Thursday, April 18, 2013

Provisional Painting//Part II

VIEW SLIDESHOW View of Sergej Jensen's exhibition of textile paintings, at MoMA PS1, New York, 2011. Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York. Photo Thomas Muller. ; Cover of James Lord's book, first published in 1965. Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ;


At the opening of his compact memoir A Giacometti Portrait (1965), James Lord is on a 1964 visit to Paris. He agrees to pose for Giacometti, who has proposed a "sketch" on canvas of his young American friend which is expected to require only a single sitting. They set to work in Giacometti's dilapidated studio, situated in an alleyway in the 14th arrondissement. Things start well, but at the end of the sitting, Giacometti announces his deep dissatisfaction with the results and obliterates most of the image. He asks Lord to pose again the next day, when the process repeats itself. As more days, then weeks, go by, the artist increasingly despairs of his task, canceling out each day's efforts as Lord remains a virtual prisoner in Paris, waiting for his portrait to be finished, changing his travel reservations again and again. Finally, late one afternoon, on the 18th sitting, as the last light is going, he is able to dissuade Giacometti from painting out that day's work, and the portrait is . . . "finished" isn't the right word. Let's say abandoned.

Throughout Lord's little book, which lays out the ground for his subsequent full-scale biography of the artist, published in 1997, we get to hear repeated expressions of Giacometti's profound self-doubt. "If only I could accomplish something in drawing or painting or sculpture," he tells Lord on the first day, "it wouldn't be so bad. If I could just do a head, one head, just once, then maybe I'd have a chance of doing the rest, a landscape, a still life. But it's impossible."1 On the seventh day Giacometti laments: "The painting's going worse and worse. . . . It's impossible to do it. Maybe I'd better give up painting forever. But the trouble is if I can't do a painting, I can't do a sculpture either."2 On day 13: "What I'm doing is negative work. . . . You have to do something by undoing it. Everything is disappearing once more. You have to dare to give the final brush stroke that makes everything disappear."3 Some of Giacometti's artistic pessimism might be put down to a superstitious artist not wanting to jinx his work in progress, but his relentless undoings and restartings suggest that he really did mean it, that he really did feel that art—achieving what he desired in a painting or sculpture-was, as he says, "impossible."

In the postwar Parisian milieu Giacometti inhabited, "negative work" was considered inescapable. Its classic expression is Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness. (Sartre and Giacometti were close friends and the philosopher penned numerous essays about the artist.) At one point in Being and Nothingness, Sartre conjures up a struggling writer to illustrate what he calls "the origin of negation." Here's the passage, which I have altered, substituting the act of painting for that of writing:

In order for my freedom to be anguished in connection with the painting that I am painting, this painting must appear in its relation with me. On the one hand, I must discover my essence as what I have been-I have been "wanting to paint this painting," I have conceived it, I have believed that it would be interesting to paint it, and I have constituted myself in such a way that it is not possible to understand me without taking into account the fact that this painting has been my essential possibility. On the other hand, I must discover the nothingness which separates my freedom from this essence: I have been "wanting to paint," but nothing, not even what I have been, can compel me to paint it. Finally, I must discover the nothingness which separates me from what I shall be: I discover that the permanent possibility of abandoning the painting is the very condition of the possibility of painting it and the very meaning of my freedom.4

There's little surprise in the idea that wanting to write a book or to paint a painting can define an individual, can be their "project." What's important here is Sartre's insistence that one is only free if one can abandon that project at any moment. But what sort of book is written under such conditions, what sort of painting gets painted? What does it mean to believe that in order to create a work of art one must entertain the "permanent possibility" of abandoning and to believe that something called "freedom" inheres in this situation? What does it mean to say, with Giacometti, that art is "impossible"? What are the consequences if a work of art is produced under the sign of abandonment, negation, impossibility? Until very recently, these questions sounded very old-fashioned. The existential selfquestioning, the doubt, the anguish, all those hallmarks of mid-20th-century art, have been long put aside, superseded, forgotten, laughed out of the room. With the eclipse of Abstract Expressionism circa 1960, new modes of artmaking were discovered in which the kinds of doubts that troubled artists from Cézanne to Giacometti became largely irrelevant. They were replaced by a solid work ethic, by an emphasis on production, by attention to surfaces (in both a material and a psychological sense), by coolness, by social rather than individual identity; in short, Giacometti's gloomy, doubt-filled studio was replaced by Warhol's Factory. Even as James Lord was faithfully recording it, Giacometti's artistic anguish was already obsolete.


Although he came late to abstraction and turned away from it after less than two decades, Philip Guston was able to articulate better than anyone the central experience of Abstract Expressionism. He summed up his attitude in the 1965 statement "Faith, Hope, and Impossibility," in which he describes his studio situation in terms that sound like they were taken right out of Being and Nothingness: "You begin to feel as you go on working that unless painting proves its right to exist by being critical and self-judging, it has no reason to exist at all-or is not even possible."5 As we well know, within two years of saying this Guston concluded that no abstract painting he might attempt had a "reason to exist."

The year after he wrote "Faith, Hope, and Impossibility," Guston spoke about his work in a public forum at Boston University. The transcript is full of his characteristic brilliance and self-analysis.6 One of the most interesting passages is one in which he discusses what he feels is still important about Abstract Expressionism. Guston insists that the issues Abstract Expressionism raised regarding painting were "the most revolutionary problems posed and still are," despite the fact that so many people (artists, critics, curators) had tried to kill the movement off. The error of these would-be murderers is to mistake Abstract Expressionism as a mere "style, as a certain way of painting." It's a cinch to get rid of a style; as Guston says, "After 10 years or 15 years, you're bored sick of it. Younger painters come along and want to react against it." The revolution of Abstract Expressionism, however, was not a matter of any stylistic innovation; instead, Guston says, it "revolves around the issue of whether it's possible to cre ate in our society at all." He immediately draws a distinction between "creating" and simply producing art:

Everybody can make pictures, thousands of people go to school, thousands go to galleries, museums, it becomes not only a way of life now, it becomes a way to make a living. In our kind of democracy this is going to proliferate like mad. In the next ten years there will be even much more than there is now. There'll be tons of art centers and galleries and pictures. Everybody will be making pictures.

Guston is being impressively prophetic here, even if the present level of picture-making (and every other kind of artmaking) is beyond anything he could have imagined. Guston's main point at Boston University was that the state of things in 1966 was very different from the original experience of the Abstract Expressionists around 1950 when, in his words, you felt as if you were driven into a corner against the wall with no place to stand, just the place you occupied, as if the act of painting itself was not making a picture, there are plenty of pictures in the world—why clutter up the world with pictures?—it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible. Whether it was just possible.

The artist has chosen not to let us see the entirety of any of the paintings in the show. One has an old armoire jammed up against it, leaving only the margins of the painted canvas visible (broad gestures, drips, areas of scumbling and glimpses of spilling de Kooningesque light). Another is barely visible through a much-creased and torn piece of plastic sheeting. Multiple layers of plastic sheeting, black or transparent, are draped over another painting, though one of the bottom corners has been left uncovered and a tear in the black plastic reveals an area of painted canvas, but visible only dimly through the underlayer of transparent plastic; onto the surface of a third painting the artist has glued a frayed blanket, colored drab brown like a piece of army surplus. Rather than being smoothed out flat, the brown fabric has been irregularly gathered and folded to resemble both classical drapery and an unmade bed.
Having previously avoided the medium of painting throughout his lengthy career as a maker of sculptures, performances and conceptual provocations, the artist has now insured that there will always be something between the viewer and the painting; the painting will never give all of itself, nor will the artist ever give all of himself; something will always escape us, and maybe even something that is at the center of the work. But though it remains partially shrouded by failures—the artist's, the viewer's, society's—the painting is nonetheless there, in all its occluded and shabby beauty.


Once upon a time, New York painters tore themselves apart trying to determine what constituted a "finished" painting. During the famous Studio 35 conference of Abstract Expressionists, William Baziotes tied himself into verbal knots trying to clarify what he and his fellow painters thought about the subject: "In talking about the necessity to ‘finish' a thing, we then said American painters ‘finish' a thing that looks ‘unfinished,' and the French, they ‘finish' it. I have seen Matisses that were more ‘unfinished' and yet more ‘finished' than any American painters. Matisse was obviously in a terrific emotion at the time and he was more ‘unfinished' than ‘finished.'"7

Time plays a curious role in the perception of finish or its lack. Most Abstract Expressionist paintings now seem quite finished to us. But in some canvases—I'm thinking of mid-1950s Joan Mitchell and mid-1960s Guston—the flurries of marks have yet to settle down. It's rare to find a completed work that can retain an unfinished aura for several decades; Miró's white-ground anti-paintings of the 1930s are another striking exception. Long before Studio 35, Chinese artists had pondered the question of finished/unfinished. In his invaluable book on Chinese painting, Empty and Full, French scholar François Cheng quotes Chang Yen-Yuan, a Tang dynasty historian, in praise of the incomplete:

In painting, one should avoid worrying about accomplishing a work that is too diligent and too finished in the depiction of forms and the notation of colors or one that makes too great a display of one's technique, thus depriving it of mystery and aura. That is why one should not fear the incomplete, but quite to the contrary, one should deplore that which is too complete. From the moment one knows that a thing is complete, what need is there to complete it? For the incomplete does not necessarily mean the unfulfilled.8

This text, from the year 847—written, one can't help noticing, when the best artists of Carolingian Europe were spending their lives applying gold leaf details to illuminated manuscripts and crafting decorative metalwork—could easily be a commentary on 20th-century modernism. "One should not fear the incomplete, but quite to the contrary, one should deplore that which is too complete. From the moment one knows that a thing is complete, what need is there to complete it?" This sounds like something Duchamp might have said. How curious that the prospect of leaving a work intentionally unfinished remained controversial in Western esthetics some 10 centuries after its virtues had been recognized in Chinese painting, and some four centuries after Michelangelo's ambiguous embrace of the non finito.

It's important to make a distinction between provisional paintings and last paintings. Last paintings appear within a narrative about the end of painting, an art history that believes (or believed) in a certain progressive logic; they occur within an esthetic dialogue in which artists feel compelled to finesse or outmaneuver art of the recent past. Provisional painters know that such conditions no longer prevail, and yet they don't want to give up the sense of difficulty that energized the painters of last paintings, such as Ad Reinhardt. I am tempted to say that the provisional painting is what follows after the last painting, except that doing so would entail a teleological scheme that the last painting was supposed to have brought to a close, and that is, anyway, no longer tenable.

In the 1980s, it was thought that last paintings would be followed by simulacra of paintings. Emptied of all transcendence, all utopian pretensions, all expressive qualities, proffered as signs of painting rather than the thing itself, "simulated" paintings like Peter Halley's were first and foremost a measure of diminishment, which seemed like a natural direction to go after the last painting, after the failure of the last painting to be the last painting. Does provisional painting appear when last paintings are no longer possible to paint? Maybe it's wrong to talk, as I have done, about painting being "impossible." It's impossibility itself that has become impossible.

Visiting the Brooklyn studio of one of the artists I wrote about in "Provisional Painting" [A.i.A., May 2009], I get into a discussion about "impossibility." The artist thinks I've misunderstood something fundamental about his work. For him, painting is never impossible—just the opposite. I realize that I have committed one of the worst, if most common, critical (and curatorial) sins: recruiting an artist into a compelling critical narrative while missing something fundamental about his or her work.

Among one Berlin-based artist's favorite materials are ammonia, hydrochloric acid and chlorine bleach. He applies these corrosive substances to pieces of canvas, linen or jute fabric, sometimes to create pale patterns, but more often to make the painting support look like something that's been left out in the rain or pulled from a mildewed basement. Using gouache or other thin paints, he will then add a few shaky geometric designs or stray gestures to his damaged fabrics. In other works, he sews strips and patches of colored or beaded fabric that seem to float atop the gently distressed, subtly atmospheric grounds. Sometimes he will stitch up a tear in the fabric. Delicacy and a sense of loving attention coexist with a mood of neglect and abandonment.

When the artist exhibits his work, he generally leaves the gallery or museum lighting exactly as it had been arranged for whatever show was previously in the space. But for all the desultoriness that seems to go into their making and presentation, his paintings have a remarkably consistent focus. His compositions resemble fragments salvaged from the shipwreck of modernist abstraction: melancholy, vulnerable, absolutely convinced of their own necessity, lying in quiet wait for viewers willing to give a piece of their lives to a rectangle of barely-thereness.


Provisional paintings can show signs of struggle and can also look "too easy." In the case of easy-looking provisionality, we encounter a paradox: the struggle with the problematics of painting results in a painting that shows no signs of struggle in the sense that the finished piece displays a minimum amount of work (Michael Krebber, for instance). But in other cases we can see the record of the artist's struggles, though not necessarily accompanied by Giacometti-style anguish (Raoul De Keyser). But whether it looks easy or arduous, the provisional work is always opposed to the monumental, the official, the permanent. It closes the door on the era of the high-production-value art market (Hirst-Koons-Murakami-Currin). It wants to hover at the edge of nonexistence. It wants to rest lightly on the earth.

Robert Ryman is often cited as a maker of "last paintings," but read this quote from him and ask yourself if he doesn't sound more like Matisse than Reinhardt: "The one quality I look for and I think is in all good painting, is that it has to look as if no struggle was involved. It has to look as if it was the most natural thing-it just happened and you don't have to think about how it happened. It has to look very easy even though it wasn't."9 In a 1974 interview, Martin Barré, a French painter whose work was often fiercely provisional, approvingly quotes Jean Cocteau: "The work must erase the work; people must be able to say, I could have done that."


Provisionality inoculates the painting, conveys to us the dissidence of the painter from a prevailing style. Once, not all that long ago, artists could establish their dissidence through the innovative originality of their work, but the avant-garde strategy of rupture, the creation of an iconoclastic artwork, has become so thoroughly assimilated as to no longer serve as proof of anything more than that the artist is a good student. Perhaps the only time that iconoclasm retains its power is when the icon that is broken is the artist's very own work. This is what a provisional work can do: demolish its own iconic status before it ever attains any such thing. The provisional is born in the moment when the painter hesitates between painting and not-painting-and then begins to paint nonetheless.

The scene is Paris in the early 1960s. An art critic remarks to a young expatriate American painter enjoying his gallery debut of thinly painted abstractions, "I see you're not very interested in matière." The artist replies, with a deceptive nonchalance, "Well, I'm interested enough that I try to eliminate it." Within a few years the materiality of oil paint takes on a more central role in his work when he begins to make paintings by depositing small amounts of liquid paint onto his canvases and tilting them this way and that to direct the paint toward the edges of some faint pencil markings. He never knows exactly what will happen, how a painting will look when it is finished; it often seems to be "doing" itself. Thin color has flooded the canvas or, as he increasingly turns to smaller formats, sheets of paper, and receded, leaving visible a residue of barely emerged imagery: hutlike structures, wobbly Roman numerals, luminous grids that suggest an archeological dig seen through patchy fog. Rather than minimalist, they are subliminalist. For a 1987 show of small gray paintings he has a passage from the French writer Maurice Blanchot typed up and affixed to a wall of the gallery. "Speech," the quotation ends, "is the replacement of a presence by an absence and the pursuit, through presences ever more fragile, of an absence ever more all-sufficing."


And what if provisional painting is an implicit critique of human ambition, a kind of vanitas?

And what if provisional painting is a response to the renewed dematerialization of art that has accompanied the rise of digital mobility, a way for painting to say "I, too, am just a momentary image on a screen?"

But what if provisionality is nothing more than a stylistic trope, rather than a matter of profound artistic conviction and philosophical reflection? I keep rereading a sentence I came across in one of Frank O'Hara's art reviews: "It is simply a property of Bonnard's mature work, and one of its most fragile charms, to look slightly washed-out, to look what every sophisticated person let alone artist wants to look: a little ‘down,' a little effortless and helpless." Could provisional painting, or at least some of it, be merely the medium on a casual Friday?


How does one respond, as a critic, to a provisional work of art? Can one practice provisional criticism? What would this look like? Given the way that every judgment, evaluation and interpretation is subject to revision—if not total rejection—by the passage of time, isn't every piece of criticism provisional? Maybe. But at the same time, doesn't every critic also try to offer something that will be completely nonprovisional, i.e., durable and confident? After a long period when painting was frequently dismissed as a complacent, indulgent, narcissistic medium in contrast to other modes (conceptual art, relational esthetics, etc.) that were supposed to be more faithful to the skeptical, oppositional character of historic avant-gardes, some painters have been rediscovering doubt as an aspect of their medium, reclaiming Cézanne as an ancestor and nominating as their tutelary spirit Samuel Beckett, a writer who favored paintings where he found "no trace of one-upmanship, either in excess or deficiency. But the acceptance, as little satisfied as bitter, of all that is immaterial and paltry, as among shadows, in the shock from which a work emerges."10

Words painted quickly over other words, some of which have been obscured by equally speedy painterly gestures. The letters, always uppercase, are neither crude nor graceful. They can be thick or thin, but always look like the artist was in a hurry to get from one edge of the canvas to the other. Along the way, spaces are opened and closed, flipped and flopped; color is summoned but with no more ceremony than when you switch on a light. The paintings contain ordinary words or phrases that, because they seem to point to no obvious external referent, sometimes ask to be read as descriptions of the painting in which they appear: "CUTE AND USELESS" or "DISASTER." Others might be admonitions to the viewer-"THINK"-and some could be both self-referential and the artist talking to herself—"PAINT!" If the painterly side of this work looks back to de Kooning's practice of hanging abstract compositions on letter shapes, and the linguistic aspect engages conceptual art, it's the apparent nonchalance of the paintings, their complete lack of pretense or fussiness, that marks them as belonging to NOW.

1 James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, rev. ed., New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, pp. 9-10. 2 Ibid., p. 44. 3 Ibid., p. 79. 4 Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, New York, Philosophical Library, 1948, p. 37. 5 Philip Guston, "Faith, Hope, and Impossibility," ARTnews Annual, October 1966, reprinted in Clifford Ross, Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, An Anthology, New York, Abrams, 1990, pp. 62-63. 6 Philip Guston, "Public Forum with Joseph Ablow, 1966." The transcript appears in Clifford Ross, Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, pp. 63-75; my quotes from Guston appear in this source. 7 William Baziotes, transcript of Artists Session at Studio 35, 1950, in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, p. 216. 8 Chang Yen-Yuan, quoted in François Cheng, Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, trans. Michael H. Kohn, Boston and London, Shambhala, 1994, p. 76. 9 Robert Ryman, "Interview with Robert Storr, Oct. 17, 1986," in Abstrakte Malerei aus Amerika und Europa/Abstract Painting of America and Europe, Vienna, Galerie Nacht St. Stephan, 1988. 10 Samuel Beckett, "Henri Hayden, hommepeintre," in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, New York, Grove Press, 1984, p. 146; trans. by Lois Oppenheim in The Painted Word: Samuel Beckett's Dialogue with Art, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2000, p. 103.

Provisional Painting//Art in America

For the past year or so I’ve become increasingly aware of a kind of provisionality within the practice of painting. I first noticed it pervading the canvases of Raoul De Keyser, Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Mary Heilmann and Michael Krebber, artists who have long made works that look casual, dashed-off, tentative, unfinished or self-cancelling. In different ways, they all deliberately turn away from “strong” painting for something that seems to constantly risk inconsequence or collapse.
VIEW SLIDESHOW Raoul De Keyser: Untitled, 2006, oil on canvas, 351⁄2 by 493⁄8 inches. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery, New York, and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.; Albert Oehlen: Chloé, 2008, oil and paper on canvas, 1061⁄4 by 118 inches. Courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris.;

Why would an artist demur at the prospect of a finished work, court self-sabotaging strategies, sign his or her name to a painting that looks, from some perspectives, like an utter failure? It might have something to do with a foundational skepticism that runs through the history of modern art: we see it in Cézanne’s infinite, agonized adjustments of Mont St. Victoire, in Dada’s noisy denunciations (typified by Picabia’s blasphemous Portrait of Cézanne), in Giacometti’s endless obliterations and restartings of his painted portraits, in Sigmar Polke’s gloriously dumb compositions of the 1960s. Something similar can be found in other art forms, in Paul Valéry’s insistence that a poem is “never finished, only abandoned,” in Artaud’s call for “no more masterpieces,” and in punk’s knowing embrace of the amateurish and fucked-up. The history of modernism is full of strategies of refusal and acts of negation.

The genealogy of what I refer to as provisional painting includes Richard Tuttle’s decades-long pursuit of humble beauty, Noël Dolla’s still-radical stained-handkerchief paintings of the late 1960s, Robert Rauschenberg’s “cardboards” of the 1970s, David Salle’s intentionally feeble early canvases and the first-thought/best-thought whirlwind that was Martin Kippenberger. I take such work to be, in part, a struggle with a medium that can seem too invested in permanence and virtuosity, in carefully planned-out compositions and layered meanings, in artistic authority and creative strength, in all the qualities that make the fine arts “fine.” As employed by younger artists, provisionality may also be an attempt to spurn the blandishments of the art market—what seemed, until only yesterday, an insatiable appetite for smart, stylish, immaculately executed canvases, paintings that left no doubt as to the artist’s technical competence, refined sensibility and solid work ethic.

Five Provisional Painters
Raoul De Keyser’s paintings tend to be modest in size, so that they have already forfeited “heroic” ambitions even before the first mark is made. Unlike many painters who wield impressive techniques in small-scale work (Tomma Abts, James Siena, Merlin James), De Keyser doesn’t compensate for modesty of size with complex compositions or dazzling brushwork. On the contrary, he works in a manner so low-key that even sympathetic critics can be unsure how to evaluate his paintings. In 2006, New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith noted his “weird combination of deliberation and indecision”;1 in 2004, Barry Schwabsky, writing in Artforum, described the oscillating responses De Keyser’s work can inspire: “Slapdash handling gradually begins to seem surpassingly sensitive—or is it? The grubby color, fresh and beautifully calibrated—but is it, really? The sense of doubt never quite goes away.”2

In truth, when you encounter a De Keyser it doesn’t take too much imagination to attribute it to an amateur painter having a try at abstraction after seeing reproductions somewhere of paintings by Clyfford Still and Jean Arp. He manages to lay down a few jagged shapes, usually all the same color, against a monochrome ground. The limited palette suggests not any reductivist strategy but a novice who has invested in only a couple of tubes of paint. No effort is made to hide the laborious adjustments to the contours of the shapes or preliminary pencil markings. No line is quite straight; placement of shapes and dots of color appear either senselessly random or stiffly coordinated. As French curator Jean-Charles Vergne puts it, De Keyser’s work “constantly asserts the impossibility of painting free of touch-ups, mistakes, accidents, set on laying bare the seams, the second tries and the failures. . . . [There is] a constant stuttering in the painting.”3
Unlike De Keyser, Albert Oehlen paints big and avails himself of far more than two or three colors, but his canvases also seem rife with “mistakes” and “second tries.” Oehlen does not bother to hide his reliance on standard graphic design software for many of his compositions. Even after more than a decade of experiment, he wields these basic digital tools with apparent clumsiness; his computer-assisted paintings can sometimes bring to mind Paper Rad, the U.S. art collective that fetishizes the clunky graphics of early video games. Oehlen’s paintings usually begin with collage-based inkjet images, over which he layers dirty-looking swaths of thin paint and whacked-out meandering lines. Canvases in a recent show of less digital work at Nathalie Obadia in Paris feature smudges of oil paint atop fragments of Spanish advertising posters; many of them look as if someone had inadvertently spilled paint onto a poster and, in the attempt to clean it off, had only made matters worse. This one-time purveyor of “bad” Neo-Expressionism has been committed to large-scale abstraction since the late 1980s (when, in his own words, he “started making an effort to be seen as a serious painter”4), but his work, which manages to be at once antiseptic and messy, continues to draw great pictorial force from its abject awkwardness.

The grisaille abstractions Christopher Wool has been making since about 2006 share a lot with Oehlen’s work. (The resemblance is more than coincidental: these two artists enjoy a longstanding dialogue, most recently evidenced by the Oehlen painting Wool selected for his section of the artist-curated show “Sardines and Oranges” at the Hammer Museum.) The smudged passages of paint defacing parts of Oehlen’s canvases become, in Wool’s work, something like the ground of the composition. Both artists also make Photoshop, or similar software, part of their painting process. For some works, Wool takes photographs of brushstrokes in his own previous paintings, which he manipulates digitally. These altered images are silkscreened onto aluminum or linen. Other more straightforward paintings employ enamel paint (sprayed and brushed on) to similar effect. The compositions feature large clumps of broad back-and-forth gray and white brushstrokes—think of whitewashed windows or rubbed-out chalk on blackboards—through which wander black spray-painted lines of varying thickness that suggest bent rebar or mangled wire coat hangers. There are echoes of de Kooning’s light-filled landscape-inspired paintings of the 1960s and ’70s, though Wool’s engrained chromophobia (over several decades of painting he has hardly ever strayed from a palette of black and white) keeps nature at bay. What we get instead are 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. But has anything actually been covered up? Is there something under Wool’s erasures?

From one angle, Mary Heilmann is the unlikeliest of candidates for painting stardom: over nearly four decades she has relied on a few off-the-rack modernist structures—generally grids or blocks of color over solid grounds—which she deploys with a nonchalance that seems to border on carelessness. Like De Keyser, she favors the slightly wobbly over the straight and true, and an unflashy way of handling paint. Her palette—acidic primaries and an occasional black-and-white composition—is more attention-getting than his, and she has always been adept at slipping little visual conundrums into her paintings. (There’s an almost Escher-like oscillation of figure and ground in many of her works.) But for an abstract painter of her generation, she displays remarkably little sense of program or agenda. Because each painting is self-contained and unassuming, it doesn’t seem to invite any transcendent reading. Where so many other painters seek to convey their artistic ambitions through signs of intensive labor, grand scale, daunting complexity or serious themes, Heilmann, who began as a ceramist, seems to position painting as ceramics by other means. In her recent retrospective [see A.i.A., Nov. ’07], the presence of some of her ceramic vessels and dishes and funky painted chairs invited viewers to look at the painterly qualities of these objects. Far more interestingly, their inclusion suggested that treating painting as if it were ceramics, that is, as a medium free of weighty cultural expectations, is key to Heilmann’s art. If one could measure provisionality in painting, then Michael Krebber would probably score off the charts. Much of his work, although ostensibly about painting, uses none of its accepted components—his most recent show in New York, at Greene Naftali Gallery, centered on sliced-up windsurfing boards—and when he does engage brush and canvas, the results can seem laughably thin. Many of his paintings consist of a few bits of sketchy brushwork that might or might not represent an object or body part slapped over a white or pastel ground. At other times, he has painted white blocky shapes over kitschy bed linens, or glued single newspaper spreads onto cursorily painted grounds. Confronted with a baker’s dozen of Krebber’s paintings, London critic (and Krebber fan) Adrian Searle once observed: “How long did each painting take—five minutes, 10 minutes max, a lifetime of experience?”5 There’s nothing inherently noteworthy about a quickly executed painting, but Krebber’s hastiness seems closer to a prostitute’s hurried coupling than to the rapid elegance of a Chinese ink painting. It 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—he holds it in such high esteem that he’s afraid of besmirching it through excessive contact.

The dandyish, self-lacerating wit that runs through Krebber’s work (this may be the real basis of his critical association with Kippenberger) extends to some of his titles. A 2004 show at Dépendance gallery in Brussels of newspaper-spread paintings was named “Unfinished too soon,” a phrase that suggests an artist failing to achieve nonfinito vitality out of sheer impatience. In 2001 he titled an especially sketchy painting Contempt for one’s own work as planning for career. It would be a mistake, however, to equate Krebber’s contempt with cynicism. His attitude to painting ultimately seems to echo Marianne Moore’s to poetry: “I, too, dislike it,/ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,/ One discovers in/ It, after all, a place for the genuine.”

Three Reappearances
The historical context of the quintet of artists above may become clearer with the new accessibility of bodies of work by Joan Miró, Martin Barré and Kimber Smith. Until “Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting, 1927-1937,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last fall, I’d relegated Miró to the status of Boring Modern Master, an artist whose once radical innovations had long ago been tamed and diluted by overexposure. The 12 series of works gathered by MoMA curator Anne Umland made me dump this ridiculous misperception once and for all.

Miró’s aim in this period was, as he told a Spanish journalist in 1931, to “destroy everything that exists in painting.”6 Two works in particular exemplify this agenda. Painting (Cloud and Birds), 1927, is a big unprimed canvas with a giant clump of white paint into which Miró has scribbled a cursory series of looping black lines; some incomplete featherlike shapes are scattered below.Painting (Head), 1930, a 7½-by-5½-foot white ground canvas, has been . . . “defaced” is the first word that comes to mind, by a schematically outlined, giant pink head, large blotches of black and pink paint and a huge tangle of looping blue lines similar to the black ones in Cloud and Birds. The images in Painting (Head) are lined up on a diagonal (lower left to upper right), and the entire composition is crisscrossed with rapidly drawn pencil lines and a smattering of dots and dashes. The lack of finish, aggressively crude figuration, and extensive doodling and cancellation marks suggest a painter at war with his medium. That Miró dared such provocations at this scale more than 75 years ago is astounding; he looks like a contemporary of Polke or Kippenberger.

I think the source of Miró’s daring, and the reason why his work is so close to what I’m calling “provisional painting,” resides in his rejection of the idea of a finished, durable work. In 1928, he confessed to Francesc Trabal that after completing a painting he had his dealer take it away as quickly as possible: “I can’t bear to have it there in front of me. . . . [When] I’ve finished something I discover it’s just a basis for what I’ve got to do next. It’s never anything more than a point of departure. . . . Do I have to remind you that what I detest most is lasting?”7

The paintings of Martin Barré (1924-1996) remained little known in this country until last year, when they were the subject of a show at Andrew Kreps Gallery inNew York and a monograph by Yve-Alain Bois [see A.i.A.,Jan. ’09]. Emerging in mid-1950s Paris as a gestural abstractionist, Barré went against the grain by working with thin paint. “But,” as he explained to Catherine Millet in 1974, “what bumped up against the taste or style of the period was not so much this lack of thickness as the impression of emptiness, of nonwork.”8 In the early 1960s, he embarked on a series of paintings with stripes and grids (he also used arrow motifs), sometimes made with spray-paint applied through stencils. Even now, the pictures look strikingly preliminary and offhand, like the underpainting of some never-finished work. It’s common to locate the zero-degree of painting in the realm of white or black monochromes, but Barré’s skewed grids and free-floating signs can make Ryman or Reinhardt look positively old masterish. And yet he insisted that his paintings should not be understood as neo-Dada critique. “What I was doing,” he clarified to Millet, “could well appear as antipainting, whereas what I wanted to show, through the traces or points of impact in a clear surface, was what a painting could be if disencumbered of object, color, and form.”9

Unlike Miró and Barré, the American painter Kimber Smith (1922-1981) was not out to destroy or to disencumber his chosen medium, and yet he made paintings, especially toward the end of his life, that hover at the edge of dissolution, that seem radically unfinished. Smith’s career can be divided into two parts: the decade he spent in Paris (1954-64), where he was particularly close to fellow expatriates Shirley Jaffe and Sam Francis, and the years after his return to the U.S., when he divided his time between New York City and the Hamptons. The best recent presentation of Smith’s work was a 2004 retrospective at the Kunstmuseum in Winterthur, Switzerland, which included paintings such as Kirchner’s Garden (1976), Prague (1977) and Nissa (1980). In these works, Smith treated the canvas as a giant sketch pad. He generally combined sets of wavy lines, floating bars of loosely applied paint, some approximately filled-in shapes and lots of empty primed canvas. The marks seem notational, as if this were a preparatory gouache that somehow ended up as the final painting. Smith’s signature—a penciled-in KS that seems as iffy as the composition it claims—identifies these as finished works. In a stylistic fusion that anticipates Heilmann’s informal formalism, Smith splashed Matissean insouciance over the serious-minded legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Reviewing a show of Smith’s paintings for Artforum in 1979, Hal Foster noted the artist’s “apparent nonchalance” and freedom from “anxiety” in relation to his immediate predecessors. Smith, he wrote, “does not fight at the fore, but neither does he fight at the rear; indeed, he fights not at all.”10 Although chiefly concerned with how Smith faced the dilemma of being a second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter at the end of the ’70s, years that were so inhospitable to the style, Foster broaches a much larger issue. It is precisely in declining to “fight” that painters such as Smith, Heilmann and De Keyser make their attacks on received ideas about painting.

Painting and Its Impossibility
What makes painting “impossible”? What makes “great” painting impossible? Perhaps it is a sense of belatedness, a conviction that an earlier generation or artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up. Or maybe, at a particular moment, in a particular life and history, nothing could seem more presumptuous or inappropriate—maybe even obscene—than to set out to create a masterpiece. Impossibility can also be the result of the artist making excessive demands on the work, demands to which current practice has no reply. At a certain moment, in a certain studio, it appears that great painting may be impossible, that painting of any kind may be impossible. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons pertaining to a particular painter at a particular time, painting must be done, must go on.

A growing number of younger artists (and a few who have been showing for longer) are entertaining the idea of impossibility in painting. This has led them to reject a sense of finish in their work, or to rely on acts of negation. An Austrian artist based in Vienna, Stefan Sandner works mostly with found texts and documents—scrawled notes, agenda pages and enigmatic sketches—which he paints in a greatly enlarged format onto his large monochrome canvases. Some of the texts are obviously self-referential (“see me before you go!” pleaded one painting in his 2008 show in New York at Museum 52); others recycle inscriptions by famous people (the text of a 2004 diptych is cribbed from Kurt Cobain’s journals), handmade public notices and art-world ephemera (e.g., a playlist for a Stephen Prina performance). The initial sense of disconnect between the triviality of the texts and the way they have been reproduced (often at imposing scale, on faultlessly executed canvases) gives way to a new synthesis. It’s as if conceptualist Joseph Grigely were supplying material to Ellsworth Kelly. (Lest viewers be tempted to pigeonhole him as a textual appropriator, Sandner usually includes at least one textless monochrome painting, often on a shaped canvas, in each of his solo shows.) Rather than turning abstraction into a joke—like Richard Prince, with whom he has been unfavorably compared—Sandner gives it a serious task: to bridge the gap between the everyday and the ideal.

The 20 paintings in Richard Aldrich’s show this winter at Bortolami in New York rehearse nearly that many modernist modes: there were gestural paintings that look like details from late ’50s Gustons, deconstructed canvases, essays in oblique figuration, compositions that verge on pattern painting. Aldrich uses collage elements (pieces of cloth and art reproduction postcards), cuts away sections of canvas to reveal stretcher bars, slathers on oil paint and wax, reduces a composition to a scattering of seemingly random marks, paints copies of his own work. Rather than an exercise in stylistic pastiche, however, or suggesting that the artist were assuming different personae, the show looked very much of a piece, held together by a curious awkwardness, even incompetence, that persisted across the different modes. Accommodating slightly irregular stretchers and a lack of perfect right angles, several canvases are badly wrinkled and folded at the edges. In one work, four thin lengths of snapped-off wood employed as improvised pins hold together two pieces of black cloth. The bottom third of a large portrait is abruptly cut away to reveal the flimsy-looking stretcher underneath. Attached to a large painting featuring postcards of Whistlers from the Frick are four large sheets of paper, one of which is crumpled in a corner and already peeling away from its canvas backing. Another painting looks like a half-finished canvas that some second-string abstractionist had stuck in the racks circa 1960. One way or another, every painting has something “wrong” with it: sloppy craft, outmoded style, impenetrable obscurity. Taken together, these flawed works seem less about offering yet another critique of painting than securing permission for the artist to pursue every potentially interesting idea that crosses his mind. While Cheryl Donegan has long explored painting issues in video to much acclaim, her actual paintings garner much less notice. Given her mode of working, her choices of materials and forms, this isn’t so surprising. Donegan’s last show of paintings in New York, “Luxury Dust” in September 2007 at the now-defunct Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery, included about a dozen works on 24-by-18-inch pieces of corrugated cardboard. Some of them feature crowded, triangle-laden compositions executed in water-based oils; in others she covered the cardboard with gold or silver tape and then sliced away at the tape to create spiky, reflective arrays. The cheap materials, generic imagery (Donegan’s claustrophobic Cubo-Futurist compositions sometimes include clips grabbed from eBay), modest size and hasty-looking facture seem to beg for the works to be dismissed. The title of the show should give us pause. These are just about the most unluxurious paintings imaginable (an effect heightened by the fluorescent lights the artist requested for her show): as such they can be interpreted as detritus of the boom or as strangely prophesying a post-crash economy.

Restless painters tend to work in several different manners at once or embark on new approaches in serial order. Jacqueline Humphries does the latter. Each of her phases displays her gift for linear mark-making and a curiosity about paint’s material possibilities, though one feels she never lingers as long as she could. Yet, her show in winter 2006 at Greene Naftali in New York was one of her best. In silvery oil paintings, gestures seem to erase one another in a flurry of marks, always obliterating some underlying composition of greater order and grace. Though long based in New York, Humphries is a New Orleans native, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to read these turbulent paintings as visions of a location overwhelmed by chaotic natural forces. There are clear echoes of Wool’s self-erasing gestures in Humphries’s paintings (as well as borrowings from Rosenquist’s shard paintings of the 1980s), but her cancellations are more immediate and less self-conscious than Wool’s.

Wendy White also employs the obliterative qualities of paint, though she is more likely to use a spray-gun than a brush. The paintings she showed at Leo Koenig in New York last summer are multipanel, with three to five variously sized canvases abutted in irregular formations. Dense, sooty accumulations of black spray paint are randomly dispersed across the panels, sometimes partially covering more open tangles of Day-Glo lines. Echoing the irregularity of the outer edges, the units of paint avoid neat enclosure; their edges fray, disperse and fade out, as if the artist simply runs out of paint. The sense of random defacement evokes graffiti art, but one could equally think of Tàpies and Motherwell—as in Humphries’s work, there is an affinity between some kinds of provisionality and gestural abstraction.

Provisionality is visible in a number of current artists nominally identified as sculptors, including Sarah Braman, Alexandra Bircken and Gedi Sibony; much of the work in the New Museum’s “Unmonumental” exhibition of 2007-08, which included Bircken and Sibony along with many others, embodied the provisional sensibility in three dimensions. Although not present in “Unmonumental,” sculptor Peter Soriano has recently been making extremely provisional three-dimensional works. Each consists of a length of aluminum tubing projecting from the wall. Steel cables stretch from the tube to anchors on the wall. These points are linked by spray-painted lines and arrows (mostly in bright colors), and sometimes marked with circles and Xs or crossed out with brief squiggles. Usually executed by the artist, these wall works can also be made by others following a set of instructions. Owing as much to Con Ed street markings as to conceptual wall works (LeWitt, Bochner), Soriano’s structures diagram their own making, but with their cancellations and misdirections (arrows sometimes seem to be suggesting a particular element, or even the entire work, should be moved over several feet), and work-in-progress status conveyed by the spray-painted signs, they also entertain the possibility that they could be remade in another way. This comes about not only because the metal structures and spray-painted marks must be constructed afresh for each showing, but also because the viewer is always being invited to second-guess the artist’s decisions, to imagine other configurations.

At times provisional painting overlaps with “bad painting,” a mode with roots in the 1970s that continues to offer artists means of engaging the medium without having to take on all of its unwanted trappings. When Kippenberger employed techniques that give the impression of haste and clumsiness, it allowed him to mock the market along with the medium (though he also snuck in some virtuosic painting that doesn’t seem pretentious). But provisionality can also be taken to a point where there is not even a remote possibility of “bad” concealing “good.” That seems to be where Joe Bradley’s intent in the “Schmagoo Paintings” that he showed at Canada gallery in New York last fall. A distinction needs to be made between Bradley and the other artists I have been discussing here. Their work may at times come off as uncertain, incomplete, casual, self-cancelling or unfinished, but each of them is fully committed to the project of painting. If they seek to break existing, perhaps unspoken, contracts with painting, it is only in order to draw up other protocols that will renew the medium. Bradley’s work, which sometimes shares the guttersnipe esthetics of artists such as Dan Colen and Dash Snow, seems more like a willful artistic gesture than part of a painter’s necessary process.

Provisional painting is not about making last paintings, nor is it about the deconstruction of painting. It’s the finished product disguised as a preliminary stage, or a body double standing in for a star/masterpiece whose value would put a stop to artistic risk. To put it another way: provisional painting is major painting masquerading as minor painting. In their book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari described how Kafka’s linguistic and cultural condition (as a Jewish author writing in German in Prague where the type of German he spoke was “minor” in relation both to the locally dominant Czech language and to standard German) involved the “impossibility” of writing in German and the “impossibility of not writing.” Kafka’s solution was to fashion a mode of writing that seemed to erase all literary precedents, and to create an oeuvre that barely survived into the future. Faced with painting’s imposing history and the diminishment of the medium by newer art forms, recent painters may have found themselves in similarly “minor” situations; the provisionality of their work is an index of the impossibility of painting and the equally persistent impossibility of not painting.Exhibition Schedule
Following are current and upcoming solo shows by some of the artists discussed:
“Raoul De Keyser: 44 Watercolors,” Museu Serralves, Porto, Mar. 28-May 17; Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin,May 18-June 24.
“Raoul De Keyser: Replay, Paintings 1964-2007,” Kunstmuseum Bonn, Aug. 20-Oct. 18.
“Raoul De Keyser,” David Zwirner, New York, September 2009.
“Jacqueline Humphries,” Greene Naftali Gallery, New York,Apr. 16-May 16.
“Albert Oehlen,” Luhring Augustine, New York,Apr. 25-May 30.
Richard Aldrich will show at Bartolami gallery’sArt Statements booth at Art Basel, June 10-14.
“Christopher Wool: Porto—Köln,” Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Apr. 21-July 12 (opened at Museu Serralves, Porto, Nov. 22, 2008-Mar. 15, 2009).
Martin Barré will have a show at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier in December 2009.
“Kimber Smith,” James Graham & Sons, New York, fall 2009.
1 Roberta Smith, “Art in Review,” New York Times, Nov. 17, 2006, p. E37.
2 Barry Schwabsky, “Raoul de Keyser,” Artforum, Summer 2004, p. 240.
3 Jean-Charles Vergne, “Small things aspirate the world and they become the world,” in Raoul de Keyser, Clermont-Ferrand, FRAC Auvergne, 2008, p. 15.
4 “Albert Oehlen talks to Eric Banks,” Artforum, April 2003, pp. 182-83.
5 Adrian Searle, “Never Trust a Painter,” The Guardian, Sept. 25, 2001.
6 Quoted in Anne Umland, Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2008, p. 2.
7 Ibid., p. 91.
8 Catherine Millet, “Interview with Martin Barré,” in Philip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon and Stephen Melville, As Painting: Division and Displacement, Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, 2001, p. 190.
9 Ibid., p. 193. 10 Hal Foster, in Artforum, April 1979, p. 71.
Raphael Rubinstein is a New York-based writer who teaches critical studies at the University of Houston.


Excellent book on color

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Friday, April 12, 2013

Joshua Mosley Lecture

TUESDAY, APRIL 16th 2013
1 - 2 p.m.
CBS Auditorium

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A couple more diptychs

The Duke and Duchess of Urbino (1465) by Piero della Francesca from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Mural Paintings on East Passyunk in South Philly 


Warhol, Andy
Red Diptych

Dan Walsh
Applebroog, Ida
Joan Mitchell
C Dunham 
Step-on Can with Leg

Roy Lichtenstein
Francesca DiMattio
Cut and Mix

Mary Heilman

Sean Landers/7098
Sean Landers