“Can a museum devoted to modernism survive the death of the movement? Can it bring that death about? Ever since the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 14th century, most art movements have lasted one generation, sometimes two. Today, after more than 130 years, modernism is, at least by some measures, insanely and incongruously popular — a world brand. The first thing oligarchs do to signal sophistication, and to cleanse and store money, is collect and build personal museums of modern art, and there’s nothing museumgoers love more than a survey of a mid-century giant. In the U.S., modernism represents the triumph of American greatness and wealth, and it is considered the height of 20th-century European culture — which Americans bought and brought over (which is to say, poached).” [Jerry Saltz What the Hell Was Modernism?]
“At the heart of these riddles lies the core conundrum: what is Modernism? In art, it has fragmented and metamorphosed; in architecture and design, it has consolidated into an aesthetic that is revanchist, ubiquitous and monolithic. Its avant-garde days long in the past, the utopian movement has become a classic style, and the building, designed by the formerly renegade firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is indistinguishable from the midtown offices that enfold it. No matter how hard curators labour to loosen categories or toy with timelines, they must go to work each day in an utterly conventional monument to corporate chic.” [MoMA makeover: has it made modern art fresh? – Ariella Budick]
If this kind of spectacle were without consequence, I doubt there’d be much response, but the wealth that supports a museum of this scale often comes from less-savory sources. This summer, artists and protestors forced Warren B. Kanders to resign from his position as a Whitney board member after revelations emerged that his company sold tear gas used on children at the border. MoMA isn’t any better. Steven A Cohen, a billionaire hedge fund manager, and MoMA board member has been implicated in multiple insider trading investigations. He donated $50 million towards the renovation and the Ofili. This Friday, a protest led by New Sanctuary Coalition demanded that among other things, MoMA trustee Larry Fink, the CEO, and chairman of the investment firm BlackRock, “divest from prison companies, the war machine and the destruction of the environment.” [Ready to Meet the New MoMA? You’ll Need More Time—and Money—Than Ever Before – Paddy Johnson]
There are very few people that have any criteria for the judgment of the visual in art, any language for the discussion of the visual in art, or any strong emotional response to the aesthetic aspects of pictures or sculpture. This latter point could be construed as the cause or effect of the two preceding observations, but either way, it’s the most important of the three.
All that said, there are very few people who are actually numb to the visual, because an overwhelming majority feels something like awe (or at least feels something) when witnessing a magnificent sunset, a mountain shrouded in mist, or a crystalline lake with a surface as still as glass.
Many of the people who have no criteria for the judgment of the visual in art are, surprisingly, artists, curators and critics. Many of them would not dispute this statement. This constituency obviously requires some kind of substitute criteria from which to make or judge art. Their priorities can be loosely grouped under three categories:
Critique: Political, cultural, identity-based, language-based, or specifically aimed at the institutions of art itself.
Proximity to the Zeitgeist: The extent to which a given work of art is an accurate reflection (or critique) of our moment in history, our present.
Sociology: The attempt to discuss not the merits of a given work, but to situate it within a cultural context. This is related to but distinct from the above, because it often seeks to take works that don’t self-consciously express the zeitgeist and fit them in to a certain conception of it nonetheless. This methodology belongs more specifically to critics and curators than artists.
The first and last can quickly devolve into propaganda and cultural anthropology, respectively, and these things have nothing to do with my experience of a Titian. And advertising, entertainment, and social media express the zeitgeist vastly better than any artist could ever dream of doing. The artist or curator will often try to sidestep this obvious truth by applying a veneer of critique, but that’s a pretty flimsy sleight of hand to say the least.
The Graduate Degree has definitely diminished the importance of the visual. All emerging artists have MFA’s, and this is a fairly recent development when considered in the overall history of art. The discussion of the emotional response to the color relationships in a given work doesn’t make sense within a context in which people are working towards an advanced degree – a similar degree to the kind that doctors, lawyers, engineers, and physicists are seeking. It must be intellectualized in order to appear the equal to those other professional pursuits, and subjective reflections on the poetic can seem amateurish by comparison. The go-to replacement is the dissection of subject (see items #1, 2, and 3, above) which is often framed by French philosophy of the 60’s and 70’s (somewhat inexplicably).
Is it possible to reconnect what Clive Bell called the aesthetic emotion to visual art? It clearly still exists in relation to the afore-mentioned sunsets and lakes, even among the most jaded New York post-modernists, many of whom can’t wait to escape to their pastoral upstate retreats in the summer months (I know a lot of them). It’s also a non-controversial response to instrumental music; anyone who feels nothing when listening to the New York Philharmonic’s rendition of Rhapsody in Blue must have no pulse.
Oddly enough, I’m optimistic, and for a variety of reasons:
Post-modernism failed to create anything really durable in art or theoretics. Viewed another way, it could be a victim of its own success – the critique of the myth of durability was part of the program. Thus perhaps it didn’t die, but simply evanesced.
Art that seeks to emphasize the articulation of space and light and atmosphere, and that actively engages with scale and color, has, since the 1960’s, often been disparaged as academic and institutional. Presumably, these latter terms refer to that which is being broadly taught in the big schools, shown at the big institutions, and written about in the big journals. The formal and poetic certainly does not fit that description at present, and if you’re not sure what I’m driving at, see items #1, 2, and 3, above.
History is a pendulum, whether you believe in the historical narrative or not. When I was an undergrad, works that emphasized subject at the expense of the visual were routinely written off as illustration. Today the illustrative is very much in vogue and the visual is now just as reflexively written off as decorative. It’s very easy to imagine this changing again within my lifetime (I’m very healthy for my age).
And finally, because of my freshman students, who are uniquely open to a discussion of the visual, can participate in that discussion with intelligence, and produce work that often delights me. Granted, a lot can happen on the journey from bright-eyed freshman to cool-eyed grad student that might set things off on another track entirely. But hope, as they say, springs eternal.
…much of modernism and its concerns now feel long ago, forged in a time of rapid industrial change when white European males assumed they ruled the world. The demands of our times call for something else. And before you object that we’ve been living for 50 years in postmodernism, not modernism, the art that followed the titans of the early-20th century was defined and even named after what preceded it (daddy issues?). What began with Pop and Warhol looked like a break from modernism, but it also extended modernism’s fetishizing of novelty and a canon of iconoclasts. Modernism is part of my life story, all of our life stories, something that shaped the ways we see the world and how the world sees itself. But in the past couple of decades, seismic shifts have occurred, moving us for the first time far beyond the dictates of the movement. Modernism is not headed for the dustbin, but in terms of experimental one-upmanship and the conviction that each new work could break and redefine all of art history, a page is finally turning — slowly, a bit, at least.… “This past five to ten years is the most change-making, radical rethinking of art history and, by extension, museum curation in a half-century,” said Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture, in a lecture. “Things that were assumed over the last 40, 20, ten, or even five years have exploded.” [Jerry Saltz on the New Century]
For Douglas Crimp, the artist Daniel Buren takes the “space of painting,” and that is his radicalism: not presenting “painting” in a specific history, as a next link in the chain, but rather deconstructing the history, exhibition, reception of “painting” itself—that is the legacy that this new work is involved in.When people say these new painters relate to someone like Robert Ryman, it is a distraction from the central issues. Artists like Parker Ito or Michael Manning have been termed post-Internet artists as much as they have been seen in relation to “abstract painting,” and I think it is significant that they have chosen painting as a vehicle to talk about materiality differently—so in their case “painting” is both meaningful and not meaningful. The process these artists use is a means to an end, and that end is often perceptual. That is why post-Internet artists would want to make objects at all—we live in a world now where the image is as important as an object; people encounter everything through images and we give that a reality on par with what we actually see in the world.A lot of this new abstract painting has to do with our weird hybrid perception that exists today, whereby images take on the weight of objects, and vice-versa. [Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest]
“There are few of us who have not sometimes wakened before dawn, either after one of those dreamless nights that make us almost enamoured of death, or one of those nights of horror and misshapen joy, when through the chambers of the brain sweep phantoms more terrible than reality itself, and instinct with that vivid life that lurks in all grotesques, and that lends to Gothic art its enduring vitality, this art being, one might fancy, especially the art of those whose minds have been troubled with the malady of reverie. Gradually white fingers creep through the curtains, and they appear to tremble. In black fantastic shapes, dumb shadows crawl into the corners of the room and crouch there. Outside, there is the stirring of birds among the leaves, or the sound of men going forth to their work, or the sigh and sob of the wind coming down from the hills and wandering round the silent house, as though it feared to wake the sleepers and yet must needs call forth sleep from her purple cave. Veil after veil of thin dusky gauze is lifted, and by degrees the forms and colours of things are restored to them, and we watch the dawn remaking the world in its antique pattern. The wan mirrors get back their mimic life. The flameless tapers stand where we had left them, and beside them lies the half-cut book that we had been studying, or the wired flower that we had worn at the ball, or the letter that we had been afraid to read, or that we had read too often. Nothing seems to us changed. Out of the unreal shadows of the night comes back the real life that we had known. We have to resume it where we had left off, and there steals over us a terrible sense of the necessity for the continuance of energy in the same wearisome round of stereotyped habits, or a wild longing, it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been refashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours, and be changed, or have other secrets, a world in which the past would have little or no place, or survive, at any rate, in no conscious form of obligation or regret, the remembrance even of joy having its bitterness and the memories of pleasure their pain.” [Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray]
Painting in New York during the second half of the 1970s was a mess. The self-analytical, radically empty work of artists like Jo Baer, Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, and Robert Mangold, which had been the main chance in the not-yet-fully-played-out arc of modernist painting, was proving generative primarily for those artists and a tight phalanx of sympathetic curators and critics, while its implications of closure made its absorption by a generation of enraptured younger artists quite problematic. The art schools and galleries were loaded with mannered attempts to thread some needle of original nuance among the dead ends implied by the older artists’ positions, while the broader painterly discourse became increasingly cacophonous. Photorealism and the remnants of “lyrical abstraction” waned as Pattern and Decoration, New Image, and “bad” painting waxed in a Darwinian struggle for philosophical market share. Less categorizable investigations into the implications of painting at the nexus of Conceptual art and traditional materiality were being pursued along both abstract and representational lines, and an approach to abstraction was beginning to crystallize, typified by artists like Bill Jensen, Gary Stephan, and Stephen Mueller, that seemed to be asking what nonobjective painting might be if Clement Greenberg’s rigorous proscriptions had never hijacked the conversation in American aesthetics. The juggernaut of modernism had already broken down and was being stripped for parts, although it would be a few years until the big bang of the early ’80s, when these disparate pathways would assume coherence as precursors to the sensibility of a new wave of younger artists. [Carroll Dunham on Elizabeth Murray & painting in NYC]
“The viewing of art from an art-historical perspective leads to the dead-end at which painting is said to have arrived. The problem lies in the continual expectation of a “next inevitable step.” In the formal and traditional art-historical approach “accomplishment” is measured in terms of innovation in the spatial manipulation of the picture plane; the artist is categorized as Classic or Romantic, the art defined as abstract or representational. This approach has led to the death of “feeling” in art, and has brought about the “decline”of painting,which is a language of feeling (Robert Motherwell, among others, has expressed the thought that painting is a language of feeling) by artificially motivating painters to stretch the medium, in the name of innovation, beyond its limited capabilities. …Marcel Duchamp was perhaps the first to express the futility of merely painting the object. His obsession lay in the reality of the object itself, whereas painters are generally inspired by the mere smell of the studio, putting away the temptation to taste the color that has just been mixed. Addicted to painting, they are not easily seduced by the newer trends away from their “habit.” When one is seriously involved in a love affair, one doesn’t think about the possibilities found elsewhere, they simply don’t exist. One becomes focused and centered on the object of devotion, disregarding its imperfections. A passionate painter expresses devotion to the object by painting it. … If the “energies and ideas” in painting seem to have dried up, it is largely a result of the false ideologies of establishment academia. The weighty dialogue has crushed the true significance of the creative act, introducing a false sense of reality into our “magic theaters.” From its inception, art has ventured into the unknown realm of the spirit, a world that manifests itself through symbols rather than words… Whatever words are used, what remains is that all painting, regardless of its intention, expresses the inner life of the artist.” [Buffie Johnson Painters Reply]
Here are the first five sentences: 1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach. 2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements. 3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience. 4. Formal art is essentially rational. 5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.
All the painters I have mentioned (Whitten, Heilmann, Murray, Nozkowski, and Reed) developed approaches to painting that share something with LeWitt’s definition of Conceptual Art. Rather than rejecting Conceptual Art, or retreating to an earlier mode of painting, as exemplified by Marsden Hartley or Arthur Dove, these abstract painters found ways to adapt and transform LeWitt’s sentences into something they could use in painting, whether it meant following a process all the way through or bringing in personal experience from an unexpected or unlikely source. [John Yau on the End of Painting]
“What happened, at least for me, is that when I first started painting I would see Pollock, de Kooning, and the one thing they all had that I didn’t have was an art school background. They were brought up on drawing and they all ended up painting or drawing with the brush. They got away from the smaller brushes and, in an attempt to free themselves, they got involved in commercial paint and house-painting brushes. Still it was basically drawing with paint, which has characterized almost all twentieth-century painting. The way my own painting was going, drawing was less and less necessary. It was the one thing I wasn’t going to do. I wasn’t going to draw with the brush. Well, it seems to me we have problems. When Morris Louis showed in 1958, everybody (ARTnews, Tom Hess) dismissed his work as thin, merely decorative. They still do. Louis is the really interesting case. In every sense, his instincts were Abstract-Expressionist, and he was terribly involved with all of that, but he felt he had to move, too. I always get into arguments with people who want to retain the old values in painting—the humanistic values that they always find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. Any painting is an object and anyone who gets involved in this finally has to face up to the objectness of whatever it is that he’s doing. He is making a thing. All that should be for granted. If the painting were lean enough, accurate enough or right enough, you would just be able to look at it. All I want anyone to get out of my paintings is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any conclusion . . . What you see is what you see.” [Frank Stella and Don Judd in conversation with Bruce Glaser]
“Right now we’re shrinking away from truth. No one can criticize the president because we’re in a very vulnerable time, even though he’s doing some things that are terrifying. You can’t express your personal horror and trauma at something that we all experienced. I think that what happened is that since the 60’s there’s been an ambition that art merge itself with pop culture. At first it was an ironic stance, and then it became actually a real thing; people wanted to have art as a playground and as entertainment. And that’s fine in good times, but when something terrible or powerful or meaningful happens, you want an art that speaks to that, that embraces the language that would carry us forward, bring us together, all of that stuff. I think that September 11 showed us that as an art world we weren’t quite qualified to deal with this. Not trained enough to handle it… It’s a terrible way to have to be trained, it’s true, but the way the art world has been training younger and younger artists in idealogical gamesmanship, and there’s been a lack of training in history and in techniques that one could apply in rendering the human form, for example. A lot of the young kids are sort of fabulous at drawing cartoons. But a cartoon’s going to be pretty hard to express a lot of the experience of the last year. People have told me I should stop talking about this, just let it die down. But I can’t stand idly by.” [Eric Fischl in conversation with David Rakoff]
“…what seemed predetermined to be an infuriatingly categorical exercise in curatorial cherry-picking, all in the service of a constricted thesis, had turned into a rumpus room of contemporary art-making. Nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point. You could stay in that first room for as long as you liked without bothering with any formalist or anti-formalist distractions, reveling in the purely visual language of line, color, texture and shape. We are now at the bargaining stage: okay, MoMA, you can have your teleology and hang these paintings on whatever theoretical scaffolding you like, as long as you are reopening your doors to the medium and allowing its inherent multiplicities to do their subversive dirty work… Perhaps this is due in part to the backward-glancing criteria of the selection (that everything in the show is allegedly based on — or at least related to — something else), which disregards and even, in an indirect way, countermands vitality as a qualifier. All that matters is that the chosen works, again from the press release, “paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made.” In the Western tradition, the pattern of art history is a continual cycle of ossification and regeneration, with form-breakers like Giotto, Caravaggio, Manet and Pollock arriving every now and then to shake things up, adapting strains of an inherited style to what they knew of experiential existence. What the exhibition proposes is that, in our forever now, “an atemporal painter,” as Hoptman writes in her essay, would “see and utilize style, as if it is a bit of iconography; some even use specific stylistic gestures and strategies in a manner akin to a medium.”” [Thomas Micchelli on Forever Now]
What’s interesting about so much of today’s better-known painting and painters’ styles is how “handmade” it all looks. This vintage style is all about the fetish finish of the artist’s hand – surfaces, scumbles, pentimenti, veils, drips splashes and skeins. You might say we’re experiencing a return to Greenbergian process abstraction, but a little more European than American in feeling and structure. That’s because contemporary paintings are not pushing Modernism into another phase of change (Greenberg’s Neo-Modernism) or reacting against the history of Modernism (Postmodernism). This new process abstraction comes from a change in artists’ approach to the past. Artists now concentrate on and use the stylish and optical or retinal properties of Modern Era painting. Familiarity and recognition with this history of style and technique, their recreation for an audience, have become raison d’être of contemporary abstract painting. Laura Hoptman underlined this new attitude in contemporary Abstraction in her controversial exhibition at MOMA. She used the term “atemporal” to describe this unique time of change. “What characterizes our cultural moment at the beginning of this new millennium is the inability – or perhaps the refusal – of a great many of our cultural artifacts to define the times in which we live. This is an unsettling and wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture and it should come as no surprise that it was first identified by a science-fiction writer, William Gibson, who in 2oo3 used the word atemporality to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once? Since that time, atemporality has been observed in literature, popular music, and fashion, and subsequently called many different names, including retromania, hauntology, presentism, and super-hybridity.” [Laura Hoptman on Atemporality]
It would be folly to try to say in just what, exactly, the enduring fascination of painting resides. I will offer only one suggestion. Painting’s quasi-miraculous mode of existence is produced, I believe, by its mode of facture. All those things of the spirit and mind thought to be so unseizable, so nebulous, so other, find expression through the hand, taking up a material existence in the world. And what is achieved bears no relation to normal calculations of means and ends, the means so paltry – canvas, stretchers, pigment, whatever – the ends so vast – powers, glories, visions, ecstasies of pleasure and terror. Painting proclaims the true incarnation, the union of matter and spirit, in the act of painting – of body and soul. How could Western culture not love painting, thrust headlong as it was by Christianity into the pursuit of the miraculous? Through the hand – this is the crucial point. Painting presents us with an image of the world reconstituted. It makes use of all modes of sensorial knowledge – the tactile. oral, auditory, even the olfactory – to supplement the visual. Whereas photography is only able to provide us with information derived from light, painting provides us with an image of the interrelationship of the senses, in the synthesizing and constructing activity of the human brain. It should further be borne in mind that the camera is a Cyclops – one-eyed. Unable to reproduce the stereoscopic effect of binocular vision, the camera produces images in which the depth and solidity of objects are diminished, as is the sense of distance. [Richard Hennessy What’s All This About Photography?]
The revivalism of current painting, which Hennessy’s text so perfectly articulates, depends, of course, on reinvesting those strokes with human presence, it is a metaphysics of the human touch. “Painting’s quasi-miraculous mode of existence is produced by its mode of facture. Through the hand: this is the crucial point.” This faith in the healing powers of the hand, the facture that results from the laying on of hands, echoes throughout Rose’s catalogue text, which pays special homage to Hennessy’s attack on photography. The unifying principle in the aesthetic of her painters is that their work “defines itself in conscious opposition to photography and all forms of mechanical reproduction which seek to deprive the art work of its unique ‘aura.’ ” For Rose, elimination of the human touch can only express “the self-hatred of artists…. Such a powerful wish to annihilate personal expression implies that the artist does not love his creation.” What distinguishes painting from photography is this “visible record of the activity of the human hand, as it builds surfaces experienced as tactile.” [Douglas Crimp on the End of Painting]
“Perhaps looking back 10, 15, 30 years from now, it will appear that this modernist tradition really did come to an end within the last few years, as some critics suggest. If so, historians a century from now—whatever name they will give the period we now call modern—will see it beginning shortly after the middle of the 19th century and ending in the 1960s. I’m not ruling this out; it may be the case, though I don’t think so. Perhaps the dividing line will be seen as between those works which essentially continue an easel painting concept that grew up associated with bourgeois, democratic life and was involved with the development of private collections as well as the museum concept—between this and, let us say, Earthworks, Conceptual works and related endeavors, which want another environment (or should want it) and, perhaps, another public.” [William Rubin in conversation with Lawrence Alloway and John Coplans]
“You know exactly what I think of Photography. I would like to see it make People despise Painting until something else will make Photography unbearable.” -Marcel Duchamp, in a letter to Alfred Stieglitz.
“From today painting is dead”: it is now nearly a century and a half since Paul Delaroche is said to have pronounced that sentence in the face of the overwhelming evidence of Daguerre’s invention. But even though that death warrant has been periodically reissued throughout the era of modernism, no one seems to have been entirely willing to execute it, life on death row lingered to longevity. But during the 1960s, painting’s terminal condition finally seemed impossible to ignore. The symptoms were everywhere: in the work of the painters themselves, each of whom seemed to be reiterating Reinhardt’s claim that he was “just making the last paintings which anyone can make,” or to allow their paintings to be contaminated with such alien forces as photographic images, in minimal sculpture, which provided a definitive rupture with painting’s unavoidable ties to a centuries-old idealism, in all those other mediums to which artists turned as they, one after the other, abandoned painting. The dimension that had always resisted even painting’s most dazzling feats of illusionism-time-now became the arena in which artists staged their activities as they embraced film, video, and performance. And, after waiting out the entire era of modernism, photography reappeared, finally to claim its inheritance. The appetite for photography in the past decade has been insatiable. Artists, critics, dealers, curators, and scholars have defected from their former pursuits in droves to take up this enemy of painting. Photography may have been invented in 1839, but it was only discovered in the 1970s. [Douglas Crimp The End of Painting]
1. The paintings are dead in the sense that to Intuit the meaning of something incompletely, but with an Idea of what it might mean or involve to know completely, is a kind of premonition of death. The paintings, in their opacity, signal an ultimate clarification. Death is “tragic” because lt closes off possibilities of further resuming; art is similarly tragic because it prefigures itself as an ended event of meaning. The paintings do this by appearing to participate in meaninglessness…. 4. The works are connected to the erotic life in more than just subject matter. They align themselves with the state of being in love; there is nothing more involved in pre-figuring its own end than love and sex. Each new affair, each new fixation already contains the fantasy of the next – of the bittersweet sensation of bringing this affair to an end, and more importantly, of surviving it, and being able to recreate it mentally; to exist in the present tense by seeing the object of a fixation recede in the distance; becoming fragmented and untrue…. 8. The paintings have to be dead; that is, from life but not a part of it, in order to show how a painting can be said to have anything to do with life in the first place, which is in some relation to the arbitrary. [David Salle on Dead Paintings]
“I would like to also insist on my feeling that the art must be considered first, and that only after that can we consider why and how the market has seized upon this kind of art. The market likes to categorize the work as “abstract painting” because that gives it an art historical lineage, but in reality the work is not only about so many more things, which I plan to address with you, but, even with regards to art history, it provides a simulation, rather than a loving recapitulation of late modernist non-compositional tropes like process, the grid, and the monochrome. Few of the artists are actually applying paint to canvas so as to actively compose a painting. That idea of painting, the very conception of it that for centuries placed it at the top of both academic and avant-garde hierarchies, still held so much power in the 1960s into the early 1970s that the work of so-called minimal painters like Jo Baer, Brice Marden, and Robert Ryman was based in part on the undoing of that idea of painting’s supremacy.” [Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest]
The nineties were a time of great consolidation for abstract painting and that decade laid the ground work for much of the abstract painting that we see today. A quick history – by 1965 abstract painting had become a kind of dormant art form and the “painting is dead” refrain had taken hold. Then a few interested souls began to rethink this death of painting by looking at the history of Modernist painting in new and critical ways. The idea of painting, of actually making abstract painting, started to become interesting again in the early seventies. Artists like David Reed and Mary Heilmann were expanding on and re-codifying ideas of painting and process. By the mid-eighties new strategies for abstract painting were forming. Artists like Peter Halley and Jonathan Lasker were breaking with Post War American abstraction and looking back to European Modernist strategies. And finally, by the mid-nineties and into the early 21st Century, Conceptual Abstraction had became a fully-fledged institutionalized art form. This abstract painting included a coterie of interesting and challenging abstract painters/artists like Charline Von Heyl and Amy Sillman among many others. But it may very well be Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool who are the best examples of this kind of abstract painting. These two artists have been successful in concluding the decades long Postmodern conceptual deconstruction aimed at breaking up the Late Modernist Era endgame.
In this post there are a few quoted selections from an interview with Alex Bacon discussing the new sensibility about painting – and it seems to me that this exchange between Alex and Jarrett Earnest is one of the most cogent critiques of the group of younger painters who have followed and benefitted from the conclusion of Postmodern Conceptual Abstraction. I highly suggest you read the entire conversation!
“The fact is that in many cases the paintings aren’t even hung on walls, as often they are laid on floors where people walk on them, or do yoga. Which raises the larger point that for these artists there is not a sense of “Painting,” capital P; it’s not like neo-expressionism where “Painting” returned in its guise as a high art form to reinstate the humanist values the ’60s neo-avant-garde had supposedly stomped to death. That was a battle of post-modernism. Today painting does not have a privileged, hierarchal value for these artists. With Murillo, for example, you don’t understand the paintings without the larger context of the installation-based work he makes, and the socio-political issues from which it emerges. Throughout the 20th century a lot of work was animated by “responses,” even though this is a false model because there is always more continuity than initially appears. Nevertheless there was a tension the work was establishing with the work of the past, and that is no longer true. We have been living with post-modernism for so long now that it is as if we are born into irony and pastiche, knowing we are already co-opted.There is no longer any resistance or negation, which is what gave rise to self-referential work in the 1960s. It’s really important to understand that a project of someone like Frank Stella—how to make painting an object or purely flat—is not something that plays anymore because the minute something becomes an object it morphs into something else, and then into something else again—there is no fixity. All art has a chameleon status, or should. Today just to get started is hard—painting is then a readymade focal point, a way to get something off the ground.” [Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest]
To understand the formal activity of the work we have to understand process as a means to an end, though “process” has become for collectors a new form of iconography. For a long time people struggled with how to read abstraction: “What is it about? How do I understand it?” Today I’ve been told, and it seems true, that it is easier to sell this kind of abstraction because people like the fetishized story of the artist’s process—what actually amounts to a lot of banal stuff: this artist had a canvas silver-plated; this artist had this fabric dyed; this artist left this out in the sun.These artists are more like architects or engineers or managers finding experts to help them realize ideas.The majority of one of these artists’ time is not spent putting the gesso on a canvas, but organizing the people who can help him or her execute the work to a certain standard. This has an obvious precedent in the role of fabrication in minimal and conceptual art. And most of this so-called painting wouldn’t have even stood as painting before; nobody would have looked at the supremely spare surface of a David Ostrowski in the ’60s and said “this is a painting.” They would have said “this is a Dadaist gesture.” It would have had existential connotations. That is why a lot of people didn’t like Yves Klein, because they saw his monochromes as not really “paintings” but as stand-ins for paintings and they felt a lack. Today, of course, the rich, dense surface of a Klein looks uncontroversially like a painting surface. Just as does Ostrowski’s very minimal one. [Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest]
“We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are deviod of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.” [Barnett Newman The Sublime is Now]
“[Caroline] Jones retells many familiar stories in terms of the ‘Greenberg Effect’, which struggles to regulate sensation via vision. For example, the well-known narrative of Greenberg’s adoption of Hoffman’s theoretical account of European abstraction is recast as Greenberg’s rationalisation of Hoffman by expunging his spiritual preoccupations with colour and replacing them with a rational account of their effects. Stieglitz was also dismissed as someone whose irrationality disrupted Greenberg’s bureaucracy of the senses. Likewise, Greenberg’s antipathy to O’Keefe’s art is explained by his squeamishness at its specifically carnal qualities that threatened the purity of the all-seeing eye of the critic.The threat of O’Keefe’s work lay in its explicitly bodily images, which promised to bring forth a scatological and bodily modernism that would threaten rational attempts to reduce the body to the purity of vision. … In the end, what is most convincing about the account is how Jones uses the modernist episteme of visuality to frame both a theory of art and subjectivity with the ‘Greenberg Effect’. Greenberg made a clear distinction between the pictorial and the optical interpretation of a work of art. The pictorial interpretation requires knowledge of historical traditions (such as iconography, style and so forth). The optical, on the other hand, is the non-pictorial visibility of the image; that which is encountered by eyesight alone.This signals a move in modernist aesthetics from appreciation of beauty to the regulation of its effects.Opticality is thus linked, ultimately, to alienation of a modern subject.By prizing apart the senses, the body itself (that is the embodied, phenomenological centre of experience) is experienced by different arts (music, theatre, painting, etc.). This in turn creates the detached, alienated and decentred subject of Modernity. Jones convincingly argues how the ‘Greenberg Effect’ internalised this detachment and articulated it as the ‘professional objectivity’ of formalism. Thus a theory of looking becomes a theory of subjectivity. Jones claims Greenberg saw in abstract painting a model of how we know the world: ‘the ontological condition of abstract art is thus also its epistemology’.Thus, Jones’ fundamental argument is that art is a type of thinking that not only engenders a certain type of looking but also constitutes a certain type of subject.” [Francis Halsall on Caroline Jones’ Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses]
The oxymoronic character of tradition from negation had already been constructed by Greenberg as the fundament of modernism’s continuity with its past. It was captured poetically by Robert Motherwell in 1951: “one of the most striking of abstract art’s appearance is her nakedness, an art stripped bare. How many rejections on the part of her artists!” Gombrich would have interpreted those rejections in terms of truth claims (not unjustified by the artists’ own formulations). Greenberg ignored such philosophical complexities, crafting his positivist readings in which truth-to-materials and disciplinary truth were the logical claims of abstract art. Only after the onset of war would it be necessary to tweak the nearly Platonic idealism of an art free of “memory, association, nostalgia, legend” – specifically to distinguish American painting from a geometric abstraction or purism associated with Europe. When differentiating themselves became crucial, artists’ rhetoric began to confirm the material conditions o the painted canvas: “naked,” self-evident,” “real and concrete.” In 1943, for example, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb offered the readers of the New York Times that same “real and concrete” revelation that Newman espoused: “We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” Truth-talk dropped from Greenberg’s formulations, but the material conditions taken to support it remained….” [Caroline A. Jones Eyesight Alone]
We’ve seen Andy’s boxes. We expect them to be in all the “right venues”. But back in the early sixties this box was a provocation of the highest sort – part Duchamp, part RauschenJohns and all Pop swagger. These Brillo Boxes were campy, upscaled appropriations of America’s everyday supermarket staples. No wonder the AbExer’s were so up in arms about these “Popists” – supermarket philosophy seemed so Dada, so gauche. As Rothko once stated: “We assert that only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.” He was also a bit miffed that the younger artists had moved on to other ideas about art saying, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.” I guess that may be true – but in all fairness – it doesn’t take much to Pop a balloon filled with hot air. Andy’s Brillo Box asserts that this particular cleaning product is a Rust Resister and Shines Aluminum Fast. Our wig-wearing-plastic-surgery-enthusiast Andy also understood the promise of perpetual New-ness, infinite renewal and giant size packages – all of which may actually be a bit timeless and a bit tragic. So Andy presents his form of Modernism on a banal box.
carlos brillembourg Jul 15 Meyer, I was referring to other of your works such as the edition of cardboard boxes (of which you gave me one). Are you uncomfortable discussing this? Then, please be clear about which works you’re referring to.
Meyer Vaisman Jul 15 Those came about after the city of NY passed a resolution to recycle all trash—it provided no directives, no special bins, nothing. So I decided to do my bit and recycled on my own: 100 cardboard boxes filled with trash, cigarette butts, plastic containers, coffee cups, some sketches, etc., etc. If you open the boxes, you destroy the pieces. [Meyer Vaisman in e-conversation with Carlos Brillembourg]
“Another continuum between exterior and interior is present in Cutting Off The Digits (Floor Function), a group of trompe l’oeil cardboard boxes, containers typically used to transport objects or store information. Rendered in a crisp, flat hand, the boxes may also be seen as the equivalent of three-dimensional pixels in their standard, uniform articulation of generalized space.” [Michael Zahn – Boxes] The Modern Era developed infrastructure, communication and transportation to take us out into the world – to move ideas, trade, information and power around the globe. Today we don’t have to go anywhere. In our Neo-Liberal world these things come directly into our homes through the internet which manifests products and services clad in these plain brown boxes. And in the gallery these boxes package the Modern Era – Duchamp’s box in a suitcase, Judd’s Platonic architecture, Warhol’s campy products, Vaisman’s box of detritus – all of it manifesting around the systems of distribution and the programs of painting employed here in the 21st Century. Zahn “ships” the Modernist Era right to your door.