John Seed’s Back to the Future

There’s an interesting article on the Huff Post by John Seed about the situation facing, well, mainly, painting, and by extension, the now non-existent avant-garde. One of his conclusions that seems right on the money is:

“The problem is that the definition of avant-garde needs to be revised to encompass and include art and artists that are brave enough the reach backwards and forwards at the same time. The avant-garde of the future needs to feed itself with hybridization, consolidation and assimilation.

I think that painting has to look back over its shoulder to realist and academic painting before the Salon des Refusés; in fact, it can and should go all the way back to Lascaux if it needs to. I see the history of painting as a very long line with no beginning and no end.”

A Brief Rant on the Exhaustion of the Avant-Garde, Zombie Formalism and What Contemporary Painting Needs to Move Forward, John Seed, HuffPost, June 27, 2015.

I do not agree with all of the premises he suggests in the piece. Seed seems to think that representational work can offer us a way out. Though I love figurative art, I believe there needs to be a really different engagement with that history. “Representation” has to find some other kind of visual basis, some real visual urgency if it’s to have any relevance and innovation FOR us. The problem is that “representation” is ubiquitous. We are too enthralled with our lenses, too limited by the representation of reality that we see in our programs, too busy with our selfie sticks. Look, there is more contemporary “representation” stashed in my iPhone than I can take some days, and I certainly don’t want any of those images translated directly in paint! Especially not by an academic realist. And please, spare me the nude in the studio business. If you want a new kind of urgent Realism check out Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake.

Additionally, technique and process are great, but that’s not going to move us forward! Perfecting a skill does not make for progressive art. Vision does. What pushed the early Modernists to innovate was the urge to understand new and different ways of seeing and understanding the times in which they lived. What they found was that they had to adapt old techniques in order to do it – laying differing colors side by side to create optical illusions was nothing new – Michelangelo did it on the Sistine ceiling centuries before, and the more contemporary Delacroix demanded a weird mottled color in his own Romantic visions. Maybe it’s all been done, but that’s no excuse. We must hone to our vision, to seeing, and do what that demands of us. Simple questions – how do we see the world, what do we actually see, and how does that define our lives? This will drive innovation backwards or forwards – it always has.

If we as artists do look back along the long history of art it must be in order to find something that can make sense of this moment, of our life in this time. And if we do find something that can work, this kind of “hybridized” work will look strange, clunky and uncomfortable to those schooled in the Postmodern academies. I agree with John. This should be a risk we painters should take – especially at this time!

25 thoughts on “John Seed’s Back to the Future

  1. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the link, I enjoyed your essay very much. “Although the narrative and the social implications are important, the studied expression of the perceptual experience as visual event is primary.” A truer thing could not have been said, and you’re exposition on this idea in relation to Cezanne’s work is inspired. You are correct in that Cezanne could not, would not be able to make Salon painting. His vision did not work that way, and quite frankly, institutions and academies have little patience for the “wrong types.” And as you know, Cezanne complained bitterly about that…

    I’m sure you’ve all heard this before, but in the end it was Cezanne’s use and mastery of watercolors and his use of photographs that freed his vision. In his early work Cezanne had no feeling for oil paint – none at all – all right, calm down everyone – but he took to watercolor straight away. For me this wonderfully fast work puts his achievement into perspective. In this drawing/watercolor he’s using his hand and eye at once creating an uncomfortable tug between flatness and volume, composition and form with a few quick slashes of color. That unfinished area of flat space is wonderful – and how often have we seen this “old saw” academic compositional element of “nothingness” used by both Modernists and Postmodernist to address flatness, surface or process – whether it actually had a point in the work or not. What Cezanne’s vision was doing “naturally,” “realistically,” was creating a conceptual tension between the abstract and the real, the visual and optical, and I would like to see more of those sorts of liberties taken in the work I come across in the galleries and studios. But that sort of vision has to be part of the logic of the image, of the thing – just as it was for Cezanne.

    I think this is what John was trying to get at in his essay. I agree with his take on the use of a broader historical precedent. And I know he will not agree with this, but we have to look beyond representational painting. On the other hand what representational painting does for vision as it uses caricature, volume, form and flatness might be visually juicy for painters at this point in time, especially as Postmodernism continues its long, boring slide into irrelevance.

    Best to you, Martin, and thanks for the link!

  2. HI,
    I am sorry I missed this reply has been sitting there a few days.It is gratifying to have someone understand what I wrote.I recently saw a show in Montreal placing the groundbreaking works of Van Gogh and Cezanne next the works of artist inspired by their breakthroughs.Oddly enough just as Cezanne and Van Gogh stood heads and shoulders above the Salon Painters so the same in relation to Kandinsky, Cubists etc. There was a small Cezanne still life of apples and pears that was split down the middle,four fruit on one side and maybe seven on the other.The chasm between the two groupings was awe inspiring.
    I always see earthquakes and chasms when I look at Cezanne.All the Modernist work seemed splotchy in comparison.They didn’t always look that way to me.

    That transition from the heavily worked early painting is a mystery and you are probably right that it was helped by the watercolor on paper.
    I am beginning to think there is something divine in the event of a Cezanne. Some sort of messaging from beyond that turns history in a certain direction.Sort of like Shakespeare’s notion of the individual that can shape humankind for generations.

  3. Yes, Cezanne, Matisse, but that’s it. They finished off figurative painting, leaving you with abstract; but you can’t do ‘plastic’ space like they did with abstract. Sorry guys, but that baton passes to abstract sculpture…

  4. Hi Robin!
    I know that you’re a sculptor, but why are sculptors the only ones allowed to engage and question abstraction at this point in the Postmodern era? Why can’t we painters experiment with ‘plastic space’ and abstraction? You know as well as I that abstract sculpture has been filling museums and galleries since the late fifties, just run a google search or walk down 6th Avenue. Most of the handmade work remains tied to Modernist dogma and most of the outsourced manufactured work oozes Postmodern slickness. In either case you can not deny that sculpture has been complicit, right along with painting, in the institutionalization of the Modern aesthetic. Sculptors may be working in 3 dimensions and think they have one up on painters, but they are still not thinking beyond the Modern/Postmodern conundrum. And you know that. Why then can’t abstract painters engage in the same things you have elucidated in your own writing – volume, space, light, and even illusion to find a different kind of work, a different visual experience of the abstract?

  5. Of course you painters are ‘allowed’ to engage. And of course abstract sculpture has been complicit in the crap.

    The thing I can’t answer for, and can’t get an answer from a painter, is: how are you going to make abstract space in painting? There is no such thing, so if you have space in painting, it’s figurative, a representation. If you DON’T have space in painting, it’s all pattern, texture, materiality, surface, colour, whatever… all sorts of things that you CAN make good abstract painting with, but not enough to engage with the massive core project of Cezanne and Matisse, making figurative space ‘plastic’ and ‘real’ as they reconciled the three-dimensional with the two. (And I would insist that Cezanne and Matisse did NOT flatten painting.) Abstract sculpture has lots of problems that it is working through, but depicting space is not one of them – it’s in it.

    So yes, of course, make paintings with volume, space, light and illusion; but they may well be a sub-genre of figurative painting.

  6. Yes, you are correct, Robin. Most abstract painters continue to ply the well worn ideas of flatness, pattern and process, and that very well may be good abstract painting, and in some instances, wonderful abstract painting. But these are and remain Modernist concerns. Whether these paintings are classic works or retro-fitted works packaged for the 21st century, they still rely on well known, well worn visual principles.

    And it may be that sculpture is a thing in the world, but that doesn’t solve the problem that we all face – the continuing Modernist era. Just because a “line” or a “shape” or a “form” is in “real” space doesn’t mean that the sculpture has stepped beyond the “pattern, texture, materiality, surface, colour or whatever” that you ascribe to painting. I think you’ll agree that abstract sculpture is facing many of the same issues as abstract painting, especially here in the electronic backwater of the continuing 20th Century. And I would also say that even the surety of sculpture’s “space” is an idea that’s up for grabs.

    You may very well be right – if painters want both illusionistic space and abstraction it might take a a sub-genre of figurative painting to do it. So what? Modernism and Postmodernism have had their run. We know the answers before the questions have been asked. It doesn’t mean that this sub-genre abstraction could not be strong, strange, challenging or beautiful, even if at first it seems a bit off-putting to sensitive Modernist eyes. What’s important is if the work is able to ask new questions about our time, create different visions, and forgive my crassness, be a bit sexier than a portrait of a brush stroke or yet another flat, process landscape, then maybe that’s what we have to do. Many of us want abstraction, sculpture and painting, to be a more complicated, exciting, visual affair – just as Cezanne and Matisse did.

  7. If you follow the premise of my article linked above,you will see that the flaccid chiaroscuro based art of the late 19thc is probably similar to the lazy flatness of abstract painting in the early 21st century.Chiaroscuro had a run from Caravaggio to Bougereau,around 250 years before being pushed aside by art based on an understanding of optical color and in the case of Cezanne in how the striate cortex creates space.
    If it takes as long to move to another art form based on a deeper understanding of how the mind sees as it did for value oriented painting to run its course,then it looks like will have to suffer a hundred years more of bad abstraction or pathetic attempts to push painting into sculpture as in Stella’s work.

  8. Well, we agree about quite a lot – in particular about the shortcomings of modernism. But I do think the problems of abstract painting and sculpture are very different, and seeing those differences is a part of the way forward. They are not just wrapped up together in modernism, but fundamentally different disciplines. True, abstract sculptors got confused by thinking they could deal with the territory of painting (as in the pictorial work of Caro etc.), but a sculptural, plastic space (in ‘real’ space) has nothing to do with ‘pattern, texture, materiality, surface, colour’ etc.

    I’m saying that abstract sculpture can deal with ‘plastic’ space in a way abstract painting just cannot. Is there any abstract painting that can deal with deep space, or a whole variety of depth, like figurative painting did? I think not (though I hope someone prooves me wrong). That seems to me like a downgrade of painting’s capabilities. By contrast, abstract sculpture can go far beyond the spatial capabilities of any figurative sculpture of the past.

  9. Well that’s depressing, Martin. Surely, there’s something that we can do in the meantime, rather than suffer through another hundred years of retread Modernism. Even if we just begin the process of change, experiment with different ideas, put those visions up for ridicule, isn’t that better than sitting on our haunches? So what if we fail and all of our hard work falls unnoticed and unloved into the junk heap of history, at least we’ve lived and tried…

  10. I guess things run in cycles.How long is up for debate. At least we have diagnosed the patient and see that it is sick.That was the first step.I have engaged in my own work in a dialogue with different stages of abstraction and the era that lead up to it.I think that sort of hermeneutic is healthy.Unfortunately the market place in order to market successfully their artist requires that artists be big stars by bringing painting to its knees as Kelley finally did with his plywood panels,or Richter’s large painterly gestures.But even that is worth having a conversation with.I know conversation sounds so bland and uninteresting but I am not interested in having the last word which seems to be the goal of so much painting.

  11. Hi Robin and Martin,
    I’m swamped at the day job at the moment. I’ll answer, and hopefully, continue this conversation shortly! Robin, when are you coming to NYC? – Mark

  12. No, though that would be lovely. Art does not pay the bills, it probably never will! C’est la vie! And yes, London is on the short list – I’m not a snob painter – glad to look at anything.

  13. Deep space is not really a concern of mine, but why would that kind of space be detrimental to abstract painting even if we resorted to “figurative painting” to achieve it? It seems as if you want to insist on a clear demarcation in abstraction, as if abstract painting that uses illusion or figurative techniques isn’t abstract enough. I see no reason to continue to play that Modernist endgame. And why is sculpture more able to deal with such an issue? It seems to me if I walk around a thing to see all sides of it, I’ve defined it in space, measured its form, rather than experienced deep space. Would sculpture then have to find some use of illusion to define deep space within itself? I think I need clarity here as to what deep space is, how you see it and define it, and why it’s important.

  14. All space is a mental construct.Painting has always been based on them in one form or another.The Chiaroscuro developed by Caravaggio and Vermeer was so convincing that it became the platform of painting for three hundred years and became what we call reality.How this notion of mental constructs applies to sculpture is hard to fathom.Someone like Giacometti straddled the two realms.Which came first the drawing or the sculpture.Is his sculpture build out of multiple flat planes which reach out to manipulate the space around the work?I remember turning the corner in a sculpture garden in the netherlands and being startled by a walking man by G and thinking:this is real.So how else could something be real like that unless it was accessing our deep language that constructs reality.In the case of Giacometti it is not value but what he got from Cezanne,the deep structure of lines as generated by the mind to calibrate verticality and horizontality.

  15. Mark, I wasn’t suggesting a comparison of the spaces between painting and sculpture – they are irreconcilably different, and sculpture does not depict either deep or shallow spaces; but rather, it moves through and articulates real space, in lots of different ways. The illusions in sculpture are perhaps more to do with its physicality, and how it reconciles that with its necessary objecthood.

    I take your point that there is no reason why painting cannot be some kind of hybrid between abstract and figurative, though I see no evidence (yet) to support that as an uncompromised way of taking the core activity of painting forwards, or of having the potential to expand upon or develop painting through and beyond the best works of Cezanne or Matisse. And yet, a return to straight figuration seems also to be depressingly unproductive. From what I can see, figurative painting at the moment is mired in anecdotal niche subjectivity, right across its whole range of activity. Perhaps one could say something rather too similar about abstract painting? As Martin rightly suggests, paintings has hit the doldrums before, for long periods, and maybe something will change to make it great again. Can’t see it, myself, but maybe I’m not looking in the right place. And, what’s more, I see no theoretical reason why it is impossible for painting to be in a state of permanent decline from the very great achievements of its past. Such things do happen.

    From the place where I am looking, I feel my point stands: that abstract painting is a kind of ‘downgrade’ from the brilliance of figurative painting, and all that it is capable of, particularly spatially. By contrast, some recent abstract sculpture is indicating a very strong and optimistic extension of potential, beyond that ever achieved by figurative sculpture in the past. I’m encouraged and excited by that.

    But I might be wrong…

  16. I’m so pleased to see this conversation continuing. Robin, you commented: “From what I can see, figurative painting at the moment is mired in anecdotal niche subjectivity.” Robin, can you mention some of the artists who you think are stuck in this fashion? I’m thrilled by the great figurative work I’ve been seeing… to name names… Anne Harris, Julie Heffernan, Kyle Staver, F. Scott Hess, Vincent Desiderio, Brad Kunkle, Adam Miller…all are making exciting work… and the list goes on. It all depends where you are looking.

  17. Dear Mr Seed,

    I am aware of the work of some of these artists.Although what they do is admirable, they still avoid integrating the language created by Cezanne and built upon by Matisse into their work.The last time that happened was with the west coast figurative painters like Parks and early Diebenkorn.I think that this is what Greenwood and I are trying to get at and what I wrote about in the article linked above.The work of the above mentioned artists is pure value oriented with color additive.I think Giacometti fits into the category of someone immersed in the modernist language yet staying close to what surrounds him.

  18. John,
    I didn’t know any of those artists beforehand, but having now Googled each and every one, I would suggest that ‘anecdotal niche subjectivity’, whilst not absolutely accurate for all, is in most cases a kindness. Unlike Martin (with whom I agree about Parks and early Diebenkorn), I don’t find this sort of work in the least admirable; it is obsessively self-engrossed in dubious subject-matter, rendered in varying degrees of gratuitous technical virtuosity. You may gather that I rather hate it, mainly because I can perceive in it absolutely no disinterested respect for the discipline, only a self-indulgent fantasising. If you think this is ‘great’ figurative work, what do you think of Tintoretto, Rubens, Poussin, Constable, etc., and, of course, Cezanne and Matisse? Do you really think these people compare? There is nothing else happening in this work that you cite other than anecdote, and painting is used and abused to facilitate it. These painters seem to have an outright loathing for the plastic and spatial, and for what might make painting ‘real’.

    Yes, I too think art must ‘reach backwards and forwards at the same time’, but not in order to justify contemporary idiosyncrasy; rather, it must be to get a sense of the direction in which the principles of art are developing. There are very compelling reasons why visual art became abstract when it did, and I don’t think those dynamics are reversible – for better or worse.

    It seems to me your original essay perpetuates the idea that the values of art are dependent upon context rather than content. You write: ‘There is a deep need for art that is authentic, engaged with the world and more about skill and knowledge than ego’. Sounds wonderful, but I don’t think so. ‘Authenticity’ is a content-free zone, the refuge of chancers (and, indeed, zombie abstractionists as well as weirdo photo-realists). An ‘engagement with the world’ through ‘skill and knowledge’ is an approach as wholly academic as that of Wolff. What is at issue here is an inability on the part of artists both figurative and abstract to engage with anything beyond their own subjective limitations, in a manner that would, even ever so little, respectfully expand the worlds of painting and sculpture. It seems to me your approach discourages this just as much as the so-called avant-gardists.

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