Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship. Ralph Waldo Emerson Nature

Back to the Future

Emerson wrote this lament about America and Americans in the 1830s, and it seems, even at that early date in our history we had become nostalgic for an imagined arcadia. We Americans enjoy, engage and covet the blissful comforts of nostalgic revery – from the orderly certitude of manicured lawns and white picket fences all the way to the ironic discomforts of Andy Warhol’s two-toned wig. We are in love with our own mythologies, crave the retelling and representations of our origins. And in our Postmodern Age that kind of nostalgia runs rampant in our culture. We have come to accept and expect it’s presence in nearly everything we engage with, especially in painting. And the current end of gallery season summer extravaganzas offer hardly any surprises in this regard.

Painting, the unloved but necessary commodity product that stuffs the coffers of Art Capitalism, returns to Chelsea’s galleries every summer like the Swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. In a recent New York Times article, Roberta Smith, runs down sightings of a number of these “new painting” exhibits. In the slide show that accompanies the article many of the works have the look of familiar kinds of academic anti-painting. One or two fell off the back of Jessica Stockholder’s truck while absconding from Robert Rauschenberg’s Closet. Admittedly, a lot of the abstraction we’ve re-created over the last 30 or 40 years could have been sliced from at least a few yards of Bob’s Quarter Mile extravaganza. But all’s fair when applying Postmodern theoretics. Other photos show tricked-out versions of the kind of painting featured in David Reed’s show, High Times Hard Times, a compendium of 60s and 70s post minimalist anti-painting painting. What it all boils down to is the fact that painters have been very busy customizing the look and feel of extremely familiar painting genres. Like the rest of our culture, painting can’t help being mesmerized by the pulling power of a nostalgic revery. We crave its simplicity and authenticity. It’s far easier to satisfy the uncomfortable itch of progress with a vibrant aesthetic salve from our gilded past than to actually come up with something new.

Right now you can walk into any number of studios of abstract painters in New York City and see contemporary “advanced painting” that looks and acts very much like this 1927 Painting by Miro:

The Miro show at MOMA a few years ago was truly a killer exhibition for many painters. By that I mean that Miro’s experiments came across as naked, raw, visual questioning; about materials, abstraction, presentation and the history of painting and drawing itself. This work was done in the trenches, not reclaimed from a slide presentation in a classroom. It’s “authenticity” filled the galleries! I know a number of painters who were spellbound by these works, lost in admiration for a time and place that isn’t any longer, a discovery of “anti-painting” that was and is no more. But even while knowing this fact they insist that they can still participate in that very moment of discovery, that it’s still possible to access that historic authenticity as a contemporary experience. These painters persist in reformulating and representing these dated discoveries, persist in trying to recreate the “authentic past” in the same way that Civil War Reenactors meticulously replay famous battles or Hogwarts Theme Park Attendees wave their wands and chant “Wengardium Leviosa.” It’s not so much that contemporary painters are copying Miro or “appropriating” his ideas as they are desperate to re-create a deeply felt connection to the idea of a long-lost avant-garde. These painters truly want their work to reference and replicate a time when the once-radical questioning of the primacy of materials and the contingency of “skill” actually created aesthetic anxiety among one’s colleagues and whipped up absolute disdain within the viewing public. They want what they can no longer have. So in order to feel that toothy engagement in some small way they retrofit their new “productions” to “contain” and “reference” the contrarian past. They build in nostalgia through a kind of retro-painting.

I still like Raphael Rubenstein’s term Provisional Painters for the purveyors of this kind of avant-garde nostalgia. His term covers the whole gamut of Retro DaDaists and Neo-Surrealists that have captured our present abstract painting moment. In the context of Miro’s anti-painting model, many of today’s Provisional Painters’ Postmodern pretensions and contextual re-framings of early 20th Century experimental abstraction look and feel a lot like Consumerist Collectibles. Once difficult ideas and risky experiments are being re-made into niche market designer products for discerning upper class collectors – in other words these works have the period specific aesthetic authenticity desired by the luxury goods industry. For a price a discerning collector can have their very own authentically recreated Ship of Theseus.

I see… a rhinoceros…

Joe Bradley’s paintings are a case in point. There isn’t a move in these works that doesn’t look tastefully arch or period specific. They are faux antiques, fashionably refitted and updated for a technologically savvy aesthete, sort of like Sophia Coppola’s ipod playlist. But they are done large, production large, big studio large. In 2008 when Bradley first put out his Schmagoo paintings, raw canvases with charcoal line drawings, we in the art world had a perfect retro experience. We were actually reliving a moment that may have happened at the beginning of the Modernist age through the discussion of these paintings. Online there were long comment threads, pro and con, about the work – is it painting? is it art? is it good, bad, etc.? These paintings became the topic of conversation at other openings, after parties and drunken bull sessions in downtown bars. But for the most part all of this consternation felt like an orchestrated reenactment with each side replaying pre-scripted arguments and rote aesthetic theories to support their positions. The most surprising part of this debate was the near similarity in argument to the critical debates that raged all through the early Modernist period – from Demoiselles to the Armory Show up to Jackson’s drips. At the beginning of the 21st Century why would anyone think that this kind of work, which most of us have been schooled about, would create such consternation among US, those who know? All one had to do was open a book or go to the museum to see near-identical kinds of visual ideas done 80 years before and enshrined in our institutional pantheons. These doctrinaire works had not disappeared or been forgotten. No. We ALL know the history, the precedent. Why then were so many enflamed or outraged? It was a truly brilliant PR coup on Bradley’s part, and those beautifully tender paintings, dripping with nostalgia and Postmodern appropriated glee, were the catalyst for a walk down memory lane. We relived and relished a moment that might very well have taken place in 1927 right here in the online 21st Century – it was wonderful! Let’s call it our Midnight in Paris moment.

Is nostalgia stopping our culture’s ability to surge forward, or are we nostalgic precisely because our culture has stopped moving forward and so we inevitably look back to more momentous and dynamic times?…The very people who you would once have expected to produce (as artists) or champion (as consumers) the non-traditional and the groundbreaking – that’s the group who are most addicted to the past. In demographic terms, it’s the exact same cutting-edge class, but instead of being pioneers and innovators, they’ve switched roles to become curators and archivists. The avant-garde is now an arrière-garde.
Simon Reynolds Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past

The absolute truth is that we can not do anything more to painting. The 600 or so years of Western painting has gone full circle. It’s ALL been done – from a to z. And after the excesses of the 20th Century upon the body of painting what we are left with is the horror of a recombinant corpse. We’ve even dematerialized the fucking thing, made it into a ghost for other media where it reappears as a “moving” painting or a “still” backdrop. We’ve unstretched it, hung it like laundry, ripped it to pieces, sewn it back together, unpainted, anti-painted, photo-painted, well Christ, you get the point. Yet all of that nervous desperation to get to the last painting or the Ur-Painting is unsatisfying to those of us who love the medium, its history and possibility, but remain unwilling to join the current Postmodern monolith or the reactionary academics.

What might be done to get out of the Postmodern cul de sac or beyond the reactionary nay sayers? Part of the answer lies with our current relationship to Postmodern culture and the way our thought processes use the past. When we follow the tropes of logic inherent in these institutional systems, when we constantly shift the context of our understanding of the subject of our thought 3 or 4 times in a single paragraph, then we are limited by a lack of depth and structure within our own critique. The ground, the words, the contextual bricolage become the subject, rather than the thing we are talking about or thinking about or looking at. As we work with the past, as we MUST if we are painters, ESPECIALLY at this moment in time, we have to remove our automatic impulse to replicate authentic engagement THROUGH nostalgic impulses. It is imperative to understand that the past IS the inauthentic thing that we must confront. In other words we must drain our own preconceptions concerning the authenticity of the past. Our answers to our problems can not be solved by a feel-good trip down memory lane. For instance – Why are we so enamored with the brush stroke, still? Why is the drip so prevalent in even the most accurate of photo derived replications? Why are we still working with “cartoon” mannerisms rather than “cubist” mannerisms or “rococo” mannerisms when we are drawing? The truth is it’s difficult. Back in 2001 Sean Landers made a valiant attempt at trying to find cubist painting in our Postmodern age.

In 1957 Picasso did fifty-eight paintings related to “Las Meninas” by Velazquez. Picasso did this because he believed that he belonged in the company of one of the major art historical figures of all time. Forty-four years later I have made a new series of paintings based on several of Picasso’s paintings because I’m determined to be in his company.

Sincerely yours,
Sean Landers”

The unresolved problem that came across in each of the works was his ironic stance and the bitter nostalgia for a past that is no more. He found it impossible to wrest the paintings from Picasso’s dead hands and the work gallantly failed. But that’s probably what Landers was aiming for. His work is all about belated failure and trivial inconsequence in the face of a grand history. He is no different than the rest of us. Over the last 40 years of Postmodernism painting has emitted one long crie de coeur about it’s growing inconsequence. Landers’ failure is our failure.

Today we have an opportunity. I’ve come to believe that HOW we question is more important than what we are questioning. We all have to approach this conundrum in our own manner. We haven’t any other choice. The days of concerted movements and shared experiences is done. Van Gogh’s imagined artist colony will never exist for us. We are at a zero point – Postmodern thought has had it’s day and we’ve been left with an unwieldy Mannerist culture that no longer makes sense. We can begin, right now, by thinking about and questioning the paths of our past in a different way, and in so doing, make a new way into the future, understand a new way of seeing. I keep thinking that the contemporary philosopher Graham Harman’s idea about the primacy of things is very important – object-oriented philosophy. It gives us an opportunity to see, not through words or contextual arrangements, but in direct confrontation with something that isn’t contingent on our “perspective,” as something primary and other, as a rising subject. “The sensual object is a unity over against the swirling accidents that accompany it”. We are not concentrated on the vastness of the shifting ground per se, but on the thing itself, the reality of the thing. This switch of one’s perspective is very interesting to me as a painter at this very moment. And I think it offers us many exciting theoretical visual possibilities!

14 thoughts on “RETRO

  1. Maybe it is not the crisis of painting, but the crisis of the image. Any image seems so absurd to us and so truly incidental. It is not able to transport any truth to us, so it is boring by default.

    It’s like, if one can not love humans anymore, neither a woman or a man. As if love became impossible, because it was always just a dream.

    Art should be able to shake our inner worlds as should so do love. If that comes back, point zero is behind us.

    Great article, thank you !

  2. Really interesting article, particularly the first half, about the recyling of modernist mannerisms. Of course, I may be as wrong as anyone else about this, but I have a hunch that progress in abstract painting will not now come from within painting itself at all, but from being led elsewhere into new territory by advances in the very different discipline of abstract sculpture, to which it may become (at last) secondary.

  3. Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself

    At the earliest ending of winter,
    In March, a scrawny cry from outside
    Seemed like a sound in his mind.

    He knew that he heard it,
    A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
    In the early March wind.

    The sun was rising at six,
    No longer a battered panache above snow…
    It would have been outside.

    It was not from the vast ventriloquism
    Of sleep’s faded papier-mache…
    The sun was coming from the outside.

    That scrawny cry–It was
    A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
    It was part of the colossal sun,

    Surrounded by its choral rings,
    Still far away. It was like
    A new knowledge of reality.

    Wallace Stevens

  4. Find myself thinking of Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” and wanting to watch it again and again. I believe I understand the metaphor of the little girl who has mysterious powers, something mystical in the midst of destruction ready to emerge – the meaning of the Zone – and the affirmation by the stalker of life and hope in the face of the cynic and dangerous intellectual Goes so deep. Art that truly has a deep intention that comes from the inner life of the artist taken seriously.

  5. Gotta be down and out before you can begin again – so exhausting the old habits is actually quite constructive. You don’t see the new until you are very, very aware of how tired the old is….

  6. In this shared moment, it’s impossible not to equate art with classicism, both in its construction and its substance. The mass aggregation of styles facilitated by market forces has effaced the distinction between antiquity and modernity. Actually, the notion of style itself, as a marker of authentic identity and visible quality, or perhaps in its ceaseless production of commodities and in contradistinction to a possibly antiquated ideal of the classical, has become wholly obsolete. Yet the question raised here apropos of the artwork, again and again, is simple. How may our current conception of the network that constitutes the standards of art– its facticity, practice, and status; its relation to spectatorship, socialization, and innovation; its iconicity, legibility, and historicity– serve to render a contemporary vision of the world? Is it even capable of doing so? Has it ceded these tasks to other disciplines and systems? These are queries for another time, one that won’t provide any answers but will instead further the dialogue here. bravo, signore.

  7. Thanks for your comment Robin. I have to say that I find the idea of abstract painting as a secondary art a bit depressing. I truly love abstract painting, its possibilities and richness. The problem for me and for all painters who make abstraction is the way we have approached it. Greenberg left us little to work with aside from surface and materials. The Postmoderns for the most part depend on the confines of lens based imagery and circular critiques. There seems to be little investigation towards a visual experience, a confrontation with ones own visual preconceptions as to what abstract painting can look like. We seem to be stuck reforming the past in certain prescribed ways – Surrealism or DaDa, Pop or AbEx. I want painting, abstract painting, to find a new “Realism” – a new visual experience. Something that will wow you when you enter the room, because it provides a unique moment of visual reflexion. Something that nags at you because it’s a bit different than what we’re used to seeing. And something that brings the history of painting along with it while it changes that history, makes one see that history without blinkers. I want Primary Painting!

  8. the mythic hundredth monkey is out there, somewhere. this monkey is not a part of the troop as recognized by its members. there must be a generational turning before the lesson the hundredth monkey has learned can be widely assimilated. only then will new behavior become commonplace, and social reality will have changed.

  9. I can’t disagree with any of your reply, except to say that figurative sculpture was always secondary to figurative painting, and so far the same is very much true of abstract art. But I think abstract art is only just beginning, and those roles might be reversed. Although it is more difficult to do it in three-dimensions, I think there may be ultimately more potential to invent and develop completely new forms in sculpture because you are not depicting anything; it’s even more ‘for real’ than abstract painting. I think…

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