The dormant heart of painting

This month in the New York Review of Books, Jed Perl wrote what’s almost a seminal essay on the way contemporary artists are finding their place in the spectrum that runs from pure abstraction to pure representation. For his argument, he reduces the spectrum to a polarity. He wants artists to pick a side and stick to it: be abstract or representational and work within the lines dictated by that choice. Instead, dogs and cats are living together, and he doesn’t like it. By lamenting the loss of the trench warfare between abstraction and realism, he aims at the central challenge for an individual painter now, but doesn’t quite articulate it. It’s a wonderfully thoughtful and well-written assessment that nearly nails the universal quandary painters face now—but he doesn’t quite enable the reader to see his target. He zeroes in on it and then veers away like a pilot who notices his runway is occupied at the last minute.

Anarchy is axiomatic now: anything goes, and everything is contemporary. A small part of what’s produced deserves celebration, as is true of most human endeavors. But anything is possible because everything is permitted. This is pretty much the open field painters face. They choose their own rules, with or without the attendant philosophical justification for one’s métier that Arthur Danto requires each artist to keep handy, like a holstered sidearm hanging from the easel. Perl yearns for the old faiths, the face-off between abstraction and realism that carried forward from early modernism through the 60s and into the 70s when the cheerful ironies of Pop Art and color field minimalism and then photorealism seemed to overshadow the intellectual angst that gave AbEx such gravitas and made New York City the center of the global art world. But then, poof, the antinomies withdrew, and we have the slow-motion free-for-all of individual invention, our current scene. Oh, the humanity.

It puts us in a place where snobbery still prevails, everyone is welcome to look down on anyone outside a particular zone of taste, and justify the sneer with commentary on what matters in painting. As if what matters can be put into words. Everything has splintered and the splinters keep splintering until we have Donald Kuspit’s advocacy of neo-Old Masters pursuing idiosyncratic visions, which screens out the enormous and wonderful fecundity of what’s going on everywhere. Anyone who tries to say what ought to be privileged in art criticism is missing what’s most vital and unpredictable in both art and life. The good stuff is always surprising. Critics make plans; God and artists laugh.

What runs counter to Perl’s vision is the much broader sense among many painters that they ought to do work that answers to the demands of both abstraction and representation. There’s a loose spiritual confederation of perceptual painters who want to fuse representation and abstraction in a way that makes much of their work appear to belong to a consistent, new school of painting. From where I sit, perceptual painting is a much broader category. It’s any painting that achieves what it sets out to do without intellectual baggage, without the homework, without any conceptual foundation or fixed rules whatsoever: what you see is where it’s at, not what you or even the painter thinks the painting is up to. The thinking lags behind, like a high school girl trying to make the word “fetch” happen in Mean Girls.

Adherence to abstraction or representation are beside the point for those who want to work perceptually and an artist who stays within his chosen camp is likely to achieve more by reducing his options. But that doesn’t make going back and forth between modes a form of . Perl’s nostalgia for the deep, emotional affiliations, the almost religious adherence to the abstract or the representational program back in the early to mid-20th century recognizes the problem—a lack of deep emotional devotion—but he falls back on this binary vision of painting that doesn’t really address what’s lacking in the work he finds wanting. It’s the religious adherence to something, anything, he wants to see return. I’m with him. So is every artist I know personally. But he can’t seem to name this passion. Instead, he sees Ragnarök. Even in the work of such a major world figure as Gerhard Richter, he sees only a little afterglow of the gods. Perl finds Richter’s work sad and belated. And it is, if you give Richter’s predicament historical context, but thinking historically this way misses what makes him so compelling, the austere beauty he wrings from the simplest subjects and the power of his abstracting squeegee. His paintings are marvels.

I feel Perl’s plaintive discontent:

When I look at contemporary art—ranging from the work of celebrated figures such as Gerhard Richter and Julie Mehretu to that of a newcomer, Michelle Rawlings—I find there’s a tendency to embrace abstraction and representation as vehicles rather than avowals, means to an end rather than philosophical imperatives.

Artists appear to think that it’s possible to be a representational artist one minute and an abstract artist the next.

Mehretu wants us to believe that she’s thinking big when she mixes and matches all these elements. The bigness is mostly bluster. In Mogamma abstraction and representation are little more than clichés, with representation representing power and abstraction representing revolt. That doesn’t take us very far. Theoretically, the juxtaposition and combination of radically different pictorial systems can seem exciting. But the experience of a work of art isn’t a matter of theory (which isn’t to say that artists and audiences can’t be interested in theories); it’s visceral, whether Mondrian’s spare abstractions or Giacometti’s roiled portraits.

Representation and abstraction have become shadows of their former selves, not philosophies but packages, messages, brands.

The gamesmanship was more portentous in an exhibition around the same time by the well-known British artist Keith Tyson at Hauser and Wirth, where he presented a series of still lifes executed in every style, from sharp-focus realism to something verging on abstraction. The result was coldly theatrical; each painting suggested little more than a change of costume.

In a wonderful rhetorical move, he reaches back to the great Fairfield Porter, a representational painter who loved and respected de Kooning’s work. Perl’s passage on Porter sings:

Diabolically playful, Porter proceeded to scramble all their ideas. He commented that paintings by the realist Balthus, with their dreamy interiors, were conceptual and abstract, and suggested that the visceral paint-handling of the Abstract Expressionists—no doubt thinking of his great hero de Kooning—was reality incarnate. “The real,” Porter wrote of the Abstract Expressionists, “is what can be seen”—by which he meant the abstract marks on the canvas. By the end of his essay, Porter had offered his own ideal, which he dubbed “illogical immediacy” and saw as originating in the work of the Impressionists with their direct, unmediated, and—so he believed—untheorized relationship with experience.

Porter’s basic argument, which strikes me as germane to the situation we find ourselves in today, was that many artists who identified themselves as abstractionists or realists were producing little more than illustrations—“shadows”—of an idea or ideal. By the years around 1960, when Porter was writing, the New York galleries were crowded with knockoffs of the painterly abstraction that de Kooning had arrived at only after a long, difficult struggle—and that Porter fervently admired. He must have worried, at a time when the market for contemporary art was exploding, that all that counted any longer was the superficial look of the work—whether it could be labeled abstract or representational, or painterly or hard-edged. One can disagree with some of Porter’s judgments as a critic; he was, for example, no friend of Mondrian’s paintings. What is important about his work as a critic is his willingness to raise alarms at a time when stylistic positions were becoming empty gestures.

That is the heart of the matter: the empty gestures. So much of the work that leaves Perl cold is clever; it’s thought-up. Porter put thought aside and responded directly and immediately to what he saw without guile. Perl moves obliquely toward his real subject–the vacant, career-minded, thought-based performances so ubiquitous in contemporary art. In response to this creeping nihilism, he wants an artist to commit, from the heart, to abstraction or representation, as if it’s akin to choosing between capitalism and communism. Like John Houseman in Three Days of the Condor, he misses the clarity of that old cold war. I think he’s missing the mark because he’s actually aiming at something less identifiable and expressible. Artists shouldn’t jump around in such a way that what they are doing becomes a series of one-off virtuoso exercises. (Always there are exceptions: Al Weiwei seems to actually be doing that in a profound way.) More importantly, they should accept limitations of their personal style, something you discover by doing not thinking, and work within those uncovered limitations in order to deepen their engagement with the visual world where they feel most at home.

Porter’s use of “illogical” in the quote is significant: he was trying to say that art isn’t an intellectual, rational endeavor—though so much art now is nothing but that. Rather it’s a total response of the whole human being to the totality of an instance of observation with all its attendant mystery. It comes from something deeper and more unfathomable than theory or style or any category useful to critics, where the artist is as much the puppet of what produces the work as the master of his craft. This submission comes through in the work of (take your pick of the greatest artists) but not because they adhere to one kind of art or another, but because they seem to have no choice but to keep trying to do what they do, whatever it is, over and over, hoping it will come out better each time.

It’s a commitment to something much deeper than the conscious choices of “stylization” as Susan Sontag put it. Style is what you can’t help but do, at the limit of your abilities. In Against Interpretation, she offers a good riposte to Perl’s weltschmerz. Style, the most inadequate possible word for what she’s advocating in her book, represents the personal, involuntary quality in a painting, the way in which a painting’s essence faces the world. It’s as unique and irreducible to ideas as an actual person’s face. Style is the artist’s face, as full of micro-expressions and body language as a quizzical smile. It’s a world, a living entity, not a “meaning” or the outcome of an ideology, or a school, or an -ism. What’s there, embedded in style, is Kandinsky’s “inner necessity” and it’s far more a surrender to what the act of painting requires of the artist than something imposed on the paint by choice. Van Gogh couldn’t help himself: applying those thick strokes of paint, like icing on a cake, he must have felt he was spending a fortune, especially with his brother Theo buying all of his supplies. But it was the only way he was able to paint in order to obey his daemon. That daemon is what’s missing, it’s what Perl mourns, not an adherence to a way of painting common to any particular group. Van Gogh had to part with the Impressionist collective to find himself and become what he was, alone. His work was representational but just barely, based on historical standards, and you step closer to a Van Gogh in a museum in order to see him as much as you’re there to see whatever he was depicting.

The best riposte to Perl is Paul Klee. His work is never straightforwardly realistic, but it’s almost always both representational and abstract, sometimes extremely, geometrically abstract, and often poetically visionary, like what a scuba diver in the coral reef on ecstasy would remember seeing. Klee is one of the most unique painters of the 20th century, along with Charles Burchfield, and his vision refuses to fit into categories. The idea that he taught at the Bauhaus is astonishing, considering how Tom Wolfe took that school apart for inspiring the most impersonal architecture ever conceived. Klee had one of the most personal visions of any painter in history, impossible to explain conceptually or intellectually, a reverie rooted in his faith that the appearance of the world was simply a membrane between the conscious mind and a much more interesting and enduring reality.

Perl is getting at this fact that we have very few Paul Klees working on their quiet and modest, beautifully crafted and lower-case affirmations of life itself. But he’s not quite saying it–and I think it’s a distraction to talk about adhering to one camp or another, abstraction or representation, when what he really means is that the individual artists now can’t seem to summon enough of Kandinsky’s “inner necessity” to produce work that, over and over, is recognizable as the same terrible struggle, ending in success or the opposite, for one particular individual. What gets conveyed to the viewer, when the artist is struggling at that level and not just being a virtuoso working in multiple modes, is something that is beyond art theory, something art criticism can only point toward without clarifying why exactly it’s real and alive. This quality reaches out to what the Greeks called nous, the sentient heart, the eyes of a mind larger than thought. Every artist is trying to open those eyes in the viewer, and in himself or herself, and few succeed. And this has always been the case, but now it seems we notice less and don’t know how to applaud when someone does it, because we’ve lost the critical compass that points us toward it, if it’s even possible to have that in a reliable way.

Comments are currently closed.