Michael VENEZIA, Untitled Enlarge 1 /1


United States of America born 1935

Untitled [Untitled (10 August 1979)] 1979 Materials & Technique: paintings, pigment, metallic and glass powders on canvas

Primary Insc: signed and dated verso c., fibre-tipped pen, "10 AUG 79 M V"
Dimensions: 6.7 h x 305.5 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1981
Accession No: NGA 81.2113
  • Sperone Westwater Fischer Inc., 1979;
  • from whom bought by the Australian National Gallery, March 1981

I'm trying to get away from the idea of the canvas as a rectilinear playground with a little thing going on here and a little thing going on there. Applying the paint with a brush involves decisions which come from impulses about composition. I'm not interested in selection of that type. My works are about moving in one direction, producing a shape which is compatible with the movement. The size brings the physical edges of the canvas into one component.

In my works there's nothing to see behind. The surface is the pigment, is the vehicle, is the shape. They're all contained in the one piece of paint. It's all frontal; there's no inside, no underpainting, no reworking. The surface sheen becomes the surface.

In the above statements Venezia explains the intention behind his narrow-bar paintings of the 1970s. The artist had made excursions into the bar format as early as 1969, however his serious exploration of the format dates primarily from 1973 to 1981. In Untitled 1979 he has reduced his process to one single gesture, an application of paint with a spray gun in a single lateral motion along the top edge of the canvas. 'The noun is the verb', is a phrase he used to describe his work.

One contemporary critic discussed Venezia's narrow-bar paintings of the late 1970s in relation to the paintings of Barnett Newman:

Venezia presents us with a horizontal 'piece of paint', Newman with a vertical zip motif on a radically trimmed ground. Yet it is not a mere question of the same thing done the opposite way … one of Venezia's extremely horizontal paintings is not only opposite to one of Newman's in orientation, but also, on a higher level, by its internal contradiction between longitudinal field and transverse stroke. Venezia's 'stroke', while 'machine-made' by spraying, indulges in irregularity: not only does it leave a very plastically irregular deposit of paint, but the actual laying on is done inwardly all from one (long) edge. The physical thickening of the paint is more pronounced along the edge which is not quite painted up to, than along the edge from which the paint is applied.

Another commentator observed that:

Paradoxically, although Venezia's original intention was to eliminate from his work the exuberant gesture of abstract expressionism, his paintings have a similar sense of spontaneity - the result of his choice of a mechanical, yet variable technique.

The surface nuances in Untitled become evident when the work is lit in the gallery space. The reflectivity of the metallic pigments in the surface highlights an uneven 'ripple' that runs the length of the work. This internal luminosity within the work and the way the single bar 'lights' or commands the expanse of the white wall of the gallery is perhaps analogous to the single fluorescent tubes used by Dan Flavin in the early 1960s. These similar artistic sensibilities might be traced to the personal friendship between Venezia and Flavin dating from the late 1950s when both, along with other artists such as Sol LeWitt and Robert Ryman, worked as attendants and guards at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Steven Tonkin

  1. Michael Venezia, quoted in, Grace Sieberling, 'Michael Venezia', Arts Magazine, vol.52 no.3, November 1977, p.7, reproduced in, Dieter Schwarz, 'Michael Venezia: Painting places', in Malerei / Paintings 1970-1995, Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag 1996, p.24
  2. Grace Sieberling, 'Michael Venezia', Arts Magazine, vol.52 no.3, November 1977, p.7
  3. Joseph Masheck, 'Hard-Core Painting', Artforum, vol.16 no.8, April 1978, p.49, reprinted in Joseph Masheck, Historical Present: Essays of the 1970s, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press 1984, pp.159-160
  4. Jay Belloni, Michael Venezia: Selected Paintings 1969-1980, Detroit: The Detroit Institute of Arts 1980, p.15

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra