Edited by Terry R. Myers
(The MIT Press, May 2011)
The reports of painting’s death may have been slightly exaggerated—that is, if you please. At least that’s the kind of impression you’ll get after reading Painting, a collection of writings on painting from the past 30 years and the latest installment in MIT Press’s Documents of Contemporary Art series. The editor, Terry R. Myers, is a rare find: a thoughtful and broad-minded critic. He makes it clear that he does not propose an unambiguous triumph for painting’s return. Moderation and nuance are always welcome, but, in practice, Myers’s prudence can seem less like perspicacity than simple dithering; he is almost fawningly generous, granting the “absolute usefulness” of the “death-of-painting discourse during the periods we know as modernism and postmodernism.” (Though I imagine that Myers might be using “absolute” with more irony than sincerity; as one politely says “Oh, absolutely!” to a buttonholer at a party.)
Myers thinks that the documents in the book suggest that “what has already been said about painting is still not enough.” (But, he takes care to point out, “It is important to be clear that I am not totally convinced of this.”) This measured paraphrase is crafted out of a more bombastic Delacroix quote that Myers references in the opening of his introductory essay: “What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has been said already is still not enough.” Stirring stuff, but there’s a difference between Delacroix’s “obsession” and Myers’s belief that—perhaps—there’s still some interesting things to say about painting. And this book is timid, too, in approaching even that conspicuously modest thesis.
If Myers has to resort to such caution when approaching contemporary painting, it might be because the stories told up until now about it are getting stale, and this book shows that historiographical clichés outlast—and seem to command far more respect than—visual or literary clichés. His selected texts provide many examples: For all its flair and cultural virtuosity, Rene Ricard’s article on Basquiat, “The Radiant Child,” is just the “genius” story over again, his reference to Van Gogh being almost an admission of guilt. Furthermore, the kind of gymnastic aphasia performed by the critical-theory ultras results in the repetition of one basic plot: Some terrifying—but amazing—machine (capitalism, modernity, or the ever-italicized “simulation”) has laid to waste the old, traditional world and paintings are dystopian science-fiction landscapes of that process. And “the cycle of deaths and rebirths” of painting—or truly speaking, the cycle of declarations about painting’s deaths and rebirths—might not signify anything more than a lack of imagination on the part of art writers.
There are highlights, including Jerry Saltz’s “The Richter Resolution,” a refreshing and funny plea to stop using photographs as painting aids, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s 1986 conversation with Gerhard Richter—a confrontation between a puffed-up and ultimately slightly bewildered academic and a clever, sharp, and ultimately very sincere artist, a piece so classic that it resembles a fable—and Mira Schor’s “Course Proposal,” where I particularly liked this passage:
[F]orcing people into repeated and close encounters with painting’s intimate details may achieve the non-linguistically based knowledge similar to a great baseball player’s understanding of the strike zone. Keith Hernandez’s father would pitch him balls for hours in the playground, indicating which were strikes and which were balls, until the purely conceptual zone, an invisible cube of space, was a knowledge in the body.
Forgiving the slightly awkward prose, it’s an interesting way of thinking about painting: not as something to be read, reinterpreted, and scoured for rhetorical digs toward earlier painters and movements, nor as a reflection of cultural history, but as something that requires development, constant practice, and a kind of muscle memory to appreciate. It also suggests a kind of pleasing insanity—obsession?—that engagement with the “pure idiocy” (to borrow Richter’s term) of painting might require.
I think we are all happy to no longer hear too much booming and clanging about “the death of painting” or the rise of its “new spirit,” but one can hope that we could conclude on slightly stronger notes than “[establishing]...the necessarily paradoxical state of contemporary painting,” or observing its “embrace of the coalitional,” or—as David Joselit in the collection’s final document would have it—that painting should “explicitly visualize” its “networks of exhibition and distribution.” After being expected to nod sagely along with many sentences like these, maybe one has to conclude that Myers is right: Still not enough has been said about painting. Or maybe it’s that too much has been said. (It’s a tough call.) Somebody once said something to the effect of “painting’s not dead, it’s just hard.” This book makes us appreciate that writing about painting is hard, too.