The Observer Effect: On Contemporary Painting by Barry Schwabsky (Sternberg Press, 2019) (image courtesy of Sternberg Press)

There have long been deep-seated links between the writing of poetry and art criticism. Poets often make for good art critics, though I would argue articulate artists make for even better ones, as we are directly invested in the making of art, and usually have strong points of view concerning it.

Barry Schwabsky’s copious art writings are very much in the intertwined poet-critic tradition that is often associated with Charles Baudelaire, and one of Schwabsky’s consistent interests in art has been contemporary painting. Indeed, he is widely considered one of today’s foremost critics of painting, largely due to his Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting series, from which his new book of collected writings, The Observer Effect: On Contemporary Painting, draws.

In it, Schwabsky looks at what the “tepid” but “active,” “mannerist” but “trendy” contemporary painting scene has been up to since 2000. His book obliquely compliments Isabelle Graw’s The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium — a nerdy book which ruminates on the long history of painting and its significance in the digitally inclined contemporary art world, as inspired by painting’s (so-called) “brush with death.”

Schwabsky’s defiant book is organized into three main sections — abstraction, “image-based” figuration, and a dialectical synthesis that acknowledges the postmodern context of painting, as framed by Marcel Duchamp’s appropriated readymades. Schwabsky concludes by posing some tangled questions of agency and desire concerning painting’s ontology: à la what is painting? On that, the author determines there is no singular answer; for him, painting essentially involves subjective conceptual projects. He thereby joins the famous French putdown Marcel Duchamp railed against — “bête comme un peintre” (stupid like a painter) — to advocate against what he called “retinal painting” with Joseph Kosuth’s proclamation in Art after Philosophy that “All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually.”

Examples of notable ontology-based conceptual painting projects sprinkle the book, including Alexander Rodchenko’s monochrome paintings (1918-1921), Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings series (1953-67), that he boldly, and in hindsight, quizzically, claimed were the “last paintings that could be painted,” Robert Rauschenberg’s two “Factums” (1957), Hong Seung-Hye’s industrially fabricated paintings, Andy Warhol’s Factory-made silkscreen prints-as-paintings, Wade Guyton’s inkjet canvases, and Blinky Palermo’s Stoffbild (material painting) series of the late-1960s, that he “painted” by sewing together widths of solid-colored fabric and stapling them onto stretcher bars.

To deny the life and death questions raised by Arthur Danto’s oft-cited anti-ontology essay “The End of Art,” Schwabsky states in rhizomatic fashion that “the time of painting is not linear” and he performs this assertion by allowing the dates of his 2000-2018 essays to follow no chronological order. That works here, because one of the things that still painting does well is present mutually exclusive conditions at the same time. That all the artistic information is there as both timeless and simultaneous is something that all painting has going for it.

Schwabsky’s readable and often chirpy essays bring together thematic connections that associate such distinct painters as Nicole Eisenman, John Curin, Ha Chonghyun, Dana Schutz, Bernard Frize, Sue Williams, and Kerry James Marshall. Establishing no clear stylistic or aesthetic position, Schwabsky seems more interested in philosophically examining what painting is and can become through an observer’s encounter, citing the reductive formalist definition Maurice Denis offered in 1890, of pigment applied to (usually) flat planes by whatever means conceptually necessary. But Schwabsky does emphasize the imagination as the key conceptual interactive co-extender that viewers must bring to painting for the construction of meaningful form to exist. As Schwabsky cites, the post-painter Duchamp described this act of bi-creation — where both subject positions are necessary to create a painting — in his polemic text The Creative Act (1957); art-making, in this sense, involves not just the act of painting, but also its reception. This conceptual/phenomenological interplay is what Schwabsky defines as “the observer effect.”

The Observer Effect: On Contemporary Painting (Sternberg Press) by Barry Schwabsky, edited with an introduction by Rob Colvin and Sherman Sam is now available is available at

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...