Wesley Freese, “Practicing”, Oil on Linen, 24″ X 24″
One of my favorite writers on art, and painting in particular, is Raphael Rubinstein. His 2006 essay “A Quiet Crisis” was one of the most relevant contemporary articles on art and painting for me personally. What has always seemed apparent in his writing is an impression that he truly does understand the process of painting, and that he’s not just interpreting the products of visual (painting) culture from the outside in. Earlier this month, Rubinstein published an essay in the May edition of Art in America on what he has coined “Provisional Painting“, trying to illuminate an as yet unclassified thematic approach in contemporary painting. His essay moves the ball forward a bit in discussions concerning contemporary painting.
Rubinstein writes of his increasing awareness of provisionality in the practice of painting that “deliberately turn[s] away from ‘strong’ painting for something that seems to constantly risk inconsequence or collapse.” The deliberate turning away might be due to a foundational skepticism inherent in the genealogy of modern art, which he says began with Cezanne. This foundational skepticism is born of the modern struggle with the medium of painting, and in the case of younger artists, an attempt to “spurn the blandishments” of the art market.
Christopher Wool, “Untitled”, 2007
Five contemporary painters are cited that illustrate Rubinstein’s provisionality. Raoul De Keyser, “constantly asserts the impossibility of painting free of touch ups, mistakes, accidents, set on laying bare the seams, the second tries, the failures” (quoted from Jean-Claude Vergne); Albert Oehlen, whose “work, which manages to be at once antiseptic and messy, continues to draw great pictorial force from its abject awkwardness.” Christopher Wool‘s “paradoxical pictures in which the artist seems to have obliterated a painting-in-progress and then presented this sum of erasures as the finished work.” Mary Heilmann, whose paintings “[suggest] that treating painting as if it were ceramics, that is, as a medium free of weighty cultural expectations, is key to Heilmann’s art.” Michael Krebber “appears to say, painting is what I do but let’s not get sentimental about it or waste unnecessary time or materials; this is all you’re getting for your money. And yet Krebber’s disdain for painting could equally be interpreted as a sign of overvaluation of the medium”.
Rubinstein calls up reference to three other painters with recent exhibits as historical context for the five contemporary artists above. Joan Miro, Martin Barre and Kimber Smith. Miro’s work from 1927-1937 and “lack of finish, aggressively crude figuration, and extensive doodling and cancellation marks suggest a painter at war with his medium.” Barre’s work “could well appear as anti-painting, whereas what [he] wanted to show, through the traces or points of impact in a clear surface, was what painting could be if disencumbered of object, color and form.” Smith, as a second generation Abstract Expressionist in the most hostile decade to painting (1970’s), “splashed Matissean insouciance over the serious minded legacy of Abstract Expressionism” yet “does not fight at the fore, but neither does he fight at the rear; indeed, he fights not at all.” (Hal Foster, Artforum 1979)
Raoul de Keyser, “Untitled”, 2002
Rubinstein co-ops the argument of the “impossibility” of painting, explaining it as “a conviction that an earlier generation of artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up” or that “nothing could seem more presumptuous or inappropriate … than to set out to create a masterpiece.” The entertainment of the impossibility has led many contemporary artists “to reject a sense of finish in their work, or to rely on acts of negation.” Provisional painting is “the finished product disguised as preliminary stage” or “major painting masquerading as minor painting.” Rubinstein concludes with a suggestion that the provisionality of contemporary painters’ works “is an index of the impossibility of painting and the equally persistent impossibility of not painting.”
Is painting impossible? This idea seems prescient only to a painter that is concerned with making a name for him or herself within the history of painting. This is a big art market concern. There are enumerable painters making traditional landscape, still life or other abstract paintings who either ignore or don’t know about the alleged “impossibility” of painting. Painting is not impossible to them, it has consequence to them personally, and to his or her audience. But the idea of impossibility in painting does reflect painting’s limited role in societies and culture.
In the 1970’s painting was “dead”, only to be reinvigorated by the post-modernists. Painting was “pure” in the 1950’s which led to the celebration of monochromatic, dull and lifeless paintings by many artists in New York, and which I believe history will not be kind to in the long run. Painting is not going to have the influence on society that television or photography or digital media has had and will continue to have, but it never did. Show me the era, or the example, when the genre of painting cast such a big shadow on society. It never existed! Even before the inventions of other media in the 19th and 20th century, painting always had a limited role in society. This ideology of “failure” and “impossibility” is more marketing pablum, and less about the practice of painting. Nevertheless, fifty years from now you can bet that college art history books will have a section on painting after the millennium, perhaps entitled something like “Provisional Painting: The Impossibility of a Dead Medium” followed by the next chapter “The Resurrection of Painting”.
The thing I often object to are critic’s claims that traditional forms of painting are somehow obsolete, boring and/or not culturally relevant. It makes me wonder if critics know what actually goes into creating a painting, or if they have the faculties to view a masterfully constructed painting. I appreciate Rubinstein’s essay a great deal, and even though the concept of the impossibility in painting is widely accepted among critics, it certainly hasn’t infiltrated many painter’s actual practice of painting. As I’ve written before, a painter whose work is excessively conceptual, like most of the artists listed in Rubenstein article, is usually masking an underlying lack of knowledge and skill as to how to paint. It leads me to question: is provisionality really a euphemism for lack of skill or ability?
Albert Oehlen, “Gericht”, 2006