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Art historian and critic Isabelle Graw’s loquacious book The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium — a rumination on the long history of painting and its significance in the contemporary art world — is easy to esteem but tough to love. Passionate ardor requires none of the elaborate rationalizations that take place between these covers. If you need to be convinced to love something the author calls a “meta-medium” through an avalanche of appeals to art-historical tradition and critical opinion, then that ain’t amour.
That said, by mingling the surface heft and vibrant shimmer that is contemporary painting, this corpulent German-American-French-centric paperback effectively blurs the lines between the artist-subject and the sensual painted-object.
The book is thematically organized into six chapters that offer lively evaluations of various painters’ practices; Graw’s thoughts on Frank Stella’s early black paintings and Joan Mitchell’s general struggles are topnotch. Other essays offer valuable insight into the work of Édouard Manet, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Rachel Harrison, Martin Kippenberger, Avery Singer, Marcel Broodthaers, Jana Euler, Ellsworth Kelly, and Isa Genzken.
These polished reflections are interspersed with significantly shallower conversations between Graw and her contemporary artist “friends,” including Wade Guyton, Jutta Koether, Charline von Heyl, Merlin Carpenter, and Alex Israel. Through these conversations, Graw tries to refute claims of contemporary paintings’ mannerist zombie stature. A co-founder of both Texte zur Kunst and the Institute of Art Criticism based in Frankfurt, Graw seems to view these friends of hers as the reason why painting now has meta-level relevance within the sphere of contemporary art — because their work exhibits “unspecific-specific” attributes of “quasi-people” (don’t ask) while being a “comeback” commodity exchange chip always popular with the auction houses.
There is no index (which annoys), but each chapter is generously illustrated in color, which helped me follow along with gabby Graw as she traced the material, art-historical, and sociological reasons for the “specific status” of painting within the capitalist system. She posits that the artist’s individual human touch is part of what elevates painting to this “special status,” but she fails to adequately demonstrate this: intimate touch and bodily presence usually plays an even more significant role in most performance art, drawing, and ceramics. But it’s cool that Graw divines haptic touches even in mechanical artistic processes — for example, in the scratches and dust on Guyton’s inkjet print paintings.
If Graw was entirely sincere about her love of painting (which she is not: her true feeling, she eventually confesses, is “love-hate”), she might have skipped the formalist questions and spent more time investigating sex, love and gender in the history of the genre, where political content merges with form and materiality in complimentary communion. Rather, what we hold in our hands is an aggressively nerdy book inspired by paintings’ brush with death.
Since the 1960s, prissy painting has wrestled with its mortality. Suddenly, though, it feels more alive than ever. Following Douglas Crimp’s essay The End of Painting and Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings series (1953-67), supposedly the last paintings that anyone can paint, Graw makes frenemies with this demise by placing it within the post-medium condition of Rosalind Krauss and the expanded, “transitive” understandings of painting proposed by David Joselit. For some reason, she failed to mention Nicolas Bourriaud, Peter Weibel and Félix Guattari’s use of the “post-medium” term. Those additions, and a consideration of the post-media condition, could have considerably enriched her institutional critique.
Thought-provoking assessments of painting’s death (or near-death) aside, Graw maintains that “in recent years, painting, after losing its dominant position, has received much more attention in critical writing and theory, and contemporary painting exhibitions have been extremely popular, bolstering an increased interest in the art form.” Fair enough, but she might have raised the question of whether such popularity places painting on a dangerous path to derivative conformity.
After citing Marcel Duchamp’s reframing of his paintings as symbol-discourse, Graw offers a fascinating breakdown of her concept of painterly “vitalistic fantasies,” suggesting that a painter’s personality manifests in their work, which is what lends a painting a particular panache, and allows viewers’ perceptions to transform these flat objects into “quasi subjects” saturated with their creators’ lives. This enchanting proposition is very interesting to me as an artist who amalgamates artificial life with painting, particularly when Graw insists upon paintings’ “production of aliveness.” This jubilant, vitalistic view of painting might also relate to viewers’ engagements with the phantasmagorical aspects of painting — thus serving as another key counterpoint to claims that painting is irrelevant within our electronic wonder world.
The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium by Isabelle Graw, published by Sternberg Press, is available on Amazon and other online distributors worldwide.