The panel discussion that initiated the festivities surrounding the Walker Art Center’s new exhibition of recent abstract painting, Painter Painter, was lively and entertaining. It was great to reconnect, visit, and argue with so many artists from the Twin Cities who showed up for the occasion, but my takeaway experience of the content of the talk was ultimately frustration, as the critics barely mentioned the work in the exhibition, and that set a tone for discussion that I found puzzling. Their comments certainly sparked an opportunity for reflection, and for that I’m grateful, but for a variety of logistical reasons, I didn’t get the chance to continue the conversation as much as I’d have liked, so I’ll make a stab at doing so here.
Questions I Wish I’d Asked but Was Unable to Formulate at the Time
1. Why did panelists Michelle Grabner, Jan Verwoert, and Bruce Hainley frame the discourse about painting today around the long discredited–though admittedly persistent–master-narrative of High Modernism? They mostly seemed to presuppose artists today are still reacting to the heroic-male-autonomous-formalist-genius-seeking-art’s-essence paradigm.
Even Michelle Grabner, who admitted (bemoaned?) that her students today are aggressively unresponsive to Painters Painting, the 1972 documentary featuring prominent AbEx and Pop artists, still featured a sped-up version of the film to set the initial context, so the proceedings began with images of Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, and Frank Stella.
I share a sense of discouragement in the lack of interest I often see in my own students in any engagement with these narratives or even a mild curiosity about the urgency with which those painters grappled with the process and history of capital-p Painting.
2. Has painting, in particular abstract painting, really floundered in a cultural, or stylistic, stasis for the past 40 or 50 years? I’m not so sure. How do artists like Elizabeth Murray, David Reed, Terry Winters, Polly Apfelbaum, Ross Bleckner, Philip Taaffe, Ingrid Calame, Amy Sillman, and countless others who have explored those boundaries fit in the history?
3. Whatever happened to context? In the panel discussion, there was little or no acknowledgement of the physical and spatial power of the white cube and/or the institutional authority of the Walker, or similarly pedigreed institutions, in conferring the status of “painting” and “art” on whatever is thoughtfully arranged under its umbrella.
Follow-up Questions and Observations
1. An artist whose work is in the show needled the panelists not to be so evasive and to have an opinion about the work in the show. Jan Verwoert’s answer was partly legit–i.e., that he needed more time to absorb, digest the work–but also partly defensive and patronizing, as when he suggested that she shouldn’t “expect the critic to be the father-figure meting out tough love for bad behavior.” I felt the questioner was more seeking some insight into these critics’ individual criteria for evaluation in this context, rather than seeking definitive blanket approval or disapproval.
2. A young audience member asked something to the effect of, “If anything can be painting, doesn’t discussion that even hints at evaluation become meaningless?”
It’s a valid question, but hardly a new one. Rosalind Krauss asked it in relation to sculpture in Sculpture in the Expanded Field in 1979, and Arthur Danto posed that question more broadly, also nearly 30 years ago, in characterizing art after Warhol’s Brillo Box as “art after art” (or at least art after a particular narrative about art’s quest to discover its own raison d’être). Given that, how do we contextualize changes in the form that have taken place since then? How does the work in this show carve out new territory in painting? Is it even possible to do so? Or, is this the wrong question? Is it really a question for the curators? That would have been interesting to hear about.
And closely related: When is the definition of an activity, medium, genre–say, painting–a helpful parameter to describe the boundaries for a shared, common experience, and when is it a shackle constraining the freedom of an artist to explore, to challenge assumptions about the meaning of a thing? It’s one thing for an artist to declare a found urinal a sculpture, forcing a reconsideration of what Art is; its another for a critic to refer to a music video as painting. (Bruce Hainley started his presentation by showing Boody & Le1f’s hilariously meta-raunchy Soda that was not, to my knowledge, presented as such.) As loath as I am to agree with Clement Greenberg’s rigid adherence to the “essential” characteristics of a medium, the decision to put the work under the rubric of “painting” raises the question: What is gained or illuminated by such a broad assertion of inclusiveness?