The Great Painterly Idioms of the Past

“Armed with an Enlightenment belief in the unstoppable progress of institutional critique and artistic critiques of the discourse of power, I, for one, considered Warhol’s notion of Business Art to be a brilliantly conceived parody of the side effects of an ever-expanding art world—a travesty in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” Little did I imagine that, a quarter century later, it would have become impossible for Warhol’s prognostic vision to be mistaken for travesty anymore. Rather, we had to recognize—with belated hindsight—that Warhol had in fact prophesied what we finally came to experience: the total permeation of the cultural sphere by the economic operations of finance capital and its attendant ethos and social structures. Only a Cassandra whose ethics and aesthetics were as exceptionally evacuated as Warhol’s (other artists at the time still associated their practices with moral, critical, and political aspirations) could have enunciated this vision. A comparable diagnosis of the explicitly and inevitably affirmative character of modern culture had been formulated by Herbert Marcuse in the early ’60s. Marcuse’s tendency to accept if not to exaggerate the inextricably affirmative dimensions of cultural production and to recode them as potentially transgressive operations had appeared to us as a symptom of the philosopher’s increasing Americanization. In other words, it was not until the early ’80s, or even later, that it dawned on some of us that the cultural apparatus had in fact already undergone precisely those transformations whose full spectrum only Warhol had predicted, and that his prognostics were about to attain the status of all-encompassing and seemingly insurmountable new realities.” [Benjamin H. D. Buchloh Farewell to an Identity]

“… we must query artistic practices with respect to their implicit or explicit reflection on the actually existing conditions of social representation and ideological affirmation. And we would demand of any artistic production that it specifically consider, in each of its instantiations, to whom it is addressed and with whom, if at all, it would intend to communicate. Inevitably, under such critical pressures, these practices would come to discover and recognize that under current conditions they have assumed as one of their primary tasks the effacement of any reflection on social class. And then we must further pressure artistic practices to reflect on this disavowal, one of the guarantors of an artist’s economic success in the present. After all, the enduring and comprehensive amnesia of class is a foundational condition for the culture of the neoliberal petite bourgeoisie. [Benjamin H. D. Buchloh Farewell to an Identity]

What would it mean to sustain, let alone return to, any particular aesthetic value of the past? For example, could we effect a return to the specificity of an autonomous aesthetic experience, such as painting, and reclaim its unique and peculiar temporality? Could we salvage the particularity of any of the great painterly idioms of the past in the discussions of visual representations in the present, under the purview of the digital empires that rule our existence in forms hardly understood, without advocating an aesthetically—and, by implication, a sociopolitically—conservative position?” [Benjamin H. D. Buchloh Farewell to an Identity]

A Lot Of Zeit But Not Much Geist…

“… it has been only in the past decade that we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once — a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times. The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist. I can’t believe I just wrote that last sentence, but it’s true; there is something psychically sparse about the present era, and artists of all stripes are responding with fresh strategies.
This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present. Imagine traveling back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb. With Translit we get our very delicious cake, and we get to eat it, too, as we visit multiple pasts safe in the knowledge we’ll get off the ride intact, in our bold new perpetual every-era/no-era.” [Douglas Coupland on Translit writing]

A work of art that refutes the possibility of chronological classification offers a dramatic challenge to the structure that disciplines like art history enforce-the great, ladder-like narrative of cultural progress that is so dependent upon the idea of the new superseding the old in a movement simultaneously forward and upward. This is not the first time that there have been challenges to the construct of historical progress and in a sense it is not progress as such that is at stake in this new, atemporal universe. Time-based terms like progressive – and its opposite, reactionary, avant-and arriere-garde – are of little use to describe atemporal works of art.
It would be more accurate and more poetic to understand them as existing in the eternal present. This is a temporal state in which, to optimistic prognosticators, the past and the future have been made available simultaneously. Instead of an information superhighway, we can picture the eternal present as an endlessly flat surface with vistas in every direction – not unlike the surface of a painting.” [Laura Hoptman on Atemporal Painting in Forever Now]

Wade Guyton Untitled, 2010

Nostalgia is nothing new. It has been a refrain of art and literature at least since Homer set Odysseus on Calypso’s island and had him yearn to turn back time. And popular music has always had a strong revivalist streak, particularly in Reynolds’s native Britain. But retromania is not just about nostalgia. It goes deeper than the tie-dyed dreams of Baby Boomers or the gray-flecked mohawks of Gen X punks. Whereas nostalgia is rooted in a sense of the past as past, retromania stems from a sense of the past as present. Yesterday’s music, in all its forms, has become the atmosphere of contemporary culture. We live, Reynolds remarks, in “a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel…
Reynolds argues that the glut of tunes has not just changed what we listen to; it has also changed how we listen. The rapt fan who knew every hook, lyric, and lead by heart has been replaced by the fickle dabbler who cannot stop hitting Next. Reynolds presents himself as a case in point, and his experience will sound familiar to anyone with a hard drive packed with music files. He was initially “captivated” by the ability to use a computer to navigate an ocean of tunes. But in short order he found himself more interested in “the mechanism” than the music: “Soon I was listening to just the first fifteen seconds of every track; then, not listening at all.” The logical culmination, he writes, “would have been for me to remove the headphones and just look at the track display.” [Nicolas Carr on Simon Reynolds]

Renunciation of the Craft

“As for the plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges…
Then again, there are those who anxiously ask, “Is he serious or is he joking?” Perhaps he is both! Is it not possible? In this connection I think it would be well to remember that the sense of the ridiculous as well as “the sense of the tragic increases and declines with sensuousness.” It puts it rather up to you. And there is among us today a spirit of “blague” arising out of the artist’s bitter vision of an over-institutionalized world of stagnant statistics and antique axioms. With a frank creed of immutability the Chinese worshipped their ancestors and dignity took the place of understanding; but we who worship Progress, Speed and Efficiency are like a little dog chasing after his own wagging tail that has dazzled him. Our ancestor-worship is without grace and it is because of our conceited hypocracy that our artists are sometimes sad, and if there is a shade of bitter mockery in some of them it is only there because they know that the joyful spirit of their work is to this age a hidden treasure.” [Louise Norton on The Richard Mutt Case]

Greenberg violently rejected Duchamp and did his best to avoid situating Malevich within his particular conception of the history of modernism, which he saw as culminating in “American-type painting” and in the flat illusionism of Olitski. But, almost in spite of himself, he could not avoid registering the epistemological consequences of their real place in the history of painting. For example, contrary to other critics, he perceived that craft and the abandonment of craft were one and the same thing. He based himself on Pollock or Newman rather than on Malevich, but he always perceived that the border line between what is still painting and what is no longer is a dialectical one that is always being displaced in history. In 1863, for example, a border line was drawn between Ingres and Manet, and in 1947 one was drawn between Pollock and Picasso. Painters themselves displaced it by calling for the public’s retrospective approval of significant pictorial innovations that, at first glance, always present themselves as a renunciation of the craft and conventions of painting. But Greenberg thought that this deconstruction had an end point, which is its involuntary tropism, and that modern painters got rid of the “expendable conventions” of painting only in order to uncover an irreducible remainder consisting of its essential conventions. He thus found himself inevitably drawn to fetishizing the formal characteristics of paintings, and even of the unpainted canvas, as if they held the ultimate power to trace the limit between that which deserves the name painting and that which no longer does. Since, in a pinch, these formal characteristics no longer depended on craft, they had to take refuge in the empirical conventions of easel painting, in the very fact of being a flat and delimited piece of canvas stretched on a frame: “By now it has been established, it would seem, that the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness; and that the observance of merely these two norms is enough to create an object which can be experienced as a picture: thus, a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture—though not necessarily as a successful one.” [Thierry de Duve on The Readymade and Abstraction]

For many critics, the absence of stylistic markers indicates the demise of a common culture, a deeply troubling development, which at best implies cultural stasis, and at worst, cultural surrender. “We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times,” lamented the writer Douglas Coupland in an article in which he introduced literary atemporality, which he dubbed “translit.” Pop-music critic Simon Reynolds, who coined the term retro-mania to describe contemporary pop music in the a ugh-ties, also sees the erosion of era-defining genres as an intellectual dead end, “We’re quite deep into a phase of anything-goes, guiltless appropriation, a free-for-all of asset-stripping that ranges all over the globe and all across the span of human history,” he writes. “This leads to the paradoxical combination of speed and standstill.” Although, Reynolds explains, we have the possibility of “rapid movement within a network of knowledge,” he concludes with regret that we lack the modernism-fueled creative moxie that characterized the twentieth century, “the outward-bound drive that propelled an entire system into the unknown.” Without this jet pack driving us to a common creative future, Reynolds is despairing of contemporary music, and by extension, contemporary culture. Both Coupland’s and Reynolds’s observations reveal an acute nostalgia for a time when things were new and a deep mourning for the missing propulsive shot of energy that attended an act of what could be interpreted as cultural progress. But what if, as in William Gibson’s original formulation, atemporality was considered as a strategy of resistance, a way of opting out of the industrialization of novelty,” the syndrome of growth and expansion at any cost? What if abstaining from new aesthetic forms meant gaining new ways of understanding the use of form in light of digital technology and the swift circulation of knowledge? What if the promiscuous mixing of styles has the positive outcome of providing a mechanism to overcome “oppressive traditions [and] xenophobia?” What if atemporality allowed us to roam around, instead of plow forward? [Laura Hoptman Forever Now]

An Expanded Notion of Painting

Wolfgang Tillmans I don’t want to get over you 2000

I have already hinted at the problems of defining painting. When most artistic practices, not only painterly ones, have undergone massive differentiation and expansion, it becomes rather difficult to pin down painting. How do we determine an “unresolved category”? I would like to suggest that we work with an expanded notion of painting that breaks with the modernist understanding of it as a clearly delineated practice characterized by given norms and conventions. Since the borders between the different art forms have become permeable, at least since the 1960s, we have found ourselves in a situation where different media relate to, refashion, and remodel each other. This process has been termed “re-mediatizaton,” and occurs when the features that have been ascribed to one medium – for instance by another medium – for instance, large-scale photography. And sure enough, artists from Jeff Wall to Wolfgang Tillmans have tirelessly demonstrated to us that photography can take up the representation and narrative strategies of painting; that it can aim at creating surfaces that suggest the materiality of abstract painting.
The crucial point remains here that the modernist idea of an art that is defined by the “essence of its medium” has clearly lost its relevance. Once the medium can no longer be delimited, then no qualities can be inherent to it. Its character, rather, depends on how the artist will proceed with it. [Isabelle Graw on The Value of Painting]

Francis Picabia Natures Morte 1920

“… we need not be reactionary Greenbergians, nor philosophic dogmatists, to concede that not every artwork is a painting; that some artworks constitute paintings, and others, not. For once this is granted, then we may also, importantly, distinguish painting from other categories of art. Acknowledging this simple banality allows us to see that we do have certain grounds—certain definitional stipulations and reservations—we uphold when it comes to painting (mutatis mutandis our other categories of art). A medium-unspecific definition of painting will thus have to be plastic enough to survive the post-medium principles of Rosalind E. Krauss, yet rigid enough to evoke the seemingly obsolete essence of painting qua painting.” [Louis Doulas’ critique of Isabelle Graw’s The Value of Painting]

Gerhard Richter Abstract Painting (726) 1990

Yet linking indexicality to painting does not imply that we ignore the splits that occurs between the artwork and the authentic self. What we encounter in painting is not so much the authentically revealed self of the painter, but rather signs that insinuate that this absent self is somewhat present in it. As a highly mediated idiom, painting provides a number of techniques, methods, and artifices that allow for the fabrication of the impression of the author’s quasi-presence as an effect.
For this indexical effect to occur, the artist does not need to have literally set her hand on the picture, or to have brandished a brush, or to have thrown paint on it. A mechanically produced silkscreen by Andy Warhol, who often delegated his work to his assistants, or a printed black painting by Wade Guyton, is no less capable of conveying the sense of a latent presence of the artist—by virtue, for instance, of imperfections deliberately left uncorrected, selected combinations of colors, or subsequent improvements. Painting, then, would have to be understood as the art form that is particularly favorable to the belief—widespread in the visual arts more generally—that by approaching or purchasing a work of art, it is possible to get a more immediate access to what is assumed to be the person of the artist and her life. [Isabelle Graw on The Value of Painting]

The Objective Pluralist Structure of Post-history

Frank Stella Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (Hunchback Wryneck Hobbler) 1985

In my own speculations about the fate which movement abstraction has suffered in our own day, two specific developments seem to nominate themselves as the cause orcauses of our current impasse. The larger and more general cause is the fate of paint- ing itself—its fate as a factor in cultural life generally as well as in the life of art. If we look back on two recent developments—the series of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art called “MOMA z000” and the transformation of the Tate Gallery in London into two really bizarre institutions — Tate Britain and Tate Modern — we are obliged to recognize two things: (1) that on both sides of the Atlantic, abstract art has been marginalized by the institutions that art has been marginalized by the institutions that were formerly in the vanguard of its public support and presentation, and (2) that painting itself is well on its way to being similarly marginalized.
…this fateful shift of priorities away from the aesthetics of painting, both abstract and representational, in favor of a political, sexual, and sociological interest in art-making activities, two historical developments — one within the realm of art itself, the other in the larger arena of intellectual and cultural life — appear to have shaped the situation in which we find our-selves. In the art world, the emergence of the Minimalist movement, which has been so central in determining the fate of abstract art since the 1960s, went so far in diminishing the aesthetic scope and resources of abstraction that it may in some respects be said to have marked a terminal point in its aesthetic development. At the same time, in the larger arena of cultural life, the fallout from the 196os counterculture left all prior distinctions between high art and pop culture more or less stripped of their authority. It was hardly a coincidence that Minimalism and Pop Art made their respective debuts on the American art scene at the very same moment. However they may have differed in other respects, they were alike insofar as each constituted a programmatic assault not only on the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School —their initial target—but also on the entire pictorial tradition of which the New York School was seen to be a culmination. [Hilton Kramer on Abstract Painting]

“The ’70s is a fascinating period whose art history is as yet uncharted, but it is certainly, as I see it, the first full decade of posthistorical art. It was marked by the fact that no single movement was its key, as Abstract Expressionism was for the ’50s, Pop art for the ’60s—and, delusionally, neo-Expressionism for the ’80s. And so it is easy to write it off as a decade in which nothing happened, when in fact it was a decade in which what happened was everything. It was a golden age that seemed to those who lived through it to be anything but golden. And my sense is that what gave it that character was the objective pluralist structure of posthistory: it was no longer necessary to pursue the material truth of art. Or, rather, a lot of artists continued to accept the materialist ideal, but also felt that that ideal no longer responded to anything they were interested in, and they perused what they were interested in whether it was “really” art or not. That gave them an immense freedom, and since the gallery structure, with marginal exceptions, had no place for anything except what was “really” art, they had no special expectation anyway of fame or fortune. They could live fairly cheaply, and do what they did for a small circle of like-minded persons. A lot of the cultural politics of the time in any case turned artists away from the institutions of the art world toward other, less commercial venues.
Another kind of politics began to ascend in that period, its best example a certain kind of feminism, one that calls in question the sort of painting that culminated, on Greenberg’s theory, in materialist abstraction. The question began to be raised as to whether such art was at all the appropriate vehicle for feminine creativity, whether, in fact, it was not a form of false consciousness for women to seek to excel in something that was possibly just a form of expression created by males as the instrument of a male ethos. And analogous arguments sprang up through which various excluded minorities sought to express themselves in terms they felt corresponded to their condition, or, alternately, to their identities. I don’t say this was altogether explicit in the ’70s, but the tendencies emerged then, and crystallized, at least in New York, in the “Decade Show” in 1990 at the New Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art—a show that marginalized (guess what?) easel painting. The reasons, certainly, were different from those that prevailed in Berlin in 1920 or in Moscow in 1921 or in Mexico in 1942. But it has been the mark of a certain form of politicized art in this century to villainize easel painting, and the charge that such art is a Eurocentric white-male expression is only the latest form the politics has taken.” [Arthur C. Danto on Art After the End of Art]

Pablo Picasso Le Matador 1970

“More compelling, because more perverse, is the idea of tackling the problem with what appears to be the least suitable vehicle available, painting. It is perfect camouflage, and it must be remembered that Picasso considered Cubism and camouflage to be one and the same, a device of misrepresentation, a deconstructive tool designed to undermine the certainty of appearances. The appropriation of painting as a subversive method allows one to place critical esthetic activity at the center of the marketplace, where it can cause the most trouble. For as too many Conceptual artists discovered, art made on the peripheries of the market remains marginal. To reopen debate, get people thinking, one must be there, and one must be heard. One of the most important of Duchamp’s lessons was that the artist who wishes to create a critical disturbance in the calm waters of acceptable, unthinking taste, must act in as perverse a way as possible, even to the point of seeming to endanger his or her own position. And it seems at this point, when there is a growing lack of faith in the ability of artists to continue as anything more than plagiaristic stylists, that a recognition of this state of affairs can only be adequately expressed through the medium that requires the greatest amount of faith.” [Thomas Lawson Last Exit Painting]

Thoroughly Contrary Solutions

“The focus of the new painting is “figurative expression” revolving around a set of problems. These include: how is the will to self-expression and self-experience in painting shown in figuration? How can questions about painting be “figuratively” answered in painting? What are the realms of experience that make figurative imagistic innovation possible, and by what tension do they define themselves, as figural realism or as abstraction? One thing seems certain: “figurative expression” refers primarily to an imaginary image reality whose meaning lies between the illustration and the symbol (or the allegory, or emblem), in associations between forms and reality. As open ciphers these associations refer both to themselves (as painting) and to the experiences of art against the background of a general epistemology. That this can lead to thoroughly contrary solutions is revealed in the two extremes of the commissioned works, the paintings of the “young Italians” (Clemente, Cucchi, Paladino) and those of the “young Germans” (Clemente, Middendorf, Salomé). The works by the Germans, who are part of the Berlin “Heftigen” (“the violent ones”), seem at first glance to correspond most clearly to the “Zeitgeist” theme. They are aggressive, challenging, and in some way reckless. The Italians answer the fragmentation and “brutal beauty” of the German artists with a more placid sovereignty. Just these two polarities, the Italians and the Berlin artists, make it clear that the art of the present cannot be grasped under the heading of “neo-expressionism,” as Hilton Kramer attempts to do in an oversimplistic essay in the catalogue.” [Wolfgang Max Faust on the 1980s Zeitgeist]

“Compared to the neat forms of Minimal art or the carefully calculated strategies of Color-field abstraction, painting of this persuasion has the look of something disorderly, eccentric and irrational. Compared to the supercilious ironies of Pop art, it comes on as something vehement and hallucinatory. And while the imagery of Neo-Expressionism is always in some degree representational, it otherwise has nothing in common with contemporary Realism either. Whereas Realist painting generally shows us a world defined by daylight and dailiness and other commonplaces of quotidian experience, Neo-Expressionism leans in the direction of symbol and metaphor.
There are, of course, great differences within the movement itself, for it is in the very nature of the Neo-Expressionist vision to foster a high degree of individual fantasy and idiosyncratic invention. Julian Schnabel’s paintings, with their bizarre figures, mysterious actions and eccentric surfaces – ”Death Takes a Holiday” is painted on a surface of shocking pink velvet, for example, and other pictures are weighted down with images locked into masonry-like surfaces of broken crockery – are quite the gaudiest and most flamboyant pictures of the whole movement. Malcolm Morley is more of a ”mainstream” painter, producing at times the kind of sun-drenched landscape painting we admire in certain 19th-century masters, yet in a wild picture like ”Camels and Goats” he creates an image that seems to exit from the daylight world of nature to enter the world of nightmare.” [Donald Kuspit on Neo Expressionism]

“Expressionism was an attack on convention (this is what characterizes it as a modernist movement), specifically, on those conventions which subject unconscious impulses to the laws of form and thereby rationalize them, transform them into images. (Here, convention plays a role roughly analogous to the censorship which the ego exercises over the unconscious.) Prior to expressionism, human passions might be represented by, but could have no immediate presence or reality within, works of art. The expressionists, however, abandoned the simulation of emotion in favor of its seismographic registration. They were determined to register unconscious affects – trauma, shock – without disguise through the medium of art; with Freud, they fully appreciated the disruptive potential of desire. Whatever we may think of this project today – whether we find its claims to spontaneity and immediacy hopelessly naive or whether we believe that the expressionists actually tapped a prelinguistic reserve of libidinal impulses – we should not overlook its radical ambition.
In “neoexpressionism,” however – but this is why this designation must be rejected – expressionism is reduced to convention, to a standard repertoire of abstract, strictly codified signs for expression. Everything is bracketed in quotation marks; as a result, what was (supposedly) spontaneous congeals into a signifier: “spontaneity,” “immediacy.” (Think of Schnabel’s “violent” brushwork.) The pseudo-expressionists retreat to the pre-expressionist simulation of passion; they create illusions of spontaneity and immediacy, or rather expose the spontaneity and immediacy sought by the expressionists as illusions, as a construct of pre-existing forms.” [Craig Owens Honor Power and the Love of Women]

Local Sentiments and Archaic Forms

Francesco Clemente Conversion to Her 1983

Neoexpressionist art in effect initiated the first theoretical debate of the 80s, although it was never recognized as such at the time, so muddled was it by considerations of national identities, shifting styles and allegiances, or crude cultural prejudice. Whether expressed in terms of “false spirituality” (Donald Kuspit’s Spenglerian thesis of cultural decline) or as a social symptom negating artistic innovation (Benjamin Buchloh’s Marxist thesis of of prefascist regression), or as a denial of the rhetorical nature of subjective expression (Hal Foster’s decoding of Roland Barthes through Lacanian theory), in each case the message was loud and clear: it was an unconditional refusal of this “newly promoted art of local sentiments and archaic forms… [which] constitutes a disavowal not only of radical art but also of radicality through art” (Hal Foster) – meaning: the New York avant-grarde.
Finally brushing aside all pretense, Kuspit concluded: this new expressionism is nothing but “a European attempt to take the sceptre of advanced art back” – and here is the telling admission – “even to the extent of wanting to produce a spiritually significant not simply aesthetically to stylistically original art.” In other words, even if the new foreign art happened to be significant, it should be blasted anyway because it threatens New York’s cultural supremacy.” [Sylvere Lotringer on the Third Wave: Art and the Commodification of Theory]

“When people say Jean-Michel looks like art, the occult significance of the comment is that it looks like our expectation of art; there is observable history in his work. His touch has spontaneous erudition that comforts one as the expected does. In the first gallery piece I saw by Jean-Michel (as distinct from his Tag Samo) the observable relationship of his drawing to past art alienated me as immediately as it gratified. The superbombers in the same show, with their egregious lack of art history, had the repellent appeal that commands self-analysis in the viewer (me). I didn’t want to miss the boat. When you first see a new picture you are very careful because you may be staring at van Gogh’s ear. Then I stopped caring about what the pictures should (and might later) look like; regardless of what Jean-Michel’s look like now, they are transmitting signals that I can receive, that are useful, and finally the graffiti bomb style looks like what it’s about and what it’s about is packaging.” [Rene Ricard on Jean-Michel Basquiat – The Radiant Child]

“Getting down to cases, one sees repeated and implicit allegiance to children’s drawing as the basis and ideal for art, as in the old Expressionists. Only now such drawing is calculated in its spontaneity, more inventive than improvised, and full of undiscriminating feeling that does less to give direction than to inhibit any search for direction—it is exactly the inhibition of direction that is achieved by the exhibition of energy. All those signs of energy are no longer signs of aim, but a distraction from soul-searching—from the plunge into the depths for a sign of direction, of inner necessity. The painting of the Americans pales beside the work of the German progenitors of the neo-Expressionism, (such as A. R. Penck) and beside the powerful painterly drawing—for that is what it really is, in the best Expressionist spirit—of the younger German artists. Their work may not be indicative—at least not at first glance—of the “fresh young, unknown German spirituality” that Emil Nolde expected to develop out of the “pain” of the Second World War, “out of the deepest depths” disclosed in its aftermath. But it is certainly less of an example, in Ezra Pound’s words, of an art “made to sell and sell quickly” rather than “to endure or to live with” than the painting of Schnabel. (And this is true even when we recognize that the new Expressionism at its best is a European attempt to take the sceptre of advanced art back, even to the extent of wanting to produce a spiritually significant not simply esthetically or stylistically original art.) However, we see this calculatedly childlike drawing in the simplistic handling of Jörg Immendorff as well as in the bullheadedness of Schnabel, in Anselm Kiefer’s rhapsodic landscapes that work like Wagnerian tone poems in their mix of a few visual motifs and even in Penck’s stick figures with their graffiti quirkiness and seeming quickness of execution, and even in the beatific bawdiness of Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente, with their “spiritualizing” of the body and its functions. There is a slight sense of spiritual direction in their handling and imagery, but it does not seem sufficiently worked at. The spirit does not come for the asking; only suffering, with its dialectical work against the world, can give one a glimmering of it, but cannot guarantee it. There is little true suffering in any of this work (although its presence is not absolutely excluded), unlike in the old Expressionists, where expression itself, with its difficulties, was suffering.” [Donald Kuspit on Neo Expressionism]

Not Obliged to Make Extensive and Bizarre Claims

Mary Heilmann Spring Line Up 2017

“No, painting fell a victim to criticism, if nothing else, because it was not rewardingly troublesomeit lacked the “downward mobility” essential to the game rules of modernism. Benefits tend to be given to those workers who can successfully identify themselves, at any one moment, as the top underdogs or most calculated pariahs. They are the ones able to drive home a temporary contrast between worthy outcasts (themselves), and ambitious or unambitious losers. Yet there was nothing in the least democratic or humane about the turnover process to which some of them appealed. Artists are not obliged to make extensive and bizarre claims of unapproachability. Or, if they made them once, they’re sane to balk at the relentless quest for novelty. They can be thought delusionists only when they subscribed to modernism and resented that it was fickle. In this light, it was simply not possible to void painting of its articulate residues or to make it look underprivileged enough….
How odd it is, really, that we should be talking about media rather than styles, ideas, individual points of view, the staples of art discussion. “Medium” (frequently glossed by the word “process”) is, however, the area to which theory has retreated. This withdrawal puts at a disadvantage interested parties who should like to smooth a quarrel. For any apologia of painting as a medium must place itself on the defensive and acknowledge that ground has been lost. It is all very well to sing the virtues of lyrical abstraction, photo-Realism, funk, or “central core” feminist imagery, etc.—if any of these is what absorbs you. But there still nags the uniquely contemporary status-wound inflicted on painting and the onus that has been placed upon painters as a class. Some of them, of course, perhaps a statistical majority, remain completely untouched by this state of affairs; others have had to winterize their hopes. Neither attitude seems to me justified.” [Max Kozloff on “Painting and Anti-Painting: A Family Quarrel”]

Francis Picabia Je revois en souvenir ma chère Udnie (I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie) 1914

“An opposing idea, however, gave the new work strength: a belief in abstraction, and knowledge that in its short history this had been the mode of much significant work. Nonobjective painting had existed for us only since about 1910. Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Fauvism had led toward abstraction, searching for ways to be expressive in paint through its own materials and devices, breaking up color and separating color and form from function. In 1910 Kandinsky painted his first abstract improvisation, attempting to use painting means as ends in themselves, much as time and sound are used in music. Picabia, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Kupka, Morgan Russell, Arthur Dove, Léger, Mondrian, Klee, Macdonald-Wright and others were working with color abstraction. In 1913 Malevich showed a painting consisting of a black square on a white ground “in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity . . .” A great deal of nonobjective painting has been made since then: De Stijl, Informel, Abstract Expressionism, post-painterly abstraction and more. The abundance of work of quality which has been produced in so short a time constitutes evidence of the validity of nonrepresentational work. To my mind the significant art of this century has been abstract….
Painting can be understood on at least four important levels. First, the painting exists physically, as an object in the world which can be responded to directly; it is tactile, visual, retinal. Secondly, technical factors exist in the making of the painting; inherent qualities of material determine method; formal aspects of the work can be examined and understood, and therefore must stand up to certain criteria. Thirdly, a painting also exists as an historical statement; it is made at a particular time and represents the artist’s view of the state of painting at that time, whether consciously or not. Finally, the painting represents a form of thought, indirectly reflecting the world-view of the artist and the time and transmitting philosophical and spiritual experiences. [Marcia Hafif on “Beginning Again”]

“How in hell can you ask what possibilities, not found elsewhere, does painting offer? For Christ’s sake, nowhere else except in painting can you paint a picture. Passions for pictures like the Tempesta and for picture-making will always live in the race of men and women. It will always be possible to introduce into pictures aspects and issues and qualities not known there before. Few modernists have the range or imagination to assume what painting could be . . . that a truly social art might emerge, to challenge the assumptions of an art which now dwindles at the margins of society in despair and quietist arrogance. There are so many things to do; there is a plenitude to inquire after . . . and it will not seem out of the question that Tolstoy or Dickens are more hopeful and pertinent to painting than Malevich or Duchamp.
Our modern art ship began to sail away from most other people about 70 years ago and now it’s drifting out of sight. It is my feeling that most of our modernist versions, including the most intelligent abstraction, have failed in all these years to coincide in substantial senses with the needs and aspirations of enough other people. Something like a sanctity of the self has displaced, for a while, many wider attentions. It has always seemed strange to me that most artists align themselves with the great causes in our time: antifascism, the liberation of vast peoples, the women’s movement, socialism. Strange, because it is rare for our art to enter into even a dialogue beyond the fancy-pants “current scene,” with its entrenched devotion to preserving the prerogatives of laissez-faire vanguardism and modernism, let alone break that tired circuit toward the wider motives, peoples, implications we seem to reach with other parts of ourselves. The Cole Porter song says, “In the morning, no!” Our art has been a privileged no-no long enough. We are all implicated, but some of us may not be beyond repair.” [R. B. Kitaj on the Possibilities of Painting]

Sips at the Real

“The reliance on secondary sources sets these images at one remove, an impression that is heightened by the graceful formal properties of Tuymans’ distinctive style. In stark contrast to the heavily layered style of other European painters to have emerged in the post-war period, such as Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer or the squeegee paintings of Gerhard Richter, his brushstrokes are delicate, light, transient. His canvases seem to linger on the point of fading into non-existence, as if slipping from recall, and often give the impression of a screen having been inserted between the image and its witness, conclusively separating us from it. The complexity of these paintings, their embrace of ambiguity and detachment, is at odds with the prevailing shift towards the iconic, the graphic and the sensational in contemporary image production, and is among the reasons that Tuymans is revered by his peers.” [Ben Eastham on Luc Tuymans]
“The pictures are intended to operate in the mind above all: to come back when they’re no longer visible. It’s the representation of the invisible, the omitting that opens deeper layers of significance. No work of art should have a clear-cut meaning, it must have many, and that’s why you have to bring in this area of void.” [Ende – Udo Kittelmann in conversation with Luc Tuymans]

“Comics provide figurative painters with a reservoir of raw materials of a very special kind. These reserved materials can be integrated as vivifying elements in the various successions of the “evolution of the classical image”. It is material that has not been worn out, that is innocent and above all that speaks to the child inside the painter, and keeps that child alive.
The unconscious is a never-ending source of imageries that seem to just be waiting to reveal themselves in my paintings. It’s an area where things are still all jumbled together and don´t have specific intentions, material that the painter is allowed to configure at will.
When I paint, I don´t think, and instead I surrender myself completely to my feelings and to what the canvas demands of me. To me, this means bringing order, not to a mental space, but to the space of the unconscious. As a painter, I try to systematize the irrational, and to do that in painting after painting. This process is not easily reconciled with communication as it is most commonly understood.” [Neo Rauch in conversation with Elena Cué]

Unlike Neo Rauch, who stages scenes of semantic overkill with his overpopulated pictures, Tuymans draws up the very opposite with pale colors, empty space, and removal. Whereas with Rauch it is overabundance, with Tuymans it is meaningful emptiness that sets the hermeneutic machine in motion. A formidable posse has already been summoned in the explanation of Tuymans’s paintings: Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, W. G. Sebald, Benedict de Spinoza, Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, Jacques Lacan, Theodore W. Adorno, Jacques Derrida, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles S. Peirce, and many others. Berg writes, “Tuymans derives the material for his painting from a repository of images that refer to reality but no longer stand directly in contact with it.” This is quite an exact description of the reservoir from which this painting is nourished. It sips at the real, at the atrocity of the gas chamber and the banality of evil, while at the same time managing to remain in the preserve of autonomous art. [Peter Geimer on Luc Tuymans]

“Rauch’s cast of dimly characterized figures in this new series of paintings includes soldiers, village festival goers, workers, shopkeepers, students, businessmen, craftsmen, matrons, politicians, professors, and fools—in short, almost every category of citizen to make up a potential working social order. All of the elements are there, but the artist scrambles them in a virtual anarchy of figural gestures displacing the suspension of political belief needed to coalesce such an order. One is left wandering in these paintings, navigating the lack of clear narrative between heraldic slugs, somnambulant boatmen, sickbed protagonists, hunched crones and hulking giants, sportive clerics, thoughtful sculptresses, and scarlet maids born of flayed fish. These characters all collide in scenarios underscored by the detached assumptions of shared dogma central to medieval morality and passion plays, rather than a more modern, Shakespearean pathos that might lead one to actually identify with some of the enacted scenes. The lack of any given belief in the artist’s peculiar, post-post-modern metaphysic allows for surrealistic free association while keeping his absurd scenarios uncannily generic.” [Tom McGlynn on Neo Rauch]

Invitations to a Particular Philosophic View

Pablo Picasso Le Rêve (The Dream) 1932

What makes these paintings different is the degree of their direct sexuality. They refer without any ambiguity at all to the experience of making love to this woman. They describe sensations and, above all, the sensation of sexual comfort. Even when she is dressed or with her daughter (the daughter of Marie-Thérèse and Picasso was born in 1935) she is seen in the same way: soft as a cloud, easy, full of precise pleasures, and inexhaustible because alive and sentient. In literature the thrall which a particular woman’s body can have over a man has been described often. But words are abstract and can hide as much as they state. A visual image can reveal far more naturally the sweet mechanism of sex. One need only think of a drawing of a breast and then compare it to all the stray associations of the word, to see how this is so. At its most fundamental there aren’t any words for sex – only noises: yet there are shapes.
The old masters recognized this advantage of the visual. Most paintings have a far greater sexual content than is generally admitted. But when the subjects have been undisguisedly sexual, they have always in the past been placed in a social or moral perspective. All the great nudes imply a way of living. They are invitations to a particular philosophic view. They are comments on marriage, having mistresses, luxury, the golden age, or the joys of seduction. This is as true of a Giorgione as of a Renoir. The women lie there like conditional promises. The subjective experience of sex – the experience of the fulfilling of the promise – is ignored. (And ignored most pointedly of all in ‘pornographic’ pictures illustrating the sexual act.)
It is understandable that this should have been so in the past. There were stricter religious and social taboos. There was greater economic dependence of women and therefore a greater emphasis on the conventions of chastity and modesty. There was an established public role of art. A painting was painted for somebody else, so that ‘autobiographical’ painting was very rare; the subjective experience of sex can only be expressed autobiographically. There were also stylistic limitations.
The painter’s right to displace the parts – the right which Cubism won – is essential for creating a visual image that can correspond to sexual experience. Whatever the initial stimuli of appearances, sex itself defies them. It is both brighter and heavier than appearances, and finally it abandons both scale and identity. [John Berger on Picasso]

Pablo Picasso Mousquetaire et nu Assis 1967

“It is sometimes presumed that those voyeurs represent Picasso in impotent decrepitude, but there seems to be no evidence for the notion. Indeed, the funniest, most sweetly sexy works of the artist’s career take up the theme of voyeurism. A special treat of the Montreal show is a suite of twenty-five marvellous etchings—made in the course of twelve days in 1968—that imagine the painter Raphael doing the deed with his model and mistress La Fornarina under the eyes of a male watcher, usually Pope Julius II. The sex is necessarily athletic, because it doesn’t occur to Raphael to let go of his brushes and palette for convenience’s sake. The Pope sometimes lurks but more often sits at ease on a throne or on a chamber pot. In some of the pictures, he seems disapproving. In others, he appears to be having a whale of a time. (If anyone in attendance is grumpy, it’s Raphael’s rival Michelangelo, who is occasionally shown hiding under the bed.) If the eighty-six-year-old Picasso was ruing his senescence at the time he did these etchings, he forgot it in the course of spinning hilarious fantasies with sensual panache. The series celebrates a delirious conflation of art and sex, of looking and doing—a higher mathematics of eroticism that consigns the usual physical measures of conjugal performance to the status of dull arithmetic.
Sex served Picasso as an indestructible substitute for the social agreements and systems of belief that had previously grounded art in the world. Not for him the utopian or Arcadian, progressive or quasi-religious programs of other modern artists; he scorned both abstraction and contemporary subject matter. Not that he made choices in these matters. His temperament was his destiny. (Despite his intentions for “Guernica,” that great painting fails as propaganda by dissolving a topical outrage into timeless myth. His later attempts to be a good Communist, with images of peace doves and the like, account for perhaps his only truly bad work.) As a result, his art can never become dated, let alone old-fashioned. A virtuosic modernizer in form, he was a skulking primitive in content—not only premodern but prehistorical, revelling in primal mud. Like the makers of the Lascaux petroglyphs, he was essentially a graphic artist. He was a swordsman of the thrusting line. His curves often ache to straighten, as if they were bent springs; and the caress of his paint-handling is no smoother than a cat’s tongue. No matter how attenuated the sexual charge of his work became, it guided his choices of mark and color. Is there something tedious about Picasso’s bullying machismo? There certainly is—when you aren’t looking at his art. When you do look, he’s got you by the scruff of your instinctual being.” [Peter Schjeldahl on Picasso]

Pablo Picasso Nude Green Leaves and Bust 1932

“He could on occasion be cruel; bear in mind, however, that whatever you say about Picasso, the reverse is also apt to be true. In life, as in art, he could be one of the kindest and one of the unkindest people I have ever known. And then remember that whereas Dora was masochistic by nature, Marie-Thérèse was submissive, and throughout her relationship with Picasso she did what she was told. And because she was insanely in love with him, she was happy to do so. Her rival, Dora, was more sophisticated. She had lived previously with Georges Bataille, a great thinker and a disciple of the Marquis de Sade. Like most of the Surrealist women, she knew what she was in for. Remember too, that Man Ray, the greatest of Surrealist photographers, was a close friend of Picasso’s. I didn’t realize how close until a friend discovered that the painting that fetched $106 million last year [Nude, Green Leaves and Bust] was in fact based on a bondage photograph taken by Man Ray. In the catalogue of our Marie-Thérèse show, we’re placing the photograph and the painting side by side….
I think it’s way beyond that. Women were all important in his life because he was always apt to associate sex with art: the procreative act with the creative act. Hence the Artist and Model series in which he makes great play with the phallic brush the artist wields on his model as well as in paint on canvas in real life. As for the men in his work, most of them turn out to be self-portraits in one form or another. Time and again he appears as a painter—old or young, bearded or clean-shaven, art student or old master, Renaissance master or contemporary hack. He frequently envisages himself in the bullring as a picador or torero, as well as the bull. He even identifies with Christ. But he identifies above all with the Minotaur, this mythological creature who was half bull and half man, to whom maidens had to be sacrificed. However, Picasso’s Minotaur is not always a monster; on the contrary, he is a poignant creature, a victim like himself of misfortune and tragedy—blinded by fate and love for the little girl—Marie-Thérèse, of course—who leads him around.” [John Richardson on Picasso]