Painting/Writing/History by Martha Schwendener

Added on by Shona Masarin.

Painting’s recent adversaries are well known. First came photography. “You know exactly what I think of photography,” Marcel Duchamp wrote to Alfred Stieglitz. “I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.”1 But Duchamp’s readymades were an equally potent threat, as well as the idea that a certain narrative of painting couldn’t be sustained. Ad Reinhardt declared his black canvases “the last paintings which anyone can make.” Robert Ryman’s white paintings posed a similar impasse.

Attempts to revive painting in the 1970s were framed as pathological: “hysterical”; “a tantrum, shrieking and sputtering that the end of painting has not come.”2 The return of figurative painting seemed positively dangerous, highlighting the “intricate connection between aesthetic mastery and authoritarian domination.”3 By the millennium, it wasn’t just painting that was suspect, but all mediums. Pluralism had disallowed the primacy of any one medium, but now it was declared that, “we inhabit a post-medium condition.”4

Painting never died, of course. In the 1970s, however, innovations were coming from different sources. “It’s very strange that the history of painting could be thought to end just as women were beginning to make their contributions,” one artist commented, while another added that, “‘white’ people … to whom art had belonged got to end the narrative before anyone else could get their foot in the door.”5

Unless, of course, it wasn’t so much an argument about painting as an argument over how to write about painting: A crisis presenting itself in the form of a discourse, which later bloomed into a full blown “crisis in criticism.”6 Or, perhaps following Roland Barthes’ edict, readers were displacing writers and critics were displacing painters. It’s also been suggested that this argument was happening primarily in New York; Europe had lived through this cataclysm in the 60s.7

The American argument for the death of painting grew out of the formalism of Clement Greenberg, but the argument put forward by his heirs was against Greenberg’s “positivist” art criticism. Theory, the one-word figurehead for a cluster of ideas largely imported from Europe, was adopted by younger critics. (Although, as more than one writer has pointed out, by the time “theory” reached American shores, a wildly heterogeneous range of thinkers were fused under a single heading.) Within this framework, photography and film were privileged; sculpture was seen as ranging into an “expanded field; ” painting wasn’t granted the same passport. And yet, a teleological criticism persisted which relied on models of technological progress, so that painting was posed as “regressive and humanist,” instead of critical postmodernism.8

But if painting was used as a pawn in the writing wars, it could also be used for dividing history. Abstract painting was the emblem of modernism. Reinhardt’s “last paintings” were built on a linear conception of history, but postmodern theories were bent on breaking historicism. Saying that the end had come meant giving in “to a historicist conception of history as both linear and total (i.e., one cannot paint after Duchamp, Rodchenko, Mondrian; their work has rendered paintings unnecessary).”9 But did historicism die with modernism? Is it true, as Barthes claimed that, “To be modern is to know that which is not possible any more”? Or was modernism simply a Western and Eurocentric notion? 10

At the present moment, historical categories themselves are under siege; time itself is under construction. What is the present moment? Are we living in the “altermodern”11  or should we acknowledge the coexistence of distinct senses of time occurring in different fields and regions that might be grouped under the rubric “contemporaneity?”12

Painting’s ontology has changed, too. In 1890 Maurice Denis stated, “It is well to remember that a picture – before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote – is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” The 60s and 70s exploded painting’s “natural limits”: the dimensions of the canvas, the oppositions between abstraction and representation (signaled most famously, perhaps, by Philip Guston).

It has been suggested that painting’s virtue might be its “impurity,” its ease at absorbing multiple belief systems, technologies, and other mediums and forms: performance, architecture, film, photography, dance, sculpture, and installation. Mechanical reproduction, which was initially seen to hark the demise of painting has served instead as a “vampire’s kiss” that made painting “immortal.”13 (It also drove the development of abstraction.) Painting might be seen as responding to a certain group of ideas that were called “painting” and now are something else.

And yet, two problems remain, inherited from the 70s and 80s: One, that painting was absorbed into museums, since alternative spaces were the homes for radical art forms; and two, that painting remains an art-market staple.

In the early 80s, it was suggested that painting was the perfect camouflage for critical thinking, a “subversive method” that would allow one “to place critical aesthetic activity at the center of the marketplace, where it can cause the most trouble.”14 This position was critiqued more than it was supported. And attempts to suggest that recent painting has escaped the “reification trap” by inventing forms and structures similar to digital networks, that “suture spectators to extra-perceptual social networks rather than merely situating them in a phenomenological relationship of individual perception”15 seem equally problematic - particularly since the “social network” described is still a gallery located within the art market system.

More important, what does it mean when the primary indicator of a work’s value is its ability to challenge or outwit institutions and market structures – when the conditions surrounding the work are often more sophisticated than the work itself? In the early 80s, concern over art’s rise in marketability produced this kind of pessimism and concern: “If the workings of the art marketplace demonstrate anything at all, it is its capacity to assimilate, absorb, neutralize and commodify virtually any practice at all.”16 Now these ideas have ossified into a nihilist orthodoxy where “the ultimate master of détournement turns out to be capitalism itself, which can appropriate and reprogram anything to serve its own ends.”17

We could follow the claim of Hegelian exhaustion in which painting – and art itself – has collapsed into a form of philosophy, or succumbed to market irrelevance. Recent writers have suggested that Hegel did not predict an end to art, however, but rather an end to “the dream of its purity” and autonomy.18 Even political theorists who offer sobering analyses of globalization and the post-Cold War geopolitical landscape do not foreclose on art’s ability to give us the conceptual means to invent other possibilities, making what had once seemed utterly impossibly “entirely realistic.”19

A more radical question than immanent foreclosure might be to challenge the assumption at the center of much neo-Marxist-informed postmodern criticism: Does capitalism really invade all areas of consciousness? Or is it, at this point, an inherently conservative claim that the only possibility for art to remain relevant is to resist commodification? Painters like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, who straddled political and economic systems by moving from East to West Germany, have shown how painting might be a viable way to critique the primacy of any one system – and how painting could be a fluid agent, moving between systems. (And, in Richter’s case, by applying a diversified and self-effacing approach to painting itself, that painting can simultaneously coexist alongside juggernaut technologies like photography – and thrive, and offer its own self-critique.)20

Similarly, one might ask, is critical practice the only option for art, or just an extension of modernism’s demand for self-reflexive objects? Rather than adhering to old versions of artistic critique – say, nineteenth-century denunciation of bourgeois morality or, later, resisting reification – some have suggested that art could work to reformulate issues of liberation and authenticity,21 or that the prefix “post-”, which has been appended to practically every term in art’s sphere, be extended to criticism itself, so that we might enter a “post-critique” era of art.22

Painting allows for a complex, material reworking and rethinking of these issues. Even the most basic, traditional rendition, the “plane surface covered with colors,” allows us to reorient ourselves in time and space, to rethink our relation to representation – and, in a culture dominated by flat screens, our cognitive, perceptual, and even neurological relation to the “plane surface.” Painting remains “impure;” it resists, as Reinhardt demonstrated, truly accurate reproduction. It can be photographed, but unlike photography or film in the digital era, its materiality is substantially altered in the course of reproduction. In a decentralized, virtually-described world, it has physical components: a location, a body. It can exploit Duchamp’s detested “retinal” effects. But “retinal” itself has a new topology, thanks to neuroscience.

For those still clinging to criticality, painting might serve as a particular seat of resistance. Because, in a world defined by movement and speed – fast hard drives, global migrations - slowing down might be the most radical act of all. Painting offers the opportunity for prolonged looking23 and the recuperation of pleasure; the destabilizing jouissance or bliss that got virtually stripped away as Barthes’ writing made its way into the Anglo world.

The critical gesture might be to resist the “negative theology” outlining what’s permissible in painting and what’s not.24 To treat criticism itself as a sort of informe. To register eruptions, from modernism to “bad painting” to Henry Darger and “Thrift Store Paintings.” In this contested historical age, to let painting be an act of sustained and engaged viewing, and to let it occupy as many fields as possible.

The artists in “That is Then. This is Now” have explored painting both in an expanded field and extended time frame. Cynthia Carlson has worked in painting, installation, and the public art realm. Donna Dennis might just as easily be described as a sculptor who explores architecture – although she is represented here as a painter. Martha Diamond similarly looks to architecture, but represents it in two dimensions. Lois Lane has continued the conversation started by gestural abstractionists in the midcentury – but also made black paintings that challenge the notion that Reinhardt’s black canvases were the “last paintings” anyone could make. Similarly, Hermoine Ford comes out of the midcentury New York School tradition, extending its span into the 21st-century.

In the 1980s, Mike Glier confronted the idea that painting was the domain of the heroic male-artist-subject with his series of drawings and paintings titled “White Male Power”; more recently, he has made landscapes that collapse representation and figuration and are painted on aluminum. While Kim MacConnel was aligned with the 70s Pattern and Decoration movement, he has gone back to the early 20th-century to pit Picasso and Matisse against each other in colorful, abstract works that conflate their disparate approaches. David Deutsch has mined photography for his imagery, but through the filter of surveillance photography, which offers a particular set of concerns, from the perceptual to the political.

And finally, Thomas Lawson, who penned one of the most pertinent American defenses of painting in the 1980s, “Last Exit: Painting.” In that 1981 essay he wrote, "Radical artists now are faced with a choice—despair, or the last exit: painting."25 Publishing the essay in a distinctly anti-painting climate was one act of defense. Not only did Lawson put painting “at the center” where it could cause “the most trouble,” but he included himself and his own, conceptually informed paintings, in the roster of artists waging that defense. It is only proper then, that he should be included in this exhibition and this conversation, in which painting, writing, and history converge.



1.     Quoted in Crimp, Douglas. “The End of Painting.” October 16. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1981. 75.

2.     Crimp, 82.

3.     Buchloh, Benjamin H.D. “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting.” October 16. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1981. 46 .

4.     Krauss, Rosalind. A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999. 32.

5.     David Reed quoted in “The Mourning After – Panel Discussion.” Artforum, March 2003; Monique Prieto quoted in “Thick and Thin – Painters and curators discuss the state of painting in the last two decades,” Artforum, April 2003.

6.     Miles, Christopher. “The Death of Painting and The Writing of Painting's Post-Crisis, Post-Critique Future.” Art Lies. Summer 2005.

7.     See Jean Clay’s essay “La peinture est finie” in 1967 and Isabelle Graw and Yve-Alain Bois quoted in “The Mourning After.”

8.     Siegel, Katy. High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975. Edited by Katy Siegel. New York: Independent Curators International, 2006. 86-87.

9.     Bois, Yve-Alain. Painting as Model. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990. 241.

10.  Negri, Antonio. “Contemporaneity between Modernity and Postmodernity.” In Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity. 24.

11.  Bourriaud, Nicolas, Ed. Altermodern : Tate Triennial. London: Tate Publications/New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2009.

12.  Smith, Terry. Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity. xv. Also see October 130. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.

13.  Reed, “The Mourning After.”

14.  Lawson, Thomas. “Last Exit: Painting.” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Edited by Brian Wallis. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. 163-64. (Originally published in Artforum, October 1981.)

15.  Joselit, David. “Painting Beside Itself.” October 130, Fall 2009. 132.

16.  Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. “Photography After Art Photography.” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. 81.

17.  Krauss, 33.

18.  Rancière, Jacques. The Future of the Image. London; New York: Verso, 2007. 89.

19.  Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Artforum. October 2009, 178.

20.  Gaiger, Jason. “Post-conceptual painting: Gerhard Richter’s extended leave taking.” Themes in Contemporary Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

21.  Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve. The New Spirit of Capitalism. London; New York: Verso, 2005, 469.

22.  Miles, “The Death of Painting and The Writing of Painting's Post-Crisis, Post-Critique Future.”

23. Lane Relyea quoted in “Thick and Thin,” Artforum, April 2003.

24. Terry Winters, Ibid.

25. Lawson, 164.