What Makes a Painting a Painting? The older painting gets as an art form, the harder it gets to describe. Is a painting that doubles as a video still a painting? What is a painting that is also a print? What about the painting that is a collage, a cartoon, graffiti, or some other form of illustration? Artists have long incorporated objects into paintings on canvas, but what should we call a work if no paint or canvas is involved? Is a painting made with nothing but fabric or putty still a painting? And what kind of a painting takes up not just a whole wall but the space of an entire room?

It used to be so simple:

A painting was the mediated result of an artist’s application of wet paint on a flat surface. No more. Having absorbed high culture and low, painting has turned itself out in mixed-media assemblages that include both organic and synthetic materials and occasionally involve photography and digital printing. It has borrowed from commercial illustration and architectural, tattoo, and textile design, and exhibited itself as sculpture or in various combinations of all the above, in both abstraction and representation. At this point, even those distinctions seem quaint.

Ours is the age of the hybrid, the crossover, the many-splendored thing, a time when the combined force of new media, postmodern thought, and human history has made it impossible for artists to worship a single god. Indeed, the practice of this ancient art may owe its continued health to its amazingly elastic nature.

Reassuring though that may be.

It only complicates attempts to pinpoint exactly what we now identify. For an artist like Pat Steir, a paint is simply something that “deals with paint.” Steir is probably best known for large-scale abstract canvases that suggest cascading waterfalls, each the consequence of a calculated system of brushing, dripping, and splattering paint. “Of course,” she notes, “you can do a painting with a pencil, as Cy Twombly has. Then there are Warhol’s urine paintings. Does that mean the image is the painting? No,” she explains, “because we have Ellsworth Kelly, where the image is a color, or Christopher Wool, where the painting is a word.”

Even Robert Storr—a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and the curator of the 2007 Venice Biennale—trips over his definition. “A painting has to be made of paint or paintlike materials,” says Storr, an artist himself. “But then I think of a photographer like Jeff Wall, who makes images resembling history paintings. Or Sigmar Polke, who manipulates the chemical process in photography in ways akin to what a painter does, but the result is a printed object.” Recalling that Robert Rauschenberg once made paintings out of dirt, Storr concludes, “It’s both the pictorial conventions and the material qualities of an object that make it a painting. For an increasing number of artists, the very game of stretching definitions is the substance of the work.”

What Makes a Painting a Painting?

Rauschenberg may well be the patron saint of the hybrid form. He is now as famous for claiming to act within the “gap between art and life” as he is for his Combine works, in which he bridged the gulf between painting and object. Last December PaceWildenstein exhibited his “Scenarios,” a suite of totemic, 7-by-10-foot paintings of vaguely thematic photographic images transferred to a plasterlike surface to resemble frescoes.

Each bore clear references to his own pictorial history. For example, Key West Rooster (2004) evoked the artist’s silk-screened newspaper transfers of the early 1960s. It made an obvious link with Odalisk(1955–58), the category-defying Combine on which he placed a stuffed rooster atop a paint-slathered wooden box covered in dried grass, photographs, newspaper, and electric lights, and stakes the whole thing to a pillow on a low, rolling platform. (At the end of this year, on the occasion of Rauschenberg’s 80th birthday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will host a retrospective of the Combines that will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the exhibition’s organizer, and later to museums in Stockholm and Paris.) As Steir says, “Rauschenberg found a way to stretch the meaning, and it has been stretching ever since.”