Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘painting

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

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.

At Work on the “New” Problem of Wade Guyton

Depending on what art world you inhabit and where you spend your time, reactions to Wade Guyton’s work run the gamut from young sensation to collector’s trophy to critical whipping boy to hollow symbol of political inequality. His work is polarizing in a way that recalls the bygone era of the shocking avante garde; it seems some view Guyton and his work with the same suspicion the British public did Carl Andre’s stack of bricks. And just as the cost of Andre’s manipulation of a pedestrian object became a focus of the outrage (and misunderstanding) surrounding his work, so too do critiques of Guyton simply devolve into economic complaint.[1] In a sense art only now has to deal with the implications of mechanization that other laborers dealt with a century ago. In an arena where individual vision sets every artist up as John Henry, Guyton has taken the side of the steam hammer.

I must admit that I missed Guyton’s first exhibitions and came to his work late.[2] I first noticed them only in tiny, glossy reproductions in art magazines[3]; not knowing how they were made, I assumed they were paintings and was struck by the combination of typography (either as a bold, central form or as a group used to articulate a field across the canvas) combined with a disjointed, abject surface. Despite the hard edges, they weren’t perfect geometric renderings; the entire surface was activated with skittering marks and impositions on the form. Of course it turned out that they weren’t paintings, except that of course they are. Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Wool (among many others) had already dispensed with brushes for mechanical processes, and as those processes went digital it should not come as any surprise that artists followed suit. Shifting to making paintings with only an Epson printer should not be seen as a radical step; that it is so blindingly obvious in retrospect may account for some of the animosity directed his way.[4] So to must the apparent ease with which he can turn out a show, just as earlier layout designers recognized hours of work now accomplished with a few clicks, Guyton has turned mural-scale painting into an afternoon project. Back when young artists[5] talked matter of factly about process, the labor involved in moving and manipulating stuff was self-evident. Being an artist was work, and many espoused a political affinity with strains of Marxism, or at least a blue collar pragmatism that could be read as such. But to capitalism the point of digital technologies has been to reduce or remove the need for skilled labor wherever possible, and Guyton clearly buys into that when he talks about avoiding the need to work to make his paintings. This isn’t necessarily a problem[6], except that to then talk about the disregard with which he drags and kicks his canvases around the studio floor seems too ingratiating, too much an appeal to the labor of process that he ultimately undermines. Indecision breeds contempt just as easily as familiarity (and by now pretty much everyone is acquainted with Photoshop and Microsoft Word).

Coming out of his Whitney retrospective, the most interesting question was what would he do next? The works on paper were scattered across bright colored flooring in vitrines, as if the artist didn’t trust them to be out on their own. Likewise his sculpture seemed beside the point: a bent metal tube that was previously a chair by Marcel Breuer has a certain frission in the Whitney Museum, but otherwise relies on the name recognition of the artist for aesthetic important.[7] His fabricated “U” sculptures are shiny steel simulacra of the ideas referenced by his painting, available in an assortment of sizes, and are almost nakedly commercial for that variation. The exhibition showed the printed paintings as his one good idea[8]; he had established the utility of his approach, but seemed to be at the boundary of what he could make with his single tool without simply repeating himself and making new versions of the old work ad infinitum.[9] This is complicated by the sense that all of his paintings function as wry comments on their own making, existing both as paintings and “paintings”; the level of quotation and reserve would seem to preclude Guyton from risking failure on the messy and labor intensive investigation that might lead to a new body of work, a new approach, or a new idea.[10]

Instead, Guyton has chosen to focus on the quotation marks, using the paintings as a lens to focus in on the environment and act of looking at the paintings. His new paintings at Petzel further leverage Post-minimalist compositional strategies. Cinemascope swaths of white linen hold striated rectangles[11] that trail off into the remnant tracks and traces of being pulled through the printer’s mechanisms, almost like waste paper run through to clean it out. The stretchers measure the full span of the gallery wall, or separate paintings meet in the corner. These compositional strategies draw parallels to Richard Serra’s use of steel plates as a way to measure and change the gallery space via mass. The surface similarities of steel and printed linen are superficially similar, and while Guyton’s use of black and white achieves a level of austerity that Serra might envy[12], he doesn’t affect the space in the same way. The inherent presence of a Serra makes one consider one’s path around the room and approaching the plate something to be cautiously planned. On the other hand Guyton’s paintings are thin and without any sensation of mass, and the viewer is pulled right up to them to examine the staccato tracks of the printer. Guyton’s paintings lack Serra’s attention to inherent tension, the black rectangles’ measures are arbitrary and don’t push back against the viewer or the space. Just as the final two paintings at the Whitney measured the walls between Breuer’s iconic window without doing much else, these chart a space that is primarily notable for its blankness. These are a sort of reversal from the paintings he installed at the Carnegie International. There he stripped the coat room as far down as it could go, exposing old paint and layers of carpet adhesive hidden by the removed racks. His paintings were handsome example of minimal intervention, mostly white with a few smudged forms to articulate the space. Installed in a space not typically devoted to art he created a lounge more akin to unfinished basement; the same materials that an earlier generation of artists[13] mined and hefted into the gallery shows up here as history left on the floor and wall, left to reflect back at the paintings. But at the end of the day the paintings will still go home to presumably stately environments, devoid of any extra window dressing; these plays on installation are a veneer layered on top of the situation the work inhabits, rather than something that is ingrained in the paintings. With Guyton all we get is the surface.

For all his Warholian slipperiness about content and belief, Guyton’s achievement of his printed paintings is to totally remove the artist’s hand, to make the aura of the artwork indistinguishable from the glow of a screen, and still wind up making paintings that are utterly individual, as unique as a fingerprint. But he’s wound up at the point where the novelty has worn off and the audience doesn’t just want to see pictures of where we’ve been. It’s come time for Guyton to get rid of the quotation marks, to roll up his sleeves, and get to work.


Wade Guyton continues at Petzel Gallery in New York City through February 22nd.



[1] Which are an issue affecting all artists, but become a lens that distorts via magnification as the artist in question becomes more successful; the gravity of money around an artist winds up shaping the discourse like light bending around a dense star.

[2] Or as late as one can come to an artist who’s retrospective spans little more than a decade.

[3] I’ve written elsewhere about my penchant for absorbing art through pictures, and the misunderstanding almost seems part of Guyton’s aesthetic point.

[4] This is not necessarily to say that Guyton got there first either, but he is certainly the standard bearer of “printed paintings” and if we were to rediscover a different pioneer she or he would need to answer the same aesthetic questions as Guyton. The only difference would be that this hypothetical artist would not be held accountable for the sins of the market associated with Guyton.

[5] Starting with the abstract expressionists use of paint as an index of decisions of process and continuing to the post-minimalist extension of that action out into space.

[6] Depending on your feelings about Warhol anyway.

[7] Although, to be fair, this criticism applies to huge swaths of the art made today.

[8] And if it is not clear, I think it is a damn good idea.

[9] And it is safe to say that given his means of production he could easily print on demand enough to more than satisfy (overwhelm) the market.

[10] Of course it’s possible that Guyton really doesn’t care about doing anything new, but since he has not just flooded the market with reprints of his greatest hits and has continued to push at the context his paintings are seen in, I think it is safe to give him the benefit of the doubt.

[11] Which are simply a rescaled and reprinted version of the digital file he used to create his black monochromes that were shown at Petzel in 2007.

[12] All reproductions of Serra’s work are in black and white, no matter the handsome patina of rust or the oily sheen the marred surface the plate holds. I assume this is to emphasize mass and volume, but it nonetheless stage handles the work in an odd fashion.

[13] See Jerry Saltz’s exposition of  Guyton’s connection to Post-minimalism. The connection feels both appropriate and finished to me, perhaps an illustration of why artists shouldn’t get too close to history.

Written by Brian Dupont

February 19, 2014 at 6:55 am

On Lower Manhattan’s Memory Lane

Walking into Cheim and Read feels like visiting a gathering of old friends. Raphael Rubinstein has laid out a thesis for an alternate narrative of painting in the 1980’s that is not unknown, but is still not as recognized as it could (or should) be.[i] The artists he has pulled together all sought a way forward for the medium once the project of modernism collapsed into the late Sixties singularity of Minimalism and Conceptualism and threatened to obliterate it.[ii] The primary historical narrative has painting starting to find its way back with the new image painters, but only managing to reclaim the stage with the emergence of the bad boy neo-expressionists, who seemed to get by on brash youth and an injection of wall street capital that also (not coincidentally) supercharged the market.[iii] But to a man[iv] they were ultimately much less influential to the practice of painters going forward; if there is a hopeful lesson to be found here, it may point to the superficiality of immediate market success, so frustrating to watch from the outside, may ultimately be very limited in its long term historical affect. By contrast the painters of Reinventing Abstraction have had a much deeper and far reaching influence. They were known as painters’ painters[v] even as they were emerging, and as Postmodernism became less of novelty and was assimilated into historical perspective they had more influence as younger artists who found the personal language they employed provided a much more expansive arena in which to operate and find their own way forward.[vi] A certain part of this may lie in the versatility and depth of abstraction as a new[vii] visual idiom, or it may be as simple as the right group of artists intersecting in the right time and place and they just happened to embrace the currents of recent practice. That critical discourse or the market did not immediately embrace them should not disguise the breadth of their accomplishments.

Rubenstein sees a precedent for Reinventing Abstraction and its careful (re)examination of history in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 — 1975. A show for which David Reed served as an advisor[viii], it showed the breadth of painting practice that flourished in the lofts of lower Manhattan in the wake of minimalism and the ascendance of conceptual art. The artists in lower Manhattan continued to paint and explore ideas opened up by the color field and minimalist painters that were their neighbors, spraying the paint or starting to take its material supports apart to explore the underlying sense of shape. What was conspicuously absent from High Times, Hard Times was an integration drawing as method of creating a subjective psychological space within the painted field. Where the artists of High Times, Hard Times experimented with the possibilities inherent in the varied syntax of the painting as an object[ix], the artists of Reinventing Abstraction let individual facture of the hand reintroduce drawing into their work.[x] Any two marks set beside each other begin to create space and therefore a degree of illusionism and reference; from there it is a short step to the reintroduction of personal forms and subjective symbolism within painting, and the complete rejection of the purity that seemed to be the endgame of modernism. Stuff was back in advanced abstract painting in a way it hadn’t been since the heydays of de Kooning and Guston.

The entire first, smaller room at Cheim and Read brings the reliance on drawing inherent within each work into sharp focus. The works of Terry Winters, Carroll Dunham and Bill Jensen of the time all made use of biomorphic and natural forms[xi] that emerged from a seeming collision scientific imagery with a rediscovery of the pleasures of paint. The combination of painterly process and forms derived from a subtle examination of nature became something of a trend itself within the early Eighties; these three works form a starting point to trends that branch out and carry through the exhibition as a whole.

Winters’ project has always relied very heavily on drawing, and the composition of Point is recognizable as a single piece of paper that fits multiple studies writ large. The scale of his paintings sometimes disguise the affinities they share with the scientist’s notebook.[xii] Leonardo left codices filled with similar drawings that mapped his thought process across the paper, and a number of more recent examples of such studies are currently on view in the WMAA’s show of Edward Hopper’s drawings. The primary forms are not rendered so much as built out of strokes of paint. In some areas Winters employs a heavy black line that reads almost as charcoal drawn over the paint; other areas are scrubbed and washed away in a veil of pale color; it is a testament to his technical understanding of the complexities of his material that the picture is in such immaculate condition after more than 30 years, with little cracking or unintended surface incident that usually comes with pushing the limits of paint to such extremes. Winters’ building up of his forms echoes Stanley Whitney’s gestural brush marks of paint weaving into shapes that oscillate across the surface. It is tempting to see these loose knit forms as being slowly subjected to increasing gravity and further coalescing and refining themselves into the careful grids of colored blocks he is now known for.

Dunham’s composition is roughly determined by his plywood support. The disparate elements are connected and reconciled through a sort of doodling exquisite corpse; tubers and root forms extend from knots and shift in volumetric space as they cross flat bands of color dictated by the veneer grain. The flat demarcations of color carry through in the next room in David Reed’s transparent overlays across enlargements of swirling gesture. The precision of design via demarcation carries through in Jonathon Lasker’s deadpan arrangement of shapes and Jack Whitten’s inscribed geometry and flat rectangles of color.

In The Tempest Jensen’s spore like form floats in a similar space to Winters’ but he takes the primacy of his material further, troweling his paint onto the canvas and unifying the surface under a heavy impasto. Where Winters’ orchestration of surface variation plays to an analytic construction of the image’s components and mostly respects the distinction between figure and ground, the directness of Jensen’s masonry approach reveals a greater emotional subjectivity. Drawing from earlier symbolist artists such as Ryder, Hartley, and Dove, Jensen builds a space that not only holds the form, but shifts around it and seemingly moves through it; figure and ground oscillate according to shifting perceptions with only the drawing of the erstwhile subject to keep the delineation in check.

This tension between material process and drawn subject continues through Reinventing Abstraction: Joan Snyder both renders a landscape and builds it out of furrows of paint. In Beanfield with Music the landscape imagery reinforces the physical sensation conveyed by material presence. Whitten juxtaposes a painterly field of tar-thick acrylic combed through to expose underlying areas of electric hue.[xiii]  His frenetic scribbling, scratching marks stand in sharp contrast to the precision of his geometric constructs. The emotional resonance of his subject grows out of the tension between the opposing aesthetic modes in his employ. Louise Fishman’s calligraphic swirl is as concrete as anything in the exhibition; her glyph-like form loops around and against the limits of her canvas, positive and negative space laboring against mutual gravity. Where Fishman concentrates her material into a small tightly controlled space, Pat Steir thins and spreads hers in liquid loops of expansive gesture across the largest canvas in the exhibition. Her color is tough and solid, reminiscent of stone and rust, but her thinned pigment sprays from her brush in layers according to the force and direction of her whole body. In all of these works the artist’s gesture is yoked to description of a form or shape that sits within a specific space.

When Rubinstein investigates abstraction, it is inevitable that the discussion will turn to the current trend he named as Provisional Painting, but this is not an exhibition dedicated to genealogy. Despite the reach of his idea, either to young artists working today, or much further back through historical precedent, the artists in this show would almost unilaterally disavow that their work aimed to be anything less than a complete, coherent statement.[xiv] In parsing abstraction’s contribution to painting one finds the roots of Provisionalism run deep, but that depends on how much mark making and material, brush stroke and painterly gesture read as specifically “provisional” rather than inherent elements of the medium that a particular painter may choose to employ. Does the exposed support or thin materiality of color field painting (or before that Rothko and Newman) mark their work as provisional?[xv] Likewise de Kooning’s avoidance of resolution?[xvi]

Gary Stephan’s painting employs one of his signature template forms, but sets it hovering in a nocturnal, sfumato atmosphere. The template itself is built out of thickly glazed layers of paint, and merges with a deep space rendered in transparent washes. The surface eschews excessive brush strokes in favor of a straightforward approach that is nothing if not traditionally finished. Nozokowski’s forms are reminiscent of Stephan’s (so much so that I was momentarily confused that this might be Stephan’s contribution), but again the forms have crisp edges and the layers of shape and color attest to a complete and contained pictorial logic. David Reed takes the limiting of facture even further; his painting evidences the meticulous and labor intensive process his work is known for, with layers of paint repeatedly sanded smooth as the image of a gestural Rococo brushstroke is transformed and reinterpreted in a manner such that the artist’s hand is turned into a method of mechanical reproduction. The surface of the painting is a tromp l’oeil simulacrum of its source material; the subject of the act of painting is set at a reserved original distance.

Elizabeth Murray and Lasker both provide paintings that might appear provisional, but require a greater amount of planning than such a label suggests. Both work from a plan and preparatory drawings rather than just recklessly diving into a painting. Despite the cartoonish simplicity of Murray’s composition in Sentimental Education, her shaped supports require precise and labor intensive construction. With the foundation of her picture being so specific idiosyncratic shape it is a testament to her skill as a painter that the work appears so fresh; the scumbled surface, hazy light, high-key colors and jigsaw shapes could easily come off as the mere scaled up production of smaller statement, but instead read as an improvisation of the highest order. On the other hand, that Lasker’s Double Play looks like a production diagram executed deadpan is precisely the point. Every element is as carefully orchestrated as politician’s speech, with even the thick, expressively painted shape coming off as rehearsed instead of spontaneous. His practice casts a critical eye on the work of his peers, but such assessment indicates careful consideration, not any sort of “lack of finish,” “self-defeating strategies,” or “dandyish nonchalance.”[xvii]

On the other hand Stephen Mueller and Mary Heilmann both engaged with concerns we now call “provisional.” In Delphic Hymn Mueller arrays each element casually across the canvas; where Lasker follows a strict design, Mueller gives the impression of arranging things he just happened to stumble across. Drips, overspray and tossed off daubs commingle with areas of hard edge geometry. However his work continued to evolve, and Delphic Hymn now looks like a transitional painting to his mature work. It points to how he would continue to approach the organization his compositions, but doesn’t give away how his forms would tighten into striated symmetry and his paint would combine hard edges and electric atmosphere. Heilmann’s Rio Nido certainly seems more provisional than the other fourteen paintings in the show, yet the label is hardly a slight. There is a playful simplicity in the painting that is emblematic of her mature practice. Blocks of bright, brushy color are overlaid with a dynamic black shape that is “punched” through with holes so that the original colors shine through. Whatever polemic it might subsequently be tied to does not alter its status as a strong statement by individual artist pursuing her own concerns first and foremost. The same can ultimately be said for each painting on view.

The exhibition itself strains at the limits of a single work per artist and the confines of the gallery. There is enough depth to the subject for a deeper museum survey, but that would require a different venue; as one moves through the spacious hanging in the front galleries, the large paintings by Whitney, Whitten, and Snyder feel constricted in the rear spaces. It is hard not to see the art world’s hierarchies coming into play, with the bigger names associated with prestigious retrospectives accorded more breathing room. At the same time I wouldn’t want to see a single painting cut, and the pairings and unexpected sightlines of the hanging serve to reveal unexpected relations between works. These are paintings that I’ve (and I suspect many others) have spent years looking at, and if they don’t all quite fit quietly and seamlessly together, that only makes the party that much warmer and more inviting.

[i] As stated in the catalog essay The Lure of the Impure.

[ii] But not really; artists never stopped painting so the various recurrences of “the death of painting” are always more a matter of critical or theoretical contrivance than artistic practice. This is certainly held up by the perverse practice on the part of artists to find any small corner of art history that has been debased or ignored and start gleefully playing around with supposed retrograde concepts.

[iii] Rubenstein’s historical discourse includes some frank discussion on the influence of the market in shaping critical reception.

[iv] And they do seem to be entirely men. Their seems to be much more diversity among groups of artists and movements not awash in money.

[v] I don’t think anyone every looked to Schnable or Salle for virtuoso performances in pigment, and the critical discourse that surrounded their work seemed to focus on pastiche and theory rather than formal analysis (the deficiencies of which needed to be explained away more than anything).

[vi] My experience was that as I became committed to abstraction, painters like Winters and Jensen provided touchstones that applied to my own sensibility and interests where people interested in employing figuration found deeper sources from which to work. The repercussions of such influence is that it spawns legions of pale imitations, and I certainly made my own fair share of watered-down Terry Winters paintings. Artists can’t be blamed for this aspect of success, but the hope must be that eventually that influence grows farther from the source to become its own thing, a different practice. The lessons of the Neo-Expressionists don’t run nearly as deep, and little wears thin more quickly than an art school enfant terrible.

[vii] At least relatively speaking when compared to the vast history of representation in western art.

[viii] The cross-pollination between High Times, Hard Times and Reinventing Abstraction is extensive; aside from Reed, Fishman, Heilman, Murray, Snyder, Whitten, and Steir were included in Katy Siegel’s exhibition. This is probably another point of evidence to just how much smaller the art world in New York was three decades ago. My own suspicion is that the amount of money circulating through art world helps determine its size, and before the wall street boom of the 1980s resources were much more scant.

[ix] Robert Ryman turned such experiments into the subject of his entire practice, but the artists focused on in High Times, Hard Times were not nearly so programmatic.

[x] Walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking back to Bernice Rose’s group exhibitions that focused on drawing, Drawing Now and Allegories of Modernism. I was very surprised to learn that only Winters and Steir were included in the later show; it goes to show that no matter how obvious Rubinstein’s thesis may seem now, the attention paid these artists has changed substantially in the intervening decades.

[xi] The introduction of this subject matter brought “nature” back into the discourse of painting without succumbing to either the saccharine conventions of Sunday plein air painting or any need to resort to ironic reserve in order to be taken seriously. It continued the trend where serious art needed to evidence a “rigor” of approach while opening up the possibilities of what might be deemed “appropriate” subject matter by maintaining a universal scope of subject.

[xii] These similarities are more evident in his drawings and prints, which are much closer in scale to such sources.

[xiii] These subtleties are difficult to capture up in reproduction; they barely register in the catalog illustration where they read as the white of the canvas priming. That photographs only provide close approximations of a painting’s surface reality is a problem that afflicts many of the works in Reinventing Abstraction. I am beginning to suspect that this is a trait shared by most of the more interesting paintings that are made where the medium is so important to the formation of the image and the varied possibilities of paint are fully exploited.

[xiv] Rubinstein admits as much, declaring that the stated (and decidedly non-provisional) intentions of the artists shaped his approach to the exhibition.

[xv] One could see the potential for a division between the otherwise very similar art of East Coast abstractionists and the “Finish Fetish” artists of the West Coast.

[xvi] He famously struggled with any resolution to a picture, and the spaces his women inhabit after the late ‘40s are largely indeterminate vehicles for painterly gesture as much as descriptions of place.

[xvii] As described in The Lure of the Impure.

A Provisional Explanation.

To declare one’s self a painter, and one committed to abstraction at that, is to stake out a space for one’s artistic practice that would seem to be essentially limitless. When faced with near infinite possibilities, the first thing one often does is to set some boundaries so as to establish a direction. Within the cannon of modernism that direction was a tied to a narrative of a manifest expansion of art, but with the ascendency of a post-modern condition the very idea of progress has become suspect. When painting was declared dead, abstraction was the only idiom in play, but since that fall it has been playing for smaller stakes when compared to the greater concerns of culture. When painting has been seen to be at the forefront of artistic production, it is usually for a re-entrenchment allied with a surge in the market.[i] So what is there to say when so much contemporary production in a given medium seems to shift in a certain direction?

The rise of so-called provisional strategies in abstraction was first identified by the critic Raphael Rubinstein[ii] and has subsequently been expanded by other curators and writers[iii] who have enlarged his basic taxonomy into an ever widening ecosystem of artists who seemingly eschew craft, finish, precision, virtuosity, and even ambition. The central problem is that the discourse surrounding provisional strategies does not rise above identification. The label is trend-spotting or cool hunting for the newest fashion, but since the provisional is not an organized movement, school, or even well defined set of tendencies it can easily be applied to almost any art or artist. Rubinstein linked them to some of the most heralded names in contemporary painting, which helps cement the idea within our visual vocabulary, but the underlying biology has gone largely unaddressed. Fleshing out of the connections to the practice of younger artists and scenes other than at the pinnacle of the art market points to not just how diverse and vibrantly varied these strategies have become, but also how they have diffused throughout recent history and are used without any reliance on a central dogma.

The unfinished nature of “Provisionalism”[iv] was encoded into the DNA of modernism with Manet’s vacant, scumbled spaces and the en plein air canvases of the Impressionists. From there historical precedent is rife with a churn of examples: it is found in the chance compositional strategies of the Dadaists and Surrealists[v], in the struggle with resolution of the action painters of the New York School, in the inclusion of commonplace objects and physical detritus in Johns and Rauschenberg, in the destruction of the painted surface in Klein or Fontana or Burri[vi], or in the sculptural accumulations of Arte Povera or the performative remains of the Gutai group.[vii] Fertile ground was found where a direct gesture was (or is) left unmediated or where painting intersects with sculpture and its nature as object. The legacy of both process based abstraction and Post-minimalism[viii] is that painters have been able to fundamentally reassess notions of composition, failure, and finish. With the contemporary ground for art so open as to appear strip mined and barren, the question becomes why artists are increasingly drawn to methods of working that embrace the casual, the provisional?

An obvious place to start is with the germination of an artist’s practice and the influences exerted at the beginning on the structures where art is made. As any organism evolves, adapts and grows into the geography it occupies, young artists working in major metropolitan areas face increasing pressures of limited space and economic constraints on their time. The urgency to make work trumps fetishistic perfectionism or the unifying, grand statement. As big things come from small beginnings, the work is seen as something that can incubate and expand as circumstances and successes dictate, or constrict during hard times. As their practice develops and their career progresses they may move on to more finished modes or not, but that early experience remains.[ix] In this regard Rubinstein’s focus on artists who are much more established is telling as he is pointing to how the trends have been tested and utilized successfully; that there may be a host of failures[x] speaks to the vitality of the underlying idea.[xi]

Likewise, craft has been downplayed within the current art world[xii], and the extra time[xiii] it takes is seen as something that can be outsourced to specialists, assistants, and fabricators. The singular artist as a true craftsperson has become increasingly rare.[xiv] While a provisional approach need not scorn craft and careful construction, the tenacious expenditure of time and labor required to fully employ that knowledge and experience sits at the opposite end of the production spectrum. Any spectrum will tend towards concentrations now and then, and then adjust and change over time. When I first moved to New York it seemed as if the galleries were filled with clean paintings that must have required miles and miles of masking tape to produce, and as I was enthralled with my new (but very worn) surroundings, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why young artists weren’t mirroring the scuffed, scratched, and beaten surfaces around them. These surfaces spoke to a deep history and a different kind of beauty and it was only a matter of time before there was a shift back (or back to) a handmade art that embraced a patina of habitation and use.

The greatest threat to the continued relevance of abstract painting is the possibility of its ossifying into a new academy. All too often, the guides that are laid out when a journey begins harden into not only a map for individual practice but an expectation that others will follow it as gospel. Examples of dedication to the tenets of modernist abstraction can be found as bad décor and the unironic and uninterested embrace of banal geometry.[xv] Advances in the formal structure of painting are usually of a specific time and do not easily translate through generations. Dealing with the fractured visual space of today’s culture via a retreat to cubism would read as quaint; to wrestle with one’s personal struggle to express a personally authentic gesture on a blank canvas in the vein of the abstract expressionists would seem histrionic and unseemly. This is not to say that these (or any other) references are unavailable, but only that to effectively function in the present[xvi] they must be approached and utilized within a contemporary framework lest they be mere exercises in nostalgia.[xvii] Academies are about perpetuating their own ideas and ideals, of achieving stasis rather than growth through challenge and evolution. The latter is a function of unseemly mutation, of embracing rather than rejecting the aesthetic other. In this regard Provisionalist trends over the last century serve as an antipode to any strict formalisms, geometries, or theories that may infest the medium.

The current proliferation of provisional abstraction should not just be analyzed as a swing of the art historical pendulum or knee jerk rebellion against stuffy elders. It does any artist a disservice to suggest that they merely respond to their history and environment to the exclusion of finding something deeply affecting at the core of what they make. Artists today[xviii] are confronting an increasingly ramshackle future where aesthetic, political, economic, and ecological promises have been revealed as failures. If they are seeing a future where issues of scarcity become more urgent, materials must be recycled or scavenged from surplus[xix], and long-held political standards become increasingly irrelevant, it would seem natural to see trends in painting (re) emerge that question formal equivalents of these standards. The long-term success of painting can be attributed to its ability to colonize and assimilate outside ideas and approaches, stretching form and content to the breaking point so that the project of the medium is ultimately made stronger. If a provisional vocabulary can provide a timely reinvigoration of the expression of individual concerns, that should be all the ambition anyone needs in a painting.

[i] Think of the circumstances of the Neo-expressionists, the allies of Dave Hickey’s crusade for beauty, the rise of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bilds.

[ii] First for Art in America, and subsequently in an exhibition for Stuart Shave/ Modern Art in London, and finally a follow up article (again in Art in America).

[iii] See Sharon Butler’s New Casualists essay for the Brooklyn Rail, as well as further essays by Sam Cornish on Abstract Critical, Lane Relyea on Wow Huh and an anonymously penned feature on The Painted Wrd. (And this list is by no means comprehensive.)

[iv] You can only dance around the language for so long before just breaking down and labeling it as an “ism.” The problem is that the tendencies, strategies, methods, and concerns that would make up “Provisionalism” do not have the same unifying focus that bound together more familiar “isms” of art history.

[v] See Inventing Abstraction at MoMA

[vi] See Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void at MOCA.

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Specifically how aesthetic concerns interact with an art object that has been reduced to a remnant of an action.

[ix] It may be coincidental that Provisionalism has emerged as the competitiveness (and expense) of M.F.A. programs has turned the emerging artist towards a more professional track, but it also cannot be ignored that it seems that young artists with more limited time make up the broad base of provisional work.

[x] Of which there will necessarily be exponentially more of, but in appealing to an evolutionary context I hope that the broader process of integrating different ideas points to the number of failures proving the project’s success.

[xi] Imitation still being not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also indication of influence.

[xii] To say nothing of our broader culture and the world in general.

[xiii] And therefor expense.

[xiv] I’m thinking of painters like Terry Winters or Bill Jensen, or sculptors like Martin Puryear, who even though they have assistants, are deeply engaged with the craft associated with their materials and are not turning the production of their work over to fabricators or an atelier system.

[xv] If extended into the sculpture, the tendency becomes ever more pronounced in the monumental, blocky stone carvings and welded metal assemblages that barricade office plazas and concourses.

[xvi] And thus present them to and communicate with contemporaneous audiences.

[xvii] At this point Impressionism is the province of Sunday painters and naturalists with a flair for color.

[xviii] Young and old alike; the historical context shows that the trends encompassed by Provisionalism are neither a new phenomenon nor only the province of the young.

[xix] Perhaps this is where painting finds common ground with the so-called new aesthetic, as the rise of the digital is built on rapidly obsolete and repurposed technologies.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 13, 2013 at 1:19 am


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