Articles and Features

Top 10 Pioneers of the shaped canvas

Elizabeth Murray, Things to Come (detail), 1988. Fisher Collection. SFMOMA.
Elizabeth Murray, Things to Come (detail), 1988. Fisher Collection. SFMOMA.

From the “cut-out” paintings of László Peri to the saddle-like canvas of Ron Gorchov, explore a selection of contemporary artists who shaped the canvas, ultimately revolutionizing painting in its very essence by adding a three-dimensional quality to their creations.

1. László Peri

László Peri, In Front of the Table
László Peri, In Front of the Table, 1922, tempera on board. Image courtesy MoMA.

Born at the end of the nineteenth century, Peter László Peri, was a Hungarian artist and sculptor who many believe was the original innovator of the shaped canvas. He moved to Vienna, and then to Berlin in 1921, at which time he simplified his name and created his first geometric abstract reliefs. His contributions to the constructivism of this time were challenges both to the commonly understood physical characteristics of a painting and to the surface of the wall on which they hung. He produced irregularly shaped wall reliefs, polychromatic “cut-out” paintings which opened up new planes and made the hard contour of the elements a key visual device of his compositions.

2. Frank Stella

Shaped canvas
Frank Stella, Empress of India, 1965. Metallic powder in polymer emulsion paint on canvas. Image courtesy MoMA.

Frank Stella is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker noted for his work in the areas of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction, but it is for his work at the beginning of the 1960s that catapulted him to international acclaim. Upon moving to New York City in the later 1950s he reacted against the expressive use of paint by most painters of the abstract expressionist movement, instead finding himself drawn towards the “flatter” surfaces of Barnett Newman’s work, and the target paintings by Jasper Johns. Around this time he said that a picture was “a flat surface with paint on it – nothing more”. From 1960 Stella began to produce paintings in aluminium and copper paint which were his first works using shaped canvases, often being in L, N, U or T-shapes. These emphasized the picture-as-object and later developed into more elaborate shaped canvas designs, including the Notched-V series of 1964, Irregular Polygons of 1967, Protractor Variation paintings of 1968 onwards and the Polish Villages series beginning in 1971.

3. Lee Bontecou

Shaped canvas
Lee Bontecou, Untitled 1966, Welded steel, canvas, epoxy, leather, and wire. Image courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Lee Bontecou is an American sculptor and printmaker and widely considered a pioneer from the New York art world of the 1960s. She achieved considerable critical acclaim and commercial success early in her career, exhibiting at Leo Castelli’s gallery alongside other generational luminaries Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg. She is best known for the works she created in 1959 and the 1960s, which challenged artistic conventions of the time by being neither specifically paintings nor sculptures, and by their unusual materiality. Wall hung, they consist of welded steel frames covered with recycled canvas and industrial materials (such as conveyor belts or mail sacks) and other found objects. Her best constructions are at once mechanistic and organic. Art critic Arthur Danto described them best, suggesting they were “lying at the intersection of magnified insects, battle masks, and armored chariots…”

4. Richard Smith

Shaped canvas
Richard Smith, Piano, 1963, PVA paint on canvas. Image courtesy Tate.

Richard Smith was a British artist who was one of the most original painters of his generation, and one of the most underrated during his lengthy career. He was a truly transatlantic figure who enjoyed huge commercial and critical success in the US and Britain during the 1960s and 70s. Early on, his art bridged the apparent gap between abstraction and pop art, the sophistication of his paintings revealing the inadequacy of such categorisations. Studying at the Royal College in the mid-1950s his generation was the first to be fundamentally affected by the first extensive displays in Britain of American abstract expressionist painting. For many artists painting was founded on highbrow spiritual and cultural values and, for others, on such formal ideas as the importance of the flatness of the canvas. In stark contrast, Smith was keen to stress his interest in popular culture, mass media, and visual forms of advertising and commodity packaging, even co-signing a letter to his tutor John Minton that observed: “To your generation, the 30s meant the Spanish civil war; to us, it means Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” Titles such as Revlon and Panatella hinted at his source inspirations, creating shaped canvases that extended his paintings into the space of the room to such a degree that they almost became sculptures.

5. Ellsworth Kelly 

Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Piece
Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow Piece, 1966 © 2021 Ellsworth Kelly. Image courtesy MoMA.

Ellsworth Kelly was an American painter, sculptor, and printmaker associated primarily with a type of hard-edge minimalism that came to prominence in the 1960s. His works were created with deceptive simplicity, focussing their emphasis on line, color and form. In the 1950s he became interested in the work of Ad Rheinhardt, an important artist of the preceding generation whose work Kelly thought his own related closely to. In 1949 he made his first abstract canvases, experimenting throughout the 1950s with reductive and elemental forms in solid colors. During the 1960s he started working with irregularly angled canvases. Yellow Piece (1966), was the artist’s first shaped canvas and represents Kelly’s pivotal break with the rectangular support and his redefinition of painting’s figure/ground relationship. With its curved corners and single, all-encompassing color, the canvas itself becomes the composition, transforming the wall behind it into the picture’s ground. In the 1970s he added curved shapes to his repertoire, and Green White of 1968 marks the debut appearance of the triangle in Kelly’s oeuvre, a shape that recurs throughout his career; the painting is composed of two distinct, shaped monochromatic canvases, which are installed on top of each other: a large-scale, inverted, green trapezoid is positioned vertically above a smaller white triangle, forming a new type of geometric composition.

6. Tom Wesselmann

Tom Wesselmann, Smoker
Tom Wesselmann, Smoker, 1 (Mouth, 12), 1967 © Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Image courtesy MoMA.

Tom Wesselmann was an American artist who was a prominent member of the Pop art generation, and who often formed the figurative imagery of his work from a shaped canvas. Even though he incorporated the slick imagery of advertising, billboards and consumer culture Wesselmann never liked his inclusion under the American pop art label, pointing out how he made an aesthetic use of everyday objects and not a criticism of them as consumer objects: “I dislike labels in general and ‘Pop’ in particular, especially because it overemphasizes the material used. There does seem to be a tendency to use similar materials and images, but the different ways they are used denies any kind of group intention”. In 1962 Wesselmann had begun working on a new series of still life works, experimenting with assemblage as well as collage. In Still Life #28 he even included a television set that was turned on. The first shaped canvas nudes were made in 1964.

7. Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam, Carousel State
Sam Gilliam, Carousel State, 1968 © Sam Gilliam. Image courtesy The Met.

Sam Gilliam is an abstract artist, who since the 1960s has practiced a unique form of lyrical abstraction and color field painting, freed from the constraints of the stretched canvas. Whilst some may consider it a stretch to consider his work an employer of shaped canvases, it is nonetheless the case that he has pioneered a unique form of unstretched canvas cloth as shape. He works on stretched, draped and wrapped canvas, and adds sculptural 3D elements. He is recognized as the first artist to introduce the idea of a draped, painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars around 1965, considered a major development of and even departure from the Color Field School.

8. Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera, Amarillo “Dos”
Carmen Herrera, Amarillo “Dos”, 1971. Maria Graciela and Luis Alfonso Oberto Collection © Carmen Herrera, Image courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

A Cuban-American born in 1915, Herrera’s career is a sensational story of discovery, garnering international recognition only relatively recently by which time she was already in her 80s. She worked in obscurity for decades despite groundbreaking work in abstraction many years ahead of the mainstream establishment. Beginning in the 1950s during the pomp of the Abstract Expressionist period, she began to formulate a distinctive and pared-down geometric language. Herrera was educated in Havana and in Paris, where she studied art, art history and architecture. Experts often cite the influence of architecture studies in her geometric-shaped canvases and expertly executed angles. During the 1950s she began to conceptualise her paintings as objects, experimenting, in her words, with “the physical structure of the painting … paintings becoming an object.”

9. Ron Gorchov

Shaped canvas
Carmen Herrera, Amarillo “Dos”, 1971. Maria Graciela and Luis Alfonso Oberto Collection © Carmen Herrera, Image courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

Ron Gorchov is an American painter who has developed a singular artistic practice bridging sculpture and painting. Gorchov became a strong artistic force in the late 1960s and early 70s within a group of Manhattan-based abstract artists, such as Frank Stella, Richard Tuttle, Blinky Palermo and Ellsworth Kelly, who rejected the ubiquitous rectangular canvas in favour of new shapes and configurations. Gorchov’s key innovation, developed in the late 1960s and the one that garnered significant critical attention, was to make his paintings on a complicated wooden support that was at once convex and concave, a shape that has been compared by critics to a saddle or shield form. Of his work, he said “I realized that when you stretch a saddle shape on a frame it had properties that were unusual: the whole thing got stronger. And it could make less acute corners. I also discovered that the new structure creates an even tension throughout the whole surface. What I’ve finally learned was the right way to build it was to start with a rectangle, and the curved part has to spring off of it. Therefore, the structure itself becomes an argument to the rectangle, and that interested me.” On these grounds, he most often paints one or two biomorphic elements set against a coloured ground of thinly applied paint. At once highly formal and lyrically expressive, to this day these shaped canvas supports are the only structure he utilises in his work.

10. Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray, The Sun and the Moon
Elizabeth Murray, The Sun and the Moon, 2005-6. Oil on panel, mounted on wood. Image Courtesy Phillips Collection.

Elizabeth Murray was an American painter best known for her large-scale, elaborately shaped canvas works and for re-shaping modernist abstract forms into a riotous, cartoon-based language. Bordering on the sculptural, many of Murray’s paintings incorporate multiple curvilinear shapes, bold primary colours and elements that jut out from the wall. They disregard traditional pictorial illusionism and also many of the formal concerns previously explored by proponents of the shaped canvas. Murray moved to New York in 1967, and in 1971 was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s annual survey exhibition. Over the following decades, her work took on an aesthetic most closely aligned and inspired by her contemporary Frank Stella, and was to subsequently exert a strong influence on an influential generation of artists that came to prominence in the East Village in the 1980s including Carroll Dunham and George Condo.

Related links

Lost (and Found) Artist series: Carmen Herrera
Lost (and Found) Artist Series: Ron Gorchov