Blog featuring artwork of Wes Freese

Provisional Painting

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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

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


Written by Wes Freese

June 2, 2009 at 6:28 am

5 Responses

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  1. I agree. It’s sounds like a another ‘altermodernity’.
    But there are two things that make me feel in favour with these works (of Oehlen and Wool). In both of them I can see a critical analysis of what is possible and why. And not only conceptually but derived through its visuals. One of Wools works alone may look like a conceptual work (an icon) but they are mostly part of series. That show the difficulty and evolve from within painting.
    The second point is your argument, that these work is coming from the cities critical and academic circles. For a good reason, they also are to a huge extend about cities today and its environments. A highly technological society, interconnected, language-based. Clearly visible in both Wools and Oehlens work. (I skipped the others because my knowledge of them is very limited) And their work might be discussed in academic/critical circles but in my opinion its arriving from clearly anti-‘establishment’ point which contradiction they cant solve.
    And this is the reason to provisional painting and the ‘impossibility of painting’ to me.


    June 9, 2009 at 2:48 am

    • Can a painting process be political? i suppose yes. In my opinion we live in conservative and over-managed environments. We are audited to death in the workplace and the pursuit of correctness and perfection sometimes weighs me down. (I work as an art educator in a government college network.) Calvino said, and I paraphrase, when the world becomes too heavy then look at things from a different perspective, find different way of doing things (from 6 Memos…) I challenge the notion of there being one way of painting – that handed down through the traditional academy. To me, paint is stuff with which i explore my experience. and i welcome into my practice any approach or way of thinking that helps me to extricate myself from the burden of correctness, finish, preciousness. A kind of resistance. Not all the time, but often…


      November 24, 2009 at 7:58 am

  2. Thank you for your thoughts on this subject. Could you both consider the project of painting from the perspective of the archive, the index, and its relationship to the icon (formal, autobiographic, devotional, national, religious)?


    November 11, 2009 at 12:58 am

    • You are referring to Peirce? I’m afraid I’m not very semiotically inclined or knowledgeable. However, I will think about this, if only for my own pleasure.


      April 22, 2010 at 3:33 pm

  3. Altermodernity isn’t the kind of revolution it thinks it is. It’s really just using the same language it means to fight against participating in it unintentionally. These guys show much more promise. Of course it’s anti-establishment. Rembrandt was anti-establishment. The cave painters were anti-establishment. This “provisional” bunch is getting me excited about painting in a way that I haven’t been for thirty years, so ha. It’s like we’re opening up to the great outdoors in the same way the ancients were. So much possibility.


    September 6, 2010 at 9:55 am

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