Painting Off

Today one often hears painters whine about the supposed marginal status of their favorite medium in the art world. In 1991 Stella offered the following words of comfort:

“Because we accept so readily the idea of the manageable whole or instant pictorial unity, we have backed ourselves into a corner of sorts. Our notions about painting and picture making are really quite limited, and, for reasons I don’t think I can fully explain, these notions seem to have brought present pictorial thought to a standstill. What worked for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and three-quarters of the twentieth century doesn’t seem to get the job done as we move into the next century. Painting obviously struggles to maintain its viability as an independent art form. More and more it appears to be overshadowed by other forms of art activity. To be merely painting today is of little interest….I think it’s fair to say that the single-picture format began to run out of gas in the 70s. The attack on formalism and the general alarm at the imminent demise of painting were, perhaps, evidence enough. Any visual art form, from video game to bank statement display, claimed to have as much, if not more, pictorial promise than painting itself…we have to look more closely at how unpleasant the situation really is. We have to admit that the single picture format has evolved over the past 300 years into a pigmented object. Right now, its sole purpose appears to be that of being looked at, and there is a strong feeling it doesn’t provide enough satisfaction, visual or otherwise.”

I think his description of how things are is still valid. The great merit of these remarks is that they don’t blame the art world, or “fashion,” or some kind of malignant conspiracy of “critical” conceptualists, but acknowledge that the so-called “death of painting” is an affair internal to the medium, and that if the ancient art can’t cut it today it is the fault and responsibility of artists who care about that. Further, he clearly has concrete ideas as to what the problems are, and necessarily they must have to do with his own work. Readers of this blog will know that both R.H.Quaytman and myself have canceled the single-picture format by bringing the series forward in a new way. I guess Stella also did that with Moby-Dick, but maybe not as clearly, because no one can see it without reading Robert Wallace’s book. But Stella must believe he can overcome wholeness and unity within the confines of the single picture, and that’s a way to understand his chaotic and overfull compositions. The problem is that every singular work has an inherent unity and wholeness—a base condition of the visual arts. The painted reliefs may have a special status within this discussion, but they only gesture toward an interpenetration of work and world because they do have boundaries, however complex. A genuine break out can only happen as illusion—as paradoxical as that sounds. But the feeling that a work of art that just sits there to be looked at is pathetic and pointless is very hard. Every serious artist today must have felt this at some point; that’s where the avant-garde begins, and why conceptual art has a necessity of its own. The task is to make looking worthwhile, and a preliminary to that today is to make it difficult. Stella’s later work is nothing if not difficult. Hard to take more like it. This piece is thirteen feet square, which makes it easier.

Frank Stella, Cantahar 1998


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2 Responses to Painting Off

  1. Gregg Simpson says:

    After seeing the Hockney landscapes at the Guggenheim in Bilbao and Richter’s giant canvases at the Pompidou, I think the notion of the death of painting is over reach by people who want to use art galleries for novelty activities more related to performance art than to the contemplative nature of paint on canvas. In the 1940’s Max Ernst wrote “Beyond Painting”, which put forth the idea that the poetic imagination behind a work is more important than the fact that it is paint on a canvas, something he shared with his friend, Marcel Duchamp.

    • I guess I don’t quite agree because I don’t see Richter’s work as holding any hope for the future. It might be evidence for the death of painting – in other words, if that’s the best there is, we’re in trouble. Luckily we have Stella, who’s much better. If you want to prove that it’s not dead you have to do that in your work. That’s how I see it anyway, so that’s what I mean by an affair internal to the medium.

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