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Shaped canvas

Paintings are usually rectangular, but circular pictures, or tondos, were popular in Europe during the Renaissance and there are examples of oval- and diamond-shaped canvases in early-twentieth-century art. The term shaped canvas gained currency as more than a neutral descriptor with the exhibition of Frank Stella’s “notched” paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery in September 1960. These were minimalist paintings in which symmetrically arranged pinstripes echoed the unconventional shape of the stretched canvas. The imagery and the underlying canvas were integrated; the painting became less an illusionistic rendering than an independent object, the two-dimensional counterpart of Minimalism’s three-dimensional primary structures.

Although such works sometimes seemed to synthesize painting and sculpture, the intention was precisely the opposite. A single, extremely flat surface was maintained, in contrast to later multilevel three-dimensional assemblages and reliefs, most notably by Stella himself, that did obliterate the distinction between painting and sculpture. Contemporary painters have put the nonrectangular format to a variety of different purposes, ranging from the fragmented imagery spread across Elizabeth Murray’s brash multicanvas works to the spirituality of Ron Janowich’s abstractions.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.