Painting Now and Eternally
SUZANNE HUDSON with Paula Burleigh
Suzanne Hudson is an art historian and critic whose writing has appeared in October, Flash Art, Parkett, and Artforum, where she is a regular contributor. She is the author of Robert Ryman: Used Paint (MIT Press, 2009; 2011) and the co-editor of Contemporary Art: 1989–Present (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). Her recently completed book Painting Now (Thames & Hudson, 2015) surveys the complex global terrain of contemporary painting, making an argument for the medium’s continued relevance in times that are widely considered “post-medium” and “post-studio.” Eschewing traditional genre-based systems of classification, Hudson organizes her survey into six porous categories: “Appropriation,” “Attitude,” “Production and Distribution,” “The Body,” “Beyond Painting,” and “About Painting.” Paula Burleigh, a Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow at the Whitney Museum, discussed Painting Now with Hudson in person and via email; the following conversation emerged.
Paula Burleigh (Rail): Let’s talk about the structure of the book. How did you land on this particular structure, with chapters devoted to appropriation, attitude, the body, etc.?
Suzanne Hudson: I wanted the choice and the sequence of objects to be motivated by specific arguments and ways of reading those works in relation to each other. I think the commissioning editor had the idea that the chapters would be landscape, portraiture, figuration, and abstraction. I fought really hard for that not to be the case, because I didn’t want that kind of typology. Instead, I wanted Painting Now to be more about strategies and institutions, as well as how artists are positioning their work in relation to those larger apparatuses. The initial resistance against classification according to general, formal type was for the good because it forced me to think, well if it’s not going to be a structure that’s that obvious, what is it going to be? It couldn’t be arbitrary, either.
Rail: Who do you envision as the audience for the book? In your writing, you use terms that are part of an academic discourse, so it’s not for the uninitiated; at the same time, it’s a survey, at least in some form or another.
Hudson: When I was first imagining the book, I thought that it would have applications within a studio curriculum. In retrospect, maybe this had a lot to do with my own circumstances. Its conceptualization and then writing coincided with my move to Los Angeles, and I thought for the first time—or maybe not the first time, but in a very different way than I ever did while I was living in New York—about the function of pedagogy in relation to practice and about a tradition of pedagogy being so central to the art produced there.
I think of artists as one of my foremost audiences, here and elsewhere. I spend a lot of time in studios and I don’t see this as one-sided, but as a more dialogical form of response to ongoing conversations I would have anyway. As for other constituencies, I did think that this would be useful for academic art history classes, especially as contemporary art has become such a dominant aspect of university curriculum. This book is a primer on contemporary art as such, even though it takes painting as its focal subject. But I also wanted it to be accessible enough in its language that somebody who bought this at a museum bookshop, or who had some interest in and maybe familiarity with contemporary art broadly, or maybe painting more specifically, could pick it up and find much of interest. I felt like this project offered a type of engagement that was distinctly more public than most of my academic writing, which I see as existing in various circumscribed formats and for a self-nominating, very small, and specialized audience.
I’ve gotten impatient with the recursive nature of academic writing, and I really wanted this to speak outside of that somehow, though still with a kind of integrity and rigor that preserves the complexity of ideas. The fact that the manuscript was going to be heavily illustrated and very lush in its production was significant, because I’ve come to think of it a little bit as a Trojan horse: you see this bright, shiny, colorful object and it’s very accessible, especially on the level of the images that I selected for inclusion. They are as capacious as I could make them, both to allow for some spread—I didn’t want a single clique represented to the exclusion of all else—and to give more points of potential entry. I hope that people who don’t already have a predisposition to want to get involved in this kind of text or discourse would—again, possibly because of the visual material—actually become more interested in reading it as a way to understand present concerns and test their ideas about them against someone else’s.
Rail: I found the introduction to be almost a stand-alone essay. It gives a sense of where we are now with painting, and it’s interesting to hear you talk about this back-and-forth you had with the editor about whether to arrange the book in terms of traditional genres. It seems to me that one of the real accomplishments of this book is moving away from those staid genres. You also avoid the old binary between abstraction and figuration, and we see that post-studio work requires a new language or a new set of terms, which this book provides. That’s not to say that the objects themselves aren’t important, but, as you wrote in your introduction, you could have chosen a whole number of artists who are not included. I assume that to some degree your choices were dictated by your position in New York and Los Angeles and your travels—
Rail: I think that what this book does is it gives us a language to talk about painting, and then the reader can insert other artists and works into the structure.
Hudson: Yes, I really hope so. I’d been writing monthly criticism since 2004. And so I guess initiating the research I felt like I’d regarded a lot. I really am a very conscientious viewer, a good Girl Scout or something. But anyway, this made me realize that I see nothing! I certainly don’t want to be an exceptionalist regarding the contemporary. I mean, the enormity of the world is something that is not unique to our moment. I think that, as we understand more about how the history of antiquity (and even the early modern world) was predicated precisely upon trade and the movement of objects and peoples, we realize that we’re not living in the first age to be circulating goods, intellectual or otherwise, or that is part of a participatory economy across far-flung locales.
Nonetheless, I do think there’s something about the scale of the art world right now that is really daunting, and to realize how there is something of an international style that is produced through the mechanisms of fairs and ever-proliferating online platforms and so forth. I kept coming up against the fact that there were very real differences between the respective places supplying this art, and I worried about how to frame the matter in an ostensibly synthetic book. How could I be responsible about particularities but also kind of holistic? In some ways it created barriers for me, but there was only so much I could see and only so many places I could see them, making the selection random, or not random so much as delimited by circumstance and opportunity, as it would be for anyone. Even within a city—my example now being Los Angeles—there are so many art worlds, and a lot of them don’t overlap in any way, and I think that’s probably no more true there than anywhere else. I mean this not as an apology but as an explanation with broader application.
I don’t think what’s happening in one place is necessarily reducible to what’s happening in another. There are art worlds often, maybe always, and they can be incommensurable. I did try to include a broad scope within what was experientially possible for me, as my criteria mandated my having seen the work. But that probably means in certain cases that people in other cities or countries looking at this will say, “I can’t believe she didn’t include x or y,” because those people are much more significant to debates happening locally in Oslo or in Shanghai or wherever it might be, than the person or people who I selected from that place. But I felt much more comfortable and confident in writing about things that I kind of had some material understanding of. As with my choices, if people disagree with my interpretations of them, that’s fine, but I really wanted to be as factually accurate as possible. There are certain things that we can get wrong or right about objects. If I say something is oil and it’s acrylic, that’s just wrong. But what interpretation that produces for me—that’s where we can have debates, and that’s maybe the place of the humanities, or criticism, or just conversation among interested parties.
Rail: But it’s not a book that makes a claim that you are anointing the contemporary artists of our day; it’s all about building a structure and a language that allows you to talk about many different artists.
Hudson: And across the various chapters; I felt like the structure was working when I realized that most artists in the book could have gone somewhere else and survived intact. Hopefully, as you said, the book’s explanatory power does extend well beyond the set of figures that it collects together in its pages.
Rail: You were talking about a global context, and in the book you offer a larger context for contemporary art in terms of what an American reader might expect or be familiar with, geographically speaking. Do you think we can talk about a global art world? Earlier you brought up a tension between the global and the local, and the discernible material realities of an artwork within a local context that might be mysterious to an outsider. I was thinking about this in relation to Kehinde Wiley, who has a certain pride of place as the cover artist for the book. You talked about him as working in all of these different places—Nigeria, Senegal, and China, among others. His is a very global practice, and yet there’s a sort of sameness within that difference. Is that indicative of something broader, like a flattening of difference because of the peripatetic movement of the artist?
Hudson: To a certain extent yes, but not everyone has the means or the desire to do what Kehinde Wiley does. The fact that his differentiation of subjects collapses into sameness save for their accessories—details of costume or background pattern—is deeply symptomatic of the condition it less describes than admits in these failures to particularize them and give them meaning beyond range in a diversifying product line. Nonetheless, I think the charge of uniformity, or a related version of the argument (that homogeneity, or minute differences within it, produces itself for a self-regulating market—that it is the goal or apotheosis) is a defense mechanism. Why do we need to pretend like we have a handle on it by saying, “Oh, it’s all flat, it’s all the same everywhere?” It’s a lapse of curiosity, a way of obviating further investigation. It goes without saying that during the season of “zombie formalism” there was a whole lot of other stuff on offer alongside it, and this misses the point anyhow. This is the fundamental question that we have to be thinking about now: how do we connect these things, or why do we want to connect these things, and on what basis do we find the connections?
Rail: I’m relieved to hear that you don’t think there is this massive flattening of difference in the art world, or worlds, more appropriately, because that would be a sad loss. But to that point, given that you are stressing the existence of multiple art worlds, some of which have no overlap, how does your book grapple with that? In other words, do the categories that you lay out in the book, such as appropriation, attitude, and the body, apply across the multitude of art worlds? Can we take those terms with us to these different places?
Hudson: I hope so and I think so. It is true, though, that many artists make projects onsite, and traverse the globe to do so, and it is also the case that many artists anticipate this transit in their work before they set forth to make it. Anyway, I hadn’t explicitly thought of it like this, but I suppose I was trying to get to something that might be analogous to the circumstances I was mapping, ideas that travelled. I was not after universal absolutes, but language that, while generated out of my position and experiences, has an explanatory purchase in more that one site. For example, I thought appropriation was a really important chapter to start with, because it was a story that had been told in very specific ways about the New York art world, at a very specific moment beginning in the late 1970s. There have been a number of people recently who have been relativizing the cultural but also the legal subtext and ramifications for certain forms of borrowing, as with Winnie Wong’s work on China. What became interesting to think about in terms of appropriation was that no, it’s actually ubiquitous, and I don’t think we can think about it in terms of just one geographically defined history. It became a bridge from postmodernism to whatever it is that came after. So it was a temporal or chronological problem as well as a spatial one. Then what does one do with transformations in technology? Are current manifestations of borrowing different from these precedents in degree or kind? How might this relate to notions of criticality, once so sacrosanct, so wedded to the structure of borrowing irrespective of content?
Rail: “Network” is a word that comes up with some frequency in your book, and even when you’re not explicitly saying so, it seems to me that you’re constructing a network. When you write about Jutta Koether’s work, you bring in David Joselit and his discussion of network theory and the transitive. It seems like many of the artworks that you’ve chosen register the actions that are enacted upon them, or they manifest the traces of their circulation throughout a social network or whatever kind of network it is. So, do you think that all contemporary aspires to this condition of transitivity, as Joselit calls it now?
Hudson: No, definitely not. I would say that in some instances, somebody like Laura Owens would reject it outright; she would want painting to exist on its own, on the wall as a painting in a very traditional sense. That doesn’t mean that a space in which painting exists could not be flexible; it could still host events, or whatever. But it means that the painting does not require such activation from the outside, and that it survives it. I would position my work somewhat differently from Joselit’s, in that I don’t believe that any art, including modernist, has ever been autonomous. I think that art necessarily is involved in social contact and commerce, and it has more traditionally than not referred to things that exceed its frame. It has moved, served within liturgical rites, and formed the basis for ritual and participatory acts of political and other engagement before social practice. I don’t believe that there’s anything about that language of networks and transitivity that’s specific to our present, except its terminology, and the specific cocktail of wishes it fulfills. It’s important for me to cover network theory and transitivity in the book, and I want to acknowledge this as a thought-horizon at present. There is something that feels true and right about it. But it is equally important to say, “Well, if we strip away that language of the internet, then in fact this is what work has done for centuries.” What does cloaking it in the language of the internet do for the art, for us? This is what is distinctive about it in my view.
I often see this line of thinking as an alibi for a form of conceptualism that wants to deny the object—the thing—firstly, and then second the commodity status, and I reject that. It is impossible. Art is a commodity or it isn’t, and pretending like we don’t own it—like we don’t own the internet—doesn’t make the fact of purchasing a panel and putting it on the wall or in storage or whatever any less reifying. I don’t want the objects I select to have no remainder, to allow that the theory somehow absorbs them fully as to render them mere records of that transitivity. I believe in clinging to the art, and in that way maybe I’m deeply retrograde. After the scoldings of postmodernism, maybe nobody wants to acknowledge that there’s a kind of extant humanism in play.
Rail: When you reference Joselit’s work in the book, you do push back, posing the question of whether it is actually so bad to think of an artwork as static.
Hudson: We’re so conditioned now to works that are not painting, but are dance, or are film, or are time-based new media, or that pose the possibility of experience within duration. A static object can still allow for all of those things, even if we have to wonder why we privilege those durational attributes. What does it mean to have painting aspire to those values? This is not to assert medium-specificity, but to inquire about the values in the first place, before posing the related, but perhaps secondary, query of what material form—if any—should instantiate them.
I am interested in work that is really minimal, and I’m interested in it precisely because it makes you realize that there is still fullness that’s possible even within something that’s so reduced, and how it’s contingent on atmosphere, and so you don’t need further “activation.” It would be superfluous. There’s an activation, insofar as light hits a surface and then you think about whether to register shadow as part of composition, or as merely a byproduct of that composition existing on a three-dimensional structure hanging on a wall. Or ask questions like where does the surface end and how does it relate to our architecture, how does it relate to all of these conditions, which are absolutely mutable, and so on. A really good example of this for me would be someone like Jacqueline Humphries and her silver paintings. There’s nothing unstable about them materially, but the phenomenal effects are so contingent upon light or dark, and they shift from being these amazing argentine expanses to going dim. I think we’re potentially selling short the experience of painting by asking it to abide by these durational logics of other media in such spectacular fashions.
Rail: Coming to this interview, I was thinking a lot about how you’re positing a new language to talk about painting, but as we talk more, it’s becoming apparent that maybe it’s not a new language at all. Perhaps a more accurate way to say it is that you’re reframing painting in language that is attentive to the specificities or peculiarities of this contemporary moment, but the advent of so called post-studio art hasn’t actually precipitated a radical break with
Hudson: I think that’s true. Very few things are truly irrevocable, but I do think that the language around post-studio has been decisive, which is something else. The way artists are trained, and the structures of the art world at different historical moments—they do change, and so I absolutely believe in the reality of difference over time in terms of institutions. The book is about this moment, but also this whole thing is only even interesting because it reflects the change of institutions and beliefs about painting a certain way, more than it reflects painting itself. So maybe I’m having my cake and eating it a little bit by claiming that I am arguing for the way that painting is being recalibrated relative to academies, galleries, publication venues, and exhibition structures. That being said, each moment has had a complex of such interests to deal with, and so this is trying to understand ours and how the work is relating to it, pushing back against it, how our language needs to think through both the objects and the structures in which they exist.
Rail: Your final chapter was surprising, in a good way. In the penultimate chapter, “Beyond Painting,” paintings come off the wall, and they do gesture toward other media. But then with the last chapter, “About Painting,” you return to the wall—and not only that, you deal with abstraction, which at least traditionally has the most autonomy from other media. But you discuss these somewhat austere aesthetics in terms that don’t feel insular. Instead, you make this really illuminating argument that abstract painting on a wall can attend to all of the same concerns raised in the “Beyond Painting” chapter. I think this makes an important claim for the continued relevance of slow, careful looking. I know it’s been said a million times, but this culture of spectacle conditions us to move away from that kind of looking, and then we miss out on a lot.
Hudson: Totally, it was to suggest that we can actually come back to the physical thing and it can do this work that we’re asking a dancer or the internet or a poet or all of these other things to do, when in fact if we’re attentive, if we’re differently engaged in the possibility of an object, it can do that on its own, or something else. As we talked about before, the question is: why this is what we want now to begin with? That’s partly why it’s important to me that I come back to this painting-about-painting chapter; I wanted to end, not with the suggestion that painting remains a good object to the extent that it moves off the wall, but rather with painting that can engage the world from within its frame. The chapters circle back on themselves, almost like a snake eating its tail.