What is Painting? III

Guillermo Kuitca Untitled 1992

Goodness! – The critics really did not like this show, and they took Anne Umland to task. For instance – “crowded”, “boxy” & “cubicle” – terms used by Jerry Saltz – implying a perfunctory business-like presentation of the works. And it’s fairly damning that he also says, “‘What Is Painting?’ isn’t really about contemplation.’ A painting show that’s not about contemplation? Ouch!
But then Jerry seems to get the larger implications of the reason for this exhibition: “Not only does it bring artists from the margins into MoMA’s center, but each gallery becomes a condensed chapter in the cliff-hanger story of painting through the sixties and seventies, when Minimalism and Conceptualism both presumed it dead, and its subsequent journey to the multifarious shores it occupies now.” [Jerry Saltz on What is Painting?]

“Anne Umland, curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, gathered the work, all made between 1960 and the present. Her selection will alienate many, if not most, visitors. Are you looking for paintings that open luminous windows onto another world, hold mirrors to the soul or just revel in their color-rich surfaces? Too bad. Would you like an answer to the exhibit’s titular question? You’ll have to look elsewhere. Umland has more theoretical, and ultimately misguided­, ideas about that, too. To make matters worse, she never clearly expresses them to the public. Instead, she presents what she calls a “kaleidoscopic” (curatorial code for scattered) exhibition “dedicated to the principle of questioning”—i.e., the sloppy postmodern assertion that no question has a real answer.
Nearby, a Barbara Kruger graphic looking the worse for wear assaults the eye with what should be the stunningly accusatory phrase, you invest in the divinity of the masterpiece. In this context, viewers can only wish that Umland had made such an investment, or imagined this work as more than the sum of its mundane parts. The exhibit is laid out in small rooms, hung almost unvaryingly with four works, one per wall. No momentum builds up between those discrete spaces, and none of the pieces ever manage to “talk” amongst themselves across the space. Umland would do well to eschew fours in the future: Two works read as a dialogue of compare and contrast; three works read as a series, a narrative arc; four works beg for closure on that arc, and closure is something she prefers to avoid.” [Sarah Schmerler on What is Painting?]

Jackie Winsor Bound Square1972

When I saw the show it left me a bit confused until it occurred that the show was in line with the post-historical nature of painting in the 90s and 2000s. The installation of the show was also in line with the way we were beginning to engage with art online. Umland’s examination of the pluralism and scattershot thematics in painting showed how changed our relationship to both painting and the history of Modernism had become. Mario Naves’ telling line below says it all, “If these are paintings, then everything is a painting.

What Is Painting? is an overview, not a manifesto. Ms. Umland isn’t interested in one concrete or comprehensive definition of the art form. Instead, the exhibition is open-ended and “multifocal”—a tack that is, on the whole, disappointing. MoMA has had an incalculable influence on international art, on how we look at modern art and how artists continue to make art. Favoring vagueness over discrimination forsakes the museum’s history and its ostensible purpose: to make finely tuned, if not inflexible, distinctions. Acquiescing to pluralism tiptoes around hard and important questions.
The show’s 12 sections present a variety of approaches to putting paint to canvas or, in some cases, not putting paint to canvas. The featured works “share an element fundamental to painting … dependence on a wall or planar surface, requiring viewers to approach them from a relatively fixed frontal vantage point.” Works by Lynda Benglis, Jackie Winsor, Dorothea Rockburne and Lee Bontecou are, yes, placed against a wall—Ms. Winsor’s primal construction Bound Square (1972) leans against it. But none of these artists, as seen here anyway, are painters. They’re sculptors who refer to painting, but only tangentially and largely not at all. If these are paintings, then everything is a painting.” [Mario Naves on What is Painting?]

What is Painting? II

Wade Guyton Untitled 2006

“As told by the final room in this exhibition, this crucial shift informs much art today. Wade Guyton’s quasi-Suprematist 2006 rendition of smudged black Xs is about Warhol, the negation of the hand, writing as art, marking time, the machine-made touch, and the notion that printing is painting. Nearby, a brightly colored, hard-edged Sarah Morris of a modernist building façade shows how artists are circling back to sixties geometric abstraction in order to reconnect it to the world.
In the end, “What Is Painting?” deftly puts the lie to one particular art-world bromide. Except for diehards, the pleasure police, October magazine, pedantic curators, and those last few Greenbergian critics who still insist that if painting isn’t about itself it’s washed up, no one thinks painting is dead. “What Is Painting?” establishes once and for all that no one thoughtful has actually believed this since the Nixon administration.” [Jerry Saltz on What is Painting?]

Glenn Ligon White #19 1994

The text is from an essay by Richard Dyer entitled White, which is about the representation of whiteness. One of the claims that Dyer makes is that whiteness is very difficult to analyze because it operates as the norm, and so things that seem normal are very difficult to see, but that things that seem special or different seem glaringly visible. He says that blackness seems very visible and easy to analyze, whereas whiteness seems to disappear when you start to talk about it. And this sort of question of the visibility and invisibility of race in our culture was one of the things I was really interested in exploring in the work.
I use a plastic letter stencil that has every letter of the alphabet on it and the painting is made by doing each letter, one at a time, from the top of the painting to the bottom of the painting, and then when I reach the bottom, I start over again. The more I go over those letters with this oil stick, the blacker and denser the surface of the painting becomes, to the point where it is entirely blacked out. So the text is visible and not visible, legible and not legible in various degrees. The text still remains fragmentary. It’s not even possible to read an entire paragraph in the text.
The struggle that you have to go through in reading the text in my painting adds something to the text. [Glenn Ligon on text and technique]

At once edgy and academic, Umland’s “loosely chronological” exhibition of painting since 1960 swaps historical arguments for thematic correspondences—the use of text in painting, for example—that lead, more often than not, to theoretical blind alleys with the grim precision of a tax collector. The exhibition’s first room, for example, is front-loaded with a Philip Guston painting of a stitched scalp, a Philip Pearlstein nude, a Vija Celmin picture of a hand firing a gun, and a monumental Lee Lozano image of a hammer. This, quite naturally, would be the Violence and the Body Room. (Check). Four more walls follow a similar beads-on-a-string formula: Objects in steel, wire, wood, and twine by artists Lynda Benglis, Dorothea Rockburne, Lee Bontecou, and Jackie Winsor all add up, with the curatorial logic of Lincoln Logs, to the Wall-Sculpture-as-Painting Room. (Check.)  [Christian Viveros-Faune Review of What is Painting?]

What is Painting? I

John Baldessari What is Painting 1966-68

In 2007 Anne Umland began an extraordinary series of exhibitions at MOMA that examined the sources and theoretics that lay behind 21st Century painting. There were a number of shows that presented lesser known artists and/or overlooked periods of better known artists’ painterly experimentation that included Miro, Kippenberger, Matisse, AbEx NY, German Expressionism, de Kooning, Sherman, Inventing Abstraction, Magritte, Sturtevant, Forever Now & Picabia to name just a few. MOMA has presented some incredible shows through the last 19 years, but for me this intelligent examination of the long tail of 20th Century painting in our contemporary era begins with What is Painting…
“The exhibition’s title is taken from a work by John Baldessari made between 1966 and 1968, but with the addition of a question mark, acknowledging the ongoing debates over the practice of painting and its place within contemporary art. The works included here offer a varied series of responses to the question, What is painting?, ranging from sincere to ironic, from figurative to abstract, from artists who embrace and creatively re-imagine painting’s possibilities to those who critically engage with its conventions and traditional forms.” [Anne Umland What is Painting?]

John Baldessari Tips for Artists 1966-68

“In the mid-1960s I was living in this small service community south of San Diego. And it was a good moment for me, in retrospect, because I was able to really dig into what I thought art might be, not what somebody else would think art would be. You know, received wisdom, what you would get in school. And, so a lot of my work was about questioning this received wisdom.
And I thought, “Well, I wonder what would happen if you just gave the public what they know,” which would be, let’s say, words and photographic images. You know, they’d probably had a camera, and they probably read books, magazines, and newspapers, so I said, “I’ll just do text pieces, or I’ll do text and photo pieces” that doesn’t look like Abstract Expressionism, it looks like something in their lives. But I would put it on canvas, and that would be a signal that it would be art.” [John Baldessari What is Painting]

John Balessari: The subject matter is coming out of people’s ideas of how art might be taught. And I think that’s what I’m getting at. I mean, you can follow all kind of rules, and they’re probably all right, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to come up with anything that we can call art.
Narrator: Baldessari’s paintings point out the absurdity of prevailing aesthetic attitudes. He follows the painting’s advice to “break all the so-called rules of composition,” which, ironically, actually means following the rules. And in another twist, by following the rules, Baldessari has also broken them—since these results certainly aren’t what the teaching manuals are calling for.
One of the founders of conceptual art, John Baldessari uses words, images, video, paint, and photography interchangeably in works of art that are witty and self-referential.
John Balessari: Probably in the mid-60s, I was really getting a little bit anxious, discontent, or disillusioned about art. I began to think that art might be more than just painting. You know, certainly painting is a vital part of doing art, but there might be other ways to do art. [Whitney Museum on John Baldessari]

Re-imaged V

Sigmar Polke Mao 1972

The idea that painting can save your life crescendos in a deeply moving installation, one in which you grasp the dilemma of being a young German painter at a time when your language is anathema, your parents are outcasts, and your country is hated. Seeing these artists fight their way back into the story of painting can take your breath away. Anselm Kiefer’s 1972 picture of an empty wooden room isn’t only a painting of receding interior space; it’s the 27-year-old clearing the psychic skeletons from the attic and dreaming of an undiscovered room in the house of painting. Georg Baselitz’s Frankensteinian figure is a perfect stand-in for what it must have felt like to be a German artist at the time. Sigmar Polke’s 1972 portrait of Mao surrounded by cover girls, crowds, newspaper headlines, and ads is jacked up on so many historical, stylistic, and consumerist hormones that it makes Pop Art seem quaint.” [Jerry Saltz’s review of What is Painting]

Gerhard Richter Kegel Grid (Cone) 1985

The Abstract Expressionists were amazed at the pictorial quality of their productions, the wonderful world that opens up when you just paint. And in the evolution that led to Tachism, the Informel, this irrepressible image-quality – that is, this ability to communicate – showed itself even (or rather especially) through the radically new, mechanical techniques of picture-production. It was as if these paintings were producing themselves; and the less deliberate the painters were about infusing them with their own content and mental images, the better the paintings became. But the problem is this: not to generate any old thing with all the rightness and spontaneity of Nature, but to produce highly specific pictures with highly specific messages (were it not for this, painting would be the simplest thing in the world, since in Nature any old blot is perfectly right and correct.)
Even so , I have to start with the ‘blot’, and not with the new content (if I could exempt myself from that, I should then have to look for an appropriate way of representing it).  With all the techniques at my command, especially those of elimination, I have to try to compel something that I cannot visualize – something that goes further and is better and more right than my own pre-existing opinion and intention – to appear as an existing picture of something. [Gerhard Richter Writings 1961-2007]

Sigmar Polke Untitled 1982

With his charisma and charm, his fur coat and snakeskin trousers, Polke was king of the scene—a word that was then only just coming into use. He drew sustenance from the collective and gave back generously. Nomadically, excessively, he traveled between Hamburg, where he held a professorship at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste (teaching, or at least hanging out with, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, and Georg Herold, among others), and his commune in Willich, near Düsseldorf, where he entertained an ever-changing assemblage of guests ranging from Michael Buthe to Katharina Sieverding. He sojourned frequently in Zurich, too, where he could escape Germany’s politically fraught atmosphere and enjoy the society of the city’s miscellaneous bohemians. In 1974, he went farther afield, setting out on a road trip with two or three of his Zurich friends that took him through Afghanistan and Pakistan—in an American convertible. He wound up in Quetta, Pakistan, where he took his famous photos of hashish smokers and dog-and-bear fights…
His ’70s excursions into photography, too, would leave their mark on his later painting practice. He transferred his experimentation with photochemistry from the darkroom to the studio, where he would use silver bromide, for example, to create surfaces that were subject to slow change over the years that followed the process of production. Thus the ’70s appear, quite logically, to have been a copula, a hinge between the cheerfully ironic works of the ’60s and the audaciously erudite art Polke produced over the last thirty years of his life. With its prodigious use of images and textual snippets appropriated from mass-media sources, moreover, Wir Kleinbürger! anticipates the extension of Polke’s practice to the remotest corners of cultural production. The cycle finds him developing his own highly volatile laboratory of images in which matter itself took on the role of a generator of creative energy. [Bice Curgier on Sigmar Polke]

Re-image IV

Sigmar Polke Girlfriends (Freundinnen) 1965-66

“In 1962, artists Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke graduated from the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. Within a year’s time, they had begun a brief collaboration, known as Kapitalisticher Realismus, responding visually to Postwar German culture as much as the dominating American Pop Art trend. Through the painted reproduction of magazine and newspaper photographs, these two men bonded over a shared belief that art could play a role in the revolutionary activities of the student or youth movement in the Federal Republic of Germany. Together, it became common practice for both artists to ridicule issues of societal import—contemporary politics, the fairly-recent National Socialist history, and a literally divided homeland, as Germany was at that point still separated into four occupation zones, ruled over by their respective foreign officials.
Although the American, British, French and Soviet quarters were independently governed, by 1949 the United States and Soviet Union had emerged as the dominate players in a global conflict, already referred to as the Cold War. Within the time span of five months, the Western-run Federal Republic of Germany and the Eastern-ruled German Democratic Republic were born, divided first by their opposing ideological agendas and later a physical partition (Klaasmeyer 6). As artists who fled the German Democratic Republic in search of artistic freedom, Richter and Polke created art that reflected the political and economic dualities present within Germany in the 1960s: West versus East, Democracy versus Communism, and capitalism versus state-regulated commerce. By demonstrating a rejection of cultural polarity—a condition caused by the ongoing presence of the victorious Allied Powers and the erection of the Berlin wall—these artists warned against the extremism that led to the National Socialist party and instead offered a message of compromise both artistically and politically.” [A. Dapena-Tretter on Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke: Painting the Postwar German Experience]

Gerhard Richter Sanger (Singer) 1965-1966

By the lights of many in the international art world, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke are the leading painters of our day, though it’s hard to find anyone who will declare them equally great. (I’m an exception.) Their careers are intertwined by biography and circumstance. Both are from the former East Germany: Polke, who is sixty-seven, left with his family when he was twelve; Richter, seventy-six, fled, after fitful success in state-run art programs, in 1961, just before the Wall went up. They met at the seminal Düsseldorf Art Academy and, in 1963, collaborated in a brief, trenchant movement that responded to American Pop art with painted imagery drawn from magazine and newspaper ads and photographs, family snapshots, cheap fabric designs, and other desultory sources, which Richter adapted with deadpan gravity and Polke with sardonic élan. A jokey photographic print by Richter, from 1967, shows them sharing a bed in Antwerp. (Their host for a show there had provided scanty accommodations.) They ascended to prominence in the early nineteen-eighties—stunning American art circles, which had been largely oblivious of creative doings in Germany—as twin masters who dramatically expanded the resources and resonances of painting, an art dismissed as moribund by most of that time’s avant-garde. Each has made visually glorious, conceptually seismic pictures. Both live and work in Cologne. But their differences are profound. Richter, reflective and deliberate, is a family man of temperate tastes and orderly habits. His studio is one of two elegant rectilinear buildings—the other is his house—in a large, walled, lushly gardened compound. Polke, restless and impulsive, is an unreconstructed bohemian, inhabiting cluttered expanses in a shabby industrial building. The question “Richter or Polke?” is a common icebreaker, and a self-revealing test, among art students far beyond Germany. To embrace both is to incur a mental civil war, to be of two jealous minds, between incommensurable sensibilities. Temperamentally estranged—Richter’s decorum nettles Polke, whose effrontery exasperates Richter—the men have long been barely on speaking terms. [Peter Schjeldahl on Richter and Polke]

Gerhard Richter Tisch (Table) 1962

Richter began to copy found black-and-white amateur and photojournalistic snapshots, which he regarded as having ‘no style, no concept, no judgment’. Among these early paintings, the monochromatic Table (1962, private collection) has been cited as the template for much of his subsequent work. The image of a designer table was copied directly from an advertisement in the Italian interiors magazine Domus and then partially erased with broad, sweeping strokes of paint. The chosen motif can be seen as a reflection on the consumerist culture Richter now found himself living in (a testament
to the post-war Wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle), but the overpainting interferes with the illusion of representation and makes plain its status as a painterly construct. The conflicting modes of figural and gestural painting opened the way for Richter’s further exploitation of banal, everyday photographs, as well as the objective examination of pure abstraction, which stressed the physical act of painting itself.
For Sigmar Polke, the example set by American Pop art provided the stimulus for a similar focus on consumer products and appropriated imagery. Yet his faux naïve paintings of goods such as socks, sausages and biscuits displayed a decidedly sardonic overtone that contrasted markedly with Richter’s dispassionate methodology. Polke would also delve more noticeably into the techniques of photomechanical reproduction by recreating the raster-dots used to print halftone images. His adoption of the ‘raster dots’ (similar to the coloured Benday dots mimicked by Lichtenstein) allowed Polke to ‘treat the whole surface in the same way — like Cézanne — and to treat all subjects in the same way: a horse, a woman, an ass, etc’. For his first experiment, Polke selected a newspaper photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald and manually replicated the image’s individual dots by dipping the rubber tip of a pencil into ink and using it as a stamp. This painstaking procedure allowed no space for personal expression or emotion, but the subject was clearly a loaded one: earlier in 1963, President John F. Kennedy made a declaration of solidarity with West Germany in Berlin and was assassinated several months later. Polke was thereby following the quintessential Pop strategy of evoking tension between a ‘hot’ subject and its ‘cool’ delivery. [Faith Chisholm on Richter & Polke]

Re-imaged III

Gerhard Richter Abstraktes Bild (809-2) 1994

When I paint an abstract picture (the problem is very much the same in other cases), I neither know in advance what it is meant to look like nor, during the painting process, what I am aiming at and what to do about getting there. Painting is consequently an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surroundings – like that of a person who possesses a given set of tools, materials and abilities and has the urgent desire to build something useful which is not allowed to be a house or a chair or anything else that has a name; who therefore hacks away in the vague hope that by working in a proper, professional way he will ultimately turn out something proper and meaningful…
When we describe a process, or make out an invoice, or photograph a tree, we create models; without them we would know nothing of reality and would be animals. Abstract pictures are fictive models, because they make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate
The abstract pictures are no less arbitrary than all object-bound representations (based on any old motif, which is supposed to turn into a picture). The only difference is that in these the ‘motif’ evolves only during the process of painting. So they imply that I do not know what I want to represent, or how to begin; that I have only highly imprecise and invariably false ideas of the motif that I am to make into a picture; and therefore that – motivated as I am solely by ignorance and frivolity – I am in a position to start. (The ‘solely’ stands for life!)” [Gerhard Richter Quotes]

Gerhard Richter Eight Student Nurses 1966

“Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.” [Herbert Hartel on Gerhard Richter]

Schütz: You started in 1976 to paint abstract paintings, to do something whose appearance you could not imagine beforehand. For that you have developed a totally new method. Was that an experiment?
Richter: Yes, it started in 1976 with small abstract paintings which allowed me to do all that which I had forbidden myself before: to put something down at random, and then to realize that it can never be random. This happened to open a door for me. If I don’t know what is emerging, that is, if I don’t have a fixed image, like with the photographs which I paint from, then randomness and chance play an important role.
Schütz: How do you manage to control chance so that a particular painting with a particular statement emerges, which, after all, is your declared concern?
Richter: I really don’t have a very particular image in front of my eyes. Rather I would like to obtain in the end a picture which I had not planned at all. Also, this method of working with randomness, chance, sudden inspiration, and destruction lets a particular type of picture emerge but never a predetermined one. The individual picture should therefore develop out of a painterly or visual logic which happens out of necessity. And by not planning the result I hope to be able to realize rather a correctness and objectivity which any piece of nature (or a ready-made) always possesses. Surely this is also a method to put into action unconscious efforts, as much as possible — after all, I would like to get to something more interesting than what I can think of myself. [Gerhard Richter in conversation with Sabine Schütz]

Re-imaged II

“Young German artists were stirred by the emerging Pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Polke took to painting proletarian consumer goods—chocolate bars, soap, plastic buckets—and ordinary news and magazine photographs, in a rugged variant of Lichtenstein’s Benday dots. The first was a scrappy image of Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1963, Polke, Richter, and two artist friends, unable to interest galleries in their work, mounted a group show, in a former butcher shop, of what they termed “Junk Culture, Imperialist or Capitalist Realism.” The last two words resonate with an exquisite ambivalence, skewering both parties to the Cold War: the commercial West and the dogmatic East. Polke and Richter, like Warhol, conveyed underclass perspectives on popular spectacles of commerce and glamour—“outdoing each other in terms of the lowest forms of banality,” according to the German art historian and critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who knew both men at the time, and is interviewed in the show’s catalogue. But they did so with lacerating skepticism, which, in Polke’s case, abided no distinction between the vulgarities of mass culture and the pretenses of fine art. What Polke didn’t raise up he brought down, as in a work of 1968 that might qualify as the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of postmodernist sensibility: “Moderne Kunst,” a painting of generic abstract shapes, lines, squiggles, and splashes, with a white border like that surrounding a reproduction in a book. It is both savagely sarcastic and seductively lovely. Time and again, Polke projects the unlikely comic figure of a would-be destroyer of art who keeps being ambushed by onsets of beauty and charm. He is angry, but his anger makes him cheerful. His lunges become dances.” [Peter Schjeldahl on Sigmar Polke]

“For many years Polke’s 1970s work was rarely shown or written about, which contributed to the perception that he stopped painting in the 1970s, in favor of making photographs and films and restlessly traveling. Even at the time, observers were trying to ignore the 1970s work in favor of that of the 1960s, done when he was more visible on the German art scene, before he disappeared, so they thought, into a haze of psychedelic experiments, communal living and messy collaborations. The most striking sign of this attitude came with the 1976 survey: in making his selection for the exhibition Buchloh included no work after 1971, in effect excluding half of the artist’s career. The generous representation of 1970s work at MoMA testifies to a continuing reassessment of this period of the artist’s life. Although most of it comes in the form of photographs and films, there are a number of paintings, including Alice in Wonderland and Mao, both from 1972, and, from later in the decade, Supermarkets (1976) and Untitled (Dr. Bonn), 1978.  Centered on an image copied from a 1955 edition of MAD magazine, Supermarkets is one of 10 large paintings on paper that Polke made at the urging of his Swiss dealer Toni Gerber, who planned to sell them to a consortium of collectors. At MoMA, it hangs in a gallery intentionally overloaded with work in order to, as a wall text explains, “evoke the stimulation of all the senses that occurs during a hallucination.” Some of this stimulation comes in the form of three 16mm films simultaneously projected on different walls, their musical soundtracks bleeding into each other (resulting, at one point, in a mash-up of Herbie Hancock and Captain Beefheart). One film, Quetta’s Hazy Blue Sky/Afghanistan-Pakistan (ca. 1974-76), presents footage of some cruel bear-baiting and blurry pans of watching crowds. Showing how Polke’s visual impulses traversed the boundaries of different mediums, the crowd motif turns up in two nearby paintings on political themes, Mao and, in spray paint on newsprint, Against the Two Superpowers-For a Red Switzerland (1976).” [Raphael Rubenstein on Sigmar Polke]

Sigmar Polke Frau Herbst und ihre zwei Töchter (Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters) 1991

Polke is in a league with Tintoretto when it comes to being in total control of vast amounts of painterly space. See the gigantic painting Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters, from 1991. It’s painted on translucent synthetic fabric and hangs about a foot off the wall, so it glows with light. The picture merges with its surroundings — as if some optical bridge was being formed between what’s visible and what’s not, the past and the present. Its surface displays a huge painted image of a woman and two young girls cutting up paper, apparently making snow over the landscape. Much of the painting is a massive blast of stark white that becomes a gigantic abstract painting unto itself. Go in close, and you’ll see that the entire painting is inflected with round little fissures where the artist interacted with the paint. Mrs. Autumn has the intensity of an illuminated manuscript and the power of a Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.
The other place you need to park yourself is in the cattle-chute corridor that contains Velocitas — Firmitudo, a graphite, silver oxide, and damar-resin giant on canvas. This sooty-looking abstract storm utilizes a teeny detail of a Dürer and is as great as its source, and it’s one of the best paintings in the show. As painter Jackie Saccoccio wrote to me, it “has equal amounts of flippant casualness, astute observation, utter devotion to material, and the alchemical stuff that happens in his photos.” Beneath this behemoth (it was originally installed high on the wall, as it is here) lie 14 little abstract paintings. These elemental jewels from the 1980s show Polke the master of accident, control, experimentation, viscosity, resin, varnish, fluorescent paint, and other liquids that metamorphose into incredible textures, unnameable shapes, new biological forms. These little works are the prototypes for tens of thousands of lesser abstract paintings now being cranked out (and sold for vast prices) all over the world. [Jerry Saltz on Sigmar Polke]

Re-imaged I

Polke & Richter 1960s

“Polke and Gerhard Richter represent for me two pinnacles of postwar German art, akin to the relationship and position of Robert Rauschenberg—the subject of a not-to-be missed Tate Modern show through April 2—and Jasper Johns in the U.S. Polke and Rauschenberg were sloppy and experimental (and are now dead) while their living counterparts, Richter and Johns, are more controlled and (seemingly) erudite….
“We don’t need pictures, we don’t need painters, we don’t need artists,” he said. “We don’t need any of that. What do you get out of an artist?” A self-negating nihilist, Polke nevertheless never quit. “Art is cannibalism,” he noted, and it actually, physically did him in. The art business, which Polke assiduously shied away from, has a tendency to eat away at your innards too. In the end, Polke had no kryptonite to shield him from the well-known, deadly effects of his chosen poisons. It saddens me to think of what might he might have done for another 10 to 20 with such gifts and proclivities. Polke wasn’t a dot, inasmuch as we are all specs in the scheme of things. He was significantly more—a scientist, magician, and great artist who strove to fail as much as succeed. Jesus may have died for our sins, but Polke perished for our pleasures (and enlightenment).” [Kenny Schachter on Polke and Richter]

Sigmar Polke, Konstruktivistisch (Constructivist), 1968

“Sometime in the early 1970S, art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh approached Sigmar Polke about curating the German artist’s first retrospective. He was firmly rebuffed. To the thirty-something Polke, a retrospective was tantamount to a “grave-stone,” not so much marking accomplishment as signaling the end of an artist’s prime. But Polke eventually agreed to present a Werkauswahl (selection of works) on the condition that he be involved in choosing the objects and be in charge of the hanging.Buchloh therefore did not think twice when the artist requested a carpenter to assist him with the final installation the night before the show’s April 9, 1976, opening at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. The next morning, an unsuspecting Buchloh entered the main exhibition space and found himself “stunned.”
During his night of work, Polke had evidently not spent much time worrying about the finer points of the installation. Many of his paintings were left wrapped (the way they had been shipped) and stacked against the walls, while piles of unframed Polaroids and larger prints were haphazardly scattered across the floor. Walking into this scene, Buchloh instantly knew his lenders would not behappy. What’s more, Polke, with the carpenter’s help, had built a crude wooden gate, close to twenty-five feet tall, that blocked access to about half of the main space. Most of his overnight mess was corralled behind this structure, so that visitors had to peer through the slats to catch a glimpse of the works. The lissome subjects of Polke’s painting Freundinnen (Girlfriends), 1965/1966, eagerly peeked out from the top of a stack of canvases. Randomly affixed to the gate were a couple of photos, a few covers of the tabloid Bild, and, smack in the middle, half of the diptych painting Lucky Luke and His Friends, 1971–75, featuring the titular gunslinging cartoon character. To top it off, Polke and his carpenter partner-in-crime had hammered together a series of letters to crown the gate with the greeting “Kunst Macht Frei” (Art Makes You Free). Unmistakably, this was a play on Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free), the grotesquely ironic maxim—redolent, as Primo Levi observed, of “the heavy, arrogant, funereal wit to which only Germans are privy”—inscribed on the gates of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz.” [Christine Mehring on Sigmar Polke]

Buchloh: But if it had really been this kind of content that mattered to you, how do you explain the fact that at the same time you were introducing nonfigurative pictures in your work? Color Charts, for example, or other abstract pictures which arose in parallel with the figurative ones. This simultaneity confused most of your critics. They saw you as a painter who knew all the tricks and the techniques, who was a master of all the iconographic conventions that he was simultaneously depreciating. It’s that which makes your work particularly attractive to some observers just now. Your work looks as though it were presenting the entire universe of twentieth-century painting in a giant, cynical retrospective.
Richter: That is certainly a misunderstanding. I see there neither tricks, nor cynicism, nor craftiness. On the contrary, it strikes me as almost amateurish to see how directly I went at everything, to see how easy it is to discern all that I was thinking and trying to do there. So I also don’t know exactly what you mean now by the contradiction between figurative and abstract painting.
B: Let me take as an example Table, one of your first pictures. Table contains both elements: a completely abstract, gestural, self-reflexive quality, on the one hand, and, on the other, the representational function. And that is really one of the great dilemmas in the twentieth century, this seeming conflict, or antagonism, between painting’s representational function and its self-reflexion. These two positions are brought very close together indeed in your work. But aren’t they being brought together in order to show the inadequacy and bankruptcy of both?
R: Bankruptcy, no; inadequacy, always.
B: Inadequate by what standard? The expressive function?
R: By the standard of what we demand from painting.
B: Can this demand be formulated?
R: Painting should be accomplishing more.
[Gerhard Richter and Benjamin Buchloh in conversation]

Reduction Break Off IV

“… at the 1993 Whitney Biennial, fault lines opened up and the ground shifted. What was quickly labeled the “politically correct” or “multicultural” Biennial contained little painting, which had dominated the past few installments of the show….
In retrospect, it’s amazing to see how hung up everyone was. These artists were against not beauty but complacency; they were for pleasure through meaning, personal meaning. They saw that the stakes had risen by 1993, and they were rising to meet them the best they could. Of the show’s 82 artists, about half still have significant careers. That’s an exceptionally high percentage, especially considering how many were unfamiliar figures before then. A few 1993ers—Janine Antoni, Pepon Osorio, and Fred Wilson—are now MacArthur winners. Robert Gober, Bill Viola, and Wilson have each represented the United States in the Venice Biennale. It’s fair to call the 1993 Biennial the moment in which today’s art world was born.” [Jerry Saltz on the 1993 Whitney Biennial]

Albert Oehlen Untitled 1988

O’BRIEN: [to Oehlen and Wool] So how do you guys know each other?
WOOL: I think the first time that we met was when I was in Cologne, when you had the big bad-painting show at Max [Hetzler]’s new space. Max’s must have been ’88.
OEHLEN: Yeah, and then we were frequently in the same group shows. We did something in Chicago, too.
O’BRIEN: So when did the notion of bad painting come to your attention?
OEHLEN: Very early, when I was a student, it had to with this show that I think was in New York . . .
O’BRIEN: “‘Bad’ Painting,” at the New Museum.
OEHLEN: I just heard the name, and I had no idea who was in it at that time. I liked the name, and then, after years, I realized that no one was using that anymore, but it had a big impression on me. So then I rediscovered that work and thought, Yeah, if that fits . . .
O’BRIEN: Well, it’s sort of kept going. It’s still a phenomenon.
OEHLEN: Yes, it still exists.
O’BRIEN: But can you be an abstract painter and a bad painter?
OEHLEN: Absolutely. [all laugh]

WOOL: The worst. I like a story you told once that I tell students sometimes. You said you were trying very hard to make seriously bad paintings, while the New Museum version of bad painting was really about something else—it was about outside ideas that were bad—but you were trying to make really bad paintings, and you realized that the worst ones you could make were exactly like the Neue Wilde painters in Berlin. And then you decided it really wasn’t worth it, and Dieter Roth said something similar. He was interested in making bad paintings, and he said he always failed, because with paintings it always looks good in some way. Just because of the material . . . But he could do it with music, he could do it when he was playing the piano by himself, but it was excruciating to listen to, and he would immediately have to stop. It kind of closes the loop. [The late great Glenn O’Brien in conversation with Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool]

Christopher Wool Untitled 1995

In the mid-nineties abstract painting moved to Germany. More specifically it was the rise and rise of the reputations and influences of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke that began to really change the concerns of abstract painters. And it was through Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool that these theoretical practices became apparent. Oehlen moved from his “NeoEx” paintings into abstract “landscapes” using an overlaid graffiti style and “AbEx” abstract painting….
“Oehlen’s practice began with figurative paintings, which were defying the context of the 1980’s were minimal and conceptual art prevailed. His provocative position, subjects and manner have been linked to the notion of Bad Painting throughout the early 1980’s alongside artists such as Werner Büttner and Martin Kippenberger. Oehlen has moved towards abstract painting in the late 1980’s, continuously redefining his own vocabulary. His first abstract paintings were notably followed by black and white computer-based paintings, collaged canvases with fragments of advertising posters and paint applied on top…” [Albert Oehlen at Max Hetzler]
Wool began to attack his perfected reproductions with graffiti and “AbEx” processes. “Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger: Both cited as some of Wool’s profoundest influences, Oehlen and Kippenberger were two radical German artists who achieved fame in the 1980s; their work challenged the properties of painting and, as gallerist Friedrich Petzel once described, “hailed the productivity of failure.” Wool designed posters for Kippenberger’s exhibitions in the ’90s and has counted Oehlen among his friends since they first met in 1988….” [Christopher Wool’s influences]
These two painters have profoundly influenced one another and abstraction as well and in the process changed the discussions and directions of abstract painting.

Reduction Break Off III

Clyfford Still PH-66 1955

“Artisanal concerns force themselves more evidently on a painter or sculptor than on a writer, and it would be hard to make my point about the artisanal, the “formalist” emphasis of Modernism nearly so plausible in the case of literature. For reasons not to be gone intohere, the medium of words demands to be taken more for granted than any other in which art is practiced. This holds even in verse, which may help explain why what is Modernist and what is not cannot be discriminated as easily in the poetry of the last hundred years as in the painting . …
It remains that Modernism in art, if not in literature, has stood or fallen so far by its “formalism.” Not that Modernist art is coterminous with “formalism.” And not that “formalism” hasn’t lent itself to a lot of empty, bad art. But so far every attack on the “formalist” aspect of Modernist painting and sculpture has worked out as an attack on Modernism itself because every such attack developed into an attack at the same time on superior artistic standards. The recent past of Modernist art demonstrates this ever so clearly. Duchamp’s and Dada’s was the first outright assault on”formalism,” that came from within the avant-garde, or what was nominally the avant-garde, and it stated itself immediately in a lowering of aspirations. The evidence is there in the only place whereartistic evidence can be there: in the actual productions of Duchamp and most of the Dadaists. The same evidence continues to be there in the neo-Dadaism of the last ten years, in its works, in the inferior quality of these works. From which it has to be concluded that if Modernism remains a necessary condition of the best art of our time, as it has been of the best art of the hundred years previous, then “formalism,” apparently, remains a necessary condition too, which is the sole and sufficient justification of either Modernism or “formalism.”
And if “formalism” derives from the hard-headed, “cold” side of Modernism, then this must be its essential, defining side, at least in the case of painting and sculpture. That’s the way it looks right now- and looks more than ever right now. The question is whether it will keep on looking that way in the future: that is, whether Modernism will continue to stand or fall by its “cold” side and by its “formalism.” Modernism has been a failing thing in literature the past twenty years and more; it’s not yet a failing thing in painting or sculpture, but I can imagine its turning into that in another decade (even in sculpture, which seems to have a brighter future before it than painting does). If so, this may come about in the same way that it has come about, as it seems to me, in literature: through the porousness of Modernisms “hot” side, the enthusiastic and hectic side, which is the one that middlebrows have found it easier all along to infiltrate. [Clement Greenberg The Necessity of Formalism]

“As I thought about this, I remembered something else Greenberg had said in that earlier essay where the statement about the vulgarity of “formalism” appeared. He had said “Why bother to say that a Velázquez has ‘more content’ than a Salvator Rosa when you can say more simply, and with directer reference to the experience you are talking about, that the Velázquez is ‘better’ than the Salvator Rosa?” Which is to say that it matters what the content of a work of art is, that some content is “more” than others, better than others.
Which is also to say that I am still stuck with believing that “formalism” is a vulgarity; that I began as a modernist critic and am still a modernist critic, but only as part of a larger modernist sensibility and not the narrower kind. Which is further to say that what I must acknowledge is not some idea of the world’s perspective but simply my own point of view; that it matters who one sounds like when what one is writing about is art. One’s own perspective, like one’s own age, is the only orientation one will ever have.” [Rosalind Krauss A View of Modernism]

Katy Siegel: Around the same time, in the mid-to-late ’70s, Jack Goldstein is making his early films like Shane and The Jump, which take an action that turns into an image and repeat it over and over again. And the mid-’70s are when Cindy Sherman is starting in Buffalo. I feel like David [Reed] belongs to that context as well, there’s a connection to the early Pictures Generation.
Christopher Wool: I did not see the Pictures show [at Artists Space, New York, in 1977, curated by Douglas Crimp] but I was starting to be aware of some of those artists. There were different aspects in what was developing in postmodernist thought at that time. One had to do with narrative and pictures and real life; that was not where my interest lay. The part that was important to me was the notion that the modernist idea of the masterpiece was either no longer possible or no longer necessarily an objective. Where the Abstract Expressionists had still been wedded to the modernist concept of the masterpiece, the postmodernists suggested that there were alternative ideals and possibilities to the Greenbergian idea of the perfect painting. I think in a way those artists were expanding on something that was already there in Post-Minimalism.
KS: The difference is that with the artworks that are considered Post-Minimalist, like the work in Anti-Illusion [at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1969, curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte], those artists really aren’t so interested in image. And the thing that what people used to call postmodernism adds is that while, yes, there’s the sense of the antimasterpiece, there’s also an interest in imagery.
CW: It actually went further: there were many who ruled out abstraction. When they talked about painting, it was about painting as picture. Abstract painting was not thought to offer any possibilities. [Katy Siegel in conversation with Christopher Wool]