«“Painter-painter,” and the Lingering Specter of Greenberg by Lilly Lampe At an art auction a few years ago, I overheard a conversation that ...»
The continued insistence on medium-specificity should have been reassuring of painting’s health; instead, it was troubling. Since Forever Now hinges on Greenbergian medium-specificity, it’s only logical to turn to Greenberg to see where it fails. In “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” Greenberg explicated the avant-garde break in painting towards flatness and purity in form, away from bourgeois fixations on subject matter. Forever Now fits the bill, but perhaps too well. Greenberg also described the avant-garde as a having historical imperative to evolve, meaning the avantgarde in painting today cannot be that of Greenberg, but must present a dramatic evolution. The Forever Now—far from presenting an evolutionary leap—seems barely evolved. Besides, according to Greenberg, the avant-garde performs in opposition to bourgeois society—if the critics were right, MoMA with The Forever Now played only to the elites who determine (and inflate) its values.
For all the weaknesses of The Forever Now, however, it presents a good example of where “painter-painter” stands.
Let me stress that this does not limit “painter-painter” (or its opposite) to existence as a derogatory phrase; it’s just a shame for painter-painters that MoMA presented this kind of work in such poor fashion.
MoMA isn’t the only major institution to misrepresent “painter-painters.” A third painting exhibition clarifies what “painter-painter” isn’t. In 2013, I saw the Walker Art Center’s show Painter Painter which, though in name consistent with my premise, was assuredly not “painter-painter.” The Walker’s first painting show in twelve years (it seems the infrequency of group shows on painting must be mentioned by guilty institutions), Painter Painter included work by Matt Connors (also in Forever Now), Dianna Molzan (in Forever Now and Variations), and Alex Olson (Variations), indicating these exhibitions on painting really are circling around the same pool of artists. The result differed dramatically from the viewpoints presented by the other exhibitions I’ve discussed. Painter Painter was not, as we might surmise, a move towards a reemphasis of painting as a medium, but in fact a blurring of mediums. The accompanying text stated that the exhibition “posits abstract painting today as a means, not an end.” Indeed, painting felt like a material in this exhibition, one to be used towards the creation of sculpture. Paintings were shredded, piled, and strewn between folding chairs in Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s The Failure of Contingency (2012); Rosy Keyser hammered sheets of corrugated steel and polycarbonate on a wooden frame in Big Sugar Sea Wall (2012). This is not a negative judgment of the works in this exhibition, but Painter Painter fell victim to what Greenberg described as academicism: “that particular widespread form of artistic dishonesty which consists in the attempt to escape of the problems of the medium of one art by taking refuge in the effects of another.”6 “Painter-painter” is not a phrase that undermines painting’s autonomy; rather, it qualifies it. “Painter-painter” is a doubling-down on the medium, allowing for gestural marks to substitute for paint, steel bars to substitute for stretcher. Whatever the substitution, the elements of stretcher, canvas, and paint remain in some form or are accentuated even in their absence. The works in The Forever Now exemplify this perspective, to unfortunate ends.
Perhaps it’s a senseless act to imagine what might have been with Forever Now, and it is possible that, as with Dorothy Miller’s infamous—and similarly reviled—umpteen Sixteen Americans (1959) MoMA exhibitions, the curator will have the last laugh and Forever Now will be canonized as an Influential Exhibition. The thought isn’t actually so dreadful—history shows it’s happened before—but the idea that Variations will disappear is upsetting because it felt so rich with ideas, and so right. The lack of a named curator—exhibition information simply stated that Variations was organized by LACMA—is curious, and perhaps attributes to the anonymity of the exhibition.
Perhaps its obscurity is lack of lexicon. Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting offers nothing so immediately catchy as atemporality, nor as fun to combat. A way to discuss the moves made in Variations is desired, one that can be used to gauge painting’s direction like the poles of a weathervane.
If “painter-painter,” seen at its dullest effects in Forever Now, reinforces the three tenets of the medium, what to call the other option presented by Variations, which acts less like “painter-painter’s” opposite than its alternative?
In Variations, Diana Thater’s video, Female Peregrine Falcon (Brook) (2012), was as valid a painting as Analia Saban’s marble on linen Kohler 5391 Kitchen Sink (2013), or A. K. Burns’s Touch Parade (2011), a five-channel video installation with each screen showing a body engaged in various tactile gestures. This expanded field of abstraction not only incorporates other mediums, but often does away with what Greenberg would call painting altogether, with works lacking the formerly holy trinity of canvas, stretcher armature, and paint.
In “Towards a Newer Laocoön,” Greenberg used the word “variant” repeatedly but without great significance to describe changes in direction in avant-garde painting. Yet “variant” contains great possibilities for elucidating the moves happening in painting today. In its adjectival form, “variant” means tending to change, not agreeing or conforming, varying from the standard. Painting has never had the possibilities for change that it has today, with the ability to not only borrow from but subsume itself into the widening breadth of mediums available for art making.
There’s historical precedent for this shift. In the ’70s, artists like Sol LeWitt and On Kawara began to co-opt painting in works that, while technically painting, were primarily conceptual and thus transcended physical categorization.
For the first time, artwork could exist as an abstraction in its purest form, an idea without materiality that didn’t even need to be realized in order to exist. This planted the seed of revolt. From there, two divergent stories can be told of painting. The first falls under “painter-painter” concerns. For Greenberg, purity in art consisted in the complacent acceptance of the limitations of the medium of a specific art, and this has continued as a through line in painting. The major moves in what we would traditionally accept as painting have retained Greenberg’s mediumspecific trinity, but have all been image-oriented; from David Salle and Julian Schnabel’s emphasis on representation in the ’80s to the reinvigoration of realism in the ’90s in the works of Elizabeth Peyton and others.
Subject-matter crept back in a dominant way, perhaps a regressive return in Greenberg’s eyes but one that redoubled emphases on manifesting the physical aspects of painting. In the 2000s, painting, like everything else, got big, but it didn’t change much structurally, which is certainly reflected in The Forever Now.
The alternate recent history is that of other mediums creeping in while allowing painting to remain distinctly painting. It could be argued that the luscious, psychologically haunting paintings of Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, and Luc Tuymans are part of the shift away from medium specificity, despite being plainly and structurally paintings comprising the three crucial elements. Their works, while highly representational, are distorted in ways that both reflect and deviate from their consistent use of photographic and cinematic source material (Richter and Sigmar Polke should of course be considered in this as well). The representational aspects then are mediated by these artist’s explicit use of and reference to these other mediums. The true image presented in these paintings is not the content of the original photograph or film, but the photograph or film itself.
The quiet eruption of photography into the best painting of the 20th century’s final decades created an opening for painting to adapt other mediums into itself, a vice versa of the moves made by Conceptual art. Medium limitations have lost their stranglehold on what a work of art could be. The avant-garde is no longer about surrendering to medium, but conquering it. In the works of Chris Ofili, painting is combined with sculptural elements like unconventional plinths to great and influential effect. If an On Kawara painting can be something other than a painting, then why can’t an A. K. Burns five-channel video installation be a painting? The ability to differentiate these moves is no longer the credence of materiality; instead, the ideas behind or overt in the artwork have overridden its material constraints. An artist’s intention isn’t the defining attribute; this move can happen in the perception of the beholder, be it artist, museum-goer, or a very perceptive team of curators.
My earlier mention of psychoanalysis now feels like Chekhov’s gun waiting to go off, with the inevitable outburst being that painting suffers from an identity crisis. There are those who might accuse painting of being “confused” or “in a phase.” Yet this is far from the truth. This is less a phase than a sea change, catharsis rather than confusion.
What some might approach with fear is the evolutionarily necessary next step of a once-beloved, now polarizing medium. The chance is behind us now, and there’s no going back.
Looking to parallel moves in other mediums, I’d be remiss not to mention Rosalind Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” which so elegantly broaches sculpture’s shift away from the monument towards postmodern forms like land art, non-sites, etc. In painting as well, the mechanisms of postmodernism are at play, although I wouldn’t risk drawing direct parallels to the sculpture-specific (taken generally of course) claims Krauss makes, nor suggest I’m doing anything as refined as her structural mapping (this fact is already clear to the reader). Nor do I wish to say painting is now also in its expanded field. Most generally, what can be said is that, as sculpture has expanded to include art activities not traditionally considered sculpture, so too has painting extended its possibilities; however, painting’s expansion is the sublimation of other mediums rather than setting, incorporating sculpture, video, light, sound, and so on, in ways that retain the abstract sense of painting. The gestural brushstroke becomes an abstract act; stretcher bars are extrapolated into the edges of a flat screen television, the sides of a Plexiglas box, or four zebra-upholstered benches; a canvas surface can be a screen or the panel of an acoustic speaker; painting’s flatness mimicked by marble prepared for a kitchen counter.
No longer is avant-garde painting about self-reflexively showing the material limitations of painting; it has ascended beyond the limitations of Greenberg’s holy trinity. The material forms of painting are variable and perhaps they need not be material at all. An obsession with flatness feels far too one-sided today. What’s most vibrant in today’s painting is not about a break with time but a break with material, a break with two and three dimensionality into a fourth, an expansion into multiple art practices which could be called painting, and an expanded sense of genres that will be duly freeing to the rest. This is Variant Painting. Call it what you will.