Backstory Without End

Was just reading about the work of Paul Sietsema, and my thought was—this work has a lot of backstory. Of course there are different kinds of backstory.  Sietsema seems to stick pretty close to painting, and to the history of abstraction. Other artists look outside of art—I remember hearing Jeremy Blake talk about his work at the Winchester house, for one example. But my feeling is that there are lots of interesting things in the world. I learn about many of them when I read the newspaper. In fact, there are so many interesting things, places, people, histories in the world that I think they are all equally interesting, and therefore interchangeable in some sense. I’m overwhelmed with interest.

Paul Sietsema, Stack Drawing 2006

Jeremy Blake, from The Winchester Trilogy 2002








The turn to a backstory is a search for something to motivate the work, but we might forget that this need has its origin in the historically produced arbitrariness of abstraction, as recognized by Clement Greenberg when he observed that “conception alone” was what mattered. There is no way to prefer a red blob or a green field or a blue stroke or a tangerine dream space, and that is why, starting with Fontana and color field, painting had to become conceptual. For Greenberg, “conception” meant origin; the other meaning—that artworks must distinguish themselves from each other by their concept—was historically unavoidable. Discursive or conceptual art has inherited this fact: that the work is its origin and that its origin is an idea, but has not overcome the arbitrariness at the core of modernist formalism. Now, however, arbitrariness is not formal, it’s professional.

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