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]
“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]
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]