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 bookshop.org
Did You Know These Museums Were Free for New Yorkers?
The “Free Admission” campaign is advocating to make ticket pricing information more transparent to visitors, who may be confused or misled by institutions’ language.
AI Images Visualizing Trump’s Arrest Send Internet Into a Frenzy
The pictures, created using Midjourney, depict the former president’s greatest fantasy: being dragged away by police in front of the cameras.
Haggerty Museum of Art Presents Tomás Saraceno in Dialogue With Dr. Somesh Roy
The artist and researcher will explore soot’s effects on climate change and public health in this online conversation.
Some AI Artworks Now Eligible for Copyright
New guidance from the US Copyright Office sets some policies around AI-generated images.
NYC Hispanic Society Workers to Strike Indefinitely
One worker said the museum’s “skeletal” workforce bars the institution from functioning to its potential.
McKnight Visual Artist Fellows Discussion Series at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The series features 2021 Fellows David Bowen, Mara Duvra, Rotem Tamir, Ben Moren, and Dyani White Hawk in conversation with renowned curators and critics.
In Search of Inclusive South Asian Futurisms
We have been dangerously siloed for far too long by colonial constructs of race, nation, and time that separate, divide, and deny us our very being.
What Do Shtreimels and Cowboy Hats Have in Common?
A chance meeting on the subway introduced photographer Francesca Magnani to the multicultural world of Brooklyn milliner Richard Faison.
Nevada Museum of Art Presents Adaline Kent: The Click of Authenticity
For the first time in nearly 60 years, the innovative yet under-recognized artist is the subject of a retrospective exhibition. On view in Reno, Nevada.
Richard Hull Completes the Picture
Once known for his abstracted portraits, the Chicago artist is now exploring new directions.
You Too Can Have Your Art on a Postage Stamp
The process isn’t complicated, and thousands of people submit themselves for the talent pool every year.
The Public Theater in NYC Presents Plays for the Plague Year
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s theatrical concert chronicles the 2020 lockdown and the hope and perseverance that emerged from it.
Bobby Wilson Combats Indigenous Stereotypes Through Humor
The artist-performer’s career undulates, ever so gracefully, across multiple mediums and registers of generational pain, healing laughter, and Indigenous joy.
Rare 19th-Century Silhouette Album’s Secrets Unlocked
Traveling portrait artist William Bache’s album depicts famous figures like Thomas Jefferson as well as people whose identity was previously unknown.