Provisional Painting


Art in America online recently published an article by Raphael Rubinstein entitled “Provisional Painting.” (Accompanying slide show above; mouse over for artist/painting information.) It is well worth a read. The gist of the article is that some painters are deliberately adopting a desultory approach and slapdash methods as a way of avoiding the suffocating weight of the history and demands of Painting capital “P,” or as a way out of the theoretical cul-de-sac some see as painting’s current predicament. He brings about half a dozen painters of varying stripe under the rubric, surmises common causes for their modus operandi and provides historical examples of possible predecessors. He has this to say about the current condition:
What makes painting “impossible”? What makes “great” painting impossible? Perhaps it is a sense of belatedness, a conviction that an earlier generation or artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up...Impossibility can also be the result of the artist making excessive demands on the work, demands to which current practice has no reply.
Whether or not the artists Rubinstein examines would agree with his characterization of their motives or of the situation is an open question (though I think a good number of the artists he marshals do not support his thesis). However, it is noteworthy for Rubinstein, whose writing I always enjoy and who is a long-time champion of painters’ painters such as Norman Bluhm, Shirley Jaffe and Stanley Whitney, to thoroughly and sympathetically evaluate an approach to painting that in some instances seeks to make a virtue not just of dumpster-diving materials and techniques, which can be very useful, or of artistic restraint, but also of parsimony and at times contrived fecklessness. I won’t contest that this attitude exists, but it’s worth remembering that it’s not the only game in town.

Let’s look at two artists that lend support to Rubinstein’s thesis. Raoul De Keyser’s work, which I first saw at the Venice Biennale in 2007, is an instance of an argument being more persuasive than the artifact.

Raoul De Keyser, Blue Center, oil on canvas, 14” x 17” (36 cm x 44 cm), 2000. (Photo: Massimiliano Cadamuro, ASAC, La Biennale di Venezia)

Rubinstein quotes curator Jean-Charles Vergne, who says De Keyser’s work “constantly asserts the impossibility of painting free of touch-ups, mistakes, accidents, set on laying bare the seams, the second tries and the failures. . . . [There is] a constant stuttering in the painting.” Given this, it should have a high probability of being interesting, à la Beckett, but instead comes off as cloyingly fey. Transparent process alone won’t constitute a compelling painting.

Stefan Sandner’s work, I confess, I have only seen in reproduction, and while I make it a point not to write about artwork I have not seen in person, an exception here does no harm.

Stefan Sandner, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 29 1/2 x 39 1/3 inches (75 cm x 100 cm), 2007. (Photo: Cherry and Martin)

Its reason for being is in large part to call attention to its own triviality, which in turn calls into question its reason for being, a self-fulfilling, scholastic vortex for which the painting itself becomes inconsequential in direct proportion to the time one spends considering it. Though a nifty trick of abnegation, this kind of painting doesn’t really evade the quandaries that provoke it, and provides little to the viewer.

While Rubinstein may be correct about some painters feeling boxed in by historical antecedents and theoretical conundrums, and while he praises the “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” perseverance of artists who paint through these challenges, painting remains an empirical discipline, a discipline of objects, rooted in the experience of making and viewing. However daunting the obstacles, the painting itself counts. The degree to which rhetoric displaces experience is the degree to which painting becomes eviscerated.

Every artist works, consciously or unconsciously, under the impact of the moment, the exigencies of time and place—that is obvious enough—but every moment is multi-faceted and no response to it pre-ordained. Rubinstein may have very well characterized one course of action, but there are plenty of other painters working contemporaneously who have simply never accepted the premises or anxiety Rubinstein relates. They sow an adjacent row in the same field, yet do not recognize (or never noticed) the confines of what is “possible in painting,” as dictated by those outside of it, nor any doctrinal requirement of exiguity. Work such as this is incontestable proof that present-day theoretical or historical ensnarement is less than a necessity. Perhaps Madame de Sévigné had the answer: “Quand je n’écoute que moi, je fais de merveilles.” [When I listen to myself only, I do wonders.]

Coda

I was in the studio recently and turned on Alfred Schnittke’s "Concerto Grosso No. 1," from the album “Kremer Plays Schnittke.” Froze me for twenty minutes. A-stound-ing. There’s even a tango in there (in the fifth movement). If anyone ever told him what wasn’t possible, he didn’t listen.