Not Obliged to Make Extensive and Bizarre Claims
“No, painting fell a victim to criticism, if nothing else, because it was not rewardingly troublesome—it 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”]
“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]