Mira Schor with Joan Waltemath
Joan Waltemath (Rail): Being a painter, I often feel under attack for maintaining a position in painting and for painting. You see so few paintings exhibited. For example, in the last Whitney Biennial, there were only four or five painters.
Mira Schor: Painting is not present now for very different reasons than when I wrote “Figure/Ground” in 1989 in response to the critique of painting emerging from publications such as October. Their position was prescriptive and exclusionary but also scholarly and theoretically rigorous. It presented reasons that could be analyzed and there were some very valuable points in their arguments, but these also contained blind spots so that intervention into this critical system was necessary. As I say in “Figure/Ground,” “unfortunately,” I am one of those retinal individuals, I do still like to paint, I am committed to painting. But now, you just don’t have painting. There is no discourse, it’s not intellectual anymore, it’s not political, it’s not programmatic. The choice of paintings that were in the Biennial seemed completely arbitrary perhaps because Larry Rinder is not that interested in painting, so he just chose. It could have been four or five other painters entirely. There is nothing to show that there is anything actually happening within painting. While Vija Celmins, for example, is a wonderful painter, overall there wasn’t any kind of supportive discourse established to show that any one painter was working in relation to another or in relation to any particular cultural discourse. I don’t think that there was any discourse established in the show. It was a hippie show, essentially.
Rail: You walk through and you feel okay.
Schor: It’s not that you feel okay, it’s just that there was a very heavy influence of a hippie lifestyle that was kind of funny. The Third Annual Roggabogga room, the collaboration from the Rhode Island group Forcefield, where they had all these Star Trek outfits, that floor in general just seemed to me to be a hippie floor. I think the show had some wonderful pieces in it, for example, Anne Wilson’s black lace installation piece, “Topologies,” which had a great connection to feminist art. And, coming right after the Rural Studio, it was in an interesting context of works about different concepts of shelter, constructing and deconstructing shelter. But the rest of it seemed very much influenced by the aesthetics of the hippie movement, head-shop art, plus you had the masculinist aspect of the interest in boy culture—the skate-boarders video for example.
Rail: I sensed an overweighing of technologies, as if technology were really the answer now. Having just finished your book, Wet, I had all these thoughts that were resonating in me. You talked about the “interiority” of painting. The incredible absence of this notion really struck me. I was thinking, well, it is absent from our critical discourse right now, but I don’t really feel like it is absent from the desires of people who are coming to look at art, who are searching for an experience to resonate with their own lives and their joys and their difficulties. Keeping this in mind when looking at the Biennial, I was overwhelmed with how much technologies are filling up the void. You go there and you stand in front of the stations and you become involved in trying to figure out the system so that the sense of absence or void is an impossibility. Is it something that we’re not really able to deal with in our time? Of course, then I was thinking—is this true? Why is there so much fear right now about this empty space that paintings create, where you could actually go on a journey?
Schor: There is a great loss of trust in the metaphoric capability and interiority of painting, and a loss of knowledge of how to do it. Painting itself is guilty in its own way: the people who are praised for representing traditional painting values can end up seeming very conservative. There is a kind of a gap between painting, the specific things that paint can do, that do take place over time, that get painted over time, and the contemporary world at large. The pleasure of painting comes from the fact that it continues to offer sustenance and information through the use of painterly language but painterly language has been reduced over the years. So a thing as simple as wet into wet or repainting a painting doesn’t get taught and doesn’t get enacted in the paintings that people see. Painting can be a very meaningful space. My hope for painting is that it can connect to contemporary culture. But if there are problems with painting there are also problems with the culture itself. This is not a very profound time in art. There are many terrible and interesting things happening in the world, and of course there’s art that takes this into consideration, yet there is also a pervasive fear of profundity, of metaphor, of layering, a fear of time, and of anything difficult. People feel that things have to be spelled out, fast, and accessible.
The other question we were talking about was the technology-based art in the Biennial. I don’t really want to spend an hour or however much time interactive computer works may take. They’re admirable in how they are made, but what do you actually get out of it? Whereas I feel that there are certain paintings in history that I can have a lifetime conversation with. In general my sense of the medium of painting is that it is a lifetime proposition for me as a painter and a viewer. But you and I were not the target audience for the show!
Rail: While walking through the Biennial I was thinking that there is a great difference between media, a mediated experience, and an unmediated experience. Looking at the very few painters represented in the Biennial made me think that maybe these two worlds don’t belong together, maybe we’re at a point where disciplines demand separation. You can look back and see that science and religion became completely at odds with each other. Painting remains one of the rare unmediated experiences that we have in making art. You can read the mind through the hand, it’s direct.
Schor: You mean it is not technologically mediated in the newer sense of the word. However the production of painting, its perception, and reception are mediated experiences: You learn how to look at paintings, you learn painting language. Especially once painting serves other than representational purposes only, it takes a certain amount of education to understand what you are looking at. I have a couple of problems with what you are saying. The idea that traditional sculpture and painting would become as religion is to science makes me nervous. First of all, in our culture, science is more valued than religion, and I am uncomfortable with the idea of painting as a space that is ineffable and cannot be spoken. In that sense, I am also uncomfortable with religion, and because of the meaning that the words religion and spirituality take on in our culture, there is a mystificatory aspect which I certainly would not want to participate in.
This Biennial posed a challenge to some other curator someplace to actually take on what painting could be and what painting is actually being done today. There’s a lot of interesting painting being done. A lot of interesting figurative painting, for example. The most sensationalist work, by such artists as John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, has been showered with attention, but I would propose alternatives even just in terms of the depiction of postmodern gender. Ashley Bickerton has done some very interesting figurative work in the last three years: He makes you look at things that you don’t want to look at, focusing on the ugliness of a certain very recognizable subculture. His technique is as polished if not more so as that of the other artists but he is not making art historical references in a way that is aimed at buffing up his historical placement. Monica Majoli’s self-portraits are very challenging and are painted in a very painstaking manner over a long period of time. Tom Knechtel is doing wonderful and beautifully crafted work that brings an imaginative theatricality to issues of masculinity as well as to Indian imagery in this new age of globalized image appropriation. Kurt Kauper does very amusingly subversive figurative work. Susanna Heller has just done some very strong paintings for which the destruction of the World Trade Center was the unfortunate but dynamic catalyst. There are also painters who are working somewhere between late modernist abstraction and the realm of computer imaging—a whole new New York School of refreshed modernism—David Reed, Mary Heilmann, Shirley Kaneda, Fabian Marcaccio, Polly Apfelbaum, Matthew Ritchie. And of course such masterful artists as Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, Ida Applebroog, Leon Golub. That’s just to scratch the surface of activity in painting in the United States and world-wide. There could be a huge painting show that would really look at the conversations about culture and art that are actually taking place in painting now. I don’t know if that is going to happen because there is an infatuation with the new technologies and with installation art. Also there’s a funhouse mentality that museums are very keen on because it attracts younger viewers who enjoy that there are all these computer stations and film projections.
In terms of the form of the exhibition space itself, the proliferation of the black box as opposed to the white cube creates a discomfort for many viewers. Many artists are doing work that is much closer to cinema, but since cinema is closed to them for financial reasons, they have to be in the art world but they demand of the viewer the experience of sitting, standing or squatting in dark rooms to watch film in remarkably uncomfortable situations with various artists’ sound leaking into one another’s installations. The museum only offered you a backless bench on which to sit for hours of video. You wouldn’t go to a movie theater to watch eight hours of cinema, and why would you go to the museum when you could go to a regular theater with comfortable seating, plus popcorn and coke. So there are formal reasons why one could also imagine some division of exhibition space as you suggest.
Rail: Since art has really changed it is important to question if the model for looking at it needs to reflect that change. Traditional exhibition spaces were set up for painting and sculpture. This thought first came to me in the ’80s when I was confronted with a lot of text-based work and found that I couldn’t really read standing up in a gallery. On a completely different track, is it possible in our culture to experience pleasure that is not decadent or sensationalist? I’m thinking that painting has traditionally represented an avenue of pleasure, which was neither decadent nor sensationalist. Where do you think we are right now in this regard?
Schor: That’s a really big question. I have to answer as a painter because my painting is the originary source of everything else that I do. The direction of my painting and writing are intimately linked in a constant interplay between practice and theory—I find it hard to place one before the other as I speak: I paint writing and in some cases I paint the (critical/theoretical) writing that I’m writing. I certainly never gave up on visual pleasure. On the contrary I am interested in embedding verbal writing as image into the rich materiality of painting so that the two cannot be disentwined. However I was very suspicious of certain kinds of painterly effects which were being used freely but very superficially, by neo-Expressionists painters such as Julian Schnabel. I would be hesitant to admit that I was giving in to the prescriptive measures that I was commenting on in my critical writing but I did absorb a lot of the critique of painting that I was writing about and this affected the way I deployed visual pleasure. I flattened my ground and another move was to isolate different kinds of painterliness, depending on the word represented in the work, the painting would be oily, dry, or gritty. There was a selective reductivism in my painting language. I was being stingy with the “visual pleasure” that I knew came from painterly effects that I was capable of doing but chose to forgo. More recently, I am interested in a greater degree of painterliness and in pursuing freer play with materials and marks.
Rail: How do you see the interplay with this and the culture at large?
Schor: I think my inclusion of language has been my way of continuing to have a relationship with the world at large. A lot of the language that I used in my paintings in the ’90s was appropriated language. It was not personal language, which had been true of work that I did in the ’70s, where the writing that was my image was autobiographical text—I was interested in enacting in the art work the fact that women are filled with language. I was always interested in the appearance of my writing as an abstract form, legible and abstract at the same time, but once I began to work again with writing as image in the ’90s, language became even more just a basic framework on which to place my interest and desire to paint. The language came from the world, from the news: For example I did a series of paintings that represented the words “area of denial,” which was the name for a type of weapon that we developed (and sold to Iraq!), that explodes above ground, denying oxygen to everything living on the ground underneath while preserving property. I heard about it on Nightline right after the Gulf War.
Rail: What motivated the choice of metaphor?
Schor: That is how I work. I wait for a word or a sentence to fall into my lap and then that generates a group of paintings. The phrase “area of denial” interested me because it had more than one meaning; the body is an “area of denial” and the body of painting has been at times an “area of denial.” So it was a very useful phrase for me.
Returning to the idea of visual pleasure, I want to separate it from any notion of conventional prettiness. Visual pleasure comes from my ability to speak painting language the way I speak English. The pleasure is communication, it is not necessarily what’s being communicated. So the painting could have a very dark content, yet if there is something interesting being done with that language, that creates what I call visual pleasure. You’re hooked with your eyes into an experience over time and you want to touch it, which painters often want to do with paintings. It’s almost like Braille for the sighted. This can happen with the most humble of paintings. I often think about a painting I saw at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich—it was a small painting of sardines, either by Velazquez or Goya, I don’t remember. A few bold marks created that incredible glitter of reflectivity.
Rail: Sometimes I can discern a philosophical clarity coming through when the painter communicates a very specific view of his relationship to what he is painting. It gives you a sense of how to live your life or how to do something as simple as eat.
Schor: But, you see, that is exactly the problem of choosing a representational painting as an example, because I don’t think that special quality of painting is based on representation.
Rail: I don’t either and that’s not what I am trying to say, but it is based on a very specific viewpoint, an understanding about life, and a very specific way of going about doing something that is communicative. You have a reflection that allows you insight into the mystery of life; that is being communicated.
Schor: At the very core of it is a belief in painting as a visual language. I don’t think that Velazquez or Goya were made to question the value of painting as artists do now. Many well-informed, analytical, and self-critical painters have a problem because the thrust of the culture is towards suspicion of any kind of belief in the autonomous painting mark. There is a lot of admiration for artists who continue to paint but who are seen as having an ironic or distanced or mediated relationship, a critical relationship to painting. The initial way that Richter was introduced into our consciousness was through the view of Benjamin Buchloh, which was, basically, “You’re doing a criticism of painting, right?” Richter always denied it but he allowed himself to be mediated by that view. Now he is being mediated by Rob Storr’s view, which is—this is a painter who thinks not a conceptual artist who paints. The first point of view wasn’t completely accurate because of the genuine love that Richter clearly has for painting. On the other hand what makes Richter’s painting so intriguing is that it seems to have an inherent criticality to it, if not a devilish perversity. You never feel quite comfortable with whether what he is doing is straight or not straight. It’s something about how he does it, even more in the abstract paintings than in the representational ones. They don’t quite like look like the real McCoy as we once knew it and yet they do. He is having his cake and eating it in a very interesting way. But in this atmosphere of ironic distantiation and skepticism, it is hard for painters today to use painting in a meaningful, intelligent, and contemporary manner without falling into some nostalgic place. It is worthwhile to try and I think painting can do it. And when it does it remains for me the most wonderful visual and conceptual art form to do and to experience. I love other art forms as well, I like film a lot, and sculpture, and architecture, too. But there is something about painting.
Rail: How do you actually sustain a position and not fall into the trap of taking a defensive position with your work? Because the minute you defend yourself it’s all over—there is no dialogue.
Schor: I’ve gotten a lot of strength from my background: My parents were both artists so I got to see art being made at home on a daily basis and I was exposed to a lot of art very early on. My eyes were trained to look at painting, including a lot of older painting. I am able to use the past of painting as a resource, a library of ideas, and mark making and not in the postmodern sense of, “I’ll take one from column A and one from column B and put them together and see what happens.” It is not dead art—they are living people who give me so much and from whom I continue to learn.
Also, I had more open time in my early student and work life to experience art than people have now. There is something about the life that we lead that really robs of us of time and that robs us of the ability to have time for artmaking and for thinking beyond the superficiality of a first response. It’s a luxury to go to a museum: I feel that I’ve gotten away with something criminal if I actually spend an afternoon at the Met! Yet I get so much out of it. The same with studio practice, even though works that are based on technology are very time consuming to produce and sometimes to experience. The time that goes into painting is very different. We don’t have it or know it, and therefore we are pressured into doing things faster. You persuade yourself that the first layer is okay. You don’t do the next layer. There’s no time to do it. I started a series of works that represent the words, “There’s no time to make art," The technique that I used, of ink on gesso on linen, allows me to do each layer fast, then it is just a question of adding layers, so actually the technique is one that is calculated towards speed. The ultimate effect is of repetition, “there’s there’s there’s no no no time time time.” I stopped doing them. Artists practically weep when they see these paintings. A friend said that I should make a poster of this because artists would want to have one for their studio wall, “There’s no time to make art."
Presence is important for art as well. In “Painting as Manual,” I mention the importance of “co-presence,” which is a term that I got from sociology: Even in this era of networking and tele-conferencing, the higher up the decision-making process is, the more likely the actual participants have to be in the same room because it’s so important to have the physical cues of the human being. It’s the same with painting. Paintings have presence, they require presence. You have to be there, you can’t rely on representation, ultimately. That’s one of the problems for painting. People learn about painting mostly through reproduction, and after a while they get to like the reproduction better, so it’s very hard when they actually see the painting. There are a lot of museum and gallery websites now where you can see the whole show online. The way you see the work on screen is going to determine how you see it in person. But paintings are physical presences. You could say that potentially the paintings might seem disgusting when finally seen “in person” because they are more embodied, or disappointing because they are flat or because they don’t have the glow of light coming through them the way it does on a monitor or through a slide projector. When I went to see Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes in Padua I almost had a panic attack when I first walked in. Nothing had prepared me for how incredibly flat the frescoes are. You are looking at a wall. All the things that had interested me in reproduction—the dramatic gestures and the strangely compressed representation of three-dimensional space—were so contradicted by the utter flatness. It was only by giving the work as much time as possible that I was able to begin to have an experience that was based on the actual work. It was amazing, to finally get to see a work I loved and then have to learn to love it anew.
Rail: My first response was similar. The room had this anti-climatic air—a shock that it’s so dead in there. The thing I was thinking about before I really started looking at them was that the original function of these frescos and the condition that they exist in now must be completely antithetical. They are now a tourist attraction. A hundred people come in every 20 minutes. There is no way that you can encompass what the fresco cycle is about in the time that a tourist is given to see them. They are herded in and they are herded out. The way these paintings have been looked upon for so many years has disturbed the “gaze.” It is a metaphysical condition: how works are looked upon and how they reflect how they have been looked upon. The resulting aura of the space has been so damaged that it took me two days there to recreate a true metaphysics for myself so that I could actually see them. You have to cycle around and move about the space. It’s a very physical experience. The image is only a small part of what they are about. The thoughts imbedded in the relationship they have to each other and to the room that they are painted in is so incredible. There is a whole dialogue going on there with Dante who was in Padua at the time. And then from an abstract painter’s point of view, we see the dialogue with flatness.
Schor: On the other hand, last summer I saw Mantegna’s “Dead Christ at the Brera” in Milan. Seeing it in its physicality is overwhelmingly more interesting then seeing it in the way it is taught in art history, simply as a token for the moment when perspectival representation really takes off. Then you actually see it. For a start, it’s immediately obvious how wrong the foreshortening is, but the way you are propelled from the too small feet towards Christ’s face is part of the emotional impact of the painting. It’s in remarkably untouched condition, it hasn’t been revarnished or refinished and it’s painted with a very dry tempera on very rough canvas or burlap. That dryness seems to be part of the tragedy of the circumstance, as are some of its medieval aspects, the tears of the Virgin Mary—that relates to Flemish painting, which I love. Its size and scale are so important: It’s an easel-size painting but there is some approximation of parity of scale between the viewer and the figures—it’s as if you’ve just opened a refrigerated drawer at the morgue—and yet, finally, it is incredibly monumental. One can read very modern concerns in it. At the center of the painting, there is the intimation of an erect penis, the mound of the shroud. To see the flat and plain paint application, the subdued color and dry surface, at whatever stage of decomposition it is in—it is painting language that is food and meaning. A kind of transubstantiation that occurs when a painting says something about life and being in such an uncompromising manner.
Rail: Six years after stopping regular publication you and Susan Bee have revived M/E/A/N/I/N/G online at ArtKrush.com. Your first issue asks, “Is Resistance Futile?” Where is there resistance today?
Schor: I don’t choose the economy of resistance, it chooses me. I choose to do something, whether to be involved with feminism, or to express critical views of contemporary art stars, or to look into the shadows of “The Society of the Spectacle” for modest alternatives to the culture of “super-size me” mega everything, and then I find myself in a discourse of resistance. You often hear students express nostalgia for a time when there were limits, a sense of hopelessness and apathy that come from having nothing to resist. Every style goes. They may feel some unformulated boredom or disappointment with what they see in galleries, but no other system has been validated for them so they feel that they must belong to that system. They don’t know about any kind of alternative or underground art movement. They can’t gauge properly how completely they are created by the “spectacle.”
Rail: There was a culture of resistance in New York when I arrived at the end of the ’70s.
Schor: But many of those values are lost; the dominant culture is more dominant. So those who have some dissatisfaction don’t get much information that would give them any courage to resist, whatever that resistance might be. You have to look for it, put yourself in its path, and be prepared to receive fewer visible rewards.
But you can’t dictate resistance. You set out to say something in response to your circumstance and then the culture may resist you, mostly by ignoring you: I write about the “white list,” more subtle but as effective if not more so than the black list. Do you take on the challenge or do you let yourself be defeated? That is different than rebellion, which is a commodifiable formula, the bad boy, the slut, various models of rebellion that are well established and easily incorporated into the system, very saleable. The other position that I am describing is one of belief that is then resisted by the culture—call it capitalism, the art market, whatever—then it is up to you to do something, or to give up, or to go completely private.
Rail: That’s a beautiful point to end on, “it’s up to you.”
Mira Schor is a painter and writer. She is the author of Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture, and the co-editor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism, both published by Duke University Press, and co-editor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online on ArtKrush.com. She is the recipient of a 1992 Guggenheim Fellowship in painting and also of the 1999 College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Award in Art Criticism. She teaches in the B.F.A. and M.F.A. programs in painting andsSculpture in the Fine Arts Department of Parsons School of Design. Her work, with that of her parents Ilya and Resia Schor, was recently included in Family at the Aldrich Museum and an exhibition of her painting installation Sexual Pleasure will open in March 2003 at the Sheppard Art Gallery at the University of Nevada, Reno.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.