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MacPherson, Robert - 2005.12a

Robert MacPherson

I SEE A CAN OF PAINT AS A PAINTING UNPAINTED 1982
photocopy on paper, found chair, can of paint, plinth
34.5 x 27.2 cm
Gift from the artist 2005

Brisbane-based artist Robert MacPherson has interrogated the artistic process, the artist and the status of artworks for the last four decades. After focusing on increasingly reductive acts of painting during the late 1970s, MacPherson presented a series of text pieces in the early 1980s. Some of these works were accompanied by objects, such as I SEE A CAN OF PAINT AS A PAINTING UNPAINTED 1982, which is not a unique work; there are versions also in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and the University of Queensland, Brisbane. The assemblage comprises a four-litre can of base white, low-sheen house paint on a plinth, a single A4 typewritten and photocopied sheet pinned to the wall, and a pile of the copied sheets sitting on a white-painted nondescript wooden chair. The viewer is invited to take one of the pages.

MacPherson’s work during this period engaged with the art criticism and theories of the American post-war critic, Clement Greenberg. MacPherson’s works, however, resembled much more closely the artistic strategies of an incompatible field – that of conceptual art. The chair might remind us of Joseph Kosuth’s iconic conceptual art work One and Three Chairs 1965, comprising a wooden folding chair, a description of a chair and an image of a chair; but, rather than an inquiry into the nature of art, MacPherson’s subject is the essential nature of painting. In capital letters and eschewing punctuation, the 125 word text pinned to the wall and available to take away begins with ‘I SEE A CAN OF PAINT AS A PAINTING UNPAINTED...’ and traces backwards the minimum requirements for a painting, detailing the labour and production chronology of actions back to the manufacture of the paint.

The anchor of this text is the figure of MacPherson, who asks: ‘WHO IS THE ARTIST THE PAINT THE MACHINE THE OPERATOR THE DESIGNER THE MANUFACTURER OR ME FOR SEEING IT’. The artist thereby nominates this as an artwork, or makes a distinction between the register of the aesthetic as opposed to the painted surface, by appending his name and the year.

The way that the readymade opens up a generic context of art out of the specific discipline of painting has been explored by Belgian theorist Thierry De Duve. In Kant after Duchamp 1996, he characterised Greenberg’s base conventions of modernist painting, the flat surface or blank canvas, as a readymade – aligning Greenberg with Marcel Duchamp’s assertion that the tube of paint is already a readymade.[1]

Two other conceptual text works by MacPherson are closely related to this work: THREE PAINTINGS 1981, which consists of three paintbrushes accompanied by brief texts recounting a path from use to purchase to manufacture to making a painting; and MY SHOES ARE PAINTINGS!! 1982, which relates an epiphany that MacPherson experienced whenceforth he saw painting everywhere. Through MacPherson’s redesignation of artistic labour, painting is not segregated in the autonomous regime of art: it potentially intersects with all areas of life.

Angela Goddard

Angela Goddard is Director, Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane.


[1] See Thierry De Duve, ‘The Readymade and the Tube of Paint’ and ‘The Monochrome and the Blank Canvas’ in Kant after Duchamp, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1996, pp.147–98, 199–264.