Stephen Posen and the Mixed Metaphor

Stephen Posen and the Mixed Metaphor

Essay by Dore Ashton,  Arts, October 1978 

Stephen Posen is using two different modes within a single image. In the one, he painstakingly offers a painted simulacrum of a photograph. In the other, he is using oil paint to offer spatial illusions that border on trompe l’oeil.

Stephen Posen’s paintings are like recondite riddles: there is always something of an answer hidden within the works themselves. Their pronounced character derives from the fact that Posen is an adept of the mixed metaphor. One has to speak metaphorically even here. It is instantly recognized that Posen is using two different modes (or, in more fashionable diction, codes) within a single image. In the one, he painstakingly offers a painted simulacrum of a photograph which itself is a certain kind of metaphor for the surfaces of things. In the other, he is using oil paint to offer spatial illusions that border on trompe-l’oeil. These two modes are different enough to shock the eye, and to cause the swift imaginative shifts that the riddle demands.

The mixing of metaphors has always come in for disapprobation by conventional rhetoricians. But the modernists of the late 19th century threw over conventional rhetoric. No rules of the game were sacrosanct. Poets such as Jules Laforgue and, slightly later, Apollinaire, Jacob, and Cendrars reveled in mixing their metaphors and forcing their breathless readers into disconcerting adjustments as they strove to follow the poets in unaccustomed leaps from one image to another. The modern point of view these poets consciously adopted demanded not only rapid shifts from one voice to another, one space to another, one way of speaking to another, but also suggested that simultaneity was a viable sensory possibility. Around 1912, poets, composers, theatrical avant-gardists and painters were captivated by the notion of simultaneity, initiating significant experiments.

In painting, the modern tradition supports the attempt to bring simultaneity into play. It sanctions the mixing of metaphors, or modes. Some painters, particularly Picasso and Braque, specifically addressed themselves to the old problems of how space is invented on the flat surface of the canvas and how it could be compounded simultaneously. All the various modes in the history of art were seen for what they were: mere conventions for inventing space metaphors. For a Japanese, a series of diagonal planes could be read as a recession in space. For a Westerner, convergent lines in perspective are read as metaphors of space. Why, the modern masters asked, could the surface of the canvas not support several spatial climates at the same time? Why not mix the metaphor and bestir new responses? The celebrated illusionistic nail in Braque’s Cubist painting, the simulated woodgraining and wallpaper, and the real objects themselves, could be effective devices for startling the world into seeing quite differently; could unsettle old habits and introduce the perception of various pictorial events within a single image simultaneously.

Picasso readily adapted the mixed metaphor in his entire oeuvre. Demoiselles d’Avignon (luckily for the art historians who never tire of pointing that there are two different approaches in the painting and therefore it is incomplete) is nevertheless a single, forceful image with a complex fusion of two seemingly different modes of depicting volumes in space. For psychological reasons, Picasso never tired of these juxtapositions; in his very last drawings, there are numerous mixed metaphors that have as yet escaped the chilling commentary of analysts.

When Eisenstein spoke of taking two disparate images, or juxtaposing two black-and-white mechanical images which would form a third, unified image in the viewer’s imagination, he called it montage. Such montage, he maintained, had its roots in the history of painting. He pointed to the synoptic paintings of the early Renaissance in which the entire life story of a saint could be told on the single surface. The viewer willingly suspends his disbelief and reads these episodes both as a whole picture and in its discrete parts.

Much the same phenomenon occurs when we puzzle out a painting by Posen. It is immediately obvious that the painted parts resemble black-and-white photographs but are not photographs. Yet the eye, trained to decode the photo automatically, sets itself the task of decoding the painting as if it were. This mental activity is altered, sometimes stopped dead in its tracks, by the presence of the other mode: the abstract, painted colored elements which introduce not only associations with past painted images, but strange new configurations. In setting up this inherent paradox, Posen adheres to the same principle that inspired Picasso in his collages. If he introduces an element of the “real,” then that which is pure creation is all the more salient.

Posen alludes to photographs as if they were elements in a still life. Accordingly, assessing one of his recent paintings necessarily includes a query as to the nature of the photographic image. When I look at a photograph in black and white of the painting Boundary for instance, it loses scale. This large and complex painting reduces itself to a rather indifferent, chaotic landscape of mean proportions. It may be true that we think of “photographic fidelity” because the simplified spaces of the photograph and its reduced scale of values are homologous to the way we really see in our first mechanical registration of images in the brain. But the camera is monocular, and as the imagination is boundless, it is likely that Boundary in black and white loses scale because of the rigid fixity of photographic values. When Posen plays upon these values with the hues and chroma of his brilliantly painted counterpoints – the elaborate strips and masses of cloth – the standard way of seeing a photograph is immediately surpassed by the infinite light, the inner light of the painting itself.

There is a cultural increment in seeing which Posen takes into account. Despite elaborate studies in perceptual psychology, not one scientist has yet suggested that the function of the eye can be clearly determined. Individual differences in perceptual studies suggest that seeing is rather subjective. Posen takes the commonplace idea that the photograph is the most faithful rendering of reality; he challenges it by being as faithful as possible to the faithful images, and by still showing that the reality is elsewhere. His allusions to the past of his own art are subtle but strong enough to play upon the associations of his viewers, some of which will certainly be based on paintings they have previously known. The cultural element in perception is incalculable and important. I have a friend, for instance, whose bathroom is studded with photographs of eminent writers. I scan the wall and like to think I am seeing remarkable faces. I expect they must be. When I recognize one, I inspect his visage and find what I seek. But what am I seeing? I am seeing static black-and-white tones of what is in general a face. What I am identifying in particular is certainly identified with the participation of expectation and memory in conjunction with my willing reverence.

Posen’s keen awareness of the inevitable variations in perception may well have been stimulated during his student years. As a student at Yale from 1962-1964, the Albers legacy could not have left him indifferent. At the same time, the exciting instabilities characteristic of the painterly painters – Gorky and de Kooning, for instance – tempted him. The new rhetoric of the minimalists also affected him in at least one respect: their emphasis on the objectness of the canvas. His student works were deliberately experimental. His imagery, as he says, was essentially Abstract Expressionist forced into the object of the shaped canvas. Even after he had gone to Italy where he spent the next two years, Posen continued to explore the two points of view within a single work. While moving about to study the frescoes in Florence, Assisi and Padua, Posen continued to paint in the mixed idiom he had evolved at Yale. All the same, his foraging in the history of art would alter his emotional life, and enter, little by little, his creative consciousness to the point of practice. He had studied Renaissance art history with Charles Seymour at Yale, and he was well prepared to respond to the Giottos and to recognize the strength of the architectural environment in the total effect. In Padua he was moved by the ceiling: “I saw a spiritual ceiling, a blue you can carry with you all your life.” In Mantua and Venice he savored the Tiepolos and again was impressed by the architectural and decorative significance. The environmental aspect of perceiving became forceful enough to set him wondering about his own work. “In those frescoes there is an obstinately physical presence of architecture,” he says. “I felt the great flexibility of space and I can related it to my present work.” Posen’s travels through Italy and in Turkey, Greece, Pompeii and pairs changed him. He found the force of history overwhelming and was moved to discover that he could make a painting because of the feeling of that ceiling in Padua. He began to create environments for his painted images, sometimes shaping planes and setting them up as freestanding, almost sculptural ensembles. He also made models for architectural projects which were probably the prototypes for the initial still lifes in the new idiom when he actually built the image he would paint in three-dimensional models. By the time Posen returned and settled in New York in 1967, his experimental appetite was whetted.

Living in the colorful squalor of Avenue B on the Lower East Side during a period of acute social unrest, Posen temporarily abandoned his paints and brushes for a new medium, film. He learned animation techniques and produced a small film. This experience too would stand him in good stead. When he took up his brushes again, the spaces and shapes he invented were increasingly bizarre, reflecting the diversity of his recent experiences. Glimpses of what he had seen ranging from Italian frescoes to Rosenquist, Beckmann, David Smith, and George Sugarman could be caught here and there in the Avenue B outpourings. Soon, objects began to appear – a cheap ladies handbag, a shoe, an iron – the kind of detritus that litters the streets of the Lower East Side. He was seeking ways to combine both the conventional point of view from which objects must be apprehended on canvas with the jumble of spaces and shapes his new environment provided. In one painting he combined a sneaker and an upside-down plant in warring spaces. In another, a plump chair and a pineapple plant occupy one space while an iron on its side posits another. By late 1969 his sculptural impetus took over and he began to make cut-out shapes in an illusionistic mode which he played against the real studio space. A clothesline with cut-out painted clothes executed with a verisimilitude that would have fooled the queen in her parlor or the maid in the garden hanging out the clothes, was a step toward the paintings he began not very long after and which represented his embarkation into the painterly paradox he still pursues.

In a statement written some ten years later, Posen set forth his development as he saw it from the wild imagery of the early Avenue B phase to his current point of view:

I proceeded from 1967-69 with a cool objectiveness, making cut-out paintings of cloth, occasionally hung contrary to the painted illusion of gravity, thus enhancing the shape and object quality. These works . . . questioned for me the following transition: wall to object (the canvas) to painted illusion (cloth, folded and stuffed with cardboard boxes) to a paradox of illusion (could illusion begin at the surface of a canvas and be painted out into the actual space, while at the same time, by rigorous formal arrangement of the cloth, imply a space inside the canvas?)

Toward 1971 Posen had begun to build elaborate arrangements of cloth, with the hidden boxes providing sharp relief. He committed himself to the most exact possible transcription of the relief effects. For this he acquired a commercial fork-lift which enabled him to scan the model at right angles to his canvas on different levels, and to work much as the fresco painters had worked, square-foot by square-foot. His intention then was to avoid the physical tradition of oil paint. In 1973, he says in his statement, he began to construct still lifes with black-and-white photo murals to which he would affix pieces of cloth both flattened and in relief. This allowed him “a choice as to where I would locate the surface of my canvas: within the photo, at the surface of the photo, in front of this surface.”

The paintings this attitude projected were striking. Already in the mid 1970’s Posen had compounded these conundrums. He had re-invented the ancient aesthetic question of grapes painted so illusionistically that birds would peck at them. All the same, they were painted grapes and were appreciated as such just as the drops of moisture on a lemon in a Dutch little master were appreciated because they were known to be painted and not “real.” In arranging brilliant ribbons of cloth or massed fabrics reminiscent of Venetian stuffs, Posen had chosen a mode long abandoned but stunningly fresh. These cloths, bathed in high and varying light were rendered in local color only. Leaping back several centuries, Posen revived a means of conveying the texture, quality, weight, and inherent light of his materials without recourse to the half-tone techniques developed after late Venetian painting. Juxtaposed with the black-and-white photomural and rendered in the same oil paint, these stuffs alerted their viewers to an inherent paradox and, for moments,

Baffled the eye. The spatial allusions were complex. Technically, the picture plane can only be the surface of the canvas, but psychologically, Posen was right: the photo facsimile did create a separate picture plane which he located in relation to the affixed color of the cloths. The problems of relief versus flatness, which have become far more complex during the past two years, were worked out in an elaborate procedure in which transformation occurred on a daily basis, sometimes for as long as six months. The gradual changes were implicit in the problem. The painter, by means of the invention of his process, resisted and resisted until painting itself forced him to submit to its infinite mysteries.

Just as the choice of a fruit or a vase is crucial in a conventional still life, so is the choice of the photograph in Posen’s compositions. I’ve noticed that generally he chooses motifs that are, in effect, details. The viewer is charged with adducing evidence from the details to the whole. There are usually no horizons in the sites he prefers, and often a certain amount of confusion or clutter that needs to be sorted out. For example, the choice in Loading Platform involves a scene familiar to the denizens of the quarter in New York known as Soho where Posen has his studio, but is far from being immediately identifiable. The steps to the platform, the rectangular mass of the boxes and receptacles on its surface, and the jumble of unidentifiable detritus at the left require considerable visual adjustment for deciphering. A recessed detail – the Siamese standpipe – serves as a center to which everything else can be referred spatially. The putative spaces these photographic details describe in most general terms are then given a totally abstract connotation in the construction of vertical and diagonal linear elements – the purple and blue ribbons. Volumes are echoed in the draped, modeled elements. The principle in this slightly earlier painting is to work with counterplay among unlike elements. For this the photograph is essential.

If Posen chose from his immediate surroundings in Soho for Loading Platform, his choice in the 1976 Variations on a Millstone is based equally on a direct response to nature and a response to his own painting culture. He selects an impenetrable mass of rocks, almost vertical and not deeply recessed, with a hint of a steep path centered in the foreground. A massive porous rock in the left foreground is the highlighted volume, its quadrature tipped like a die. There is only the slightest hint of an opening to the sky at the top. Probably he would not have chosen to photograph this scene had he not been sensitive to the shifts in viewpoint in the history of his art. In this case, the inspiration derives directly from Cézanne, specifically from Cézanne’s painting in the Philadelphia Museum, Woods with Millstone.

The implications in this painting are important to the understanding of Posen’s recent work and indicate his originality. He is not, as the current rhetoric about painting puts it, “painting about painting.” He has responded authentically to an experience in nature, and then found rapport with a prior vision. No doubt the powerful impress of Cézanne in our cultural vision guided his response to nature, but there can be no simple formula. In this case, Gombrich’s rule of thumb concerning realist modes in painting is not subtle enough. Gombrich has said that making will always come beforematching in artists’ procedures. But the order is not so unvarying as he would have us believe. Often an artist’s response to what he sees is a complex, unanalyzable mixture of his immediate intuition, his idiosyncratic view of the world, and his acquired culture. In Posen’s case, the mass of boulders probably suggested to him several different associations. The main association was with Cézanne’s mode of creating order in a random arrangement of natural details. The painting in Philadelphia initially seems a random tranche de vie naturelle, quite in the Zola tradition. On closer inspection it is an elaborately controlled composition filled with inventive variations in shapes and tone that gradually assume total order. The millstone at the lower left is the key from which Cézanne creates clear visual indications of how the eye is meant to scan the surface. There are the broken, manmade quadrilateral rock shafts moving diagonally into the density of the wood. There are groups of trees, two and two, also diagonally skewed. There are V-shaped forms at the top referring back to the fore-and middlegrounds and binding the whole. And there is a hint of openness and ambiguity where fragments of sky read through the dense composition. Cézanne’s vision of nature was based on his analysis of minute variations. If I turn my head one millimeter, he used to say, everything changes. Posen certainly intuitively grasped this principle when he set himself the ritual task of moving his eyes as little as possible when he painted on different levels with his fork-lift. His interest, like Cézanne’s, was in discovering an interior order that transcends the immediate and habitual perception of a circumscribed reality.

Once he begins working with the images in Variations on a Millstone the sources are transformed. The key, as in Cézanne’s painting, is the lower left stone. Posen’s “composition” is geared to its rectilinearity. The strips of cloth echo and re-echo its lines and, in their crossing and interweaving, suggest the true complexity of space we perceive but that the camera cannot record. In the luminosity of satiny cloths worthy of Vermeer, all that is lost to us in the schematic photograph is restored. Yet the painting is a riddle that must be slowly deciphered. True to his program, Posen here offers us certain details – such as the central blue massed cloth volume with its boxy depths – that seem to protrude before the picture plane. He insists on it, in fact, by tracing, in a linear manner, a schematic frame. Certain other details enter the grisaille of the rock landscapes but not very deeply. This superstructure of abstract light and color enhances the divergence between the realistic rocks and the invented order to which they ultimately conform. The painting still reflects the 1976 statement in which Posen declared that “the arrangement of the cloth with the context and information of the photo becomes the ‘subject’ of my paintings.” The cool attitude toward information, however, is altered, albeit slightly, in his next important painting, Boundary.

It seems to me that Boundary is of a different order. Although the photograph of a waterfall in a rockbound space worthy of Courbet corresponds in its chaotic profusion of detail to the photo in Variations on a Millstone, its “information” is far less readable. The dimmed tonality of rocks and white froth of water is not discretely legible. The old dialectic between portions of painting that tell us to see some things in relief and portions that tell us to see some things as flat has been dilated to include so many other subtle effects that it is no certain at all it can still be called dialectic. Too many small details are rhymed and analogized to permit a single or even a dialectic reading of the painting. The interior order of this composition is occult and requires long contemplation. The essential shift in Boundary is in the way Posen integrates the space created by the disposition of cloths with the spaces of the painted photograph. Here, it is not possible to locate exactly a given picture plane before and behind which colors play. As in certain Abstract-Expressionist paintings (Gorky or Kandinsky) there are numerous collateral spaces created by the flow of curvilinear elements juxtaposed with rectilinear shapes. The details, such as the small mass of grass-green cloth suspended above the waterfall, are more like the scribbled indications in Kandinsky’s drawings than they are like details from Posen’s own previous work. The crossed and hooking lines here are the fantasies of the draftsman who must animate spaces throughout his picture with line alone. What we see here is almost an abstraction in which the shapes, light, and color demand that we not only ponder the complexities, but also partake of a certain lyrical mood which modifies Posen’s earlier determination to avoid representing a “state of being” in favor of a state of mind.

Looking at his latest painting of flowers, in which the photographic base is no longer as pronounced (the photograph itself being a detail so much enlarged that much of its legibility is obscured), it seems that Posen has moved away from his earlier assumptions and now feels that objectivity is not the exclusive function of mixed metaphor. Here he not only stresses the vaguer aspects of the photographic base; he also retrieves matiere as another element of ambiguity in what is finally the basic mystery of all Western painting, regardless of mode. The instant color is used not only for its inherent light and its light-diffusing character, but also for its material self; the transformations within the spaces of painting are manifold. The photograph has a static hierarchy of values. But in Posen’s most recent work, the hierarchy has been subverted. The photographic stasis gives way to the constantly shifting values implicit in oil painting since its origins. The “expression” Posen seeks is now imbued with an emotive content that he specifically denied in his earlier phase. The earliest works in his current exhibition correspond to the prevailing reaction against sentimentality that characterized much of the work of Posen’s generation. During the 1960s the revolt against expressionism in both painting and literature had nurtures Posen’s attitude. Even his diction – words such as “information” and “documentation” – indicated his commitment to the prevalent point of view. But he did not adhere to an orthodoxy. I think what he undertook can be more nearly compared to the kind of manifestoes put forward by the French writers of the “nouveaux romans.” One of the best of these new novels was Michel Butor’s La Modification. Butor painstakingly enumerates the characteristics of a railway carriage avoiding all adjectives. These traits are repeated in the flat, inventory-like method Butor devised to move his plot at a snail’s pace, all the while slightly altering the information purveyed. His art, then, consisted in inducing the reader to perceive the slight modulations in his style as the materials and meaning of his novel. Posen paralleled Butor’s “objectivity” which, obviously, arrives at its opposite once the entire procedure is examined logically. His translation of the photo – meant to be a sign of reality – consist in an enumeration of data that, inevitably modified by the fact that it is painted, then becomes ambiguous. The nature of his “expression” in the earlier works was meant to be objective, and in this he found the limits. Objectivity became as elusive as any other value in the making of a work of art. The paradox remained. Although Posen was inevitably grouped with others who had turned to the photograph as the contemporary index to objectivity, or realism, his work belied it. This is an old story, too, in the history of art, as Rudolf Arnheim, with his unusual ability to locate essential aesthetic problems, points out:

Photographic faithfulness, which involves distortions and amputations of the ‘real’ constitution of things, is so remote from the naïve conception of reality that even now a young artist has to undergo years of hard training and may have to rely on mechanical devices of measurement and projection, if he wants to accomplish ‘correct’ representation. This style of realism may come, paradoxically, from a kind of artist who is detached from the values and objectives of reality, who spires to the faithful reproduction of appearance for its own sake or is carried away by the simulating charms of complex form. The aesthetic assertion that it did not matter whether a work of art represented a cabbage or a Madonna came from a school of realists . . . The extreme concreteness of realism and the extreme abstractness of some modern art may express an identical aloofness from reality, if by reality we intend the deeper meaning of life and nature.

Unquestionably Posen, for many years, cultivated the aloofness Arnheim highlights. Now, it seems to me, he is heading toward the position first assumed by the 19th century romantics who combined the experimental scientific question of what would happen if . . . with the notion that each man can generate his own vision. In this sense he is quite alien to most contemporary realists.