«“Painter-painter,” and the Lingering Specter of Greenberg by Lilly Lampe At an art auction a few years ago, I overheard a conversation that ...»
Lampe, Lilly. “Painter-painter,” and the Lingering Spector of Greenberg, The Brooklyn Rail, February 3, 2016, online.
“Painter-painter,” and the Lingering Specter of Greenberg
by Lilly Lampe
At an art auction a few years ago, I overheard a conversation that unsettled my sense of painting in a way that I’m
still trying to fully understand. The auction was a fundraiser for a local art nonprofit and the mood was sour. The
artists clung to the walls and their drinks, grumbling about the measly number of comped drink tickets, the priceslashing they foresaw for their work, and the various iniquities of fundraisers, which ask artists to give work for pennies on the dollar. A young couple, both painters who had gone to top art schools, debated the merits of the other canvases in the room. “What is this shit?” asked one, referring to a large
work on paper, featuring spray paint and trompe l’œil effects atop negative space. “It’s not shit!” exclaimed the other, who was better acquainted with the artist behind the work in question. “_____ ’s work is different than ours. We’re painter-painters, he’s not,” she explained. “‘Painter-painter?’” I asked myself, “Not ‘painter’s painter?’” I wanted to know more, but the couple had already changed topic. “This whole thing is shit,” snarled the first speaker, already several drinks in. “The work is shit, and so is this party.” With that, he hocked the phlegm in his throat and spat onto the gallery floor. Gesture aside, I had to agree. The party had turned and it was time to leave.
Since then, the seemingly innocuous phrase “painter-painter” has stuck in my head, only to reemerge every time I see an article that questions the vitality of painting as a genre. This is not one of those articles. My concern is not for painting’s health, but for its fractured state. The many styles of painting have split off into what exists today as feudal territories, where straying comes at the risk of being booted from the group. The ghost of Greenberg looms large.
Last year, two major exhibitions of painting further complicated
these questions. One was the largely reviled The Forever Now:
Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at MoMA; the
other was the stunning, yet seemingly ignored Variations:
Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting at LACMA. As Installation View: The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting the informed reader already knows, Forever Now was in an Atemporal World. The Museum of Modern Art, New prominently, repeatedly, and mostly negatively reviewed in York. Photo: John Wran. ©The Museum of Modern Art.
what felt like every periodical—arts or otherwise. Barbara Rose likened it to a “mosh pit at a provincial art fair.”1 Christian Viveros-Fauné wrote in The Village Voice that it “sucked.”2 The New York Times, the New Yorker, Frieze, the Nation, the Guardian, and ARTNews, among others, all had their go at the divisive painting show. In contrast, most readers may have never heard of Variations. The LACMA exhibition garnered scant blurbs that merely stated its existence and it was reviewed, positively, only twice, in Artforum and in something called Entertainment Voice. The exhibitions were roughly contemporaneous (The Forever Now ran from December 14, 2014 to April 5, 2015;
Variations, August 24, 2014 through March 22, 2015), organized by two of this country’s biggest art museums and, what’s more, had similar checklists. Of the thirty artists in Variations and seventeen in The Forever Now, there were seven overlaps, not an insignificant number.
The gulf in critical attention between these two exhibitions is striking enough to merit its own article tackling the imbalances in arts journalism in this country. Some imbalance is due to historical weight—The Forever Now was MoMA’s first painting show in thirty years and MoMA, no matter what criticisms are levied at it, is one of the most influential museums in this country, if not the world. Also skewing critical attention is the fact of location; if a publication isn’t based in New York, it has a correspondent or editor there, whereas Los Angeles is simply not a hub for arts writing in the same way. Though smaller publications burble up in far-flung locales (mostly non-profit publications with a heavily localized audience), national conversations between art and art-making are seemingly anathema to the slant of art publications today, to the disservice of artists, readers, and the mechanism of art history. I hope this piece will call attention to these disparities while providing the currently lacking comparison between The Forever Now and Variations as exhibitions, because in this comparison I’ve found a key to unraveling the mystery of “painter-painter” and its implications for painting today.
To begin, it’s necessary to indulge a brief summary of these exhibitions and where they went wrong and right. The Forever Now’s flaws can be described succinctly; it was a conservative showing of poorly chosen works by mostly good painters, loosely strung together by a thin curatorial premise. Curated by Laura Hoptman around an idea of “atemporality” in order to address a supposedly free condition in which painters could pull styles and motifs from traditions potentially across the span of civilization, the references felt stiltedly 20th century. Critics immediately recognized the influence of Gerhard Richter, Ellsworth Kelly, Paul Klee, Cy Twombly, and others in the works of Julie Mehretu, Matt Connors, Michaela Eichwald, and others in the exhibition. If these artists were privy to such referential liberties, why were the historical nods so recent, and so Western?
As to the artworks themselves, as others have noted, many were weak works by strong artists, made, in my opinion, less effective by repetition. The seventeen-artist show contained over eighty artworks, each artist represented by a group of works from a single series, as if no individual work were convincing enough on its own. A group of portraits by Nicole Eisenman, for example, came across as rather middling despite the artist’s otherwise sizeable intrigue, particularly because, at the time, there was a much better painting by Eisenman up the road in a Seder-themed exhibition at the Jewish Museum. But even powerfully evocative works like Rashid Johnson’s Cosmic Slop series, a tangle of deep lines carved into black soap and wax, were rendered mute in The Forever Now. If the mark of a wellcurated group show is the elevation of its individual pieces, The Forever Now achieved the opposite; not only was the sum less than its parts, the exhibition diminished the effect of each artist’s work.
Moreover, the aligning feature of The Forever Now was a particular idea of medium specificity in painting, barely evolved since Clement Greenberg. The stretcher dominated, whether exposed in the sculptural paintings of Dianna Molzan, where the canvas was shredded into grids or hung in soft arcs that exposed the wooden frame; or the steel armature of Kerstin Brätsch’s Sigi’s Erben (Agate Psychics) (2012), which supplanted the stretcher only as surrogate. All around, canvas and panel dominated; where it didn’t, as with the loose, unstretched and sometimes floor-strewn works of Oscar Murillo, its absence only served to emphasize the stretched canvases everywhere else.
The other major statement in the exhibition was that of the gestural mark, seen in Joe Bradley’s love-’em-orhate-’em grease-pencil on canvas works, Johnson’s carvings, Mehretu’s ink-and-paint Twombly-esque scribbles, and all the other works that used paint. The moves made in this atemporal “new” painting seemed remarkably close to the painterly mark-making on canvas of older styles. This wasn’t atemporal painting; it was old business masquerading as new.
Perhaps the most damning criticism was that The Forever Now was collector-bait, due to the show’s inclusion of market wunderkinds like Murillo, whose work, while enthusiastically collected, gathers mostly unfavorable mentions from critics. And in fact, many critics concluded after The Forever Now that, according to MoMA, painting’s defining characteristics seem to be that it is big and expensive. Compounding these accusations was the glaring fact that of the nearly ninety works in the exhibition, a scant seven were at the time owned by or promised to MoMA. By the end of the year, works by Eisenman and Mehretu, which appeared in The Forever Now, were added to the museum’s collection, bumping the number up to nine and growing. With these facts in mind, The Forever Now looks less like a compelling show of contemporary painting and more like a collectors’ wish-list to Santa Klaus Biesenbach.
Variations was, in many ways, the corrective to the missteps of The Forever Now. Featuring half as many works by twice as many artists, Variations felt simultaneously more expansive in scope than The Forever Now and compellingly loose in its definition of painting. The oldest works, a 1976 lithograph by Howardena Pindell and a 1988 Richter painting, worked to firmly establish an immediately accessible lineage—and one that wasn’t looking only at white males—in contrast to the relatively shallow depth of The Forever Now, whose oldest works dated to 2006. Most exciting, from those initial flag posts, the exhibition immediately bloomed out into sculpture, video, and assemblage in ways that felt both radical and representative of the most interesting moves happening today. Rachel Lachowicz’s 1992 Lipstick Urinals, with their greasy, densely Installation View: Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract pigmented patina, brought a feminist edge in addition to Painting. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo ©2014 Museum unconventional materials. Lachowicz’s Cell: Interlocking Associates/LACMA.
Construction (2010), a pleasing array of blue pigment within stacked irregularly shaped Plexiglas boxes wrestled Cubist forms out of their 2-D sepia purgatory. Other L.A. inclusions, like Mark Bradford and Sterling Ruby (wave-end paper paintings and spray-painted plinths with ceramics and canvases, respectively) felt significant and necessary. Negating accusations of West-Coast favoritism were works by Christopher Wool, Theaster Gates, and Jennie C. Jones, the latter of whose acoustic panels on canvas made a loud impression without making a sound.
It’s also worth mentioning that almost ninety percent of the works in Variations are in or promised to LACMA’s permanent collection, suggesting LACMA holds better contemporary painting than MoMA wishes it had. And indeed, the seven artists presented in both exhibitions were shown to better effect at LACMA. Two paintings by Amy Sillman in Variations, for example,demonstrated greater expressive range than the four at MoMA. Fresh comparisons helped too; a single-shaped canvas work by Molzan had greater subtlety (compared to the five in The Forever Now) next to Lisa Williamson’s painted steel Long Pants (2013). Mark Grotjahn, whose riotous tunnels of color still dazzled at MoMA, was shown to be just as effective with sparser painting compositions and bronze sculpture in Variations. The biggest shift was in the presence of Rashid Johnson. At MoMA, his soap-and-wax works were just another nod towards the gestural, at LACMA a mixed-media installation titled Four for the Talking Cure (2012) was given a central place, both physically and metaphorically. The brief exhibition text noted Four for the Talking Cure as embodying the organizing principle of the show. Composed of four zebra-skin-upholstered benches, spider-plant-like fauna, and a hollow diamond-like sculpture at its apex, among other items, the work’s only overt nod to painting was the graffiti-like scratches and sprays at its base. The text read, “The title references a Freudian term for the fundamental nature of psychoanalysis; here we suggest a place for the analysis of painting—a conversation in and around abstraction.” While Four for the Talking Cure was cordoned off from would-be recliners in the exhibition, the idea of psychoanalyzing painting—not merely taking a Freudian approach to regarding an artwork but actually treating painting like a patient—was a seductive one, suggesting all of painting’s crises were neuroses, and could be disbanded with some time on a therapist’s couch.
Is the supposed crisis in painting a product of the medium’s own neurosis? Perhaps it isn’t that painting is dead but that, like many of us, it suffers from anxiety about death? Maybe painting is depressed, a sentiment I dare say many critics would validate, or narcissistic (undeniably), or irrationally obsessed with the threat of other mediums.
Obsession of some sort seems the most likely diagnosis, with the result being compulsive inward-looking as well as an unhealthy fixation on what painting or sculpture or video might be doing.
The narcissistic self-obsession of painting was certainly on view in The Forever Now. The exhibition seemed particularly hung up on three primary qualities of painting today: possession of a stretcher or the illusion or reference to one, use of canvas or other painting surfaces, and the gestural mark, something akin to a painterly brushstroke. This dogged insistence on the traditional structure of painting—done on a panel, canvas, or linen, and pulled over stretcher bars—and expressive mark-making done by hand is, minus a dogmatic insistence on the use of paint itself, hardly a step removed from Greenberg’s idea of medium specificity. Both Lowry and Hoptman described the artists in The Forever Now as traditionalists in so many words. Lowry wrote the artists “made their work in the most traditional manner—using paint and brushes on canvas.”3 Hoptman elided her choices as “practitioners of painting qua painting,” perhaps synonymous with the elusive moniker of “painter-painter.”4 If MoMA is correct, the move towards the flatness that Greenberg described is not only alive, but dominant, and while medium specificity seems to have gotten away from necessarily involving paint on canvas, the moves made by Bradley, Johnson, and Mehretu, with a grease stick, carved soap, and ink, respectively, substitute painterly mark-making without using a drop of paint.