Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘Art

Terry Winters: Material and Mapping.

I find it continually surprising how much the art we respond to most, either as makers or viewers, is deeply connected to what we are exposed to in their formative years. The sympathies and rebellions we cultivate when we first plunge into art have lasting consequences that run biologically deep. I can only imagine the excitement of young modernists turning the academies upside down, spilling out to work in the capitals of Europe, forming groups and “isms” ever faster, blinking in and out of existence like quantum particles. As art schools became more professionalized[1], the sense of needing to advance a shared style or aesthetic concern seems to have diminished in favor of collectives with looser aesthetic dogmas.[2] Whether this is a cause or result of the rise of Post-modernism is an open question[3], but just as it would be foolish to dismiss the influence of pedagogy on the course of art, so it would be equally foolish to accord it as much scope when so much energy is directed toward revising the narratives of contemporary art.

As an undergraduate committed to painting, I was initially interested in figuration and narrative, but I quickly turned to abstraction as I worked through basic forms reduced to diagrams. I wasn’t interested in history painting or in the interaction of figures in actual space[4], but I was also not interested in the abstraction of material for its own sake.[5] My initial points of reference were Pop or neo-imagist artists, but I didn’t make a personal connection to the work, which led to my feeling a little lost. Then my teacher[6] took the time to drive me and a few other students out to see an exhibition of Terry Winters’s paintings.

It was a distillation of his Whitney retrospective, showing mostly large-scale paintings. They immediately grabbed me for their combination of scientific reference, painterly process and the integration of abstraction with a sense of space rooted in figure-ground relationships. His botanical forms were built out of impasto that sometimes seemed to be inches thick.[7] They floated in the diagrammatic space of the canvas or materialized out of scratching in the paint like corrections in a scientist’s field journal, and I was blown away. The work seemed to be speaking directly to me, a sensation that was enhanced as I digested Lisa Phillips and Klaus Kertess’s retrospective catalog. The influence went very deep and affected a great deal of how I made art, from an interest in every technical component of painting to building a studio practice that included continuous drawing.[8]

Other influences came and went, but I continued to follow Winters’s work, though mostly at a distance from New York, and so mostly through reproduction. Not knowing the difference between the real painting and the image as his work changed lead to a curious case of mis-translation. The final works in the Kansas exhibition showed him moving closer to his spores and blastula, magnifying them to fill the canvas and melding them with the painted ground. The paint was thick and luscious, like the wet-into-wet impasto of late Guston. Winters had not yet transitioned fully into the networks and fields that occupy him now, and when I first saw reproductions of the new paintings, I assumed they had the same surface topologies because I did not consider how much of his work comes from an interaction with the natural world.[9] Plants and fungi can be collected as specimens and held in the hand. Moving one’s point of view to the inside of a cell requires examination beyond the naked eye; the experience is at a remove, the material weight of handling glass slides under a microscope has given way to computer imaging on screens and the surface of the work shows the new source. Where I imagined near reliefs of painted networks, Winters was actually working much more simply and directly, with the linear structures graphed in translucent skeins.

Winters’s exhibition “Facts and Fictions” at the Drawing Center shows the transition clearly. As one starts clockwise around the gallery one can see how drawing led the way. The earliest works, on the south wall, are thick charcoal, chalk, and sometimes crayon and graphite; the images emerge out of a velvety density embedded in the paper. To anyone familiar with his paintings, the facture is instantly recognizable, although the paper’s existence as exposed ground stands as in stark contrast to the refusal to let primed canvas enjoy a similar spotlight. The back wall contains five works on large paper that shift quickly from drawing and mixed media to paintings on paper. The choppy structure and palette of “Animation” is echoed in the painting “Parallel Rendering 2” of a year later; the off-white of the paper is a similar value to the painting’s tan ground, and the traces of yellow behind the network adding traces of luminosity.[10] The north wall marks the transition to the exploration of the entire surface as a shifting and tessellating plane. Winters has moved through layers of magnification to spaces and fields described by complicated mathematics that are graphed on computer screens, and the drawings’ surfaces have shifted to precise skins rendered in shiny graphite with additions of charcoal or ink that are screen-thin.[11] Depth is created by the spatial alignment of the structure rather than the layers of material articulating relationships between figure and ground.[12]

This is primarily evident in the comparison of selections from the Schema series from 1985–86 to the to the 48 drawings in cases on the floor from 2006–16 (with different cycles emerging from the overall series). Both are comprised of letter format paper[13] that offer an encyclopedic view of Winters’s visual preoccupations at the time. In the Schema drawings there is a wider variety of material exploration, from pencil and charcoal to watercolor, gouache, and even oil stick. The botanical forms and cellular accumulations are laid out off-handedly; stacked, layered, and nested in scratched marks and jottings. Their placement responds as much to the improvisations in the painted field of space they inhabit as to mere representation. The heavy paper buckles with layers of wet media, giving a palpable linkage of biological and creative process. By contrast, the later series is dry, the paper retains its plane and the spatial graphing and forms tend to be centrally organized and often the deckle edge is delineated with a hard pencil edge. These images read as a mapping of the paper’s space. There is still space for improvisation, but the forms are ultimately more descriptive than their predecessors, even as they are more difficult for the layman to understand and identify.

Earlier in the summer, “Facts and Fictions” could be contrasted with Winters’s exhibition “12twelvepaintings” at Matthew Marks Gallery. One could examine how the spaces in the drawings projected to six and a half by five feet.[14] Color and texture articulate the surface, and the scale and painting process allows for more complex interactions between different descriptive systems. The paint surface did not grab me the way the earlier works did, but I appreciated their cartographer’s directness. As I left I found a small monoprint from 2004 in the back of the gallery entrance, under the stairs. The pale colors alternated between atmospheric space and border, reversing their functions as they interacted with other elements. A strip of copper rectangles along the top implied a sheet torn from spiral bound pad. The structure seemed to rise up off of the paper in embossed relief, delineating a twisting spiral space and an enclosing frame, and then pushing beyond the artificial border. Perhaps it was an experiment for the artist, but it struck me that I couldn’t help but see in it the physicality I’d always imagined in Winters’s large paintings. This avenue may not be important to the artist, after all many artists explore directions that are not important to their practice, but it was important for me to find.

“Terry Winters: Facts and Fictions” continues at the Drawing Center until August 12.

——————————————————

[1] Yale’s MFA program sending Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, and others right into SoHo seems like a turning point for the professional connections between graduate programs and the New York gallery scene.

[2] Consider the YBA generation that came out of Goldsmith’s; their work is really only connected by being collected by Charles Saatchi, rather than any shared aesthetic concerns.

[3] Although to be fair, the social snobbery and cliquishness of some strains of modernism would put many present-day teenagers to shame.

[4] Photography seemed to have secured this ground and rendering tableau in paint seemed to only be adding expressionist flourishes that confused the relationships of the figures to themselves and the space they inhabited.

[5] Yet.

[6] Sharon Louden, in what must have been one of her first jobs, and who has proceeded to do a great work on what it means to be a working artist in today’s culture.

[7] The phallic forms of “Pitch Lake” particularly stand out in this regard.

[8] It also led me to make a great many very derivative paintings, as is a common reaction for most art students.

[9] This really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given how much the early naturalists figure in literature of Winters’s early works.

[10] The painting is more resolved, but where its yellow structure describes a source of flight behind the primary structure, the streaks of color in the drawing add to the sense of directness in the artist recording his intent.

[11] This is especially evident in the “7-Fold Sequence” works.

[12] This approach to the space of the artwork is evident in Winters’s prints, where an a priori articulation of the image is dictated by serial nature of the printing process.

[13] Artists’ approach to paper is always fascinating. Many process-based artists experiment with a broad variety of paper (Brice Marden and his use of Asian as well as European watercolor papers comes to mind), but Winters’s focus is on capturing the image, and his paper doesn’t call attention to itself as a unique material.

[14] Although the exact dimensions of the 2006–16 works are not provided, note that a letter size of eleven to twelve by eight and a half to nine inches keeps the proportions nearly identical. The use of framing devices within the paintings serves to further tighten the proportions.

Advertisements

Written by Brian Dupont

August 8, 2018 at 12:58 pm

Variations of One: Brice Marden’s Monchromes

For something that would seem so simple, so cut and dried, the idea of the monochrome painting has proved incredibly elastic. Supposedly a single color supported on a plane, its basic structure lacks analogy in other artistic mediums. [i] Reducing the object under view to such a supposedly atomic unit separates the time spent looking at a painting as distinct from engaging with other media. A painting can be taken in ‘all at once’ whereas the unspooling of narrative media cannot. Even within the boundaries of abstraction, sculpture’s requirement of a form existing in three-dimensional space pushes the actuality of shape and material to the fore. The time one must take to walk around a sculpture is the same progression to view a dance or film.[ii] Conversely, looking at a painting can be entirely contained between the frontal two-dimensional plane of the painting and the viewer, each mirroring the other. Perhaps this accounts for the totemic aspect of the monochrome, a painting which by virtue of its supposed reduction is traditionally placed at either the beginning[iii] or the end of painting.[iv]

Academic simplicity would place the monochrome at a nexus of geometry and gesture, between minimal reduction and the ecstatic expression of wide fields of color, in theory allowing for a painting that removes all but the barest traces of drawing. But as with totems, the range of implementation and function is as diverse as the people who make them, and their real world existence is far messier than is often intimated.[v] Painters have been exploring and pushing the boundaries of a single plane of color since Malevich opened his “desert of pure feeling.” The point at which one color turns into another is nebulous at best; turning as much on the stuff, the paint, and how it is applied: thick or thin or mixed with what; with what energy and direction, over what ground and with what medium. One of the most obvious stratagems has been making monochromes that include more than a single hue; even Makevich’s first Constructivist icon was a black square on a white ground after all. Painters, perhaps like shamans before them, seem to bristle at imposed restraint. This brings us to Brice Marden’s new exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery, and his return to the monochrome.

Walking into the central space at 522 22nd Street the viewer is confronted by ‘Summer Square’, a large brown monochrome that stands as a seemingly stark refutation of his paintings of the last two decades.[vi] Turning to the right the multi-panel ‘Small Seasons’ cycles through subtly tuned variations on four basic colors seemingly propped up on underlying washes of paint that form a familiar footer at the bottom edge of the canvas. The show, spreading across two galleries, is intended as a statement, the argument of an exacting artist for the ground he finds himself on.

In a previous exhibition I felt that he was starting to search for a unity and synthesis between his two iconic bodies of work, the monochromes and calligraphic paintings. In works like ‘Second Letter (Zen Spring)’ rectangles of color flanked his more recent curvilinear networks. Those flat sections even had nearly identical proportions to earlier sections in his multi panel paintings, such as ‘Thira.’ However upon further reflection I would now argue that his return to the monochrome has been portended for far longer. Marden is noted for being a very particular and careful painter, with so much as a dangling line seen as a momentous change[vii], so it shouldn’t be such a surprise that the groundwork for this move was laid long ago. His original glyphs turned and twisted with the energy of calligraphy[viii], but eventually their contours regulated and flattened, becoming broader and far less dynamic, but deeper vessels for color. They became ribbons rather than writing, holding one color next to another just as a single panel interacted within a larger assembly of panels in the seventies and eighties. He has been been emptying out everything but color in his paintings for longer than we might recognize; the touchstone references of his work have largely resided in Asian art and calligraphy, so much that when he exhibited a single monochrome[ix], the focus was on its basis in the colors of delicate Ru ware porcelain, and his attempt to recreate it from memory. I do not recall these nine small panels of solid color pointing to a re-engagement with the monochrome, but in retrospect it seems obvious.

The key to Marden’s painting has always been his engagement with the plane, and how he delineated the subtle aspects of its geometry.[x] His early monochromes measured the grid off as a container for color, and the inherent regulation of the surface plane restrain his monochromes from entering the vast, open spaces of color field painting. This has always been the beauty of the early paintings: the material density is pitch perfect, allowing a sense of light to emerge from the weighty reality of paint without pushing into vapor or deep space (the muting of his paint with wax and his colors with gray probably helped). The relation of his body to the individual canvas was how he brought drawing into paintings that are typically seen as removing graphic engagement; early individual canvases regulated his gesture, and later single panels were individual units in a complex whole.[xi] Of course the calligraphic works were also based in drawing, and these new works are also based in drawing; the key to his new monochromes lies in the suite of small ‘African Drawings’, their importance revealed by their inclusion in the main exhibition space. [xii] The modest works on paper are where the paintings structure comes from, down to the proportion of the margin at the bottom.[xiii] Careful looking at the paintings will reveal the trace of an original formation of squiggles and scratches that have been subsumed in later layers of color. He is still charting and dividing the plane by incremental gesture, and using these to build up a wall, rather than a field, that nonetheless glows.[xiv]

Marden’s tentativeness expands the exhibition, perhaps beyond what is necessary. Paintings from the Nevis Stele series show the ribbons emptying out[xv], and ‘Uphill with Center’ serves as a bridge, albeit one that feels contrived. The ground of the center panel is the same pale blue[xvi] as the Nevis Steele paintings, and the ribbons that snake across the surface are the same colors as the monochrome panels that flank it, two on a side. It is as if he felt compelled to show us that this was an organic transition between bodies of work, but the constituent parts don’t work together. The color relations aren’t enough to overcome the graphic contrast between the horizon line created by the bottom margins of the four monochrome panels and the curvilinear tracery; it reads as a juxtaposition made in the studio, not a resolved painting.

The new work doesn’t need any such artificial joinery with the past. If there is anything tyrannical in contemporary art, it is the relentless demand for something new, paradoxically coupled with the expectation that the artist will maintain something close to a brand. Perhaps Marden is conscious of the strictures of his market, or perhaps his overall practice does as much to reveal who he is as do individual paintings. Either way, as an artist approaches their own winter no one should fault them for steps backwards, or those forwards that appear to miss. Marden should still be able to show us a thing or two; the paintings on Marble that he exhibited with the Ru ware monochrome harkened back to the works he made between monochrome and calligraphy, the so-called graph paper series. Underappreciated, these works, mostly on paper, pose a unique engagement with drawing and measuring the plane that would present a fascinating challenge to realize with the same sense of light in his painting. Energy and movement are preferable to a slow decline into hibernation, and there is certainly a precedent among shamans and calligraphers for expelling rather than conserving their final energies. Here’s to hoping that Marden can increase the tempo of his dance.

 

‘Brice Marden New Paintings and Drawings’ continues at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York through December 24th.

 

[i] Perhaps the closest relatives come out of experimental film; Warhol’s ‘Empire State Building’ attains a similar aesthetic stance while effectively neutralizing film’s temporal aspect. One could also look at Cage’s 4’33” as a musical equivalent that

[ii] … but perhaps inverted, with the viewer providing the movement rather than the medium supplying it.

[iii] As a blank canvas.

[iv] See ‘Ryman’s Tact’ in ‘Painting as Model’ by Yve-Alain Bois.

[v] When handling totemic or ceremonial objects, what is often surprising is how sticky they can be.

[vi] Although in an age of press releases and teases, it’s not like anyone interested is unaware of the change in his work.

[vii] “(Real Marden-watchers will notice he’s even let a couple of lines dangle in space — a huge move for this ultra-circumspect artist, one that creates local concavities, triggering a sense that the whole surface is undulant.)” – Jerry Saltz.

[viii] It is worth noting that this energy is still contained in his drawings, and the artist allows an abandon in ink that is missing in his large paintings.

[ix] And a much more “pure” monochrome than the works found in the current exhibition, for the colors of each panel

[x] See Klaus Kertess’ essay ‘Plane Image’ in ‘Brice Marden Paintings and Drawings’ (Abrams).

[xi] This is where Marden distinguishes himself from Ellsworth Kelly. Kelly’s colors are typically flat and generic, and define space by their shape or relation in relief. Where Kelly’s shaped canvases project into and engage space, Marden remains committed to the single plane of the rectangle, and creates paintings where the color is embedded in the paint, rather than reflected off of it.

[xii] The main space at 522 West 22nd Street is the central thrust of the show, with drawings that follow from the African series and additional ribbon paintings residing next door at 526. The show focusing on prints at 502 West 22nd is not referenced in the press release, and serves to connect earlier ideas in Marden’s practice to the current show via a different medium.

[xiii] These margins again harken back to his early work, but are so wide as to be almost a caricature of the thin, revelatory strip he gleaned from Johns.

[xiv] That Marden gets such dark colors to glow connects his work to European painting more than Asian art. The nine panels of ‘Eastern Moss’ pose a nice rejoinder to ‘Ru Ware’; the shift between green and brown is subtle, and though not belied by the title, the colors are reminiscent of the deep color of rough, industrial linen, a coarse relative of the material that Marden paints on.

[xv] And the dates of these paintings showing us that it took a while.

[xvi] Or “pale blue” as much as anyone can identify a specific color in any Marden painting. They are not so distant from the colors Marden remembered in the Ru ware painting.

Written by Brian Dupont

December 8, 2015 at 9:37 pm

Out of Time (Part 3): A Wandering Market

… Or, Attack of the Giant Killer Robots![1]

As Forever Now has engaged the critical debate around painting through the lens of technology and science fiction, and if our current context or the paintings themselves (see Part 1 and Part 2) don’t support this argument, there may still be a way to map contemporary fictions onto the landscape of painting. Popular criticism of the show has been unable to avoid discussion of the current art market and its influences, and most of what has been written certainly has a dystopian flavor. So if the Postmodern landscape of the art world is a “Desert of the Real” and artists are working inside of this new (or really not so new) reality, then we must also consider that the structures that surround and support that art have also changed, perhaps without us knowing, perhaps irrevocably. The issue at hand in any contested environment is not only what can be done to right the mistakes that brought us to this place, but what unintended consequences we might visit on the future.

Painting functions as a barometer in the nexus of art and market. Painting’s deaths have coincided with economic downturns, and when things pick back up there is usually a resurgence of interest in colored mud hung on the wall. However these shifts are more a matter of narrative for critics and historians; it is safe to say that the best artists continue to make the work they want regardless of fashion, even pushing at boundaries further when they are out of the spotlight. The continuing upward trend in the market, whether bull run or bubble, is unnerving, and leading to art being assessed differently. Aesthetics and criticism are intertwined with economics and influence in a way that if not really any different than in past generations[2], is more apparent in our networked era of information wanting to be free. If Forever Now exemplifies our current condition, it is in the implication that the transition to Postmodernism has finally caught up with not only what art is being made, but how it is being talked about, exhibited and sold. As artists and dealers are being forced to adjust to a Postmodern art market[3], critics and historians are functioning more and more as market analysts, intertwining aesthetics and economics, and perhaps privileging the concerns of the latter more than they should. As the narrative threads are tied together, there is a real danger that art may eventually lose the individual spark that makes it more than mere commodity.

The painting being labeled[4] as zombie formalism makes the workings of the market easy to criticize, but the lesson to be learned is that what will come next isn’t going to be a return to what we used to have. Writing in the Brooklyn Rail about the less heralded Whitney Museum exhibition Remote Viewing a decade ago, Stephen Maine derided the trend of “vernacular abstraction” as

“…the order of the day, with formalists scarce among younger painters … In part, this is a response to pressures of an expanding market, wherein collectors with deep pockets but little taste for art history, impatient with the linguistic indifference of high abstraction, are provided some anecdotal avenues of approach to the work.”

It is troubling for the discourse of art that who buys the work, for whatever reason (real or imagined) affects the criticism of it. Certainly great works have had ignominious beginnings, and while charges of philistinism are routinely leveled at new money forcing its way into any rarefied market, such criticism can be just as much about reinforcing a status quo of back channel exclusivity and power as lamenting the passing of connoisseurship.

The work in Remote Viewing exhibited a strong trend towards the idiosyncratic and handmade; towards uneven surfaces that did not compromise their facture for easy decoration and did not skimp on authorial labor.[5] These qualities are not really less evident in Forever Now but they have become far less emphasized as personal expression through the manipulation of materials has come to be seen as historical redundant; if any mark that can be made has already been made, how can it be a vehicle for unique personal expression? Over the last decade painting has absorbed the values of a market that embraced artists like Jeff Koons, whose legacy and practice espouses commodification and production above all else. In “Zombie Formalism” this legacy has trickled down to young artists who emulate the slick look and easy production from the top of a flush market. There are consequences to removing the artist’s hand and head from making art. Previously every artist that turned the studio into a production line first had to figure out how to make the thing themselves; the vacuousness of the worst contemporary painting is the result of short cuts and shoddy effort, of time not spent on the work.

Likewise there are consequences to the shift to an economic Postmodernism. The rise of “art” within Western European society[6] as something for the individual was tied to the rise of the middle class. The art of the academy mirrored the ossification of a society that eventually birthed not only Marxism, but also Modernism; avante garde art ceased to be made for the middle (i.e. merchant) class as evidenced by the title “bourgeois” descending into deprecating slur. Modernism also saw popular culture embrace different media than high art, furthering the divide.[7] With the shift to Postmodernism all but complete, we are faced with the demise of the middle class’s relevance to art portending the demise of the middle class itself. As more wealth accumulates to the top 1% and the middle class shrinks, collecting art has come to be seen as a game for oligarchs and the super-rich. This perception is reinforced every time the art press puts sales figures ahead of aesthetic content, and it ultimately only serves those wielding money in the art market like a weapon.

There has been money and influence behind the form and content of art from the beginning[8], but the opinion of artists, critics and connoisseurs carries less and less weight. We’re nearly 30 years removed from Robert Hughes’ essay Requiem for a Featherweight.[9] His critique of Basquait included coupling the Whitney Museum’s interest with the economic drive for a retrospective, but instead of destroying Basquait’s reputation, in the intervening years all we’ve seen is his continued canonization and an increase in his resale prices. Setting aside the validity of Hughes’ critique, it is evident that economic interests trump the critic as lone curmudgeon.[10] Instead of tilting at windmills of artistic reputation propped up as an asset class, we would do better to provide an alternate narrative of art grounded in what we are for, not against. We do not all have to agree (indeed, we should expect to vehemently disagree at times), but we do have to make a story for contemporary art that allows the thinking and making of the work, not its price, to be paramount.

 

 

[1] Which I’ve been teasing here in the notes since Part 1; that’s why you read the notes, people.

[2] We’ve all read enough pithy references about the Medici and their influence on the art of the residence, so let’s just pretend I put one here.

[3] Best outlined by Tim Schneider in The Gray Market.

[4] It’s a label that seems very dependent on current popular culture and its fixation on Zombies (for example, with the Walking Dead). If this work had come to prominence even 5 years ago when vampires and the Twilight movies were all the rage, I’m sure we would’ve been hearing about “vampire formalism” and paintings that looked good (and even sparkled) on the wall, but were devoid of any reflection of substance or deeper content, and were ultimately sucking the life out of painting.

[5] It’s interesting to note that the only artist in both shows, Julie Mehertu, has gone against the grain in both shows; showing more highly polished and produced works in Remote Viewing, and more gestural and seemingly transitional works in Forever Now.

[6] This only applies to western art out of the Renaissance tradition; Eastern art has followed a slightly different path, although artists were still dependent on an infrastructure provided by the ruling elite. Perhaps an analogy can be drawn comparing working within the free market to academia?

[7] One of the more interesting implications in Postmodernism is so called “high” art circling back and incorporating these media (photography, film and video, digital and internet practice) into contemporary discourse.

[8] Everybody wave to the Medici!

[9] Originally published in the New Criterion, 1988 and collected in Nothing If Not Critical.

[10] See Dave Hickey as a current example.

Written by Brian Dupont

February 15, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Out of Time (Part 2): In the Desert.

As part 1 of this essay considered the metaphorical space of the desert as a model for the new condition of painting within Postmodernism, the physical space of Forever Now is equally revealing. The exhibition is on the top floor, sitting in stark contrast to Matisse’s cut outs.[1] Compared to the lyrical journey on a pleasantly winding path that circumnavigates one of the high-water marks of modernism and pure pleasure in color and form, how is an exhibition mucking around in the creation of the grimy present supposed to stand up? The show feels as if it is being hyped to raise its profile as much as possible just on the way to the 4th floor. A large painting hangs over the main lobby like a billboard and several monumentally framed pieces are propped against the wall on either side of the entrance, like outsized carnival barker’s signs. Once inside the large space[2] is divided into a series of branching chambers with partitions encouraging meandering and no strict path, but also no exit except back the way one came.[3] Dead-ending against the back wall forces the viewer to rebound and wind one’s way back through the show and make new connections and consider different relations and viewpoints. The exhibition layout cancels any hierarchy and allows for slipping glimpses of how some model of the whole might lock together. Looking at the show is an exercise in exploration, of navigating terrain that is not set.

Other than being painting made recently, the work has no common denominator, outside of perhaps generalities of abstraction or a certain sense of scale[4], although many of the works have bits of the real world peeking through. The artists share no agenda or style; they are simply trying to make paintings that reflect how they interact with and process their world. That their work shows its influences and continues a dialog with art of the past does not necessarily point to any “atemporal” influence of the net, beyond its reality as a condition of our shared world. All of the artists have started making their mature work, if not lived their entire lives since the advent of Postmodernism; the interaction between the history of images and present production is ingrained in how they approach the canvas.

Amy Sillman’s abstractions provide the clearest model of how painting can make something new when the language of invention is played out, and in the process they show just how obsolete the idea of “newness” is. They are often (and incorrectly) labeled as a grab-bag mix of styles, a criticism that latches on to surface similarity rather than looking at just what Sillman creates for herself. She has found her voice in the direct handling of paint, getting colors that don’t easily go together to mix with gesture, shape and space to form a hard won picture that just barely keeps their different compositional elements in balance. They teeter on the edge of falling off the ledge, but the constant revisions within the picture are what give them their subtle vibrational energy and move the eye through the painting. The more complicated she gets the better; her simpler paintings flatten out as though with too few pictorial balls in the air there is not enough to sustain interest, either hers or the viewer’s. While there are no intimations of the figure here, it has often made appearances in her work; when it does it is more complicated in its relation to abstract elements in the picture than Guston[5] while remaining much more autonomous than in deKooning.[6] Just because she is working with a subject others have used, she is not beholden to them and her practice allows her raise content in subtler ways than her supposed sources.

Nicole Eisenman’s large portrait heads combined confrontational scale with unassuming demeanor. They confront Picasso with a sly rejoinder born of a contemporary eye. Her large frontal slabs of color are as precisely keyed as Sillman’s, and the paint surface is as worked and rewarding of close inspection. In several of the paintings she has pasted ethnographic clippings onto the surface. Their shapes echo those built in paint, put they flicker irritatingly, causing a difficult shift in resolutions of scale as the dull grisaille of newsprint or Xerox tries to hide against oil paint, but sit on the surface pushing the space in the painting back. They continue to grate, itching the brain; the fact that I want them removed is probably why they’re there. It is also an example of just how aware a critic must be of one’s own biases. One of my favorite paintings by Eisenman, The Break up, has a similar format, but lacks additional collage. I found myself longing for its unadulterated surface, and spent time going back to see if I could get the artist’s intent rather than trying to make them fit into my own preconceptions. Her Easter Island portraits make for a dynamic conversation with Mark Grohtjahn’s mask paintings, which explode out with color and minute gesture – the mass is the same as Eisenman’s, but built as a mosaic rather than a slab; we get to see to very different artists approaching a similar idea in very different ways. In Grohtjahn any sense of a source portrait is obliterated in a flurry of paint. His works are not without their own material quirks. Impasto paint curls around stretched linen, but the paint is actually on cardboard. If you look carefully you can detect the slight deflection of the surface plane away from the wall in one of the panels.

These sorts of material inconsistencies and deviations from “pure” painting run throughput the work in the show. Greenberg’s purity of medium was being discarded almost as quickly as it was becoming established dogma, and what a painting is made out of is considered only when it is blatantly foregrounded by the work, and then if it is so obvious the work usually falls flat. Rashid Johnson’s scratches in soap and wax fail for inserting a Twombly-esque distraction where none is needed[7]; if the resonance of the materials and their importance to the artist’s cultural and ethnic experience is the central point then shouldn’t the simple act of just matter-of-factly putting them on the surface be enough? Trying to make it look like art seems more self-conscious and is ultimately unconvincing. On the opposite end of a similar spectrum Richard Aldrich’s wispy gestures are interesting as sketches writ large, an idea proposed quickly in the studio, but they do not read as full blown statements – it is here that we start to encounter the slippery slope of just how much work really is needed to make a painting.[8] It seems as if the critical eye may slide over some paintings that seem to easily made, too strategized into being. By contrast Dianna Molzan breaks apart the components of a painting to make charming and inventive objects that inject personal idiosyncrasy into the cool ontology of the painting as object. Every aspect of her wry objects is carefully considered[9], and this investment results in a warmth and humor in a small scale object[10] that stands up to an empire of large canvases.

Twombly’s influence runs deep through the exhibition, like a common genetic marker. His off-handed and scrawling gesture is a common antecedent to Provisionalism and other strains of the abject in contemporary painting.[11] Critics have not laid the blame at his doorstep, but he is the precursor for the aesthetic developments that are the most troubling to the old guard. He heralds the obsolescence of virtuosity, the divorce of the monumental work matched to a grand statement. To put it another way, when Richard Serra called Twombly the bravest person in modern art for taking on Pollock with only a pencil, the other side of this is that it was possible not only to take on Pollock with only a pencil, but to win. In winning he shifted the stakes and scope away from the tortures of labor and towards the academics of abstraction. He removed doubt[12] from the process of making a painting that was an anathema to Guston and deKooning. It’s instructive to compare his Treatise on the Veil to Forever Now and see just how much contemporary painting falls under his influence. There are other such giants that loom over painting (Polke comes to mind) but Forever Now’s focus on abstraction is what foregrounds Twombly.

Perhaps the most surprising comparison to Twombly is Julie Mehertu, who has covered her trademark precise pen line with flicks of brushed ink. It’s as if turbulent weather and atmosphere has descended to surround her previous architectural subjects. In the larger painting on view it is possible to discern her more standard pictorial language in earlier layers, giving these works the feeling that they were unsatisfactory works that were treated as salvage experiments. They also seem to come out of the small scale (and definitely less-produced) paintings in her recent solo show at Mariam Goodman, but whether they represent a new direction or merely a tangent in her practice, they stand out for how they relate to the exhibition’s curatorial conceit. Mehertu’s iconic works are steeped in the relationships of systems and the transfer of information across global networks; there is a robust thread connecting them to the digital references the concept of the atemporal suggests (and William Gibson’s writings practically demand), but Hoptman’s focus is on the recycling and reclamation of images and references rather than the mechanisms and infrastructure of that transfer. As such whatever formal turns Mehertu takes, the comparison of the exhibition is limited to surface similarities of the aesthetic qualities of the objects themselves and not to exploring the deeper implications of the interactions.[13]

Collector’s darling and critical whipping boy Oscar Murillo is presenting his paintings for the first time in New York. Given the arc and design of his career it would seem to raise expectations perhaps beyond what the paintings can support.[14] Murillo seems aware of the possible bind, and his interest in moving his art past just being pretty pictures on the wall is on view in a pile of unstretched canvases left lying in the corner to be dragged around and rearranged by the show’s visitors. The gesture speaks to a common desire by painters, especially those working abstractly, to be taken seriously and express something beyond mere decoration.[15] Murrilo’s answer is to allow the viewer to interact with his works as he does before they are finally stretched. There is a frission to be found in touching and moving works in a museum, however the artist’s studio is not necessarily an ideal arena for viewing art, and importing its processes into a museum trivializes his choices rather than lending them gravitas. Instead of revealing thought and process they become just an opportunity for the audience to take selfies. The gesture also feels arbitrary, as his stretched paintings on the walls are not out of place with the rest of the exhibition.[16] The bruised surfaces and casually gestural compositions belie an elegant colorist with a keen sense for collage and editing together fragments to form a cohesive whole; his integration of the separate parts and seams are much more integrated into his overall process and the resulting paintings than Albert Oehlen’s recent exhibition with a similar focus. The youngest artist in the show, he is emblematic of the potential problems of a new, metastasized art market that limits judgment to such a narrow career arc, without allowances for growth or change.

Forever Now is MoMA’s first exhibition of painting in 30 years, but beyond the imprimatur it is neither encyclopedic or revolutionary; instead it continues a line of exploration that maps trends and similarities in Postmodern painting. High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 – 1975 at the Whitney Museum explored how painting turned towards objecthood in the wake of Minimalism and the advent of Postmodernism. Cheim and Read presented Reinventing Abstraction, a less known history of the 70’s and 80’s as a source of continuing rehabilitation of abstraction in painting during a period when Neo-expressionism crested into a second wave of conceptual art; it showed painting that was being made in studios the last time MoMA put on a painting show, and illustrated just how much influence can shift and change. In the vein of the shifting landscape of criticism and fashion, one should also consider the Whitney’s Remote Veiwing (Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing), which explored contemporary painting’s relation to dense and personal networks of information.[17] An exhibition a decade past, its links and history organize a thesis that is not dissimilar to that of Forever Now, but with a drastically different focus. The network of Remote Viewing leads to practices of labor-intensive detail, to an exhaustive search for a framework that will mesh with a personal vision. Forever Now references the contemporary Internet, where the birth and appropriation of images are midwifed by brand identities and the ease of cutting and pasting over a wi-fi connection. That so much of Forever Now seems to fall flat[18] may point to this ease of execution; as labor is devalued across the economy, the less demand there is for works of art that grate with a material density that cannot be easily replicated by a JPEG or digital scan, but the most successful works on view maintain their material reality as paintings. This remains true throughout the medium’s history, no matter the whims of the bazaar.

 

The essay concludes in Part 3.

 

[1] Conveniently coinciding with the exhibition title, entrance to the show is not timed.

[2] Which is not dissimilar from the large gallery spaces where most of this work is exhibited.

[3] A strategy well known in the design retail stores.

[4] Most of the works lock in at a large, but not overwhelming scale.

[5] Who could only get close to head-like lumps when working abstractly.

[6] Who made the abstraction of the figure the entire subject, the figure was the space of the painting, never really in it.

[7] Johnson’s inclusion is curious as he is primarily known for much stronger sculptural work, and the “paintings” included are a minor strain in his practice. These works fit with the exhibition in a way that one of his mirrored shelving reliefs do not, but that speaks more to his being included as a broader marker representing his practice; this in turn points to a possible agenda not encoded in the works themselves.

[8] I’m reminded of deKooning stepping back and wondering if his start could contain a picture, and it seems like for Aldrich the answer is not only “Yes” but also “…and it’s done.”

[9] Just examine the care and detail in the construction of her stretchers. The more common commercial stretcher builds would interrupt the delicate geometries she creates.

[10] And they are objects as opposed to pictures; their depth and the relation of the inside to the outside are inherent to them in a way that separates them from “Painting” proper.

[11] Much like Richard Tuttle in sculpture.

[12] Think of the references to graphitti that abound around his work and consider the confidence of his marks as someone stepping up to a wall with limited time and no room for doubt.

[13] I do not think it was necessarily a good idea to hang Mehertu’s paintings adjacent to Rashid Johnson’s works. The superficial similarities, albeit played out in contradictory materials (ink separated by isolating layers of acrylic vs. the earthy weight of soap and wax) are a facile comparison. It would have been just as obvious to hang Jacob Kassay’s silver mirrors across from Johnson, if he had been included.

[14] Then again, maybe not. One can also look at the recent trend of museum-quality shows in commercial (mega)galleries and then think that maybe David Zwirner has a much cannier strategy mapped out (remember the giant killer robots mentioned in the notes of Part 1? They’re coming in Part 3).

[15] It is nearly impossible to circumvent such criticism, but perhaps painters would be better off reading this than importing a Columbian chocolate factory to 19th Street for a month.

[16] It may be a litmus test for how you feel about the show and contemporary painting in general if you consider that to be a good thing or bad thing.

[17] It is startling to read contemporary criticism of the show and to see the nascent fragmentation of painting as a medium and similar concerns that are the same after so much time. Perhaps there is an origin for Provisionalism in Vernacular abstraction, or at least a historical precedent.

[18] There is always room for curatorial kvetching: I would’ve cut Bradley and Josh Smith and replaced them with R.H. Quaytman and Joanne Greenbaum.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 13, 2015 at 12:00 am

Out of Time (Part 1): ‘Forever Now’ and the New Landscape of Painting.

Painting has had it rough lately, it’s as if constantly dying and being reborn has really taken something out of the medium. For better or worse it has been yoked to the very definition and expectations of what art is, and painters have become accountable not only on formal but also economic grounds. Hatred of “Provisionalism[1] has given way to similar reactions about “Zombie Formalism[2] where a good deal of the criticism hinges not on the work but on how it is being made and just who is buying it. The new crisis of criticism in contemporary painting hinges on just how slippery the medium is and how its relations to the constantly shifting ground of the art worlds[3] have been exposed.

Forever Now, MoMA’s first new painting survey in 30 years, gives critics a good deal to try and grab on to.[4] From the beginning the show stakes a claim on the key feature of our time being an internet derived “atemporality”[5], with information easily accessible with a few clicks leading to a deluge of historical reference that can effectively remove art from historical place. However, the hip nod to William Gibson[6] and the technological present disguises the broader import of the show; in mapping out a space for painting where the entire wealth of history and aesthetic investigation is open (and constantly re-opened) to use[7] curator Laura Hoptman has marked our present circumstances as unequivocally Postmodern. A better pop cultural reference would be Morpheus stepping back to reveal the desert of the real to Neo[8] at the beginning of “The Matrix.” Coming from the gleaming skyscrapers and clear blue skies of high modernism, the scorched earth and sky of the truth of reality is a foreboding sight. It would seem a landscape of exhausted strategies and unintended consequences where survival will take more work than before, but it also allows for broader interactions and a greater degree of possibility.[9]

For artists this desert is terrain where the hierarchies of how to make art and what to make it out of don’t apply. Freed from the need to worry about pushing forward[10] or heralding an agenda, the artist may make what they want out of whatever material will mesh with their formal, conceptual, political, or aesthetic ends. Simply making something “new”[11] is too transient a glory and no longer laudable; the novelty of invention wears off too quickly and everyone’s sources are easily discovered.[12] This end of progress is also the end of avant garde; one can’t be at the forefront of a movement if there is no front, or if looking backward in reflection can’t be labeled as merely retrograde. This is ultimately disorienting for all involved as the criticism of any given work requires a careful approach on its own terms. The old signposts aren’t necessarily relevant, and the headstrong critic will find themselves revealing more about their own bias than the work’s. Likewise the artist must be acutely aware of what s/he stands for, and how they relate to the shifting context that surrounds their work lest they loose control of it. The lack of supposed progress raises the stakes because responsibility falls on the individual, it can’t be easily deflected to a group or movement. This is the cost of the freedom wished for by artists in bygone eras.[13]

Once we accept that atemporatlity is synonymous with Postmodernism[14] it can bee seen as a crutch to lay responsibility at the feet of the internet. Digital technologies have rapidly increased the flow of information, but Postmodernism predates widespread integration of digital networks into the fabric of our culture.[15] The first Postmodernists were analog artists, researching in libraries and archives, and collating physical objects, artifacts, and documents into their work. The inherent speed of all art was the same, but if painting has been slow to accept and accelerate into the new terrain of Postmodernism it is because it is a medium of material and individual gesture it does not lend itself to quick dissemination.[16] Painters are figuring out how to integrate the history of their medium into a continuum that more recent, easily digitized media were born into; but as those media aspire to the status and economic benefits enjoyed by painting more possibilities are opened as the boundaries blur.[17] Postmodern painters are finding their way; the work on view in Forever Now, or any other show of painting being made today, should not be seen as an example of living in the wreckage, but the slow start of a new beginning, of building a new frontier.

 

The essay continues in Part 2 and Part 3.

 

 

[1] Or “crapstraction” if you’re being kind of rude about it while simultaneously trying to come up with something punchy. This isn’t a label that one would apply if you were also to admit to liking some examples of the work under discussion.

[2] A term coined by Martin Mugar and subsequently introduced to mass appeal by Walter Robinson.

[3] I subscribe to a “many worlds” view of the art world as a way to simplify our understanding of something that is otherwise too complex to entertain. In short individual interactions overlap with geography and economies so that upon a microscopic view the connections and networks form webs that are too dense to separate, but upon pulling back to an extreme macro view the interactions separate into clusters of mass. How these clusters relate to influence and wealth, and just how shared they are is probably what is leading to a certain amount of critical disgust with painting overall.

[4] My favorite being Jason Farago’s review in the Guardian.

[5] Quoted from the wall text at the beginning of the exhibition.

[6] The reference to William Gibson seems more like trendy name dropping than anything else

[7] With that use swinging between stewardship and strip-mining.

[8] A wide-eyed and well groomed protagonist fresh out of art school with his MFA if ever there was one.

[9] You just have to look out for the giant killer robots, which we’ll discuss in part three.

[10] And presumably continuing the modernist drive towards some sort of purity.

[11] A value that nevertheless seems to be widely mourned in the reviews of the exhibition. See Peter Schjeldal in the New Yorker, among others.

[12] If not advertised as loudly as possible.

[13] In technical parlance, these circumstances aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.

[14] Taking the red pill as it were.

[15] I take my historical cues from Danto, and put the emergence of Postmodernism with Warhol’s Brillo boxes.

[16] An image of the painting can be shared easily enough, but it is different from an actual painting; the materials must still be reckoned with in a way that is not required to simply print a digital file.

[17] The specter of the monetary advantage that rides on the definition remains sobering; the economic implications of tearing down boundary walls and opening up art’s discourse is the ground that will pit the upper reaches of the art market against it’s broader population.

Written by Brian Dupont

December 30, 2014 at 12:08 am

Loss Leaders

I don’t know anyone who pays attention to the art world who is not dismayed with its increasing stratification, with concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of a tiny few. It’s a turn of events that has seen Art increasingly treated like an investment asset, just another high-end luxury good or status symbol. Edward Winkleman posted an essay on his blog that puts the onus on artists to take the lead in saving art and John Powers answered from an artist’s point of view, countering that instead artists need better data to make the proper decisions. While everyone involved has been motivated by wanting art to thrive and not see it’s aesthetic[1] and social value choked off by the market, suggestions as to real solutions are more difficult to come by.

My feeling is that the art world, and more specifically the art market, essentially reflects the capitalist economy we are all enmeshed in. Yet art is set at an acute angle to the culture as a whole; as an object[2] produced according to a singular vision[3] its reflection is distorted for the extremity of that position compared to other cultural products.[4] It is held to a higher standard not only for its legacy within culture, but for offering greater hope for change by providing an undiluted voice, and it is immeasurably darkened if it instead saccharinely manipulates those expectations. We might know that these expectations are messily built on fictions, but they don’t make any of us love art any less. What art allows us to express is something that no one who loves it wants to see transformed into another dumb commodity, but that also doesn’t mean we can excise art from the rest of the global economy and set it aside in its own crystal lined utopia. The problems ascribed to the art market are at their core problems of a certain trends of capital metastizing around art: increased prices leading to increased and watered down production, top galleries conglomerating and poaching talent to enclose the market in a near monopoly, speculators flipping art works at a high profit and to the detriment of artists’ careers, focused elitism alienating art from mainstream society; all easily map onto other markets, other bubbles. Any discussion of change must somehow account for this reality.

Powers likened this position to “cosmic background radiation” and I must say that I agree; the cosmic background radiation permeates the universe in a way that the current incarnation of capitalism[5] has spread throughout most aspects of the global economy. If you look deep enough it is always there. Likewise, art can be separated from other markets only to a superficial degree: real-estate, fuel, and other commodities represent real costs to anyone operating a business. So if dealers must follow the laws of the jungle in order to maintain their business, why is the calculus any different for artists? They are running a small business, and if they are to make their practice sustainable (if not sustaining) then falling on their economic sword in the name of art[6] is not necessarily attractive. This is where Power’s comparison of artists to the young drug dealers chronicled in Freakanomics is the most apt. As the lowest rung in the art world’s economic ladder, artists economic power is diffused over the broadest population, and if there’s always another dealer willing to pander in the name of a dollar there are ten artists dying to have their work shown, eager just to get the work out of the studio and maybe start to recoup the cost of an expensive studio rent and maybe start to pay off student loans.[7] If an entry-level drug dealer’s best option is to quit, not play the game, and go work in fast food, where does that leave artists?Altering the market for drugs in Chicago required a host of changes, many coming from the top down[8] and involving interventions[9] and incentives unavailable to most artists. Art dealers have a more concentrated economic stake, and are better poised to recoup the benefits of a change to the system. Dealers of course operate at different levels, and I suspect that everyone at the market’s pinnacle is quite happy with the situation as it stands. That leaves change to emerge from the bottom up, and out of the middle. It’s all well and good to ask artists to lead, but actual change will require the organization of the entire community; not just artists, but also dealers, critics, and collectors.

The art world has evolved to an imperfect symbiosis with its own market, and perhaps the most relevant question is if it is even possible for it to survive independently? The influx of money is at the root of the symptoms; it has pushed the tiny world of contemporary art out of its confines where everyone knew everyone else[10] and is driving the current “grow or go”[11] phenomena that magnifies the distortion of the largest galleries and secondary market. But this growth has also allowed space (admittedly often small) for other voices to become viable and alternative narratives to gain purchase. When Winkleman notes that dealers in the middle are exhausted and finding it hard to climb above a certain level the thing that stands out to me is just how much climbing is built into the system for everyone. As our culture and politics turn more nakedly Darwinian, and the art world with it, I don’t want to see the realities of the market acknowledged because I agree with someone like Stefan Simchowitz, but because suffering its collapse would drastically reduce the diversity of voices.[12] A certain amount of churn is desirable to avoid stasis and ossification; the pressure to “keep climbing” helps birth new ideas, or rediscover old ones, but also raises the distinct possibility that change may not take a form that we envision.

I think that absent a profound shock to the system it is more likely that the art market continues to progress along its current path with the general economy rather than retreats to a form from the recent past that is more comfortable. However this is not to say that those of us who love art should not be engaged in arguing for art to move according to our vision (unified or not), but we must know what we are asking for. To make work that is less “flippable”, less of a commodity, flies in the face of art’s recent history, where anything can be sold. It is no different a request to ask artists to somehow reject the market as it is for a dealer to ask for something smaller that also happens to be a pretty color. Either option comes at a cost to the artist and their work, and the consequences of such decisions should be properly weighed.[13]

If we accept that everyone is climbing I would argue that artists are already leading. Granted, I think most artists move instinctively towards gallery representation and the popular notion of a career[14], but where that path has not been open they can still be found working to expand their voice in other ways; engaging in the debate waged with things by also curating, writing, and creating their own exhibition spaces.[15] Whether these projects become a core component of their practice or something to be left aside as they gain traction in the art world, they remain as the base of the art world that is committed to art for its unique value of expression and as a form of knowledge, not as an expensive bauble. Perhaps it’s time for gallerists, critics, and curators who want things to change to dig in their heels and start working with artists with whom they share this commitment.

 

 

[1]For the purposes of this essay I am leaving out any specific aesthetic debate; changing the economic structure of the art market is a separate issue from arguing how to be sure that ‘good’ work is what is being supported. We all like different art, but are working within the same economic system. Arguing about aesthetics is a second front, and we all know how multi-front wars tend to go.

[2] And I realize that I may need to use that term loosely in describing art.

[3] Again, looking at the more popular consideration of how art is made rather than how insiders might know it to be made.

[4]I’m thinking here of cultural productions with dedicated industries like film and TV that necessarily are collaborations from inception. Art (and art by “art stars”) has tended towards this style of production and is one of symptoms under discussion, but what makes “art” truly the art of our time is that it can still be produced from start to finish by a single person in a single room.

[5] References to it as “late stage” capitalism seem more like wish-castings on the part of certain critics more than anything else.

[6] …or someone else’s vision of what that means.

[7] Although, honestly, just getting the work out of the studio and seen is really motivation enough for most of us.

[8] In the form of both government funded programs and education, and the more direct intervention of law enforcement.

[9] Although the PSAs would certainly be entertaining:

 

“This is your art.”

“This is your art, over-produced and made by someone else hanging in a Gagosian gallery somewhere.”

“Any questions?”

 

[10]Starting roughly when America became (or declared itself) the center of contemporary art in the 1950’s. You can chart other milestones like the Scull auction or the rise of Soho and then Chelsea, or the explosion of art fairs down the long winding road to our current hell.

[11] Surely the analogy to certain giant reptiles of the Cretaceous period has been made by someone by now.

[12]Mass-extinction events tend to do that.

[13]It is worth remembering that for all of the horror that greeted the return of painting and its market in the early Eighties, history has largely corrected itself.

[14]Gallerists have probably noticed these efforts in their in-boxes.

[15]Some of my favorite programs in New York are in artist run spaces: Auxilary Projects, Centotto, Minus Space, Pierogi, and Regina Rex have all been started by artists; the number would multiply exponentially once one starts to consider other spaces, and in as much as artists are always concerned with space, forming their own exhibits in their own spaces has an august history.

Written by Brian Dupont

April 1, 2014 at 1:28 pm

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.