EssaysWeekend

Back When Painting Was Dead

When Clement Greenberg, Frank Stella, and Donald Judd tried to define what makes a painting, they overlooked a central feature — capaciousness.

David Reed, “#64” (1974), oil on canvas, 6 feet 4 inches x 56 inches (Photo by Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian)

It is routine to characterize the 1970s as a decade dominated by Conceptual Art, and artists such as Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, and Mel Bochner. Part of this thinking is market-driven: the phenomenon of a group of artists who conveniently fall under a single heading and who steadily gain attention over the course of a decade. In 1978, LeWitt had a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Critics described Conceptual Art as the next logical step after Minimalism while suggesting that artists engaged with painting did three things wrong: they worked in an obsolete form; they did not go beyond the reductiveness of Minimalism in a way that could be labeled; and they did not accept Donald Judd’s dim view of painting:

The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.

The painter Carroll Dunham opens his essay “Shapes of Things to Come: On Elizabeth Murray” (Artforum, November 2005) with this blanket judgment: “Painting in New York during the second half of the 1970s was a mess.” I want to take issue with this received view of the 1970s because it continues to perpetuate a myth that painting, after taking a hiatus in the 1970s, “returned” in the 1980s. This view justifies the fact that painting was ignored or denigrated during the 1970s, as it verifies the appetites of the marketplace.

When Wallace Stevens said “Money is a kind of poetry,” he could have applied it to certain precincts of the art world, where it is a kind of criticism. Those who believe that the cream always rises to the top, and that success in the marketplace is a reliable measure of an artist’s ambition, tend to be white male critics.

Elizabeth Murray, “Untitled” (1974), oil on canvas, 28 x 28 inches (courtesy Pace Gallery, photo by Tom Barratt. © 2018 The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

The most eloquent alternative to the view that painting had reached a nadir in the 1970s was the 2006 exhibition High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975, curated by Katy Siegel with assistance from David Reed, who had conceived of the show. While it tended to get positive reviews, the complaints and qualifications about the exhibition are revealing. In her New York Times review, Roberta Smith wrote:

The show passes over the artists who dominated painting during this period, like Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Brice Marden, Robert Mangold and Robert Ryman. Young Turks of that moment, like David Diao and Peter Young, are here, but the whole project feels a bit hollow at the center, like a time capsule from a time that didn’t quite exist.

The point of the exhibition was not to restate what had already been made clear in many other shows — that Johns and other luminaries dominated painting between 1967 and ‘75. By Smith’s reckoning, that they were all white and male is incidental. Her statement reaffirms the myth that the marketplace, museums, and critics were right in their initial choices: that the center is what is important, and that anything that is taking place elsewhere is of less or no importance.

This was how Jerry Saltz described High Times, Hard Times in his New York column:

[The exhibition was] composed entirely of abstract work made by painters who were born too late to be Pop artists or hard-core minimalists, and who then tried to take the medium to less structured and splashy, more intuitive and experimental shores.

Saltz got closer to the show’s intention, which was to recover what had been forgotten, overlooked, neglected, or ignored, but he doesn’t want to shake things up too much. According to Saltz, High Times, Hard Times “offers a tantalizing glimpse at that up-for-grabs period beginning in 1967 when painting passed through what has been called ‘the eye of the post-minimal-conceptual needle’ and 1975, when it was declared dead.” For Saltz, it was a glimpse of a historical period rather than an alternative view intended to challenge mainstream history.

Not surprisingly, Saltz reiterates what many others have said about painting during this period:

Art is turned into a problem, something to solve and move along incrementally, one issue, surface, color, and compositional tic at a time. Artists crinkle, cut, and shred canvas. They coat it with sand, spray it with oil, rip it apart, and sew it back together. Many dispense with stretchers entirely, painting on walls or providing only written instructions for others to follow.

Saltz is writing as if the artists in the exhibition all agreed with Judd’s judgment that the main obstacle posed by painting is that it is a rectangle placed flat against the wall. But what about the artists who disagreed with Judd’s pronouncement? What about the ones who rejected Frank Stella’s assertion that painting was “used up.” What about the ones who embraced their inner rectangle?

As to whether cream actually does rise to the top, let’s think about what that means in the case of Jack Whitten. In 1974, Whitten had a solo show in the lobby gallery of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The show did not lead to either gallery representation or sales. (I think a similar fate is harder to imagine if a white artist had gotten the same attention). The most likely reason nothing happened was because Whitten was an African American artist making abstract paintings that did not seem to contain any overt social commentary. He did not do what he was supposed to be doing. As indicated by the larger art world’s non-response, it is apparent that Whitten’s independence was not as valued as you might think. At the same time, it is useful to remember that it was venturesome on the part of the Whitney Museum to give a black abstract artist an exhibition of new works, whatever the underlying motivation.

Jack Whitten, “The Speedchaser” (1975), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches (artwork © Jack Whitten, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Image courtesy Gagosian. Photo by Rob McKeever)

Whitten’s show at the Whitney Museum featured paintings from his Slab series. In these works, Whitten poured and pooled different layers of acrylic paint onto a canvas lying on a flat surface. He then used an instrument to wipe the paint in a single gesture, producing a blurred, striated effect that has been compared to “frozen motion.” In some places, the skin of the painting split open, revealing the colors beneath.

This how Roberta Smith describes the paintings of Whitten’s that were featured in High Times, Hard Times:

Gerhard Richter has nothing on Jack Whitten’s atmospheric yet completely tactile layers of paint, blurred by horizontal pulls so taut that the surface periodically splits, like wounds, revealing rich deposits of contrasting colors underneath.

She praises the work while extricating it from every context. For Whitten, who had previously worked in a more expressionist vein, these were breakthrough paintings that rival both Minimalism and Pop Art in one important way: they looked impersonal and objective. Whitten gave them intriguing titles, such as “Siberian Salt Grinder,” “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and “April’s Shark” (all 1974), but they did not provide an immediate context in which to see the work.

High Times, Hard Times reintroduced Whitten’s Slab paintings to the world. In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, “Siberian Salt Grinder” is listed as in the “Collection of the Artist.” It is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired it in 2010. Although the Whitney showed a selection of the Slab paintings, it did not buy a painting from this group until 2015, after realizing “they had a gap in their collection.” (Alex Greenberger, Art News, 1/19/16).

Dawoud Bey, in his essay, “The Black Artist as Invisible (Wo)Man,” which was included in the High Times, Hard Times catalog, makes the following point:

By now, it should come as no surprise that one of the persistent missing pieces in the writing of art history is the presence of the African American artist. Just as black inventors helped make possible everything from the traffic light to the elevator, the black presence has informed and shaped the discourse of American art. That this even needs to be stated suggests that history’s gatekeepers and handmaidens have been doing a less than stellar job. Or perhaps somewhere along the line they decided that, in addition to taking note of the arrival of certain favored guests with great fanfare, they would feign a momentary distractedness when an unexpected guest of a darker hue came calling. Thus, a black artist would enter the big house of history without ever been properly announced or introduced – no props for you, sir or madam, but enjoy yourself nevertheless.

More than 35 years after it was painted, “Siberian Salt Grinder” entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art without fanfare. Neither Smith nor Saltz mention Bey’s essay or the issue it raises.

As a student of ceramics, Mary Heilmann learned that direct contact with one’s materials is not old-fashioned. Instead, she took the lessons she learned from studying ceramics in California, and from making sculpture in the years following her move to New York in 1968, and transformed them into a direct engagement with painting. Between 1975 and 1979, Heilmann made more than 50 works in a palette limited to some combination of red, yellow, and blue. All the works were either a square or a rectangle.

Mary Heilmann, “The First Small Red, Yellow, Blue” (1975), acrylic on canvas, 18 x 36 x 2 3/4 inches, Collection Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, gift of Sylvia Plimack Mangold and Robert Mangold (photo by Light Blue Studio)

By using both a squeegee and a brush (rather than one or the other), and working on a stretched painting that was placed on a table, Heilmann chose to let the paint that dripped over the sides remain as part of the work. This residue, the aftermath of the artist’s process, made the work into both a painting and a specific object. It also opened up a space that separated Heilmann’s practice from Minimalism, Pop Art, and Color Field painting. The residue was the stuff the squeegee pushed off the painting’s face but was still integral to the work, if you looked at the sides.

Heilmann not only defied Judd’s pronouncements by choosing to paint on a rectangular plane; she also picked colors associated with purist abstraction, those of Piet Mondrian and Barnett Newman. At the same time, she undid geometry’s inflexibility and optical purity — at least as Frank Stella manifested it in his celebrated paintings — clearing a field in which unruliness and awkwardness can become manifest. In retrospect, it is clear that the red, yellow, and blue paintings she did between 1974 and ’79 were challenging formal conventions associated with Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism. One could say that Heilmann confronted the rigid masculinity of large-scale geometric abstractions with a seemingly casual femininity.

Thomas Nozkowski was another abstract artist to challenge the inflexible conventions associated with large-scale abstraction. By 1974, he was painting solely on prefabricated 16 by 20-inch canvas boards that could be bought in any art supply store. By working on premade canvas boards, Nozkowski rejected the idea that a serious work of art must be painted on stretched canvas or linen, a mainstay of the masterpiece tradition, which many of the dominant painters of the 1970s routinely used. The other rule Nozkowski gave himself was that every painting would come from a personal experience. This is how he put it to me in an interview that appeared in The Brooklyn Rail (November 2010):

Events, things, ideas—anything. Objects and places in the visual continuum, sure, but also from other arts and abstract systems.

By working on small, inexpensive canvas boards, Nozkowski was able to be improvisational without getting bogged down. This is what Whitten, Heilmann, and Nozkowski have in common. They were undoing the assumptions of a generation dominated by Clement Greenberg, Stella, and Judd. They painted on rectangles. They reintroduced subject matter. They developed their own processes rather than mimic what had already been done. Nor were they only painters doing this.

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (3-27)” (1975), oil on canvas (© Thomas Nozkowski, courtesy Pace Gallery. Photograph by G.R. Christmas)

The recent exhibition Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975, curated by Katy Siegel and Christopher Wool at Gagosian Gallery (January 17 – February 25, 2017), brought together paintings that Reed had shown at the Susan Caldwell Gallery in 1975. Dunham advances that in the mid-70s, Murray “rehabilitated discarded structures from earlier modern painting: The biomorphic silhouettes of Arp, the pulsating Platonism of the later Kandinsky, and the spatial fractures of Stuart Davis colonial Cubism were all hovering just offstage, present if not fully accounted for.” Meanwhile, Nozkowski was purposefully jamming together different ways of applying paint while exploring what Marjorie Welish called his “vexed silhouettes.”

The idea that one individual might be the savior of painting, as Dunham characterizes Murray, is an example of hierarchical thinking, the kind of privileging that was rampant throughout the 1960s and ‘70s.

In 1969, Sol LeWitt publish “Sentences for Conceptual Art” in the little magazine O-9 (New York), edited by Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer.

Here are the first five sentences:

1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.
3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience.
4. Formal art is essentially rational.
5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.

All the painters I have mentioned (Whitten, Heilmann, Murray, Nozkowski, and Reed) developed approaches to painting that share something with LeWitt’s definition of Conceptual Art. Rather than rejecting Conceptual Art, or retreating to an earlier mode of painting, as exemplified by Marsden Hartley or Arthur Dove, these abstract painters found ways to adapt and transform LeWitt’s sentences into something they could use in painting, whether it meant following a process all the way through or bringing in personal experience from an unexpected or unlikely source.

In narrowing down painting, as Greenberg, Stella, and Judd did, they overlooked one of its central features — its capaciousness. Anything could be made to fit in its rectangle. The moment a narrative like Greenberg’s or Judd’s no longer dominated painting is the moment when painting got interesting. As I see it, this started happening around 1975, when most of the New York art world was looking elsewhere. That it does not want to admit to willful blindness is both understandable and unforgivable.

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