What is a painting?


As part of our project Modern Migrants: Paintings from Europe in US Museums, we are collecting provenance data of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modern paintings. And at the heart of this data lies the simple but pressing question: what is a painting? After all, medium and technique can vary wildly, not to mention what found objects might make it onto a canvas!

To respond to this question, then, we looked at the cataloguing of over 6,000 paintings by US museums and found 559 distinct statements for describing their medium. From these findings we created an algorithmically generated website that, with every visit, provides a new answer and a new frame to the question, “What is a painting?” After all, they say, no two paintings are the same.

With its rows and columns and perfect rectangles—in which the third dimension is altogether absent—the website’s grid layout pays homage to the geometric abstractionism of Piet Mondrian. While every visit to the website may be unique, we understand that no mathematical approach could ever live up to Mondrian’s compositions, which are, as the artist himself admitted, “constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm”. (Piet Mondrian – letter to H.P. Bremmer January 29, 1914)

And it is thus with Mondrian’s words in mind that we invite you to follow your intuition…

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