Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘abstract painting

Provisional Criticism and the New Mannerism

No matter whom you ask the concept of the provisional is likely to start an argument. This is all the more interesting not as it illuminates the work, but for what it reveals about the discourse surrounding contemporary abstract painting.[1] I have already written on my view that Provisionalism[2] represents a trend in art that has snaked through a good deal of modernist history; that its roots have tended to be ignored within larger established narratives has only broadened its connection among a diverse set of artistic practices. As it has emerged on the scene (again!) in the work of younger painters[3] it has found itself the object to both legitimate criticism and off-hand derision. If this this is the first real “new” movement in abstraction in some time[4], and the jeers appear as retrograde calls for “moving forward”, then perhaps it is time to reconsider our thinking on direction and the ground art is traversing.

Alan Pocaro’s Three Hypotheses claims to be searching for a way forward, but ultimately offers little more than condescension born of running in circles, before giving up. The introduction starts by planting a field of straw men[5] and continues on to try and figure out just what is Provisionalism’s “inexplicable appeal to artists and writers alike.” The first hypothesis is that provisional painting is something writers have created, trying to tell a good story.[6] The second states that the artists who make the work are little more than poseurs, dashing off minor efforts and propping it up with complicated theory and discourse.[7] His third hypothesis has artists mining a dead history out of nostalgia, turning backwards because of the impossibility of describing something new.[8] In truth, if there is enough art being made in a similar vein that can be grouped into a trend or style, a writer who isn’t trying to make “the evidence fit into a preconceived narrative” should probably be able to come with more varied ideas about its popularity. From a critical standpoint this is a limited set of options that betrays either an unwillingness to consider either a different point of view or an unimaginative assessment of the inherent possibilities of painting. His conclusion turns back on writing, claiming that any “disquisitions” will only support anachronistic theory. This likewise betrays a very limited sense of the possibilities of art by means of limiting its discourse to the sound bite and the press release. Refusing the utility of careful looking and thinking, and communicating the results of those investigations will not do painting any favors.

What stands out in Pocaro’s essay is the assumption that the painting in question is self-evidently “bad”[9] and that the author’s unstated biases towards art history, theory, and technique are obviously correct; I would argue that it are these assumptions that are the real problem. While they are not directly stated, we can infer that he, like many critics, want to see more work in painting, “sweat on the brow” that showed a dedication to craft and skill. Echoing Greenberg’s lament about the lowering of standards ignores the hierarchies of privilege that come with being the arbiter of those standards. Provisionalism did not remove the need for manual skill in art (that ship has long since sailed), but as it has become a focus in the practice of young artists it has become threatening exactly because it challenges the need for skill and craft within painting. This is the last high ground the old academies and hierarchies have. Appealing to a silent majority to refute aesthetic challenges harkens back to the tyrannies of the past rather than looking towards a more egalitarian (we hope) future.

There is no small irony in defending the Pre-Raphaelites from dismantling by Roberta Smith as “highly skilled.”  The Pre-Raphaelites tried to save art by looking backwards to better days, using empty displays of technical accomplishment to do it. But it, as Smith writes, “the Pre-Raphaelites seem to have made some of the first so-bad-it’s-maybe-good modern art” then they are strangely linked to artists interested in a provisional approach; both made or make art without care for what they were told art had to look like, had to be. If the works of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are valuable to contemporary artists, it is because they showed that there was value in striking out on one’s own direction, to make the art and painting that they wanted to see. Smith notes that the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is not necessarily of individual celebrity, but is embedded as a strain of DNA across wide swaths of visual culture. I believe that Provisionalism is another such trend, perhaps more recent, but also more attuned to our times.

It is pointless to decry criticism, theory, and just plain writing about art; you may just as well complain about talking about it. Every Modernist movement has had its theorist, from Baudelaire’s championing of Manet and Delacroix to the ‘bergs Stein and Green each advocating for different facets of the New York School. Artists being able to write cogently about the issues that they deal with gives a voice to the makers of the work, which is a point of view often missing from the writings of historians.[10] I think this is particularly lacking in the discussion on Provisionalism; for a painter who has been given a dry foundation instruction on stretching and priming canvas and properly mixing colors, why has no one considered the excitement that it must bring to rip up that structure and just play with the materials, to add in elements from the street and hardware store[11], to explore with one’s hands in the studio?  If the art is made, it can and will be talked and written about and if artists do not lay out their own ideas someone else will certainly fill the void for them. . That “the old arguments of modernism and post-modernism are worn-out, unproductive and irrelevant to the art of the 21st century” is an argument for the status quo… and would cede authority back to the Established power structure by default of not allowing for an alternative. The last thing that’s needed is another silent majority.

Readings of history are subjective. The nexus between and Modernism and Post-modernism and their interrelationship with critical theory need not be fixed for each viewer.[12] Artists are free to take what they can use from any given intellectual site before moving on and continuing to explore; the ones who become too loaded down with the ideas if others are the ones who will become immobile and stagnant. The artist is not to prize novelty, but to place the focus in being true to one’s own interests, My reading of western art’s history has the Modernist project reaching a singularity where the art object breaks down at the arrival of Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual art.[13] Post-modernism was born out of that singularity as art is indistinguishable from the common material that sits beside it that is not art; context and intent became as important as matter. The early days of Post-modernism saw a similar wild expansion just as Modernism did, with Feminist and Multicultural practices gaining recognition, and proliferation of new approaches: appropriation, pastiche, the Pictures Generation, Neo Expressionism, Neo-Geo. After the initial explosion the art world has continued to expand, but the initial influences of those first conglomerations exert a lesser gravity of influence.

The new Post-modern landscape of the art worlds[14] is now akin to a near infinite desert where no mode or medium is off limits and any aesthetic is viable for new work or reinvention. This is already being likened to a new Mannerism[15], and while I find the label fitting, my view that what I do not share is the pessimism for contemporary arts on this relative turn of events. I ascribe to the model of the desert in that there is near-infinite possibility to move and ultimately it is that freedom that eclipses any other detriment. Any sort of directional movement is no longer distinguishable from another; what would “forward” mean in such a context? Depending on the position of the viewer it may be an awkward tangent and to another the work will be heading backwards (and likely right through their own ideas of progress). To say that this is a perfectly fine state of affairs (let alone something desirable enough to fight for) is not to suggest that everything is just OK or that there is no use for critical thought, but the terrain of art will be constantly changing and more subtle, more difficult to read. One’s approach to looking at and thinking about art must allow for this, considering that the artist may have a radically different frame of reference. Of course a great deal of the work will be bad, some of it will just be “bad”, but some small bit of it will be good.[16] The work necessary to find art that is good[17] can hide the fact that it is a positive thing that it was made, however now it must be judged on individual merits and accomplishment, not the category it is assigned to. Categories are only generalizations; what is important are the specifics of the artwork and the relationships in question.


[1] I think it as at least safe to say that the majority of work under discussion is abstract, although there are certainly exceptions. Perhaps not all the work is “painting”, but it is at least the medium that most of the discourse centers around.

[2] And yes, I’m keeping the “ism.” It’s just easier that way.

[3] Perhaps therein lies the distinction between “Provisionialism” as a broader stylistic trend like “abstraction” and “Casualism” as described by Sharon Butler; “Casualism” has become much more specific to a time and place, and focused on a specific generation of painters. See her ‘The Casualist Tendency’ for her response to Pocaro.

[4] I am not sure that it is, but it is often treated as such.

[5] The only “massive realignment” I’ve noticed that is underway in the art world is the shift that focuses more money and attention on fewer artists through a few dealers dueling at the very top of the market. I haven’t noticed that very many (or really any) of these artists are labeled as either “provisional” or “casual”; the only people I’ve noticed lavishing the attention on it that would otherwise indicate that Provisionalism represents a new “flagship abstract style” are those going through the trouble to vociferously condemn it.

[6] This makes it seem as if the category has been created from whole cloth by fictioneers, rather than writers who focus on the history, theory, and criticism of art and painting. Raphael Rubinstein and Sharon Butler were responding to work they were seeing in studios, galleries and museums; taking the work as evidence and fitting it into a narrative is not an example of “trying to tell a good story,” it’s an example of scholarship.

[7] While it’s always nice when an erstwhile educator speaks derisively of his students in a public forum, and always enjoy making fun of how people different from me dress, I think the greater critical flaw in this argument is that takes the weakest possible work, student painting that is not even being offered for exhibition, and assumes that criticism of it and its makers is a suitable stand-in for the category as a whole. One may as well pull any fourth generation Abstract Expressionist out a West Village garret and hold their work up as a repudiation of Pollock and deKooning. (And I bet he’d be dressed funny, too. I bet you could find someone with a beret.)

[8] Given the direction it seems most of Provisionalism’s detractors would like art to go, complaining about it not being forward thinking enough is highly ironic.

[9] Granted, Provisionalism is sometimes labeled as purposefully “bad”, but I think Pocaro’s meaning here is limited to only a qualitative judgment.

[10] I’m reminded of a discussion I had with an art history student on the occasion of deKooning’s recent MoMA retrospective. We were talking about the relevance of the newspaper transfers in his great urban abstractions of the mid-Fifties; but the historian saw them without realizing they were an accident of trying to keep his oil paint wet on the surface, not anything he was purposefully trying to do.

[11] It is worth noting that a great many artists are working day jobs that require “sweat on the brow” and are typically surrounded by the tools and materials of manual labor.

[12] Just as they are not for scholars and historians.

[13] Yes, it is heavily influenced by Arthur Danto’s writing, especially “Beyond the Brillo Box” and subsequent texts on ‘the end of art.’

[14] There are plural art worlds, and it is possible to occupy a small niche or spread out and move between a wide strata of socioeconomic, intellectual, and aesthetic orbits. I use “art worlds” to indicate that spheres of interest and influence can be so different that there is no universal focus of those who operate around art. One cannot ascribe something to “the art world” without inherently limiting the frame of reference under discussion; art certainly also contains the opposition.

[15] I was already thinking of this framing when I heard Mark Staff Brandl articulate it on Bad at Sports. More recently it has gained even greater currency with Jerry Saltz’s latest lament on what ails contemporary art.

[16] I still believe in Sturgeon’s Law as a guiding principle when looking at art.

[17] Again, from one’s own point of view.

The Searchers

Two of the best painting shows up in Chelsea right now are Amy Sillman: Transformer (or how many light bulbs does it take to change a painting?) and Charline von Heyl at Friedrich Petzel. Both artists are essentially working within the idiom of “abstract painting”, but both have figurative forms and references moving through these canvases as they search for meaning. The difference is in which direction those bodies are moving.

Amy Sillman’s large paintings feel more resolved, as if she’s arrived at a place that allows for a definitive statement. Parts of her previous figures are reemerging from gestural drawing and vivid color, aiming cartoon flashlights to help them find their way out the gorgeous wilderness Ms. Sillman has painted them into. Painting them out may be akin to a rescue, but contrary to a search in the wilderness I think the more space Ms. Sillman has to work with the better. Her large scale paintings allow her gestures and forms to get large and really move around the entire canvas without clogging the pictoral space. As she restricts the area available to her the paintings sacrifice clarity, as if we’re losing a sense of a larger whole by zooming our magnifaction in on a detail. In this sense a few very small paintings presented give us the least, and are akin to looking at only one or two pixels.

Where Ms. Sillman has a more noticeable style, Charline von Heyl takes the idea of searching for a new image to the extreme where the idea of individual style breaks down; indeed it can be easy to miss her search in the artworld’s tidal cacophony. I know her work more through its inclusion in recent tomes on abstract painting, such as Robert Nickas’s. Those paintings, even in reproduction, show an artist playing with the language of abstraction in each painting, taking it apart and seeing just how far it can be prodded, pushed, and stretched. Here there are passages evoking things that emerge from her gestures, stains, and patterns. Black Stripe Mojo has a cascade of forms that evoke livestock against a striped ground, a James Bond pin-up pushes through a pattern of diamonds in Woman # 2. Some forms are more concrete than others, but each is ultimately at the service of Ms. Heyl’s investigation. She sets her boundaries at the level of individual paintings, whereas Ms. Sillman’s carry over through her entire exhibition. It is the difference from canvas to canvas that lets Ms. Heyl trade the definitive statement for the energy of the search.

Written by Brian Dupont

May 2, 2010 at 11:15 pm

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