Kool Aid III

“I am a communist and my painting is a communist painting. But if I were a shoemaker, Royalist or Communist or anything else, I would not necessarily hammer my shoes in any special way to show my politics.” Pablo Picasso

“Picasso is a communist. Neither am I.“ Salvador Dali

Women in gowns and men in tuxedos stretched around the block Friday to see the New York museum’s $450 million redesign. Also there were two police vans and about 100 protesters, chanting, screaming and dancing. They held signs — “Divest from Prisons” and “Blood on Your Walls” — and loud applause erupted when two of the group emerged from the museum with a banner saying “MoMA/Fink Make Sanctuary Not Prisons.”
The target that night was Larry Fink, the head of BlackRock Inc., and the activists ire was over the firm’s investment in “prison companies, the war machine and the destruction of the global environment.” Another group was there Monday to protest Steve Tananbaum’s ties to the Puerto Rico debt crisis. The groups, which include New York Communities for Change, want the founder of GoldenTree Asset Management removed from the board of trustees, according to Julio Lopez Varona, one of the organizers.
Seven people were arrested at Monday’s protest, according to the New York Post.
Elite New York organizations have long been subject to protests, but activists have increased their focus on museums this year and achieved some success. Warren Kanders, resigned in July as vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art following months of demonstrations by activists opposed to his company’s sale of law enforcement and military supplies, including tear gas. [Katya Kazakina and Michelle Kaske on MOMA’s reopening]

Chris Ofili Embah 2017
(Gift of Mimi Haas, and Lisa and Steven Tananbaum, in honor of Kynaston McShine)

In a candid assessment of what’s happening in the business world — and perhaps taking a veiled shot at Washington at the same time — Mr. Fink wrote that he is seeing “many governments failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining.” He added, “As a result, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges.”
It is a refrain that we’re hearing more and more from various pockets of the business community, and in fact last year company leaders found themselves taking stands on issues like immigration policy, race relations, gay rights and more.
But for the world’s largest investor to say it aloud — and declare that he plans to hold companies accountable — is a bracing example of the evolution of corporate America. Mr. Fink says he is adding staff to help monitor how companies respond; only time will tell whether BlackRock truly uses his firm’s heft to influence new social initiatives. [Andrew Ross Sorkin BlackRock’s Message: Contribute to Society, or Risk Losing Our Support]

I think for every cultural institution, and probably every educational institution and hospital, we’re all living in the real world, and we’re all acutely aware of the issues that are being brought to the surface and that have to be contended with. There’s no formula for that, and our trustees are aware of that.
At the same time, the vast majority of American institutions like ours are privately funded. We don’t get federal funding. We don’t get state funding in our case—we got a very modest amount of city funding for our capital project, and we get a little bit on occasion beyond that. But we’re not a CIG—a member of the cultural industries group—so there’s no line-item funding.
We live and die by the amounts of money we can raise privately. Some of that is self-earned through admissions, membership, retail, general fundraising. A very considerable amount of that is through the generosity of our trustees. So there is a balance that we tried to strike, but we are acutely aware that this is a different climate than it was a decade ago. [Glenn Lowry in conversation with Andrew Goldstein]

Kool Aid II

“One of the main goals of the renovations, says Jan Postma, the museum’s chief financial officer, will be to better connect the museum to the people and streets of New York City.” General admission tickets to the MoMA have been priced at $25 for adults and $14 for students. But the expansion will ensure that the museum has several new galleries on the street level that are free and open to the public, literally bringing art to the people on the streets of the city and strengthening the museum’s standing as a fixture of New York City. This initiative to strengthen its ties to the city started in 2000, when the museum partnered with P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1, in Queens as part of an effort to expand its reach to boroughs outside of Manhattan. The museum’s new public spaces will feature six long-term, site-specific contemporary artworks by Yoko Ono, Experimental Jetset, Kerstin Brätsch, Goshka Macuga, Philippe Parreno and Haim Steinbach.” [Anna Purna Kambhampaty The MoMA Will Soon Reopen Following Extensive Renovations]

Laura Owens Untitled 2003

The reopening is perhaps this season’s most anticipated art event, and it occasionally lives up to the hype. In the run-up to the reopening, the museum promised that its new hang would redefine modern art. Reports ahead of the hang’s unveiling teased shocking combinations of old and new, and though some can be found (a particularly jarring one involves a famed Picasso alongside a great Faith Ringgold canvas), the permanent collection still follows a roughly chronological ordering of art history.
The results are less than earth-shattering. Mediums are frequently separated, and the histories of non-Western art that MoMA wants to tell are left incomplete—the curators have made subtle, superb changes to the way it presents art from Latin America and Eastern Europe, though it has dealt less successfully with art from Asia, Africa, and Oceania, as well as work by indigenous artists. [Maximilíano Durón A Look Inside the New MoMA]

Kool Aid I

“Can a museum devoted to modernism survive the death of the movement? Can it bring that death about? Ever since the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 14th century, most art movements have lasted one generation, sometimes two. Today, after more than 130 years, modernism is, at least by some measures, insanely and incongruously popular — a world brand. The first thing oligarchs do to signal sophistication, and to cleanse and store money, is collect and build personal museums of modern art, and there’s nothing museumgoers love more than a survey of a mid-century giant. In the U.S., modernism represents the triumph of American greatness and wealth, and it is considered the height of 20th-century European culture — which Americans bought and brought over (which is to say, poached).” [Jerry Saltz What the Hell Was Modernism?]

At the heart of these riddles lies the core conundrum: what is Modernism? In art, it has fragmented and metamorphosed; in architecture and design, it has consolidated into an aesthetic that is revanchist, ubiquitous and monolithic. Its avant-garde days long in the past, the utopian movement has become a classic style, and the building, designed by the formerly renegade firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is indistinguishable from the midtown offices that enfold it. No matter how hard curators labour to loosen categories or toy with timelines, they must go to work each day in an utterly conventional monument to corporate chic.” [MoMA makeover: has it made modern art fresh? – Ariella Budick]

If this kind of spectacle were without consequence, I doubt there’d be much response, but the wealth that supports a museum of this scale often comes from less-savory sources. This summer, artists and protestors forced Warren B. Kanders to resign from his position as a Whitney board member after revelations emerged that his company sold tear gas used on children at the border. MoMA isn’t any better. Steven A Cohen, a billionaire hedge fund manager, and MoMA board member has been implicated in multiple insider trading investigations. He donated $50 million towards the renovation and the Ofili. This Friday, a protest led by New Sanctuary Coalition demanded that among other things, MoMA trustee Larry Fink, the CEO, and chairman of the investment firm BlackRock, “divest from prison companies, the war machine and the destruction of the environment.”  [Ready to Meet the New MoMA? You’ll Need More Time—and Money—Than Ever Before – Paddy Johnson]

Criteria – Paul Corio

October 2019

Titian, The Pastoral Concert, c. 1509. Oil on canvas, 41” x 54.”

There are very few people that have any criteria for the judgment of the visual in art, any language for the discussion of the visual in art, or any strong emotional response to the aesthetic aspects of pictures or sculpture.  This latter point could be construed as the cause or effect of the two preceding observations, but either way, it’s the most important of the three. 

All that said, there are very few people who are actually numb to the visual, because an overwhelming majority feels something like awe (or at least feels something) when witnessing a magnificent sunset, a mountain shrouded in mist, or a crystalline lake with a surface as still as glass.  

Many of the people who have no criteria for the judgment of the visual in art are, surprisingly, artists, curators and critics.  Many of them would not dispute this statement.  This constituency obviously requires some kind of substitute criteria from which to make or judge art. Their priorities can be loosely grouped under three categories:

  1. Critique: Political, cultural, identity-based, language-based, or specifically aimed at the institutions of art itself.
  2. Proximity to the Zeitgeist: The extent to which a given work of art is an accurate reflection (or critique) of our moment in history, our present.
  3. Sociology: The attempt to discuss not the merits of a given work, but to situate it within a cultural context.  This is related to but distinct from the above, because it often seeks to take works that don’t self-consciously express the zeitgeist and fit them in to a certain conception of it nonetheless.  This methodology belongs more specifically to critics and curators than artists.

The first and last can quickly devolve into propaganda and cultural anthropology, respectively, and these things have nothing to do with my experience of a Titian.  And advertising, entertainment, and social media express the zeitgeist vastly better than any artist could ever dream of doing.  The artist or curator will often try to sidestep this obvious truth by applying a veneer of critique, but that’s a pretty flimsy sleight of hand to say the least.

The Graduate Degree has definitely diminished the importance of the visual. All emerging artists have MFA’s, and this is a fairly recent development when considered in the overall history of art. The discussion of the emotional response to the color relationships in a given work doesn’t make sense within a context in which people are working towards an advanced degree – a similar degree to the kind that doctors, lawyers, engineers, and physicists are seeking.  It must be intellectualized in order to appear the equal to those other professional pursuits, and subjective reflections on the poetic can seem amateurish by comparison.  The go-to replacement is the dissection of subject (see items #1, 2, and 3, above) which is often framed by French philosophy of the 60’s and 70’s (somewhat inexplicably). 

Is it possible to reconnect what Clive Bell called the aesthetic emotion to visual art?  It clearly still exists in relation to the afore-mentioned sunsets and lakes, even among the most jaded New York post-modernists, many of whom can’t wait to escape to their pastoral upstate retreats in the summer months (I know a lot of them).  It’s also a non-controversial response to instrumental music; anyone who feels nothing when listening to the New York Philharmonic’s rendition of Rhapsody in Blue must have no pulse.

Oddly enough, I’m optimistic, and for a variety of reasons:  

Post-modernism failed to create anything really durable in art or theoretics.  Viewed another way, it could be a victim of its own success – the critique of the myth of durability was part of the program.  Thus perhaps it didn’t die, but simply evanesced.

Art that seeks to emphasize the articulation of space and light and atmosphere, and that actively engages with scale and color, has, since the 1960’s, often been disparaged as academic and institutional.  Presumably, these latter terms refer to that which is being broadly taught in the big schools, shown at the big institutions, and written about in the big journals. The formal and poetic certainly does not fit that description at present, and if you’re not sure what I’m driving at, see items #1, 2, and 3, above.

History is a pendulum, whether you believe in the historical narrative or not.  When I was an undergrad, works that emphasized subject at the expense of the visual were routinely written off as illustration.  Today the illustrative is very much in vogue and the visual is now just as reflexively written off as decorative.  It’s very easy to imagine this changing again within my lifetime (I’m very healthy for my age).

And finally, because of my freshman students, who are uniquely open to a discussion of the visual, can participate in that discussion with intelligence, and produce work that often delights me. Granted, a lot can happen on the journey from bright-eyed freshman to cool-eyed grad student that might set things off on another track entirely.  But hope, as they say, springs eternal.

End V

Mark Grotjahn Untitled (Indian #2 Face 45.47) 2014

…much of modernism and its concerns now feel long ago, forged in a time of rapid industrial change when white European males assumed they ruled the world. The demands of our times call for something else. And before you object that we’ve been living for 50 years in postmodernism, not modernism, the art that followed the titans of the early-20th century was defined and even named after what preceded it (daddy issues?). What began with Pop and Warhol looked like a break from modernism, but it also extended modernism’s fetishizing of novelty and a canon of iconoclasts. Modernism is part of my life story, all of our life stories, something that shaped the ways we see the world and how the world sees itself. But in the past couple of decades, seismic shifts have occurred, moving us for the first time far beyond the dictates of the movement. Modernism is not headed for the dustbin, but in terms of experimental one-upmanship and the conviction that each new work could break and redefine all of art history, a page is finally turning — slowly, a bit, at least.
“This past five to ten years is the most change-making, radical rethinking of art history and, by extension, museum curation in a half-century,” said Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture, in a lecture. “Things that were assumed over the last 40, 20, ten, or even five years have exploded.” [Jerry Saltz on the New Century]

For Douglas Crimp, the artist Daniel Buren takes the “space of painting,” and that is his radicalism: not presenting “painting” in a specific history, as a next link in the chain, but rather deconstructing the history, exhibition, reception of “painting” itself—that is the legacy that this new work is involved in. When people say these new painters relate to someone like Robert Ryman, it is a distraction from the central issues. Artists like Parker Ito or Michael Manning have been termed post-Internet artists as much as they have been seen in relation to “abstract painting,” and I think it is significant that they have chosen painting as a vehicle to talk about materiality differently—so in their case “painting” is both meaningful and not meaningful. The process these artists use is a means to an end, and that end is often perceptual. That is why post-Internet artists would want to make objects at all—we live in a world now where the image is as important as an object; people encounter everything through images and we give that a reality on par with what we actually see in the world. A lot of this new abstract painting has to do with our weird hybrid perception that exists today, whereby images take on the weight of objects, and vice-versa. [Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest]

“There are few of us who have not sometimes wakened before dawn, either after one of those dreamless nights that make us almost enamoured of death, or one of those nights of horror and misshapen joy, when through the chambers of the brain sweep phantoms more terrible than reality itself, and instinct with that vivid life that lurks in all grotesques, and that lends to Gothic art its enduring vitality, this art being, one might fancy, especially the art of those whose minds have been troubled with the malady of reverie. Gradually white fingers creep through the curtains, and they appear to tremble. In black fantastic shapes, dumb shadows crawl into the corners of the room and crouch there. Outside, there is the stirring of birds among the leaves, or the sound of men going forth to their work, or the sigh and sob of the wind coming down from the hills and wandering round the silent house, as though it feared to wake the sleepers and yet must needs call forth sleep from her purple cave. Veil after veil of thin dusky gauze is lifted, and by degrees the forms and colours of things are restored to them, and we watch the dawn remaking the world in its antique pattern. The wan mirrors get back their mimic life. The flameless tapers stand where we had left them, and beside them lies the half-cut book that we had been studying, or the wired flower that we had worn at the ball, or the letter that we had been afraid to read, or that we had read too often. Nothing seems to us changed. Out of the unreal shadows of the night comes back the real life that we had known. We have to resume it where we had left off, and there steals over us a terrible sense of the necessity for the continuance of energy in the same wearisome round of stereotyped habits, or a wild longing, it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been refashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours, and be changed, or have other secrets, a world in which the past would have little or no place, or survive, at any rate, in no conscious form of obligation or regret, the remembrance even of joy having its bitterness and the memories of pleasure their pain.” [Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray]

End IV

Gary Stephan Untitled 1988

Painting in New York during the second half of the 1970s was a mess. The self-analytical, radically empty work of artists like Jo Baer, Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, and Robert Mangold, which had been the main chance in the not-yet-fully-played-out arc of modernist painting, was proving generative primarily for those artists and a tight phalanx of sympathetic curators and critics, while its implications of closure made its absorption by a generation of enraptured younger artists quite problematic. The art schools and galleries were loaded with mannered attempts to thread some needle of original nuance among the dead ends implied by the older artists’ positions, while the broader painterly discourse became increasingly cacophonous. Photorealism and the remnants of “lyrical abstraction” waned as Pattern and Decoration, New Image, and “bad” painting waxed in a Darwinian struggle for philosophical market share. Less categorizable investigations into the implications of painting at the nexus of Conceptual art and traditional materiality were being pursued along both abstract and representational lines, and an approach to abstraction was beginning to crystallize, typified by artists like Bill Jensen, Gary Stephan, and Stephen Mueller, that seemed to be asking what nonobjective painting might be if Clement Greenberg’s rigorous proscriptions had never hijacked the conversation in American aesthetics. The juggernaut of modernism had already broken down and was being stripped for parts, although it would be a few years until the big bang of the early ’80s, when these disparate pathways would assume coherence as precursors to the sensibility of a new wave of younger artists. [Carroll Dunham on Elizabeth Murray & painting in NYC]

Buffie Johnson The Wholly Other 1962

The viewing of art from an art-historical perspective leads to the dead-end at which painting is said to have arrived. The problem lies in the continual expectation of a “next inevitable step.” In the formal and traditional art-historical approach “accomplishment” is measured in terms of innovation in the spatial manipulation of the picture plane; the artist is categorized as Classic or Romantic, the art defined as abstract or representational. This approach has led to the death of “feeling” in art, and has brought about the “decline”of painting,which is a language of feeling (Robert Motherwell, among others, has expressed the thought that painting is a language of feeling) by artificially motivating painters to stretch the medium, in the name of innovation, beyond its limited capabilities.
…Marcel Duchamp was perhaps the first to express the futility of merely painting the object. His obsession lay in the reality of the object itself, whereas painters are generally inspired by the mere smell of the studio, putting away the temptation to taste the color that has just been mixed. Addicted to painting, they are not easily seduced by the newer trends away from their “habit.” When one is seriously involved in a love affair, one doesn’t think about the possibilities found elsewhere, they simply don’t exist. One becomes focused and centered on the object of devotion, disregarding its imperfections. A passionate painter expresses devotion to the object by painting it.
If the “energies and ideas” in painting seem to have dried up, it is largely a result of the false ideologies of establishment academia. The weighty dialogue has crushed the true significance of the creative act, introducing a false sense of reality into our “magic theaters.” From its inception, art has ventured into the unknown realm of the spirit, a world that manifests itself through symbols rather than words… Whatever words are used, what remains is that all painting, regardless of its intention, expresses the inner life of the artist.” [Buffie Johnson Painters Reply]

Jack Whitten Kappa I 1976

In 1969, Sol LeWitt published “Sentences for Conceptual Art” in the little magazine O-9 (New York), edited by Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer.

Here are the first five sentences:
1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.
3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience.
4. Formal art is essentially rational.
5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.

All the painters I have mentioned (Whitten, Heilmann, Murray, Nozkowski, and Reed) developed approaches to painting that share something with LeWitt’s definition of Conceptual Art. Rather than rejecting Conceptual Art, or retreating to an earlier mode of painting, as exemplified by Marsden Hartley or Arthur Dove, these abstract painters found ways to adapt and transform LeWitt’s sentences into something they could use in painting, whether it meant following a process all the way through or bringing in personal experience from an unexpected or unlikely source. [John Yau on the End of Painting]

End III

Frank Stella Henry Garden 1963

“What happened, at least for me, is that when I first started painting I would see Pollock, de Kooning, and the one thing they all had that I didn’t have was an art school background. They were brought up on drawing and they all ended up painting or drawing with the brush. They got away from the smaller brushes and, in an attempt to free themselves, they got involved in commercial paint and house-painting brushes. Still it was basically drawing with paint, which has characterized almost all twentieth-century painting. The way my own painting was going, drawing was less and less necessary. It was the one thing I wasn’t going to do. I wasn’t going to draw with the brush.
Well, it seems to me we have problems. When Morris Louis showed in 1958, everybody (ARTnews, Tom Hess) dismissed his work as thin, merely decorative. They still do. Louis is the really interesting case. In every sense, his instincts were Abstract-Expressionist, and he was terribly involved with all of that, but he felt he had to move, too. I always get into arguments with people who want to retain the old values in painting—the humanistic values that they always find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. Any painting is an object and anyone who gets involved in this finally has to face up to the objectness of whatever it is that he’s doing. He is making a thing. All that should be for granted. If the painting were lean enough, accurate enough or right enough, you would just be able to look at it. All I want anyone to get out of my paintings is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any conclusion . . . What you see is what you see.” [Frank Stella and Don Judd in conversation with Bruce Glaser]

Right now we’re shrinking away from truth. No one can criticize the president because we’re in a very vulnerable time, even though he’s doing some things that are terrifying. You can’t express your personal horror and trauma at something that we all experienced. I think that what happened is that since the 60’s there’s been an ambition that art merge itself with pop culture. At first it was an ironic stance, and then it became actually a real thing; people wanted to have art as a playground and as entertainment. And that’s fine in good times, but when something terrible or powerful or meaningful happens, you want an art that speaks to that, that embraces the language that would carry us forward, bring us together, all of that stuff. I think that September 11 showed us that as an art world we weren’t quite qualified to deal with this. Not trained enough to handle it…
It’s a terrible way to have to be trained, it’s true, but the way the art world has been training younger and younger artists in idealogical gamesmanship, and there’s been a lack of training in history and in techniques that one could apply in rendering the human form, for example. A lot of the young kids are sort of fabulous at drawing cartoons. But a cartoon’s going to be pretty hard to express a lot of the experience of the last year. People have told me I should stop talking about this, just let it die down. But I can’t stand idly by.” [Eric Fischl in conversation with David Rakoff]

Amy Sillman Blues for Omar 2019

“…what seemed predetermined to be an infuriatingly categorical exercise in curatorial cherry-picking, all in the service of a constricted thesis, had turned into a rumpus room of contemporary art-making. Nothing seemed to be illustrating a point or, refreshingly, even making a point. You could stay in that first room for as long as you liked without bothering with any formalist or anti-formalist distractions, reveling in the purely visual language of line, color, texture and shape.
We are now at the bargaining stage: okay, MoMA, you can have your teleology and hang these paintings on whatever theoretical scaffolding you like, as long as you are reopening your doors to the medium and allowing its inherent multiplicities to do their subversive dirty work…
Perhaps this is due in part to the backward-glancing criteria of the selection (that everything in the show is allegedly based on — or at least related to — something else), which disregards and even, in an indirect way, countermands vitality as a qualifier. All that matters is that the chosen works, again from the press release, “paradoxically do not represent—either through style, content, or medium—the time in which they are made.”
In the Western tradition, the pattern of art history is a continual cycle of ossification and regeneration, with form-breakers like Giotto, Caravaggio, Manet and Pollock arriving every now and then to shake things up, adapting strains of an inherited style to what they knew of experiential existence. What the exhibition proposes is that, in our forever now, “an atemporal painter,” as Hoptman writes in her essay, would “see and utilize style, as if it is a bit of iconography; some even use specific stylistic gestures and strategies in a manner akin to a medium.”” [Thomas Micchelli on Forever Now]

End II

What’s interesting about so much of today’s better-known painting and painters’ styles is how “handmade” it all looks. This vintage style is all about the fetish finish of the artist’s hand – surfaces, scumbles, pentimenti, veils, drips splashes and skeins. You might say we’re experiencing a return to Greenbergian process abstraction, but a little more European than American in feeling and structure. That’s because contemporary paintings are not pushing Modernism into another phase of change (Greenberg’s Neo-Modernism) or reacting against the history of Modernism (Postmodernism). This new process abstraction comes from a change in artists’ approach to the past. Artists now concentrate on and use the stylish and optical or retinal properties of Modern Era painting. Familiarity and recognition with this history of style and technique, their recreation for an audience, have become raison d’être of contemporary abstract painting. Laura Hoptman underlined this new attitude in contemporary Abstraction in her controversial exhibition at MOMA. She used the term “atemporal” to describe this unique time of change.
“What characterizes our cultural moment at the beginning of this new millennium is the inability – or perhaps the refusal – of a great many of our cultural artifacts to define the times in which we live. This is an unsettling and wholly unique phenomenon in Western culture and it should come as no surprise that it was first identified by a science-fiction writer, William Gibson, who in 2oo3 used the word atemporality to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once? Since that time, atemporality has been observed in literature, popular music, and fashion, and subsequently called many different names, including retromania, hauntology, presentism, and super-hybridity.” [Laura Hoptman on Atemporality]

Joe Bradley, City at Dawn (2019

It would be folly to try to say in just what, exactly, the enduring fascination of painting resides. I will offer only one suggestion. Painting’s quasi-miraculous mode of existence is produced, I believe, by its mode of facture. All those things of the spirit and mind thought to be so unseizable, so nebulous, so other, find expression through the hand, taking up a material existence in the world. And what is achieved bears no relation to normal calculations of means and ends, the means so paltry – canvas, stretchers, pigment, whatever – the ends so vast – powers, glories, visions, ecstasies of pleasure and terror. Painting proclaims the true incarnation, the union of matter and spirit, in the act of painting – of body and soul. How could Western culture not love painting, thrust headlong as it was by Christianity into the pursuit of the miraculous?
Through the hand – this is the crucial point. Painting presents us with an image of the world reconstituted. It makes use of all modes of sensorial knowledge – the tactile. oral, auditory, even the olfactory – to supplement the visual. Whereas photography is only able to provide us with information derived from light, painting provides us with an image of the interrelationship of the senses, in the synthesizing and constructing activity of the human brain. It should further be borne in mind that the camera is a Cyclops – one-eyed. Unable to reproduce the stereoscopic effect of binocular vision, the camera produces images in which the depth and solidity of objects are diminished, as is the sense of distance. [Richard Hennessy What’s All This About Photography?]

The revivalism of current painting, which Hennessy’s text so perfectly articulates, depends, of course, on reinvesting those strokes with human presence, it is a metaphysics of the human touch. “Painting’s quasi-miraculous mode of existence is produced by its mode of facture. Through the hand: this is the crucial point.” This faith in the healing powers of the hand, the facture that results from the laying on of hands, echoes throughout Rose’s catalogue text, which pays special homage to Hennessy’s attack on photography. The unifying principle in the aesthetic of her painters is that their work “defines itself in conscious opposition to photography and all forms of mechanical reproduction which seek to deprive the art work of its unique ‘aura.’ ” For Rose, elimination of the human touch can only express “the self-hatred of artists…. Such a powerful wish to annihilate personal expression implies that the artist does not love his creation.” What distinguishes painting from photography is this “visible record of the activity of the human hand, as it builds surfaces experienced as tactile.” [Douglas Crimp on the End of Painting]

End I

“Perhaps looking back 10, 15, 30 years from now, it will appear that this modernist tradition really did come to an end within the last few years, as some critics suggest. If so, historians a century from now—whatever name they will give the period we now call modern—will see it beginning shortly after the middle of the 19th century and ending in the 1960s. I’m not ruling this out; it may be the case, though I don’t think so. Perhaps the dividing line will be seen as between those works which essentially continue an easel painting concept that grew up associated with bourgeois, democratic life and was involved with the development of private collections as well as the museum concept—between this and, let us say, Earthworks, Conceptual works and related endeavors, which want another environment (or should want it) and, perhaps, another public.” [William Rubin in conversation with Lawrence Alloway and John Coplans]

“You know exactly what I think of Photography. I would like to see it make People despise Painting until something else will make Photography unbearable.” -Marcel Duchamp, in a letter to Alfred Stieglitz.

“From today painting is dead”: it is now nearly a century and a half since Paul Delaroche is said to have pronounced that sentence in the face of the overwhelming evidence of Daguerre’s invention. But even though that death warrant has been periodically reissued throughout the era of modernism, no one seems to have been entirely willing to execute it, life on death row lingered to longevity. But during the 1960s, painting’s terminal condition finally seemed impossible to ignore. The symptoms were everywhere: in the work of the painters themselves, each of whom seemed to be reiterating Reinhardt’s claim that he was “just making the last paintings which anyone can make,” or to allow their paintings to be contaminated with such alien forces as photographic images, in minimal sculpture, which provided a definitive rupture with painting’s unavoidable ties to a centuries-old idealism, in all those other mediums to which artists turned as they, one after the other, abandoned painting. The dimension that had always resisted even painting’s most dazzling feats of illusionism-time-now became the arena in which artists staged their activities as they embraced film, video, and performance. And, after waiting out the entire era of modernism, photography reappeared, finally to claim its inheritance. The appetite for photography in the past decade has been insatiable. Artists, critics, dealers, curators, and scholars have defected from their former pursuits in droves to take up this enemy of painting. Photography may have been invented in 1839, but it was only discovered in the 1970s. [Douglas Crimp The End of Painting]

1. The paintings are dead in the sense that to Intuit the meaning of something incompletely, but with an Idea of what it might mean or involve to know completely, is a kind of premonition of death. The paintings, in their opacity, signal an ultimate clarification. Death is “tragic” because lt closes off possibilities of further resuming; art is similarly tragic because it prefigures itself as an ended event of meaning. The paintings do this by appearing to participate in meaninglessness….
4. The works are connected to the erotic life in more than just subject matter. They align themselves with the state of being in love; there is nothing more involved in pre-figuring its own end than love and sex. Each new affair, each new fixation already contains the fantasy of the next – of the bittersweet sensation of bringing this affair to an end, and more importantly, of surviving it, and being able to recreate it mentally; to exist in the present tense by seeing the object of a fixation recede in the distance; becoming fragmented and untrue….
8. The paintings have to be dead; that is, from life but not a part of it, in order to show how a painting can be said to have anything to do with life in the first place, which is in some relation to the arbitrary. [David Salle on Dead Paintings]

Context

“I would like to also insist on my feeling that the art must be considered first, and that only after that can we consider why and how the market has seized upon this kind of art. The market likes to categorize the work as “abstract painting” because that gives it an art historical lineage, but in reality the work is not only about so many more things, which I plan to address with you, but, even with regards to art history, it provides a simulation, rather than a loving recapitulation of late modernist non-compositional tropes like process, the grid, and the monochrome. Few of the artists are actually applying paint to canvas so as to actively compose a painting. That idea of painting, the very conception of it that for centuries placed it at the top of both academic and avant-garde hierarchies, still held so much power in the 1960s into the early 1970s that the work of so-called minimal painters like Jo Baer, Brice Marden, and Robert Ryman was based in part on the undoing of that idea of painting’s supremacy.” [Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest]

The nineties were a time of great consolidation for abstract painting and that decade laid the ground work for much of the abstract painting that we see today. A quick history – by 1965 abstract painting had become a kind of dormant art form and the “painting is dead” refrain had taken hold. Then a few interested souls began to rethink this death of painting by looking at the history of Modernist painting in new and critical ways. The idea of painting, of actually making abstract painting, started to become interesting again in the early seventies. Artists like David Reed and Mary Heilmann were expanding on and re-codifying ideas of painting and process. By the mid-eighties new strategies for abstract painting were forming. Artists like Peter Halley and Jonathan Lasker were breaking with Post War American abstraction and looking back to European Modernist strategies. And finally, by the mid-nineties and into the early 21st Century, Conceptual Abstraction had became a fully-fledged institutionalized art form. This abstract painting included a coterie of interesting and challenging abstract painters/artists like Charline Von Heyl and Amy Sillman among many others. But it may very well be Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool who are the best examples of this kind of abstract painting. These two artists have been successful in concluding the decades long Postmodern conceptual deconstruction aimed at breaking up the Late Modernist Era endgame.

In this post there are a few quoted selections from an interview with Alex Bacon discussing the new sensibility about painting – and it seems to me that this exchange between Alex and Jarrett Earnest is one of the most cogent critiques of the group of younger painters who have followed and benefitted from the conclusion of Postmodern Conceptual Abstraction. I highly suggest you read the entire conversation!

“The fact is that in many cases the paintings aren’t even hung on walls, as often they are laid on floors where people walk on them, or do yoga. Which raises the larger point that for these artists there is not a sense of “Painting,” capital P; it’s not like neo-expressionism where “Painting” returned in its guise as a high art form to reinstate the humanist values the ’60s neo-avant-garde had supposedly stomped to death. That was a battle of post-modernism. Today painting does not have a privileged, hierarchal value for these artists. With Murillo, for example, you don’t understand the paintings without the larger context of the installation-based work he makes, and the socio-political issues from which it emerges.
Throughout the 20th century a lot of work was animated by “responses,” even though this is a false model because there is always more continuity than initially appears. Nevertheless there was a tension the work was establishing with the work of the past, and that is no longer true. We have been living with post-modernism for so long now that it is as if we are born into irony and pastiche, knowing we are already co-opted. There is no longer any resistance or negation, which is what gave rise to self-referential work in the 1960s. It’s really important to understand that a project of someone like Frank Stella—how to make painting an object or purely flat—is not something that plays anymore because the minute something becomes an object it morphs into something else, and then into something else again—there is no fixity. All art has a chameleon status, or should. Today just to get started is hard—painting is then a readymade focal point, a way to get something off the ground.” [Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest]

David Ostrowski F (Bauhaus) 2017

To understand the formal activity of the work we have to understand process as a means to an end, though “process” has become for collectors a new form of iconography. For a long time people struggled with how to read abstraction: “What is it about? How do I understand it?” Today I’ve been told, and it seems true, that it is easier to sell this kind of abstraction because people like the fetishized story of the artist’s process—what actually amounts to a lot of banal stuff: this artist had a canvas silver-plated; this artist had this fabric dyed; this artist left this out in the sun. These artists are more like architects or engineers or managers finding experts to help them realize ideas. The majority of one of these artists’ time is not spent putting the gesso on a canvas, but organizing the people who can help him or her execute the work to a certain standard. This has an obvious precedent in the role of fabrication in minimal and conceptual art.
And most of this so-called painting wouldn’t have even stood as painting before; nobody would have looked at the supremely spare surface of a David Ostrowski in the ’60s and said “this is a painting.” They would have said “this is a Dadaist gesture.” It would have had existential connotations. That is why a lot of people didn’t like Yves Klein, because they saw his monochromes as not really “paintings” but as stand-ins for paintings and they felt a lack. Today, of course, the rich, dense surface of a Klein looks uncontroversially like a painting surface. Just as does Ostrowski’s very minimal one. [Alex Bacon in conversation with Jarrett Earnest]