Sol LeWitt. Lara embraces the illusion of space by coloring in three areas in shades of gray and letting our minds complete a corner, casting doubt on how one perceives the space behind her painting. On the other hand, Sierra’s Estantes interrumpidos #7 [Interrupted Shelfs] interact with the wall to different effects: when folded they could easily pass for a minimalist all-white painting, and yet each module holds a playful, sculptural potential. Sol LeWitt’s piece combines both of these approaches to an extent, synthesizing it in short title: A sphere lit from the top, four sides, all their combinations. The 28 permutations of LeWitt’s proposal reveal in a systematic form that painting is a record of the interaction with light making visible the whole world of objects.
James Turrell takes this very idea one step further by using light as a medium for his work. His installations are not about color or composition, but rather about the spectators’ perception of light translated into sensory form. In the case of pieces such as Squat Blue, he projects light into the corner of a room and allows the eye of the viewer to complete the solid form of a cube where there is none. This experience of looking at ourselves looking allows one to question perception itself, revealing the complexities of how we make sense of our surroundings and how art represents the world. Peter Coffin examines these notions by transforming Barnett Newman’s iconic Broken Obelisk into a two-dimensional prop, a kind of shadow of itself that can still evoke the volume of the original. By reducing Newman’s sculpture to a mere silhouette and yet presenting it detached from the wall, Coffin considers what exactly constitutes sculptural form.
A similar query is put forth in Eva Rothschild’s Double Diamond, where the interaction of the piece with the corner creates a series of spaces and shadows that make it hard to establish where her sculpture starts and where it ends. Multiple planes coexist, blurring the line between the two and three-dimensional. Pablo Vargas Lugo also takes on this inquiry in his Piramid Panoram. A series of folded diamond-shaped pieces, they walk a fine line between evoking the universally recognized Egyptian Pyramids of Giza and reverting to the flatness of the cardboard.
Other artworks address our relation to three-dimensional space and our efforts to conquer it through representation. Philippe Decrauzat’s pieces for example, tackle this subject with a sense of humor and irony, portraying the cartesian grid that cartographers have long sought to project unto reality in the form of mobile triangles, ready to be superimposed on parts of the wall and floor. A very different approach is suggested by Andrea Zittel’s tiles, which turn an entire kitchen or a living room into an artistic experience. Designed by the artist herself, the gold, white and black tiles create a pattern that could extend infinitely in every direction. Every plane of reality could lend itself as a canvas, effectively erasing the distinction between picture and wall.
Jim Shaw’s empty paint tubes acknowledge this potentiality. What is framed and presented to the spectator is only the leftover material evidence that paint was used elsewhere, presumably to create other paintings, other worlds on flat surfaces.

Imagining what those other canvases look like becomes part of the experience of the piece. Shaw offers us a view from a very particular kind of window, one that both honors the quest of capturing physical reality through painting and at the same time recognizes the futility of the attempt. If, as Georges Perec suspected, we put up pictures to forget walls, do we strive to escape our surroundings, or do we find something closer to a mirror? A reflection of our subjectivity and our inner life, or perhaps just an honest look at art thought of as a companion, as the mutual communion of the individual and the world that is constantly unfolding into new dimensions.

Texto de María Emilia Fernández, asistente curatorial, Museo Jumex.

1 Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. (London: Penguin, 1997), 39.
2 According to Roman author Pliny the Elder, it was Studius “who first instituted that most delightful technique of painting walls with representations of villas, porticos and landscape gardens, woods, groves, hills, pools, channels, rivers, and coastlines.”
3 “First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen,” Leon Battista Alberti, De pictura, 1435.
4 Leonardo da Vinci, Translation in Claire J. Farago, Leonardo da Vinci’s Paragone: A Critical Interpretation with a New Edition of the Text in Codex Urbinas, Brill Studies in Intellectual History (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992), 281-283.
5 In the context of art history and the Italian Renaissance, the word paragone most often refers to the debate arguing the merits of painting versus sculpture.

Explore | Publications