Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 11, 1999
John Sallis Shades—Of Painting at the Limit Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. 208 pp.; 19 color ills.; 29 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (0253334241)

John Sallis is a philosopher whose extensive writing has focused on figures in the “continental” tradition, such as Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. In an earlier book, Stone (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), he wrote of the artistic power of stone, with reference to several of these thinkers, using them as voices to explore such forms as Egyptian pyramids, Greek temples, Gothic cathedrals, and the Jewish cemetery in Prague. In Shades Sallis continues to draw especially on Hegel and Heidegger, whose thought offers constant points of reference in Stone. This book will probably be of most immediate interest to theorists and philosophers of art who are somewhat familiar with the traditions on which Sallis draws; those with strong interests in some of the painters considered could also find the book an exciting introduction to those traditions.

It is notable, and Sallis takes note of it, that in so far as philosophers and critics have attempted to make sense of painting, they have been especially concerned with its limits, in several senses of that term. Sallis observes this in the case of Kant and Hegel. Kant attempted to work out a division of the arts (although he regarded it as somewhat tentative), one that would explain their different tasks or vocations, and the result was an account of painting in which the art seemed to expand to include many forms of ornament, dress, and decoration, while contracting to exclude color for the sake of design. Hegel developed a system of the arts in which the ordering principle was art’s aspiration to present the spiritual in a sensible form; one could understand the arts as becoming increasingly spiritual as the outer or material medium becomes increasingly rarified or unimportant. This yields the account in the Aesthetics in which art moves from architecture through sculpture to the romantic arts of painting, music, and poetry, finally passing over into the nonsensuous realms of religion and philosophy. One might trace the theme of limits back even further, especially to Lessing, whose Laocoon was an attempt to define the boundaries between poetry and painting. And one might see the persistence of such a desire in the work of such critics as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried; the former following an explicitly Kantian program of defining the limits of an art in terms of the nature of its medium (held to be analogous to the limiting conditions of sensibility and understanding in the Kantian account of human knowledge), while the latter was concerned to delimit the visual arts of painting and sculpture from the mixed art of theater. Like Jacques Derrida, Sallis is suspicious of the way in which the traditional program of establishing the limits of painting (as in Kant and Hegel) is complicit with a hierarchy of the arts and with a set of philosophical categories whose usefulness may be exhausted. The traditional hierarchy of the arts privileges linguistic art or poetry; the usual philosophical categories (inner and outer, sensible and intellectual) are among those that post-Nietzschean philosophy has taught us to regard as overly simple, as signs of the metaphysical faith in opposite values.

Sallis proposes to look at the limits of painting in another way, one that attends to the specificity and singularity of the art. Now the notion of limits is construed as interior to painting, having to do with such things as shades or shadows, those aspects of the visual that the art deploys as absolutely minimal differentiations or that it can summon up as the most evanescent and yet most emblematic of its modes. Painting sets its own limits, operating in the interval between sheer light and the objects illuminated (or shaded).

Shades consists of three studies of artists that Sallis takes to be exemplary in working with and displaying painting’s concern with limits: Monet, Kandinsky, and the contemporary Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. As I understand Sallis, the notion of exemplarity is important. He mentions that even a philosopher of such universalizing tendency as Kant finds it necessary to discuss examples of painting, while noting that “even to construe them as examples is—short of rethinking the very sense of exemplarity—to risk situating the painted work not only within very classical conceptual oppositions but, more significantly still, within a frame inappropriate to painting as such” (p. 19). To see a painting as an example is already to know what it is an example of; in other words, taking it as an example supposes we have a set of categories that will remain unshaken by what we discern in the painting. Taking a painting as exemplary, on the other hand, would involve a commitment to saying that how we understand this painting will have serious consequences for the categories and discourse that we shall have for discussing painting in general. A painting or a painter’s work is exemplary if changing our view about it would tend to change our view of what painting is. It is in this sense that Cezanne is an exemplary painter for Maurice Merleau-Ponty and that Derrida considers the implications of taking van Gogh’s Old Shoes as an exemplary painting, disputing the interpretations offered by Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro.

Sallis, then, may be attempting to rethink the idea of exemplarity with regard to painting. To do so, he looks at the works under discussion with constant reference to more traditional philosophical accounts of the art, especially those of Hegel, who is seen (as by Heidegger and Derrida) as having produced the most systematic statement of aesthetic theory, as well as having left a space for generating some ways of questioning its systemacity and founding concepts.

Sallis’s first exemplary painter is Monet, and he focuses on the series of Wheatstacks that were exhibited together in Paris in 1891. He articulates Monet’s painting in dialogue with his contemporary, Nietzsche. The philosopher was involved in the project of “twisting free” of the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible that has tended to dominate Western thought since Plato. Something analogous happens in the paintings in so far as they disclose not merely specific objects and settings but visibility itself. Monet is seen as working with that which makes possible everything connected with the visible, including the play of the visible and the invisible. The painter dissolves the object into light and shade, as the wheatstacks become interruptions of light or fulcrums of light and shadow. Something of the flavor of Sallis’s analysis emerges in passages like these, although it must be remembered that here and elsewhere the discussion is always oriented to specific paintings: “What is painted is . . . the spread of light over all things, that is, the shining itself, that which ordinarily lets things be visible while itself remaining largely unseen” (p. 48) and “What is painted in the Wheatstacks is a gathering of the shining of the sensible. One could call it, in a very ancient sense, a logos of visibility” (p. 50). “Shining” is Sallis’s rendering of the German Schein and an affiliated Greek term. While these are often rendered as “appearance,” Sallis wisely wants to free the visual from categories that would see it as “mere appearance” to be contrasted with a more intelligible reality. Readers of Heidegger will recognize Sallis’s use of “gathering” and its association with logos as the German philosopher’s way of attempting to name that which makes it possible for things to belong together or not belong, a way of being with that philosophy has increasingly lost touch.

Sallis’s exploration of Kandinsky, focusing on the work of 1910-13, especially the group of Compositions, is a highly nuanced account of the way in which this art interrogates the limits of painting, so that it could be said that its theme is the liminal itself. Using Kandinsky’s writings as well as the paintings, he shows how the artist is engaged in questioning the role of the object and the objective in his pictures. Kandinsky’s project is seen as parallel to Heidegger’s. While the philosopher asks whether there is a thinking that can establish itself in the closure of metaphysics, the painter-theorist poses the question, both verbally and visually, whether and how painting can still do its work without the objective dimension. Kandinsky turns out to have an explicit debt to Nietzsche, suggesting that the spiritual turn in his painting is to be understood in terms of the self-interrogation involved in the transvaluation of values. Sallis develops the idea of “passage” in a sensitive reading of a number of the Compositions. What Kandinsky achieves is a painting suspended in the passage toward pure composition.

The concluding study of Paladino extends the theme of painting at the limits. Now it is not the limit that makes possible visibility (Monet) or that which obtains as the object passes out of the image (Kandinsky); it is rather the limit in which the image itself is volatilized into a state of dissolution or passing away. Paladino’s work involves “a gathering that sets into the work the passing of the image, making of the work an image of passing” (p. 135). Sallis exhibits this in the case of Paladino’s paintings by exploring such motifs as the use of one painting surface being superimposed on and obfuscating another beneath it, and the construction of a series of such paintings in which the image is increasingly obscured until the last painting in the series disappears altogether. Another sense of “shade” is introduced in this analysis, the shade as that evanescent form that passes beyond the world into another, into Hades. These shades, I take it, are the equivalents of the simulacrum or phantasm that a number of thinkers have invoked in order to speak about the world of vision, a world that involves a shining, appearing, or manifestation of the image, that cannot be reduced to or identified with tangible objects, just as the shades of the departed or departing cannot be identified with their bodies. After a subtle engagement with Paladino’s work, Sallis leaves us with this image or thought of shades passing to or from Hades suggesting, as does Heidegger, that there are important resources for rethinking the ideas of being and appearance in the earliest Greek thinking. This conclusion, leaving us with an image of passage to clarify the passing of the image, may seem enigmatic; but the response to that feeling may be simply that the enigma is in the nature of things, in the mystery of the visible and the invisible itself.

Gary Shapiro
Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Richmond