Romantic Vision – Opening Position

“For Nature, who abhors mannerism, has set her heart on breaking up all styles and tricks, and it is so much easier to do what one has done before than to do a new thing, that there is a perpetual tendency to a set mode.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson Nominalist and Realist

What you are looking at is David Reed’s painting from the 1970s entitled #90 – it’s somewhere after Pop/Minimalism and right at the beginning of Postmodern Neo-Abstraction (an amalgamation of 80’s Neo-Geo and 90’s Conceptual Abstraction.) In this work he’s commenting both on the ubiquitous material formalism of the period and the idea of the previous generation’s “signature” Action Painter’s brush stroke. His challenge incorporated both the Pop/Minimalist theoretics and media contingencies inherent in reproduction and replication AND the physical/material theoretics of institutional academic painting. He’s doing it by synthesizing these programs through the still viable (in the 70s) construct of a Postmodern critique. His solution to the painting conundrum is one of the most elegant reformulations of America’s dueling endgame painting movements of the 60s. It’s also the beginning of a new form of institutional Mannerism that quickly became THE WAY to approach the problem of endgame painting. His work has the look and feel of the lens-based image, but it is not. It is painting made to look like a reproduction. There has been a plethora of artists working in this same manner ever since, with hundreds, if not thousands of artists, coming to very similar conclusions about Postmodern painting, brush strokes and vision. In the meantime David has gone beyond this painting’s emphatic materialism to earn his place as  one of the foremost Mannerist imagist painters of the last thirty years. His works have explored nearly every incarnation of the brush stroke; what it does, what it means and how it exists in painting history. And he has done it by expanding and breaking the grounds of the Corporate Postmodern Billboard and collaging his “manufactured” painted images across the surfaces of an highly artificial spatial/temporal ground. David Reed is abstraction’s Bronzino.

The construct that delivered this idea of the brush stroke, the ongoing Postmodern critique of painting in general, is based on the complementary techniques of both replication and reproduction. Replication refers to imagery, reproduction to process. The second generation of this Neo-Abstractionist critique is of course embodied in the now very popular work of Christopher Wool. And it looks like this:

“The first duty of life is to be as artificial as possible.”
Oscar Wilde “Phrases And Philosophies For The Use Of  The Young”

This painting is not. For all of its technological impressiveness it is yet another clever and timely reiteration of Magritte’s pipe. With this kind of painting we have arrived at that point in the Postmodern critique where the image of paint has become the “paint”. We reference yet again what has been referenced, and we are doing so through yet another medium. Basically, this is a reproduction of a lens replication of a painting happenstance – the splotch, the drip, the remainder of the brush stroke. It’s a technique quite unlike Reed’s which examines painting as-if through a lens.  Its subject is the emptying ground, the media itself, swallowing up the disappearing reality of the act of painting, the act of anything, really. In Wool’s work we don’t encounter abstraction straight on any longer. Nor are we constructing or composing a painting in order to engage with it in a visual sense. Instead we have moved behind the lens and within the synchronous program in order to feature the workings of machine-made images themselves. All that is left to see on these overtly mannered, computer-collaged surfaces, is the idea and fabrication of the ground itself, or rather, an image of the ground – a secondary studio experience of some form of a former vibrant painted reality. As Raphael Rubenstein described it, this is how Provisional Painting works. For so many painters in this school, painting as a visual experience is something lost to the past, some former human condition, something that can not and probably should not be done any more. And because visual painting can no longer be engaged outside the mediated experience, what we are given instead are “painted” objects, things to encounter, things to purchase, stockpile and trade in the moment that we look up from our screens.

“Photographic seeing, when one examines its claims, turns out to be mainly the practice of a kind of dissociative seeing, a subjective habit which is reinforced by the objective discrepancies between the way that the camera and the human eye focus and judge perspective.”
Susan Sontag “On Photography”

Advanced painting in the early 21st Century, especially abstract painting, leans heavily on Provisional visual techniques enhanced and disseminated through programmed replication. This kind of work made for a certain kind of optical engagement is described by Sontag’s above observation about dissociative seeing. And make no mistake, that dissociative viewing is the difference between optical painting and visual painting. In order to find meaning in the provisional we must see THROUGH the machine, the program. The object itself must also remain provisional, in other words, an art-like thing. And so there is a preference toward mannered actions or highly “theatrical” presentations of painting processes. It’s a new kind of action painting without any outright action taking place. The paintings employ “hand-made” fucked up grounds overlaid with machine-made reproductions of institutional studio techniques scattered upon the endless surfaces of  billboard junk space. This type of “painting” must then be  disseminated through lens based media, experienced online in photos and blog commentary or published in Taschen-style presentations. When we see and experience the object first hand, in the flesh so to speak, the actual physical encounter, more often than not, reveals that the object is shoddy, unmade, and indeed, provisional. It looks like a Hollywood Prop, something made specifically for the fracturing gloss of the lens/program, a suggestion of something that “appears” FOR the lens while it dematerializes before one’s eyes. In this regard the “real” experience of the work becomes the after-experience, the Post-game wrap-up, so to speak. The “painted” object finds its meaning not in its being, not as it’s revealed, or in its experience, but as it’s re-presented, contextualized through other media. This third generation of Postmodern Neo-Abstraction, can and does, reproduce painting-like products without addressing first person visual involvement with originality, talent, quality, beauty, ugliness, specificity, thought, critique or irony. All of these “qualities” of former Art have now been quantified and subsumed into the lens based programs preferred by this new institutional elite. Painters no longer have to be accomplished, practiced, eloquent or expert – our job has become to simply re-contextualize replications of paintings, or indeed, absolutely anything that has been uploaded. Once a context, any context, has been incorporated and disseminated about the work by the program, it can and does turn everything, even the most abject or overworked product, the most absurd or grand idea, into Art, and further, into Critique. We are no longer bounded and defined by the realities of our fleshy experiences, we no longer HAVE TO SEE anything in the first person, never confront our own limitations in order to participate as an Artist, Critic, Curator, Collector, Theorist, or even as a Culture Consumer. The seamless len based program replicates and reproduces “Art” by, for and of the masses.

“I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.”
Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass”

In the past it was the connection to Nature that was the catalyst for a new critique, a new vision. This is a large part of the Romantic attitude. It was the way to move from the strictures of an artificial existence and an artificial mode. All through Art History when an idea had reached a Mannered apex there would suddenly appear a new idea connected to fleshy vision, to an actual encounter with the world right in front of the artists’ eyes. When we’re looking at Manet’s picnic the world slips sideways. Why? Well it’s not only the critique of academic vision and institutional indoctrination that’s being presented, it’s Manet’s version of vision, his own understanding of his life in the painting. He’s describing nature through a changed vision. Temporal space collapses in this new Modern world and Manet SEES it, paints it. What makes the painting new, dramatic, disturbing is exactly this temporal shift to vision. He’s rebelling against the strictures of history and the artificiality of his own profession, his own time, and ultimately his own understanding of what he is seeing. However, our time is different. And I’m not so sure any longer that this sort of visual rebellion can happen – simply because we no longer connect to Nature, we no longer engage in it, no longer SEE it.

“I am Nature.”
Jackson Pollock

What I’m trying to understand, what I’ve been struggling with all this past summer, is the nature of Nature itself. What is it, how do we experience it, how do we interpret it, how do we express it, where do we find it? McLuhan made the assertion that once the first satellite rounded the globe, there was no longer Nature. We had contained our entire world through our media. Today, you can’t walk down the street without having your life documented, cataloged and used in some way by some device, some lens, some program. So I’ve looked inward to see if there might be anything close to “nature” existing there, and truthfully, I’ve been horrified by my own artificiality, the ease with which I participate in the program. Look, when I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that nearly every physical occurrence within our bodies can be modified and controlled by electronic, chemical, or surgical means. Christ we are, nearly all of us, cyborgs, mechanized humans (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…fact and fiction, Marko, keep it real, please.) I then turned to my emotions, surely something there? But even those personal experiences can be and have been controlled and focused through social mores, copious amounts of pharmaceutical concoctions (ritalin anyone?) and the “realities” of electronic existence. Everything, including our most intimate relationships, are defined by these new programs, by the ever present “realities” of programs, both analog and digital. So what is natural, what is real, in this environment, in us? What exists outside or in spite of the program? Does anything? And if so what does it look like? Can any of us, especially now at the beginning of the 21st Century, truly claim, as Jackson did, to be “Nature”?

The problem, as I see it, isn’t necessarily in discovering “truth” – what it means to be human etc. We are a new kind of animal, like it or not. Yes, truth may set one free, but as Postmodernism has shown us, EVERYTHING we encounter in the program, every thing swallowed up by the program, has a kind of “truth” (truthiness?) and that truth can be and always is manipulated. So in desperation we’ve turned our search toward Reality hoping that in our daily encounters we might find some moment that isn’t programmed, a moment outside of the program – what’s Real today? But this is problematic as well. For instance in NYC recently we experienced an earthquake and a hurricane within the same week. Unprecedented experiences to say the least. They would have seemed WAY out of the ordinary, scary even, just 10 years ago. But the speed and deftness with which the media encapsulated the physical realities of those fleshy occurrences was truly astonishing. Astonishing because the program made these once life defining moments into everyday events. In one grand moment a commentator was televised actually standing in foamy raw sewage in order to illustrate the “reality” of the narrative. And none of us thought that this programmed “reality” was out of the ordinary. Not even Nature, as we once knew it, once were in awe of it, once were slaves to it, interrupted or changed the course of the narrative formed through the constantly streaming media reality.

We can not, do not, acknowledge the reality of our own existences, our own natures, any longer. We can not see outside the program, can not remove ourselves from the artificial existence in which we exist. The rebellion is programmed, the Romantic inclination to question codified and incorporated like a virus. For me this describes the Postmodern Condition.

Which brings me back to my concerns for vision and painting. If our bodies are manipulated by our products and procedures, our minds overwhelmed by a streaming narrative, our vision blurred and refocused by lenses, then what is Real, what is Reality, and further, what is Natural, what is Nature? And then how do we see it, how do we paint it?

End of the first part…


11 thoughts on “Romantic Vision – Opening Position”

  1. Pingback: Random Thoughts, Random Photos (#1) « southeast main

  2. I have been involved in this world as an artist for 45 years and have been dealing with the “intellectual” side of art critiques for just as long. I enjoy the thinking here and in so far as it is right to my understanding it is by far deeply entrenched in it’s own self image as critique. Art is visceral, art is immediate and in so far as art is natural it is complete. Nature still exists but it is the nature we experience individually and that is still a real experience. It is – the experience – not diluted by pills, television, media slant and the 24/7 news cycle. We may not be the natural beings of the pre industrial revolution but we still feel, see and experience our lives the same way. And as a man who has tried all forms of visual communication from creating TV commericials to now as a fine representational oil painter the act of communicating to other humans is every bit as mysterious and wonderful as it once was. All the way down to a brush stroke – choosing the right color for the emotion. When these individual elements are in sync then the painting is not only relevant but as modern as any abstract construct that is driven by too much thinking!

  3. Your understanding of nature and truth has a nostalgic reverence perhaps encouraged by present disgust.

    “Trying to understand nature of Nature itself” is essentially to same desire to know God or to know Truth.

    Contemporary knowledge of truth and nature has advanced since then. Then problem is, many artists have not educated themselves because Post-modernism’s plurality does not distinguish progression.

    Post-modernism has created a large playing field for artists, but does little to direct artists towards a concept of excellence. Post-modernism doesn’t serve artists like a philosophy the way Romanticism and past philosophies of art movements have fueled the pursuit of art.

    Your concerns for truth and nature and Post-modernism itself are answered well by the philosophy Nietzsche and Existential philosopher. Unfortunately, his philosophy can be difficult to penetrate. What you ascribe as the Post-modern condition is really an existential matter.

    “we no longer connect to Nature, we no longer engage in it, no longer SEE it.” “We can not, do not, acknowledge the reality of our own existences, our own natures, any longer.”

    I don’t agree that we are less human. I don’t agree we are less connected to nature. I don’t agree we are less attuned to our personal existence. Those are all individual choices that can not be applied for everyone. Instead of obsessing over an external idea and being overwhelmed by technology, realize your individual nature. What is your nature, your truths, your virtues? Paint it.

  4. Thanks for the comments Ash! I would like to speak to a couple of things. FIrst I do not have a nostalgic reverence for anything. Nor do I have an interest in knowing God or Truth in that sense. What I’ve been trying to do is begin this set by showing where we are as painters while discussing the changes to our culture, society and our selves. Second I don’t believe that Nietzsche or Existentialist philosophy are the answer to the problem of Postmodernism as both are contained and circumscribed within it. I am not advocating a return to old solutions or old ideas. What I am thinking about is a kind of retooling of the Romantic temperament in a highly artificial time and how that might be done seriously and powerfully. I want to be as clear as I can about contemporary issues and my own needs and passions as an artist and painter. I do hope you come back to read the next installment and contribute your ideas about what we might be working out in our studios. It is the only way to move ahead! – Mark

  5. Hi Lou! Thanks for your comments. Though I agree with your understanding about painting being connected to emotion, I don’t agree that there can be too much thinking in finding a way to paint that emotion. The advances in the history of painting were set up first by a great deal of discontent and rumination with and about the standing hierarchies, and then painters making a change in their own work to reflect that new understanding and discontent. But those changes are always brought about by intellectual involvement in the issues at hand. Change doesn’t happen if we continue to paint in the manner given. We must question and probe, find a way to make what we feel is unique about ourselves visible. We can not rely on what has been, we have to paint what we are, what we find exciting and alive. I hope you will return to read our next installment – I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts about what you do in the studio, what you’re looking for in your work, how you try to make it unique and different, expressive of your own ideas about life. – Mark

  6. Mark, this is the wonder of the artist. But my question is borne from many late night exploratory conversations with other artists about the definition of what is art and I have been around a long time and have worked with and for a few giants in the art world and it is a mystery but I often see the intellectual aspect of creating overwhelmed by the passionate, animalistic, gut wrenching aspect of doing, mindless in the sense that the heart and the NEED far outweighs the thought process, BUT the thought process always wants to explain and often gets in the way. Now the exploration of new is another error I see in art schools. Having graduated Pratt and SVA and The Art Students League all around the same time and then having been fortunate enough to work in the art world from then some 45 years now, on I see the mistakes and excuses made in the name of art. I don’t have an answer but I know it is very frustrating to compete with marketing and the power of privileged and position and the elite gallery world to take greatness and smear it all over themselves for want of any real abilities in skill, talent or work ethic. Exploring new aspects of seeing is a way. Exploring new aspects of expressing being is another and I applaud all of this. I wonder though how much our modern technology can impact or destroy true creativity all for the sake of sales. The young talented people want to be relevent and current and yet they have lost the discipline of hard work because our technology has made it easier than ever to create something that looks – at first – great. This is the problem of the new. Thoughtful essays though and I love to hear what thoughtful people think.

  7. “What I am thinking about is a kind of retooling of the Romantic temperament in a highly artificial time and how that might be done seriously and powerfully.”

    That’s what I’m addressing. The Romantics had a very different view of nature. They turned nature into Nature in response to the Enlightenment. We can no longer have that same perspective in light of overwhelming scientific knowledge.

    “I don’t believe that Nietzsche or Existentialist philosophy are the answer to the problem of Postmodernism as both are contained and circumscribed within it.”

    If anything, it’s the other way around. Postmodernism could be seen as branching from Existentialism by incorporating aspects of Existentialism to create is own brand. I don’t think artists have directly engaged Existentialism the way they readily subscribed to Postmodernism.

  8. Thanks Lou! How lucky you’ve been to have been involved in such discussions and to participate in this world! I would have enjoyed the discussions and late nights you are talking about – I’ve had a number of them myself and always enjoy the back and forth of it. I will say that here in the 21st century we’ve certainly made our lives a great deal easier, especially with our electronic extensions. But as you say it comes with consequence. And I think that is the conundrum that we face – especially painters. How can we remain relevant to this new culture? How do we find our vision within that culture? ESPECIALLY if we have different ideas about how we might see things, how that different visual understanding might be of value in this culture. Talent will find its way, but it is shaped by the time in which it is formed. If we don’t provide difference, if we don’t discuss the issues with passion and intelligence, if we don’t understand what problems we face, then they (the young and ambitious) won’t have a foundation to build something new and different. I see the homogeneity within our thought processes, our artistic processes as being a huge problem for us. Cezanne had to exist for Picasso and Matisse – Delacroix for Manet – These were artists bringing about new visual ideas from the simple act of questioning both the accepted principles of the time and their own assumptions about painting. It was worked out in conversation and in the studio. It’s the active engagement, the questioning and making that change the culture, that change the way we see. That’s what I find exciting and I’m sure you do as well – or you wouldn’t still be making art. When you’re in the studio I bet you find that that’s what brings the next painting, the next idea – and that’s what makes painting challenging, frustrating, wonderful and amazing. – Mark

  9. Hi Ash! I agree – we can not have the same perspective of the Romantics. But we can understand and use that kind of engagement in our own time. That’s the purpose of this series – to see if we might find it in our work, in our studios, in our thought and in our changed physical environment.

    I’m sorry to say though that I can not agree with you about Existentialism. The Abstract Expressionist painters, the first great movement of American Painting, was an existentialist movement. It encompassed the tenets of European Existentialism and American Transcendentalism (very similar in scope.) Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko, Newman et al were all connected to that philosophy in some way. And they made their work in such an emphatic way that it quickly became a style, a way to address a kind of painting. And as Mr. Solomon says in the video, Existentialism (and all of its offshoots) did become passé. Styles often do.
    Doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in it – it just means it no longer resonated in the culture and minds of a new generation.

    The problem, as is I see it, is Postmodernism, and POMO does indeed swallow and encapsulate everything it re-presents. Our extensions are Postmodern machines. When we engage with them we see and understand through POMO’s theoretics. The computer you are reading this on, the blackberry in your hand, all of these things that we engage with, engage us. We become part of the theoretics of the thing. We can not help it. The conundrum is – how do we assert difference when the theoretical underpinning of the thing that we engage in is actually designed to encapsulate and re-present difference?

    Mr. Solomon may be discussing his belief in Existential engagement, but he is doing it on video and presenting it through Youtube. We in turn are online, incorporating it into a blog and discussing it in a comment. And in doing so we all become part of the construct itself. His difference, his belief, is made into yet another broadcast of the construct, as are we. You may agree or not with what he is saying, but in truth, it doesn’t matter what he is saying – he is part of the Postmodern machine. As McLuhan says – change is brought by the technologies – the medium is the message (massage). Our task is to find how we can make a difference in this program. The construct is not going anywhere. It’s our reality and we must begin in it. So how do we differentiate, how can we see differently, how can we create a different experience in this monolithic electronic environment, how do we find our personality in the collective personality, our own subjectivity in the collective subjectivity? Those are the interesting questions, at least to me. I agree that personal responsibility, a connection to nature, an understanding and differentiation of the thing in itself are all good things, but we need something else, something more Real and more Timely to explain who and what we are as human beings in the 21st Century.

    Ash, I’ll be posting the next part soon (the day job keeps me very busy) I’d like to know your thoughts.
    – Mark

  10. I paint. Most of the post-Modern stuff is true. We live mediated. Whyshould nature be the only rock bottom? I am an internet artist.

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