The End of Representation
– Frances Colpitt –
Painting is dead was a theory, not a fact. As such, it informed our experience and interpretation of paintings produced under the pall of such a fatalistic declaration. In the 1970s and 80s, those who continued to make paintings and there were many good artists who did risked marginalization and charges of elitism or navet. Painting went underground; ostensibly smarter and less commercial, conceptual art prevailed. Then, What the 1990s seem to have brought us, according to Christopher Knight, is the death of the death of painting, which no longer functions as an operating principle, either overt or covert.1
Painting’s first obituary is attributed to the French artist Paul Delaroche, who is said to have uttered, From today, painting is dead, upon first seeing a Daguerreotype in the late 1830s. Swayed by photography’s capacity for the faithful representation of reality, could Delaroche have overreacted? Could death-of-painting proponents be misreading irony for seriousness? Published in 1881, Gustave Flauberts Dictionary of Received Ideas a primer of clichés and a critique of bourgeois gullibility defined photography: Will make painting obsolete. (See Daguerreotype.) Implicit in Flaubert’s sarcasm is the naïve presumption that painting is, in essence, a mimetic form of art. Beyond capturing the likenesses of mortals in portraits, paintings prerogatives have always leaned toward the imaginative and evocative.
Although painting suffered little in the second half of the nineteenth century, its salvation is presumed to have been the invention of abstraction in the 1910s. Formally, expressively and sensually, abstraction gave painters something to paint. Freedom from the demands of representation, however, instilled abstract paintings first flowering from Wassily Kandinsky to Ad Reinhardtwith an overwhelming sense of doubt. Jackson Pollock is said to have denied the purely abstract nature of his drip paintings and Reinhardt was the last to defend nonrepresentational painting against the traditional association of painting with mimesis. No illusions, no representations, no associations, he wrote. The art of figuring or picturing is not a fine art.2
After Pop, which is primarily a re-representational art based on representations of representations, paintings prior options of representation and abstraction were realigned. Soliciting artists responses to the idea that painting has ceased to be the dominant artistic medium at the moment, a 1975 issue of Artforum opined: The debates between its two major ideologies, abstract and representational, have outlived their usefulness.3 Although representational painting persisted as a minor art form, the mimetic mandate shifted conclusively from painting to photography, while abstraction was split into formal and conceptual approaches, a situation that continues today. The divide characterized not only painting (including Daniel Burens decidedly anti-formal paintings followed by those of Blinky Palermo and Olivier Mosset, for example) but non-medium-specific art forms, such as conceptualism. Conceptual artists stressed the fact that their art works were abstract, in the manner of language, rather than representational or figurative. At the same time, they were adamantly opposed to formalist painting, despite its adherence to abstraction.4 Personified by Clement Greenberg and Kenneth Noland, formalism was rejected for its emphases on perception, aesthetics and taste; It’s a mindless art, wrote Joseph Kosuth in 1969.5
Perpetuating Duchamp’s distinction between retinal and conceptual art, and his association of retinal art with the slur, common in Duchamp’s time, bete comme un peintre (stupid as a painter), conceptual artists claimed intelligence for themselves. Brice Marden’s paintings are kinda dumb, declared Mel Ramsden, a member of the conceptual collaborative Art & Language. Dismissing an essay on Marden’s profundity by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Ramsden accused the critic of a rationalization or a naturalization of the parameters of media, museum and market. I think Gilbert-Rolfe’s idea of this bullshit art-criticism is that it serve as a deodorant, preventing us smelling the stink of modernism, by which he meant formalism. Ramsden’s attack was supported by an interview with Marden, who said, A painter’s just this odd weird person who has to do this dumb thing called painting.6
Gilbert-Rolfe is no intellectual slouch but his affinity for Marden (bolstered by his own practice as an abstract painter) situated his critical interpretations on the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum from Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and his support of Gerhard Richter. In his 1981 essay, Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting, Buchloh hammered away at the authoritarian, patriarchal and bourgeois values of contemporary figurative painting along with its tendency to commodify history and style. In contrast to the desperately naive gestures of the Neo-expressionists, Richter’s painting served as a judicious model of the impossibility of authentic painterly expression.7 Buchloh’s co-option of Richter for the anti-painting, conceptual avant-garde formed the subtext of his interview with the artist in 1986. Commended by Buchloh for his cynical depreciation of painting, Richter adamantly disagreed. I see there neither tricks, nor cynicism. I know for a fact that painting is not ineffectual. When Buchloh interpreted Richter’s paintings as knowing illustrations of the bankruptcy of representation and abstraction, Richter countered with an affirmation of their capacity for expression and the communication of content. Incredulous, Richter asked the critic, You don’t really believe that just the dumb showing of brushstrokes, of the rhetoric of painting and its elements, could accomplish something, say something, express some kind of yearning.8 The conflict reveals Buchloh’s futile attempt to characterize Richter as smarter than he wants to be.
Richter’s work did much to blur the divide between abstract and figurative painting. Subsequently embracing both modes are artists such as Laura Owens, whose early paintings revisited the abandoned project of 60’s stain painting. Likewise thinly and inelegantly painted, her figurative works depict dreamy land- or skyscapes and evocative fairy-tale creatures. The shapes in Inka Essenhigh’s paintings have similarly evolved from amorphous anime-inspired forms to highly modeled, obviously anthropomorphic figures. The spills, stains, blobs and drips of richly hued, non-referential color in the works of Monique Prieto, Ingrid Calame and Aaron Parazette remain more rigorously abstract. Even the recent incorporation of text by Parazette and Prieto does not affect the abstract nature of their paintings. The words serve as dumb structures on which to hang sensual manipulations of color and surface.
One of the great surprises of the 1990’s was the frequent inclusion of works by Owens, Essenhigh, Prieto, Calame, Parazette and other abstract artists with the non-abstract paintings of artists such as Kevin Appel, Sharon Ellis and Adam Ross in exhibitions like Spot Making Sense (Grand Arts, 1997), Abstract Painting, Once Removed (Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1998) and Glee: Painting Now (The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 2000). Ellis and Ross paint shimmering images of visionary, otherworldly landscapes, while Appel is known for pale geometric depictions of imaginary modernist interiors. Shared by all these artists is a new interest in form, long discredited by conceptual art. More than simply retinal, neo-formalist painting appeals to the viewers body through gesture, scale and the physicality of paint. Meaning and reference to earlier art, cartoons, psychedelia and science fiction are as significant as color, space and composition. Unlike Formalist painting of the 60s, the existence of meaning does not critically dilute the nature of this painting.
In contrast to neo-formalism, conceptual abstraction is practiced by artists such as Jonathan Lasker, Thomas Scheibitz, Julie Mehretu and Damien Hirst, whose paintings derive from an anti-formalist impulse. Their works are not representations of abstract paintings as might have been thought in the recent postmodern past but inscriptions or illustrations of ideas. In a related attempt to legitimize recent figurative painting, critics have also linked it to the conceptual project. Artists such as Luc Tuymans, Neo Rauch, John Currin, Peter Doig and Elizabeth Peyton are identified with a strain of artists working conceptually with figurative painting,9 and praised for their paintings capacity to convey conceptual content.10 But that content is ambiguous rather than straightforwardly narrative, as Russell Ferguson points out in a recent essay on the crisis in representational painting.11 According to Alison M. Gingeras, the prevalence of ambiguity demonstrates that figurative painting today has lost its legibility.12 Figures, landscapes, urban settings and accessories are recognizable but not identifiable in a cumulatively narrative sense.
Although it might seem to defeat the purpose of conceptually based art, ambiguity was also an essential quality of the most rigorous strain of 60s conceptualism. Intentionally difficult and practically indecipherable, Art & Languages text pieces demonstrate the impossibility of transparent representation. While the words make sense, they have no relationship to objects or events in the real world. The difficulty encountered in the interpretation of works by Art & Language extends to Richter’s painting, as Buchloh understood it. David Salle’s arbitrary juxtapositions of unrelated figures and images exhibit a comparable ambiguity, as do Rauch’s inexplicable episodes of human interaction in spatially expansive, retro-futuristic tableaux. The ambiguity and the instability of meaning, which seems arbitrary or at least in a constant state of flux, are hallmarks of contemporary figuration.
Despite revisionist attempts to resuscitate the reputations of Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter (in The Undiscovered Country at the UCLA Hammer Museum in 2004) and Francis Picabia and Bernard Buffet (in Dear Painter, paint me at the Centre Pompidou in 2002, in which Martin Kippenberger is celebrated as the prototypical conceptual painter), representational painting appears to be exhausted. While its goal of depicting observable reality was long ago assumed by photography, nonrepresentational painting both figurative and abstract is widely practiced and displayed. Given the potential for duplicity in photography (think Yves Kleins leap into the void) and Photoshop (think Oprah’s head on Ann Margarets body), painting’s capacity for truth-telling surpasses technological reproduction.
The veracity of figuration and abstraction derives from their human origins, whether expressed through the artists touch or mechanical devices, such as spray guns, masking tape or computer-generated sketches and studio assistants. As a paint-covered thing, rather than an immaterial image like a photograph or video projection, a painting has a convincing physical presence. There is something more to art than its skin, Thomas Hess wrote in 1968. Painting is not stuffed derma, and there are some physical and metaphysical bones beneath the illusion of two dimensions.13 To be seduced mentally, visually or bodily by a painting is no longer a stupid crime but a pleasure.
1.Christopher Knight, Fresh Paint, Los Angeles Times, 4 April 1999, Calendar, 6.
2.Ad Reinhardt, Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, ed. Barbara Rose (New York: Viking, 1975), 50, 55.
3.Painters Reply, Artforum 14, no. 1 (September 1975): 26.
4.See Ian Wilson, Conceptual Art, in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, eds. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 416-417 and Joseph Kosuth, Art as Idea as Idea: An Interview with Jeanne Siegel, in Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990, ed. Gabrielle Guerico (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 47-49.
5.Kosuth, Art After Philosophy, in Art After Philosophy, 18.
6.Mel Ramsden, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfes As-Silly-As-You-Can-Get Brice Mardens Painting (Artforum, October 1974, The Fox 2 (1975): 8-10.
7.Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting, in Art After Modernism, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 120
8.Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Gerhard Richter: Legacies of Painting, in Art Talk: The Early 80s, ed. Jeanne Siegel (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), 111-17.
9.Matthew Higgs, quoted in Linda Yablonsky, What Makes a Painting a Painting? Art News 104, no. 4 (April 2005): 101.
10.Alison M. Gingeras, Lieber Maler, male mir Learning from Kippenberger: Figurative Painting as Provocative and Sincere, Critical and Sentimental, in Dear Painter, paint me Painting the Figure Since Late Picabia (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2002), 10.
11.Russell Ferguson, The Undiscovered Country (Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2004), 94.
12.Gingeras, Lieber Maler, male mir, 10.
13.Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968), 23.