Elements of a Painterly Rhetoric

Albert Oehlen Fn 26 1990

“The primary function of the undifferentiated – and pejorative – label of Neo-Expressionism was to summarily dismiss positions in painting variously described as “obsolete,” “retrograde,” or “regressive.” The widely different practices of artists from Rainer Fetting and Julian Schnabel to Werner Büttner were tarred with the same brush. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Neo-Expressionism was a fighting word, a shibboleth, wielded to fend off the rise of the “wild painting” that seemed to flood the market in the 1980s. And because the apologists of the Pictures Generation and Appropriation art felt they were on the defensive, they understandably didn’t waste their time on forming a more nuanced understanding of what their antagonists were doing. Their perspective left no room for the idea that Oehlen’s gestural daubery might also function as a second-order expressionism. Similarly, Kippenberger’s lumpy strings of paint, takably operate as stereotyped marks signifying immediate expression and must certainly not be read at face value, as indications of an authentic mental-psychological state. In other words, they spell out the fact that they’re elements of a painterly rhetoric, which they visibly deploy. While a vestige of authenticity may resonate in these staged-authentic gestures, what is crucial is that Kippenberger’s paint turds underscore the semiotic dimension of painting. They announce themselves as a vocabulary the painter resorts to, aiming to produce certain effects.” [Elizabeth Graw on Painting Against Painting]

Charline von Heyl Corrido 2018

“Bad painting was definitely my approach back then! You need to go through a bad painting phase to get to a new place. De-skilling is like shedding an old skin, a kind of alienation that calls everything into question… Bad painting was a method used to get truly weird and unexpected results that made me uneasy, that challenged my own taste… what was crucial was that the material and the content both packed a symbolic punch. The conjunction between the physical reality of the motif and the ambivalent associations on the level of content prompts a physically and psychologically active experience of painting and its entirety… Both de-skilling and re-skilling are mannerisms, I think. For me at the time, that just meant exchanging one approach based on gestures and speed for another that favored a slow buildup, relying more on composition and effects. For example, I have a talent for the elegant line, which I can make use of or work against. And I still love elaborate over-the-top compositions, although back then I used them mainly to disassociate myself from the painting around me…. I think non-composition is exactly where subjectivity roars loudest.” [Charline von Heyl in conversation with Isabelle Graw]

Martin Kippenberger Untitled 1992

…Kippenberger and his artist friends didn’t respond solely with painterly means to the media society’s voracious interest in life-style and personality. They fetishized what they called the artist’s Halting (“attitude” or “posture”). Haltung was generally thought of as synonymous with someone’s public demeanor: his or her choice of this or that pose and this or that way of life. It counted for much more than tangible works of art, on which it would ideally be stamped as a legible mark. A characteristic part of the Haltung Kippenberger and his male colleagues cultivated was an obviously overdone imitation of the forceful and brisk movements of disciplined (and trained) German soldiers – a kind of physicality with distinctly male connotations that wasn’t available to women artists at that time. It stemmed in part from the punk and new wave moments, which similarly hewed to an ideal of “hardness.” The soldierly pose was a way of coming to terms with recent history: the artist in a sense embodied their authoritarian fathers, as though to shoulder the responsibility for the families’ denial of German war crimes. Yet the strong belief in Haltung manifestly also helped blur the boundaries between art and an artist’s lifeworld, between product and persona. The persona – that dramatization of a way of life – became central, so much so that some artists, including Kippenberger, declared the operative management of this way of life to be a work of art in its own right. [Elizabeth Graw on Martin Kippenberger]

Between the Retinal and the Cerebral

Eric Fischl The Bed, The Chair, The Sitter, 1999

Krefeld Project synthesized the storytelling devices I’d been exploring throughout my career. In the glassines of the late seventies, I’d overlaid transparent sheets to create a sense of narrative space and time. Then in the mid-eighties, I’d gone to the multi-panel format to break down the narrative elements in my paintings and invite the viewer to participate in their reconstruction. In the nineties I fanned out the multipanels into a series of paintings to tell stories sequentially. With their single sets, dramatic lighting, and tight focus, Travel of Romance and The Bed, the Chair … series functioned like theater pieces. In Krefeld Project I used multiple points of view and montage to produce cinematic effects. But the paintings still had to work on their own—not only as snapshots or interrelated scenes in a larger narrative, but as intense individual dramas vividly capturing the wounds and disappointments of a troubled relationship… I was still manipulating color, form, and gesture to create mood, conflict, and mystery, I was drawing my inspiration from outside the cloistered art world—outside painting in particular, which had long ago abandoned the dramatic narrative—and drawing on techniques from the other arts. [Eric Fischl Bad Boy]

David Salle Post Card, 2014

Here’s the situation as it stands today. Contemporary art is divided into two main camps. On the one side, there exists the centuries-long continuity of work that I call pictorial, and on the other, the growing body of work that is more presentational in attitude—that is, art that privileges intentionality and the delivery system, or context for art. Within these two worldviews, the one is identified with art as self-expression, while the other reads art primarily as a set of cultural signs. This may sound like the old Duchampian distinction between the retinal and the cerebral, but the balance has tipped in a way that Duchamp could hardly have imagined sixty years ago. In the final decades of the twentieth century, the emphasis on theory seriously eroded, if not invalidated, one of the basic precepts of art: that quality which used to be called presence, or aura. Baldly put, a work of art was said to emanate this aura as a result of the transference of energy from the artist to the work, an aesthetic variant of the law of thermodynamics. Few people today would defend that idea. The question remains, what do we have to replace it with? [David Salle on the 80s]

Julian Schnabel Fakires 1993

“I’m not terribly interested in just that sort of source material. I think I’m just as interested in finding an old drawing that I might have made, or a drawing that somebody else made, or a photograph that might have certain kinds of location in it. Even a group of words, you know, that stick in your head… I take these things so personally and literally that I’m there and that is a place. I might pick a color to describe that place, but I don’t ever think that when I make work. It’s not descriptive; I think it’s about observing observation. There’s always that kind of barometer built into it. I think people have problems sometimes when things are too general. In fact, they are not really general at all. Some might seem a little harder, some might seem more hermetic than others, but I think that’s okay too. I think, basically, I’m an abstract artist. I just think that that’s not even an issue. I think everything’s abstract. I’m not mannerist. I don’t think I’m interested in mannerism. If I ever use it in a way, or if manner is like some kind of product of certain sorts of usage of different kinds of materials, then it’s about involution or turning in on that. So I think it’s always critical, I mean I want it to be critical. I mean this aborigine painting, it’s like the head is from an Australian black, from a how-to book, I just wanted it all to get reduced to some sort of emblem, in a way, but I don’t want the emblem to be an emblem that is just synonymous for all of the work; I just want the ideational space that it puts you into to be the same. I want the space that all the different images put you in to be the same. And I think the paintings, some are very heavy and some could be very light, but I think in a way, they still have the same sort of weight and opacity. It’s some kind of physical stop sign or frontality that they have that force you to deal with them as a painting. And I think that painting is irreproachable, or it should be. If it can’t be irreproachable then it’s not terribly interesting painting. I mean you might like a passage in some paintings or think that that’s great, that specific thing, but you have to think the whole painting… or, not think about the painting at all, just have the experience of seeing.” [Julian Schnabel in conversation with Carter Radcliff]

Violation, Compulsive Undoing & Sabotage

Amy Sillman Untitled 2010

“There is another factor militating against noncomposition… [all four painters] are working at a moment when technological changes are dramatically reconfiguring and arguably devastating the subject, when the “personal” is largely a function of how we self-advertise on social media, and when scanned fingerprints are about to replace PINS (our memories bypassed, our bodies finally become machines for buying). Adopting chance or systematic procedures associated with noncomposition could today be seen as replicating the manner in which complex algorithms present and predict information, a submission to the rule of technology…. subjective compositional procedures have a contemporary urgency but are reinstated in new ways. The painter, though constantly making considered decisions during composition, is never quite transparent to herself and never, therefore, quite transparent to her viewer.
All describe the procedure of beginning a work as a confrontation—they speak of being in front of a blank canvas, of facing the vertiginous uncertainty of just starting off. Once they begin, the process is one of constant accumulation and “violation,” “compulsive undoing,” “sabotage,” transgression, and so on. They are all well aware that the notion of the painting as a “living thing” has previously been dismissed as an absurd, romantic cliché, but nevertheless say that they get to a point where the painting begins to appear to them as an entity that makes calls on them, that might irritate them, surprise them, confuse them. Von Heyl is clearest: “I don’t want to make the painting, I want the painting to invent itself and surprise me.” [Mark Godfrey on Jacqueline Humphreys, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman and Charline von Heyl]

Jacqueline Humphries Untitled 2017

Historically speaking painting has never been pure, if “pure painting” implies a homogeneous medium. In antiquity, Horace introduced his famous dictum ut pictura poesis, which sets painting in close relation to poetry. Later, painters of the seventeenth century used the camera obscure to refine their painting techniques. Andy meaningful discussion of painting as a medium requires a conception of media as intrinsically heterogeneous. Yet this fundamental hybridity is denied, with special vehemence, by modernist theories of painting. Clement Greenberg was the leading champion of the idea that art is defined by the “essence of [its] medium,” as though the medium dictated the rhythm of the artwork, as though certain qualities were inherent to it. He regarded painting in particular as characterized by “essential norms or conventions” that, he believed, works of art needed to engage with. But if the privilege he accorded the medium as a frame of reference has come to seem highly questionable in the light of the much-debated dissolution of the boundaries between the arts since the 1960s, the same is doubly true of the essence he described it as passing. Even in painting itself, the trend toward expanded and conceptual practices has been undeniable, practices that have drawn on a wide variety of formats (photography, sculpture, text, performance, etc.) to bring about an unmistakable impurity and extension of the medium that threatens it’s alleged essence. [Isabelle Graw on The Knowledge of Painting]

Laura Owens Untitled 2006

This brings us to the question of what happens when we, as embodied subjects, view these paintings. It seems clear that these artists recognize the changing conditions of perception and subjectivity in the world of digital spectacle, and hold out against this regime’s vitiation of corporeal experience. Humphries, Owens, Sillman, and von Heyl are not particularly preoccupied with the effects of techno-culture on the life of images, as, for example, Wade Guyton is, with his attention to the change in appearance and materiality of an image between computer screen, printout, and catalogue page. Their concern is with the effect of technological shifts on our lives. They recognize the way these shifts alter our sense of space and scale, our capacity for attention, our anxiety level as our iPhones keep us constantly at work. Acknowledging all this, they challenge us to look carefully and slowly, insisting on the works’ physical presence and on the real differences among layers on the surface of canvas, and restoring to us a sense of our human scale as we encounter the paintings within real, not virtual, space. [Mark Godfrey on Jacqueline Humphreys, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman and Charline von Heyl]

“Real” and Profane

Neo Rauch Hüter der Nacht 2014

“…the avant-garde never fully succeeded in its quest for the real because the reality of art—its material side, which the avant-garde tried to thematize—was permanently re-aestheticized; these thematizations were subjected to the standard conditions of art representation. The same can be said for institutional critique, which also tried to thematize the profane, factual side of art institutions. Like the avant-garde, institutional critique remained inside art institutions. However, this situation has changed in recent years—due to the internet, which has replaced traditional art institutions as the main platform for the production and distribution of art. Now the profane, factual, “real” dimension of art is thematized by the internet. Indeed, contemporary artists usually work using the internet—and also put their works on the internet. Artworks by a particular artist can be found on the internet in the context of other information about the artist one finds there: their biography, other works, political activities, critical reviews, personal details, etc. Artists use the internet not only to produce art—but also to buy tickets, make restaurant reservations, conduct business, etc. All these activities take place in the same integrated space of the internet—and all of them are potentially accessible to other internet users. Here the artwork becomes “real” and profane because it is integrated with information about its author as a real, profane person. Art is presented on the internet as a specific kind of practical activity: as documentation of a real working process taking place in the real, offline world. Indeed, on the internet art operates in the same space as military planning, tourist business capital flows, etc. Google shows, among other things, that there are no walls in internet space.” [Boris Groys on the New Realism]

Lisa Yuskavage Mardi Gras Honeymoon 2015

“… Sarrasine sketched his mistress in every pose: he drew her unveiled, seated, standing, lying down, chaste or amorous, embodying through the delirium of his pencil every capricious notion that can enter our heads when we think intently about a mistress… Replication of bodies: drawing…: hallucinated. The model is subjected “freely” (that is, in conformity with a code: hallucination) to the manipulations of desire (“every capricious notion,” “in every pose”). In fact, the preceding drawings are already hallucinatory: to copy a pose of Raphael’s, to imagine an unusual gesture, is to indulge in controlled doodling, to manipulate the desired body according to “fantasy” (hallucination). Following the realist notion of art, all painting can be defined as an enormous gallery of hallucinatory manipulation – wherein one does with bodies what one wants, so that gradually they fill every compartment of desire (which is what happens bluntly, that is, exemplarily, in Sade’s tableaux vivant.). ** REF. Code of Passion. *** SYM. Undressing (La Zambinella is imagined unveiled).
…the Subject Sarrasine, through repeated snares, proceeds ineluctably toward the real condition of the castrato, the void which is his center. This dual movement is that of the realist ambiguity….the artist tries to undress appearance, tries always to get beyond, behind, according to the idealistic principle which identifies secrecy with truth: one must thus go into the model, beneath the statue, behind the canvas….” [Roland Barthes S/Z]

Martin Kippenberger Untitled 1988

“… the return of realism is the return of the psychological—and the return of a discontent with reality experienced as an oppressive force. Let me make one last remark here. Realism is often misinterpreted as an art form that depicts the realities that lie beyond the art system—“simple people,” or the “working class.” However, the art system, as previously noted, is already part of reality. Realism is needed not for its description of the outside of the art system, but for the revelation of the latter’s hidden inside—of the discontent with the realities of the art system that its protagonists experience. Only when writers and artists begin to feel like failures in their conflict with reality will they ask themselves what it means to conform to reality, to live a simple life like everybody else allegedly does. An inner, psychological problem is projected towards the outside.” [Boris Groys on the New Realism]

The Accessible and the Mysterious

Kiki Smith Lilies 2006

Her mind chases an idea across different materials and mediums. For example, the figure of Saint Geneviève was a fixation of hers for a while; she repeatedly captured the pious figure, often posed with animals, in drawings and sculptures. In fact, the use of animals in this series led the German-born, New Jersey-raised artist more deeply into nature as a subject. What’s interesting about Smith’s mind-—as much as we can know about it through what it creates—is how it moves forward through compulsions. There’s a propulsive quality to her curiosity; even when it revisits tropes or images or her own personal “vocabulary,” the impulse is part of a quick-shooting trajectory. She’s guided less by ideas and intellect, more by intuition and attentiveness. Of her recent work, she said, “I’m drawing pictures of owls and trees and stuff.” [Kiki Smith in conversation with Heidi Julavits]

Robert Gober September 12, 2005–9

Mr. Gober stands at the forefront of a generation that emerged in the 1980s and devised new ways to fuse the personal and the political, the accessible and the mysterious. His art is a sometimes subtle, sometimes furious protest against what might be called delusions of normalcy; the sexual, racial and religious prejudices these delusions engender are examined at their point of origin, the childhood home.
He has communicated these themes in shifting ratios of folk art, Surrealism, Pop Art, Magic Realism and Social Realism, leavened by doses of the body and performance art of the 1970s. There are moments of eerie trompe l’oeil, as in his cast wax legs or torsos with individually applied hairs, which jut startlingly from walls and corners, like phantom limbs or parts of bodies otherwise crushed by buildings. [Roberta Smith on Robert Gober]

Kiki Smith Self Portrait 1993

“I take it as a base assumption that I’m not good at making things. I am not making great things, and then I think, “So what? I need to make them, I want to see what happens.” In art at least, you are stopped by whatever you want to stop you. Nothing is stopping you. Some people are stopped because they’re not good at drawing. I’m not particularly good at drawing either, and I’m terrible at sculpting, but I really love the struggle. I love fighting it until I get someplace where I can say it’s okay. Sometimes I look back on things and just cringe at how bad they are. But I made up strategies for myself where it wouldn’t matter. I thought of that saying, Exploit your—not your disabilities, but—your deficits….
… I always laugh, because I think about my father’s work and my work being influenced by that. My father’s work is like complex monotheism, because it’s monolithic but it changes on all sides and you can’t — I mean, he has ones that are in parts, but a lot of them are very singular, and the singular ones can’t be read from just one side. But if I can make a drawing with two things in it, I’m really ahead of the game. Any regular old painter can make whole backgrounds and foregrounds. I can make a single thing, you know, one picture of one thing, and that’s it. I collage them together. But I love altar painting, sequential narratives, or Egyptian friezes; things where there is implied movement and narrative, friezes of activity, like a single frame or like film strips, a single image with a narration…” [Kiki Smith in conversation with Christopher Lyon]

Robert Gober Untitled 2017

What claims our attention are not so much Gober’s quotidian subjects as the intentness with which he reconstitutes ordinary objects; this is his way of possessing them. Gober’s laconic perfectionism lends humdrum stuff an eeriness. I feel that eeriness in the subtle shadow play he reveals in his plainly carpentered closet, in the delicacy of human hairs inserted into the wax surface of a sculpted leg, and in the trompe l’oeil finesse with which he paints the label on the battered Benjamin Moore can. Gober keeps his virtuosity tamped down and under wraps. His weird world is constructed with the meticulousness of a jeweler putting together a Fabergé egg.” [Jed Perl on Robert Gober]


Restriction on Form


Whaam! Roy Lichtenstein 1963

“Transformation is a strange word to use. It implies that art transforms. It doesn’t, it just plain forms. Artists have never worked with the model—just with the painting. What you’re really saying is that an artist like Cézanne transforms what we think the painting ought to look like into something he thinks it ought to look like. He’s working with paint, not nature; he’s making a painting, he’s forming. I think my work is different from comic strips—but I wouldn’t call it transformation; I don’t think that whatever is meant by it is important to art. What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I’m using the word; the comics have shapes but there has been no effort to make them intensely unified. The purpose is different, one intends to depict and I intend to unify. And my work is actually different from comic strips in that every mark is really in a different place, however slight the difference seems to some. The difference is not always great, but it is crucial. People also consider my work to be anti-art in the same way they consider it pure depiction, ‘not transformed’. I don’t feel it is anti-art. There is no neat way of telling whether a work of art is composed or not; we’re too comfortable with ideas that art is the battleground for interaction, that with more and more experience you become more able to compose. It’s true, everybody accepts that; it’s just that the idea no longer has any power. [Roy Lichtenstein in conversation with
Gene Swenson
]

Roy Lichtenstein girl with A Ball 1961

“The history of art can almost be seen as getting more ground-directed. You have icons, then figures, then landscapes, and so forth, and then you have Pollock where there’s no figure; it’s all ground. So it’s a shock to suddenly do an object. You can’t do it in a primitive way; you have to keep the wholeness of the painting. But it might seem that you’re presenting a part disconnected from the whole, separate from the whole white canvas … . It isn’t that you’re making a golf ball; you’re actually making a group of marks, you know. And you’ve done something which is the opposite of what art’s been leaning toward for six thousand years. I was always interested in getting the thing, and then disconnecting it from composition.” [Roy Lichtenstein in conversation with April Bernard]

Roy Lichtenstein Little Big Painting 1965

“… I think I’m really interested in what kind of an image they have and what it really looks like as well as the formal aspect of it. Let it go at that. I’ll just do it anyway. I’m interested in the kind of image in the same way that one would develop a classical form, an ideal head for instance. Some people don’t really believe in this any more, but that was the idea, in a way, of classical work: ideal figures of people and godlike people. Well, the same thing has been developed in cartoons. It’s not called classical, it’s called a cliche. Well I’m interested in my work’s redeveloping these classical ways, except that it’s not classical, it’s like a cartoon. I’m interested because of the impact it has when you look at it, not because it does anything formally. As a matter of fact, it’s really contradictory to form, it’s a restriction on form. I mean, you have to take into account something else while you’re forming this painting. The hair, the eyes, whatever it is, have to be symbols which – it’s sort of funny to say this – are eternal in this way. In realising of course that they’re not eternal. But they will have this power of being the way to draw something. I don’t know how to express it beyond that, but if it didn’t quite look like the kind of eye I wanted it to look like and the kind of mouth I wanted it to look like, I would be changing it; it would bother me a lot. It isn’t purely a formal problem. I’m not sure exactly why I do this, but I think that it’s to establish the hardest kind of archetype that I can. There’s a sort of formidable appearance that the work has when this is achieved. I think it also doesn’t become achieved unless it’s in line formally; just by itself it doesn’t work. In other words, the enlarged cartoon itself would not do anything; it would be a kind of joke. But I think it’s when the formal and this aspect of it being the right kind of eye come about, you have something. I think, really, that Picasso is involved in this. In spite of the fact that it seems as though he could do almost any kind of variation of any kind of eye or ear or head, there are certain ones that were very powerful and strong because of the kind of symbolism that he employed. And I don’t know the meaning of this. It’s what I think I’m up to, anyway.” [Roy Lichtenstein in conversation with David Sylvester]

Experience of Illusory Motion

Bridget Riley Hesitate 1964

“In one sense, paradoxically, Riley’s formalist project is a relativizing one; it’s about harnessing the ways that forms and colors affect their neighbors, and exploiting the unpredictability of perceptual experience, for aesthetic ends. That’s as far as it goes, though: The idea that the significance of painting’s form ultimately relies on factors outside the literal frame–that history, relations of production and consumption, social formations of subjectivity, inescapably contaminate “pure” form with ideological content–would, one imagines, earn a big raspberry from Riley. So how might one read her work against the formalist grain? It offers a perceptual experience of illusory motion and fluidity, of iridescent mirages, of phantom colors born of simultaneous contrast and optical mixture, all underpinned by rigidly delineated, insistently repeated, progressively more and more “standardized” units (fabricated by Riley’s studio assistants). Depth in front, flatness behind: a mind-boggling, anti-Idealist sublime-in-reverse. Risking accusations of crude reflectionism, it’s tempting to interpret all this as an unwitting but incisive anatomization of the phantasmagoric mechanisms of ’60s and ’70s commodity design and display. (Riley, incidentally, worked at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in the late ’50s.) That would certainly raise interesting questions about commercial design’s huge attraction to Riley’s work when it first emerged, and its ripeness for appropriation by the likes of Damien Hirst and Philip Taaffe.” [Rachel Withers on Bridget Riley]

Peter Schuyff Untitled 1987

Optical art represents, to some critics at least, a respite from the undisciplined spirit and techniques of abstract expressionism which held sway for the past decade in American art circles. Abstract expressionism with its emphasis on the highly personalized and immediate (sometimes violent) emotional evocations of the artist often misses a rapport with the viewer. The feeling of the intensity of the technique of the abstract expressionist artists (witness the splash and dribble of the action painters), it seems to me, falls short of the visual impact of great masses of rich color which are also present on these usually huge canvasses. Furthermore, the texture of the generously applied paint can produce an interesting optical effect. Expression is also brought out forcibly and with a greater economy of means in many examples of Chinese calligraphy….[Gerald Oster on Optical Art]

Paul Corio Rocks in My Bed 2017

“For the cultural elite’s antagonism toward Op was every bit as intense as the general public’s (and popular press’s) fascination with it. The highbrow dismissal of Op came from artists and critics: Noland spoke of optical “delusions.” Writing in the April 1965 issue of Artforum, Barbara Rose spoke of “optical hysteria” and dismissed the work as “expressively neutral, having to do with sensation alone.” Rosalind Krauss, still evidently operating within the intellectual arena of Greenberg, connects Op to the tradition of trompe l’oeil and denigrates its visual trickery, its “duplicity.” Donald Judd was rather open to Tadasky’s paintings in a February 1965 review–the same month “The Responsive Eye” opened–remarking with characteristic brevity, “It’s fairly good”; but in October of the previous year he had dismissed Stanczak, while simultaneously giving the movement its name: “Optical effects are one thing, a narrow phenomenon, and color effects are another, a wide range. Op art.” But popular usage of the term derived from an unsigned article by Time magazine correspondent Jon Borgzinner, “Op Art: Pictures that Attack the Eye.” It is thus in the context of the mainstream media that the question of Op’s “attack” is first broached.” [David Rimanelli on Op Art]

Everyday Images Shaped by Convention

Robert Rauschenberg Canto I: The Dark Wood of Error, from the series Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno 1958

Photo-based media had already entered Rauschenberg’s work in clippings glued to the surfaces of Combines such as Canyon (1959) and Monogram (1955–59)…; with his transfer drawings, photomechanical images plucked from the flux of contemporary culture became central. The Dante project provided Rauschenberg with what the art historian Rosalind Krauss has described as “his apprenticeship to the media image,” training in the strategic premises of what would become known as Pop art. The Dante drawings led Rauschenberg almost immediately to efforts to scale up, to create a painting with readymade images: the artist first made Calendar, a solvent “transfer painting,” in 1962, which he felt was not fully successful in the way that the magazine images were dwarfed by the large canvas; he then attempted and failed to find a way to produce photosensitive canvas that would allow images to be imprinted directly onto the support; and finally—after consulting with Andy Warhol, who had just begun making silkscreen paintings—he adopted the silkscreen technique himself. “Silkscreen was a way not to be victimized and limited in scale and color, but still have access to current worldwide information,” he would explain in 1997 in comments he made on an essay about his work that Krauss was preparing for publication. Combining photography and painting, machine work and manual work, these early silkscreens registered images of culture at large but also reflected on the tradition of fine-art painting. In Rauschenberg’s case, the move from collaged abstraction to media-based imagery came via Dante. [Leah Dickerman on Rauschneberg’s Dante’s Inferno]

Jasper Johns Hatteras 1963

Raising the issue of slippage between form and handling, however, reminds
us how barren any isolated delectation of Johns s surfaces and lines must quickly become. If we are to grasp his ambition as an artist — to understand both its singularity and its relation to modern traditions — we should attend simultaneously to his subjects, and to what he has said about them. Johns has wanted his subjects, like his schematic models for drawing, to come ready made. He has also long favored those that have arrived involuntarily, through chance encounters or uncontrolled circumstance —fleeting glances, unexpected gifts from friends, suggestions made by others, or even, in the case of the first Flag , 1954—55, a dream. This is clearly not, however, a belated case of the Surrealist courtship of chance and the unconscious mind, which meant so much to the generation of American artists immediately preceding Johns’s. What came to him from his initial dreams and serendipities were not primal icons beyond civilizations reach, or exotic eccentricities, but everyday images shaped by convention and culture. The prime gift, the dream of painting the American flag, was prime precisely because it provided the most conventional of conventions, a wholly public symbol. [Kirk Varnedoe on Jasper Johns]

Robert Rauschenberg Canto XIV- Circle Seven, Round 3, The Violent Against God, Nature, and Art 1958

Rauschenberg’s tracings of his own hand and foot allude to the artist’s identity and its place in the narrative. Despite having referred to himself as merely a “reporter” of the cantos, Rauschenberg carves out a space for himself in the fourteenth-century epic poem. His indexing of his own body declares an artistic presence in addition to that of Dante’s—one that complicates and even perhaps contradicts Dante. While Dante remains a strict adherent to Christian piety, and his journey through Hell is an allegorical journey with the goal of recognizing and rejecting sin, Rauschenberg at times appears to sympathize or ally himself with the sinners being punished. He also uses images from contemporary American politics and pop culture to provide his own commentary about his nation and his era. Despite Rauschenberg’s statements about his work on the series, his canto drawings do not adhere strictly to the text but rather create a unique visual interpretation of the poem that incorporates anachronistic and autobiographical elements in order to convey ideas about his own body and sexuality and to explore notions of materiality and immateriality in art. [Eliza Mott on Rauschenberg’s Inferno series]

Jasper Johns Skin with O’Hara Poem 1963–65

In more particular terms, the theme of the body offers one key point of connection between Johns’s work and specifically contemporary concerns. Since the mid-1980s, in a period when a new consciousness of sexuality has been affected by aids, and when sex and gender have been put under intense scrutiny as matters of the mind and of society as well as of biology, the singularly fraught store of morbid sensuality that Johns long ago began investing in corporeal imagery seems revivified. The object-body interchanges that mark Robert Gober’s art, for example — his combination of homages to Duchamp and veristic segments of torsos and limbs — move back onto territory Johns broached in the early 1960s. Similarly, Kiki Smith’s sacks of flayed flesh, and her splayed deformation of her face, reawaken the climate of feeling that surrounded Johns’s Study for Skin drawings — at the same moment when Johns himself, in the stretched and dislocated “face” he derived from Picasso and from a child’s drawing, is reexploring this very terrain of epidermal distension and pyschically decentered dissociation. For Murray, these new stretched faces in Johns’s work evoke a child’s fascination with pulling and stretching his or her body as a possession to be tested and discovered; pushing toward that inside-outside attitude, they pass through the adult repugnance that buries such instincts and cloaks the body in clothes and willed forgetfulness. Even beyond the Freudian linkages of early pleasures and adult sufferings in this explicit “infantilism,” Murray senses that such seemingly innocent trompe l’oeil devices as the standing nails and pieces of masking tape in the recent imagery may evoke “the pain of the body” and a compulsive, Band-Aid-like covering of the flesh. [Kirk Varnedoe on Jasper Johns]

“That Was Outside. Inside The Same Light Illuminates . . .“ Some Paintings by David Novros – Mike Zahn

Spring 2019

David Novros Lent Painting 1975

The ghosts of a vanished metaphysics haunt the world.Mind, matter, idea, technique, word, image— these are concepts whose potency has expired. The structures which frame their use harbor particular biases, those of art, or of philosophy, or possibly of politics, each in or well past their terminal stages. That which commands attention today is expediency in the service of economics. Nowhere are these issues clearer than in the works of David Novros, described by the artist himself as compromises with the conditions of their presence.

David Novros Untitled (Frog Altar) 1975

It’s possible there’s something diminished, anachronistic, or even ridiculous in the approach Novros takes. His works are massive, and seemingly at odds with the circulation of artworks in the marketplace. If not quite practical, this decision is pragmatic. It internalizes the role architecture plays in his work, and becomes its key strength. The presentation of multi-panel reliefs is figured as vacillating between the fragment and the whole, and addresses an entire lineage of painting from the paleolithic to the modern. This brings a predicament to the fore with which Novros has always struggled: When detached from its substrate, how does scale retain its integrity? The question is answered by the claim of a ‘painted place’, which for Novros accommodates performative aspects of the work while maintaining its specificity as the focus of ritual.

David Novros (L) DB, 2016 (R) Portable Cave 1975
Installation view Paula Cooper Gallery 2019

What’s discerned in the ‘portable murals’ Novros executes is the refinement of a sensibility attuned to volume and movement, to hue and surface, brought forth as the work perpetually unfolds in a curious time out of its immediate space. There’s no image here. Nor is there an object per se. What the work as such organizes is a proprioceptive awareness which takes hold as dark masses give way to swaths of lambent effulgence. A flashing of here and there insinuates an inside and an outside to the work, where the optical and the haptic mitigate against one another, giving rise to the paradox of a third state beyond reason and experience, or in terms Giotto would have recognized, logos and flesh. Here it’s tempting to suggest the paintings Novros makes incarnate a mysterious joining of the human and the divine in hypostatic instances of fleeting perspective. This implies unity, and a summoning of the faith required of painters of Trecento murals or of prehistoric caves. To achieve this now entails not a belief, but a doing, above all a not- doing of many things: A different being.

David Novros is currently showing at Paula Cooper Gallery, 524 West 26th Street, May 11 – June 15, 2019.

Change, Doubt, Indecisiveness, and Poetry

Christopher Wool Last Year Halloween Fell on a Weekend 2004

“In 2000, Wool discovered another new process. He was working with a sprayed composition of yellow enamel when he became frustrated, picked up a rag soaked in turpentine, and wiped away the lines using rapid gestures. He then began to experiment with this technique with black enamel, leading to a body of work he refers to as his “gray paintings.” He alternated this act of erasing with the act of “drawing” (Wool considers spray-painting closer to drawing than painting). On these new canvases, black lines were swallowed in layers of gray erasure and then complicated by further layers of lines. Addition was as important as subtraction. Wool described this process of making work in four words: change, doubt, indecisiveness, and poetry. The works have been described as an argument he was having with himself—a constant interplay of concession and rebuttal. Wool has said that, “the traditional idea of an objective masterpiece is no longer possible,” and “without objectivity you’re left with doubt, and doubt insists on plurality.” [Guggenheim on Christopher Wool’s drawing]

Robert Rauschenberg Erased de Kooning Drawing 1953

“When I just erased my own drawings, it wasn’t art yet. And so I thought, Aha, it has to be art. And Bill de Kooning was the—was the best-known acceptable American artist, well known, that could be indisputably considered art. And so—
I was on a very low-budget situation. But I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. And hoped that—  that he wouldn’t be home when I knocked on his door. And he was home. And we sat down with the Jack Daniels, and I told him what my project was. He understood it. And he said, “I don’t like it. But, you know, I—I understand what you’re doing.” And he went through one portfolio, and he said, “No. It’ll have to be something that—that I’ll miss.” So I’m—I’m just sweating, shitless, ya know? And then I’m thinking, like—like, It doesn’t have to be something you’re gonna miss. And—then he went through a second portfolio. Which I thought was kind of interesting, things he wouldn’t miss and things he would miss and—and then— and—and he pulled something out, and then he said, “I’m gonna make it so hard for you to erase this.” And it took me about a month, and I don’t know how many erasers, to do it.” [Rauschenberg in conversation with Leah Dickerman]

Christopher Wool King Walk 2004

“Wool’s abstracts reference Robert Rauschenberg’s lyric “Erased DeKooning,” where Rauschenberg could be said to have subverted DeKooning’s abstract expressionist bravado by erasing his marks just enough to leave their identity without their impact.
Since Wool marks his canvases and then, partially erases his own drawing, you get to note that he subverts the implied intent of his initial gesture with the latter one of erasure. It could make an art speaker giddy to realize that Wool’s abstracts show more gesture in their erasure than in their markings since the erasures are done with solvent soaked rags, leaving drips and smudges that capture the action quite well.” [Cat Weaver on Christopher Wool’s drawing]

Robert Rauschenberg Tideline 1963

“Painters showed that making a painting wasn’t a logical process of will gradually moving toward an ideal conclusion. An artist throws his arms around and is many times fairly uncomfortable; and he is forced to admit that he tries many things which he isn’t sure he can do. I think that’s always been the case before in art—artists crawling around on scaffolding or grinding—their own pigments or accepting commissions that interrupt their immediate concerns.
It is physical, the whole activity; you don’t begin with some divine image and end up with some divine image—to say you do is part of the popular illusion built around art. When you finish a picture and people like it they say, ‘It’s just perfect,’ or, ‘It couldn’t be any different,’ or, ‘That’s the way a real artist sees it.’ I think that’s a lot of bull because it could, it obviously could, be some other way. By the time it starts drying, it doesn’t look the same as when it’s still wet. That’s one reason I made four versions of Summer Rental; all four are made up of exactly the same ingredients except for a small amount of paint I used at the end to finish them.” [G.R. Swenson Robert Rauschenberg Paints a Picture]