Painting after the “Death of Painting”

Around 1974 the Los Angeles based artist Edward Ruscha quit painting.  For two years he made nothing but drawings.  These years  were the bottoming out of what can be officially recognized as “The Death of Painting.”

“Painting is dead” is an idea that had been building in the art community since the early 1960s, perhaps lead most vocally in the criticism written by Donald Judd on the pages of the now defunct Arts magazine.  But the roots of the idea go back deeper, into the fluorescences of Modernism.  Early European Modern artists were out to “kill” painting.  And they did.  Examples of this project were recently found at the Museum of Modern Art in the exhibition Joan Miro: Painting and Anti-Painting.

Those old European dudes hated daddy’s shit, and they were out to do it in.   In the opinion of the current living “World’s Greatest Painter” Gerhard Richter, they threw the baby out with the bathwater.  Richter, who grew up in East Germany, has spent his life painting a giant elegy to this lost art.  He recognized in the early sixties all that had been permanently lost in this modern war.

But on the other side of the pond things have always been different.  America has very little tradition.  (In fact the geography of North and South America has never lent itself to the long standing cultural accretion that cultural forms require for fermentation, but that’s another story.)  Our current reigning “King of Oil” is John Currin.  His work is very good, by today’s standards, but John is smart enough to admit that he is only as good, technically, as a “mid-rank nineteenth century portrait painter.”

America is really about drawing.  Stuart Davis thought so.  Agnes Martin acted so. And I know so.  Formal American art education is virtually non-existent.  That does not mean we do not have some tradition of art practice.  But it is the practice of the folk.  Howard Finster, Andy Warhol (originally an illustrator), and Martin Rameriz are among the types of artists this country has always excelled at producing.  Graphic Artists.

Which brings me back to Ed Rushca in 1974.  The eggheads on the East Coast had done their damnedest to slam the lid on the technology of painting.  Both in word and deed they did it; they won.  So what’s a poor schmuck like Ed (a boy from Oklahoma who moved to LA to be cartoonist and was seduced by Modern Art through an image of a Jasper Johns target on the cover of Artnews) supposed to do? Draw.

Which takes me to my original premise.  In America, painting wasn’t very hard to kill.  Sure Willem de Kooning had some understanding of the painterly tradition.  But Jackson Pollock had as much painterly prowess as my cat. Painting ended with a whimper. But then Ed just got on with it. He made prints, and drawings, goofed around with food, and made a terrific film called “Miracle.”

Drawing is the quintessences of American art.  Provisional, diagrammatic, not-filled-in, unfinished and low.  In a recent review of Mr. Davis’s work, the New York Times critic Holland Cotter wrote this:

“A Drawing is the correct title for my work,” the artist Stuart Davis wrote in a 1954 notebook. He meant the correct title for all his work, including the high-color, post-Cubist, proto-Pop paintings that have made him a revered presence in the American modernist pantheon.

Davis’s devotion to drawing, to the act of laying down lines on a surface, had nothing to do with academic convention, which he scorned. For him drawing seemed to carry existential weight. Without the defining, containing line, all is confusion; chaos prevails; the bottom falls out of life and art.

He was very American in this way. We are a linear-thinking, line-making people, a nation of surveyors, measurers, calculators, plotters, mappers, dividers. To our forebears the fearful wilderness was something to build a straight road through. The horizon wasn’t some romantic Beyond; it was a goal to be reached in x number of days, months, years. Drawing anchors us in space, gives us coordinates and direction. It is the thread in the labyrinth, guiding us through.

I like that line, “the thread in the labyrinth, guiding us through.” In the absence of god, you gotta have something.

So that’s my two cents on the matter.  When Mr. Judd drove the nail in the coffin of painting, not that many people were paying attention.  Artists will be artists.  Or like the artist Julian Schnabel once said “Painters will paint.” (And in his case, very badly!)

16 responses to “Painting after the “Death of Painting””

  1. Jane says:

    This is a great commentary on art…and I thank you for all of the extra links. They added so much depth to an already great post.

  2. It seems to me that painting’s place in any dialogue about art, whether critical or casual discourse, will hinge on whether the subject is the content of the art object, or the art object itself. As long as the dominant thrust of art discourse is the question of art’s boundaries, then painting is going to represent the Old World, so thoroughly charted and familiar that surveyors looking for something ‘new’ are going to be more prone to look elsewhere.

    Q. Who is going to find something ‘new’ in his own back yard?
    A. The scientist and the poet.

    The scientist won’t find satisfaction with looking at a blade of grass until she has gotten below its surface, ripped it apart and understood it at the cellular level. The scientist might employ tools in this search, smelly chemicals and powerful microscopes. The analogous painter might approach her craft through radical experimentation with materials and/or technique. This becomes an extension of Modernism’s unfinished project, and will continue to be relevant as long as painters continue to ‘discover’ new ways to paint.

    The poet, on the other hand, imposes new contextual meaning on familiar content. He needn’t travel to Timbuktu to find an apt metaphor for an idea. The limits of the back yard are only the limits of the poet’s imagination. To the poet, content is key. So who are the analogous poet painters? Look for those dialogues where content matters, and that is where you will find them. We have a couple of ‘scenes’ here in Los Angeles where I see this happening: The continuing Chicano arts movement and the street writers scene both come to mind. Both have a critical discourse that weighs content just as much as execution, and because painting is such a proven method of depicting content it maintains its relevance within these discourses.

    There are also the folk painters for whom content is everything. One way to define folk art, which I think would hold up pretty well next to our folk cannon, would be the body of art produced by folk in response to an interior dialogue rather than any of the current dialogues that define a contemporary art scene. To be a folk artist is both liberating, allowing the artist to pursue the interior dialogue wherever it might take him, and alienating, since the artist has chosen not to engage a larger social art dialogue (at least in his work).

  3. lane says:

    Thanks Rogan, lots to think about there. For me “content” is the action of a work of art. I.E. Subject Matter (what is depicted) plus Form (how it is depicted) equals Content.

    All art work has content. All art work has form (on a range of good to bad) not all artwork has Subject Matter (non-objective abstraction, but this work is so execptional in world historical terms as to be almost beyond discussion, “A responsible adult reaserch project” as the painter, Peter Saul once put it.)

    Art, by definition, embodies its content.

  4. Natasha says:

    Lane, thank you for a wonderful post. I believe that art and its influence should be considered on the global scale. For example, the art in the 20th century cannot be ascertained without Picasso, Kandinsky, Kollwitz, Chagall, Mondrian, Chirico, Dali, and many others; however, it also cannot be what it is today without such American artists like O’Keeffe, Stieglitz, Henri, Sloan, Hopper, and again, many others. You are right, there is a lot of crap out there that should not even be. Especially, the endless and inept to the point of catastrophe, flowers, (they drive me crazy) yet there is just as much crap in Europe these days.

    I was at a private gallery banquet for a deceased artist in Laguna, about a year ago. I saw a woman clapping in stupid excitement, when her loaded hubby capriciously purchased a hideous pencil sketch of a woman for an atrocious amount of money. Shuddering, he solemnly stated that it looked like his wife. Crossly, I saw a baker in Paris, who closed his store exactly at 6:00, (closing time) in front of a long line, explaining that he had a life and wanted to enjoy his evening with his friends. I think a lot of that unskilled and rather hopeless paining in the US stems from the consumerist ideas about life: paining for the sake of money, rather than paining for the sake of the art.

  5. Natasha says:

    It should really be “painting”, but calling some of that stuff “paining” could even sound more appropriate in some cases :) Sorry about the typo.

  6. lane says:

    Natasha,

    I suspect that as a European, you have a much deeper and more passionate attachment and understanding of these old forms than we young naive Americans do.

  7. Natasha says:

    Nah, Lane, you are the artist. You do paint, right?

  8. lane says:

    well, that’s the thing. i make things that function like paintings. for a while they were these big weird hippie craft items. and now they’re more like high-tech prints.

    they involve paint, as a material, but i really think the basis of what i do is based more on drawing than painting.

  9. Natasha says:

    That’s so neat that you came up with something so unconventional and new, something nobody else does. Is there a place online I can see it?

  10. Rogan says:

    Are you cutting with laser yet? Please tell me you are cutting with a laser, and not putting your fingers near blades for so much of your life.

  11. Natasha says:

    Ha-ha, this is too cool, Lane! When I clicked on your link first, I though something was wrong with my computer and, on top of that, it was cussing at me. I tried from another computer and it did the same thing, until I accidentally ran my mouse over the words, and they actually showed links! I loved it! I loved the “Newgate”, “Godbold”, “Peaceable Kingdom (Evening Land)” the most and I loved the “!@#&”. You should sell this stuff to Bellagio or the Wynn, imagine an image like this blown up to 15 meters in mosaic as a waterfall backdrop.

  12. lane says:

    “sell this stuff to the Bellagio or the Wynn”

    so cute Natasha, thank you.

    maybe someday Steve will ring me up.

  13. Rogan says:

    12. Oops. Sorry for asking again. What software are you using for the vector work? And do you own your laser cutter or are you farming out?

  14. lane says:

    oh yes, farming out.

    to a second generation laser technologist with a degree from cal tech.

    “all the best”