Every time I pick up a brush or a piece of charcoal or a pencil I am dealing with nostalgia – my own nostalgia and my culture’s nostalgia. This almost unbearable situation is inherent in these tools – first developed 600 years ago. These mediums and techniques are anachronisms, and I must work my way through the past whether I want to or not.
Post War abstraction is filled with work trying to confront and redefine the processes of painting. And this is part of the reason why so many of the 70s Abstract Mannerists turned their critique directly onto Late Modern process. In the era of painting is dead these artists wanted to revive and extend the life of painting. But there is a price for such a thing. Basically, what was formed with the 70s critique of Post War Abstraction was an unbreakable time loop of painting from the 50s and 60s. And that’s a Ground Hog Day kind of problem.
One only has to look at Christopher Wool’s devastating and angry paintings above and below to understand how distressing such a thing can be – like a bad relationship. The fun part of these works is to discover who, exactly, these paintings are addressing – they, ’em and fool. The harder part is to understand how this critique of painting works and why.
At the time of the postmodernist crisis of the 197os, three things happened to make it irrefutable that the specific medium [oil on canvas, line on paper, etc.] had fallen onto the trash heap of history. The first was postminimalism and its rejection of the minimalist literal object – the boxes, the slabs, the fluorescent tubes – as so many things to be bought and sold. In 1973 Lucy Lippard called this collective dismissal “the dematerialization of the art object,” pointing to ephemeral works such as pencil marks on walls as the fragile alternative. The second thing was conceptual art and its declaration that the object was now supplanted by the dictionary definition of art as such – the idea art transcending the dispersal of separate mediums; thus, art-as-such dispenses with Jean-Luc Nancy’s conception of the muses as “several and not just one.” The third was Duchamp’s eclipse of Picasso as the most important artist of the century. Duchamp had invented the readymade, or the objects he merely bought, signed, and then installed inside museums. Conceptual art saw this intervention as the naked definition of the object’s aesthetic status and made Duchamp its god. As art became “idea,” the medium vanished; it washed away. The three things opened our age onto what must be called the post-medium condition, rhyming with Walter Benjamin’s reference to “the age of mechanical reproduction.” But by the mid-7os some artists began to reject the three things. To do this, each appropriated a technical support and used it to “invent” a medium. [Rosalind Krauss Under Blue Cup]
Most of the painting we see today is resurrected painting – but most of it isn’t being resurrected for its critique or theoretics – it’s being resurrected for its style. Painting as we know it can no longer innovate as Modernist Abstraction. It can not open new space or new light – there’s nothing more to be discovered in the long tail of Modern painting. Abstract painting today is about how well made it is [professional], which precedent is being used [lineage] and how stylish and or handsome [decorative] the work is. Most of this painting relies on a misunderstanding of appropriation and/or it fails to create its own critique of Modern era critique. Look, I’m not saying our era’s paintings/works can’t be tasty delicious to look at, because some of them are, and I am steeped in and primed for a trip into well done painting nostalgia. But very little of this kind of work actually deals with new theoretical ideas or unique visual ideas about the life we are living NOW. So I guess the simple question is does painting have to? And the harder one would be if painting tries to do so would it just just look like some feckless old geezer ranting at the kids playing on her/his lawn?