Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Painting Must Die (Part 1/3): Backing into Murder

Frank Stella, Hyena Stomp (1962), Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970)

Barnet Newman's quip that, "sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting,” has become a cliche no self respecting art historian would quote. So it's a curious pleasure to find it in Rosalind Krauss's essay, Sculpture in the Expanded Field. (It's like coming across a knock knock joke in a Walter Benjamin essay.) Like all humor, Newman's joke is funny because it is a little cruel, and it is cruel because there's some truth to it (one of my pieces was damaged that way once - my friends all laughed). As a sculptor it is painful to admit this, but by all accounts, for most of history, painting has driven art. That’s why we discuss the death of painting, and (almost) never the death of sculpture. The harsh truth is, no one much cares if sculpture dies because sculpture is thought of as a kind of painting; a parasitic twin carved in stone.
I have explained elsewhere that Krauss almost breaks with that pattern. Although her Expanded Field never explicitly announce that sculpture is dead, she did state that "within the situation of postmodernism, practice is not defined in relation to a given medium - sculpture - [call it - time of death, 1979] but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms." Krauss simply presumes sculpture's death and moves forward accordingly. Bold. What Krauss does not do is kill painting. To see sculpture it is necessary for painting to die, not as a mode of production (don't worry I am not going to take away your brushes), but as a way of seeing - especially as a way of seeing sculpture. 
Krauss's "postmodernism" was a narrow gauge postmodernism - earth art, installation art and what we now refer to as post-minimalism. As later-day post-minimalist artists invade dense public urban settings, and do so with greater confidence and success (not just the many minimalist-like expressions of official state grief patterned after Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, but Olafur Eliasson's Waterfalls, Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gates, and Antony Gormley's Event Horizon), the "historically bounded conditions" of sculpture that haunts this work (sculpture is dead) have once again become the most interesting game in town. To understand how and why, it is important to first kill painting - not as a rival, or as treacherous lover, but as an act of patricide. The theorist W T J Mitchell explains that,
Painting has always been the fetish medium of art history, as poetry is of literary history, and cinema of media studies. And modern abstract painting has been the fetish object of painting’s history, the specific style, genre, or tradition (the difficulty of naming it is part of the point) in which painting is supposed to find its essential nature.
It is not enough for painting to die on its own terms yet again, it needs to be murdered.
Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533), David, Death of Marat (1793), Gustave Courbet, Burial at Ornans (1850)

While sculpture dominates the great majority of the historic record, it is certainly an question of durability - rock carvings and bronze castings are hardier than encaustic or egg tempera. Even this early advantage has been used by critics to show the primacy of painting. The 19th century poet/critic Charles Baudelaire pointed out that savages "carve fetishes very adroitly long before they undertake painting, which is an an art of profound reasoning and requires for its enjoyment a special initiation." 
In the 20th century, Modernists thinkers generally agreed on Gustave Courbet as the one of the very first modernist avant-guarde (even if they didn’t at all agree on why). Clement Greenberg argued that "A new flatness begins to to appear in Courbet’s painting, and an equally new attention to every inch of canvas, regardless of its relation to the ‘centers of interest.’" He saw Courbet's painting in terms of formalist innovation. For Meyer Schapiro, Greenberg's nemesis, modernity was a social flattening:
Courbet's political radicalism, his relations with Proudhon and his part in the commune seem to be secondary to his goal as an artist; but they are characteristic of his personality with it's provincial and plebeian self-consciousness in Paris of an age of great social struggles. His feelings of superiority as an artist were justified for him by his indigenous relation to the masses.
In his essay on Clement Greenberg’s theory of art (helpfully titled "Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art"), T. J. Clark unpacks the modernists associations to flatness:
"It could stand, that flatness, as an analogue of the 'popular' - something therefore conceived as plain, workmanlike, and emphatic. Or it could signify 'modernity,' with flatness meant to conjure up the mere two dimensions of posters, labels, fashion prints, and photographs. Equally, unbrokeness of surface could be seen - by Cezanne for instance - as standing for the truth of seeing, the actual form of our knowledge of things. And that very claim was repeatedly felt, by artist and audience, to be some kind of aggression on the latter: fatness appeared as a barrier to the ordinary bourgeois' wish to enter a picture and dream, to have a space apart from life in which the mind would be free to make its own connections."
Clark's own proposal is that Jacques-Louis David’s painting  The Death of Marat is the first work of modern art.  The reasoning being, the vernissage for Marat was a Sans-Culottes pageant - a baptism by mass appeal. For Clark it is the public nature of David's intention that makes that painting modern. The Hockney-Falco thesis, developed from the observations of the painter David Hockney, is a personal favorite. Hockney argues that it was the use of lenses, prisms and mirrors that produced the "photographic look" unique to European painting. For Hockney it is the photographic look that marks the birth of a modern visual sensibility, starting by fits and starts it would gel in the 16th Century. Hockney's theories are awesome, but still very controversial - they are the aquatic ape of art history - all the same if his methods are at odds with the establishment, his dates and his subject matter are not. In his tight little classic, Ways of SeeingJohn Berger describes our victim's nascent form as so:
The term oil painting refers to more than a technique. It defines an art form... When oil paint was first used - at the beginning of the fifteenth century in Northern Europe - for painting pictures of a new character, this character was somewhat inhibited by the survival of various medieval artistic conventions. The oil painting did not establish its own norms, its own ways of seeing until the sixteenth century.
Jackson Pollack dripping, Frank Stella brushing, Richard Serra splashing.

No matter why modern art began, or when it established its norm, whether it began in the 16th, 18th, or 19th century everyone seems to agree that it started with painting. That is a solid art historical fact-like-consensus. Modern sculpture is largely an afterthought. The reason is that modern sculpture is conceptualized as painting. In her essay, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist MythsRosalind Krauss wrote that,
Greenberg for example did not support Frank Stella, but the logic system and the privilege it gave to flatness as a pictorial essence or norm provided the conceptual framework within which Stella’s first decade of production was understood and, widely, acclaimed.
In his book, Kant after DuchampTheirry de Duve reports that, "Greenberg has always insisted that 'Modernist Painting' was a neutral account of history, that it was descriptive and did not in the least seek to establish criteria for judgement." While Stella didn't have Greenberg's blessing, with his black pint stripe paintings he had decoded the critics "logic system," de Duve writes that "the black paintings would make Greenberg's historical descriptions prescriptive... This is exactly what the young painters who were soon to become minimalists must have felt. The impact of Stella's black paintings on them was tremendous, as was the aura of Greenbergian criticism." Minimalism wasn't born out of a reaction against painting - it was painting. It is no coincidence that the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre wrote Stella's artist statement for the first show of black paintings at MoMA. Although Greenberg didn't embrace Stella's black paintings he out-right rejected the minimalists. Again de Duve explains:
Had Greenberg been more consistent a proponent of purism in sculpture as he was in painting, he would have made a point of following a tendency in the history of modern sculpture towards the ‘essential conventions’ of the medium equivalent but opposite to that which he deemed prevalent in painting. He would then have closely watched the reduction of the sculptural practice to questions of matter, tactility, mass, and weight, which are ‘essential’ to sculpture as flatness is to painting. Had he done so, even skeptical as he was with regard to the kind of minimal art that had its origins in monochrome painting, it is probable that he would nonetheless enthusiastically have endorsed the art of Carl Andre or of Richard Serra. But he hasn’t.”
“I thought he wanted the same thing,” Donald Judd would later confess.
Frank Stella, Zambezi, (1959) Donald Judd, 

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