The Purity of Painting

Instructor: Riccardo Marchi

In this seminar, we study some of the main protagonists and theories of early 20th century European painting. Our focus is the “purity” of painting – a central idea in the history, theory and interpretation of Western modernism in the visual arts.

In 1960, Clement Greenberg, one of the most influential (and debated) American critics of the 20th century, used the notion of “purity” to refer to what he thought was the essential goal of modernism: the self-critical effort to explore what was “unique to the nature” of each art’s “medium.” For painting, according to Greenberg, this meant form, line, “the flat surface, the shape of the support,” and “the properties of the pigment.”
Greenberg’s views are the starting point of our seminar, which aims at understanding and questioning his position. We do so by means of a close analysis of the paintings and ideas of some key European artists who called their work “pure,” or whose art was described with this term: Pablo Picasso, Umberto Boccioni, Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. We study their work through a range of recent critical approaches (among others, by Emily Braun, Mark Cheetham, T.J. Clark, and Gordon Hughes), which will introduce us to some of the most pressing issues at the core of the work of art historians currently engaged in an important revision of the interpretation of modernism.