painting

Symbiosis

Paul Cézanne, Bend in a Road in Provence, about 1866 or later, oil on canvas, 92.4 x 72.5 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Adaline Van Horne Bequest

“The painter can do no more than construct an image; he must wait for this image to come to life for other people. When it does, the work of art will have united these separate lives; it will no longer exist in only one of them like a stubborn dream or a persistent delirium, nor will it exist only in space as a colored piece of canvas. It will dwell undivided in several minds, with a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition.”

From “Cézanne’s Doubt” (pdf) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Philip Guston


Untitled (Cup), Philip Guston, oil on panel, 11 in. x 14 in. (btw. 1969 and 1973). Photo McKee Gallery, www.mckeegallery.com
 
A show of terrific paintings by Philip Guston at McKee gallery in New York closed a week ago Saturday. They were small paintings on panel, around 12 in. x 16 in., all the same size or close to it. The paintings were mostly of household objects—cups, shoes, etc.—as well as some of his hooded figures and cityscapes, done between 1969 and 1973. The photographs do them scant justice (but click on them for a larger view anyway).

These little paintings have immense vitality. The palette is restricted to red, white, black and occasional green. The objects or structures are simple and rudimentarily rendered. The elementary limitations give him a framework, and within it he lays claim to a kind of liberty in painting that is infrequently seen but always cherished by anyone who gives a damn about painting.


Untitled (Sole), Philip Guston, oil on panel, 12 in. x 16 in. (btw. 1969 and 1973). Photo McKee Gallery, www.mckeegallery.com

The marks are virtuoso: little hatches, wet into wet; swirls and smears; perfunctory dashes and blobs. Every stroke is direct, no-nonsense and unaffected; their aggregate conveys a feeling of honesty, authority and self-knowledge. The paintings, deceptively simple and generous despite exiguous means, radiate life. 

Coda

“The degree of intellectual honesty that is obligatory for me, by reason of my particular vocation, demands that my thought should be indifferent to all ideas without exception, including for instance materialism and atheism; it must be equally welcoming and equally reserved with regard to every one of them. Water is indifferent in this way to the objects that fall into it. It does not weigh them; they weigh themselves, after a certain time of oscillation.”

Simone Weil, Letter to S., Waiting for God, Perennial, 2001. Translated by Emma Craufurd.

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.

“L’artista è la controfigura per il filosofo”

(“The artist is the stuntman for the philosopher”–G. Baruchello)

The issue of what is happening when we look at an artwork, and how to talk about the dynamic between the making of an artwork, the artwork itself, and viewing, is something I have thought about a great deal and will write about. In deciding how to begin I realized that, at least on this topic, a little background on why this matters to my work, in more than a philosophical sense, might be useful.

Several years ago I went through a pretty thorough evaluation of where I was with painting. The examination was triggered by some moving events during the prior year. I had become interested in visual art and begun painting because art seemed to me a boundless vessel for working with the widest variety of human interests—a thing that could accept whatever one put into it and that one could never exhaust. I had, however, begun to feel that the events and concerns that were of highest import to me were alien to the paintings I was doing, which was not acceptable. Pushing paint around aimlessly, without deeper impetus or aim, did not interest me.

As a result I decided to halt painting, perhaps completely, while I looked into how, or whether, painting could do what I asked of it. If art, or painting, was not fulfilling the obligation that I had for it, if I was not fulfilling my obligation to it, it was better to leave it behind and search elsewhere for that fulfillment. It wasn’t clear to me where I would end up—as an activist, in a day job of some sort, law school, in a monastery, back in the studio—but I was content to leave it open for as long as it took to arrive at an organic decision. While sanguine, I was not going to return to the studio unless I was able to find a way to make the work and activity relevant to the things I cared about most. I found that my identity as an artist was not important to me, and told Amy at the time that the only thing I wasn’t ready to give up was breathing.

It took about three months, and the intervention of a transformative retrospective of Cy Twombly’s work on paper, to resolve, and of course it did so in an unforeseen way. Soon after seeing the exhibition the subliminal started oozing up from between the cracks. I found myself scribbling on scraps of paper, doodling over my notes. Externally, the more I considered it, the more the whole question looked twofold. On one side was a problem of the language we use to describe what happens when we make and look at art. Words like “expression,” “content,” “meaning” and even “medium” conjured, explicitly or implicitly, some kind of transfer of information, for which I could find no justification in the dynamic between artist/artwork/viewer, and which is completely outside of the way we understand art in our moment, for good reasons. On the other side was the presumption of any correlation between what the artist does and what the viewer takes away. If one dispensed with that, lots of problems went with it, though others appeared.

What finally presented itself was an equilibrium between impossibility and new possibility. The above points indicated that what I had been seeking could not be done. On the other side of the balance, however, these seemingly negative conclusions had opened up a lot of new space. If there were contradictions embedded in going back to work, these contradictions seemed capable of bearing some unfamiliar fruit.

Coda

1) Article on David Hammons in Alexandria. I will never forget a walk through Harlem he took us on years ago, at the behest of Stanley Whitney. Among other things that day, he helped me pay attention to the artifacts and interactions of public spaces with the same devotion I was giving to visual phenomena. You’ll find the same acuity and precision in this article.

2) Judit Reigl at Janos Gat. Some very tough paintings from the 1960s. Sort of like the love child of Umberto Boccioni and Clyfford Still, if you can imagine anything that irascible not self-destructing on impact.

3) Dona Nelson’s painting at Thomas Erben. A complex, though-provoking and lovely painting. She uses the back of the canvas in a resolved and innovative way that opens into notions of duality. Very daring. Dona always has one foot on a banana peel and the other on a skateboard. (As of posting, the Thomas Erben website is not updated, but the exhibition runs through 1 February.)